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Fish Discards

Volume 546: debated on Thursday 14 June 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if she will make a statement about the decision on fish discards arrived at this week in the European Council meeting of Fisheries Ministers.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for asking this question, as it gives me the opportunity to run through some of what we achieved in the small hours of the morning in Luxembourg. On 12-13 June, I represented the UK at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg to discuss the reform of the common fisheries policy. This was a critical negotiation where I was asked to give my agreement on key elements of this once-in-a-decade opportunity to reform the broken CFP, through agreement of a “General Approach” text. My aim has all along been to combine radical political ambition with a strong focus on the practical means to ensure early delivery. I am pleased to report to the House that we secured agreement to key planks of the reform we are seeking. This includes some key demands that I know the House has sought previously, and that remain hugely important to the British public.

We successfully made the case for measures to progressively eliminate discards, with deadlines that kick in quickly after the conclusion of the reform. The text provides for a landing obligation in pelagic fisheries from 2014, and a staged implementation in our other fisheries between 2015 and 2018. Although not all member states shared our ambition for urgent action, a commitment to implement a landing obligation, with a provisional timetable, is a major step in the right direction.

We also secured the inclusion of provisions setting out a genuine regionalised process to replace the centralised one-size-fits-all approach. The UK has led work with other member states over the last year to find solutions to that. The provisions allow us to work together regionally—for example with other North sea member states, to agree the measures appropriate to our fisheries. That is a crucial start in moving decision making closer to fisheries.

As for my other top priority, we secured a responsible approach to setting fishing levels. Overfishing has been a central failing of the CFP, and the UK was adamant that the text should include a clear legal commitment, and deadlines for that, to achieve maximum sustainable yield in line with our international commitments. Through the discussions in Council, the UK has played a leading role in developing solutions and building alliances with other member states to shape the text we agreed in the early hours of yesterday.

This is not the end of the process. The Council of Ministers has now given a clear steer but the dossier will be co-decided with the European Parliament, so we will continue to work with others to improve the legal provisions and we will also guard against any weakening of the approach. This is a major step towards real reform on a long and difficult road and I do not expect these negotiations to conclude until well into 2013.

I thank the Minister for that answer. This achievement on a discard ban is a welcome step forward. Fish discards are recognised universally as obscene and unacceptable and I want to press the Minister, if possible, on certain elements of the subject. What are his views on slippage in the timetable, on the plans for implementation and on the consequences of the agreement for our fishing communities?

What confidence does the Minister have in the timetable? It has already slipped from the original proposals, so will 2018 not be considered by some as the marine equivalent of the long grass? The industry is willing to move towards the ban, but what support will it get for the change in gears and working methods that will be needed to meet the requirements? Everyone can and will welcome the commitment, but what structure will be put in place to help delivery of the outcome while working within a quota system?

As the Minister will know, the problem of discards cannot be wished away without the means being provided. What are those means to be? Maximum sustainable yield is at least as important as the discards announcement and there is universal recognition that stock levels need to improve following years of overfishing. The statement says that maximum sustainable yield should be achieved “where possible” by 2015; what confidence does the Minister have in the phrase “where possible”? As the level of available scientific data is ever increasing, does the Minister agree that that adds weight to the target and, one would hope, momentum towards achieving it by 2015?

I particularly welcome the regionalised approach set out in the announcement. The previous one-size-fits-all approach of the common fisheries policy has failed. Mesh sizes in Hastings were decided in Brussels, which was absolutely absurd. Will the Minister tell us how he expects those welcome changes to impact on the everyday ability of the small fishing fleets up and down the country to carry on fishing? I know that he is acutely aware of the need for a fairer allocation of quota to support the smaller fishing communities. Can he tell us whether the proposed regionalisation addressed by the Fisheries Council will lead to a brighter future for the fishermen of Britain?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the question of the timings of any discard or land-all obligation. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom’s ambitions were greater than some of the dates in the proposal. They are only proposed dates, but I can assure her that they are considerably better than some of the dates being discussed in the wee small hours, which could definitely, and quite rightly, be construed as slippage or kicking the issue into the long grass.

Let us look closely at the dates. Unfortunately, the reform will not be in place until the end of 2013, but from 1 January 2014 there will be implementation of a discard ban on herring, mackerel and other pelagic stocks. The year 2015 will see the emergence of white fish land-all obligations, so we will be well ahead with many stocks in many fisheries ahead of the 2016 date, which was seen by many as the measure. However, some will not come in until 2018, as my hon. Friend says. Many of the fishermen in her constituency and elsewhere dislike the top-down management of fisheries for a variety of reasons, but often because of the controls that are imposed, such as catch composition measures and effort controls. A lot of those are incompatible with discards, so we have secured in the text a commitment to remove those where possible. I look forward to working through the detail of that.

On maximum sustainable yield, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is the international obligation to fish to MSY by 2015 where possible. The difference now is that we are proposing that what was a political statement should be a legal requirement. That is a major step forward. On the regionalised approach, it has to be said that when we were starting this reform process, the UK was a lone voice in calling for an end to the top-down management of fisheries. We now have allies and have got that into the text, which is a major achievement. Let us look at what this means for the small, inshore fleets. Like all fishermen, what they want most of all are more fish to catch. Fishing to MSY will mean that fish stocks will recover faster and better, so there will be more fish in the sea for such fleets to exploit. They will also see an end to the system that my hon. Friend described in which eliminator panels sit in a particular net and mesh sizes are decided perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away from the seas in which those fishermen fish. This is a major step forward. There is much more work to be done and I assure her that it will not be through any lack of effort if we do not get precisely what we want in the text.

May I begin by saying how disappointed I am that this important issue is being dealt with through an urgent question rather than a formal statement by the Government?

There are elements of this agreement that will be welcomed on this side of the House and throughout the country, chief among them being the agreement in principle on a ban on the shameful practice of discards. However, any deadlines that were discussed were vague and did not feature explicitly in the final agreement. Why was this? Can the Minister tell the House if Tuesday’s meeting ended with a comprehensive vote including all participating members? A commitment without a deadline is no commitment at all. Without a legally enforceable deadline, what assurances can the Government give that the practice of discards will indeed end in the time scale he envisages? The Minister told The Guardian on Monday that as he entered negotiations in Luxembourg, the Government had

“still not fully worked out its position”

regarding a deadline. That is an extraordinary approach to negotiations. Does the Minister really believe that to achieve the best outcome from negotiations we should announce in advance that we have no position—that we have not made mind up our mind about what we want?

On the regionalisation of fisheries policy, will the Minister explain what practical differences will be made to the common fisheries policy that will represent an improvement on the previous one? The big disappointment is the potentially devastating delay until 2020 of a commitment to reach sustainable levels of fishing stock, which will mean another eight years of guaranteed overfishing. Tragically, once again politics has trumped science. Does the Minister agree that a failure to rebuild fish stocks more quickly will damage the UK fishing industry, particularly inshore fleets at the low-impact, sustainable end of the industry?

Finally, what measures will the Government put in place to make sure that smaller inshore fishermen and their communities receive a fairer distribution of quotas? The House will give the Minister one cheer for his efforts this week, but the future of our fishing industry and the recovery of our fish stocks are too important to sacrifice to yet another Euro-fudge.

Let me start by formally welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his position. I look forward to working with him in the coming months on these important issues. He asked about the dates in terms of a discard ban. I should state quite clearly that when I was asked by The Guardian on Monday morning whether I would share the dates I was taking to the negotiations, I had very clear dates in my head, but we have a protocol—a courtesy—that we agree the UK line with all devolved Governments. I was very grateful to have the support of all the devolved Governments in Luxembourg. We had a very good spirit in the UK delegation room—we work well together. We agreed that UK line very clearly and we stuck to it.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there was a vote in the plenary meeting of the Council of Ministers. At the end, the Danish presidency, which has been superb throughout—it is a great ally of the British programme, and has led very well—asked people to register any opposition to the proposal. One or two small countries did so, and one or two slightly large countries did so too. We should be under no illusion: there are people who do not want the policy to be reformed, and do not support the United Kingdom’s ambitions on discards, regionalisation and moving to sustainable fisheries. It is up to our colleagues from all parties in the European Parliament to make sure that a robust position is maintained and that the Council of Ministers continues to push on the deadlines that we have asked for.

The hon. Gentleman asked what the measure means for a regionalised approach. I am really pleased that the United Kingdom position has been adopted, and we pushed right through to the end to make sure that if a group of countries fishing in a sea basin decides on the details of measures that are currently decided in the Commission but which will in future be decided in those regionalised groups, the Commission can then implement that. In the original text, there was a clear indication that other measures could be imposed by the Commission in that process. We want to make sure that where countries agree, we have a truly regionalised position—a truly bottom-up system of managing our fisheries—and I think that will be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about our dates on maximum sustainable yield. We want to stick to our Johannesburg commitment, which was a political commitment, and make it a legal commitment so that we fish to MSY by 2015 where possible. He accepts that the science is not always clear, but we want to hold ourselves to account as much as possible. He asks about a fairer distribution among different sectors of the industry. He knows—if he does not, he should—that I have been working extremely hard on this. I want to make sure that we keep all those small ports and creeks that support the local fishing industry in business. There is a social dimension to the management of the industry. We have to maintain the diversity of the fleet, which is not easy, but it is a clear priority for the Government. I hope that he, like his predecessors, will continue to support that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has delivered and the progress that was made, particularly on regionalisation, which is music to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s ears. Will he update the House on the question of a register for UK fishermen so that we can tackle the problem of slipper skippers, which will also help with discards? Will he confirm that it will be fish caught against quota on which we will proceed, not just fish landed, as that is one of the main issues with discards? Will he confirm that there will be support for fishermen to invest in the selective gear that has been successful in Denmark and Sweden?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support. It is a priority quickly to overcome the absurd position that we do not know who holds quota in this country. We want to work with devolved Governments to make sure that we have that register as quickly possible to ensure that we know and perhaps to slay some of the urban myths that football clubs and celebrities own quota. I have never managed to find out the facts about this.

The important point on discards is that we know how to make this work. We begin with a really good experience of working with the fishing industry. Catch quota schemes will result in 0.2% of discards of cod for vessels in those schemes. We want to incentivise fishermen not to catch fish that they would otherwise discard. We want to make sure, too, that where there is a land-all obligation there are supply chains that ensure that those fish are eaten or go into other systems. We should not just transfer a problem out at sea to landfill. The most important thing is that we have time and a clear direction to ensure that we can use all the work that we have done with the industry to make this effective and to stop the problem in a practical sense.

It is important to welcome the progress that has been made in the Fisheries Council and congratulate the Minister on the effort he has put in, but does he agree that the discards situation is complex, particularly in the mixed and white fisheries in the North sea—the situation is much easier to resolve in pelagic fisheries—and that we will not resolve the problem through European rules? We need practical regional measures, as has been shown in the Scottish prawn fisheries, where these practical approaches have managed to reduce discards by over 70%.

I entirely agree that there are fantastic practices in British waters that we want to see as part of the scheme and that it is not just a question of having a big-bang end to the practice. We want to use existing evidence and to work with the industry. I know that we can achieve that and look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman’s all-party parliamentary group on that.

As a former Fisheries Minister, I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has achieved. People have been trying for decades to get the sorts of reforms he has achieved, and had it not been for his leadership and that of the UK Government we would not have got where we are. The issue of discards is of considerable interest to large numbers of my constituents, many of whom have written to me about it. It is quite a complex matter, so will my hon. Friend consider sending a “Dear colleague” letter about discards to all Members of the House so that we can forward it to our constituents?

I am very keen to involve all Members of the House. My hon. Friend, like me, represents a constituency that is almost as far from the sea as it is possible to be, but we get letters from constituents who are massively concerned about the marine environment. I want to ensure that we keep up the political momentum on this and so want to work with Members on both sides of the House to ensure that we keep up the pressure and are effective through all the institutions that are involved so that ultimately we get the result we need.

The Minister will recall that I have called a number of times for the abolition of the common fisheries policy and the restoration of historic fishing waters to member states. I still believe that that is the only final solution that will work, but in the short term we have inched forward. Will he explain how the system will be policed, whether there will be penalties, precisely what will happen to the excess catches and whether Britain will be monitoring, and indeed policing, rogue vessels from overseas that are fishing in British waters?

Britain has been policing illegal fishing, whether by UK or foreign vessels, and will continue to do so. I am pleased that we recently instigated a very heavy fine on an overseas vessel fishing in our waters. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I want to ensure that fisheries are managed as close to member states as possible. There are some good words in the text that allow member states to take action when it is right for them to do so. Subsidiarity is supposed to underpin a lot of European legislation, and I ask him to look at the provisions we secured on regionalisation. Whether or not we had a CFP, we would still have to work with other countries because we are talking about an ecosystem, fish that swim in our waters and those of other countries, and the historical fishing rights that go way back beyond the European Union, so I think we have a good message and that it is something he can be pleased with.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress he has helped to secure in the negotiations. Does he agree that if the regional dimension of the common fisheries policy is to succeed it is critical that fishermen are engaged as key stakeholders in the management of those regions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. For too long fishermen have felt right at the bottom of the decision-making process, under layer upon layer of control. I hope that we can have a system that is simpler and closer to them. In December I sat up late into the night discussing with Commission officials where an eliminator panel should sit in a net that was to be used off the Shetlands. That is an absurd system. I hope that a more regionalised approach will mean that decisions are taken by fishermen and closer to where they fish.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) back to his rightful place on the Front Bench. The Minister said that he wanted particular dates for the implementation of the policy against these immoral discards. Did he achieve the dates he had in mind in the negotiations?

No, but I failed to achieve them only by about a year. We can argue and quibble, but the important thing is that we agreed a general approach. Had we not done so, we would have becalmed the whole reform of this broken policy, possibly for years, and sent a message to the European Parliament that the Council does not really think it is important, and those who believe the current system works would have won, which would have been a disaster.

As someone who sat up into the early hours of the morning listening to the negotiations, I really congratulate the Minister. Can he confirm that any discard ban will not prevent fishermen from Looe, Polperro and the Rame peninsula in my constituency from discarding seasonally prevalent fish, such as the red gurnard, that are not assessed as under pressure by the Marine Conservation Society?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these issues. I do not know the details stock by stock, but what we want is an end to discards. There were proposals made in the negotiation process that, through de minimis levels that we considered much too high, would in effect have meant that there was not a discard ban. We must be clear about where we want to go, but we want to ensure that we work with fishermen in her constituency and elsewhere to achieve that.

I thank the Minister for his statement. With Diane Dodds, a colleague and Member of the European Parliament, I have been working on this issue for some time and therefore give it a cautious welcome. Does he accept that, in the spirit of the agreement, further effort, known as reductions, in the context of the cod recovery plan for the Irish sea, which affects Northern Ireland fishermen, will not be imposed in future?

One of the reforms we want as part of the process is a greater movement to multi-annual plans, which I like because they actually take power away from politicians. The horse trading that goes on in December is less possible when we have a good multi-annual plan. What the hon. Gentleman is talking about is a bad multi-annual plan, one that was not thought through properly, does not work and in many cases achieves the reverse of what was intended. I will work with him, Diane Dodds and anyone else to ensure that we get the right kind of multi-annual plans system within the reforms.

I, too, congratulate the Minister, who has achieved a great deal on discards in his time in office. I think that the local management of fisheries and fishermen owning up to the way fish stocks are managed are essential. We have to ensure that cod discards, which are still going on in mixed fisheries off the south-west, are stopped as soon as possible.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a hearty proponent of an end to the top-down management of fisheries and an enemy of discards both here and in the European Parliament, and I will continue to work on that. We should be very grateful to organisations such as Fish Fight for the part they played in exciting popular culture in support of what we are doing, but it is also worth paying tribute to the small groups of scientists, officials from DEFRA and other organisations that have been working to end discards and reform this policy for a long time.

I give three cheers for this agreement, which represents a huge step in the right direction. However, given that some European countries, most notably France, remain opposed to some of its key elements, will the Minister ensure that he keeps up the pressure so that there is no slippage in the proposals?

I was pleased to welcome the new French Minister to the negotiations and very glad that I did not have to do what he did: ring his Prime Minister at 4.30 in the morning to get his authority to support the proposals. I can assure my hon. Friend that we work with every country that we feel can move this forward. It is really important that we do not just sit back because we have a general approach agreed; there is a lot more work to be done. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support.

How miserable of the Opposition to refuse to applaud the remarkable progress made by my hon. Friend in an area of EU policy that has been calling out for reform for literally decades. Will he please tell us what the process is now for this to receive approval from the European Parliament and what his concerns about that might be?

We now enter a process of Kafkaesque complexity. The reforms will go to the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee in October, and we will then consider what it thinks of them. They will then go to the plenary session of the European Parliament. They will then be examined again by the institutions early next year through a trialogue process. We will then come forward with a reform, hopefully about this time next year, for implementation in January, which is in 18 months’ time.