To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when she last met representatives of the fishing industry to discuss compulsory days-at-sea legislation; and if she will make a statement.
On 8 June, my right hon. Friend the Minister and I met representatives of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and I recently met the fishermen of Brixham. Further meetings are planned.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members who represent fishing constituencies in welcoming his announcement yesterday evening that there would be a relaxation, or at least a postponement, of the tie-up regulations under the Sea Fish Conservation Act 1992? May I plead with him to recongnise that the most sensible way forward now would be to suspend the Sea Fish Conservation Act and use the ensuing period to ensure that there is a reasonable dialogue between all sections of the industry and the Government and then to introduce a conservation package that has the support not only of the Government and the Community but of the fishing industry itself?
I thank the hon. Lady for the conciliatory tone of her question and in particular for her welcome for the postponement of the introduction of the days-at-sea policy. We are all joined in the common purpose of finding ways to sustain the availability of fish for the benefit of the fishing industry. I certainly accept the hon. Lady's point about dialogue. In fact, I am urgently filling my diary with engagements, including meetings with representatives of the Scottish fishing industry, and will take into account some of the important points raised by hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies in last night's debate.I cannot, however, suspend our policy for ever or even beyond the period that I have specified because we have to find ways of achieving our multi-annual guidance programme and that set of targets is narrower than the overall desire, which hon. Members on both sides of the House share, to conserve our fish stocks.
Does my hon. Friend agree that all parties involved in the fishing industry accept that some steps must be taken to conserve fish? Will he confirm that limiting days at sea is only one of the ways in which the Government are seeking to restrain fishing effort? Will he further confirm that studies have shown that, in some instances, more than 300 days at sea have been allocated in response to fishermen's applications and that the threat of limiting days at sea is not as fierce as some Opposition Members may want fishermen to believe?
My hon. Friend speaks with a sure knowledge on these matters. I can confirm that some fishermen have received days-at-sea allocations up to that level. The particular concern, though, is for those fishermen who may have received the minimum allocation and are uncertain about their future. There may be problems with records, but we have already indicated many different ways in which those fishermen can submit further appeals to see whether their days-at-sea allocation can be enlarged. My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that we are pioneering other ways in which to limit fishing efforts. That is why the House last night approved a decommissioning scheme with a budget of £25 million attached to it.
I am a little disappointed to find the Minister resiling somewhat on what seemed to be the hopes of last night. Does he agree that it would be far better to provide for proper conservation by stopping the pillaging of our grounds by foreigners—in particular, Spaniards—than by stopping our vessels putting out to sea? In that connection, is it correct that, although as many infringements of fish conservation provisions in our grounds are being discovered by the fisheries protection fleet, fewer of them are being brought to court this year because his Department does not have the money for litigation? Is it also correct that the Irish Government are doing far more than ours to stamp out the secret fish holds that the Spanish are using?
We are spending some £20 million on the enforcement of fishing regulations and policy. I wish that we did not have to. I wish that people would play by the rules and not hide fish in hidden and dark holes, as every time somebody cheats on the fishing rules they deny another fisherman a living. As to prosecutions, the hon. Gentleman will realise that I cannot comment on specific cases. It is important, though, that when people break the rules they are properly prosecuted and that that information is made available.
May I join the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) in congratulating my hon. Friend on his statement last night. It clearly shows that, in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food we now have Ministers who listen. That is welcome. What proportion of the fleet is affected by the maximum limit of 80 days? If it is a relatively small proportion—I assume that it will be —could not the limit be increased to, say, 100 or 120 days without a significant effect on fishing efforts?
First, may I welcome my hon. Friend's kind comments about our announcements last night? On the subject of the number of vessels affected by the minimum allocation of days at sea, approximately half the applications that we have received are affected. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that some 84 per cent. have already appealed against the minimum allocations. He will be aware that his proposition to increase the minimum number of days at sea was one of many helpful ideas that were put forward during the debate. Right hon. and hon. Members were invited to explore that among themselves and with their fishermen and to put forward their ideas during the period of consultation so that we may consider them.