I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of fisheries.
I am pleased to open my first fisheries debate. [Interruption.] We will be talking about pollocks later on. As in previous years, it is helpful that this debate is taking place before the December Fisheries Council, because it gives Members an opportunity to comment on behalf of their constituents, so I can take those comments with me to the negotiations. It also gives me a chance to highlight some important fisheries management issues that have arisen during the past year.
First, I am sad to report that 10 fishermen lost their lives this year. That is a tragic reminder of the very real dangers of their way of life, and I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that our hearts go out to all the families who have suffered such tragic losses.
The fisheries sector continues to make a significant contribution to the UK economy. Total landings of fish from UK vessels have increased for the second year running. Their value rose to £610 million last year—up 7 per cent. on 2005. The increase was shared across the UK and was mainly accounted for by an increase of almost a third in the value of the shellfish sector. Figures show that species such as crabs and lobsters are growing in value as a proportion of the total UK catch.
I am pleased to be the first to intervene on my hon. Friend in his new role. He is aware of the importance of the shellfish sector in the Dee estuary, where we are expecting a regulating order soon. Will he assure me that his Department will put every effort into producing that order, because there will be a record harvest next year, which will leave the door open for black marketeers? We want the investment to go to legitimate fishermen.
My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me on behalf of his constituents. I will look into the matter of the order, because he is right: we want to stamp out illegal fishing and I shall deal with that issue later in my speech.
There has been a decline in the value of landings such as mackerel and cod. However, I am pleased to report that the value of exports of fish and fish products has also risen—up to £944 million last year. Fishing provides employment for some 13,000 fishermen, around 18,000 people engaged in the processing sector and many more in ancillary businesses.
As well as providing economic revenue and employment, fishing is an important food source. It is part of our heritage, and it is of social and cultural importance, contributing both to rich and sustainable environments and traditional livelihoods. During the visits that I have made to fishing ports, I have been struck by the importance and relevance of fishing to local communities. Unsustainable fishing activity, however, can damage our marine ecosystems, threatening the very resources on which fishermen, our many sea anglers and others depend. It is vital, therefore, that all stakeholders work together to achieve sustainability, thus safeguarding the marine environment and the fishing way of life for generations to come.
I am glad that the Minister recognises the need for sustainability. To that end, will he pay tribute to the lead taken by Scottish fishermen in the technical measures that they introduced to reduce the impact on cod fisheries to allow the cod to recover, as is now happening?
Absolutely. We have been working across the sector and the voluntary real-time closures that have been proposed by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation are welcome. We now need to see the proof and the outcome. We have also put in place other measures, which I shall mention later.
Is the Minister aware that the EU is still proposing a reduction in days at sea for Scottish fishermen, despite the fact that they are reckoned to be the most environmentally friendly fishermen in Europe? Will he resist the call for a reduction at the Fisheries Council?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a UK position has been agreed with all my colleagues. We will put forward a range of different measures, rather than the crude cuts in days at sea. If fishermen are taking responsible action—as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) reminded us—some recognition of that is necessary. That is the way forward—
Will the Minister assure me that any decision will be based on sound science? Given that at the moment the science on recovery of cod stocks is at best unclear, every precaution must be taken so that we do not rush back into overfishing, because of the damage that it has done in the past and would do in the future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All our negotiating positions for the December Council meeting will be based on science. We receive the science from the Commission and from our own scientists, both in Scotland and in the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. It is right to base our decisions on science and sustainability. What we all want is fish today and fish tomorrow. That is important for conservation and for the industry.
Does the Minister accept that haddock is a sustainable fishery? If he does, can he explain the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who asked him about companies who have contracts to supply his Department with fish? The Minister answered:
“On a particular day, not Friday, they”—
the people from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sites—
“will offer their customers the opportunity to sample, sustainable white fish alternatives to Cod and Haddock”.—[Official Report, 15 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 337W.]
I can see the arguments with regard to cod, but does he accept that bracketing haddock with cod was somewhat unfortunate and will he look again at that answer and clarify it?
I am grateful for that intervention. In my reply to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I sought to demonstrate that there are alternatives to cod and haddock. For far too long, the nation has had a limited diet when it comes to fish. As I said in Question Time this morning, red gurnard is a species that used to be discarded but is now proving very popular. It is so mainstream that it is being served on High Speed 1, so people can eat that wonderful fish while enjoying the wonderful Kent countryside on the wonderful new line that this Government have developed. [Interruption.] I should have said, “this wonderful Government”.
There has been a concern that, while haddock are being sought, cod get caught up in the nets. Importantly, a new net has been developed in America that catches haddock but allows cod to escape. That relates to what hon. Members were referring to earlier. There will be trials of the new net, which is called “the eliminator”. I am not sure that that is the most appropriate name, but we are stuck with it. I do not know whether it comes from California. The net has won a number of prizes in America. We will all take a great interest in the trials, which will take place in the North sea.
On the sustainability of cod, does the Minister accept that 95 per cent. of the cod consumed in this country is imported from waters off the Faroes, Norway and Iceland? That is a sustainable fishery. It is only the cod over which he and his EU colleagues have control that is not sustainable.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I will talk later in my speech about the amount of fish that we import.
I want to outline some of the primary elements of our work over the past year to get us closer to achieving sustainability. This year, we have focused on developing a long-term strategy for sustainable fisheries—Fisheries 2027. I launched our vision in October this year and it sets out what we want to achieve. It will drive reform and provide a clear framework to steer the future direction of our policies.
Achieving sustainability is not just something for the Government, however, and it is not something that can be delivered overnight. Stakeholders have welcomed our vision and the leadership that it demonstrates. We are developing a shared implementation plan with people across the sector—fishermen, anglers, processors, retailers, customers and environmental groups—to turn our words into delivery, so that we can achieve sustainability together. We have a shared desire to achieve sustainability and a shared responsibility, locally and globally. We have a long way to go with this ambitious agenda, but the Government are committed to it and to playing their part.
Working collaboratively is vital if we are to realise the changes that we want to achieve. I am pleased that fishermen have been working closely with scientists through our fisheries science partnership. That has built up trust between often sceptical fishermen and my scientific advisers, leading to improved fisheries research overall. There are other examples of such activity: for instance, earlier this year fishermen and anglers worked collaboratively to draw up the recreational sea angling strategy that I published for consultation this morning.
To achieve sustainability, we need to build stocks. We must also put the right regulatory framework in place, both domestically and at the European level, to enable the fishing industry, sea angling businesses and others who depend on this vital resource to operate efficiently, profitably and in an environmentally responsible manner. We need a clearer, simpler and more transparent rights-based system for accessing fisheries, and we must make sure that the economic and social benefits from fishing, whether commercial or recreational, are shared fairly.
At a European level, we want the 2012 reform of the common fisheries policy to result in a decisive break with micro-management from Brussels and a major shift in long-term management plans for key stocks. We want the fishing industry and other stakeholders to be more fully engaged in the regional advisory councils, which need a more central role. We want a dramatic reduction in the number of annual decisions and in the volume of EU legislation. In addition, we need to make sure that our policies do not result in unintended negative impacts such as the tragic discards of North sea cod about which we heard this morning.
To achieve all those things, however, we need to work closely with our European partners so that we tackle the challenges together. We also need to work collaboratively across the UK, as we will have much more influence and be more effective in delivering real reform if the UK speaks with one voice.
If the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party is to pull out of the CFP, he will not be at any table. As the UK representative, I work with the Administrations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and, after a very good process of negotiation, we have agreed our position.
Members of the EU cannot pick and mix their policies. They cannot say, “We’ll be part of this but not part of that.” Signing up to the EU means signing up to all of its policies, so leaving the CFP would mean leaving the EU. However, as long as there is a UK Government, we will work with our partners and allies to develop a new CFP with much more effective regional councils. To achieve that, all member states must work together.
We must not try to manage fisheries in isolation. We are bringing forward proposals for a marine Bill that will give us the modern, streamlined, forward-looking management framework that we need if we are to achieve sustainable marine development. The proposed legislation will streamline regulation and make our marine laws more effective. It will provide the better, smarter, clearer regulation that fits with the Government’s broader policies of good regulation.
The integrated package of measures in the marine Bill will include proposals for a system of marine planning, as well as stronger arrangements for protecting marine nature and a streamlining of the process by which marine works such as wind farms are licensed. The Bill will also set out proposals to reform the sea fisheries committees and make them responsible for inshore fisheries management. The reform will be underpinned by a shift towards an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.
In short, the Bill will provide much better co-ordination between the management of new systems and those already in place, with a stronger focus on sustaining our marine resources.
About two thirds of the fish that we eat is imported—a fact referred to by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill)—so we have a responsibility to contribute to the sustainability of fisheries globally. We are therefore leading global efforts to stop illegal fishing, which is a major threat to the sustainable management of fish stocks, and to biodiversity. It also threatens the livelihoods and basic food supplies of coastal communities. Illegal fishing is valued at $1 billion a year in sub-Saharan Africa alone. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), and I are working closely with businesses to address environmental issues and develop work on those concerns.
The work on illegal fishing follows on from the very good progress made by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who was an excellent Fisheries Minister for a number of years. He championed that cause in his role as chair of the high seas task force. As the UK leads on the issue, I highlighted the importance of addressing the problem at the recent ministerial meeting on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Lisbon. I underlined the important role of UK fisheries, and retail and processing companies, that are developing systems to trace food from trawl to plate. In the European Commission we are championing seamless systems, such as those used by Young’s Bluecrest in Grimsby, so that minimal regulatory burdens are created when we regulate to prevent illegal fish imports.
I echo the Minister’s praise for Young’s, a firm of which we in Grimsby are very proud. The principles of traceability and sustainability are embodied in the new Great Grimsby range of fish products. All other fish fingers are now made in Germany by Birds Eye. At the party conference, our party leader praised the principle of British fish fingers for British consumers.
Oh, he is not. That was clearly a fisherman’s tale, then. Birds Eye now produces fish fingers in Germany; perhaps Young’s needs a figurehead to promote Grimsby fish fingers, and I can think of no one better to display on its boxes of fish fingers than my hon. Friend.
Before I report on our priorities at the December Fisheries Council, I should like to mention other matters of importance, and to state what progress has been made this year. Many of our stocks remain in a fragile state, but there are signs of recovery. For the first time in eight years, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES—has advised a non-zero catch for North sea cod. That is because fishing mortality has reduced to lower than precautionary levels, allowing the size of the mature stock to rebuild relatively rapidly to above the biologically safe level of 70,000 by 2009.
The improved situation has been achieved in part by the 2005 year class of cod approaching maturity. Importantly, because we have managed to cut the fishing pressure on cod, it is now at about 50 per cent. of its peak level, and is at a level that ICES terms “sustainable”. I shall return to that issue in the context of the forthcoming negotiations, but I highlight it now to demonstrate the action and responsibility that stakeholders across the sector have taken and the genuine sacrifices that people have made to achieve long-term sustainability. That joint action in pursuit of a shared goal was demonstrated in March, when stakeholders worked together to find more effective ways to assist the recovery of the Community’s cod stocks. That is indicative of the increasing role that stakeholders are playing in fisheries management.
We still have a lot to learn from fishermen and other people closely involved with the domestic fishing industry. The UK championed the establishment of regional advisory councils in the last round of common fisheries policy reforms in 2002, and the councils are now beginning to bear fruit in developing practical ideas to improve fisheries management. A significant number of recommendations made by regional advisory councils on, for instance, the cod recovery plan, the future of the Shetland box and the management of bottom gill nets have all been embraced by the Commission, member states and the fishing industry alike.
Stakeholders across the sector have shown leadership, and have taken action to improve the sustainability of fisheries. I am delighted that an industry-led shellfish strategy was published earlier this year, setting out a framework for achieving a sustainable and profitable shellfish sector. The next step is implementation and making a real difference on the ground. I am pleased that the industry is approaching that with equal vigour. I wish it every success, and I will help where I can to achieve those outcomes. The industry is involved with our science programmes to establish trust and a shared understanding of fish stocks. In particular, the fisheries science partnership brings together fishermen and scientists to address a range of problems. This year’s programme includes: putting bottom panels into the nets of south-western beam trawlers to release unwanted by-catch and improve the quality of the fish; looking at the survival rates of rays caught and released in the Thames and the Bristol channel; and plotting the distribution of cod across the whole of the North sea. Most importantly, a series of projects around the coast have been used to monitor the state of particular stocks, and for the first time the data generated have been used in international stock assessments, thus directly contributing to more effective fisheries management. I thank everyone involved in those projects.
Balancing the opportunities to catch fish with the available resource is one of the biggest challenges for fisheries management. There is a particular challenge this year—the quota available for vessels under 10 m in length and the creation of a sustainable inshore fishing fleet. That will require action in both the short and the long term. I have met a number of hon. Members and their staff to discuss the issue. I have spoken to many of the under-10 m fleets, and I am pursuing proposals for next year.
The Minister mentioned the positive and constructive role played by the industry in initiatives such as regional advisory councils and through other means. He will know that the Trevose closure off the north Cornish coast is entering its third year. Has he had an opportunity to review the success of measures such as closed areas, as opposed to a continued dependence on quotas? There is significant concern about the problem of discards, and it is not possible in the present scheme to distinguish between an intended and unintended over-quota catch.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to look at closures, as I suggested to hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies. If the councils can develop and mature, closures will take place to ensure that juvenile stocks are avoided. That is how we should reform the common fisheries policy, rather than undertake a rather crude cut in days at sea. That will certainly be part of our negotiating position on North sea cod in December. More widely, that is how we want the CFP to develop, and we will be actively involved in such measures.
I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way again. Given what he said about learning from skippers and people in the industry, has he, like me, had the opportunity to go out with a potting vessel inshore, or perhaps deepshore for white fish, to see at first hand the associated problems and the discards going back into the water?
I regret that since my appointment, I have not been out on a fishing boat. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the price of fuel and the fact that boats are often unsure how long they will be out. In his constituency, fishermen are rather reliant on the weather. However, a number of my officials have made trips on fishing vessels. I have visited a range of fisheries across the UK and it is my intention, after I have dealt with the Fisheries Council in December, to go out on a fishing vessel next year. Perhaps that will be off Scarborough. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that he will bring the seasickness tablets. I am very grateful.
Our seas support a wide range of productive ecosystems that sustain extensive fishing industries as well as tourism, angling, diving, boating and other activities. We need to conserve these ecosystems to provide rich resources today and for future generations.
The Minister is right to highlight the rich and diverse ecosystem for which he is responsible. In my constituency we have an invasion of signal crayfish, an American type of crayfish that is driving out white crayfish—the British crayfish. As I understand it, permission for the introduction of that species was given by the Environment Agency. Should we not be very cautious when we allow non-native species to be introduced because of the potential effect on the ecosystems that we treasure?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I shall look into the matter that he has raised on behalf of his area.
The major event before the year end is, of course, the December Fisheries Council where total allowable catches and other measures such as setting days at sea for cod fishing will be decided for 2008. The European Commission recently published its proposals for the regulation that sets the limits for 2008. Given the poor status of some of the key stocks, it is likely to be a significant challenge to deliver the necessary stock recovery while ensuring the long-term viability of the European fleet.
Following the EU’s negotiations with Norway, we agreed the TACs for several North sea species, including a cod TAC increase of 11 per cent., to which I referred this morning. This is a significant step, but only one step, in helping fisheries managers to reduce discards. We need to look at more innovative and creative ways to avoid catching too much cod in the first place. The UK is committed to reduce discarding in fisheries that catch cod. The UK is piloting a number of measures to that end, such as the voluntary real-time closures pilot in Scotland, which I have mentioned.
I shall be quick. Given that in the western approaches the quota of cod was caught in the early autumn, it is clear from the recruitment and mortality rates that cod stocks are recovering. Will the Minister bear that in mind when he is negotiating in Europe? It is clear to the fishermen in the south-west that the quota does not match the health of the stock.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have visited the south-west. I have not yet been to Newlyn, but I have been to Brixham. Many fishermen there tell me that they have had a very good year, not least for catching alternative fishes. Cuttlefish in particular have sold well. It is interesting that they are exported. When we go on holiday to Spain and other countries we eat cuttlefish there, but we do not seem to eat it in this country. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. In all these matters we need to balance conservation and ensuring that the fisheries are viable. I have said throughout my speech that we need to engage with the fishermen, but there need to be partnerships with the science as well.
The UK managed also to prevent too large a cut in the amount of haddock available to fishermen. This is important because, if we are to encourage fishermen not to catch too much cod, they will need other stocks to fish. We were also successful in limiting Norway’s proposed 80 per cent. cut in the TAC for whiting to a 25 per cent. reduction. That was a reasonable outcome, given the uncertainty in the scientific indicators for this species.
We supported the Commission in seeking to limit the extent of the cut in the herring TAC in line with the unanimously agreed pelagic regional advisory council position, and we regret the fact that Norway was unable to accept that advice. I am sure that the Scottish National party Members heard that; Norway does not always get it right.
I have jointly agreed with Michelle Gildernew, Richard Lochhead and Elin Jones, my colleagues in the devolved Administrations, the UK priorities for the December Fisheries Council. Those include resisting further blunt cuts in days at sea in favour of more focused management measures designed to reduce fishing mortality, such as real-time closures, increased use of more selective gear and new incentives to avoid catching cod. Those appropriate options are currently being discussed with UK industry.
We will also seek to ensure that there are no cuts in total allowable catch for stocks in respect of which the Commission’s justification is simply that the quotas have not been taken up in previous years; unused quotas are not necessarily indicative of reduced availability, but often reflect fishermen’s reactions to varying market conditions for particular stocks. We need to maintain that potential flexibility.
As I mentioned earlier, the scientific work undertaken in collaboration with the industry is bearing fruit, and we intend to deploy the latest material to support our case when it suggests that the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is not sufficiently current. I am also pleased to report that, following concerted pressure from the UK—in particular during our presidency—the Commission and ICES have developed an improved timetable of scientific advice and consultation in the run-up to December’s meeting. From next year, ICES will release its scientific advice in July, thereby enabling earlier publication of proposals by the Commission. That will allow more time to consult the regional advisory councils and other stakeholders, and to influence the Commission’s formal proposals. That is clearly a welcome development.
I am pleased to have made my first address in this fisheries debate and to see so many Members here. I look forward to hearing their contributions.
I pay tribute to the brave fishermen who have lost their lives in the past 12 months. We should always remember that fishing is a dangerous occupation; sadly, fishing families and communities suffer terrible tragedies. I also pay tribute to Fishermen’s Mission, whose badge I am wearing—that unique charity, founded in 1881, deserves our thanks.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. We all know about the importance of science in fisheries, but in the next five years the Government will cut the minimum budget for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science from £30.9 million in 2008-09 to £28.8 million in 2012-13.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing those statistics. He will be aware that we have agreed 10 years of funding for CEFAS; that has never happened before. It is essential that science has long-term stability. We have worked with our scientists at CEFAS to ensure that there is long-term sustainability for all the important work that they will undertake—rather than things being decided year by year, as under the Tory Government.
So the Minister does not dispute the fact that he is cutting the budget.
Despite the important role of the Marine Fisheries Agency for fisheries management, the Minister has not outlined what its funding will be for the 2008-09 to 2010-11 comprehensive spending review period. He has said warm and welcoming words about CEFAS, but the same has not been done for the Marine Fisheries Agency, which is already under pressure because the 90 per cent. target for entering information into the fisheries database within five days is only just being met.
The Minister also needs to confirm that the demands for the forthcoming electronic recording and reporting requirements are met. Like CEFAS, the MFA needs financial stability to function and meet its targets. If the Government cannot provide it, I suspect that our fisheries will suffer.
The questionable financial management of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs means that in forthcoming years the number of Royal Navy fisheries protection service patrol days has been slashed. Between 1997 and 2006 there was an annual average of 981 days provided by about 10 different vessels—Hunt class, Island class and River class. Under the new contract, which begins in April 2008, only three River class offshore patrol vessels have been contracted to provide 700 patrol days in 2008-09, potentially reducing to just 600 patrol days in two years’ time. By comparison, this year, the three River class vessels provided 620 days, complemented by the further 225 patrol days provided by the other five Hunt class vessels. Moreover, there were some 41 days when there were no River class vessels on task, and a davit fault resulted in all of them being recalled for five of those days—from 15 to 19 June. Should that happen again, no enforcement vessels will be available at all, and the House will understand that no fisheries policies are workable without adequate enforcement.
We should be proud of the officers of HMS Severn, who have had several successes, including bringing the Belgian trawler De Marie Louise to justice for under-recording catches of plaice and using blinders illegally to catch 4,000 undersized sole. They have also boarded the French stern trawler, Saint Jacques II, in the North sea, leading to a successful prosecution for misrecording cod as black sea bream. Of course, we need to work with the industry and our foreign counterparts to improve enforcement, but I warn the Minister about relying on just three vessels to patrol 80,000 square miles.
Most European Union countries will soon start to receive their European fisheries fund moneys for 2007 to 2013, because they are likely to have had their operational programmes approved by the Commission by the end of this year. Some £97 million of that money is available to the UK fishing sector to help our fishing industry to grow and become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. So how is DEFRA getting on with delivering it? The autumn 2006 edition of “Fishing Focus” declared that the operation programme would be developed by this time last year. In its most recent business plan, DEFRA promised to deliver the EFF by April 2008. However, instead of the fishing industry looking forward to receiving that money in the new year, like most of Europe, no one will be able to access it because DEFRA proved itself unable to develop an operation programme, consult on it and submit it to the Commission for approval by the end of the year.
Last week, the Minister announced that an agreement had finally been reached with the devolved Administrations on the budget split, which he had blamed for the delay. The headline on the DEFRA press release read: “£97 million boost for UK fishing and seafood industries.” The Scottish National party expressed its delight at having
“negotiated hard to achieve the lion’s share of the UK’s allocation of the European Fisheries Fund.”
Yet by the Minister’s own admission, the programme is unlikely to occur until late 2008. DEFRA has missed its own targets, will miss the Commission’s deadlines, and now faces the risk of being fined by the Commission. The UK could lose almost €19 million of EFF allocated for 2007. At this rate, its delivery might even compete for incompetence with the delivery of the single farm payment.
Without doubt, one of the most important innovations that we need in order to manage our seas in a sustainable manner is the marine Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for showing us the way with his private Member’s Bill. Time and again, the Government promised that it was a key part of DEFRA’s five-year strategy launched in 2004; time and again, they have failed to deliver. We were supposed to get a marine Bill in draft form two years ago. Then we were informed by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), the then Minister, that there would be a “real” marine Bill in the current Session. Now we know that there is only a draft Bill pencilled in for the coming spring. Can the Minister give us a commitment that that legislation will be on the statute book before the next general election? I did not think so. [Interruption.] The Minister wishes me to give way; I will gladly do so if he can tell us when the general election will be. [Interruption.] Oh, he does not want me to give way after all.
DEFRA, the self-proclaimed
“policy custodian for the marine and aquatic environment”,
is failing to live up to its name. What kind of policy custodian for the marine and aquatic environment fails to protect the pink sea fan of Lyme bay, which is supposed to be a protected species—protected by whom?—bans British vessels from pair trawling only to have foreign vessels lawfully come into our 12-mile limit and sweep up our bass while killing and wounding dolphins and porpoises, or plans marine protected areas that will apply only to British vessels? The marine Bill must be introduced as soon as possible, and its measures must be sound and robust. The Minister must press his European counterparts into accepting provisions that impact on fisheries.
The marine Bill must also deliver real reform to sea fisheries committees, which will mean ensuring that the nation’s more than 1 million recreational sea anglers are involved in fisheries and marine management. In my party, we recognise the benefits that sea anglers bring to the UK. It is an industry worth £1 billion and 19,000 jobs, which is why I tabled early-day motion 468. We want to see bigger fish, and more of them. We want an end to discards, we want anglers to be given greater representation on sea fisheries committees, and most of all we want effective management that will deliver more and bigger fish.
In contrast, despite its spin, Labour has let sea anglers down. “Net Benefits” recommended that developing the inshore sector included the management of recreational sea angling interests. We were promised a recreational sea angling strategy by March last year, but it is being published only today, in December. Has the Minister realised that it will be difficult for Britain’s sea anglers to trust Labour and take the RSA seriously, when he has already let down anglers over bass, or when his plans to introduce sea angling licences, bag limits and no-take zones could reduce RSA participation by 60 per cent., as was seen when similar measures were introduced in Portugal? We have heard it all before, and now, I suspect, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) will tell us it all again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for plagiarising a large section of my speech on bass minimum landing size. Will he confirm whether the Conservatives now support the introduction of a minimum landing size for bass? Yes or no?
If he is, how come he has not been given a job, despite doing that for 10 years? Is it not the case that nobody believes what the Labour party says about fishing any more? Part of the hon. Gentleman’s problem is that he has been going up and down the country telling people that Labour cares about angling, when the reality is that it does not. I shall finish my bit on angling and tell him why he and his party have failed sea anglers so badly.
In the foreword to “Labour’s Charter for Angling”, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), paid
“tribute to the close working relationship between Labour politicians and the world of angling.”
He went on to comment that the Labour Government would be committed to the bass management plan, saying:
“It was anglers’ concern for the conservation status of sea bass that has persuaded me to agree to implement much of the excellent bass management plan put forward by the Bass Anglers Sport Fishing Society.”
In the introduction, the hon. Member for Reading, West wrote,
“angling representatives have direct access to government ministers and a voice in policy making. Labour has demonstrated by word and action that we are the most pro-angling political party in Britain.”
What actions have the Labour Government delivered to sea anglers? The reforms proposed in “Net Benefits” to
“review the evidence supporting arguments for re-designating commercially caught species for wholly recreational sea angling beginning with bass by the end of 2004”
were not developed. On bass specifically, Labour promised a minimum landing size, and it got the entire sea angling community’s hopes up, including those of the hon. Member for Reading, West, only to disappoint them by postponing their plans at the last minute, completing the U-turn a few weeks ago.
Labour was so focused on introducing a minimum landing size that it was blinded to the other measures, such as netting restrictions and bass nursery areas, which the Minister is now claiming to be reviewing. Had DEFRA taken a comprehensive approach from the start—I hope that this helps the Minister—then, despite backtracking on the minimum landing size, other measures may have been implemented by now to protect bass stocks. Instead, sea anglers continue to be let down by Labour.
“Net Benefits” offered sea anglers hope with sentiments such as:
“Fisheries management policy should recognise that sea angling may, in some circumstances, provide a better return on the use of some resources than commercial exploitation.”
Little progress was made on that and little is likely to be made with the new RSA strategy, which does little more than echo sentiments expressed previously about minimum landing sizes, protected areas and management plans. With its slowness to implement proposals and its discreditable handling of the bass minimum landing size, is it any wonder that DEFRA is the byword for incompetence?
It is touching to hear a Conservative Front Bencher quoting from “Labour’s Charter for Angling”. If the hon. Gentleman had carried on reading it, he would have seen a section committing us to inshore netting restrictions and bass nursery areas. To give the Minister credit, he has committed himself to that aspect of the bass management plan. I could not have been more scathing in my comments about the decision to go back on a bass minimum landing size. However, I must press the hon. Gentleman again on where the Conservative party stands on that issue. It is all very well trying to make political capital out of it, but is his party in favour of it—yes or no?
The hon. Gentleman had his answer—if he was paying attention. There are plenty of other things that he could have done with his job that the Minister could have done or that the Minister’s predecessors could have done. However, they did not. They focused on bass minimum landing sizes, and then failed. [Hon. Members: “What would you have done?”] It is no good asking me what I would have done, for I was not in government. I hope that the hon. Member for Reading, West was not trying to make political points but wanting to save bass. If that was his genuine concern, he would know that the bass management plan contained far more than just minimum landing sizes, none of which has been done. That is the problem that he has to face up to. He went round the country telling people that his prime concern was saving bass, and the evidence shows that the Government have done none of it.
The Minister may now be content to talk about nursery areas, but it is 10 years too late. What a shame that all that time has been wasted. When it comes to scoring political points, I suspect that it is the hon. Member for Reading, West who is doing so, with his passion for such things rather than delivering proper policy that would have been more useful for people who want to fish for bass. If he wants to intervene again and repeat the question, he is most welcome.
The question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is one that my constituents in Hastings and Rye and under-10 m fishermen around the country will want to know the answer to. They will want to be sure that, should there be a Conservative Government, they will not go back on the Minister’s wise decision to hold off imposing a size of bass that is different from that in any other European country. Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of the greater size or not?
There is a genuine problem that I shall not be able to solve. The hon. Gentleman is trying to get me to commit to policy, which I shall not do at this Dispatch Box today, no matter how much I might like to. However, because his question is valid, I shall give him the firm assurance that, like him and his fishermen, we want a sustainable future for fishing. That means bigger fish and more of them. That is exactly what we want to deliver. I think that the Government have got it wrong, because bass should be allowed to spawn. If they are killed before they reach the length of 42 cm, that will not happen. I do not believe that the minimum landing size alone would have delivered that future for bass, but if we are taking the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society’s plan for bass management, we should have included the minimum landing size. That is not a straight answer, and I can only say I am sorry for that. I would not have started from this point, and that is why it is difficult. However, the hon. Gentleman’s fishermen at home should be more than content with the knowledge that we want to deliver the future that they need, which they will get under a Conservative Government.
Does anyone else want to have a go on minimum landing sizes?
My point is not on minimum landing sizes, and I hesitate to intrude on the spat between the Conservative and Labour parties. However, the hon. Gentleman said that the issue had needed to be addressed for the past 10 years, and I agree with him. In order to reassure me that this is not merely political opportunism, because there is clearly a strong bandwagon campaigning in favour of sea anglers, will he reassure Members about what the Conservatives did to support sea anglers during their 18 years of custodianship—by giving them a seat at sea fisheries committees, for example?
My Whip is reminding me that things went pretty well without me; I think I shall have to stop at that point before we get drawn into the benefits of history.
All the interventions miss a serious point. Surely, what we all want is better, bigger and more fish in our seas. Tragically, the Government are not delivering that. It is a great shame.
Let me consider the Commission’s proposal for the December Fisheries Council meeting. The 11 per cent. increase in North sea cod is welcome. It means a welcome change for the fishing industry, especially after successive years of no-catch advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. If cod recovery continues, and new measures are taken to reduce mixed fishery by-catch, I hope that, next year, our fishermen can receive a greater reward for their sacrifices. However, it should also be noted that the ICES advice was for a 50 per cent. reduction on the 2006 catch.
Last year, I asked the then Minister whether he trusted the advice of the fishermen or that of the scientists. I am sure that hon. Members would like to know the Under-Secretary’s position—fishermen or scientists?
That is precisely the problem. It is no good saying, “One or the other.” It is essential to have the fish-science partnerships—people working together. Throughout my speech, I referred to people working together. Fishermen need that, and it ensures sustainability for the fishery fishermen and the conservation of stocks for tomorrow. The hon. Gentleman obviously did not listen to a word that I said. It is no good having a polarised debate. Fishermen know that and he should wake up and understand it.
It is no good the Under-Secretary trying to give us lectures, because the evidence contradicts his comments. In the past 10 years, nothing has been done to heal the gap between what fishermen see and throw back and what scientists believe is there. That is a fundamental problem. [Interruption.] It is no good the Under-Secretary lecturing from a sedentary position, because he will ultimately have to make the choice. I look forward to his returning from the December meeting and announcing his successes or failures. If I were in his shoes, I would want the gap to close. I do not blame him for saying what he did, but I do not believe that he can support it with any evidence.
Far be it from me to give aid and comfort to the Government, but does not the hon. Gentleman accept that measures such as the real-time closures represent a major step forward in trying to bridge the gap between fishermen and science, which has dogged fisheries negotiations for so long?
I will in a moment—the Under-Secretary must keep calm. He has only just got the job. I cannot say, “Keep your hair on”, but I can say, “Keep calm.”
The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) made a valid point. The Under-Secretary is right that steps need to be taken. I would argue that not enough is being done, and that steps are not being taken fast enough or effectively enough.
The hon. Gentleman is getting on to a better footing after asking whether I agreed with the fishermen or the scientists. He has moved to a much better position. As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) said, it is not a case of polarised positions. Polarisation is the worst thing to do. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has moved on. Does he accept that there will be no more “them and us” and that it is all about working together?
I should love to believe the Under-Secretary and I am sure that he means well. However, we heard all that last time, and when the then Minister came back, he had arrived at a position somewhere between ICES advice and what the fishermen asked him to deliver. It is no good saying that one group is right or one group is wrong and landing somewhere in the middle. That has always happened in the past. The Government have compromised and delivered neither the scientific advice nor what the fishermen request. Let us see how the Under-Secretary gets on at the December conference. I wish him luck, but until the gap is closed, things will be difficult for him.
At the December Fisheries Council meeting, we hope that the Under-Secretary will impress on his European counterparts the importance of reform and change. Moreover, if the Government are serious about making a long-term difference, the Minister and his EU counterparts must get to grips with the problem of discards. The EU has estimated that 40 to 60 per cent. of fish that trawlers in the North sea catch are discarded. In the last quarter of 2006, the discard rate for North sea cod caught by English and Welsh vessels in the North sea was 43.8 per cent. The discard rate by Scottish vessels for west of Scotland haddock was 42.2 per cent., and that for west of Scotland saithe was 62.7 per cent. in the third quarter of 2006. A staggering 83.5 per cent. of west of Scotland whiting was discarded in the third quarter of 2006. That means that 246.3 tonnes were discarded but only 48.6 tonnes were landed. That is the scale of the problem and the harsh reality faced by our fishermen, bound by the rigidity of the quota system and some of the unsustainable management measures currently in place. The Minister is reported as saying:
“Throwing back…fish is heart-breaking”
and “immoral”. However, unless he and his European counterparts have the political will to grasp the nettle, they will be the heartbreakers.
During last year’s fisheries debate, I called on the Government to make 2007
“the year that discards are tackled.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1059.]
So far, however, the progress needed to end this wasteful and environmentally damaging practice has not been made. The EU discard atlas, due to be completed by next year, has not even been put out to tender, and the Minister has admitted that it is
“not yet clear when it will commence.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 513W.]
According to the European Commission’s 2002 community action plan, discard pilot schemes were to be set up. There are two in the UK—one in the North sea and a joint scheme with Ireland in the Irish sea, which started only recently. However, as Ministers have admitted:
“Details of pilot projects undertaken by other member states are not available.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1431-32W.]
One is left wondering why there appears to be such an appalling lack of commitment and joint working on the matter.
The community action plan also indicated that the EU was planning to eliminate discards by 2006. That date has passed, but despite the Government’s holding the presidency of the EU in the latter half of 2005, the best excuse that they could give was:
“There hasn’t been the detailed analysis at Community level of the various options identified in the report that was anticipated.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1365W.]
Now the Minister’s answer to the discard problem is to argue for an increase in quota. Of course we should argue for an increase in quota to support our fishermen when the stocks are available, but that is not a long-term solution to the problem of discards, and if the Minister thinks that increasing total allowable catches is the answer to discarding, he should apply that logic universally to all stocks, such as whiting and haddock, on which there will be further cuts this year. When are we going to get a coherent policy on discards from DEFRA? We believe that as long as Labour is in government, discarding will continue.
We also recognise that part of the solution to discarding and by-catch is to prevent the active 10 m and under vessels from running out of quota so early in the year. One of the most important challenges that the Minister faces is to ensure that they get a fair deal; but we have already had the “Net Benefits” report—almost four years ago—which advocated long-term strategic planning for the inshore sector. In “Charting a New Course” in 2005, DEFRA boasted of how it had already taken the advice of “Net Benefits” and
“set up a policy team responsible for coastal waters…including inshore management”.
There is also the inshore fisheries working group, with which the Minister has admitted he has not discussed quota management. However, between 1998 and 2004, the number of 10 m and under vessels registered in England and Wales fell from 3,342 to 3,004, while the total number in the UK has fallen from 5,474 to 4,979—a drop of 9 per cent. We have had all the talk from Labour, but no action and no long-term strategic management plan.
I am encouraged by the hon. Gentleman’s apparent support for the 10 m and under sector. I join him in that support. However, I want to be absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding: is he prepared to say unequivocally that some of the over-10 m share should be redistributed to the under- 10 m sector? Yes or no?
It is so tempting to make policy on the hoof, but I am not going to do it. When we come forward with our proposals, they will be carefully considered. However, again to give the hon. Gentleman’s constituents hope, there must be serious consideration of how just 3 per cent. of our national quota goes to 76 per cent. of our fleet. That cannot be right, and it is not sustainable. That is the best that the hon. Gentleman will get out of me today. Be assured of one thing, however: the issue has never been far from the front of my mind and it is one that we intend to tackle effectively in government, to the benefit of the under-10 m sector.
This year had barely begun when it became apparent that not enough quota had been allocated to the inshore fleet. Just 2 or 3 per cent. of quota had been allocated to 76 per cent. of the UK’s fishing vessels. The Government do not even have a view on how much quota the sector should have or the fish that it should be landing. That sector should not be dependent on gifts, or on in-year and cross-year quota swaps. When asked whether DEFRA had estimated the value of the cross-year swap of 40 tonnes of area VII angler fish in 2007 to the south-west producer organisation in exchange for 40 tonnes of channel plaice in 2006, the Minister stated:
“No such estimate has been made.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 526W.]
When asked the reason why no estimate of the value had been made, he commented:
“It is not feasible to undertake an economic analysis of the value involved in every swap undertaken.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 866W.]
Common sense would suggest, however, that the value of the swap should be taken into consideration and should be among the primary factors considered, especially as, in this instance, the swap has cost the 10 m and under fleet some £300,000 in lost potential revenue, as angler fish are worth much more than plaice. The person in the Marine Fisheries Agency who made that decision did not seem to be aware of that or value it enough. Where was the long-term plan for the inshore fleet then?
The Minister may be relatively new in the job, but he needs to knuckle down and transform DEFRA— the Department that has become a byword for incompetence—because at the moment it is the barrier to sustainable fisheries management, when it should be providing the solutions. In recent years, we have seen non-stop consultations and publications from the Government, but a complete lack of action. We have seen wave after wave of documents and statements: “Net Benefits”, “Securing the Benefits”, “Charting Progress”, “Safeguarding Our Seas”, and the latest edition, “2027: a long-term vision for sustainable fisheries”. The Government might talk about a vision for 2027, but the reality is that they have not even got a vision for 2008. They have dithered over bass, failed to develop the inshore fleet, failed to tackle discards, failed to deliver the European fisheries fund on time, failed to deliver sustainable marine management, failed to bring forward the marine Bill, failed to protect the pink sea fans of Lyme bay and failed to take the leadership role within Europe that we need. In typical DEFRA fashion, they have missed targets, broken promises and postponed deadlines. This is a complete catalogue of incompetence. Next year will be make or break time for much of the fishing industry. Reforms must be effective, fisheries must become sustainable and real change is needed. However, that change is not going to be possible under this Government.
I have just heard the most extraordinary speech from the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). To summarise, he seemed to be saying, “Here’s the problem. The Government must sort it out, but I’m not going to commit to saying whether I would sort it out if I were in government. On the one hand, the Government should do this, and on the other hand, they should do that, but I’m not going to choose between the two.” I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to Liberal Democracy is imminent.
I want to take a few minutes of the House’s time to talk about the under-10 m fleet and, in particular, the under-10 m fleet that sails from Ramsgate, in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and welcome him to the Dispatch Box. I should also like to thank him for taking the trouble to come to Ramsgate to listen to the fishermen in the under-10 m fleet there. They were very pleased with his visit, and they have asked me to congratulate him on being frank with them. They did not like what he had to say, but they appreciated the fact that he said it to their face and did not try to gloss over the difficult problems that he faces.
The fishermen’s problem is that the allocation of fish that they are permitted to catch is insufficient to allow their industry to remain sustainable. They face ruin, and they expect action to be taken to deal with that. Quite simply, they do not believe that a sufficient quota is being allocated to the under-10 m fleet, and they are looking to the Government to do something about it. They are also looking for a much greater focus on their problems. They want a seat at the table.
I pay tribute to Mr. Tom Brown, the secretary of the Thanet Fishermen’s Association, who has represented Thanet fishermen in negotiations for many years and tried to get their point across. Over the past 10 years, he has also made sure that I was familiar with the problems that they face. He has validly pointed out that certain decisions were taken in the 1970s about how fishing would be managed as an industry. The producer organisations were set up effectively to promote and improve the fishing industry, but they were also given responsibility for negotiating on behalf of their members— the people who sail the larger over-10 m vessels that are part of those producer organisations. They have done a very good job of negotiating on their behalf, but because they have negotiated so well, the needs of the under-10 m fleet have been completely ignored.
I would like the Minister to undertake a complete review of the way in which the under-10 m fleet is consulted on issues surrounding quota—how the quota is going to be distributed and how the licences are going to be deployed. The producer organisations are more than just consulted: they have a seat at the table; they are players in the game. Those involved with the under-10 m fleet may be able to make their views known through advisory committees, but they are not players in the game—they are spectators—and until that changes, their needs will not be sufficiently taken into account.
It is my clear view that the allocation of quota to the under-10 m fleet is wrong. It seems to me that the division between the under-10 m and over-10 m vessels is an arbitrary one, as the Minister will probably acknowledge, but the distribution of the quota between the two sectors is equally arbitrary. Over the years, errors in how the quota has been managed have compounded the problems faced by the under-10 m sector, and it is now quite clear that its quota is inadequate.
My second suggestion to the Minister therefore is that he needs to grasp that nettle and get some quota on a permanent basis to increase the amount of fishing that the under-10 m fleet is allowed to engage in. In addition to the permanent transfer of some quota, we need a review of whether the under-10 m fleet should be allowed to buy additional quota for itself. Perhaps they should be able to form consortiums and go out and buy some extra quota, which could be restricted to the people involved in purchasing it. Will the Minister think more about that as a possible way forward?
The Minister would be the first to accept that there are far too many vessels in the under-10 m fleet. There has been no—or very little—rationalisation of it over the years. He discussed figures with several MPs the other day, which showed that a great many of the under-10 m fleet are not fishing to capacity; they are not even catching all the fish that they are licensed to catch. Many are dilettante fishermen or hobby fishermen, and some perhaps work only part-time.
I agree with the Minister that he should examine how the fleet is structured and he may need to look into the possibility of removing some people in the under-10 m fleet from commercial fishing. If he does, may I ask him to focus on the needs of those who are making their living out of it? Those who are trying to create and build businesses and who want to provide a sustainable industry with sustainable employment for local communities are the people to whom most of the quota should be allocated. They are the ones who should be allowed to fish at a level that allows them to make a living. Will the Minister also look into ways to help those people market their product or find other ways in which the Government can help us to create fish markets in very attractive locations such as Ramsgate harbour? That would be very popular, and it would help people who catch fish locally to get a good price for them.
There are several ways in which the Minister can help the under-10 m fleet. He can transfer some extra quota; he can make sure that the sector is listened to in the future; he can help it market the product better; and he can help distribute whatever quota is granted to people who make a living out of fishing. Those things would make a major improvement in the sustainability of the under-10 m fleet. They will not be easy to do. I do not relish the task ahead of the Minister, but I am quite sure that he is up to it.
First, let me associate myself, and my right hon. and hon. Friends, with the Minister’s very appropriate expressions of condolence to the families of the 10 fishermen who have lost their lives since last year’s fisheries debate. Let me also record my appreciation—and, probably, that of all Members—of the skill and expertise of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is often called upon when fishermen are lost, the selfless bravery of the search and rescue helicopter crews, and in particular the lifeboat crews who offer their services on a voluntary basis.
I welcome the Minister to his first fisheries debate. He takes up the brief at a time when the debate in the House is slightly less febrile than it has been, certainly in my experience, but he and his Department still face massive challenges, and I think it is in the interests of all of us who represent fishing communities and all of us who care about the sustainability of fish stocks for him to succeed in his job.
I also pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who is now a Health Minister, and also Minister for the South West. He took on the job when he was on a fairly steep learning curve, but he got to grips with it in time, and I believe that his view was respected in the industry by the time he gave it up. I have to say, though, that when he left the Chamber at the start of this debate, there was an ever-so-slightly wide grin on his face.
In recent years this debate has been dominated by the issue of cod stocks, and that issue has featured prominently again today. I am delighted that it is now accepted on all sides that we are seeing an upturn in the health of the spawning stock biomass of cod. Hansard will show that for the last couple of years a number of us have told the Minister that the upturn was already happening. It was perhaps unfortunate that not enough regard was paid to that, but I am pleased that at last the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea seems to be catching up with anecdotal evidence from the fishing industry.
I note in passing that this year’s ICES report speaks of “unaccounted removals”—a somewhat curious expression. Presumably they are unaccounted removals because there were never “accounted presents” in the first place, ICES never having accepted that the fish were there. Essentially, of course, it speaks of discards; but its acceptance of the position is welcome, as is the public evidence that it has supplied.
It should be borne in mind that the improvement has not been achieved without pain. The United Kingdom white fish effort in the North sea since 2000 has declined by 70 per cent., and in the west of Scotland it has declined by 80 per cent. I am privileged to serve on the national council of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and I often speak to lifeboat crews in different parts of the country. They tell me that they are increasingly called to incidents involving boats with problems at sea. Ten years ago, that simply would not have happened: a fishing boat would have been within range and would have gone to help the boat that was in trouble. The fact that that task now falls to the RNLI is a mark of the change that the industry has undergone.
At a time when attention has suddenly focused on discards, I think the House and all parties should bear in mind the real pain that fishing communities and the fishing industry have undergone in the past when the subject was not quite so politically interesting—certainly not sufficiently interesting to attract the attention of the “Today” programme.
There are, of course, a range of other external pressures on the industry. One of the main pressures on the fishing fleet in my constituency is the high cost of fuel, which is having a serious impact. Fishermen in this country look with some envy and not a little irritation at the situation across the channel, where the French Government are giving fuel subsidies to their fleet. When I raised the matter with Commissioner Borg when I was in Brussels last week, no real answer was forthcoming. The Minister may wish to pursue it with the Commissioner at the December Council.
The industry is also still immensely over-regulated. I was amused to read the following observation in the brief supplied by the Northern Ireland Fishermen’s Federation:
“Finally, it is worth noting that one of the few annual increases in the EC’s proposals is the amount of paper used. In 2002 the number of pages in the regulation was 102. In 2003 it was 109, in 2004 119, in 2005 151, in 2006 183 and in 2007 213 pages. The proposed regulation for 2008 is 224 pages long. So much for the EC’s promised simplification agenda.”
I want to say a few words on the recent EU-Norway settlement, to which the Minister has made reference today. He is right to say that the increases in the cod and saithe total allowable catch figures, in particular, are very welcome. They are not, however, the whole picture, which is immensely complex and still very challenging, not least because the increases for cod and saithe have been coupled with cuts in the TACs for whiting and haddock. Therefore, on the one hand something good is given, but on the other hand something good is taken away.
One benefit of the cod increase is that it affords us an opportunity to tackle in a realistic way the question of discard switch, which I am delighted to say has now found its proper place higher up the political agenda. At Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions today, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) said he risked incurring the wrath of the fishing industry—no doubt the fishermen of Croydon will have been listening closely to what he had to say, and he will be accountable to them for his comments—by drawing attention to the question of discards. On the contrary, the fishing industry has been trying to draw attention to discards for as long as I have been involved in politics, and doubtless for some substantial length of time before that. Discards are representative of a situation where quotas do not reflect the balance of the amount of fish in the sea. That is a fundamental problem, especially when dealing with a mixed fishery such as the North sea white fish fishery. Allied to that, I urge the Minister to resist the argument that because there has been an increase in the cod and saithe TACs there should be a commensurate reduction in effort, in particular in terms of days at sea.
On days at sea, is my hon. Friend aware that the Commissioner proposed a 25 per cent. cut in days at sea for the west of Scotland nephrops fleet—a cut that is not borne out by the scientific advice, which is that nephrops stocks are healthy and the cod by-catch is insignificant? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister must resist that 25 per cent. cut at the Fisheries Council?
I cannot fault my hon. Friend’s argument. The position with regard to west coast nephrops is particularly clamant. As he has pointed out, there is a negligible cod by-catch, and the sustainability of the nephrops stock—the Scottish langoustine, I think we are now supposed to call them—in the west of Scotland has not been questioned, as far as I am aware. The cut that the EU Commission proposes seems, therefore, to fly in the face of its own science.
The days-at-sea issue will be crucial to the success or failure of the Minister’s visit to Brussels. The devil lies in the detail. At first sight, the proposal appears to be a roll-over in terms of effort, inasmuch as it takes up the question of administrative penalties, and if one buys into administrative penalties one ends up with the same number of days at sea. The Scottish fleet also has a significant number of extra days given to it by virtue of its previous decommissioning effort. However, if the Minister looks at the baseline figures he will see that there is a cut of somewhere in the region of 10 per cent. in that. This might achieve a roll-over for the days at sea this year, but it could stack up problems for us in years to come. I ask the Minister to resist vigorously the cut in the baseline figures in relation to days at sea.
As the Minister observed, a number of other species are available in a white fish fishery, and I commend him on his efforts in drawing attention to that. May I draw his attention to another species, the North sea megrim. The UK position is for a 15 per cent. increase in the total allowable catch of megrim in the North sea. The evidence that I hear from the fishing industry throughout Scotland is that the discard levels suggest that a much larger increase in the TAC could be sustained.
Will the Minister ensure that his officials examine the question of megrim before he goes to Brussels? It is particularly galling for fishermen to have to chuck lots of megrim over the side—it is a high-value species, and fishermen in my constituency get about £5 to £6 a kilo for megrim, which is more than they get even for monkfish. It would be unfortunate not to have a TAC in place when there are fish that will be of value, particularly when the industry’s margins are as pressured as they are. There is also a growing biomass of hake in the North sea, but no quota, and let us have no further salami-slicing on species such as lemon sole, because year-on-year cuts seem to be made simply for the sake of it, and without any science to back them up.
The pelagic fleet has been a mainstay of Scottish fishing communities in recent years, and I cannot overestimate its importance. In recent years it has kept what onshore business we have going. The proposal this year is for a 42 per cent. cut in North sea herring and a 9 per cent. cut in North sea mackerel. My concern—this is perhaps where the approach of the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) becomes particularly unhelpful—is that there is a substantial disjunction between how the scientists see the health of the stock and how the industry sees it. It is not clear who is right, and I suspect that, as ever, the truth may lie somewhere between the two extremes. The mackerel stock is of particular importance to the pelagic fleet, and if a cut is made where none is necessary, its impact would be particularly severe. There is little cheerfulness or optimism in the pelagic fleet. In my constituency, I have heard rumours of at least two boats considering selling out. If they do, they will sell out to boats outside the United Kingdom, and once gone, they will be gone for ever; we know that from experience in other sectors.
An obvious compromise could be made on mackerel. The Minister may not be able to get what the industry wants, and I accept that there are difficulties in that. Will he negotiate from the position that there needs to be a comprehensive review of the science? There is precedent for that. Will he also negotiate some in-year flexibility for the fleet, because experience tells us—I think particularly of the situation that faced monkfish fishermen in south-west England a few years ago—that as the year progresses it can become apparent that the science on which the quota and the TAC was based was not accurate, and that there is an abundance of fish. Such is the importance of mackerel to the Scottish pelagic fleet that every effort should be made to ensure that any cuts are absolutely necessary in the interests of sustainability, and can be revisited in the course of the year. As I say, there are precedents for that.
I could doubtless concentrate on other aspects of the industry—but I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak.
The hon. Gentleman, who gave us 18 minutes on the subject of sea angling and bass, asks me to sit down. It makes me long for the days when the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) was the fisheries spokesperson for the Conservative party—although one would not have put good money on my saying that when she was doing the job.
The Minister goes to Brussels with our best wishes. It is in the interests of all parties, all the communities that rely on fishing for their economic viability, and all who care about the sustainability of fish stocks, that he should be successful.
I wish to associate myself with the comments made by all contributors to the debate about the sacrifices by fishermen and the services provided to the industry by others.
The general impression given by representatives of the industry is that things are better than they have been for some time. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly reminded us of the sacrifices that have been made over the last few years, with the amount of decommissioning and the impact that it has had on the industry. However, fish are getting a good price at the market just now and the Minister makes an important point about a culture change in the industry. For many years, the leaders of the industry were way ahead of their membership in advocating environmental changes and talking about sustainability, but that has now permeated the industry. It has been a substantial culture change. There is now a real focus on quality of fish and a much closer relationship with the scientists, including a willingness to be involved in experimentation on real-time closures and gear changes, which is very significant. The industry, certainly in Scotland and, I am sure, elsewhere, is becoming much more pro-active.
There is some concern at how the Council negotiations will pan out. It is the usual lottery. No matter how good the prospects might be—especially for the agreement with Norway on cod quotas—there is always concern about how they will operate. The Scottish industry would obviously like to see a fair outcome, and has raised three particular points with me. First, given the across-the-board cuts in herring and mackerel, an equitable settlement for the west of Scotland herring TAC is essential to the Scottish pelagic industry. Secondly, it wants agreement on a more precise means of continuing cod recovery by an elevated TAC to avoid discards, and a package of cod avoidance measures to reduce cod mortality. Thirdly, the industry wants a firm agreement on effort control or days at sea for the fleet sectors covered by the cod recovery plan restrictions.
My main interest in the industry is on the processing side. We do not have very many fish catches left in the Aberdeen harbour and things have not been so good for the processors. The reduction in the fleet in the past few years has meant a vastly reduced supply of raw material. The processors are now part of a global market, in which there is much more intense competition. Some other countries can process at much lower cost than we can.
In the Aberdeen area, there have been 50 per cent. job losses and several company closures in the industry, but to balance that, the situation does appear to be bottoming out. The North East Fishermen’s Training Association, which provides in-service training for people in the processing industry, has seen 700 trainees complete their training in the past six months, and there are still 1,000 jobs in Aberdeen.
One of the major problems for the industry was that while the fishing fleet received compensation from Government to help them through the difficult times of decommissioning, nothing was given to the processing sector. That is still a problem and the industry has had to cope with several other serious problems, not the least of which were new environmental health and food processing regulations, which have required massive investment. Although there is a sense that things are bottoming out, there are still more difficulties to come.
The Sea Fish Industry Authority has done a significant amount over the past few years to help the industry through its difficult times. The authority sponsors the training course I mentioned earlier. I congratulate it on the work that it does in the industry. There is some controversy at the moment, not least in the city of Aberdeen, about some of the proposals for training in the industry over the next few years, but I am sure that the matter will resolve itself.
The nephrops catch has been mentioned quite a lot. One of the issues that the Sea Fish Industry Authority has raised with me is the significant problem of dealing with shellfish waste. There are masses of regulations on the disposal of waste and a huge number of bodies seem to be involved. According to the list I have in front of me, for England alone the bodies include DEFRA, Animal Health, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency and local authorities. The industry feels that it is in some difficulty. It has looked at various forms of disposal of the waste from processing shellfish. Landfill is not an option and neither is in-house treatment, because there are major legal restrictions and high costs. The industry has looked at other waste disposal outlets, but there seems to be a lack of suitable alternatives. Utilisation at sea is permitted only for certain shell types. In relation to land application, there are huge legal restrictions. The product needs treatment before it can be used in that way and the costs are enormous. Will the Minister look at this issue? It is a serious problem for the industry.
On the progress of the marine Bill, we hear, particularly from the voluntary sector in Scotland, that there are some difficulties with the Scottish Executive when it comes to agreeing elements of the Bill. I understand that there will be reserved matters and devolved matters. I hope that agreement can be reached quickly on the marine Bill.
The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made the most extraordinary speech. He seemed to suggest that if we had a Tory Government, there would be more and bigger fish in the sea. That is a huge change compared with what we heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). In fact, for most of the past 10 years, the Tory policy on fishing has been to pull out of the common fisheries policy. We do not hear that much any more, so I assume that particular Tory policy has been dumped. If getting the right Government means bigger and more fish in the sea, that is quite extraordinary. I have brought my children up to believe that, under a Labour Government, there is more sunshine, but at least I have some evidence for that: the city of Aberdeen has been the sunniest place in Britain for two out of the last three years. I am waiting to see the evidence of the hon. Member for Leominster.
It certainly has not been too sunny in No. 10 Downing street in recent weeks.
Many people in my constituency come from a proud tradition of those who have earned their living on the sea. Members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have continued to put themselves in harm’s way to help those who are in mortal peril. Recently, there was a tragic case in the entrance to Whitby harbour, and the lifeboat men were called. Many who join the RNLI do not come from a fishing tradition but have jobs on land. Sadly, our fishing fleet is now much depleted and the fish-processing jobs on land are also in decline. I am pleased to say that one area has been wiped out entirely: the whaling fleet that used to ply its trade from Whitby. I hope that, when the Minister goes to other negotiations, he will make sure that that situation remains the same in other parts of the world—in particular with regard to the humpback whale, which should continue to be protected.
Captain James Cook set sail in 1768 on the Endeavour to view the transit of Venus and to rediscover New Zealand and Australia. The Endeavour was built in Whitby. I am pleased to be able to start with a good news story and to say that shipbuilding is alive and well in Whitby. Parkol Marine Engineering Ltd goes from strength to strength, and it launched its 21st boat, the 175-tonne Radiant Star, on 17 November. At 22.8 m, the vessel is 0.5 m longer than the Our Lass II, which was built for Locker Trawlers Ltd. of Whitby. Parkol Marine employs 25 workers and has a healthy order book, with two twin-rigged trawlers on order for Fraserburgh and an 80 m crabber on order for the Orkneys.
If the Minister is interested in visiting Parkol Marine, he should come up to Whitby and see a launch. It is a spectacular operation, with a massive crane from the Netherlands being used to lift the boat off the quay and into the water. If he likes a good party, he should try and come when the Orkneymen are in town for a launch. He might even take the opportunity to come out to sea with one of the potting vessels, when he could see the discards being returned to the waters. That is a real problem, but one of the realities of life.
The cod fleet is much depleted, with 10 full-time trawlers in Whitby and a similar number in Scarborough. The message from the fishermen that discards are a criminal waste is loud and clear. They do not just resent the money that they see being thrown away, but the fact that it is good fish that are being thrown back. This year, the scientists recommended a 15 per cent. increase in cod quota, but the Fisheries Council went for a freeze and that may be one reason why there have been so many discards.
The Commission has plumped for an 11 per cent. increase in the cod quota next year, and I hope that the Minister will hold the line on that, no matter what some other EU countries say. I have spent some time negotiating in other sectors within the EU, so may I advise him that he should watch out for some countries that one might not expect to have a view on fisheries? Countries that do not even have a coastline may have done deals with Spain or other fishing nations, and he may find that they have strong views as a result. Perhaps some of the skills that he developed in the Government Whips Office will prove to be of help with them.
As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, there should be no reduction in days at sea, as that would be a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. One fisherman told me today that the industry could live with the 25 per cent. cut in whiting and haddock quotas as long as the Government hold the line on the cod catch. Everybody says that stocks are improving, and prices have risen over the past 12 months.
In the months ahead, I hope that the Minister will look at ways we can introduce and encourage more sustainable methods of fishing, such as through the use of long lines and gill nets. Many vessels in the inshore potting fleet along the Yorkshire coast already use gill nets in winter.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and the automatic baiting systems and the measures that are in place to protect albatrosses mean that long lining can be very effective.
One problem with the use of gill nets is seal predation. Fishermen can get around that by having the nets out only during short periods of slack water rather than for 24 hours at a time, because in that way it is the nets that do the fishing.
I may be skating on thin ice with this question, but does the Minister feel that the number of seals in the North sea is at a sustainable level? Should there be more of them, or fewer? What level does he think is appropriate? It is a very difficult matter, as every fisherman I have spoken to tells me that there are too many seals in the North sea. That is why I believe that DEFRA should determine what is an ecologically sustainable level for those creatures.
We have heard a lot in the debate about recreational angling, but it is worth noting that many former fishermen now take recreational anglers out to sea. It is therefore not merely a hobby: people earn their living from recreational angling, and it is very important that they are supported.
Concerns have been expressed to me about the proposed marine conservation areas. Will there be areas where no fishing at all will be allowed? Will recreational fishing be allowed? If I were the Minister—many people here may be thankful that I am not—I would be cautious when considering restrictions on fishing from the shore, which is an activity that many people enjoy. In marine conservation areas—those national parks out at sea—it is important to keep the freedom to fish from the land. Let us not forget that in our national parks, one group that contributes to the most sustainable aspects of the environment is the shooting fraternity, which contributes to the environment. It would be a mistake to say that the conservation areas should be complete no-fishing zones.
A lot of environmental damage is done through marine aggregate dredging. The Olympics will require millions of tonnes of gravel, much of which could be dredged from the sea. I am sure that the Minister remembers the Marchioness disaster, in which a pleasure boat was hit by a dredger, the Bowbelle. That dredger was not dredging the Thames and going out to sea to tip; it was bringing in marine aggregate. Big applications have been made that would affect the north-west and southernmost roughs on the Dogger bank. Those are the spawning grounds of our fish, and we should be very careful about that activity.
I mentioned the problem of discards; we really must get to grips with that. Some of the solutions may lie in better fishing methods. Certainly, the Yorkshire fishing fleet feels a degree of optimism. After a massive decline in the numbers of vessels and people working in the industry, we are now reaching something like a sustainable level, and we have turned the corner. After Christmas, when the Minister has a bit more time, will he accept my invitation and come to either Scarborough or Whitby, and perhaps spend a day out at sea on a fishing vessel? It is interesting to learn about such things first-hand. I suggest Mr. Gordon Quinn, one of the Whitby skippers; it is quite an education to talk to him, never mind go out to sea with him. I wish the Minister luck in his negotiations. He certainly has my good wishes, and I hope that he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors.
I always want to come along to such debates and speak on behalf of the fishermen of Hastings and Rye. The issue excites me because I have always lived in Hastings and Rye—well, Hastings, anyway—and the fishermen are an integral part of our local community. They are the true conservationists. For centuries, they have exercised their birthright to fish in the channel as inshore fishermen, and to bring prosperity not just to their society but to the wider community. That is at risk. Last year, I said it might be the last year that that happened, unless something changed. Thankfully, the industry has survived to face another Christmas, thanks to a good stock of sole that has come late in the year. The consequence is that the fishermen are still in business—but only just.
Last year, at a meeting with Tony Blair—the then Prime Minister—Paul Joy, Graham Coglan and Ronnie Simmons, from local fishermen’s societies, explained just how dire the circumstances were. That was accepted by Tony Blair, who asked the then Minister if he could do something about it. Today, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister; he came to Hastings and Thanet and looked at the situation, and he has accepted that we needed to take action. Now we need to take it.
What action needs to be taken? Of course, we congratulate the Minister on his fortitude, but also on his ambitions for the forthcoming EU discussions and debate. I am sure that he will do the best job that he can, but we know in reality that the amount of stock available will still be very limited. We also know that that will leave the under-10 m fishing fleets in enormous difficulties. Let me briefly explain why I say that the situation in towns such as Hastings and Rye is dire. Both our local fleets consist of about 32 boats. Those are small numbers; in the great scheme of the economy, that is not big, but the fleets are important to the local economy, both for tourism and beyond. If they got their whole catch—all the cod, plaice and sole that they were permitted to catch—it would bring each boat £400 a week, despite the good prices in the past year. That money has to maintain two or three workers, plus the boys ashore—the people who help on land—and it must pay, too, for the cost of fuel and maintenance of the boat. It works out at a wage of about £90, which is not sustainable. The fleet is accredited as a sustainable fleet, but an income of £100 a week is economically unsustainable. I have thrown my prepared speech on the Bench, because every year I come to the Chamber with a 20-minute speech but I have only six minutes in which to make my contribution.
With such a limited ability, fishing in my constituency cannot continue unless something is done. It is simply unsustainable to maintain fishing fleets in the under-10 m sector unless they are allowed a higher quota. The Minister gave the figures this week. Some 640 vessels in the over-10 m sector share 96 per cent. of the allocation, and 2,379 under-10 m vessels share just 3 per cent. They do not all go to sea—perhaps only a third do so—but even if they did, the calculation of 96:3 is simply unacceptable, and it will be challenged. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that if the problem is not sorted out, people will ask the courts to make a decision about whether such distribution is legal.
This is an historic problem. It has not suddenly arisen, but it requires a contemporary answer. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the history of how it all happened. There was plenty of fish when the distributions were originally made, and the over-10 m sector which, in turn, gave rise to producer organisations, was given a share of the quota based on its track record or catch. Unfortunately, the under-10 m fleet, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) has reminded us, did not sit at the table, because it was not invited to the party. The then Government therefore handed out 96 per cent. of the catch to the big boys—perhaps that is why big fish are their particular interest—and left 3 per cent. to be distributed by the administration among the vast number of smaller vessels. That was wrong then, and it has become wronger, as there are fewer fish now.
May I bring to my hon. Friend’s attention, too, the fact that those Governments who decommissioned vessels did so only in the over-10 m sector? Consequently—and quite rightly—there is more stock to share out. However, it is not shared out across the industry; it is shared out in the over-10 m sector. As that policy, with which I do not disagree, is carried out, more stock per boat is shared out in the over-10 m sector, but nothing has happened in the under-10 m sector. It is a wrong on a wrong, which simply must change. The Minister may well decide to introduce decommissioning in the under-10 m sector as a solution, but that is not the entire answer. Because of those historic ills, I encourage him to take early action, as it is morally justifiable to find more of a share for the under-10 m sector.
The sector needs that share because of economic factors, and because of the problem of discards. There is a dispute between scientists and fishermen, and on Hastings beach people say that there is so much cod in the English channel they can walk on it. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps some of them have supernatural powers. However, there is plenty of cod, and fishermen are discarding more in the sea than they are taking out, which is disgraceful. I believe that we should never kill animals except for food—I am a member of the anti-hunt brigade—and it is almost as immoral to throw back good food and thus waste it as it is to chase foxes. I hope that will encourage my hon. Friend to act, as we have to do something about the problem. The solution is probably to allow the fish at least to be brought aboard rather than discarded, and decide what we do about it after that. In Hastings we have the best fed seagulls in Christendom because there is so much dead fish along the coast. That has to stop.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I hope very much that there will be a solution before next year and that I will be here, still speaking for an industry in Hastings and Rye.
For the west of Scotland fleet, the mainstay stock is nephrops. The nephrops stock was not scientifically assessed this year. However, the latest scientific assessment, which was presented in last year’s scientific evidence from ICES, showed healthy nephrops stocks all the way along the west coast of Scotland.
For example, quoting from the ICES advice, in the North Minch, nephrops stocks increased sharply between 2001 and 2003. The higher level of abundance in 2003 was maintained in the most recent 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 was maintained in the latest survey.
The results of television surveys in the waters beneath the firth of Clyde suggest that the population of nephrops has increased steadily since 1999, with the latest estimate being the highest in the series. A similar survey in the sound of Jura suggested that the nephrops population had been fairly stable during the previous five years. In the sea lochs where there are important creel fisheries, the surveys also show that the stocks are strong. So, without doubt, the nephrops stocks are healthy.
Scientific investigation has shown that by-catches of cod when fishing for nephrops are low in the waters off the west of Scotland. The fishermen there have for a long time been practising a real-time closure. In the spring, when there is a concentration of spawning cod in the firth of Clyde, the spawning area is rightly closed to fishing boats in order to preserve stocks.
Given all the scientific evidence that the nephrops stocks are healthy and the cod by-catch is very low, and given the real-time closure, there is no excuse for cutting the nephrops fishing effort. Despite all this, much to the dismay of the west of Scotland fishermen, the Commission has proposed a massive 25 per cent. reduction in days at sea for the west of Scotland nephrops fleet. That is totally unjustified and is not based on any scientific evidence. I urge the Minister to ensure that the proposal is rejected out of hand at the Council meeting.
A related issue that I raised with the Minister at the all-party group is the need to restore the 28 days at sea that were removed last year from the west of Scotland 70-89 mm fishing vessels that catch less than 5 per cent. by weight of cod. Those 28 days were deducted after last year’s December Council. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association has told me that the deduction was applied as a result of an administrative error and was applied by mistake, not by intent. The CFA told me that the Scottish marine directorate agreed that an error had been made and did its best to get the Commission to correct the situation, but that has not happened.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The error has certainly had a serious effect. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is corrected at this year’s Council and that those 28 days are restored. There should be a mechanism for correcting administrative errors during the year, without having to wait till the next Council.
There is widespread agreement that the annual horse trading at the EU December Council is no way to manage our fisheries. As was said by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), many of the voting participants come from landlocked countries and have no interest in fishing. We must move away from that annual horse trading to regional management by those who have a stake in the future of the industry.
This year’s proposal from the Commission of a 25 per cent. cut in days at sea would leave the west of Scotland fleet in an unsustainable position and is completely unjustified. Given how the negotiations work, I suspect that the proposal is a negotiating position and that the Commission is actually looking for a smaller reduction. However, we should not fall for that; there is simply no reason for any reduction whatever, and I hope that the Minister will resist the proposal. Since he secured his post, the Minister has engaged constructively with the industry and the all-party group and I wish him all the best at his first EU Council, which will be an interesting experience and unlike anything he has experienced.
I conclude by emphasising again that the Minister must make every effort to ensure that there are no cuts in days at sea for the west of Scotland nephrops fleets.
I was pleased to contribute to last year’s fisheries debate and remind the House that fisheries are not just the preserve of the commercial sector, but provide the resource on which recreational angling depends. I welcome the opportunity—admittedly, I have only a few minutes—to update hon. Members on developments in freshwater fisheries. I particularly want to highlight the work of the fisheries section of the Environment Agency. I also want to draw Members’ attention to the work of the Anglers’ Conservation Association, of which I am a member; I declare that interest.
I welcome the Minister to his first fisheries debate. I was delighted that he made a number of references to the importance of recreational angling; that point was replicated across the Chamber. Being Fisheries Minister is not easy; after all, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), said:
“if you are a Fisheries Minister you sit around the table arguing about fishermen, not about fish. You are there to represent fishermen, you are there to ensure that if there are ten fish left you get your share and, if possible, a bit more. The arguments are not about conservation”—
wise words from a politician who has scars on his back as a result of having done the job. I wish the Minister well, and if he is short of bedtime reading during the Christmas holidays, I heartily recommend “End of the Line” by Charles Clover—a fairly apocalyptic snapshot of the state of the ocean’s fisheries in particular.
I turn briefly to the work of the Environment Agency. Hon. Members will be aware that it is the lead body for protecting and improving the freshwater environment. Not only does it regulate, enforce and prosecute the users and abusers of our waterways, but it is charged with increasing participation in angling.
I hope that the Minister has had the opportunity to read two important documents from the agency. The first, “Our Nation’s Fisheries”, gives a useful snapshot of the state of freshwater stocks. The overall picture is reasonably encouraging, but behind the generalisations there are serious concerns. Coarse fish numbers are increasing in many of our rivers. In the most recent survey, fish were present at more than 98 per cent. of sites and 50 per cent. of sites contained eight or more species. That is a big improvement on a decade ago, when many more rivers were grossly polluted and their fish communities were restricted to a few or a couple of species. However, salmon stocks have been seriously depleted, and stocks of multi-sea winter fish particularly so. In 2002, 70 per cent. of rivers failed to meet their conservation limit, and 46 per cent. achieved less than half the limit. As the Minister will be aware, the news is not all bad. Salmon stocks on some previously polluted rivers, including the Tyne, the Tees and rivers of the south Wales valleys, have recovered dramatically. However, there is no cause for complacency.
I hope that the Minister has also had the opportunity to look at “Fishing for the Future”, the angling participation strategy produced by the Environment Agency. The agency draws attention to its new statutory obligation to maintain, improve and develop salmon and freshwater fisheries. It has a participation target, which aims to deliver an extra 100,000 anglers by 2010. In the past three years, it has exceeded that target. Licence sales have risen and angling is doing well under Labour; we are catching bigger and more fish—at least I am.
However—here is the rub—there is the issue of DEFRA grant in aid, which I raised in DEFRA questions earlier. A properly funded fisheries budget for the Environment Agency is crucial. I urge the Minister to consider what has happened to the ratio between funding for EA fisheries work delivered through the rod licence income and that delivered through grant in aid. In 1995, 44 per cent. of the total budget came from grant in aid and 52 per cent. from rod licence income. Now, 29 per cent. of the budget is delivered through grant in aid and 68 per cent. through rod licence income. Contrast that with navigation, where grant in aid has increased from £8.3 million in 2004-05 to £13.3 million in 2006-07. It is clearly unfair for the increased burden to be borne by rod licence holders.
I wish to turn to the excellent work of the Anglers Conservation Association. Not all that is done to protect our rivers, streams and canals is done by the Environment Agency—anglers have been putting their hands in their pockets for years. The ACA was established in 1948, backed with funds of just £200. Three years later, it forced a city corporation to spend £1.8 million, worth £30 million at today’s prices, on a new sewage works to prevent pollution. This year alone, it has settled 30 legal cases concerning pollution with sewage, pesticides, sediment, fertiliser and slurry. It has lost only three cases in its 60-year history, and just this week successfully negotiated £500,000 in compensation from Thames Water for its disgraceful pollution of the beautiful River Wandle, London’s only chalk stream within the boundary of the M25. I wish the ACA well; it is a great shame that only about 10,000 of Britain’s 2.5 million freshwater anglers are members.
Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the constituent parts of recreational angling—the National Federation of Anglers, the Specialist Anglers Alliance, the Salmon and Trout Association, the ACA and the Association of Rivers Trusts—have finally come together to provide a united voice for angling. It is important that angling, as a guardian of the waterways, is able to punch its weight in this place and elsewhere.
It is some time since I have tried to speak in a debate on fisheries policy. I note that the issues are evergreen—as are most of the speakers, with the exception of our bright, shiny new Minister, whom we wish well in his job.
I intend to limit my remarks to the issue of discards, which has featured much in the press of late, particularly in relation to cod, as well as in this debate and at Question Time earlier today. There is absolutely nothing new about this situation, for it is simply a direct result of European Union fisheries policy. Not only is the thorny issue of discards being repeated in relation to cod, but I can assure the House that the situation will continue to recur unless common sense eventually prevails. In 1986, the fishing industry itself highlighted the amount of haddock that was being discarded, and a debate followed about how discards of small fish could be avoided by the use of technical fishing gear. In the 1980s, vast amounts of small fish were being dumped, whereas now, with increased mesh size and different trawl designs, mainly marketable fish are being thrown over the side. The problem then affected coley, or saithe, another species that British vessels discarded in abundance.
Now, however, it is the cod catch that is being seriously affected. In the case of cod and coley, I must make it clear that we are talking about mature, marketable fish which are thrown back dead over the side to pollute the marine environment. People may ask why this disastrous and wasteful practice is being allowed. The simple answer is that it is entirely due to the European Union’s quota system. For those Members who may not remember when Britain joined what was then called the Common Market, on 1 January 1973 Parliament handed competence of Britain’s living marine resource over to what has subsequently become the European Union, that competence to be shared equally between member states without discrimination.
As more countries have subsequently joined the EU, so the cake—the share each country is entitled to—has had to be divided up into smaller units. As a result, British vessels have been driven off the water to make room for the newcomers. The quota system was introduced in 1983 in order to comply with an obligation in the original treaty and was disguised as a tool of conservation, although in reality it was a tool of integration. How else could the new EU resource be divided up to distribute to the participating states without their fishermen realising what was going on? Let us not beat about the bush. The politicians involved at that time did not tell the truth about the situation until 2002, and the industry was strung along until then.
Those Members who support the common fisheries policy, as an undisputed consequence, also support the greatest environmental marine disaster. That is a direct result of the integration process to secure the achievement of one European Union fishing fleet in what are now EU waters. Only a couple of days ago, as I mentioned earlier, the special report by the European Court of Auditors confirmed that the common fisheries policy was a failure—quite an indictment, I should have thought. The CFP has failed because it is really about political union, not the management of fisheries. The quota system has created the discard system, which in turn has produced faulty scientific evidence.
One only has to look at the successful system introduced in the Faroe Islands, where adult species are fished to a level that is sustained by the available food source. The Faroes still have limits on each species, but control catch rates by days at sea. They do not discard, so accurate figures are available about what is caught, unlike in EU waters, where no one knows exactly what has been killed. Therein lies the dispute, I should have thought, between the fishermen and the scientists. In the flawed European Union system, the food source itself has been destroyed—
I will not, because of the time.
The food source has been destroyed by the EU’s previous high quota for those species lower down the food chain, such as sand eels, so is it any wonder that the adult stock is unsustainable? If the food stock is not adequate, it makes it incredibly hard to have a sustainable adult stock, and if you force that adult stock up by virtually not fishing it at all, the adults will have to eat their own young or the young of other species. Any form of life can only be sustained by the availability of food, so the concentration of effort and policy should now be to increase the base of the pyramid of the food chain, not the other way round, which is the present practice.
However, it is encouraging to know that one of the wonders of nature is that this political, integrationist onslaught of mismanagement could still be overcome if the right policy were to be introduced. Only the rump of the original British fishing fleet survives today, the rest having been eradicated by Britain’s European Union treaty obligations, but the unpalatable fact is that we can huff and puff in this House as much as we like, but as long as competence for fisheries remains in the hands of the EU Commission, there is nothing—repeat, nothing—that the UK can do to stop the discard problem.
When the European Union stops expanding and it presides over one integrated EU fishing fleet in all EU waters, which is what the Maastricht and Nice treaties were leading up to—that all national considerations should cease—it may take a look at the Faroese system and adopt it. However, I have made no secret of the fact that I have always been an enthusiastic proponent of a return to British control of fisheries policy. I was delighted, therefore, to see that the Scottish National party’s policy is to stick to its guns and continue to support the return of national control. If that policy were eventually introduced in Scotland, admittedly against the odds, it would create an immediate improvement for the Scottish economy and coastal communities. It would also be wonderful to witness genuine marine environmental progress, even if it were limited only to Scotland at first. If only we and the rest of the UK would follow suit.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on taking over the most important job in Government. He follows two able and energetic Fisheries Ministers. We have a no-discard policy when it comes to Ministers and fishing—unlike on the Opposition Front Bench. They consulted widely and got to know the industry, as my hon. Friend is doing. I congratulate him.
I am disappointed that debate on such an important subject is crammed into a quick gabble in the dying two or three hours of a deadly dull day. Fishing is more important than that. We should have had the debate earlier, because the shape of the settlement that we are debating was determined by the EU-Norway agreement earlier this year, which told us that haddock quotas will be reduced by 15 per cent., whiting by 25 per cent. and herring by 41 per cent. That shows that the advice of the regional advisory councils, on which the common fisheries policy should be based, will be ignored. The position paper from the North Sea regional advisory council complains that
“the Commission proposes to treat stocks where the quality of the assessments is poor”
in a way that the council does not support. We should listen to the RACs.
The Norway agreement also tells us that there is to be an increase in the total allowable catch of cod in the North sea. The cod preservation plan is totemic for the EU. We could and should have argued for a bigger increase. Cod stocks grow phenomenally and recover very quickly. The fact that recovery is now well under way would allow us to take a bigger quota. The lower the quota, the greater the discards. We could take a bigger quota and cut down the discards. The Minister has emphasised that fact during his comments on the radio.
It might be necessary to do something more on discards. Why cannot we consider the Norwegian arrangements, whereby all fish caught has to be landed and is then sold at a lower price so as not to reward the landing? That gives value to it, and means that it is not wasted, as it is now, by being thrown back into the sea. That has to be our approach to the coming talks. On the east coast, this last year has been a good year, but we face a more difficult year ahead, particularly in Hull. The Norwegian quota for “others” was cut by 28 per cent. at the last minute in the talks. Why was that done? It will be a serious blow for Hull.
We need to consider much more flexible arrangements during the talks. We need to consider the cod avoidance plans that the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has proposed, which are very important and a successful way of maintaining other catches while avoiding the cod stocks. We need to look at selective gear. It is of concern that the terminator, important though it is, was developed in Canada—it is used in Canada and New Zealand—and followed the experiments with square mesh panels, of which our Government took little notice and which were financed by the industry. Those experiments pioneered the way for the terminator. We should take up the terminator, but we should have taken up the square mesh panels much earlier.
We need real-time closures of the kind that the Scottish industry has pioneered and video recording of catches, as practised in New Zealand, as a tachometer for the industry. All those elements of flexibility need to be introduced into the talks and the common fisheries policy. We should argue against continuing the big blockbuster measures, such as days at sea limitations, decommissioning and others that have led to the current state of affairs, and argue for more selective measures—selective gear, selective catches and selective fishing in some areas.
I would also argue for more flexibility in our country. For example, the Under-Secretary could allow a little more flexibility to the under-10 m class of vessel. The tight quota limits that are imposed on those vessels need to be eased. We could also allow the long liners more flexibility. I have corresponded with the Under-Secretary about Grimsby skipper John Hancock’s vessels, the Apollo and the Genesis—long liners—which could be kept going by a slight increase in the catch of tusk and ling. That would not be associated with any increase in cod catches, because long lining is conservation-effective. We should therefore be more flexible rather than maintaining a position of absolute inflexibility.
We should argue for more flexibility in the common fisheries policy and give more flexibility to our industry, because all the other countries do that when it suits their interests, and we should do the same. Through allowing greater flexibility, the Under-Secretary will enter into closer relationships with the industry, which he wants, and which we, as representatives of the industry, also want. We must work together and try more concertedly to bring scientists and fishermen together. The Under-Secretary must listen to the industry, as Scottish Ministers do. That puts them in a much more powerful position for knowing what the industry wants and getting it in Europe. My hon. Friend’s background in social work predisposes him towards working together. In doing that, we will be successful, as he deserves to be.
I am glad to contribute to the debate, especially as I have had to hang around London, and the outer Hebrides are far away.
I have worked twice as a fisherman and I therefore believe that it is important to add my voice to the debate, which, I note, takes place in the window between the Norway talks and the main EU horse-trading. Again, I remark on the power of Norway to stand toe to toe with the European Union—something that has probably not gone unnoticed, especially by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton).
Many parts of my speech have already been covered, but I should like to emphasise some of the concerns that have come my way and some things that the Under-Secretary should have ringing in his ears from the last Back-Bench speech of the debate. There is anxiety on the west coast of Scotland about the suggestion of cutting days at sea for boats—the 25 per cent. cut to which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) alluded—in Mallaig, Barra, Lewis and Kinlochbervie. There is major concern about a cut from 227 to 170 days. Mallaig and North-West Fishermen’s Association believes that 215 days is the bare minimum for scratching a living. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute pointed out the error in the translation that last year enabled the 28-day cut. I emphasise to the Minister the dangers of translation when one does not use Gaelic.
The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association asked me to speak about monkfish. Although ICES is sceptical, the fishermen believe that the stocks on the west coast are good and that there is no need for a cut in quota. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take cognisance of that. The fishermen feel that there should be no cut in the haddock quota, especially as, on the west coast, they have enabled the windsock, an area of closure between Lewis and Orkney. Before any complete data come from that area, the fishermen should not be penalised, especially given that they are prepared to increase the size of escape panels from 90 mm to 120 mm. I therefore believe that technological measures can be considered before the fishermen and fishing interests are penalised. The inshore fisheries agreement in the western isles has been successful and the fishing has been much healthier there as a result of it. Autonomy, responsibility—and perhaps even independence—when it is given to fishermen appear to work wonders.
I am also concerned about the pelagic stocks. When the all-party fisheries group discussed the cut in the herring quota, I drew to the Under-Secretary’s attention a boat that was involved in data gathering about the herring stocks and said that the skipper remarked that the scientists had asked him to fish for herring in places where he would not fish for them. When he did not catch any herring, that was used as evidence that there were no herring. The fishermen who work the herring stocks know that the herring have changed their patterns of behaviour over the years and would therefore not expect to catch any in such places. Inaccurate data might therefore have been fed into the resultant cut in the quota. Although I mentioned that at the time to the all-party group, I am not sure whether the Minister has managed to find any further information on it.
On the ICES figures for the past few years, although the council recommended a total allowable catch of 732,000 tonnes in 2006, the quota was 967,000 tonnes. The advice the following year was for a higher figure. The figure for mackerel followed a similar pattern. Perhaps we need to be more dynamic. Mention has been made of the horse-trading at the fishing talks. Perhaps we need to move to a more dynamic and, as it were, liquid period for quota-setting. When it becomes apparent from the evidence over the year that the quotas are not as poor as expected, perhaps some adjustment could be made.
Finally, I would like to point out to the Minister the dynamism, which has been alluded to a couple of times, not only of the Scottish Executive but of fishing innovation in Scotland, with real-time closures and the lead that Scotland is giving the EU. Under the CFP, Scotland has 70 per cent. of the UK quota, two thirds of the landing, 70 per cent. of the effort and all the expertise that comes with that—as well as, perhaps, some of the expertise of Scottish Ministers, which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned. Should the Minister not therefore give some consideration to allowing the Scottish Minister, Richard Lochhead, to lead the negotiations at the EU, no doubt ably assisted by the Minister himself? I say that with the greatest of respect to the Minister.
I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to this debate, although I now have just nine minutes to respond to all the contributions that have been made. I thank all hon. Members present for wishing me and my colleagues from the devolved Administrations well when we enter into those negotiations.
The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) is a fine chap. He gave us an entertaining speech, which was big on rhetoric but small on policy. He promised big fish under the Conservatives, but he would not say that there would be a minimum landing size for bass. He also asked whether I supported the fishermen or the scientists. At that stage he became completely isolated in the Chamber, because all the contributions that we have heard from colleagues today have emphasised the need for partnership between the scientists and the fishermen. That is how we made progress and that is how we marshal our arguments, not by going back to the old days of polarised positions, which would not do the hon. Gentleman any good and is certainly not something that the fishermen want to hear, either.
No, I will not give way.
The hon. Gentleman castigated us over discards. Although 8,000 tonnes in the North sea in 2006 is not acceptable, it is reasonable for me to point out that there were 33,000 tonnes of discards in 1997 and 99,000 tonnes in 1994. Discards are not new. As I said earlier, it is important to bear in mind that one of the reasons for discards is that we have a mixed fishery. Fishermen themselves will say that, particularly in areas such as the south-west, where there is a range of different fishes. Fish swim together, so discards will happen. Minimum landing sizes are also a cause. However, where there are valuable stocks of cod, for instance, we need to take action, and we will take action.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who represents a fishing community, spoke passionately. He referred to the pain that many in the industry have suffered owing to the reduction of effort. However, I have heard from fishermen in Scotland that things have been good for the past two or three years. Obviously, they do not want to go back; they want to continue to go forward. There has been a reduction in capacity, and in the amount of fish that we catch. In 1987, we took 170,000 tonnes of cod out of the North sea. Last year, it was fewer than 20,000 tonnes, so of course people are concerned. Interestingly, however, the value of the landings in 1987, which were considerably larger, was around £600 million. It is about the same today, so we are getting more money for fewer fish.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the EU-Norway settlement, and about discards. He mentioned days at sea; I think that I explained my views on that during my earlier speech. He also mentioned nephrops, although I was told when I was in Scotland that they are Scottish langoustines, and I now always refer to them as such. Indeed, I have enjoyed a plate of Scottish langoustines with Richard Lochhead, and very nice they were, too. He talked about the importance of megrim, about mackerel, and about looking at the science. He also gave us his good wishes, and I am grateful to him for that.
My hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) represented the under-10 m fleets in their constituencies. I recognise that there are huge challenges faced by the under-10 m fleet, and I have met a number of colleagues, including the hon. Member for Leominster, to discuss the problems. We all want to resolve them. We must get the under-10 m fleet on to a sustainable footing. I have said to the fishermen in South Thanet, and I say again here, that I am not top-slicing. People have quotas and I am not going to top-slice. We need to find other arrangements. I want a better relationship with the producers’ organisations and with the under-10 m fleet. There are opportunities throughout the year for gifts, and perhaps we can put that arrangement on a regular basis. I have met those involved and they say that they want to do that. That is not the whole picture, but it is part of it. We know that a small number of under-10 m boats take a large proportion of the quota. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye mentioned decommissioning, and there might well be an opportunity for a small amount of targeted, focused decommissioning.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet talked about fishermen’s markets. We have to develop that idea; it is something that sea fishermen could do. We have seen the success of the farmers’ markets, and that could be replicated by fishermen’s markets. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) mentioned the good prices that could be obtained for fish, and the quality of fish. He also mentioned new partnerships, which are absolutely essential. He talked about the importance of the processing industry for his constituency, about sea fish and about training. He also talked about the difficulty of waste disposal in the nephrops and shellfish industry. I am aware of those difficulties, as I have met representatives of the industry. That is something that we need to look at.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) talked about the proud history of his fishermen and also, quite rightly, paid tribute to our lifeboatmen and to the sacrifices that they make. He also mentioned whaling. We have condemned Japan for its recommencement of whaling, and he and the rest of the House will be hearing more on that issue. He kindly invited me along to a great party—
Indeed. He said that, after the party, we could all go out to sea, but I am not sure whether that would be very wise. He also made some thoughtful comments about aggregates and applications.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) talked about nephrops and about the 28 days at sea issue. I will correspond with him on that, as we are aware of the issue that he mentioned. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) also mentioned it. We will be taking on that issue.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who talked about coarse fishing and about the fact that there are more fish because the rivers are cleaner. He said that he is now catching bigger fish, which is good news, and that the salmon stocks are recovering. He also pointed out, however, that there was no room for complacency, as some rivers still needed to be cleaned up.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) talked passionately about her position on the common fisheries policy. She has always been consistent on that, although we differ on this occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) spoke about the regional advisory councils. I can tell him that I have brought the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation together with representatives of all the devolved Administrations, and that those discussions have been productive.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar referred to his fishermen, monkfish, haddock and the 28 days at sea issue. He also mentioned who should take the chair in the discussions. Who should take it? It should be the elected UK representative, who is me, but I will work in partnership with my colleagues in the devolved Administrations.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of fisheries.
Motion made and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (Additional Authorities) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 6th November, be approved.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
Question agreed to.