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Under 10-metre Fishing Fleet

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 14 May 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Ward.)

I am grateful for the opportunity, somewhat earlier than anticipated, to speak yet again on behalf of the fishing communities of Hastings and Rye. I am sorry that it is necessary to raise the same issue, but the urgency of the message is not getting through. I shall try to leave no ambiguity as to the importance of responding to the cry for justice for the under 10-metre fleet in Hastings and Rye. The issue is that of quota.

As we approach the Euro elections next month, I can well appreciate why there is hostility towards the European cause within the fishing communities. The price that Britain paid for joining the EU back in the 1970s was perhaps worth while in many respects, but in terms of fishing, it was a huge cost. That, of course, was under a Conservative Government, who have never been forgiven for what happened—for the surrender to the European Community of the greater part of our fishing grounds. In return, the UK was allowed a relatively small proportion of quota, but even that gross unfairness is not the issue today. No major party is suggesting withdrawal from the EU, and thus we are stuck with the EU distribution to national governance of a negotiated share of the catch each year. It is then for national Governments to divide up that quota catch within the fishing industry, and it is that calculation that has brought the under 10-metre fleet to virtual extinction.

I acknowledge that the under 10-metre fleet in particular may not be significant economically—not to the nation, anyway—in terms of the sector’s direct contribution. However, it is often forgotten that the contribution that the sector makes to tourism and other onshore industries is significant. That is certainly the case in Hastings and Rye. The key issue is how we as a nation distribute the quota among the fishing industry. As I have brought to the Government’s attention before, and it is well known, the division of 96 per cent. of total quota to the over 10-metre fleet, and just 3 per cent. to the under 10-metre fleet, is manifestly unfair. It has to change, and it needs to change soon.

Back in December 2006—some two and half years ago—the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, having set up a Downing street policy group to look at the sustainability of small fishing fleets, such as that at Hastings and Rye, agreed to meet my local fishermen. In March 2004, the Cabinet Office strategy unit prepared a report entitled “Net Benefits”, which stated that:

“the overarching aim of fisheries management should be to maximise the return to the UK of sustainable use of fishery resources and protection of the marine environment.”

So it was already Government policy—from then, at least—to support small fishing communities.

Tony Blair wrote to me on 5 February 2007. I have the letter here, and it states that:

“the Quota Management Change Programme is already working on the future management arrangements for the inshore fleet in light of the “Net Benefits” report, and … DEFRA is keen to involve inshore fishermen in the development of those arrangements.”

Two and a half years later, nothing at all seems to have happened. I think that the Minister will understand why it makes my fishermen constituents, and me, so angry that despite our best efforts, DEFRA is immovable. Even the efforts of the Prime Minister of the day to move things on came to naught.

I shall not bore the House by listing the debates, discussions and meetings that have taken place in the intervening period, but it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that the Department is in the clutches of the big boys who run the producer organisations, and is incapable of breaking out of their control. It is frequently said that the allocation of quota is based on historical catches, but the fact is that the under-10 metre fleet, which is small—indeed, it consists of the minnows of the industry—is not just sustainable, but without significant catch records. As a result, the producer organisations take the cake, or rather the quota, and DEFRA stands by and ticks the boxes. That is certainly what appears to be happening.

If the big boys—the over 10-metre fleet—employed significantly more personnel, there would be some understanding of the current position, but that is not the case. About 50 per cent. of the personnel of the United Kingdom fishing industry are employed in the over-10 metre sector, and the other 50 per cent. in the under-10 metre sector. So, where is the justice in the current arrangement? Those in the under-10 metre sector are not even permitted to form their own producer organisation in order to bid for their share of the quota.

The Government seem to suggest that quota is based on historical calculations of catch that cannot be altered. Why? The quota that the UK receives belongs to the UK, not to the producer organisations or to any particular sector. If fairness so demands, it is for the Government to exercise their discretion without fear of producer organisations taking the huff. A doubling of the quota available to the under 10-metre sector would make little difference to the over 10-metre industry, but it would be a life-saving change for the under-10 metre fleet.

My hon. Friend the Minister was the first person for a long time to acknowledge and understand the injustice, and I compliment him on that. Earlier in the year, a new division for allocation of cod quota was created in area 7D. That was a big step forward, and I do not think it too much to say that those in my local under-10 metre industry were elated about the possibility of a fair deal as a consequence. Quota is normally—or so it is said—distributed on the basis of the historical catch. In area 7D, which is the bit off the south coast between Hastings and Dover, the under-10 metre fleet accounts for 93 per cent. of the fishing vessels in the area and 83 per cent. of the fishermen employed. There was real hope that the new allocation would follow the established pattern.

On 18 February, my hon. Friend the Minister wrote to the chief executives of the producer organisations and other interested parties, proposing that a quota of 109 tonnes—live weight—or 70 per cent. of the overall total should be allocated to the under 10-metre sector in area 7D. The proposed quota was apparently based on official records showing actual landings at that percentage. The under-10 metre fleet believed that its share was even greater, but it did not look a gift horse in the mouth. The allocation appeared to mean that its demands were being recognised for the first time, while also conforming to the historical basis of allocation.

While the 70:30 split was still minimal, the principle had been established, and my hon. Friend the Minister was held in high esteem as a result. What happened then, however, was nothing short of an outrage. Officials talked again to the producer organisations and the policy was changed around completely: 70 per cent. was now to go to the south-west producer organisation, which only seldom fishes in the area, and 30 per cent. to the under 10-metre sector. I am told that the south-west producer organisation, which has that 70 per cent., for the main part sells it on. It is not even the local fishing industry. This is an outrage, and it is barmy. There is no explanation. What is going on?

I am sorry to be so forceful to my friend the Minister, who I know really does work hard on this, but the forces of darkness are out there and they are defeating his best efforts. I am asking him to be bold and stand up for fairness and justice, given his acceptance of the argument. We do not need to go over the argument again, as he has accepted it; it is now just a matter of implementing it.

My friend the Minister is very thoughtful, and I know, by reason of his initial proposals, that he has the interests of the under 10-metre fleet at heart. He was good enough to hold a recent meeting with me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who has a similar interest to me, at which he expressed, first, a clear desire that measures be put in place to ensure the continuity of the under-10 metre fleet—that is to say, that it should have sufficient income to survive—and, secondly, that he would want to enter into a dialogue with all the parties, including the producer organisation and the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, which now represents the under-10 metre fleet, to ensure that the allocation of quota is more fairly distributed.

I know that my hon. Friend is wholly genuine in that desire. However, I have to tell him that that is what the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, asked should happen some two and a half years ago, and I cannot share his optimism that further discussions will now make a difference. I fear that this will not be settled by negotiation. It will be settled by decisions being made along the lines of those that my hon. Friend the Minister earlier proposed. I say as loudly and clearly as I can that the Minister has the obligation to divvy up the quota fairly to allow my constituents to survive.

I understand that my hon. Friend does not want to rock the boat—the industry is dangerous enough already—but the under 10-metre industry is not too worried about risking the wrath of the producer organisation and forgoing the crumbs from its table. Now this is not only an issue about survival—although it is about that—but one of justice. I am fairly sure that no court in the land will accept that the current arrangement is fair. Sadly, I think that opinion will be tested, because Paul Joy and his colleagues in NUTFA have now issued proceedings in the courts. That action will inevitably challenge the distribution unless a very early reversal of the recent decision is made.

I challenge my friend the Minister to give an unequivocal answer as to the justification for the most recent decision of the 96 per cent:3 per cent. split and for the 70:30 split in area 7D in favour of half the total industry, when it was the established practice that that be determined on catch records. I know the answer to that question; I would not ask it if I did not. The answer is that it cannot be justified. There is no argument; there is no basis on which it can be justified. That is why I encourage him to take this bold stand now to remedy that historic failing—not in the fullness of time, but in the here and now.

I anticipate that my hon. Friend the Minister’s response will be as courteous and thoughtful as it always is, but, with respect, I just want to hear the following words: “Yes, you’re right. We are going to make the change. We understand the justice of the case.”

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) on securing the debate. This is a timely juncture for discussion of the under 10-metre fleet for a number of reasons. I thank him not only for the courtesy he has shown me in his opening remarks, but for his forceful and passionate contribution and what he has done in his frequent formal and informal meetings with me in Parliament to act as an advocate on behalf of his constituents and the under 10-metre fleet as a whole. Without my being charming or disarming, I hope we will be able to reach some agreement on a way forward and what we need to do on quota reform.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, the under 10-metre fleet is an economically, culturally and socially vital part of the life of the UK, in terms not only of coastal communities but the fabric of this island nation—it really is. I have said before, and I will say it again, that I am utterly committed to seeing it not simply eke along but thrive and have a very long-term viable future. The question is how we get there. I understand exactly what he is saying. He is saying, “Show us some certainty that you will step up to the mark and do it.”

I do not wish to go off on a tangent, but may I begin by discussing common fisheries policy reform, which my hon. Friend mentioned at the start of his contribution? That is a long game, as many things with the EU are, but we are now starting on it. I was the first of the 27 Ministers to address the recent Council, when I spoke boldly and radically for fundamental reform of a 30-year-old policy that is clearly not doing what it was intended to do. I put the following points then, which I shall re-put and work. Right at the heart of radical CFP reform we need to see that fisheries management is integrated with management and conservation of marine resources; that fishing of commercially exploited fish has to be within safe biological limits; that the policy has to ensure a prosperous and efficient fishing industry; that there is effective, targeted support for fishing-dependent communities; and that there is more regional and long-term management of fisheries and devolved responsibility. It is not right that we lurch from year to year in this annual process of bartering and negotiation that is surely not in the best interests of either fishermen or fish stocks. I say that in passing because our discussions of the under 10-metre fleet are integral to how we look at this reform as well.

Let me discuss the issue that has brought us here today, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, is the allocations, not least of 7D cod within the Hastings area. First, I shall outline some background. I know he will be familiar with this because we have had discussions about it, but it is helpful to outline it. Before 2009, there had been one total allowable catch for area 7B-K cod. The commission agreed to split that TAC, giving a separate allowance for 7D cod in recognition of the different scientific assessment of the stock. This is one TAC, which has been split into two, and it therefore—this is the important thing—does not constitute a new fishery, a blank sheet and a clean start.

However, let me elaborate on that a little. A 30 per cent. increase in the total allocation of cod for area 7D was negotiated at the EU December Council—we were glad to do that—and it was also secured for North sea cod. On that basis, the Marine and Fisheries Agency consulted the industry on the best way to allocate the new and split quotas in the UK, and my hon. Friend rightly says that it issued a proposal to use the track record of catch for 7D cod. I was pleased to see that proposal, which he rightly says was put forward to signal an opportunity. If it had been accepted, it would have meant that approximately 70 per cent. of the quota would go to the inshore fleet. I am not dancing on words, but let me say that this is probably where some of the misunderstanding has come from and where I went from hero to zero overnight. That was a deliberate proposal and I understand that the inshore fleet had an expectation that it could secure additional cod through it. However, good practice means that we then, on the basis of the proposal, go out to consult the industry—the wide industry. He is right to say that that should include the producer organisations—the big boys. Across that wide range of participants, the proposal was emphatically rejected by the industry at a meeting on 2 March, where the sector raised serious concerns about any move away from fixed quota allocations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the principle of one person, one vote might be a better way of determining this? Producer organisations represent only 50 per cent. of the industry, but they seem to have about 90 per cent. of the vote. Should we not consider electoral reform?

My hon. Friend makes a good point that goes to the heart of the issue, but I do not think we need to look at electoral reform in terms of how those meetings are run. I hear the powerful voice of the under-10s on this matter. Indeed, that voice has become louder since that meeting and since we responded by returning to FQAs. I am very cognisant of that, not least because of the representations that my hon. Friend has made, and I shall point out how we can act on that. However, that does not mean that I will revisit that decision. There is an issue that we have to deal with promptly and in a considered way, because it is not only an issue for the Hastings fleet. Many in the under 10-metre fleet would regard it as a historical anomaly and there are arguments for and against that, but they see it as a genuine issue of justice. There is a way forward, and perhaps assurances could be given to that effect, including clear mechanisms and a timescale for achieving it. As a Fisheries Minister I have to represent everybody, but I appreciate the problem which the particular issue of the 7D cod has brought to the fore.

The cod fishery is no doubt important to the fishermen of Hastings and the area, but it is the sole fishery that contributes a significantly higher proportion of inshore fisheries income in the Hastings area. It is anticipated that the sole fishery will be maintained for 2009 and the MFA—to its credit—has worked hard to source sole, given the huge importance of that stock to the Hastings fleet. My instructions to the MFA are to continue to do all it can to maximise the quota available to the inshore fleet.

One important issue is how we can use the current system to deliver benefits to the under 10-metre fleet around the UK, and its relationship with the producer organisations and the larger fleet. Only recently—within the last few weeks—I signed off on an agreed transfer of quota to fishermen in the north-west of significant benefit to the under 10-metre fleet. That was done through the MFA in agreement with the over-10s and the producer organisations. We have done the same recently in my hon. Friend’s area and we will continue to look for every opportunity we can.

When I walked out of the December fisheries negotiations, we were able to deliver a unique package under the Hague preference. I apologise to my hon. Friend because it did not benefit his fishermen, but it had a huge impact on the under 10-metre fleet in the north-east, which walked away with an additional 300 tonnes. It was the first time that an agreement had been reached with the over-10s to split the quota—on a one-off basis—that was invoked under the Hague preference at the December Council. It was split upfront, with half going to the under-10s, and that had a huge impact proportionally. We will continue to look for such deals.

We think it important under the current system to maintain the ability to engage with the producer organisations and the over-10s to maximise opportunities at this moment. It would not be to the benefit of the fleet to walk away from that at the moment.

Let me turn now to how I think that we can take things forward.

With regard to the implication of the Hague preference, which my hon. Friend has used in the north-east, as he said, it is obviously easier to get agreement if there is an extra cake to split up. Otherwise, there is no cake for anyone. Should he not be considering doing the same for the coastal strip in the south? Is it not the case that the catch is so low at the moment that the Hague preference would have a part to play in making a special case for them, too?

We tend to counter-invoke in response to an invocation of the Hague preference by our ministerial colleagues in Ireland, if they choose to do so. The preference can be invoked only on certain species and certain areas. We tend to counter-invoke in response and try to maximise the opportunities that are available. That opportunity simply was not there. If there was a way to do that, we would certainly consider it. If the opportunity came up in the future, we would not rule it out. I would want my hon. Friend to say that to the fishermen he represents, too.

Let me say something about the way forward. DEFRA, under my instruction, has now established the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project—or SAIF. I have made that commitment previously and I am pleased to announce that it is now under way. Hon. Members will come to know more of the project, because it will be a pivotal way forward for the under 10-metre fleet.

SAIF will promote DEFRA’s continuing involvement with key stakeholders in fisheries management, with the fishing industry, with communities where fisheries play a key role in the local economy and culture, and, of course, with fishermen. We have set up an advisory group to steer and support the work of the project, and I am delighted to announce the appointment of Alan Riddell as chair of the group. He brings significant experience of community regeneration, which is not a million miles away from what we are trying to do with this project. Sometimes—I know my hon. Friend will agree—fishermen are seen in isolation from the rest of what is going on, whereas they are actually integral to their communities.

Alan Riddell has experience of community regeneration through his former positions as director for local development and renewal for the Department for Communities and Local Government and, prior to that, setting up the East of England Development Agency. At some point, I shall reveal the membership of the advisory group, which reflects the sort of interests that we would want on such a group. That is a good stewardship position.

The advisory group will bring together expertise from both within and outside the fishing industry to develop new and innovative ideas—I want to be bold and quite radical—for achieving a genuinely sustainable inshore fishing industry. I look forward to working closely with Alan and the advisory group, receiving input from fellow Members of the House, on what I am convinced will be a worthwhile and rewarding project that will have a lasting impact on the English inshore fishing industry.

We have also taken the first steps to reforming the fleet and putting it on a sustainable footing, controversial as that process has been, through the package of measures including decommissioning and capping fishing effort announced in December. I shall not deal with the detail of that, as I am sure there will be many other opportunities to do so. That process has been successful, as shown by the number of applications. Many of those who felt they were hard done by and appealed have been brought in on appeal. Those moves have been well received, even though they were controversial, and we see them as a building block rather than the end. I have consistently made that clear.

It is now time to build on that firm foundation. As part of the SAIF project and other work that we have going on, we need to bolster our evidence on the environmental, economic and social impacts of the under 10-metre fleet, specifically focusing on that fleet, and to bring fresh thinking to these challenging issues. As part of that fresh thinking, we should map the way forward for quotas in a careful, considered and timely way. We must engage with the producer organisations and also recognise the widely held view among the under 10-metre fleet that there remains unfinished business. I have used that phrase before, but our work must achieve the agreement of all fishermen, and not be carried out in opposition to the views of some groups. Under the current system, members of the over 10-metre fleet have been willing to engage in quota swaps and so on, but the work that I have set out is the way forward.

The project that I have described will be critical to reform of the common fisheries policy, and integral to our approach to managing the marine environment. It will be most important, however, to fishermen and the communities in which they work, as they share our desire for a healthy and viable inshore fishing industry. Moreover, they want an industry that will last beyond the 12 months needed for the annual quota negotiations and instead continue for many years to come.

We are faced with a choice. We can go ahead with considered, strategic and timely work to reform the inshore fleet that will include the SAIF project. The work on quota reform will be taken forward through the quadrilateral ministerial group that I and my counterparts from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—that is, Richard Lochhead, Elin Jones and Michelle Gildernew—announced yesterday. The group will look at quota reform and licensing throughout the UK, and one of our terms of reference is to look at vulnerable communities. Richard Lochhead has problems with his communities, as do I with mine, not least in respect of the under 10-metre fleet.

We have not announced a timetable for our work, but we need to be realistic. We will have to come to a position on CFP reform to inform our discussions, so we are probably looking at taking 12, 13 or 14 months. However, we will discuss that so that we can set up an out-date or a milestone towards which we can work. I know that my fellow Ministers are as committed to that as I am.

We announced the establishment of the ministerial group yesterday, and today we announced the chairmanship of the SAIF group. On top of all that, there is the environmentally responsible fishing scheme, which I believe will prove to be a notable success. It is already gearing up to play a constructive role in CFP reform.

The scheme will run in under 10-metre fleets in six pilot areas in mixed fisheries around the coast. Instead of discarding fish, fishermen will land everything that they catch and sell it. We are examining the sustainability of that approach, and we will take the lessons that we learn to the European Commission because we believe that the scheme could offer a sensible way forward. It has already improved the economic viability of the fishermen taking part, and the early indications are that it is being done in a way that is extremely sustainable for the local fisheries environment.

I am glad that my hon. Friend understands the wickedness of discards, but will he say what the timetable for the scheme is? What prospect is there that it can be adopted more widely across the UK, and when could that happen?

We have not come to a firm conclusion about that yet, as we have not seen the results of the first trials, but I have begun discussing with my officials the possibility of expanding or extending the existing scheme. However, I ask my hon. Friend to bear it in mind that the aim of the pilot scheme being carried out with the agreement of the European Commission is to see whether the approach can work. As a result, there will not be a complete roll-out on the basis of the pilots, however we assess them, because they will not provide enough evidence. We have yet to come to a firm decision and we will need to do more, but the pilot schemes do offer the possibility of a new approach. It is one that I am inclined to take further, once we have looked at all the evidence.

In conclusion, there is an issue to address. I understand the position of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, and its frustration, but I say to it clearly that we have a choice. We could spend our precious time and valuable resources on entering into litigation, without bringing about the long-term change that we want. That might, at least temporarily, stymie our shared aspiration for a strong and stable future for the under 10-metre fleet. However, my hon. Friend rightly laid down a challenge to step up to the big boys. By the way, there are big boys in the under 10-metre fleet, as well as in the over 10-metre fleet; there are big, powerful voices. I want to sit down with those people, not throw bricks at them. I think I have already shown, in my time as a Minister, that I am not afraid of taking tough decisions to achieve the right end. I am very willing to come down to Hastings promptly to meet fishermen there, together with my hon. Friend, to discuss the real challenges and the real ways forward. That is a genuine offer that I urge my hon. Friend to pass on to his constituents.

I know that my hon. Friend will want to play a real, continuing leadership role on the issue on behalf of his constituents and the under 10-metre fleet in his area and across the UK. So do I. We share the ambition of ensuring the long-term viability of our fleets, large and small, in all parts of the UK. This has been a good, timely debate. I believe there is a way forward, but we need to confront the issues head-on. We need to get people to sit down together and take on the issues, and then try to find a way forward that gives the under 10-metre fleet certainty that we are serious about the issue. We should not simply harangue—I am not accusing my hon. Friend of doing this—the very stakeholders to whom we need to say, “You will be part of the solution.” We need to move forward on the issue; I recognise that. I am committed to doing so, and I hope that he will take those messages back to his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.