Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bradshaw.]
I am pleased to open the annual fisheries debate. I am also pleased that we have managed to schedule it before the December Fisheries Council, so that hon. Members, especially those with fisheries interests, have an opportunity to register their views.
The fishing sector makes an important contribution to the UK’s economy. Total landings of fish from UK vessels have increased for the second year running. In 2005 they had a value of £571 million, up by 11 per cent. from 2004. I am also pleased to say that exports have also risen to £925 million, an increase of 4 per cent. from 2004.
As I am sure all hon. Members present are aware, the sector also has some very considerable dangers. I am sorry to report that 15 fishermen lost their lives in the last year, including one only two days ago. There is an active search and rescue mission off the coast of Weymouth as we speak. I am sure that the sympathy of the whole House goes out to all the families who have suffered those tragic losses.
Fishing is part of our heritage and an important source of one of the healthiest foods. It provides jobs for more than 12,000 fishermen and many more in the ancillary and processing sectors. Many communities rely on it. Fish stocks are limited, but they are a valuable and renewable resource. Managed effectively, fisheries can be sustainable and profitable. But, if we get the balance wrong, we can cause irreversible damage to marine ecosystems and economic damage to those communities that rely on fisheries. So we need to get our focus and our balance right.
The Government are now developing a 20-year strategic vision to balance the socio-economic benefits with environmental protection, and to set out the roles and responsibilities of the various interested parties. That work is important to help us to achieve a long-term, sustainable and profitable fisheries sector and a healthy marine environment. We will publish our 20-year strategy next year.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the work that he has been doing for the fisheries off my constituency, which has the largest fishing port in England and Wales in Brixham. Why is it that all the forecasts suggest that there will be no more fish to eat in 40 years time? On Friday 3 November, The Times had a whole-page article explaining that we were over-fishing and that the common fisheries policy—under which we throw back dead fish if quotas have been exceeded—is not working. Why will the Minister’s 20-year forecasts give hope to the fishing industry when all the major forecasters say that in 40 years time we will have no fish to eat?
Part of the answer is that we need to differentiate between what is happening in our own waters, where we have already taken some difficult decisions and put the size and capacity of our fishing industry better in line with the health of the stocks, and what is happening in international waters on the high seas, where there is serious over-fishing that is often unregulated and illegal and rules—where they exist—are not very well enforced. The reports to which he refers will be the global reports that point out that if we do not act urgently, the danger is that the majority of the world’s commercial fish stocks will be seriously depleted, if not extinct, within that timeframe. However, in the UK and the European Union, whatever one thinks of the functioning of the common fisheries policy, we do at least have a policy, a system of enforcement and of total allowable catches and quotas. We are able to get to grips with the problem, although I would not go so far as to claim that all stocks in EU waters are fished at sustainable levels. However, around the UK coast, most are. That is why in Brixham, for example, we have had, if not a record year, a good year of fish landings and incomes.
On the question of unregulated fishing in international waters—in particular, cold water coral reefs, which we almost discussed at Question Time earlier—will the Minister join me in welcoming the recent accord between and proposals made by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the World Wide Fund for Nature, especially on the Rockall bank and the Queen Elizabeth bank? That is precisely the sort of approach that should be encouraged. Will the Minister meet both organisations to see how their proposals can be taken forward?
I certainly warmly welcome the fishing industry working together with environmental organisations, as in the initiative that he mentions. When I began to do this job, one of its most frustrating aspects was not only that fishermen and scientific advisers found it difficult to work together or even begin to accept each other’s points, but that the gap between the environmental organisations and the fishing industry was even wider. When sensible and responsible environmental organisations, like WWF, get together with the industry, we see remarkable results. I meet both organisations regularly and I look forward to discussing that initiative the next time I do so.
My hon. Friend draws a contrast between the relatively good way we nurture our own fisheries and the way it is done by the European Union and, especially, the international community. Does that not make the case for extending our fishing limits to those that existed before the CFP, so that we can do an even better job for fish around our coasts?
No, I do not think that it does. I would not go so far as to boast that we had a wonderful fisheries management system in contrast to other EU countries. The position in the European Union is variable. Countries in northern Europe, such as this one, tend to have a more responsible and conservationist approach. We tend also to have better enforcement which leads to better profitability for our industry and a more sustainable fishery. The answer is not to try to renegotiate our obligations under the European treaty. All the legal advice, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, is that to do so we would have to withdraw from the European Union as a whole, which would be very damaging to our overall economic interests.
Moreover, fish do not respect national boundaries. If we did not have the CFP, we would have to invent something rather like it, because we have to reach agreements with our neighbours. Even then the agreements would not be much use, because the fish swim around anyway.
Following on from the previous question, does the Minister believe that Norway has a particular advantage, in that it has retained control of all its waters and annually goes toe-to-toe with the entire 25 member state EU? Does he therefore agree that the suggestion that we should have total control of our waters is a good one?
The circumstances that Norway faces are different from those faced by the UK or the rest of the EU, as it has an extremely long coastline and is located on the north-western extremity of the European continental mass. However, I do not agree with the Scottish National party’s policy of withdrawing from the CFP. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), the consequence would be a withdrawal from the EU. That would be economically disastrous for Scotland, given the importance of the financial services sector there, for example.
The right approach is to reform the CFP, as we have done successfully in recent years. We need to make it more sustainable, and to continue winning some of the arguments with our European partners, as happened in respect of the regional advisory councils. An attempt to withdraw from the CFP would be futile and necessitate total withdrawal from the EU. That was the Opposition’s policy for about 10 years, but even they now realise that it is hopeless and have abandoned it.
My question is inspired by the wisdom of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). What percentage of English fishing entitlement, by value or landings, remains in the hands of English companies or of people in English coastal communities? I have seen estimates as low as 20 per cent. Will the Minister confirm that?
No, but I shall endeavour to do so before the end of the debate. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is present today. Instead of asking a question like that, he would do better to draw attention to the front-page headline in the latest edition of Fishing News, which says that Peterhead is heading for a record year. I think that Peterhead is in his constituency, and it would make a welcome change for him to congratulate the Government on what we have achieved for his constituents and for the fishing industry in his area.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is here to make a speech. I shall therefore proceed with mine.
As I was saying, there are many conflicting demands on our seas and they need to be managed more effectively. We are therefore also bringing forward a marine White Paper to give us a modern framework that will take us towards our sustainable development goals, streamline regulation and make our marine laws more effective.
We need to take account of the very diverse range of interests in our marine environment. For example, sea anglers make a significant contribution to the UK economy, but their interests have not always been sufficiently recognised in fisheries management. We have therefore tried to make sure that their interests are better represented on inshore fisheries management bodies, for example, and we are currently working closely with recreational sea angling interests to produce a sea angling strategy for England. Again, that strategy will appear in the new year.
Although landings and incomes have been good this year, many of our fish stocks are still in a fragile state. We need to ensure that compliance is maintained if we are to safeguard stocks for future generations. Already, the introduction of the registration of buyers and sellers in 2005 has helped us to ensure compliance with quotas, and it has also boosted fish prices by reducing illegal landings. It was strongly resisted by some in the industry—and even some hon. Members—but is now widely welcomed as one of the best things to have happened to the fishing industry for some time. That shows that it is right for politicians to have the courage of their convictions and take difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions in the long-term interests of our fishing industry.
I am also heartened by the increasing collaboration between fishermen and scientists. In particular, the fisheries science partnership is helping to improve the standard of scientific data produced and to make that data more relevant to the issues that directly concern the industry. In the past year, moreover, the Department has made available money from its own budget to help individuals and the regional advisory councils to develop their ideas on improved fisheries management.
I announced in June this year that modernised sea fisheries committees will deliver improved management of fish stocks and the marine environment in coastal waters out to six miles, while keeping the important local input to decision making. We will equip the SFCs, through the Marine Bill, with the management tools to achieve healthy fish stocks and sustainable coastal waters.
Just as climate change can be effectively tackled only at international level, so the protection of marine resources needs concerted global effort. The UK continues to have a leading role in promoting international sustainable fisheries. We recently helped to secure a UN agreement to end destructive trawling of the sea bed over the next two years. We have also been working with the international regional fisheries management organisations to deliver sustainable fisheries across the world’s oceans. Illegal fishing in international waters is a key challenge to proper fisheries management, and we are implementing the proposals of the high seas task force—which I chaired—on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
I am very interested in the work that the Minister has been doing on the world scene in respect of fishing stocks. Did he see the science and technology briefing in the The Economist a few months ago? It said that the world was going about conserving fish stocks in the wrong way and that, instead of attempting to preserve stocks of individual fish species, a better approach was to conserve entire ecosystems. What is the Government’s line on that?
As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I am an avid reader of The Economist. We think that there is a lot to the ecosystem approach, although it needs further development. However, when we publish the White Paper, he will see that it is central to our thinking.
Will the Minister confirm that the Government are seriously considering incorporating marine protected areas in the White Paper? That would be very popular among children in my constituency, who are worried that there will be no fish left when they grow up.
I can confirm that the Government have stated already the intention to create a network of new marine protected areas. I think that schoolchildren in my hon. Friend’s constituency recently did a project on this matter. There is growing evidence around the world that marine protected areas can play a significant role in preserving marine biodiversity and fish stocks. That thesis is also supported by evidence gathered around our own coasts.
I know that the Minister understands the importance of the marine climate change impacts partnership report—not least because it was published by his Department. It calls for the European Commission to give serious consideration to the weight of evidence suggesting that cod species are moving north not because of over fishing but because of climatic change affecting their food supplies. If that is true, it undermines the basis of the cod recovery plan, and renders senseless the restrictions on the fishing of species such as nephrops or haddock. Supplies of those species are plentiful, and the restrictions were an attempt to make cod return to waters that are no longer suitable. Will the Minister assure the House that he understands the importance of those findings, and say what efforts he has made to make them available to the European Commission?
In contrast to the impression that the hon. Gentleman gave in his question, I have managed to secure significant increases in the catches of haddock and nephrops in recent years. I hope to do so again next week, but he is right that there is a scientific debate about the impact of climate change on the marine environment. There is no doubt that warming has caused us to see species off the south-west coast that normally inhabit waters much further south. Other evidence suggests that cod have been moving north, but I caution him against concluding that we should therefore adopt what I call a “sod the cod” policy. The 2005 year class—to use an argument that I shall deploy at the Fisheries Council—was a relatively good one. As cited on the front page of this week’s Fishing News, the hon. Gentleman’s own fishermen are reporting seeing a growing number of young codlings in the North sea. There remains strong evidence—at the moment, the balance is that the North sea still lies perfectly within the range of growth of cod populations—that there is potential for cod recovery. Although it is absolutely right to study these issues carefully and to take climate change into account when we adopt our fisheries policy, I am not yet in a position to go down the road that the hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating.
The good year class of 2005 is an important point. My fishermen are also confirming the same reports of seeing young codlings being caught, but does the Minister accept that if we have a 14 per cent. reduction in the total allowable cod catch, it will mean an increasing number of fish recruited to the stock being discarded? Surely that is not in anyone’s interest.
I accept that. The recommendation from the Commission is for an even bigger reduction, which we do not think makes sense for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman highlights—that with a good year class of 2005, a TAC reduction of that level amounts to a much bigger reduction in effort on account of the larger number of fish available for catching. That will inevitably lead, in our view, to increased discards, which the whole House deplores.
Is it not right then to look carefully into having a cod bycatch quota? The European Commission has proposed a cut in the cod quota of only 25 per cent. while the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommends catching no cod at all. The difficulty is that there will be a large cod bycatch, so we need a quota for that, too, in order to address the problem fundamentally.
I did not mean to sound pompous. I was about to say that ICES has given the same advice for the past five years—a period for which I am not sure that my hon. Friend was in the House. I am sorry that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) accuses me of being pompous—[Interruption.]
ICES advice is offered annually. It is the job of ICES scientists to provide advice based on their scientific research, but it is then the job of the Commission, its own advisers and Ministers to come to a balanced view in the light of the mixed fisheries in the North sea. If ICES advice for a zero cod catch had been implemented in the North sea in any one of the last three years, it would have been completely devastating for the UK industry. It would have meant that fishermen could not go out and fish for haddock, prawns and other stocks that are in a very good shape because of the drastic measures on cod. We need to take tough decisions on cod and we may need to take some tough and painful decisions on cod next week, but it does not make sense either in the short or the long term to go for a zero catch on cod because of the devastating impact on the fishing communities in some Members’ constituencies.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on bycatch. It may be impractical to have a zero quota for by-catch, but there are opportunities to limit it through technical measures. The Minister will know from correspondence over many years on the issue that in the Irish sea, some beam trawlers targeting other species use such a small mesh size that they catch a huge by-catch of cod. That may be one of the reasons why the cod recovery programme in the Irish sea has not succeeded.
My hon. Friend, who represents her constituents in Fleetwood so assiduously, makes an important and valid point. In next week’s negotiations, we hope to persuade the Commission to be a bit cannier in its approach and to look at some of the technical measures that could be taken rather than propose these drastic blanket reductions. That would enable some of my hon. Friend’s fishermen to fish a little more if they adopted technical measures to allow the cod to escape from nets.
I need to make some progress, as I know that many hon. Members will want to make their own contributions.
In the international activity that I referred to, we work very closely with the Department for International Development to help developing countries with the sustainable management of their valuable local fisheries. Over the last year, the UK has also remained at the forefront of moves to defend the international moratorium on commercial whaling. We have also led the condemnation in recent weeks of Iceland’s decision to resume commercial whaling. I summoned the Icelandic ambassador to explain his actions and the UK led 25 countries, plus the European Commission—representing more than a billion people—in a formal diplomatic protest in Reykjavik, condemning Iceland's action. We are urging all EU and accession states that are not members of the International Whaling Commission to join it as soon as possible.
Some hon. Members have already alluded to the major event before the end of the year. It is, of course, the December Fisheries Council, where next year’s total allowable catch and other measures will be decided. The Commission recently published its proposals for agreement at the Council. Given the poor state of some key stocks, some tough decisions are likely to be necessary. Broadly speaking, the scientific advice supports cuts in quota for cod, herring and flat fish, but for other stocks important to the UK fleet, such as prawns, mackerel and haddock, some increase in catch may be possible.
The Minister knows from his visits to Amble and from our conversations that handline fishing for mackerel—a conservation manual alternative that the fishermen want to use—is restricted by the lack of historic quota for smaller boats. Has the Minister made any progress on that and has he spoken to the Scottish Minister, as I have, to see if some arrangement can be reached to allow people to pursue this fishery?
Yes, I have spoken to the Scottish Minister and I would be interested to hear how the right hon. Gentleman’s conversation with him went. We hope to make progress in time for his fishermen’s next season. I acknowledge the problem, as on a visit to the north-east of England I met either the right hon. Gentleman’s fishermen or those from a neighbouring constituency. That fishery is very sustainable. Indeed, I was given some of the catch and enjoyed it for a number of days afterwards.
As I hinted earlier, the main concern about the Commission’s proposals as they stand is the rather drastic cut for cod, which we feel, given the relatively good year class of young cod in 2005, would simply result in more discards. We think that the Commission needs to be more sophisticated about how we protect cod, while allowing fishermen to catch those stocks that remain plentiful.
It is also important that any decisions at next week’s Fisheries Council do not undermine our ability, following the review of the recovery programme planned for next year, to deliver a more effective cod recovery programme in the long term. It is also important that the Commission fully recognises the significant contribution that our whitefish fleet, and particularly that of Scotland, has made to reducing effort on cod. The past few years have been a painful readjustment for the industry, involving a significant level of decommissioning. Credit must be given for what has been achieved at EU level.
I am pleased to say that, as a result of some of those painful moves, we now have the prospect of a much more stable, more profitable and more legal industry that is sustainable for the long term. Indeed, I do not believe that many of my predecessors in recent years could have stood at the Dispatch Box to lead the annual fishing debate and been able to quote an editorial from a recent edition of Fishing News that says:
“Strong demand for fish and seafood, sky high fish prices and signs of a growing abundance of fish are creating a greater sense of optimism and hope for the future among fishermen than has been seen for some years.”
Happy Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I pay tribute to the fishermen who have lost their lives or been injured in the past year. Recently, the loss of the Meridian from Scotland reminded us of the risk that fishermen face every day to provide us with food, and Opposition Members extend our sympathies to the families of all those who have lost relatives in that way.
Hon. Members will be aware of the increasing consumer demand for fish over recent years. In Waitrose, for example, sales of fish have increased 20 per cent. year on year, and fish has overtaken chicken as the main source of protein in its customers’ baskets. Last year, the UK recorded fish sales totalling £1.8 billion. With such numbers, the UK fishing industry should be feeling confident and optimistic, as the Minister suggested. It should be prosperous and perhaps even growing.
According to the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report, “Net Benefits”, 1 million sea anglers in the UK generate £1 billion in revenue. Recreational sea angling flourishes throughout the EU, where it is worth up to €10 billion, and that includes UK activity. Direct comparisons between RSA and commercial fishing are difficult—one is a sport; the other an extractive industry. However, both are entirely reliant on the same natural resource: the publicly owned fish stocks of inshore waters. Most angling takes place within six miles of the shore—half of it from the shore itself.
In England and Wales, the Drew report, published by DEFRA in 2004, shows that the recreational sea angling industry is worth £538 million and supports 19,000 jobs. An overarching issue confronts the recreational and commercial sectors: the need to stop over-exploiting inshore fish stocks and to develop conservation programmes to improve the quality and quantity of fish in the sea. Regrettably, a year after our previous annual debate on fisheries, our fishing industry still looks as fragile and vulnerable as ever. The Government and the EU have not yet succeeded in striking the balance between the environment and the economic needs of British fisherman. An atmosphere of gloominess and pessimism has once again descended over our fishing communities, as they await the outcome of the December Council and their future for the next 12 months.
Although the picture might look rather gloomy in many parts of Britain, my hon. Friend should know that in Brixham—the port I represent, which is the largest fishing port in England and Wales—everyone is rather optimistic. Although I appreciate what he is saying, I can tell the House that fishermen on the docks there say that trade is booming. With lobsters and crabs in abundance, it is like the Garden of Eden in south Devon.
No doubt that is because of the excellent Member of Parliament that those fishermen have—who is famous, no doubt, for his helpful interventions on his own Front Benchers. Perhaps if my hon. Friend had allowed me to make a little more progress, we could have said a little more about that.
Perhaps this is a good moment to mention the difficulties that face lobster fishermen, particularly those in Scotland who are catching lobsters at 87 mm, while those in England will be catching lobsters at 90 mm. That will cause tremendous difficulties in determining whether catching cross-border lobsters that travel from Scottish to English waters will be illegal and for the fishermen of those crustaceans. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was considerably more helpful than the previous one.
In October, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s reports and recommendations on fish stocks affecting UK fisheries were published. Again, the recommendations were grim reading for the fishing industry. For Celtic sea cod, a zero catch was recommended. For cod off the west of Scotland, ICES recommended a zero catch and criticised the current cod recovery plan for being inconsistent with the precautionary principle. For North sea sand eel, the closure of the fishery was recommended until more information becomes available.
With the scientific advice posing problems for the UK industry and the EU-Norway negotiations yielding mixed results for the UK, now more than ever before, the political decisions made at the December Council will need strong political leadership. The Minister will have to put up a very sturdy fight at the December Council to get the best deal for the UK fishing industry and the 26,000 jobs that depend on it. He cannot afford to repeat the blunder made at the December 2004 Council with regard to the 6,500 square mile cod recovery zone between Padstow and Pembroke. His excuse then was that, “You sometimes get details like this that slip through unnoticed.”
Last year, the Minister’s DEFRA colleague and also Northern Ireland Fisheries Minister, the noble Lord Rooker, failed even to show up, despite important discussions taking place on North sea and Irish sea cod quotas. There must not be a repeat of that this year, because all of Britain’s fishing industries deserve to be taken seriously and deserve a strong voice. The Minister must make sure that Britain gets its fair share of sustainable stocks. Fishermen have already seen their total landings fall by over 50 per cent. since the 1960s and a third of their colleagues lose their jobs since 1997, and further losses simply might not be sustainable for the communities that rely on them.
With that in mind, I urge the Minister to take the science offered and decide whether it is right or wrong. If he decides that the science is wrong, how will he ensure that the scientific advice is correct in future? We must have credible science, and if the Minister thinks that it is credible and accurate, he should, as we are so often told, take the scientific advice. However, if it is wrong, should he not agree with the fishermen, particularly those who want larger total allowable catches? It is not possible to disagree with the scientists and disagree with the fishermen. Either the fishermen are right, because they know what they are discarding, or the scientists are right, because their models work. Being somewhere in between might seem expedient, but it cannot be logically defended.
With respect, the hon. Gentleman is slightly off beam. The problem with the scientific advice is not that it gives the wrong answers but that the scientists are asked the wrong questions. In the circumstances, ICES cannot give any other advice, but the questions that they are asked to answer are, frankly, meaningless.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, the questions to ICES are posed by the Council of Ministers and the people in the Commission who are paying for that research. It is the Government’s job to get the requests right, so that they get the right scientific advice. We are told in every debate in the House that the Government must take the scientific advice. If the hon. Gentleman is right—I am sure that he knows a great deal about the issue, so I am sure that he is correct—the Government must ensure that the advice that they are given is right.
It is no good saying that the fishermen and the scientists do not agree; closing that gap must be the most important thing that the Minister does. If I were in his shoes, one of my top priorities would be to ensure that the fishermen and scientists agree on what is out there and what can be harvested. After all, that is what sustainability is all about, both for fish stocks and the livelihoods of fishermen and their families.
The truly difficult decision is who gets to take what, but we rarely even get to that part of the debate, because there is no consensus on what we are arguing about. After 10 years, many jobs have been lost and, sadly, that looks likely to continue. I have looked back over the fishing debates of the past few years, and the fact that a substantial amount of the issues raised and subjects covered are repeated year after year demonstrates how slow the Government’s progress has been in reforming fisheries management to establish economically and environmentally sustainable fisheries.
Is the Conservative party in favour of individual transferable quotas? If so, what impact does the hon. Gentleman think that they will have on the remaining section of the English fleet that is in English ownership and on the much larger share of the Scottish fleet that is in Scottish ownership?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Conservative party policy on fishing. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We have heard about it so far only from the Minister, and it might be more helpful if it came from me. The position is that, after the last election, we formed the policy boards, which are looking at all aspects of Conservative policy. They will produce a menu of choices from which the policies that go into the manifesto will be taken. At this stage, the policy board on fishing has not reported. Therefore, I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about individual transferable quotas; but when the board reports, the information will be published on the internet and available for the Government to read. We have consulted widely, and I am sure that it will be extremely helpful.
This issue is of great interest. Will my hon. Friend clarify whether the review of fisheries policy that Her Majesty’s Opposition is undertaking is confined only to the United Kingdom’s fisheries policy staying within the common fisheries policy?
I am grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend for her intervention. It gives me great pleasure to say that the people on the board are widely recognised as experts. They have considered fishing in totality, including within or without the CFP. Until we see what they report, I am not in a position to offer proper advice on what they are going to recommend. I have not seen their report, so I cannot answer whether we will be dealing with that.
I do not want to be a bore, but it seems extraordinary that those excellent and experienced people are undertaking that review but that the terms of the review do not appear to be in the public domain and my hon. Friend, as the shadow Minister with responsibility for fisheries, does not know whether the report will be confined to the United Kingdom staying within the common fisheries policy or whether those involved will be free and encouraged to look at alternatives.
The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that the policy boards will look at fishing in totality. They will make a report. That report will be available and in the public domain and then he can draw whatever conclusions he wishes from that. I hope that all anglers will be delighted with that policy, whether they are sea anglers or fishermen of any other kind.
We all want a solution to the problem that leads to 2 million tonnes of edible fish being thrown overboard each year, with 600,000 tonnes allegedly coming from Scottish fishermen. That figure comes from the Fishermen’s Association. Just imagine how much extra value could be added to the economy if discards were prevented, or the impact that that could have on the sustainability of our fish stocks, or how much fish meal that would provide for farmed fish. I must congratulate the industry on the significant improvement in relation to illegally landed black fish. The industry has made great progress. With that under its belt, let us hope that 2007 becomes the year that discards are tackled.
Despite the challenge of mixed fisheries, the solutions are there to be found. Changes in gear, changes in quota management and changes in policy will be the way to make progress. We have already seen numerous studies examining discards and I hope that the Minister will stick to the commitments laid out in his Department’s 2006-07 marine and fisheries business plan, which states that the Department plans to:
“Minimise the environmental impact of fishing including through tackling discards, minimising cetacean by catch and developing proposals for applying Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to fisheries.”
SEA is a rather neat mnemonic. We shall see whether progress is made or whether this initiative, like the marine Bill that we asked questions about earlier, sinks.
I want to support my hon. Friend wholeheartedly on the obscenity of throwing dead fish overboard. That is why I have opposed the common fisheries policy. If we could find a solution to that, it would open up a different arrangement. Does he agree that the big weakness of the common fisheries policy is the obscenity of throwing thousands of tonnes of fish, which could be eaten, overboard, dead, because of the quotas on each species?
I agree with what my hon. Friend says about discards. Nobody would defend the concept of discarding. It is quite wrong. When I took the trouble to go to meet the European Commissioner on fishing, he also recognised that, sadly, progress was not being made that quickly. That is a great tragedy. Over the past year, I have had the privilege of meeting representatives from the fisheries industry and the environmental lobby. Despite their often opposing views, they all agree that the current policies for fisheries management are not working, and discards have highlighted that more than anything else. The current policies are bad for the environment and they are bad for the fisheries industry. The various bodies also agree that changes are needed to produce the maximum sustainable yield required from the Johannesburg commitments. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has stated:
“Few would disagree with the view that the management of European fisheries over the last 20 years has been a failure.”
Greenpeace has agreed, arguing:
“The CFP establishes the framework for management of fisheries in European waters, yet it has consistently failed either to conserve target fish stocks or to protect the wider marine environment.”
Although we have needed changes, instead we have had too much talk and seen too little action. Fishermen have accepted the changes—often imposed on them—with dignity and honour. They have accepted that they are a part of perhaps the most regulated industry in the EU. They have also accepted that, especially in the white fish fleet, there is a degree of overcapacity that needs to be addressed. However, what they cannot and should not accept is the inconsistency in Government policy towards their industry.
The state of our fishing industry is a failure not just of European policy, but of this Government. With that in mind, I would like to draw the attention of the House to decommissioning. Again, it has been discussed in many previous debates. There is agreement between the industry, the Government and the environmental lobby that, despite the decommissioning that has already taken place, the UK fleet, and, in particular, the white fish fleet, is currently at overcapacity. The NFFO has stated:
“A further round of decommissioning would make the UK fleet more competitive and profitable.”
The royal commission’s “Turning the Tide” report stated that
“the UK government and fisheries departments should initiate a decommissioning scheme to reduce the capacity of the UK fishing fleet to an environmentally sustainable level and move towards managing fisheries on the basis of controlling fishing effort—the overall amount of fishing activity—rather than the quantity of fish landed. It should take steps to ensure such measures are also introduced at the European level.”
With all that support for the original policy and the possible use of European fisheries funds, everyone seems to be left asking the question: why have the Government stalled? It is that slowly grinding process of reform and change that is in need of a catalyst and the Government, sadly, are not providing it. The UK needs to show stronger leadership, but under Labour we have not been getting it, and our fisheries and marine environment lose out. Whether the Minister wants to include fisheries in a marine Bill or not, it is still essential that policies designed to protect the marine environment are integrated with those designed to make use of its economic resources. Indeed, in last year’s debate, the Minister himself highlighted the importance of a marine Bill to the marine environment, stating:
“One reason a marine Bill is so important is that it will enable us to take an overall, holistic approach to the management of our marine environment.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 880.]
In last year’s Queen’s Speech, we were also promised a draft Bill, but we had nothing then and I doubt that we will get a Bill this year either.
The Environmental Audit Committee criticised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for not taking leadership on the marine Bill and my concern is that if DEFRA cannot show leadership on marine matters in the context of the UK, other Departments and the devolved Administrations, how can we expect it to lead the EU and world? Today I asked the Minister when we might expect the marine Bill and he told me that it would be before the next general election. The date keeps rolling back. In the absence of Government action, private and social enterprise and public demand are filling some of that vacuum, with some success. As the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has admitted on his blog:
“Consumer power and the demand for sustainably caught fish may be the most direct route to change.”
Let us take, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. Set up by WWF and Unilever, the MSC has certified 21 fisheries as meeting its environmental standards, with a further 20 being assessed. It has its label on more than 400 seafood products, representing 6 per cent. of the world’s total edible wild capture fisheries. Bury inlet, the Hastings fishing fleet, and NESFC—north eastern sea fisheries committee—Lobster fishery are among those in the UK that are signed up. Given the growing commercial success of the scheme, I am sure that more and more responsible fishermen will want to sign up. The MSC accreditation scheme could be for sustainable fisheries what free range eggs are for poultry welfare.
I had the honour and privilege back in May of hosting the Greenpeace reception on sustainable fisheries. I could see how some producers, supermarkets and scientists were working together to create the sustainable fisheries that the Government and the EU are failing to establish. Those examples should be followed. Given the intensive regulation of fisheries management, the Government must be an important part of the change, rather than being a mere bystander, or even getting left behind.
When I visited the great fishing ports of Fleetwood and Grimsby recently, I could not help but notice the strength of character in those communities.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about that.
In Fleetwood, I visited the motor stern trawler Jacinta. The Jacinta was a record breaker and part of the proud distant-water fleet of Fleetwood and Britain. While it might now be moored in Fleetwood’s fishing dock as a tourist attraction, people in Fleetwood, Grimsby and elsewhere do not want the entire UK fishing industry to be confined to history.
I will say what I was going to say in an intervention on the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) in my speech. It is a pleasure to take part in the annual fishing debate again. I want to take the opportunity to outline the good and the not so good, and also the opportunities for Fleetwood’s future—I was going to question the hon. Gentleman on that last point. I tell the Minister that I will start with the not so good, which is the catching side of the industry. That links directly to his points about quotas and the December Council.
Sadly, the numbers of fishermen and vessels in Fleetwood have declined. The Minister said that there are now more fish to catch, but unfortunately there are not as many fishermen in Fleetwood as there were to go out and catch those fish. The document on fishing possibilities for 2007, which was issued by the Commission, proposes yet more cuts in the quotas for the Irish sea, with a 25 per cent. cut for cod, a 15 per cent. cut for haddock, a 15 per cent. cut for sole and a 68.17 per cent. cut for whiting, although I am assured that no one goes out to catch whiting any more. However, it also proposes a welcome 15 per cent. increase for plaice and recommends that the arrangement for nephrops should remain the same.
Such proposals are being made after we have had year after year of operating the cod recovery programme in the Irish sea. However, there is still no recovery in cod stocks. Fleetwood fishermen have faced slashed quotas, a reduced total allowable catch, a seasonal closed area at spawning time and extensive technical measures. Even under the programme, as I said earlier, large amounts of cod are caught as by-catch by beam trawlers. I am thus pleased that the Commission is examining the cod recovery programmes again to try to analyse why we have not seen the recovery in cod for which we hoped. The fishermen accepted those harsh measures because they hoped that they would lead to a sustainable industry for the future. When the Irish sea cod recovery programme is taken into account as part of the reviews, I urge the Minister to consider the change in circumstances from when the programme was first introduced and to listen to the concerns of the industry.
As these reviews are driven by science, we must make every effort to ensure that the science is correct and the uncertainties are few. The fishermen and the scientists need to agree so that they will be prepared to work together and believe in each other. As the Minister said, there is not a happy history of that. There should be an opportunity to move forward with fishermen and scientists working in partnership.
The Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation has produced a radical proposal for 2007 that would incentivise the involvement of fishermen in data collection on stocks through the provision of extra days at sea. I will take a few minutes to outline that programme because it could be a way forward for fishermen and scientists to work together.
The purpose of the scheme is to secure a dramatic improvement in the quality of data on catches and discards and to make that data available to scientists and managers, in a real-time series, with the objective of ultimately contributing to accurate and credible stock assessment and advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. That would also greatly improve voluntary co-operation between fisheries scientists and the industry. Those participating in the programme would be rewarded with some concessions on days at sea, albeit with an understanding that there should be no overall increase in effort.
The programme has three elements: a fisheries self-sampling scheme with participation among Irish sea fishermen that is as wide as possible; enhanced observer coverage and discard sampling of Irish sea fisheries, with the result that the self-sampling should be more accurate; and an examination of alternative management measures to reduce discarding and the fishing mortality of cod, including the promotion of more selective gears.
The new programme has been put to the Commission by the North Western Waters regional advisory council. It has the full support of fishermen, fishery administration and scientific institutions of England, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. If we are ever going to move forward on science and co-operation with fishermen, this is our opportunity. I thus urge my hon. Friend the Minister to examine the proposal closely and support it.
I will now move on to comment on the onshore fishing industry because the focus in Fleetwood has shifted from catching to processing. As has been the case for catching, the size of the fish processing sector in Fleetwood has reduced substantially over the past two decades, but there has been greater stability in recent years. The recent Poseidon report for Seafood North West said:
“given appropriate assistance the remaining enterprises could form the nucleus for rejuvenation of the sector”.
That detailed report recommended removing all fish marketing and processing from existing facilities to a new, dedicated fish park on vacant land to the south of the docks. The £4.84 million project would comprise a new fish auction facility, a new small processor block, a new fish waste facility, a new recycling facility, serviced sites for large processors and all the associated infrastructure. Several possible funding options have been identified, although much more still needs to be done. The project offers real hope for the future and for Fleetwood fish merchants, who have shown that they are energetic and competitive and that they want to revive and extend their businesses. The Minister has visited Fleetwood merchants and seen for himself what they are doing. I hope that when the hon. Member for Leominster visited Fleetwood, he saw that although the catching side has declined, the processing side is gaining strength. There is a lot of optimism that that is a way forward for the industry.
There is widespread recognition of the high-quality, fully traceable fish and value-added products that originate from Fleetwood merchants. Some of the processors supply national supermarket chains and national food service distributors. Through wholesale and retail markets, they supply a catchment area comprising up to 18 million people. The fact that much of the fish that they sell is fully traceable is even more important now, as more supermarkets and customers want information about the sourcing of fish from sustainable species. We have all seen the Greenpeace campaigns and the adverts in supermarkets.
Those products, supplied daily, are now being sold in supermarket chains throughout France, Spain and Italy, as well as to importers from western Europe. Although there are now fewer boats in Fleetwood dock, a lot of lorries laden with fish leave the town every day to supply markets in this country and in the wider world. In addition, value is added to hundreds of tonnes of non-quota species by initial processing before export to destinations in the far east by a processing company that the Minister has visited. That company has just ended a far east marketing promotion: it exhibited at the Chinese fishing exhibition, as well as in Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Through that promotion, it has attracted interest from potential customers in Singapore, Dubai, India, Japan and Taiwan. I feel as though Fleetwood is now the centre of the world, never mind the centre of the north-west fishing industry.
One of the local initiatives by fish processors is to take advantage of the fisheries science partnership to market and develop a fishery of a non-quota species, razorfish, in the Liverpool bay area. We are also now witnessing in the larger processors and merchants an influx of younger people to fisheries management. They are seeking to develop a long-term, sustainable and competitive industry by utilising the maximum sustainable yield of the present European fisheries management structure, coupled with supplies from abroad. Therefore, just as I urge the Minister to do what he can to support the catching side, I urge him to recognise the importance of the onshore fishing industry—the processing side.
That leads me to the European fisheries fund and the new processes for that funding. I understand that the EFF has five priority areas, but the bulk of the money will be allocated under axis 4, which relates to “sustainable development of fisheries areas”. I am told that the original proposal was for EFF money to be administered through regional development agencies, with the amount each RDA received being based on the regional economic strategy, and for priorities for funding also to be regionalised and based on the RES. However, by my recollection, the fishing industry does not even appear in the Northwest Development Agency’s RES.
I am pleased to be told now that the EFF could be administered in the same way as the financial instrument for fisheries guidance—centrally through DEFRA. I hope that the Minister can clarify that detail and explain further how axis 4 is to be interpreted. Is funding to be made available for redevelopment in fisheries-related areas, for example, for the redevelopment of the Fleetwood market and processing facilities proposed in the Poseidon report; or will funding be available only for developments away from the fishing industry? I hope that my hon. Friend will also consider how RDAs recognise and support the fishing industry. The Northwest Development Agency does an excellent job in a range of areas and is supporting the regeneration of Blackpool, but it does not recognise the fishing industry in Fleetwood. Perhaps it needs to be reminded.
Finally, I shall comment on the impact on fishing activity of the development of offshore wind farms. A meeting of the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee reported:
“The wind farms will disproportionately affect the local UK inshore fishing industry through loss of accessible fishing grounds. The effect on the larger fleet and vessels from other EU member states will be negligible because they have unrestrained access to more productive areas of the Irish Sea. The further loss of inshore grounds, piled on other pressures on the industry, is likely to make some local vessels uneconomic to operate.”
The Government set up Fisheries Liaison with Offshore Wind—FLOW—
“to ensure that the commercial fishing and fisheries industries can successfully co-exist with the offshore renewable energy industries and that the needs of the former are taken into account in Government policy on offshore renewable energy.”
Fleetwood inshore boats are certainly not successfully co-existing with offshore wind farms.
I have had meetings with both the developers of the Barrow wind farm, which is already established, and the companies proposing new wind farms on Shell flat, which is just offshore off Fleetwood and Cleveleys. I have copied to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare letters on the subject that I have sent to the Minister for Energy. Fleetwood fishermen have been trying for a long time to reach an agreement on compensation in relation to the Barrow wind farm.
I wonder what happened to the discussions held by FLOW. Did it reach any conclusion on setting the ground rules for dialogue between offshore wind farm operators and the fishing industry? Increasing numbers of energy operators are applying for consents for offshore wind farms, so more fishing communities across the UK will need to consider the impact of such developments on their fishing effort. It is important that there are basic ground rules that everybody knows how to work under, because increasing numbers of wind farms are being proposed for the north-west coast, on the Irish sea. That is where my local inshore fleet targets fish, so we need to sort out the problem.
I am in absolute agreement on that point. The issue is not only compensation, but proximity of access, because a wind farm is very different from an oil rig. One can understand the reason for an exclusion zone around an oil rig, but not around a wind farm. Fishermen need to be able to fish very close to the wind farms, which take up a large area.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There is a good deal of debate about whether fishing vessels can go in and out, between the turbines. On the one hand, I am told by the developers that the turbines are set far enough apart for fishing vessels to go between them, and that the base of the turbines will form reefs where fish will congregate. On the other, fishermen tell me that it would be dangerous for them to go in and out of the turbines. I do not know who is right—all I know is that they disagree. We ought to have a discussion on the subject, because I am sure that the Government will give more consents, and although I approve of renewable forms of energy, we must take into account the impact that any such consents will have on the fishing industry. That is yet another reason why I am looking forward to the marine Bill, when it appears. A lot of people think that the seas are empty, but in fact they are very busy with fishermen, ferries and, increasingly, wind farms.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but is there not a distinction between near-shore wind farms, which can pose a substantial nautical risk, particularly if they are adjacent to a harbour entrance, and deep offshore wind farms on very large seas? In either case, would it not be right to introduce a procedure under which loss of access claims could be properly processed, so that the fishing industry does not lose out to such developments, as some might argue that they have lost out to oilfield developments?
The hon. Gentleman makes two points. On his point about the location of wind farms, there is one at Barrow, on the fishing grounds of the Barrow and Fleetwood fishermen. There are proposals for two much larger ones further offshore, but those sites are on fishing grounds, too, and importantly they are on a busy ferry route between the UK and Northern Ireland. A lot of maritime traffic uses exactly the areas on which it is proposed to site the two large wind farms. There is an issue about location, but I agree with him that we need clear rules about compensation.
One of the problems for the inshore fishing fleet is that because the vessels are under 10 m in length, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not require them to keep detailed records of their catches, their landings and the value of those landings. For that reason, it is difficult for them to prove either that they fish in an area in which the wind farm is to be developed, or the value of the catch that will be lost to them if they are no longer allowed to fish in that area. When I speak to the developers, however, they say that if they are to pay compensation, they must have proof of loss of earnings, like any commercial company. That is a complex issue, but it cannot be ignored, and it has to be placed in the context of our wider debates about the fishing industry, quotas, and the sustainability of the industry and of fish stocks. My comments about wind farms are perhaps not directly relevant to what the Minister will debate in the Council of the European Union in December, but it is still an important subject to fishermen, so I hope that he will take it into account.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in our annual fisheries debate as Liberal Democrat spokesman. May I begin by expressing my admiration for the many fishermen who daily risk their lives to feed the nation, and by paying tribute to the 15 fishermen who lost their lives in the past year? Like the Minister and the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), I represent a landlocked constituency. I am not sure, however, how far the tidal waters extend up the Exe, or whether they reach Exeter.
I am glad to receive that reassurance.
Our debate is concerned not just with commercial fishing but recreational fishing, which is enjoyed by more than 4 million people in England and Wales every year, and is thus probably the nation’s favourite outdoor participation sport. The annual economic activity associated with angling is estimated to be worth £2.75 billion, and the sport employs about 20,000 full-time and part-time workers. Having highlighted the important contribution of recreational fishing to our economy, I pay tribute to the excellent work of Dr. Stephen Marsh-Smith of the charitable Wye and Usk Foundation in my constituency, which seeks to restore the ecology, environment and fisheries of those two famous salmon and trout rivers by making them more attractive and accessible to fish so that they can reach their traditional spawning grounds, which the foundation has also sought to improve.
In business questions, I asked the Leader of the House whether time could be allocated before the EU-Norway negotiations for a parliamentary debate on the Government strategy in those negotiations. As TACs for the North sea are effectively set at those talks and, indeed, 50 per cent. of the total value of the Scottish fleet decided, it would be useful if the Minister would make clear on the Floor of the House his advice to the Commission on those important negotiations. Cod will rightly dominate the negotiations next week. The Commission is expected to reduce the cod quota in the Celtic sea by 35 per cent., by 25 per cent. in the Irish sea and off the western approaches, and by 14 per cent. in the North sea. Those cuts may be supplemented by cuts in days at sea for all sectors catching cod. What will the Minister do in Brussels to represent UK fishing need, and will he emphasise that it is time for other member states to take on their share of the burden?
My hon. Friend will be aware that this is the third year of closure for the Trevose ground, which is a significant spawning ground for cod and many other species, particularly during the early part of the year. Instead of basing our efforts to control stocks with sustainable fishing entirely on TACs and days at sea, I hope that the Minister will endorse efforts to ensure that the Trevose closure continues year after year, because it appears to be working.
It is encouraging that such proposals are working, and I am sure that the Minister will take on board my hon. Friend’s recommendations.
The white fish fleets in the constituencies of Scottish Members have been forced to make drastic cuts in their days at sea, pushing many fishermen to the margins of profitability. All the while, there has been no substantial recovery or evidence of recovery in cod stocks. The Minister knows that fishermen’s groups lobbied hard for a review of the cod recovery plan, which has been granted for next year—a move that I welcome. What does he think of the idea floated by such groups that because of the impending review, we should ask for a roll-over of current arrangements until we know where we stand with the cod recovery plan?
I was disappointed to discover that there would be no marine Bill in the current parliamentary Session. While greater protection has been given to the countryside through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Commons Act 2006, no such provision has been made for the marine environment. Good stewardship of our seas and their natural resources is vital to the continued sustainability and future prosperity of our fisheries. Furthermore, the proposed Bill was supported in all parts of the House.
As the Government are consulting for a second time on that important legislation, will the Minister reconsider the role that fisheries might play in marine conservation and in the Bill? We would all agree that it is impossible to differentiate between environmental marine concerns and fisheries, just as it is impossible to draw a distinction between farming affairs and concerns for wildlife. Sustainable fisheries and the protection of the marine environment must go hand in hand. It is impossible to address one concern while neglecting the other.
Too often, the complaint is made that the science that we use to inform our decisions in negotiations is not sound, and is more concerned with making immediate political headlines than with the long-term sustainability of fish stocks and the fishing industry. Every year for the past five years the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas has advised that the cod fisheries in the North sea, west of Scotland and the Irish sea be closed to restore stocks. Those arguments cause concern among the fishing communities across the UK.
Despite cuts of £200 million in the Department’s budget, I was glad to hear that the fisheries science partnership budget of £1 million has so far remained unchanged, although the level of funding could be changed in January 2008, which causes much anxiety to those who run the partnership. The FSP has been an innovative and highly successful initiative which, alongside work carried out by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Lowestoft, has complemented the work done by ICES. We would all agree that a scheme that seeks to involve fishermen with the scientific process that dictates our political decision making should be maintained.
I am concerned about the decision-making process for the FSP for commissioning research. Any project over £50,000 must be agreed by a Minister in the Department. That new layer of bureaucracy means that decisions will take longer to make, whereas previously the partnership would make a decision on scientific research through its steering and evaluation committees. The new arrangements will affect two or three projects a year which might entail greater expense because of the length of time at sea for the collection of data.
Other concerns expressed to me by those from the FSP were that delays could be caused by Ministers deciding which research projects should be carried out. I seek the Minister’s reassurance that whoever makes those decisions, they are made in a timely manner, and that any delays in decision making will not result in future cuts to the partnership’s budget.
I welcome the changes to the release of scientific information that will come into effect from 2008. Advice that was previously released in October is to be made available in June, allowing adequate time to consult all the regional advisory councils and other stakeholders before the Commission produces its formal proposals later in the year. Can the Minister clarify which stocks of interest to the UK fishing industry will benefit from the release of scientific data being brought forward?
We supported the establishment of regional advisory councils in 2003, bringing a local perspective to fisheries management, and we hope that RACs will take on a more managerial role in future. What are the Minister’s views on the excellent work done so far by the RACs? Will he outline any plans that his Department may have to give the councils greater autonomy in their decision making? Unlike the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats do not want to withdraw from the common fisheries policy and believe that we are better in than out. Fish do not recognise international borders. If we want to be involved in fisheries negotiations with other European countries, we cannot afford to pull ourselves out of the CFP.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. The Liberal Democrats’ original policy, which was put forward in the early 1990s, proposed regional management committees and wanted the regional advisory councils to develop in that way. I understand that the Minister and the European Commissioner are keen to encourage policy in that direction too. My hon. Friend will share my disappointment that Conservatives who engaged in this debate in years gone by scoffed at that idea, because fishermen now consider it to be one of the single most important developments in fisheries management and one of the most useful tools available to them.
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes the point well. I recognise the value of the work that he has done on fisheries as a spokesman for the party and as a constituency Member.
While ambitious and sometimes misinformed, the idea of an overarching European policy such as that which the CFP attempts to embody is a positive one, but within that management of fish stocks is best carried out by regional advisory councils or committees involving local fishermen, scientists, Government and other major stakeholders. It is vital that RACs are given sufficient time to respond properly to Commission proposals, as they will be putting the decisions reached in Europe into effect on the front line. What plans does the Minister have to involve them more in the European phase of the negotiations?
Does my hon. Friend share my dismay at the truly appalling treatment of the North sea RAC by the Commission during the recent EU-Norway negotiations, when the advice that was given in relation to cod was for a roll-over of the total allowable catch, whereas the Commission’s initial position was a 25 per cent. reduction?
My hon. Friend reinforces the point that there is considerable scope for taking more advice from the RACs, because they have experience and knowledge of the situation as it really is.
The RACs are traditionally disadvantaged at this time of year by the lack of advance information on the Commission’s proposals. The people on the front line need to be told of the plans for the coming year more than a mere 10 days before the changes will be put into effect. There is no time for them to develop plans, to make representations, or to make their views known on the changes that they will have to work hard to enforce. Will the Minister clarify the way in which the changes to the release of scientific advice will have an effect on the role of the RACs?
The harvest of the sea is rich in variety and quality. Our fishing industry should be supported and encouraged to gain more value from the stocks that remain available to it. While the Minister will say that we have a highly successful fishing industry, the figures speak for themselves: 6,000 British fishermen have lost their jobs since Labour came to power, more than 1,000 vessels are no longer in action, and total landings are down in quantity and market value.
Will the Minister give the House his view on fisheries industries also becoming value added businesses where fish is landed in local ports and, as much as possible, processed by local processors? That has massive benefits for local employment as well as ensuring that seafood retains its place as a regional cuisine and cutting down on all-important food miles. In farming, hundreds of new initiatives nationwide have made use of local shops, box schemes and other ways of capitalising on raw products. That engenders a huge amount of consumer enthusiasm for local produce. I can see no reason why that thinking should not be extended to the fishing industry. In the south-west we already have an excellent project, “Invest in Fish South West”, which aims to lead to a stakeholder-developed regional strategy for fisheries management in south-west waters and consults organisations as diverse as fishermen’s federations, non-governmental organisations and retailers. What more does the Under- Secretary believe that the fishing industry could do to profit further from the increasing demand for local, sustainably sourced, healthy food? What support is available from the common fisheries policy for that?
All parties agree that more selective fishing gear is required to tackle and reduce the by-catch of cod and other species. Nets with technical adaptations such as sorting grids and escape panels are fundamental to reducing by-catch. Mixed fisheries for haddock and whiting, and some nephrops fisheries are especially worrying because of the high cod by-catch. Fleets in those fisheries should be required to introduce more selective gear immediately. Financial support should be forthcoming from member states and the Commission to assist in implementing such measures. By-catch and discarding is not a new problem and selective gear is widely recognised and available as the solution, but there is a lack of political will to implement its use. In the light of the Commission’s review of technical measures to reduce discards, will the Under-Secretary give his views on what he deems to be the difficulties with enforcing such measures throughout UK fleets?
The success of our fisheries depends on three important factors: ensuring sustainable stocks through protecting marine ecosystems, making our fishing industry profitable and viable, and enabling compliance between all key players, national and international, in that line of business. That can be achieved only if we continue to talk to our European partners and oppose any ratcheting up of the cod recovery plan. EU fisheries management has been a failure and needs reform, but that can be achieved only if we play a part in the proceedings.
Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), I pay tribute to the work of fishermen around the country and in my constituency.
In Hartlepool, fishing has a long and proud history, spanning more than 800 years. The North sea is often harsh and unforgiving. Over the years, countless fishermen from Hartlepool have lost their lives trying to make a living for themselves and their families. Sadly, fatalities continue. Earlier this year, Edward Bissell’s empty fishing boat, “Bonny Lass”, was found by rescue teams. On the same day as last year’s fisheries debate, town fisherman Stephen Horsley, part of a long-standing Hartlepool family who have fished off the coast for generations, was saved from the sea by lifeboats after his boat sank off the coast. The danger that the fishermen face to make their living and the bravery shown by rescue teams are awesome.
I also take the opportunity to mention the bombardment of Hartlepool. On 16 December 1914—we are two days from the anniversary—Hartlepool became the first place on the British mainland to be attacked by German ships in the first world war. More than 100 people, including fishermen returning from their early morning catch, were killed during the bombardment. The North sea has presented danger to the people of the north-east in many ways.
As I said in last year’s fisheries debate, because of other industry Hartlepool has not had to rely on the sea and fishing as much as other communities have. However, there is a small and intense fishing community with great characters and traditions and I am determined, during my time in the House, to ensure that it goes from strength to strength. I therefore want to use my speech to set out the challenges for the fishermen in my constituency.
Two principal and related aspects are the levels of stocks, as other hon. Members have said, and the extent to which fishing quotas can be flexible about stocks to enable fishermen to catch other types of fish apart from, for example, cod. Pretty much everybody agrees that cod stocks, certainly in the mid North sea, have been falling at a dramatic rate over the last few decades, although there is some debate about the nature and location of the replenishment of cod stocks. I agree with the striking points that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made in his contribution to last year’s debate, namely that spawning grounds with immature cod must be identified and protected for the long-term future of the industry as a whole.
A move to multi-year agreements on quotas should be seriously considered. It is difficult for any business to try to plan on a one-year basis, but it is especially difficult for sole traders such as fishermen. I do not believe that data and evidence for future fish stocks are so volatile and unreliable that a multi-year agreement could not be negotiated. A three-year rolling agreement on quotas, even it were to be reviewed on an annual basis, would make it easier for fishermen to plan.
I think that the fall in cod stocks has been caused not by overfishing but by long-term environmental pressures. The North sea appears to be getting warmer, and cod stocks find colder waters more conducive. The supply of plankton on which they feed is also moving north, largely because of the need to find cooler waters. There seems to be evidence that cod stocks are moving north largely because of the environment. That is positive news for Scottish fishermen but provides greater challenges for those on the north-east English coast who make their living from cod.
It would be positive news for Scottish fishermen were it not for the fact that much of the EU’s effort control assumes that cod can be in the central North sea, where, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, they are in ever-decreasing numbers. If the European Commission keeps restricting effort in relation to other species because of that perhaps natural phenomenon, it will be bad news for everybody.
I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will refer to diversification and fishing of stocks other than cod, which will be important for north-east English fishermen over the next few years.
The move to colder climates is seeing cod replaced by more diverse types of fish. Fishermen in my patch tell me that there is a massive supply of shellfish, of which they could catch a much larger amount than they are allowed at present. That could provide a decent living for them without comprising the long-term sustainability of the stock. I hope that the Minister will push for better shellfish quotas in negotiations with the EU, and I was pleased by his opening remarks in the debate.
Even more exotic fish are being spotted in my area. Off the north-east coast, there is a growing supply of non-traditional fish species such as tope, sea bass, pollock, brill and turbot. A number of Mediterranean swordfish have even been caught off Hartlepool in the past 12 months. Such developments provide a significant opportunity for diversification away from traditional cod fishing towards other stocks, which could provide local fishermen with an alternative income stream with higher margins.
It is vital to seek alternatives and opportunities for diversification in the industry. I am keen for the Government to endorse and support enthusiastically the development of recreational charter angling. Over the past 10 years, the Hartlepool marina has become one of the leading centres of maritime excellence in the north of England. It is a great place from which to explore not only the north-east coast but the tourist delights of Northumberland, Durham and York. I am keen to extend that success to the traditional Headland fishing community.
Providing the means of diversification would be a good way of securing the future of the industry in the town. The recreational charter angling sector provides a great opportunity for communities such as the Headland, and could be part of a co-ordinated tourist and visitor package for Hartlepool. I hope that the Minister will signal his support for providing investment to enable that opportunity to be realised. Will he also expand on his opening remarks about a new strategy for diversification in the new year?
In the debate last year, the Minister mentioned, as I did, that the new EU grant scheme for fisheries, under negotiation in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, would from 2007 include powers to grant aid for diversification in the fishing industry. What progress has been made on that in the past 12 months? Will money be available to my constituents?
Fishermen in my patch are also concerned about illegal fishing, both by organised criminals and foreign countries. Boats from foreign countries are entering our waters and fishing blatantly, often running up a British flag, which causes a great deal of anger among local fishermen. There is a perception among my constituents that our regulatory regime is complied with by British boats in a strong and robust manner, but that other countries are perhaps not so diligent. Will the Minister outline in his response what action he plans to take to ensure that a level playing field is refereed consistently, so that British fishermen are not unduly penalised by such illegal practices?
Fishermen have also expressed concern to me about the rise of organised gangs operating in the north-east fishing industry. I do not have a great deal of information about that—there is an awful lot of rumour and conjecture about it at the moment—but I am worried that exploitation of workers in the fishing industry might be taking place in the north-east, despite the remarkable efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) over the past couple of years. What steps are being taken to ensure that illegal activity that is compromising the livelihoods of honest fishermen and exploiting vulnerable workers is identified and stopped?
I passionately believe that the future of the fishing industry should be based on effective partnerships of, and consultation with, all relevant stakeholders, particularly fishermen. Therefore, I would like to see much greater involvement and consultation carried out between fishermen working in the industry and the body charged with regulating the industry in my area, the North Eastern sea fisheries committee. I am concerned that fishermen in my area have told me that they are not being consulted when changes to regulations and byelaws are being proposed.
For example, nothing is put in the local press and the committee does not provide a great deal of information, as I found for myself today. I went on the committee’s website today, seeking the amendment that concerned some fishermen in my patch—byelaw XXII, concerning the permit to fish for and sell lobster, crab, velvet crab and whelk. However, the website said that it could not be found. That does not exactly inspire confidence that full engagement with stakeholders is being offered and undertaken.
It is not right for changes to regulations and byelaws that will have effects on the livelihoods of fishermen to be merely posted to a regional, as opposed to a local, newspaper, or for public meetings to be held in Scarborough, Whitby or Bridlington, rather than further north up the coast. I ask the Minister to help ensure that policy making and decisions carried out at a local level with regard to fisheries can be conducted in full engagement with those who make their living from the sea, to allow them to play their part and to ensure that fishing in Hartlepool, after some 800 years, has an optimistic future.
I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and other hon. Members who have expressed their admiration for the bravery of fishermen who endure the perils of the sea in order to feed the nation.
I rise with a degree of diffidence; looking round the House I see hon. Members on both sides who will know a great deal more about the subject than me, and from different perspectives. Until 18 months ago, when I had the honour of being elected for Torridge and West Devon, my knowledge of fish was probably confined to what happened after it reached the plate.
The House generally is not as full as it ought to be when such an important subject is being discussed.
Over the last 18 months, I have had the pleasure of corresponding with the Minister and I am grateful for the invariable courtesy and general promptness—not always—of his replies to me. He will know that, in Torridge, I represent a fishing industry largely concerned with fishing coastal waters and, casting around to help my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) to find some gloom to put to the Minister, I find that it has endured a number of problems in the last year and a half. I cannot present the picture of a garden of Eden that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who is no longer in his place, produced earlier.
I am certainly not going to pretend to the Minister that I rise to convey to him a picture of unrelieved gloom. He will know that some profound concerns and anxieties have been expressed to me, and through me to him, about the situation in the Bristol channel and the coastal fishery there.
I want to speak first not about the European Union—although I confess to a considerable degree of reservation about the effect of its policy upon our national fisheries—but about domestic measures that this Minister and the Government have imposed or are proposing to impose upon the fishermen whom I represent. Two of the major fish stocks providing revenue to the fishermen I represent are ray and bass. I wish to speak specifically about measures applied to those species by this Government.
When I visited A. J. Fisheries of Appledore and the fishing centre there, it was explained to me that there had been a singular error in interpretation of some of the facts, as a result of which the Government appear to be about to apply, or have already applied, a maximum landing length for skate and ray. I know that there has been considerable concern about the depleted stocks of skate and ray in the North sea and that there has been a Greenpeace campaign in relation to skate—which, I should add, impacted very severely on many fishermen around the country—but I am told that that was based to some extent on a misunderstanding, and I will be grateful if the Minister provides clarification on that.
The type of ray that is abundant in the North sea is the common skate. I have brought into the Chamber an illustrative aid to show the Minister—
Order. Visual aids are discouraged in the Chamber, not least because they make it very difficult for the Official Report, whose staff have to endeavour to explain our proceedings with words rather than pictures.
They are rather simple illustrations, but I shall have to attempt to describe them, instead of showing them to the Minister. The common skate is the species that I understand to be at risk; that is the skate that is abundant in the North sea. However, there is a fundamental difference between the common skate and the thornback ray and the spotted ray, which are both native to the Bristol channel. Those types of ray are the source of the greatest catch for fisherman in the north Devon and Torridge fisheries whose fishermen I represent.
I am informed that there is no shortage of thornback ray or spotted ray, but the proposal is for the Minister to apply an 85 cm maximum landing length, and that will cause a major problem for the fisheries in my constituency. I am told that—I apologise in advance, as I may use inaccurate terminology—current trawlers tend to wing the ray while they are still at sea. Their fishermen will prepare it, bring it back and land it already winged because that is the economical way of doing it. The Minister’s new rule will require them to land the ray whole. That will lead to all kinds of changes to the manner in which they process the ray: they will no longer be able to do what I have described on board so they will have to find space and facilities to do it onshore. It will also add to the economic cost of processing ray. Indeed, I am told that it is likely to add 25 per cent. to the cost, which is enough to turn their current profit into a loss.
Landing whole and gutted ray severely increases the costs for vessels and processors. The proposal would force the purchase of a new configuration of storage containers for vessels, and by implication because of the size of the rays, fewer could be stored in the same space. Extra staff would be needed onshore for winging and transporting the rays, and extra storage space would be needed in the cold store.
The real concern of the fisherman I represent, which I hope that the Minister will accept, is that it is not suggested that the same problem exists for the species native to the Bristol channel as exists in the North sea for skate. I would be grateful if the Minister could either provide clarification today on that point, or produce evidence to suggest that that interpretation of the facts is wrong if he thinks that that is the case.
There is another problem, which applies not only to the fishing of ray in the Bristol channel but to the fishing of bass. These domestic measures apply only to British fishermen. As I understand it, they are intended to be conservation measures applicable to the 12-mile limit, but the fact is that every day in the Bristol channel, foreign vessels with greater capacity than any of the smaller trawlers and fishing vessels in the North Devon fleet fish right up to the six-mile limit. I have written to the Minister about this issue, so he may be aware of it—I know that he questions some of the evidence—but there is no doubt that huge vessels are operating there. I point out for the benefit of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), in particular, that I have evidence that a Belgian beamer-turned otter trawler with an 883 kW engine is fishing, by historic right, up to six miles off the coast of Wales—and of the south-west—and is landing some 600 boxes of fish at a time, largely, as I understand it, into Welsh ports.
What is the point of telling British fishermen that they cannot land ray under 85 cm if a Belgian trawler of that size and capacity is able to cruise along the six-mile limit hoovering up ray of any size and land them in a British port? It is obvious why the fishermen of north Devon and Torridge are saying to me, “What are our Government trying to do? They are tying our hands behind our backs and doing precious little to stop foreign vessels from hoovering up fish right on the six-mile limit.” Moreover and as the Minister has said several times today, fish respect neither international boundaries nor six-mile limits. A shoal 100 yd inside the six-mile limit can be the same shoal that the Belgian trawler is hoovering up a few yards outside that limit.
One can understand the sense of grievance and injustice that hard-pressed fishermen in Torridge and north Devon express to me when they see that phenomenon daily, weekly, monthly, annually, without apparent action from the Government. That is the situation regarding ray—a species that is in abundance in the Bristol channel and is not threatened. This maximum landing length has been applied to it because of a mistake of identification; the truth is that another species—skate—in the North sea is threatened and depleted.
I point out with considerable diffidence, knowing that some experienced anglers are here today representing angling interests, that the same point applies to bass. The angling lobby has applied a great deal of pressure regarding bass landing sizes. However, bass is another staple of the north Devon fishing industry, and once again the Government have chosen to impose a maximum landing size. If I am not mistaken, the Minister has decided on a 40 cm maximum landing size. Why has he chosen that limit? Just a few weeks ago, the Welsh Assembly Minister with responsibility for such matters decided on a different limit—a 37.5 cm maximum landing size. How can the science in Wales be so different from that in England? The waters that the fishermen whom I represent are fishing are precisely the same ones as Welsh fishermen are fishing. This situation will doubtless cause some resentment and tension between Welsh and Devonshire fishermen, although they are working together to resolve the problem. If the limit is 40 cm in England and 37.5 cm in Wales, the risk is that Welsh fishermen—
With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, both he and the hon. Gentleman are wrong. The optimum spawning size for bass is 42 cm. If we are serious about protecting bass stocks, both Administrations have to move toward a 45 cm limit. Members in all parts of the House have to have the guts to stand up for the measure that is right for the environment.
I knew that it would not be long before the hon. Gentleman upbraided me, although I was only tentatively posing questions on behalf of a group of commercial fishermen in my constituency who feel strongly and passionately about the point, and who do not agree with him.
A more fundamental problem than the adult breeding size of bass is the change made in the minimum landing size by the Minister. He might have changed the size of the mesh to allow breeding bass to escape. Instead, increasing the minimum landing size simply increases the number of bass that are discarded.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because that is the point that I was about to make. In relation to both ray and bass, that decision will cause a major discard problem. As I understand the Minister’s letter of 30 November, the research into the ability of ray to withstand discards—I believe that the same is true of bass—is negligible, although a project is under way at present. Why is it that the Government have imposed those maximum landing sizes and lengths without researching properly whether the fish will survive the inevitable discards that will result?
The hon. Gentleman is to be hugely congratulated on the detail of his speech, but a significant event has occurred. He has tempted the first policy out of the Conservative Front Bencher in this debate. We know nothing about individual transferable quotas, but we seem to have absolute clarity on the minimum landing size of bass.
I knew that I would regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman. All I can say is, “Hooray.” I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) had to say.
The problem of discrimination between British fishermen, such as the Devonshire fishermen whom I represent, and those operating foreign vessels is again brought into stark and acute relief by that rule. The 40 cm rule does not of course apply to the Belgian and French trawlers that are busy fishing for bass in the Bristol channel. Indeed, I am told that 75 per cent. of the bass catch is taken by French vessels—although the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) may correct me. However, those French vessels will not be subject to the minimum landing size rule. Given that the fishery that I represent has made great efforts to devise a system for maintaining its sustainability, the sense of grievance and injustice is plain when one talks with the fishermen. They see the French and Belgian trawlers, which have a much greater capacity than their vessels, hoovering up fish and landing 600 boxes a time in Welsh ports. Those boxes are full of bass and ray. What will my fishermen think of a Government who impose that impediment on them? With regret, I have to say that there has been some talk of judicial review of the 40 cm limit. I urge the Minister to take cognisance of the very real concern that the Government’s rules are damaging the fishery that I represent.
I apologise for intervening on the hon. Gentleman again, and I am impressed by the manner in which he is making his speech. However, I am at a loss to understand what he is driving at. He seems to be saying that the French and Belgians are destroying UK bass stocks, so we should join in as well. What does he want to achieve?
If we are to have the limits, we must persuade the EU that they should be applied fairly across the board. What is the point of those limits six to 12 miles from our coast? In the Bristol channel, Devonshire fishermen have already established no-take and closed zones. They have made enormous strides towards making the fishery there sustainable, and they have changed their tackle and upgraded their gear so that juvenile fish can escape. However, the Belgians and French are hoovering up vastly greater quantities of fish, so why are the Government applying a fetter to our industry before they have succeeded in applying it to other countries?
I do not accept that bass stocks in the Bristol channel are being devastated. They remain abundant, and I am not aware of any major problem.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has long fought for angling interests in the House, but it is not accepted that taking bass of between 36 and 40 cm in size necessarily places Bristol channel stocks at substantial risk. What is wrong is to fetter our industry when European vessels can cruise along the six-mile limit and simply vacuum bass and ray into their holds.
The overall effect of the rules imposed by the Government is unfair to British fishermen. They punish an industry that is struggling, and whose members feel that their voice is not heard, even though they have adapted to challenging conditions. The rules will turn even the most modern business from profit to loss. I hope that the Minister will reassure the fishermen in my area that their voice is being heard, and that the Department will work with them to determine the best policy going forward.
The hon. Member for Reading, West has characterised the people whom I represent as some sort of depredating vandals of the sea, but I repeat that I will not accept that. Those men and women have lived their lives by the sea: they have protected their coastline and taken measures to ensure that fish stocks survive, because those stocks are their livelihood, both now and in the years to come.
I hope that the Minister will pay heed to what my fishermen are urging. I hope that he will listen to their concerns and help them to devise a way forward so that their struggling industry can survive and prosper.
It was interesting to hear the opening statement of the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) in which he demanded stronger leadership in a direction yet to be decided by the Conservative party—[Laughter.] It is an interesting position, but I hope that the review will not lead to the abandonment of the previous policy of withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, which I, though not Conservative Front Benchers, supported.
I do not want to start too sycophantically by deferring to the Minister, but I reject the impression created by Conservative Members that we are not getting strong leadership—we are. The Minister is giving the industry strong leadership and has done well in the fight for British interests. We are now gathered together in our annual pressure group campaign to put lead in the Minister’s pencil and send him off to Brussels armed to fight for Britain, and I am sure that he will.
I want to make two points about the fight to improve Britain’s position in the CFP. It is a disadvantageous position and it is unrelenting, so we have to keep up the pressure. I hope that the Minister’s new responsibilities—he is rapidly rising in the hierarchy—will not lead to him take his eye off the ball. We need his effort, his energy and his support for the industry. I note that he ended his speech with a Christmas message of good cheer, which Fishing News echoed, so it must be true that things are going well. However, I hope that that will not lead to complacency, because there is a battle to be fought at the Council over the various proposals that are being made.
The industry is doing well because prices are up and the system of registration by buyers and sellers has caused black fish landings to fall rapidly, which has been very beneficial and done the industry good. As I say, though, battles are still to be fought on this front. It has been a better year in the North sea.
The hon. Gentleman, who is a very experienced Member, will understand that the individual viability of a boat depends certainly on the total income coming to the industry, but also on the number of boats. It is factually true that if we reduce the fishing industry to one boat, it would be an extremely prosperous one.
I was about to make exactly that point. I am sorry to have given way to the hon. Gentleman at this stage, as I was hoping to provoke him into an intervention later on. I shall now withdraw that provocation.
It is an improving situation for a highly attenuated industry, which we need to rebuild, but just because things are improving I do not resile in any way from my position on the common fisheries policy. I am sorry if the Conservative party is resiling from it and I am sure that the SNP will not. We would be better off controlling our own destinies. The CFP is, frankly, no policy with which to handle the situation. It produces the crazy anomalies that the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) mentioned in respect of their effect on the fishermen of north Devon, and it proposes blanket measures on the basis that one measure covers any situation when it does not.
Quotas are an implicit part of the CFP and they lead automatically to discards. Discards increase as quotas fall. It is not a sensible way of handling fishing policy for the whole of the EU waters. It inevitably leads to more by-catching. It leads to blanket measures such as the cod recovery programme, with its associated cuts, and to cuts in catches for other species associated with cod.
I start with cod because it has become almost a symbol for what the Commission wants to do to fishing—control it. The cod recovery programme is heavily backed by the Commission’s environmental department, which has put its oar in and made the programme totally inflexible. In my view, it is totally inadequate.
The cod recovery programme needs revision and change. The EU-Norway talks, which generally determine what will happen at EU Council meetings, predicted a 14 per cent. cut. I see in Fishing News—so it must be true—that the Commission is adhering to its hard line on a 25 per cent. cut, which would be disastrous. I hope that the Minister will fight the good fight and not be moved by all the environmentalists who are lamenting in advance the death of cod, when that is not on the agenda. Those environmental panics are damaging to sound, continuous, steady judgment in the fishing industry. I also hope that he will not be moved by European pressures, because Europe tends to respond to such environmental panics.
I am getting fed up of the jokes: when I go to restaurants, I am told, “You don’t want any cod, do you? You cod killer!” It has just gone too far. Cod is not in danger of extinction. I do not know what the future will be, but neither does the Commission. The situation is very different in the North sea from that in the Irish sea, which tells me that common measures are not a good idea. I do not know whether cod stocks will recover. We do not know how much of the decline in cod stocks is due to global warming and the stocks moving further north because the whole sustaining environmental support mechanism is not responding well to global warming. As the waters warm, there is less sustenance for the cod. Is that the case, or is it not the case? I do not know, but the Commission does not know either.
If the decline is due to global warming, the cod will not come back, and therefore we can increase fishing quotas for haddock and put more pressure on the other stocks. We arrive at such conclusions by a very inadequate method. As the Minister pointed out, ICES advice is annual. If we had accepted that advice each year for the past five years, we would have closed down the entire east coast fishing industry and stopped cod fishing altogether. That is no basis for effective management.
We must ask what the Commission means by the footnote suggestion that cod should be a by-catch only species. What does that mean? What would be the consequences? Is it a serious proposal, or is it not? I ask because there are not many targeted cod fisheries left, but one of them is off the Yorkshire coast. That targeted cod fishery is small but important to those people who are involved in taking the cod. We need to know what the Commission is proposing by the mention of a by-catch only species. It is seems clear that the cod recovery programme in 2002 was conceived in haste and is unrealistic. It assumes that nothing will change unless there is an annual increase rate and spawning stock recovery, which is not happening. Without that annual increase, further reductions are triggered. It is based on a panic attitude in Europe—again, in ignorance of whether or not global warming plays a part.
Evidence from Greenland—where there has been a substantial fall in cod stocks, but where they are now recovering—shows that this could be a cyclical thing. The way in which stocks are recovering indicates that cod, being a fecund fish, recovers fast once the recovery begins. That could happen in the North sea. Indeed, evidence shows that it is already beginning in the North sea. That is more reason to oppose the Commission’s proposal. Incidentally, with Greenland stocks, it is more reason for the Government to fight to retain our 2.9 per cent. share. Although small, that share of east Atlantic cod is crucial to the Humberside fishing industry, and it is guaranteed by the European economic area agreement. I am sure that the Minister will fight to retain it.
Given the state of doubt about the argument, I welcome the North sea regional advisory council’s symposium, which is proposed for next year. The Commission itself should be holding that symposium. It will bring together world experts to tell us what the situation is and what the prospects for cod are. Until then, we do not have a real, scientific, intellectually credible basis for our judgments. In default of that and with the evidence from the North sea, I hope that the Minister will fight the proposals made in July for a 25 per cent. cut to the total allowable catch for cod and cuts in associated species, to which Fishing News tells us that the Commission is sticking. That is the position that should be taken, as the regional advisory councils wanted. He should demand a roll-over in relation to cod.
As the Minister does that, I hope that he will try to end the perverse incentive in relation to the days at sea limitation. A reduction in that context will accompany the 25 per cent. reduction. The limitation means that those using bigger meshes, which are used for catching cod and haddock, are penalised. Those using bigger meshes should get more days at sea, but in fact more days at sea are given to those using meshes between 70 and 99 mm. That is crazy, because those small meshes catch more immature cod and haddock and therefore damage the stock. Why should those using smaller meshes have the incentive of more days at sea than those using larger meshes? It seems ridiculous. It is certainly anomalous.
The Commission proposes that quotas should be slashed in relation to other stocks, when the scientific advice is unclear or absent and when the TAC has not been fully caught by the nation state. I am talking about dabs, flounder, turbot and, in particular, North sea whiting, which is crucial to our industry in Yorkshire and Humberside. All of them are small catches, but their value to the ports involved is large. Why should quotas for those species be cut in the way that the Commission proposes? That is a perverse incentive to catch 100 per cent. of a small quota on the grounds that, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” The quota should be rolled over in the same way as it is for other stock. I hope that the Minister will resist those proposals for cuts, particularly the whiting cuts. Whiting seems to be in abundance in the southern North sea and it is becoming very important. I hope that he will also try to ensure that the by catches—particularly in edible stocks—from industrial fishing, which are at a low ebb because of the eel and pout difficulties, will be transferred to our edible catch quotas so that they can be caught and eaten, instead of being destroyed.
The east coast industry has compensated for the decline of white fish by turning to lobsters and shellfish. We have been having problems with French vessels off Flamborough Head. I do not propose that the Minister should send a gunboat—much as I would love him to. The NFFO has reached an agreement with 10 of the French fishermen that that friction will be ended, but two of the 10 vessels, which are run by skippers who were described to me by east coast fishermen as “nutters”, are not abiding by the agreement that their eight colleagues have reached. I hope that fishery protection, which usually stays clear of these arguments, can be used when such depredation is being carried out by maverick fishermen who are not part of the agreement. I make that point for the east coast.
Let me make a few further points, having withdrawn the provocation to cause my friend, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), to intervene. Why have the Government dropped decommissioning? It is still necessary, and having spent £226 million on it, this seems a daft time to claim that it is not a good use of public money. The Minister and the Department have indicated that the money is being put back into fishing. In many cases it is, but decommissioning extinguishes both a vessel and a licence. If a fisherman who is decommissioning holds further licences and puts money into them, it is no great problem, because the number of vessels fishing and the number of licences is being diminished. Opportunities for other fishermen are created by decommissioning, so I fail to see why we have stopped it. If the problem is not the money that is available due to the Department’s problems with agricultural payments, what is the real problem?
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) talked about wind farms. They give rise to not only a problem regarding compensation, but problems with respect to access and proximity. The exclusion areas demanded around wind farms are the same as those that are deemed appropriate for oil rigs. However, oil rigs are manned platforms—they support a working population—while wind farms are very different. If vessels were prepared to do so, they could achieve close access. Wind farms cover huge areas, so the spaces in the farms could be made available for vessels to access. I hope that the Minister will argue against the different view that the Department of Trade and Industry takes on this point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood talked about the redevelopment of the industry and the European finance that is available. I would make the same point. In Grimsby, we are proposing to redevelop the industry on the Celsius site on the fish dock, which would leave other land available for a mass property redevelopment of the dock area. I think that that will need an element of European or Government funding.
I pay tribute to the Department for the support it has given the regional advisory councils. The RACs are now recognised European institutions, so they get European funding, although it is fairly minimal. The RACs are becoming—they have the potential to be even better—a source of thoughtful, considered and developed advice and expertise for the industry. They thus need a kind of secretariat and research ability so that they can further provide that advice. We are gradually developing—the Minister has done a lot to move us in this direction, so congratulations to him—an industry that listens to advice more than it did, as opposed to an angry crowd of self-employed fishermen who are up in arms against the Government and feeling a sense of grievance. Fishermen are seeing the virtues of organisation and arguments that are based on research and evidence. The RACs represent a fundamental way in which that can be provided. I am grateful for the support that they have been given, but ask that it be strengthened so that they can become the agencies for the education and consolidation of the industry that we all want them to be.
I have been participating in the annual fisheries debates for some 20 years. The House will be distressed to know that this could be my last such contribution, as duty may call elsewhere. I can see how distraught Santa Claus—the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare—is. The Conservatives will not want to hear this, because they have no great prospects, but there is to be an election in Scotland next May, and certain indications of public opinion suggest that there is a reasonable prospect, if the Scottish people so wish, of my being called to the post of First Minister for Scotland. But do not worry: in that position, if I accede to it, I shall cast an eye over the fisheries debate and look favourably on the progress of the Minister and other former colleagues.
It has been my pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for all of those 20 years—I believe that he has spoken in every one of the debates. [Hon. Members: “Same speech.”] That is not entirely correct. The odd paragraph changes from year to year. I say as kindly as I can to the Conservative Front-Bench team that, in my humble opinion, the hon. Gentleman has forgotten more about fishing than they have ever learned. Perhaps the Conservatives should invite the hon. Gentleman on to the review that is to produce their policies. I think that the new Conservative Member, the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox), who made a detailed speech—the one that settled the bass issue—should be drafted on to that review immediately, because whatever else may be said about him, his grasp of the detail of the industry is impressive after so short a period.
No one disputes the knowledge and expertise in the industry of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. The fact that I had the pleasure of serving as his deputy—his assistant-chairman—of the all-party fisheries group for some of his 15 years as chair has nothing to do with the praise that I am lavishing upon him.
In those 20 years, I have come to understand the importance of endangered species. I refer of course to Conservative MPs representing fishing constituencies. In the early years of these debates, the Government Benches—the Conservatives were in government then—were crowded with MPs representing points all round the coast. All of them were deeply frustrated with their Government’s policy, but they were there, none the less. Nowadays, with the exception of the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who always attends fisheries debates, Conservative MPs with fishing interests are few and far between. They have been replaced by some Liberals on the south and south-west coast of England and replaced almost in their entirety in Scotland. It is a particular regret that the one Conservative Member who represents a fishing constituency in Scotland could not attend the debate today.
Another endangered species is, of course, Scottish Labour MPs who represent fishing constituencies. I remember when the redoubtable Norman Godman used to speak in these debates with the same frequency as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and I did. Today, his successor as an MP, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), put in a cursory appearance in the early part of the debate, but now he has, no doubt, gone to perform his duties as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. It is a matter of regret that no Labour Back-Bench Member representing a Scottish constituency has chosen to attend this fisheries debate, because fishing is an industry that should concern us all.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is a pity that Scottish Labour MPs are not present, but earlier he said that in the unlikely event of his being elected to the Scottish Parliament next May, he would not attend debates in this House to speak on behalf of his constituents. Is he saying that he will abandon his constituents in Banff and Buchan and not represent them in this House?
No, I think that I shall follow the example of the former hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, Mr. Jim Wallace, who managed to combine his duties as Deputy First Minister for Scotland with his duties as an MP. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not suggest that his hon. Friend neglected his duties to his constituents. That inspiring example will be the one that I follow when I am First Minister for Scotland. Incidentally, “unlikely” was the hon. Gentleman’s word, not mine. The polls speak for themselves on the contrast between the Scottish National party and the Liberal party in Scotland: not only does the SNP have three times the support that the Liberals have, but 10 times as many people would like to see me as First Minister as would like the Liberal candidate to have the post. Perhaps Jim Wallace should be brought back to provide more serious opposition to the Scottish National party.
I assure the hon. Lady that I shall not be tempted again by the Liberals in the course of the debate.
I wish to inform Santa—the Minister, who wished us all a happy Christmas—of the reality of what faces our fishing industry. Rather than rely on one headline in Fishing News—the Minister should remember the Speaker’s strictures on visual aids—I shall rely on the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation brief for this debate. I know that the Minister has enormous respect for the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, so he will want to listen to what it said about the industry’s current position. Its brief begins:
“The long shadow of the Cod Recovery Plan hangs over the two principal sectors of the Scottish fishing industry—the prawn or nephrops fleet and the white fish fleet.”
It argues that
“The European Commission’s stated intention over the past 2 years…to ‘front load’ the fishing opportunity decision making process”
has been abandoned by the Commission over this summer. It goes on to say:
“The difference this year has been the publication in July of a policy statement laying down the principles of stock management to be applied for 2007. It was from this that the intention of a 25 per cent. cut in TAC and Effort (days at sea) in cod and related fisheries first appeared. This should have led to a reasoned debate with stakeholders and a sensible, measured set of first proposals. Instead and most disappointingly, the Commission’s first proposals issued last week represented an extreme position. This militates strongly against the stated intention, requiring the Scottish to fight for viability, instead of engaging in a proper debate about the wholly sustainable fisheries that are within our grasp.”
That is far from the rose-tinted picture that the Minister chose to present. The fishermen make the same point that was so ably made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby: if we set out with an extreme position, the Minister can go to the December Fisheries Council claiming an enormous success in having managed to reduce the impact of certain fishing effort cuts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that by setting out an extreme position that will obviously be cut down at the Council, the Minister causes unnecessary worry to many fishermen around our coast, who, every Christmas, have the worry hanging over them of whether there will be an industry by the new year?
The point is well made. During the 20 years in which I have participated in such debates, all of us, regardless of party, have argued for a longer period of decision making, so that there is no December crunch. I have heard that argued from the Dispatch Box, and I have heard declarations to that effect from European Fisheries Commissioners, but the change never seems to happen. We always end up with the December crunch, which leaves all fishermen battling for the viability of their industry.
My hon. Friend’s intervention leads me on to a point that has been made by hon. Members of all parties about the debt that we owe to fishing communities and the industry. This year, the losses of men and boats are particularly felt in Scotland as a result of the loss of the Meridian. That has had a profound impact on the fishing community of Fife, which, as the Minister knows, is a close-knit, and now relatively small, fishing community. By the end of the debate, I hope that the Minister can update us on the progress of the search and rescue mission that is under way as we speak, but none of us should forget the debt that we owe the industry. That is why every Member representing a fishing community should be proud to be a fishing MP, and to represent a part of the coastline.
I want to make three points to the Minister, the first of which relates to the impact of climate change on what is happening to the cod species. On many occasions, the Minister has tried to typify my contributions on the subject as a “sod the cod” approach, but I have never advocated that approach and never will. My point, and the point made by many fishermen—and, increasingly, marine scientists—is that cod should not be regarded as the only species in the sea. It is not the only template by which to judge our entire fisheries policy. In a mixed fishery, the obvious problem with pursuing a cod recovery plan as the central plank of fisheries policy is the fact that the related species are also affected by the reduction in effort. There will be a sub-optimal, less than ideal position, as regards the fishing effort applied to the species. It is a paradox that when one species is in very short supply, it affects other species in much more plentiful supply. The decline of cod in certain areas has resulted in a vast increase in other species, and an illustration that I have given before, and will give again, is that of the Fladden grounds. When I first contributed to these fishing debates, the Fladden was known as a shrimp fishery. It was an important fishery, particularly for the Fife fleet, but it was not a fishery of substantial value. Now, those grounds, off Arbroath, are one of the most lucrative fisheries for prawns—or Scottish langoustines, as we must and should call them now—in the whole of Europe. It is a vast fishery. The decline of cod, which predates on prawns and nephrops—langoustines—has resulted in a substantial expansion of its prey, which have become the dominant species.
Yes, indeed, that is an excellent point. The Minister will argue, as would the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, that progressive negotiations have increased the prawn quota. However, it has been increased from a low as a result of the reduction in effort in the cod recovery plan and the fact that cod is the species that we measure. We have missed opportunities in the nephrops fishery, despite those hard-won increases. There is a similar story on haddock. Those who argue that over-fishing is the most important reason for the decline in cod stocks have never been able to answer an obvious question. If it is just a question of over-fishing why, in a mixed fishery, is the haddock stock at a 30-year high and the cod stock at an all-time low? If it was merely a question of fishing effort, how could those two phenomena co-exist? There has never been a satisfactory explanation.
A reasonable answer has emerged to explain why, in some parts of the North sea, particularly the southern part, as several hon. Members have said, cod is in short supply. The academic research was published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs itself. The marine climate change impact partnership report is of fundamental importance, and it is outrageous that it should not yet have had an impact on decision making on cod. If, indeed, some parts of the North sea are devoid of cod as a result of climate change, no amount of instruction from the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare or the European Commission will persuade the cod to reoccupy those areas if they do not want to do so. We cannot regulate the cod. They will move according to their food supply.
That may not be the full story, and other factors may need to be taken into consideration. Given the Minister’s concern for the environment, and the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for tackling the impact of climate change, it is difficult to understand why they do not accept that that is part of the reason or why they have failed to assimilate into the cod recovery plan efforts to develop and progress a mixed fishery. Those are serious matters, and they deserve to be taken seriously.
I was in the Scottish Enterprise building on Tuesday, and I was allowed to watch Scottish questions from afar. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) asked an entirely reasonable question about the matter. The Secretary of State for Scotland replied:
“I am aware of the review of the cod recovery plan”.—[Official Report, 12 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 704.]
The rest of his reply was tirade—an hysterical rant—against the Scottish National party. In fairness, the Minister could not be accused of hysterical ranting. Indeed, he usually underplays his rants. The Secretary of State for Scotland, it must be said, is an unconvincing attack dog, and he should take lessons from the Home Secretary. Denis Healey said that being savaged by Geoffrey Howe was
“like being savaged by a dead sheep.”—[Official Report, 14 June 1978; Vol. 951, c. 1027.]
Being attacked by the Secretary of State for Scotland is like being savaged by Larry the Lamb, and he should move on and do something to which he is better suited.
What is the perception of those exchanges among our fishermen and fishing community? We are entitled to engage in political debate and banter—and I am as enthusiastic about doing so as anyone in the Chamber—but we must look at the underlying issue when we attack our opponents. I received a letter this morning from Mr. Tom Hay, the chairman of the Fishermen’s Association Ltd. Like me, he saw Scottish questions on television on Tuesday. He writes:
“I watched with great interest on Sky Television yesterday, as questions were put to the British Government in the House of Commons on Scottish affairs.
Mike Weir from the Scottish National Party, asked a reasonable well measured question, to try and fend off another catastrophic situation from arising at the forthcoming Fisheries Council meeting in Brussels, when the Commission is expected to propose a further…cut in effort by the Scottish white fish fleet to justify their fictitious claims of a desperate crisis.
Mike Weir’s question was responded to in a most unstatesman-like manner by that impudent upstart of a Scottish Secretary called Douglas Alexander, who represents a Government which evidently has no interest in the Scottish fishing industry, and apparently intends to destroy the last vestiges of the Scottish white fish fleet.”
Hon. Members, right hon. Members, even Scottish Secretaries should just occasionally attempt to answer the question and engage in the issue, as well as pursuing their own political points. In many of our debates, from various quarters of the House, and again by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, the question of the common fisheries policy has been raised. Those who argue, as an experienced Conservative—the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen)—did earlier, that the only thing wrong with the common fisheries policy was discards, and if that could be settled, the common fisheries policy might be satisfactory, misunderstand the basis of the problem.
The problem with the CFP is the common resource ownership and whether it is possible to run a satisfactory policy for a natural resource—a renewable resource—given common ownership. The underlying difficulty is clear, and was reflected in a number of the speeches made. If our fishermen believe that they, and they alone, are pursuing conservation measures effectively, but that other fishermen from other fleets are not pursuing those conservation measures, it is not just a question of adding to the problem. It is a question of undermining the incentive to conserve in the first place.
If conservation is to be effected so that the Spanish, the Dutch or any other fleet can benefit, the impact not just on our fishing fleet, but on the desire to conserve is fundamentally undermined. That is why, in principle, ownership—single national control—is somewhat more efficacious as a policy than the common fisheries policy will ever be. We need to understand the nature of the problem as we engage in these debates.
The hon. Gentleman did not interpret my remarks entirely accurately. However, what would he do if he discovered that the Minister’s comments were correct, and that it would be impossible for the Scottish National party, led by him as First Minister, to withdraw from the CFP? Would he stay within Europe or within the CFP?
I would have to be a little more than First Minister for a devolved Scotland to engage in that. I would have to be Prime Minister of an independent Scotland. I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the point. In fact, I was not criticising him. I was speaking about one of his Back Benchers, who seemed to be convinced by the CFP.
In many debates over the past few years, the Conservative party had a certainty on the issue. That certainty seems to have disappeared entirely. When Scotland becomes independent, we shall be within the European Union. We will inherit the same treaty obligations as this Government and previous Governments have signed. We will inherit the ones that we like, and we will inherit the ones that we dislike. That position has been confirmed by Lord Mackenzie-Stuart—in work commissioned by the Conservative party, incidentally. It has been confirmed by Emil Noel and Maître De Roux—virtually every major authority on EU legislation.
The question is whether we can negotiate to reassert natural control in terms of the fisheries policy of the European Union. First, is that desirable? I say it is. The Conservatives used to say it is. They are currently in limbo. Secondly, can it be done? We would have to establish whether there was support from other Europeans for such a policy. I therefore turn to the proceedings of the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament of 11 January 2005—a Committee across the member states, which overwhelmingly passed an amendment to remove exclusive competence over fisheries from the putative European constitution, indicating a substantial measure—a wave—of dissatisfaction with the results and consequences of the common fisheries policy across the European Union.
Shamefully, this Government have never chosen to make fisheries a priority so that we could base our negotiations on such a position; indeed, no British Government have done so. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) the former Conservative leader who now speaks so eloquently from the Back Benches, made that point well during the election campaign, assuring us that if he became Prime Minister, he would be prepared to veto the European constitution on the basis that fisheries would not be an exclusive competence. I hope that once the Conservatives’ policy committee finally comes to a conclusion, similar resolve is shown by the current Conservative leader as was shown by his predecessor.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s hopes for the Conservative party and its education in these matters.
Why does the hon. Gentleman accept the legal opinion that Scotland inherits the obligations assumed by the British Government? Would not Scotland be a new member coming into the European Union, rather like Iceland or Norway, and therefore entitled to have a derogation from the common fisheries policy and to negotiate its own agreement on what the future of that policy should be in Scottish waters?
I accept the legal opinion because that is the burden of legal advice that has been received. Lord Mackenzie-Stuart said that Scotland would be in exactly the same position as the rest of the UK with regard to each other and to the rest of the European Community, as it was then. We can negotiate a position, but we will have to do so from within the European Union.
I argue that giving a priority to fishing could work wonders in terms of this policy. When I look at the fisheries policies of countries outside the EU, such as Norway, Iceland, and the Faroes, and countries inside the EU—major fishing countries such as Spain, Denmark and the Dutch—I find that in their negotiations and conduct they have accorded a priority to fishing that has never been pursued or shared by any United Kingdom Government that I have experienced. We had substantial evidence for that, which sent shockwaves through the fishing community, when the 30-year rule unveiled documents from 1970 and 1971 about negotiations on going in the then European Community. A civil servant commenting on his own Government’s policy said that in light of Britain’s wider European interests, “they”—Scottish fishermen—“are expendable.” I can assure the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that when he seeks to establish residence and full nationality in Scotland after independence so as to continue his fight for the fishing communities, he will find a Government in Scotland who will never pursue a policy of regarding fishermen or fishing communities as expendable and will seek to assert national control as the most efficacious way of running our fisheries.
The Minister is known not only for his expertise in fishing but for a range of responsibilities. I said earlier that climate change had become a preoccupation of the Government. He will have been made aware of the situation in south-west Scotland whereby Scottish langoustine caught fresh in Scottish waters are being sent to Thailand to be packaged, returned to Scotland, and then sent to Europe and to other export markets. The company concerned is a well-known, substantial company with several interests across the fishing industry. I make no comment other than that it raises important questions in terms of reconciling policy on fishing with policy on climate change. After all, that round trip generates many hundreds of tonnes of apparently unnecessary carbon. Given the Minister’s interest in these issues, and the absence of the constituency MP for that area, has he examined that issue and come to any conclusions? Does he believe that other aspects of Government policy, for example on carbon trading, will help us to a position whereby we get the maximum value added out of our fresh fishery?
The change to “langoustines” was not made simply for the sake of changing a name. When I attended the fisheries exhibition in Brussels earlier this year, the matter was explained to me in enormous detail, with marketing charts, which proved the case that operating and trading as “Scottish langoustines” gained a perceptible increase in the perceived value of the product. The product was worth more when it was described as “langoustines” instead of “prawns”. “Scottish langoustines” gave it an even higher premium in the market. That is exactly the sort of route that the industry should follow to maximise the value added element of our products.
It would be unfortunate if, in that supply chain, we had to include a trip of more than halfway round the world and back between catching and finally sending the product to its destination.
My hon. Friend makes an interestin and important point. It has always struck me as a Scottish Member who loves a bit of haddock that although cod are supposedly in danger of extinction I can go into any supermarket in London and find freezers full of cod but little haddock. Is there not a wider point to make about changing eating habits to conserve various stocks?
Yes. Several organisations in Scotland and several Scottish fishermen—Mr. John Buchan of Fairline got a prize for making the point—have been anxious to convince many of the retail and fresh fish outlets in England that haddock is a wonderful species, infinitely preferable in many ways to cod when eaten in a fish supper. I know that the Minister will want to back up those efforts, too. Haddock is a much more sustainable species and should be a preferred choice in many areas, including Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
After hearing my hon. Friend’s pleas on behalf of Scottish langoustines and Scottish haddock, may I add a plea for the Scottish monkfish? Stocks are healthy this year. Indeed, in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association is especially keen on an increase in the quota of at least 10 and perhaps even 20 per cent. on the west coast.
I agree. In last year’s debate, the Minister complimented me on providing evidence on that matter over the years. Perhaps, in the spirit of Christmas, he will repeat that, although it would upset the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Earlier, I asked about English ownership of the English industry and the importance of that. I was approached by an English fisherman who said, “Our pelagic industry is Dutch owned; much of our flatfish and roundfish industry is Dutch and Spanish owned. The French have major ownership.” He also said that, 30 years—almost to the day—after the Deputy Prime Minister declared victory in the cod war for Britain, an Icelandic company bought up the last remaining English deep-sea fishing rights. He was finding it difficult to get figures, but estimated that perhaps 20 per cent. of the English fishery remained in the hands of English companies or coastal communities.
The alarm bells rang because the position is much better in Scotland, where we own approximately 70 or 80 per cent. of the fishery. We want to maintain that. We do not want to be in a position whereby we not only lose historic rights but historic family businesses have their quotas removed. The route that the Minister appears to intend to take on individual transferable quotas would inevitably result in the concentration of the fishery in few hands. Given the respective power of much of the fisheries interests that have already swallowed up much of the English fishing entitlement, they are in a beneficial market position to accelerate swallowing up not only the rest of it but much of the Scottish fishing entitlement, too. I should like the Minister, who has always responded to my points reasonably over the years, to say that he understands that we are considering not only an industry but communities. Part of the vibrancy of the fishing industry is that its economic impact reverberates through local communities, because boats are family share-owned and companies are often locally owned. That is one of the great engines of growth in our rural communities. We have not had much of that growth in recent years, but if ownership was taken away, and if the structure was further undermined and destroyed, we would not have any at all. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that he understands that as he tries to find a way forward in his management policies.
I have spoken in these debates for 20 years, and today I have managed to mention most of the things that I have forgotten to mention in the previous 20 years. If this is my last contribution in this debate, I wish all fishing MPs well, and I certainly wish all fishing communities around the coastline well. Whatever position I am able to achieve, I will always regard myself as a fishing MP, and I believe that the interests of those communities will always be uppermost in my concerns and in my mind.
I believe that I am the only Member likely to speak in the debate who does not represent a constituency close to the sea and have fishermen as constituents. I strongly believe, however, that the voice of people who do not live by the sea should be heard. We all own the sea, whether or not we live by the side of it, and people in my inner-city constituency feel strongly about the health of the sea. Some of them have been on holiday to the Mediterranean and have seen that it has few fish left. They do not want that to happen to the seas around our island.
The question is: what do we do? I have not been involved in this debate previously, and I was not very old during the cod wars, but one thing that I do know about the cod wars is that, whichever group is claimed to have won, one group that did not win is the cod. Over the years, without a doubt, our seas have contained fewer and fewer cod.
The hon. Lady should consider the health of the Icelandic fishery, and examine not just how Iceland has handled its fishery but the formidable power that Icelandic companies have built up throughout the European food industry. Iceland has demonstrated the importance of controlling a natural resource and building an industry on the back of it. Unfortunately, no recent Government can claim that for this country.
The hon. Gentleman and I are at completely cross purposes, and I think that that illustrates well what I am saying. Whichever people won the cod wars, the cod did not win, as there are so few cod left. In the great scheme of things, we all lose out if there are no cod left.
Apart from discussing the issue of cod, I want to give a voice to those people in my inner-city constituency, particularly children, who feel strongly about fish and the possibility that this generation might be the one that eats all the fish. They fear that, when they grow up, there will be few fish left off the coast of their island. They rely on us and this generation of politicians to do something about that: to be bold and brave, to stop just talking and discussing whether people in Iceland have done better than us, and to focus instead on ensuring that we have sustainable stocks of fish around our island.
As I understand it, in the past 15 years, instead of taking the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s scientific advice on what the quota should be, we have allowed quotas 30 per cent. above the recommended level. In the past five years, ICES has recommended a zero catch for cod in the North sea, the Irish sea and the west of Scottish waters. Fisheries Councils have repeatedly ignored that advice. I have great respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who says that cod are not in danger of extinction, that he does not know whether cod stocks will recover, that global warming might have something to do with it, and that the cod might have gone north. However, nobody seems to be able to find the cod. One possibility is that we have caught them and eaten them. I am told that stocks have fallen in Greenland, so they are not hiding there. Wherever they are hiding, we do not seem to be able to catch them.
I am repeating scientific advice from the other side of the debate, which at times does not get a proper look-in in debates such as this. I hear that we have a larger number of small cod now appearing. Good; let us give them a chance to grow up before we catch them and put them in fish fingers.
When people go out to catch haddock, far too often they are catching cod as well; that is the difficulty. Although there has been a recommendation on the amount of cod to be caught, only half has been landed officially; 10 per cent. was discarded and 40 per cent. was due to unaccounted removals, whatever that means. We have been catching twice as much cod as we are supposed to and chucking the rest into the sea.
I would, and I have no problem saying that. If we had a moratorium on fishing, we could ensure that the small cod had an opportunity to grow and reproduce before the hon. Gentleman’s constituents went and caught them all and stuck them in fish fingers.
My constituents would still be there under the hon. Lady’s policies, but none of them would be engaged in the fishing industry. Would she not consider it a pity that record highs in nephrops and prawn fisheries, which are worth far more than the cod fishery, and record breeding stocks in haddock would go to waste as she destroyed an entire fishing industry because she wanted to pursue a zero cod catch? Would she not regret that in social and economic terms? Does she not think that fishing might be about communities and people as well as fish?
Of course it is, but it is also about taking responsibility for our island and for the seas around it, which we are looking after for a period and must pass on to the next generation. We must make sure that when we do, there are sufficient fish there.
People who catch scampi use small nets with small holes, which catch far too many other species, particularly cod, which are then chucked overboard, dead and dying. It used to be that one could simply catch cod with enormous ease. That is no longer so. It may be down to global warming and it may be because they are hiding round the back of Iceland, but I suspect not. I suspect it is because we have caught too many.
I am not seeking to destroy the fishing industry. I am seeking to ensure that there is a fishing industry in five, 10 or 50 years. In 50 years’ time there should still be a fishing industry, but there will not be if we carry on catching fish. Of the eight main species of fish that we catch from the North sea, five are being over-fished. My constituents and I understand that.
There are plenty of types of fish that can be caught apart from species that are at crisis level such as cod. I want to put the following point on the record so that we understand the nature of the problem that we are talking about: over the past three years, levels of cod have been a third below the absolute minimum precautionary levels. That is serious. That is not funny; that is not something to laugh at. We do not want to lose the cod from our seas, and we should do something about this problem.
One policy idea that we should look at very closely is putting quotas on cod by-catch. A cod by-catch quota would address the by-catch of cod, which effectively doubles the amount of cod caught each year and undermines the cod recovery plan. I suggest that the cod quota be the same as it is now, but that it covers all catches of cod so that the cod by-catch would meet the quota.
I would like to make a little progress, if I may. Given that the current cod by-catch would cover the entire quota, we should take a careful look at the fact that we are throwing half our cod into the sea dead and dying and that we are running out of cod.
The fishermen—those whom my hon. Friends and other Members represent—have a responsibility to ensure that when the children and grandchildren of my inner-city constituents go to the seaside there is still fish in the ocean. They have a responsibility to ensure that when the grandchildren of my constituents go into a fish and chip shop they do not have to buy chips alone.
I agree, and that leads me on to my next point.
During the brief period that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been going around my primary schools—there are more than 20—and talking to their pupils, particularly about the marine Bill and its importance. I have been struck by the passion of such young children when they are told that we are overfishing five out of eight species and that there are a possibility of there no longer being the traditional fish that they thought would always be in the seas because they thought they would always be safe from extinction. When they are told that we are running out of such fish and that we have to take radical steps, they are spurred into action.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have posters from Rotherfield primary school—although I am not allowed to show them as we are not allowed to use visual aids in the Chamber. I also attended an assembly of class 6 of St. Mary Magdalene primary school at which pupils got up and explained how important it was that we preserved our fish. A little child of about 10 years of age stood up and made an impassioned speech about how important it is that there are still fish in our seas. The point that I have made about fish and chip shops was her idea; she asked her fellow pupils whether they wanted to grow up in a world in which when they go to a fish and chip shop they only get chips. That makes the point absolutely clearly.
Was the hon. Lady as dismayed as I was to learn that the Government will not introduce the marine Bill in the current Session—and that on top of its not having been introduced in the previous Session? We were told by the Minister today that it will not be introduced until before the next general election. In light of that, how will she now answer the children she has mentioned when they ask her about fish and chips?
I understand that the manifesto commitment is that we will have a marine Bill, and I want to do as much as I can from the Back Benches to ensure that there is a marine Bill—and that it is an effective one. I understand also that there will be a White Paper in the near future. I represent 70,000 constituents, and I hope that I will be able to have a say in respect of that White Paper so that I can make it clear that the seas are important to everyone—not just those who represent constituencies on the margins of Britain.
My hon. Friend’s fisheries policy seems to be formulated on the basis of what the children of Islington want, and because of that she is asserting a logical impossibility. There will be fish in the fish and chip shops. There will not be a total absence of it, but it will probably come from Iceland where, as Members have pointed out, the catches are increasing and the stocks are being sustained because they are managed by Icelandic fishermen rather than by a European common fisheries policy. She is implying that there should be a ban on all the ancillary catches to which cod is a by-catch, so that fishing of haddock and many other fish would be banned. The real problem is getting sustainable yields from cod stocks. The question is whether we can return to that situation in the light of climate change, which is pushing the cod stocks north.
I do not believe that there is such a thing as a sustainable level of cod catch at the moment, because for the past five years scientific advice has told us that we should not be catching any. I know that, as politicians, we have to be pragmatic in this House and elsewhere, and that politics is about compromise. If there has to be a yield, it must include the by-catch; otherwise, it means nothing.
We have heard a great deal from the hon. Gentleman and as he tells us, he has many opportunities to speak in many different forums. I have given way many times already.
The children in year 4 of Clerkenwell Parochial school will not get an opportunity—
Order. May we now establish whether or not the hon. Lady is giving way?
Speaking from what the hon. Lady described as the margins of Britain, I should point out that, whenever her new policy on the fishing industry is considered, it will be recognised that in the past 10 minutes she has done more to assist my party’s campaign for the Scottish Parliament than any other Member has done for many years. I encourage her to speak in every debate, so that those of us from the margins can understand the Labour party’s view from Islington.
Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, those who are by the sea and are therefore on the edge of Britain are on the margins. I am sorry—I was being deliberately provocative and I should not have been; I have many more important things to do than deliberately to provoke the hon. Gentleman.
I have some examples of the letters written by children in year 4 of Clerkenwell Parochial school. One states:
“Dear David Miliband MP. Please stop people from killing fish when they haven’t had a baby fish yet because otherwise there will be no more fish left for us to eat. It’s unfair to the fish if they haven’t had a baby yet.”
The Labour politicians and electorate of Islington have a great belief in closed circuit television. One young boy from the school who shares that belief thinks that, if we put more CCTV cameras around the edges of the sea and by the rivers, we might be able to prevent people from overfishing. Perhaps my Government could consider that idea.
Let me read another letter from a year 4 pupil:
“Dear David Miliband MP. I want you to protect our sea because if people keep killing all the fish there won’t be any left and we won’t have any food left either and we really want you to protect them. Yours sincerely, Sian.”
So there have been letters, posters and petitions. I want to finish—[Hon. Members: “No. More.”] Members may know that “Another Brick in the Wall” was sung recently by Islington children. I am not going to sing—I am told that I am not allowed to—but alternative lyrics to that song have been written by a child from another Islington school. The lyrics to “Another Fish in the Sea” are as follows:
“We don’t need no grilled fish fingers,
We don’t need no cod ‘n’ chips,
No pointless murder of the dolphins,
Dredgers leave them fish alone.
Hey! Dredgers! Leave them fish alone.
All in all they’re not just another fish in the sea.
All in all they’re not just another fish in the sea.”
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to take part in another annual fishing debate. This year’s debate has been different from previous years. The contribution of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) certainly approached the fishing debate from a different angle than we are used to.
Another difference has been watching Conservative Front Benchers undertake a very slow U-turn. We were speculating a year ago that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was initiating that U-turn. It is still under way, and I hope that the Conservatives arrive at a sensible fishing policy once they have finished their inquiry. We certainly need to operate within a common fisheries policy, and I hope that it can be reformed, so that it gives local fishermen and other stakeholders a much better say in the management of their regional waters. The regional advisory committees are a welcome step forward, but we need more progress and I hope that, in time, they will become regional management committees with a real say in how fishing operates in their areas. We must get away from the annual horse trading at the Fisheries Council in Brussels in December every year.
I was pleased to learn, when we had a debate in the European Standing Committee about a fortnight ago, that in future the scientific advice from ICES will come forward much earlier, in June instead of in October. That will allow more time for debate, instead of the rushed debate we have to have between October and December.
Nephrops is the main species fished for on the west coast of Scotland. We have seen some scientific to-ing and fro-ing in recent months on nephrops. This year there were significant increases in nephrops TACs on the basis of the advice from the Commission’s Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries last year. However, this year ICES suggested another methodology, but it would have resulted in a cut in the TAC. I am pleased to say that the Commission’s advisers have rejected that methodology and stuck to their 2005 methodology. If accepted, that will mean an increase in the TAC on the west coast of Scotland.
Nephrops stocks on the west coast of Scotland are certainly healthy. The ICES advice is that in the North Minch nephrops stocks increased sharply between 2001 and 2003. The higher level of abundance in 2003 has been maintained in the latest survey. In the South Minch, the population fluctuated without trend between 1995 and 2000, but remained more stable and at a slightly higher level from 2001 to 2003. A further increase in abundance in 2004 has been maintained in the latest survey.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury mentioned CCTV and she will be pleased to learn that ICES does in fact carry out television surveys under British waters. In the Firth of Clyde, for example, two surveys were conducted in the past year and the result suggests that the population of nephrops there has increased steadily since 1999, with the latest estimate being the highest in the series. A similar television survey in the Sound of Jura suggested that the nephrops population has been fairly stable for the past five years. Surveys in sea lochs with important creel fisheries also suggest a widespread distribution of nephrops. Without a doubt, nephrops stocks are healthy.
Investigation has also shown that by-catches of cod when fishing for nephrops are low in the west of Scotland. There is, therefore, no reason for any reduction in TAC or fishing effort. The west coast TAC has not been fully fished out this year, but I hope that the Commission will not use that as a reason to reduce next year’s TAC. That would be illogical, because it would punish fishermen for fishing moderately instead of making an all-out effort to catch the whole TAC.
Despite the healthy stocks of nephrops, there is a serious threat to the prawn fleet, which is the proposed 25 per cent. reduction in days at sea. That proposal has no scientific foundation. The scientific surveys have shown that the nephrops stocks are healthy and that the cod by-catch is very low. Therefore, I urge the Minister to fight vociferously against that proposal in Brussels.
In the spring, when there is a concentration of spawning cod in the Firth of Clyde, the spawning area is rightly closed to fishing to preserve stocks, so there is no justification for a further cut in days at sea. The Minister must ensure at the Fisheries Council that there is no cut in days at sea for the nephrops fleet and that the nephrops TAC is set at a level no lower than this year’s.
Fishing debates tend to be dominated by MPs representing coastal constituencies with strong commercial fishing interests. We heard an interesting contribution from the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox), but all hon. Members who care about the aquatic environment will be interested in a wonderful book by The Daily Telegraph’s environment correspondent, Charles Clover, called “The End of the Line”. Vivid and eye opening, it argues that our passion for fish is simply unsustainable.
Seventy five per cent. of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited or over-fished. The most popular varieties risk extinction in the next few decades. The problem with commercial fishing is that fish are a wonderful source of protein, for poor countries’ swelling populations and—because they are generally better for us than meat—for health-conscious gourmets in richer places.
As our appetite for fish has grown, so has our ability to catch them. Modern gadgets such as sonar, global positioning, systems plotters, sea mapping software, echo sounding, radio beacons and bathymetric generators enable today’s vast fishing boats to find and catch their prey as never before.
Some types of fish, such as prawns and salmon, can be farmed, but industrial fishing remains largely a matter of hunting down prey—what Charles Clover calls “fish mining”. That is an apt term, as commercial fishermen now haul fish out much faster than they can replenish stocks.
As my hon. Friend the Minister noted earlier, the global outlook is extremely bleak. In many places, certain species may never recover, but some fisheries policies have been proved to work. Mr. Clover suggests that we opt for independent management, long-term transferable quotas, marine reserves and, above all, much greater openness. Ideally, that openness can be achieved by satellites and the internet revealing what every boat is doing. In other words, Mr. Clover is arguing for a marine Bill—or probably a marine Bill-plus. If hon. Members are short of Christmas reading, I strongly recommend “The End of the Line” as a stocking filler.
I want to focus on issues related to freshwater fisheries, especially in the context of today’s welcome announcement by the Minister that the Government are to implement the bulk of the recommendations of the salmon and freshwater fisheries review carried out in 2000 by Professor Warren and her committee. The history of fisheries legislation, especially in respect of freshwater fisheries, is somewhat chequered. A previous Government commissioned the 1961 Bledisloe report, but anglers had to wait 14 years for the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975. We have had to show great patience in the six years since the Warren review, but the Government are to be commended for halving the time that it has taken them to respond.
There is a strong case for new legislation that impacts on freshwater fisheries and the marine environment. I am particularly grateful for the briefings that I have received on the matter from Adrian Taylor, fishery and policies manager at the Environment Agency. I am also grateful to the Atlantic Salmon Trust, The Salmon and Trout Association, and the Fisheries and Angling Conservation Trust. They have made representations to the Minister, who has had the good grace to listen. They have presented a powerful case for new legislation on salmon and freshwater fisheries.
Fish are a key component of a healthy, freshwater ecosystem. Their presence in our rivers and lakes shows that water quality is good and that aquatic and waterside habitats are thriving. The return of salmon to rivers such as the Tyne and now even the Mersey, and the presence of fish in many other once heavily polluted waterways, demonstrates how successful efforts to clean up the damage caused by industrialisation can be affected. In rural areas, fish are sensitive to diffuse pollution from agriculture and other sources and declines in fish numbers are often a good indication of wider environmental problems.
Efforts to conserve and improve the aquatic environment are vital to the health of fish populations, as they are for other aquatic forms of life. However, fish differ in one significant respect: they are also an important recreational resource. There are some 3.5 million to 4 million anglers in England and Wales, making angling one of the largest outdoor participation activities. Salmon, sea trout and eels are exploited for food both legally and, sadly, illegally. Those factors give fish an economic and social significance that mark them out, but they also impose threats that other types of life form do not face. For those reasons, freshwater fisheries have long been subject to specialised legislation. Legislation dates largely from the 19th century. Although it has been updated from time to time, its main elements remain unchanged.
I want to draw attention to six specific areas of concern that a new fisheries Bill, or new fisheries legislation enacted through regulation or secondary legislation, could deliver. Climate change in itself could, and probably will, lead to major changes in freshwater habitats. Regulators need to be able to respond to those changes and to have powers to introduce restrictions on fishing in extreme drought conditions.
Moving fish from one water or even one part of the country to another can threaten biodiversity by displacing native with introduced species. We all know about the trouble caused by the American signal crayfish in running water—almost the length and breadth of England, if not farther abroad. Existing powers to control such movements are, quite frankly, inadequate and more comprehensive powers are needed. That was a central recommendation of the Warren review.
Salmon and sea trout stocks are still subject to commercial exploitation in net fisheries. I congratulate the Minister on successfully helping to negotiate the buying out of the Irish drift nets and action on the North sea drift net fishery, but where stocks are threatened, regulators need clear powers to reduce exploitation to safe levels.
The eel may not be particularly fashionable. It is exploited commercially and eel stocks are now in a critical state, having fallen by more than 90 per cent. in recent years. Under existing regulation, there is absolutely no control over fishing for eels. The wildlife trusts have introduced otters into many of our river catchments. That is to be welcomed in some ways, but in others it should ring alarm bells because the eel is the staple diet of otters. Without eels in our rivers, the otters will start to predate on indigenous species and migratory fish species.
Fish thefts have been much in the news—and not just thefts from European workers who are not used to our tradition of catch and release, which has caused problems and threatens community cohesion in some areas where urban fishing is important. Fish thefts also take place for commercial reasons. A specimen carp can be worth more than £10,000; a carp of about 20 lb will attract an asking price of about £10,000 or even £15,000. The current penalty for fishing without a rod licence is £2,500. The current penalty for stealing fish under the Theft Act 1968 is £200. What sort of deterrent is a £200 fine to gangs of fish rustlers who are in it for commercial gain?
Many freshwater fish migrate in river systems. Those fish are not just trout, salmon or sea trout, but other fish moving from one area of a river to another at different times of the year to seek spawning beds. Those movements are often hindered by obstructions, such as redundant dams, mills or weirs. The Environment Agency needs new powers to tackle such obstructions.
Ivor Llewelyn from the Atlantic Salmon Trust and Paul Knight from the Salmon and Trout Association wrote:
“The deficiencies of current legislation have long been recognised, and in 1996 the Labour Party’s Charter for Angling promised a thorough review if the party were returned to power.”
One of the first things that Lord Cunningham, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, did when we achieved office in 1997 was to commission the review of salmon and freshwater fisheries legislation under Professor Lynda Warren. It is appropriate now, several years down the track, that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to implement that. It may have taken six years, but I congratulate the Government on delivering on an electoral promise if only by a slightly different route.
I referred to Labour’s charter for angling, which I helped to draw up in 2005. It has been described as the most comprehensive document on Britain’s most popular participant sport. It contains a section entitled “Angling and the Law”, and it is appropriate to use the debate to find out how well the Government have lived up to the promises that we made. My hon. Friend the Minister can relax; the record is fairly good. We say:
“Angling is a well regulated, lawful and responsible pastime, which delivers huge benefits to society as a whole.”
The greatest threat to angling comes from the destruction of the aquatic environment through loss of habitat, pollution or the excessive abstraction of water. However, a tiny minority of animal rights extremists have occasionally sought to disrupt angling events and competitions. Their threat to angling has been grossly over-stated by the supporters of hunting, who clearly wish to enlist the help of anglers in seeking to overturn the ban on hunting passed by Parliament.
In 2005, we promised:
“Labour will take whatever legal steps are necessary to protect angling and anglers from those extremists who seek to disrupt the sport or intimidate people from going fishing.”
Earlier this year, there was an appalling attack by hunt saboteurs in the north-west. They attacked three fly fisherpeople, one of whom was an elderly person and another a woman. Those thugs were armed with baseball bats and wore balaclavas. In fact, a syringe was plunged into the arm of one of the anglers. The Lancashire constabulary was nothing short of pathetic. Those characters were apprehended by the fishery owner. Their Transit van was blocked in and the police helicopter was activated, but still no arrest was made.
The police need to raise their game, but the good news is that Parliament has done so. Many hon. Members will have forgotten that when we voted for the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, we created in part 4 a new offence: harassment intended to deter lawful activities. With the new laws that enable action to be taken and criminal charges to be brought against those who seek to disrupt angling or other lawful activities, whether in the urban environment or in the countryside, it is important—I want to put it on the record—that the police use the powers that Parliament has given them.
I was particularly grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), for agreeing to meet representatives of angling governing bodies and me to explore in some detail how we can persuade the police to use the legislation that is now on the statute book.
In the charter for angling, we made a case for a new marine Bill. I am not surprised that the shadow Minister refers to it—he is right to do so—and I join him in wanting to keep up the pressure on the Government to deliver a new marine Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister wants to deliver a new marine Bill, and it is a question of getting the devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales singing from the same song sheet.
We said in our charter:
“Labour also recognises the need for marine legislation to protect sea fish stocks in coastal waters.
Following the publication of the PMSU report on how to ensure a sustainable future for sea fishing in all its forms, DEFRA has undertaken a wide-ranging consultation in which Recreational Sea Angling has been an active participant. The key outcomes sought from a new Marine Bill are…protection of fish stocks and spawning grounds”—
something particularly dear to my heart—
“the creation of Marine Conservative Zones…introduction of Minimum Landing Sizes for certain sea fishing species”,
on which there was an exchange between Opposition Members and myself earlier,
“better management of inshore waters… proper representation of recreational sea angling and an overhaul of the current Sea Fisheries Committees.”
We promised management of fish stocks, such as bass, wrasse and mullet, specifically for angling, and we had a commitment to a marine Bill in DEFRA’s five-year plan.
The Labour party should be proud of the fact that it has been the first political party to acknowledge and quantify the tremendous economic benefit of recreational sea angling. I was delighted that the Minister announced that we will have a sea angling strategy, but a strategy will not mean a lot unless it exists in the context of a marine Bill and of ensuring that fish stocks that have been decimated by the over-exploitation of the sea—as graphically outlined in “The End of the Line” by Charles Clover—have at least some protection in those areas of the sea that come within the ambit and control of the Government.
The Minister will be aware that WWF, an important stakeholder, published a draft marine Bill last year. It quoted—perhaps not embarrassingly, but certainly trenchantly—from the Government, when they stated their commitment
“to introduce in the next parliament a bill to ensure greater protection of marine resources, and simplify regulation, so that all uses of the sea…can develop sustainably and harmoniously.”
I look forward to a marine Bill emerging. If that does not happen during this parliamentary Session, I would certainly like to see a White Paper published and the Government’s broader intent set out.
I will turn to the broader issues facing our fisheries and the sport of angling, which depends on healthy fisheries for its survival. Anglers have undoubtedly been a major custodian of the aquatic environment for at least two centuries. Fisheries management maintains and improves habitats on behalf of anglers with the knock-on benefit that what is good for fish is invariably good for other wildlife dependent on the aquatic environment. Although angling is reliant on fisheries, the part played by the sport in managing aquatic habitat should still be officially recognised by the Government as bona fide conservation. We heard earlier from other Members that at least 3.5 million people fish in freshwater and the sea each year. That means that we are delivering an economic benefit estimated at about £3 billion—a significant proportion of which relates to remote rural communities, where other income can be hard to find. Angling, therefore, is of enormous economic benefit, as well as sporting value.
More recently, there has been recognition of the benefit that angling can bring in relation to policies on crime prevention and social exclusion. Angling is a healthy outdoor recreation with a proven ability to take participants away from an increasingly frantic lifestyle and relieve the stress of modern living. Angling has proved to be an excellent conduit for inspiring disadvantaged and vulnerable youngsters to become involved in a healthy pastime and to learn respect for living creatures, with the result that significant numbers of those youngsters can be turned away from crime and drug dependency.
I pay particular tribute to a constituent of mine, Les Webber, who set up Angling Projects in Wraysbury, just outside London. His angling resource centre is used by the Metropolitan police, youth groups, and groups of teachers who are responsible for children who are at risk of school exclusion. Many young people have benefited from the tireless efforts of Les and his team of volunteers. I also pay tribute to Mick Watson, who has been seconded from the Durham constabulary and runs Get Hooked on Fishing in the north-east, in Bishop Auckland. He is dealing with kids from ex-mining communities—kids who live in communities where the recidivism rate is monstrous and where there is a huge dependency on drugs and crime. The vast majority of kids who have gone through Mick Watson’s projects have managed to find jobs and turn their lives around, and have benefited from the introduction to the sport. Local authorities can play their part, as well. Reading borough council has put funding into a joint package with a local business and the Environment Agency and has established the Reading angling action project, which is introducing thousands of local youngsters to angling on our local rivers and ponds.
The resources on which angling depends are inevitably healthy fisheries and healthy water. The Government must commit to protecting the aquatic environment from water abstraction, inadequately treated sewerage, point-source and diffuse pollution and urban run-off. A properly funded programme of capital water supply projects is required to relieve abstraction pressure from severely impacted catchments, together with the modernisation of sewerage treatment infrastructure throughout England and Wales.
It was only the week before last that I had the privilege of being one of the parliamentary sponsors of the “blueprint for water” campaign, which is a unique coalition of organisations representing some 6 million people in this country. We brought together the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts, Waterwise, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Salmon and Trout Association, the National Trust, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Anglers Conservation Association and the Association of Rivers Trust.
As much as Opposition Members might not like it, the driver for clean water will be the European water framework directive in 2015. We face a huge challenge in this country to come anywhere near delivering our obligations under the directive. I encourage all hon. Members who care about the aquatic environment—and who are able to do so—to add their names to early-day motion 306, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), an excellent former Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The 10 steps to sustainable water are: wasting less water; keeping our rivers flowing and our wetlands wet; pricing water fairly and ensuring that we have a proper, comprehensive system of metering; making polluters pay; stopping pollutants contaminating our water; keeping sewerage out of homes and rivers and off our beaches; supporting water-friendly farming; cleaning up drainage from roads and buildings; restoring our rivers from source to sea; and retaining water on floodplains and wetlands. It is nothing short of a scandal that acres upon acres of floodplain have been covered in concrete. People should not wonder why communities around them flood—floodplains are there for a purpose.
Inland fisheries and angling in the UK are in good heart under the Government. The black propaganda campaign of the Countryside Alliance and others has failed. Labour has no secret agenda to ban angling. Labour’s agenda is to encourage more people to take up fishing. Labour has set the Environment Agency a requirement to increase rod licence sales by 10 per cent. by 2010.
The Environment Agency’s budget has actually increased by some 35 per cent. in real terms since we took office. In the run-up to the last election, the Conservative party pledged to remove the angling rod licence. That would have stripped £16 million out of the pockets of the nation’s anglers. When the hon. Gentleman is considering his review of fisheries policy, he might wish to reflect on whether that was a politically wise move—I put it to him that it was not.
Order. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) might be very persistent, but it was not clear that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) had recognised that he was trying to intervene—we want it one way or the other.
The hon. Gentleman’s eloquence is heroic, given the instructions that he has received, but there are other Members with fisheries interests to speak, as well as a Minister whose loquaciousness and erudition know no bounds. I am quite certain that those Members could move the time along to 6 o’clock, if the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) feels that he is in need of a rest.
One of the reasons I had to leave the Chamber was the babbling of the hon. Gentleman in which he made childish party political points about the forthcoming Scottish elections. Quite frankly, the House would have been treated to a shorter contribution from me if it had not been for his loquaciousness. However, I thank him for hurrying me along for another minute or two.
I am pleased by the angling development programmes that have been established, but angling needs to get its house in order. What funding the Government can provide is not the only important issue; ensuring that the governance of Britain’s largest participatory sport is coherent and unified is also important. That is why I welcome the work that has been done to establish the Fisheries and Angling Conservation Trust. In the world of applications for lottery and other public funds, we cannot have a fragmented system of governance for our sport. We need a strong, unified governing body. In marked contrast to the position taken by the Conservative party at the last election, on my website I have floated the idea that anglers might consider paying a voluntary levy, in addition to their rod licence, to help to fund a strong and powerful voice for angling. Ninety-five per cent. of those who have responded recognise that that might be a way forward.
Angling knows now where it belongs. It does not belong in the bloodsports lobby. It does not belong in a bunker with a siege mentality, thinking that some nasty Government are going to come along and cut it off at the knees. Angling is where it belongs: foursquare in the centre of the environmental lobby. The Stern report and the challenges posed by climate change have the scope to change politics in this country. Ministers will need all the shock troops they can get when they make the argument for the environment. I would start with Britain’s 3.5 million anglers.
I welcome the hon. Members for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to the debate. The hon. Lady made an important point when she opened her speech by saying that the debate should concern us all. I am delighted that she has been able to take part in it. There was a great deal in her speech with which I did not agree—that will surprise no one—but in that, she was right.
When the hon. Lady returns to see the primary school children in her constituency and they start talking about fish stocks in general and cod stocks in particular, I hope that she will make the point to them that there is now a substantial body of evidence to suggest that the disappearance of cod stocks from the North sea has a lot to do with climate change, and that school children being driven to school—perhaps in Islington many travel in 4x4s and other carbon-emitting vehicles—is behaviour that has an impact on cod stocks. I hope that in the course of the next 12 months until the next fisheries debate, the hon. Lady will take time to reflect on the fact that these matters are not simple; they are infinitely complex.
If the hon. Lady wants to come to Shetland and meet fishing-dependent communities there—
We do not feel that we are on the margins. People often refer to us as “remote”, but that word has meaning only if one starts a long way away. To us, London is a remote community.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury spoke about grandchildren. She should come and speak to the fishing communities that I represent. She might visit the islands of Whalsay and Out Skerries, where there are few households that are not fishing-dependent. She might talk to the people there about the frustration that they experienced year after year as a result of telling Fisheries Ministers in London and fisheries commissioners in Brussels that effort control was needed, but being ignored; and telling people that cuts in stock levels were needed, but being told, “You’re just fishermen. You’re not clever like the scientists. You don’t know. We know better than you do.”
The fishermen in my constituency are as desperate to be able to continue to catch cod and other fish for their children and grandchildren as the grandchildren of the hon. Lady’s constituents. I hope that when she returns to the debate next year, she will think a little more carefully about the terms of her contribution and realise that it is in nobody’s interest to conduct this debate in a way that plays off one community or one part of the country against another. If she thinks about it, her opening gambit was correct: this is a subject of great importance that should concern us all.
I want to make it perfectly clear—I thought I had done so—that the subject is important to all of us. That was the point of my involvement in the debate. I specifically said that I understood that the fishing industry has an enormous impact on particular communities in Britain, but we have to be responsible. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says about fishermen in his constituency. In fact, I have been to his constituency and I met fishermen there, went fishing with them and spoke to them about the difficulties that they face. I am aware of the issues, but communities other than the fishing industry community ought to be represented in the debate.
As I said, I do not depart from that point of view in any way, shape or form. There has been a lot of optimism in this debate, and that is perhaps reflected in the rather thin turnout of Members from some parties. It is perhaps just part of my character, but I find optimism difficult to come by, and I find it difficult to share a lot of the optimism that is around today. The industry is in a much stronger condition that it has been in recent years, but the task facing the Minister when he goes to the December Council next week will be one of the most difficult that he has faced in recent years, and the reason for that is the difficult hand that he is given to play, following the EU-Norway negotiations last month. I briefly want to consider how that position came about.
The European Commission has played an unhelpful role in the debate, and there appears to be particular tension at the moment between the directorate-general for fisheries and maritime affairs, or DG fish, and the environment DG. My particular concern relates to the role of the latter, which seems to have intervened in a fairly cack-handed manner, without speaking to the regional advisory councils, industry groups or the communities concerned. As a result of that, the Commission went into the EU-Norway negotiation with an initial demand for a 25 per cent. reduction in the total allowable catch for cod. Given that the United Kingdom, the North Sea regional advisory council and all the industry bodies were looking for a roll-over, that was sheer madness. It is not new for the United Kingdom or the industry to be ignored in the debate, but it is new for the regional advisory council to be totally ignored, and it must surely concern us all. As everyone has said, it is still very early days for the regional advisory councils, and to treat them in such a way undermines their standing in the industry.
As for the 14 per cent. cut that is now proposed, I told the Minister why that cut would be important earlier. He referred to the good year class of 2005, and I must say that I have heard the same said by fishermen in both parts of my constituency, time and again. I am told that an increasing number of young codlings have been caught in nets, and that they are to be found in many parts of different fisheries, but the consequence of a 14 per cent. reduction in the TAC for cod will be that although the fish are there, and although they will still be caught, there will be more discards than ever. The opportunity presented by the 2005 year class risks being lost, and that should concern us all. It is immensely frustrating for me to see the potential for a breakthrough, at last, in spawning stock and biomass for cod, only for that potential to be thrown away because the Commission takes an irrational position.
The situation is so serious that if it is apparent in the Council next week that there is no workable solution to the problem, the Minister should press the case for a reopening of the EU-Norway negotiations. Frankly, we cannot pass up the opportunity before us, because it may not come again for another 10 or 15 years, so he should not allow the Commission’s irrational position to throw away the good work and the sacrifice that has been made, particularly by the Scottish white fish fleet.
On effort control, may I stiffen the Minister’s resolve? We have heard that the initial proposal is for boats that operate with a mesh size in excess of 120 mm, there should be a 25 per cent. cut in the days available to them. I do not understand—perhaps the Minister can explain—how the same boats would be allowed a mere 8 per cent. cut if they were prepared to sign up to administrative penalties sanctions. That suggests that the Commission’s proposals have more to do with the administrative convenience of those involved in fisheries enforcement than with the conservation of stocks. If there is a reduction from 163 days, which is the current allocation to white fish boats in my constituency, to 125 days, we will be left with an industry that is not sustainable.
On monkfish, a crucial species to the Shetland fleet, I again entreat the Minister to demonstrate real resolve. The monkfish working group of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries suggested in the mid-year proposal a 10 per cent. increase in the quota. That was blocked by the full Committee. The industry has presented the data on monkfish and the UK has supported it in the past. When the stocks are there, surely the case for an increase is unanswerable.
We have already seen an 80 per cent. uptake of this year’s quota for monkfish, after we carried over 10 per cent. of the TAC from the previous year. That will clearly not be available to us, and there is a damaging prospect that towards the end of next year boats in my constituency will have to tie up early because they will have exhausted their quota, unless the Minister is able to get the available 10 per cent. for them. The fish are there. In a well managed and sustainable fishery, surely the fishermen should be allowed the opportunity to catch them.
Likewise, I entreat the Minister on the subject of west coast herring. The proposal for a 15 per cent. reduction would have a serious impact on a pelagic fleet that is suffering problems elsewhere. The Minister must hold out for a roll-over.
As I said in my introductory remarks, nothing in fisheries is ever straightforward. We have seen some evidence of returning stocks. The evidence comes principally from the industry, but it does not seem to be challenged by the Minister’s enforcement agencies or the scientists. On the other hand, there is the DEFRA report to which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) made copious reference. It suggests that because of a change in water temperatures, it might be impossible ever to get the cod back into the mid and south North sea. If the Minister does nothing else, he must ensure that this year and in years to come such thinking is allowed to have its full impact in the decision-making process. He must ensure that the report is given the weight that it deserves.
I am aware that others wish to speak in the debate. There is a great deal more that I could say in relation to wider fisheries issues. I have outlined the pressing issues for the industry in my constituency. The Minister ended his contribution by wishing the Deputy Speaker then in the Chair a happy Christmas. If the Minister is able to address these issues next week, there is the possibility that the fishermen of Shetland and Orkney, too, will be able to enjoy a happy Christmas.
I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other hon. Members for the fact that I was not present at the beginning of the debate. I am thus more privileged to be called to speak.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said that he may not be available to attend next year’s debate. I am pretty confident that he will be, but I am not so sure about my own interest in next year’s debate if we do not sort out something for the under-10 m fishermen in my constituency, Hastings and Rye.
Yesterday, I led a delegation to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and we were able to tell him just how dire and desperate is the position of those small-boat fishermen in the current situation. Paul Joy, the chairman of Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society, his colleague Graham Coglan, and Ron Simmons from the Rye Fishermen’s Association told him that in a year’s time there will not be an industry in Hastings or Rye unless something is done about the quota—that is what it is, in effect, although it is called “licensing conditions”—for the under-10 m vessels in my constituency. I am not ashamed to be parochial about this. I am sure that my comments relate to the whole under-10 m industry, but they are particularly relevant to Hastings and Rye.
Hastings and Rye have an historical tradition of fishing. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not here, because it is important for those who do not represent fishing ports to understand the importance of the fishing industry to the wider economy. Of course, in places such as Hastings and Rye its total value is relatively small. However, it is absolutely essential to the well-being of my constituency in terms of its effects on tourism, onshore jobs and the overall economy. In fact, were it not for the fishing industry, why would anyone go to the port of Rye or the old town of Hastings for that day out or weekend away? Hastings’ fleet of 29 beach-launched fishing boats is the largest in the UK. It might sound pretty small, but it is big in terms of that sort of operation. About 65 fishermen are directly employed, as well as about 600 people in the wider sphere. Most importantly, those small fishing boats do exactly what the Government say should be done. They are wholly sustainable. In 2004, the Cabinet Office strategy unit’s report, “Net Benefits” said:
“The overarching aim of fisheries management should be to maximise the return to the UK of sustainable use of fisheries resources and protection of the marine environment.”
A year ago, Hastings was officially recognised as being one of the few ports carrying out that aim. Hastings fishermen were accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council as having an eco-friendly fleet as regards three species—Dover sole, herring and mackerel. That means that the small boats working out of the port are confirmed as working in a sustainable way that does not damage stocks and is environmentally sound in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. As the Sea Fish Industry Authority has said:
“Hastings is as near a perfect fishery as can be devised.”
So here we have perfection that is likely to disappear if nothing happens.
The problem is simply that there is not enough catch. We can argue about whether we get our fair share of the overall European pot, and I have sympathy with those who believe that we do not. My local fishermen are always telling me that they blame Ted Heath and the Conservative Government because in 1973 we gave up 88 per cent. of the waters for just 12 per cent. of the total allowable catch. However, that is history. What matters now is how we deal with the quota that we have. The amazing fact, which people do not seem to acknowledge, is that although about 50 per cent. of the manpower—it is still generally manpower—in the fishing industry is in the under-10 m sector and about 50 per cent. is in the over-10 m sector, 96 per cent. of the allowable catch goes to the over-10 m sector and just 3 per cent. to the under-10 m sector. That is crazy and unfair. It causes problems in industries such as that in Hastings and Rye, where the fishermen simply do not get their fair share.
In the south-east—Hastings is on the south coast—the position is even worse. Of all the 339 licensed fishing vessels in the area, 315, or 93 per cent., are in the under-10 m sector. That sector also accounts for approximately 83 per cent. of the work force. Despite that, the allocation in the region is: for plaice, 78 per cent. for the over-10 m sector and 22 per cent. for the under-10 m sector; for cod, 69 per cent. for the over-10 m sector and 31 per cent. for the under-10 m sector, and for sole, 62 per cent. for the over-10 m sector and 38 per cent. for the under-10 m sector. It is crazy that 80 per cent. of the work force get, on average, less than 30 per cent. of the take. That is wrong. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the unfair allocations carefully. The Prime Minister kindly said that he would bring the matter to the Department’s attention.
Other things can be done. One of the problems is that fishermen who leave the over-10 m sector frequently buy dormant licences from the under-10 m sector and move into it, sharing the small and diminishing proportion of the available quota, thus making the position worse. The bottom line is that my fishermen in Hastings and Rye are being asked to survive on quotas that produce £80 to £100 a week. They will not survive for another year if that continues.
I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in the EU negotiations and I hope that there will be greater quotas. Of course, we need to be sensible, but there are cod, and other species are available to be caught. However, there must be a fair distribution of the quotas between all sectors in the fishing industry. It would make little difference to stocks if the share for the under-10 m sector was doubled but it wouldmake all the difference to the viability and survival of the industry, which is so important to the wider economy.
I am pleased to make a brief contribution to the important debate. My constituency of Angus has a long history of fishing through the ports of Arbroath and the smaller communities along the coast up to Montrose. That history is reflected in the fact that Arbroath and Montrose have two of the oldest lifeboat stations in the country. That shows the huge dangers in fishing that other hon. Members mentioned throughout the debate.
In my area, the main catch has always been haddock, nephrops—I cannot get into the new way of calling them “langoustines; I cannot get my tongue round that—and crabs. Sadly, in the past 30 years much of the industry has gone. I find myself in a similar position to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), because few boats work out of Arbroath. There were about five at the last count but, when I was young, it was a bustling fishing port with a large fish market. All that has gone and what is left teeters on the brink because of the annual anxiety about quotas.
We have heard about proposals for a cut of up to 25 per cent. in nephrops, which would be disastrous for the local industry. I understand that there is meant to be a roll-over of the total allowable catch in the North sea and on the west coast because there is no new science this year. It is due in 2007. However, an argument has developed between committees about the proposed reduction. I urge the Minister to oppose any such reduction in the talks next week.
The same applies to monkfish. Again, there is talk of a decrease, against advice, when there should have been an increase in TAC. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, it is an important fishery. I urge the Minister, on behalf of Scottish interests, to resist any decrease.
The annual wrangling over quotas oppresses fishing communities every year at this time. I understand that there are proposals to change the system, with some TACs being agreed earlier in the year but others continuing to be decided in December. My understanding is that most of the stocks that affect Scottish fishermen will still be dealt with in December, so the annual depression up to Christmas will continue as we await the outcome of talks. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.
I also urge Members to remember that it is not just the fishing industry that is important, but the onshore industry that backs it up. Angus still has a buoyant fish processing industry, which produces a great deal of fish for supermarkets and other outlets up and down the country. The famous delicacy from my area is the Arbroath smokie, which can be bought in many London supermarkets. Again, that industry depends on the supply of haddock, which, as we have heard time and again, is in danger from the proposed cut in the cod by-catch. If that is put into effect, much of the industry will go.
I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and her proposal for a moratorium on fishing. She never answered the question posed by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye about what fishermen were to do during such a moratorium. I urge her to consider what happened to the herring industry. In Scotland and the north of England, there was once a buoyant herring industry. People used to move around the coast following the herring. Because of difficulties with stocks, however, the industry was closed down and never recovered. When the herring came back, no one was left to fish it. We should therefore be careful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) dealt with the question of the role of climate change at some length. I do not intend to repeat what he said, other than to urge the Minister to ensure that such important research is fully taken into account before any more damage is inflicted on an important Scottish industry. I hope that he will take that far more seriously than the Secretary of State for Scotland seems to take it.
Fishing communities are increasingly cynical about the scientific evidence produced by ICES, which, as we have heard, has for the fifth year in succession asked for no cod to be caught. Year after year, our fishermen have argued that cod are moving north. The new scientific evidence, which has been alluded to, seems to back that up. Certainly, there seems to be plenty of cod in the waters around Iceland and the Faroes. Perhaps the problem is not with the cod so much as with climate change. As most people recognise, however, the effect of climate change on the ecosystems of the sea is a complex matter, and it is vital that that is investigated fully. There is no point in continuing with a recovery plan if there is no chance of the cod coming back, as seems to be the case.
I repeat the point that I made last year: haddock is suffering from efforts to save cod. If one goes into any supermarket in London, one will find loads of cod for sale, from cod nibbles to fish fingers to whole cod. I appreciate that some of that might be imported cod, and not from local sources, but if more effort was made to encourage people to eat more sustainable fish such as haddock, some of the problem might be tackled. I would be wary of some of the big supermarkets’ efforts to claim that they are only getting fish from sustainable stocks. A few years ago, there was a movement towards hoki as an alternative, but I understand that the hoki industry completely collapsed as well, and one rarely sees hoki these days. Again, we should be careful.
There is plenty of evidence that the North sea contains lots of haddock. It is the main fishery for Scottish fishermen, and it is imperative that it is not imperilled because of an obsession with the cod by-catch, without taking into account the important new evidence on climate change. I appreciate that the Minister wants to wind up, so I shall conclude on that point.
We have had a good debate, and I will start with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who took a lot of stick from the old sea dogs of these fisheries debates from the past and, I hope, the future. But I found her speech refreshing, because these debates are, inevitably I suppose, dominated by Members who represent mainly commercial fishing interests. Generally, they want me to go to Brussels next week and bring back more fish for their fishermen. There are more than 20 other Fisheries Ministers from around the European Union who I imagine are being asked to do exactly the same by their MPs. That is one of the reasons why we are in the mess we are in, and why our European and global fish stocks are in such a mess. I am afraid that there are inevitable political pressures for short-term gains that result in long-term pain. Although I did not agree with everything that my hon. Friend said, I hope that she will continue to research the subject and attend these debates. It was important that the voices of the people that she represents, who are deeply concerned about fish stocks in our waters and internationally, were heard. She certainly ensured that that was the case.
I was also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) spoke up on behalf of the recreational fishermen in fresh water and at sea because theirs is another voice that traditionally has not been heard loudly in these debates. As my hon. Friend rightly said, they make an enormous contribution in overall terms to the economy and to conservation. They are fishermen and conservationists, which is where we want to try to move the whole of our fishing industry. My hon. Friend went through a list of issues that he hoped would be addressed by the secondary legislation that we announced today in response to the independent Warren review of 2000. I can assure him that all of those—movements of non-native invasive species, salmon and trout protection, eels, blockages to spawning, feeding grounds and fish thefts—will be addressed in the regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and several other hon. Members said that we should have an early marine Bill. I want to see such a Bill as early as we can possibly get one, but I also want a Bill that is well thought out and will stand the test of time. Most hon. Members who know about this area appreciate that this country is trying to do something—by taking an holistic approach to marine management—that no other country has tried to do. We are trying to do that against a devolutionary backdrop, which is complex. This is the first piece of major legislation that the Government have attempted to get on the statute book with such far-reaching devolutionary complexities and repercussions. Inevitably that involves a lot of discussion with colleagues in Scotland and Wales and with other Government Departments. We have promised to publish a White Paper in the spring and I hope that all hon. Members will respond to that. We will propose legislation as soon as we can.
I will come to that later if I have time; that may encourage the hon. Gentleman not to intervene any more.
The port represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) has probably been one of the hardest hit in recent years in terms of its commercial catching sector. I shall endeavour to go to the Council next week to see whether we can get some of the things she asked us to try for. We are proposing the scheme on data collection to the Commission formally and we hope to get support for that. I was very pleased to hear about the health and stability of her processing sector, which I have visited during the past 12 months, and particularly about her shellfish sector exporting all around the world. No decisions have yet been made on the points that she raised on the European fisheries fund, but we will consult about them next year and I hope that she will respond in due course.
I also take on board my hon. Friend’s concerns—and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and others—about wind farms. One of the reasons why we desperately need this new marine legislation is so that we can resolve some of the potential conflicts in the marine environment more quickly and ensure that if fishermen are adversely affected they are at least properly compensated and proper space is allowed for them to continue their activities, because it is inevitable that we will need more renewable offshore energy. I hope that that issue can be resolved in the marine Bill.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) raised several issues. He suggested that it was time that pressure was put on other countries. We achieved progress on that at last year’s Fisheries Council; the hit that we took was less than those taken by the types of fisheries operated in other countries. There is recognition at the European Commission that the UK has taken the biggest hit in terms of cod recovery, and in respect of the amount that we have reduced our fleet by—two thirds in the case of the white fish fleet. We will certainly make the same arguments again; when the proposals are finalised and negotiated, we will make the point that we think that we have already contributed more than anybody else. However, it is wrong to suggest that other countries have not taken pain as well; the industries of Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland have. But the hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be a level playing field.
We will argue for a roll-over for cod because of the review and the state of the 2005 year class. However, I have to say that I would be being pretty optimistic if I were to allow myself to think that we will get that, given the recommendations made by the Fisheries Council and the pressure that it is under from the environment directorate-general.
I have already dealt with the marine Bill. On funding, we will have to see what happens in the 2007 comprehensive spending review, but as long as I have been in my current job at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs I have done my best to argue the case for the marine and fisheries bit of the Department, and if the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire looks at some of the figures for the past few months he might notice that I have argued with some success on that front. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the regional advisory councils, and I was grateful for the thanks of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby for the financial support that we have been giving them. Contrary to the many predictions that were made by some in the industry and some in this House that they would be a talking shop, they are playing a meaningful role. As I said at that time, if they can prove themselves by offering good and sensible advice, they might be able to accrue more powers to themselves, particularly as we move towards the common fisheries policy review in 2011.
Since my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) entered the House he has become a doughty champion of the fishermen in his constituency, and he made a number of very good points. He spoke about the three-yearly deals on some species. There are already long-term management plans for some species, and a new rule was recently introduced that only in exceptional circumstances should the tax and quotas go up or down by more than 15 per cent. That was an attempt to introduce for the sector a little certainty and the possibility of long-term management. That is one of the reasons why we have achieved more stability than previously in the last two or three years, and we shall certainly try to get the Commission to stick to that.
A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), raised climate change, and I addressed that in an earlier exchange. I hear what people say about the role of climate change in respect of cod in the North sea, and I know that there is a natural tendency in the industry to grasp on to that as a reason why cod has declined. But let me read from the recent report that the hon. Gentleman referred to, because he did not refer to all of it. It states that:
“Warm-water commercial species such as sea bass, red mullet and tuna are becoming more commonplace in our seas.
Cold-water species, such as cod, have declined, with a possible link suggested between warmer sea temperatures and reduced populations of fish at the southern limit of their distribution range.”
But it continues:
“Fishing remains the main pressure on commercial fish stocks.”
The advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea does not support the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that in parts of the North sea, cod is extinct so there is no point in worrying about it.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) made a number of detailed points, about which the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) has also written to me. I should be very happy to receive a delegation—from both Members, if the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon does not mind discussing with a neighbouring Member of Parliament the issues that he raised today. We are aware of the position regarding species of ray, and we are trying to get the Commission to distinguish between the various species, so that his Bristol channel fishermen are not hit in the way that he fears. Consultation is currently under way, so we have some time to address the issue.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon also raised the issue of the minimum landing size for bass that we announced earlier this year. The counter-argument was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, who, in making the case for what we are doing, wished that we had gone further. As he said, 42 cm is the size at which most female bass start to spawn, so if we allow them to grow to that size we will get not only more but bigger fish. As I said in my introduction, in the short term that will involve some pain for certain fishermen, particularly inshore fishermen in the south-west. However, just as with the registration of buyers and sellers, in the medium to long term they will benefit from the increased landing size and the increased number of bass in exactly the same way as recreational fishermen. We carried out a long public consultation, based on research, which showed that the vast majority of the beneficiaries will be our own fishermen, because the bass that are caught are moving within our own waters—even within the six-mile area to which other fishermen do not have access.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon also mentioned Belgian trawlers. Our information is that there is no evidence of fishing activity by any Belgian vessels over 220 kW converted to twin otter trawling within 12 miles of the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, with the exception of one vessel in excess of 221 kW that fished with twin otter trawls for four hours in the six to 12 mile zone off the coast of Devon. The same vessel also fished for 48 hours to the north of Lundy island in the outer belt toward the end of June. The major Belgian effort in the Celtic sea occurs outside the 12 mile zone, between Cape Cornwall and Milford Haven. However, if the hon. and learned Gentleman has more up-to-date information than that, I should be happy to look at it.
I omitted to respond to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool made about conflicts off the north-east coast involving some French vessels. There has been one successful prosecution and as I understand it, the problem has been amicably resolved. However, I think he said that further problems have occurred—it might have been my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby—in that two of the eight French vessels are not adhering to the agreement. I will certainly have another look at this issue and get back to him, if I may.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby was keen to put lead in my pencil and to ensure that I do not take my eye off the ball in Brussels next week; as always, I shall try to reflect the former and not to do the latter. I take on board the points that he made about the recommendations on tax and quotas. He is absolutely right to say that, in cases where quotas have not been fully taken up in the previous year, it does not make sense to reduce the quota as a result. As he said, that introduces an incentive along the lines of, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” We may have some success in persuading the Commission of that argument, but we shall have to wait, as we usually have to do, until we see its first compromise proposal next Tuesday. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that we have already defended the 2.9 per cent. figure as part of the EU-Norway agreement.
We have not ruled out decommissioning completely—in fact, we are holding out the prospect of some decommissioning in the south-west if we get a sole recovery plan for the English channel. However, we have come to the view that in general terms, decommissioning is not a sensible use of public money because it is not the best way to reduce capacity in the fleet for the long term.
I turn to the contribution—I hope it is not the last during a fisheries debate in this House—of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. He pointed to the contrast between the more optimistic analysis of the state of the industry that I gave and the briefing that he had been given by the Scottish Fisheries Federation. I suspect that that is because it was briefing him on this debate in advance of the Council negotiations and, as he knows as he has been doing this for a long time, the recommendations that are made initially tend to be quite tough and we do not usually end up in the same place. Indeed, I would not expect anything less from the Scottish Fisheries Federation. It will of course brief the hon. Gentleman that the proposals are very serious and something needs to be done about them. As I have already said, I will do what I can.
It is also fair to point out that in October the president of the federation, Alex West, told its annual dinner in Edinburgh that the feel-good factor was coming back. He said that prices this year have exceeded all expectations and that it has been a good year in some sectors. He said that for some it may be a record year. At the same dinner, his chief executive, Bertie Armstrong, said that there was a new optimism in the air. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that although everything in the garden is not rosy, Fishing News reports that his port is heading for a record year. It states:
“Five new pelagic and whitefish vessels for Peterhead owners are currently under construction or on order. Optimism is also being boosted by skippers reporting an abundance of small codling, haddock and whiting, and cod moving back onto grounds where they have not been found in…years.”
I take the hon. Gentleman’s points about the importance of obtaining as good a deal as possible for his constituents, within sustainable fishing limits, but the last year has not been a bad one for them—partly due, I suspect, to assiduous lobbying on their behalf for which he is well known.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about ITQs. The term has been a source of some confusion because of the different ways in which ITQ systems operate around the world. The change programme that we are undergoing in our quota management system has focused on the objective of giving fishermen the benefits associated with individual quota holding. Detailed options are still being explored, but our current thinking supports a market-based approach with real-time tradeability of quotas. Our present fixed quota allocation system has many of those features already. We could get into a theological discussion about ITQs, but I hope that most people would accept that real-time tradeability is what we need if we are to put our fishing industry on a sustainable basis.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) raised several of his constituents’ concerns about west of Scotland nephrops and days at sea. I hope that we will be able to improve the present proposal on both those issues, as indeed we managed to do last year, and that the significant increases in nephrops that we achieved last year are not reduced. Indeed, I hope that there will be room for further improvement.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) recognised the increased strength of his industry. I remember reading in a recent edition of Fishing News that 80 new jobs had been created in the industry in his constituency in the past year, which is a sign of its strength. He is right to raise concerns about the conduct of the EU-Norway talks. I made our concern about that plain to the Fisheries Commissioner in my last telephone conversation with him. I am not sure that it would be sensible to torpedo the whole thing at the Fisheries Council, but it is a question of balance and I will have to take a judgment at the time. On monkfish and herring, I hope that we can achieve some improvement on the original proposals from the Commission.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) got to see my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, and I am sure that he told my hon. Friend that the Government are reviewing the distribution of fish quotas in consultation with the industry. That includes representatives from the under-10 m vessels from his constituency and other areas of the country. Although he is right that they get only some 3 per cent. of the UK’s quota, they get more than 20 per cent. of the cod and plaice quota in the English channel and, for around 80 per cent. of their total landings by value in Hastings, fishermen are not restricted by quotas or catch limits.
Last but not least I come to the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). At least he had the grace to admit that his party did not yet have a policy, but it will, he said, produce a menu. That menu is long overdue and I look forward to receiving it soon so that we can have a proper debate about fisheries policy. He painted a rather gloomy picture, but his legs were cut off at the knees by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen)—perhaps I should call him my hon. Friend—who told him that the fishermen of Brixham were very optimistic, that his local port was booming and—