UK Fisheries — [Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:47 am on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:47 am, 12th February 2020

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Mrs Murray, who, as a number of hon. Members said, has been a passionate campaigner for the fishing industry; her technical knowledge of this sector is second to none. It is great that she managed to secure the debate today, because of course we would generally have an annual fisheries debate in December, in the run-up to the December Council negotiations. Last December, however, all of us had other things on our minds—knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. It is therefore good and timely that we are having the debate now.

My hon. Friend explained in some detail the genesis of our problem with the common fisheries policy. It is essentially that in the 1970s, as we joined the European Union, we gave the European Union the right to control access to our waters—and at exactly the same time, we were being progressively driven out of our traditional fishing grounds in Iceland. The first, second and third cod wars culminated, in 1976, with British fishing vessels, the long-distance fleet, being excluded to 200 miles from Iceland.

My hon. Friend was also right in saying that while the EU was developing catch data in the late ’70s, we ended up with an appalling and unfair share of the catch, under what became known as “relative stability”—partly because our fleet was in Icelandic waters and therefore not fishing to the extent that it normally would in our own waters, and partly because of patchy data and patchy data recording. Relative stability has remained set in stone ever since. It is based on a reference period in the late 1970s that is not representative of the fish in our waters and not representative of what we were catching even at the time; it also it did not take account of the fact that much of our fish was being caught in Iceland.

Ironically, the defeat of the UK in the third cod war in 1976 led to the establishment of an international convention giving independent coastal states control of their exclusive economic zone out to 200 nautical miles or the median line. That was formalised in the UN convention on the law of the sea in the early 1980s. This is often not understood, but our right to control our exclusive economic zone is not something we must negotiate with the European Union; it simply happens as a point of international law, which is widely understood by the European Commission.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall said, we are clear that we want to be like Norway: an independent coastal state in control of the resources in our waters, holding friendly annual negotiations with our neighbours—a mutual exchange of access as well as an annual discussion on the total allowable catch and who should have what share of that catch, species by species. Our approach will move away from the outdated, unfair and unscientific relative stability sharing mechanism that currently pertains in the EU to a modern, more scientific approach based on zonal attachment, as my hon. Friend Peter Aldous indicated. In those annual negotiations we will also seek a mutual agreement on exchange of access, deciding what species and areas that should involve, and what sharing arrangements should be attached to any mutual access agreed.

We are making good progress in preparing for this new world. Yesterday, Lord Gardiner took the Fisheries Bill through its Second Reading. It passed without incident. I was there for the closing speeches and I can report that all Members of the House of Lords were content to give the Bill a Second Reading. The Bill sets out several important things about our approach. First, it gives us a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably and observe maximum sustainable yield when taking part in fisheries negotiations, and to have a series of management plans for individual stocks, to demonstrate how we intend to get to sustainable fishing on each. Secondly, the Bill gives us crucial powers to control access to our exclusive economic zone and to require foreign and domestic vessels to have licences—and to attach conditions to those licences when people seek access to our exclusive economic zone. Thirdly, it gives us crucial powers to change technical conservation measures, so that we can make timely amendments—to closures for spawning grounds, to gear types and to nets, for instance.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and others mentioned the new—currently not particularly popular—app, which we have asked the vessels under 10 metres to start using. I believe that is the right decision: if we want to move to a more sophisticated way of managing the inshore fleet—maybe to give them quotas that run for several months, rather than just one month at a time, or to experiment with effort-based regimes—it is important that we have reliable data on catch. Studies carried out by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science have shown that there is a significant mismatch between what is recorded through sales notes and what is being caught and observed on vessels, so we need to improve the quality of the data that we have.

It is worth noting that vessels over 12 metres and those between 10 and 12 metres have a two-stage process. They must record and log their catch data, which can be based on an estimate, but, in the case of the over-12s, within 24 hours they then must submit a landing declaration, which has the precise weight of each species. For reasons I entirely understand, the under-10s said that they did not want the administration involved in a two-stage process when we explored this option with them. They did not want to have to record catch data and a landing declaration.

Our approach—a one-system approach of catch data only—was designed at the request of the industry to make the process simpler. We think most fishermen can make reasonable estimates of their weight; they do not have to do it while at sea. They can do it when they have tied their vessel up. They can weigh the fish and submit the record as they unload it from their vessel. We are working with them to ensure we can make this work in practice.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which is obviously linked to the well-known Factortame case, which became an important test case about the sovereignty of Parliament in relation to EU law. It established the principle that while the European Communities Act 1972 existed, EU law had supremacy over UK law. As a Parliament, we have remedied that situation by repealing the 1972 Act; in future, we could look again at provisions such as those in the Merchant Shipping Act. However, as we set out in our White Paper, our clear preference is to review the economic link and to look at whether some of those foreign-owned vessels should be required to land more of their catch into UK ports, rather than getting into a more difficult discussion about whether we should take those rights away from them, given that they bought the vessels in good faith. We do not rule out something like the Merchant Shipping Act, but we have no immediate plans for such legislation.

Mr Carmichael asked why fishing is in the political declaration. It is simply there to say that we will strive to have a partnership agreement with the EU, just as the EU currently has with Norway. We will use our best endeavours to get that by July. If there is no partnership by July, there is no consequence. International law is what it is, and we will still negotiate as an independent coastal state at those critical annual fisheries negotiations at the end of the year.

My hon. Friend David Duguid talked about the importance of having a plan to support the growth of the industry—particularly in his constituency, where there is a great deal of fish processing. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made a similar point in respect of the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries project in his area. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan is obviously very vocal on this, since the Prime Minister frequently asks me what our plan is to support our fishing industry and to put in place the infrastructure to ensure we can harness its potential as we leave the EU. We are giving some thought to that area.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of attracting new entrants, which is an area that we are looking at. We are examining some of the approaches adopted in the Faroes and in the USA, and we are working with Seafish and the Seafood 2040 industry group to review a number of recommendations for supporting new entrants coming into the industry.

Jim Shannon talked about the importance of resolving some of the questions about the Northern Ireland protocol, to ensure that trade can continue. We are absolutely clear that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs union, but I appreciate that a few minor technical details regarding that protocol still need to be worked through. My hon. Friend Derek Thomas made a very good point about the importance of splitting trade discussions from fisheries. We are very clear that there will be a fisheries partnership agreement and then a trade agreement. He also made a good point about looking at the way we define inshore fisheries, asking whether the current definition is appropriate, and ensuring that we think about the inshore fleet as we move forward.

My hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall raised the issue of local authority ports currently being unable to access the maritime fund; that is another area that we are looking at. I am afraid that EU state aid rules are the source of the problem, and will be dealt with in the usual way, but we are considering that issue. Finally, Ian Paisley asked what we are doing about lobsters and shellfish. We are considering whether technical or catch measures could be put in place to manage those stocks.