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White Fishing Industry

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2003

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If she will make a statement on the economic viability of the Scottish white fishing industry. [113324]

The Government are committed to helping secure a sustainable future for the Scottish fishing industry. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a strategic review of the fishing industry in January. This study, which involves industry stakeholders, and with which I am personally involved, will consider all aspects of the fisheries sector and make recommendations to influence future decision making.

Commissioner Fischler has made it clear that the cod recovery programme could last between five and 10 years, by which time there will not be a Scottish white fish fleet, further devastating coastal communities both economically and socially. Can the Secretary of State say why the Commissioner is so confident of success, bearing in mind the fact that environmental conditions for cod are deteriorating in EU waters and that there is a continuing shortage of food in the British sector owing to industrial fishing?

The hon. Lady summed up, in her final clause, the issue regarding declining cod stocks. The important thing for the long-term future of the white fishing industry in Scotland that we have a sustainable and coherent strategy for the future, which secures the long-term supply of fishing stocks. That is the purpose of the Prime Minister's strategic review. The issue should have been addressed years ago, but it was ducked by the Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, and now we have to ensure sustainable long-term supplies of white fish. I have been involved in extensive discussions with the industry as recently as two weeks ago, and will continue to have those discussions. Scaremongering and populism, however, will not resolve the problems of the white fish industry.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the son of one of my constituents is a fisherman on Barra and is currently travelling through Europe with some other fishermen from Barra and Vatersay? What advice would she give to them if they happen to travel to Seville and meet up with some Spanish fishermen?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I hope that one of the first things that these fishermen from Vatersay and Barra would point out to their Spanish colleagues is the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland. I know that they will have many opportunities and that they will be great ambassadors for Scotland. The most recent dispatches have it that the fishermen from Vatersay have now reached Madrid and that the Vatersay Boys are turning the town over. On behalf of every Member of the House, we hope that all the 50,000 Scots who have travelled to Seville, fishermen or not, have a very good time. If I may echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I hope that the Celtic team bring back the UEFA cup and that the Vatersay Boys have a very good time convincing their Spanish colleagues—[Interruption.] The House will be able to tell how in touch Opposition Members are with the people of Scotland.

While wishing any Scottish sporting team success, may I say that it will be a surprise to people in fishing communities that the Government are making light of the crisis that they are going through at this time. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the European Union has had an underspend of more than €7 billion? Can she tell the House how much of the €7 billion-plus will come back to the UK, and how much in terms of extra resources will go to crisis-hit communities? How much extra, in terms of the extra resources that have been put on the table by the European Commission, is she fighting to secure in Cabinet?

The hon. Gentleman always gives just part of the story. I do not know whether he does so deliberately or whether he is merely ill-informed. The whole issue of fisheries support is on multi-year programmes. Until the multi-year programme is finished, it is impossible to comment on it. I should have thought that the election a couple of weeks ago would have taught the Scottish National party some lessons. Quite frankly, a party that lost eight seats—

I have just returned from Andalucia, which I visited with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. Its fishing industry is suffering a downturn and many of its fishermen face the same problems as we do in north-east Scotland. I understand that the first meeting of the No. 10 strategy unit took place this morning. Will my right hon. Friend give us a progress report and tell us how the strategy will be worked out in the future and how that will help the Scottish white fish industry?

My hon. Friend takes a coherent and reasoned view of the difficulties facing the fishing industry and does not indulge in scaremongering, unlike Members of some other parties. Official-level contacts in relation to the Prime Minister's strategic review have begun. I met several of the representatives two weeks ago when I was in Brussels at the sea fish exposition and I know that the fishing industry greatly welcomes the review. It will take some time before we know the review's conclusions because considerable issues must be addressed. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, shares the view that the review represents the most coherent way ahead to recognise the scale of the problems. Hard decisions might have to be taken but at least we will then know how to secure a proper future for the fishing industry and the fish processing industry, which is so important in her constituency.

The right hon. Lady is trying to imply that she is an active participant in discussions on the crisis. Her reply to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) did not make it entirely clear whether she was at this morning's meeting with the Prime Minister. Has she discussed the crisis in the fishing industry with the Prime Minister? Does she have any plans to meet the new Scottish fisheries Minister? Has she held discussions on the issue with the UK fisheries Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), in the past seven weeks?

Let me begin with the hon. Lady's last point. I discussed the situation of fisheries in Scotland in general with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary as recently as last Wednesday. I left the Prime Minister half an hour ago, and I have regular extensive discussions with the fisheries industry—as recently as two weeks ago at the sea fish exposition in Brussels. I recognise the difficulties faced by the white fish industry but we must remember that there are other fisheries in Scotland. For example, considerable action, some of which has been extremely hard, has been taken on the pelagic fleet and that sector of the industry is consequently showing considerable strength. The hon. Lady should not indulge in scaremongering. The issues are serious and must be dealt with seriously.

I am sure that Scottish fishermen would not consider the situation in which they find themselves to be indicative of scaremongering. I am delighted to hear that the right hon. Lady has met the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Will she assure us that she has discussed the UK Government's proposals regarding €150 million compensation for the white fish industry? Struan Stevenson, the Conservative MEP who serves on the Fisheries Committee, has secured the European Parliament's agreement to set that sum aside as compensation for the industry.

The Scottish Executive have already set aside £50 million for transitional assistance for the white fish industry, and that is already working its way through the system. I shall hold early discussions with the Scottish fisheries Minister as soon as he or she is in place. On the point on funding for fisheries, the state aids regime is being analysed by the European Commission. No money can be paid out, as I am sure Mr. Struan Stevenson knows, until the Commission reaches a conclusion on state aids.