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Public Bodies (Procurement of Seafood)

Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require public bodies to purchase only those seafood species and stocks that are demonstrably sustainable; and for connected purposes.

I am delighted to introduce this Bill. Even as I speak, promising changes are afoot. A written answer to me that was published yesterday clearly put on the record the departmental fish procurement percentages, and I was pleased to see that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had—this is according to what I have read—refused to sign off the EU protocol on tuna because it was not sustainable enough. So, this Bill is appropriate at this time, if not prescient. I thank, in particular, Alex Jackson of Sustain for allowing me to introduce it, and all those Members—some 50 or more—who signed early-day motion 226 to draw attention to this important issue.

No one can be in any doubt that the way in which we catch and consume fish on a global scale is of great importance given that it is devastating the biodiversity of our oceans and endangering some of our best loved fish species. Stopping the destruction will require action to change both how we catch fish and how we consume it. The Bill focuses on the crucial consumption side of that solution and outlines how Government, as a huge consumer of fish in the public sector, can lead by example in the purchase of sustainable seafood.

What is the problem? It is important to understand that fish stocks need careful management and that fisheries that are over-exploited can collapse suddenly, causing irreversible damage. Probably the most famous example of such a collapse occurred off the east coast of Newfoundland in 1992 when cod stocks vanished, the local industry evaporated and 40,000 people lost their jobs. To this day, the cod have not returned.

Data from the United Nations fisheries and aquaculture department paint a very bleak picture of the state of our oceans. On a global scale, it estimates that

“80 per cent. of the world fish stocks for which assessment information is available are reported as fully exploited or overexploited and, thus, requiring effective and precautionary management.”

In British waters, we face an urgent problem. In the north-east Atlantic, the majority of commercial stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s fisheries and aquaculture department’s report of 2005. British salmon stocks are considered to be fully or over-exploited and North sea plaice, cod and sole are considered to be outside safe biological limits.

The experts also tell us that the threat posed by climate change will only serve to exacerbate those problems. In 2005, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that climate change will have a significant impact on the future abundance and distribution of fish stocks.

What will the Public Bodies (Procurement of Seafood) Bill do? It will help support the sustainability of global fish stocks and species by making it a legal requirement that public bodies in the UK can only buy fish that is proven to be sustainable. It would do that by prohibiting the purchase in the public sector of fish from the Marine Conservation Society’s “Fish to Avoid” list, which includes all fish in danger of over-exploitation. It would also require that all wild-caught fish purchased by the public sector should come from stocks that meet the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s code of conduct for responsible fisheries, which includes fish that meets the need for Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification.

The Bill would aim to achieve three important things. First, it would ensure that the Government spend public money on fish in a responsible way that acts to solve environmental problems rather than causing them. Each individual British taxpayer spends approximately £70 a year on public sector food. They need to know that their money is being spent by Government to support the marine ecosystem and protect the sustainability of popular fish species rather than putting them at risk.

Secondly, the public sector should lead by example in the food we buy and serve to educate through best practice. It is especially important that public bodies lead by example in the purchase of fish, because the issues surrounding the sustainability of seafood are complex and not generally well known by the public. The Bill would guarantee that the public sector generates greater awareness of the issue and would also demonstrate to those who eat and prepare public sector food what sustainable fish is and how it can be purchased. That is particularly important when we consider that the public sector serves more than 1 billion meals a year to consumers including nursery and school children, hospital patients, elderly people in care homes and members of the armed forces.

Thirdly, the sheer purchasing power of Government has the capacity to drive the market for sustainable seafood, catalysing advances in the seafood industry. So, what about the public sector? The public sector is a big consumer of fish, but it is not an ethical consumer of fish. Sustain, the alliance for food and farming, estimates that each year the Government spend more than £40 million on seafood in the public sector. At present, public sector organisations are not required to meet any legal standard for the fish that they buy. There is Government guidance, but no rules. In fact, the Government do not even require the public sector to meet the rules they introduced under the fish labelling regulations, through which retailers must clearly label the origin and species, including the method of production, for all fish and fillets sold.

As a result, the public sector buys fish species that include some of the most vulnerable stocks in the world. The Ministry of Justice, for example, spends £1.25 million a year on fish and more than one 10th of that total is spent on haddock, without any regard to its sustainability. That is a huge cause for concern because, according to the Marine Conservation Society, some stocks of haddock are “unsustainable, overfished and vulnerable”.

The picture is not any better in hospitals, where tiger prawns, dogfish and swordfish—species which are often produced particularly unsustainably—are available to purchase from the big catering companies. Research compiled by Sustain showed that of 341 fish, seafood or fish-based sandwich filling products provided by the biggest supplier of food to the NHS, which trades using an NHS logo, only one is listed in its catalogue as certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

There can be little doubt that the future of popular global fish species lies precariously in the balance. The Bill provides a clear legal framework that would ensure that the millions of pounds of public money spent on seafood each and every year is invested in a way that would transform the long-term sustainability of seafood species throughout the world.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. David Drew, Peter Bottomley, Andrew Stunell, Annette Brooke, Mark Durkan, Mr. Andrew Dismore and Alan Simpson present the Bill.

Mr. David Drew accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March and to be printed (Bill 72).