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EU Fisheries Negotiations

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

I represented the UK at the fisheries part of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on 18 to 20 December. Richard Lochhead, Michelle O’Neill and Alun Davies attended for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales respectively.

The annual December round of negotiations for total allowable catches, or TACs, and quotas is a difficult process, and this year was particularly challenging. UK fishermen were facing automatic 25% reductions in the time they can spend at sea, as well as significant decreases in TACs and quotas. I entered this year’s negotiation clear in my mind that decisions on quotas or on days spent at sea need to be based on three clear principles: following scientific advice, sustainability, and the need for continued discard reduction. We adhered to these principles throughout, and I am pleased to report to the House that the UK Government secured a deal that was good for the health of our seas and for the UK fishing industry.

We secured agreement to end automatic reductions to the number of days fishermen can spend at sea, overcoming legal obstacles in the cod recovery plan. The number of available days in 2013 will be at the same level as 2012, giving fishermen the time to fish sustainably, avoiding discards and juvenile fish. The quota for North sea cod in 2013 will be decided during the EU-Norway negotiations next week. We removed the requirement for this to be based on an automatic 20% reduction, instead enabling the quota to be set on the basis of scientific evidence. Reflecting the latest science, the UK is calling for a rollover of the TAC to decrease discards, increase the likelihood of achieving maximum sustainable yield by 2015, and improve the stock biomass. This outcome, together with our success in removing proposed restrictions on discard reduction programmes, means that our highly successful and innovative catch quota scheme, which effectively eliminates discards, can continue to grow and develop this year.

On fish quotas, where the scientific evidence showed that significant cuts in quota were necessary for the health of the stock, we accepted them—for example, in the case of North sea nephrops, Celtic sea herring and Rockall haddock—but where they were not justified we successfully managed to fight huge cuts to quotas across a number of different fish stocks. The proposed cuts to quotas were often not supported by the available evidence and would have led to an increase in the discarding of perfectly edible fish. Successes included mitigating a 55% cut in south-west haddock to 15%, a 48% cut in west of Scotland haddock to 30%, and overturning a 12% cut to a 6% increase in nephrops around Northern Ireland. Because a number of stocks are improving, we were able to increase quotas for them this year. For example, we secured increases in quota for plaice and sole in the channel, nephrops in the west of Scotland, and cod and whiting in the south-west. We are hoping to secure increases in many of the North sea stocks, in line with the scientific advice, as part of the EU-Norway discussions next week.

Through the night the UK team battled hard to reach an agreement that ensures the long-term sustainability of fish stocks while providing short-term catching opportunities for our fishing industry. The package we secured helps all sectors of the industry, large and small, and delivers benefits for all parts of the UK—north, south, east and west. It was a good result for the UK fleet and for sustainable exploitation of the fish on which our fishermen depend. It also supports our wider objectives on the reform of the common fisheries policy, and it was a timely coincidence that the European Parliament was voting on CFP reform at the same time that the annual quota negotiations were taking place. I was very pleased that ambitious provisions to eliminate discards, set fishing rates sustainably and allow for regional decision making were voted through. This was an important step forward for the reform process, and it bodes well that the final package we will negotiate this year will include the radical reforms we all agree are needed.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

I sympathise with the Minister for being forced to sit through the night at the Fisheries Council at the end of last year in what I am confident he would describe as a Kafkaesque experience. Does he agree that our fishing industry deserves better than this undignified and often chaotic annual round of negotiations each December? More to the point, does he agree that public and industry confidence in the negotiation framework would be enhanced by a substantial degree of transparency? By holding meetings behind closed doors, the Council prevents us from evaluating the logic behind its decisions. What measures does the Minister plan in future to open up these negotiations to a healthy dose of public scrutiny?

We are at a critical point for fisheries management, and common fisheries policy reform is at the top of the agenda. May I wish the Minister every success during the EU-Norway negotiations on the North sea cod quota next week? Labour Members welcome the news that automatic cuts to the North sea cod quota and a reduction in the number of fishing days at sea have been avoided. Given public outrage at the shameful waste of discards, any change in policy that increased discards would have been unacceptable. Is the Minister aware of concerns within the fishing industry that the vote by the Council of Ministers to amend the more problematic parts of the cod management plan could be subject to legal challenge from the European Parliament? Can he guarantee that the Council’s vote will not be overruled by the outcome of such a legal challenge?

The Minister told the House that proposed cuts to quotas were “often not supported by the available evidence”. Will he give us examples? Can he confirm that despite the Council’s, and his own, public support for evidence-based policy-making, about half of all quotas have been set above levels advised by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea? He reported that the Council was able to increase quotas for those stocks that are improving. Can he confirm to the House that all these quota increases were unambiguously supported and recommended by the scientific evidence?

What discussions, if any, took place at Council regarding the ongoing dispute between UK and Icelandic fishermen on disputed north-east Atlantic mackerel stock? Was the Minister personally involved in any discussions on the possible enforcement of EU sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and will he update the House on this crucial issue?

Is the Minister fully aware of the increasing importance to Scottish processing plants of the blue whiting quota, and will he bear this in mind as he approaches the EU negotiations with Norway next week? Total allowable catch for blue whiting increased significantly in 2012 but is still constrained by our commitment to swap quotas for North sea cod with Norway—a move that largely benefits Spain and Portugal.

Lastly, given the importance to these annual negotiations of quota distribution within the EU, will the Minister update the House on when he expects to be able to publish the full, comprehensive and up-to-date list of who owns the UK fishing quota, long promised by this Government?

I welcome the Minister’s statement and wish him every success in future negotiations. So long as he continues to represent the fight for the sustainability of the UK’s fishing industry and of our vital natural resource, he will continue to enjoy our conditional support.

I would expect nothing less from the hon. Gentleman.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sympathy about the absurd and ridiculous processes that one has to go through. With the reform of the common fisheries policy, we have a golden opportunity to end some of the absurdity, if not all of it. We can cease the ridiculous charade of a Minister like me discussing fishing net sizes with a Commission official perhaps 1,000 miles from where the net will be used. That is a technical matter that should be decided locally with fishermen. That is why our regionalisation agenda as part of the CFP reform is so important.

The system can also be improved through better long-term management plans. The cod recovery plan is a bad plan, but that should not dissuade us from pushing for more long-term management plans that are scientifically based and worked through with the industry, taking away from politicians the late-night horse trading and making the system much more evidence based. We want to see more of that.

The hon. Gentleman raised an issue about cod. Where cod effort continues to be reduced, the incentive is then for fishermen to fish as soon as possible after leaving port, and that might not be the most sustainable place for them to catch fish—it might be where cod are spawning or where there are more juvenile fish. We want to encourage them to go to the places where there are the larger fish that they can target sustainably.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether this will be subject to a legal challenge. It may well be—these things happen. I was very clear that I did not want the livelihoods of our fishermen or the sustainability of our seas to be the totemic issue on which inter-institutional rivalries would be sorted out. Therefore, the decision we took to support the presidency in sorting out this element of the cod recovery plan was the right one. It may well end up in court and I cannot guarantee the result, but we have secured a sensible solution for this year.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. ICES looks at individual fish stocks rather than, as is the case in this country, mixed fisheries, so we do apply other scientific advice. On cod, we got ICES to agree that our rationale was right that if we had progressed down the route proposed by the Commission, it would have resulted in more discards.

Mackerel remains our absolute priority. It is this country’s biggest by-value catch and I am determined to do all we can to get Iceland and the Faroes back to the negotiating table and find a solution. If not, sanctions remain on the table.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman about blue whiting, because that is a more technical issue.

We inherited an extraordinary situation whereby we do not know who owns quota in this country, which is daft. We have set about our determination to resolve that issue this year, so I hope that at some point in 2013 we will be able to explain to the House whether or not quota is actually owned by football clubs and celebrities, as is constantly made clear to me. We have yet to find out and are working hard to achieve that.

I congratulate the Fisheries Minister on enduring the final throes of an out-of-date policy. Could he assure the House that cod quota will be extended to our hard-pressed, initial under-10 metre fleet? That is extremely important.

On the common fisheries policy, it is music to the ears of fishermen that we are proceeding on the grounds of sustainability, sound scientific advice and, indeed, a discard policy that should work. Will he assure the House that regional control will amount to control by him and his colleagues for the North sea fishermen and, indeed, by the fishermen and the regional advisory councils themselves?

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. Yes, I can confirm that cod is an important stock for the inshore fleet as well as for others. It is welcome that cod stocks are increasing. That is in so small part thanks to the work being done by fishermen in all sectors to improve the biomass of this important staple of our diet. It is not entirely good news—there are still cuts to cod quotas in some areas—but the general trend is increasing. We need to reflect on the fact that 1 million tonnes of cod will be caught off Norway and in the North sea this year. This stock is improving dramatically not very far from us. It is not improving quickly enough, but we are working hard to achieve that.

I agree with my hon. Friend that sustainability is important, not just because we mind about the health of our seas, but because we mind about the future of our fishing industry. We want an increased biomass and it is through increased stocks that more businesses will progress and become more profitable.

I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend’s comments on regional management. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been banging this drum for a long time. We want fully documented fisheries where the technical measures that are currently decided by a top-down centralised system are decided locally on an ecosystem basis, so that in an area such as the North sea it is the countries that actually fish in it that will decide how it is managed.

I join in congratulating the Minister on this very good result that is obviously welcomed by the fishing industry. He is well aware of the trials that are taking place in Scotland to improve discards. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is anxious that they progress as quickly as possible and feel that it would be extremely beneficial to have an extra quota of fish specifically to pursue the research. Is the Minister prepared to argue for that in next week’s Norway discussions?

What we managed to achieve was to get the argument understood. We are not talking about more mortality; we are talking about landing more fish that would otherwise be discarded. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that fishermen from his part of the world have led the way on a whole range of measures. Some have been technical and have involved their gear, while others have involved real-time closures, but the really important scheme is the catch quota scheme, which has involved fully documented fisheries. The scheme has been praised from the commissioner downwards as the way forward. We want it to become the norm and, in many respects, for it to be much extended, because under that scheme practically no cod will be discarded from vessels this year. That is an incredible achievement by those fishermen and the people who have worked with them on such schemes, and we want to see more of that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on his CBE in the new year’s honours list. I also congratulate his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on her OBE in the same list.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on the tremendous progress that has been made on regionalisation. It has long been an ambition of the UK Government that more decision making and management of the common fisheries policy be done locally. Could he give us other examples of how this will benefit the UK fleet and ensure that it has a happy future?

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent honour.

Many benefits can be achieved from proper, effective regionalisation. Ending the top-down, centralised control of small and detailed technical measures is an important way forward. Ensuring that local fishermen work with scientists and developing the concept that every single vessel is a scientific platform can only be achieved locally. We cannot achieve what we want to achieve on discards without regionalisation. It has been a real battle to push this through the Council and other forums. I am really pleased that the fisheries committee of the European Parliament recognises this. We now have to make sure that it is followed through in the bizarre processes that we have to go through for the rest of the year, in order to ensure meaningful reform. I assure my hon. Friend that this is a priority for us.

The Minister will recall that I have called on a number of occasions for the abolition of the common fisheries policy and for the Government to press that on European colleagues. I still believe that we should do that. Would it not be sensible to return to the national limits that we used to have, so that we can manage our fish stocks and monitor our fishing? That is how the Norwegians do it, and their fisheries are much better than ours.

The question that I really want to ask relates to Spain, which has in the past refused to give information about its fishing. Indeed, there have been suggestions that it is landing black fish illegally. Is Spain being properly regulated now?

Sadly, Spain is not alone in having had problems in the past with black fish landings. We have to make sure that all houses are in order when we criticise countries for failing to obey the rules. I want to make it absolutely clear that if people land black fish—illegal, unreported and unregulated landings of fish—they are stealing those fish from our fishermen. People such as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) have made that important point consistently.

The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) is consistent in his view of the common fisheries policy. I certainly would not have started from this point, and I think that most Members would agree with that. As we develop the policy further, we need to recognise that the “common” part of the common fisheries policy is not necessarily wrong. We need to manage this on an ecosystem basis. Fish may spawn in one country’s waters and then swim to those of another country. They do not have passports and we need to manage the situation on a sea basin basis, and that is where our regionalisation agenda is going.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Commission’s draconian and inflexible stance, particularly on stocks with a precautionary, rather than an analytical, TAC, is a clear reason why management and decision making should be devolved to the local nation states that have a real interest in the sea basin area? Will he argue for that in the CFP review negotiations?

I thank my hon. Friend for her continued interest in this issue. Her knowledge is important in guiding us and making sure that we are on this agenda. I assure her that we are. I want fishermen from her part of the world to take responsibility for the detailed management, technical measures and other sustainability issues that we require of them, rather than feeling that yet another layer of control is being imposed on them. That is what is driving people out of the industry and making fishermen feel that they do not want their children or grandchildren to go into their industry. I am determined to see a degree of regionalisation that is effective in delivering that.

Order. I am sorry to tell the House that we have got through only five questions in nine minutes of Back-Bench time, which is very slow progress. We need to speed up, I am afraid, if we are to accommodate colleagues and move on to the next business in a timely fashion.

I thank the Minister for his hard work and effort on behalf of the fishing industry, especially in Northern Ireland, and for working with the Minister in Northern Ireland. Along with Diane Dodds, I met the Minister the day before he went to Brussels to put the case for the Northern Ireland fishing sector. The 6% increase in nephrops is most welcome, especially for the Northern Ireland fishing fleet. What plans does he have to address the growing problems associated with Irish sea cod, particularly in area VII, and the assertion of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries that science suffers from annual TAC reductions?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I am pleased with where we got to on nephrops.

On the technical issue of Irish sea cod, I think that we can slightly ameliorate the impact of the cut. Working with fishermen in his constituency and the STECF, I hope that we can move the argument forward. Great work is being done by fishermen in Northern Ireland on selectivity, and I encourage that. I want to achieve the holy grail of fisheries management, which we are achieving elsewhere: catching less and landing more. We can do that.

My constituency and neighbouring Grimsby broadly welcome the negotiations and, in particular, the moves towards regionalisation. However, the Minister will be aware that there are concerns that the negotiations between the EU and Iceland over mackerel catches may lead to lower imports into this country, which are vital to the Grimsby-based industry. Will he give the industry in my constituency some reassurance?

I visited my hon. Friend’s region not long before Christmas and that point was made very clear to me. I recognise that we have a very valuable processing industry that we want to protect. In large part, it is dependent on fish from Iceland. If sanctions are brought in against Iceland, we want to ensure that they are proportionate. We think we can exert some influence in this area and get Iceland back to the table, so that we can start seeing proper management of a stock that swims across a vast area that is the responsibility of many countries.

On behalf of the Scottish and UK fishing industries, may I congratulate the Minister on a job well done? Will he give the House an assessment of whether Scotland’s fishermen would have benefited from having a separate delegation or whether we are better together?

My view is that Scotland’s fishermen are best represented as part of a large, 29-vote member of the European Union. That is true of a lot of other interests. I cannot do the maths off the top of my head to work out how many votes Scotland would have as an independent state, but I think that it is best served by being part of the United Kingdom in these negotiations.

I congratulate the Minister on behalf of myself and the fishermen of Ramsgate. Will he elaborate on the impact of the settlement on the under-10 metre fleet, in particular in the channel?

We achieved an increase in the quotas for sole and plaice in my hon. Friend’s area and a roll-over of the sprat quota, which was due for a big cut. Those are all valuable fisheries for her constituents. I am gratified that fishermen in her area are part of our trial for more financial support for the under-10 metre fleet in the coming year.

There is much to welcome in the Minister’s statement. I commend him and the devolved Ministers for their efforts in recent weeks. I, too, want to press the Minister on the mackerel dispute, which is still at an impasse. Will he give an assurance that he will reject the Commission’s proposals for reductions in mackerel quotas next week at the EU-Norway talks, because that would simply reward Iceland and the Faroes for destructive overfishing and fail to pull them back to the negotiating table?

I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, wants to ensure that we stay resolute in our determination to follow the science. We have a political issue to sort out with the mackerel problem and that can be done only by getting Iceland and the Faroes back round the table. I do not want the United Kingdom to fish the last mackerel out of the sea. We want to ensure that the stock remains sustainable. I feel very unhappy about the impact that this situation could be having on her constituents and on those whom I have met in Lerwick and in other places where mackerel is an important fishery. We want to ensure that Iceland and the Faroes play ball, but we cannot allow this stock to be fished unsustainably.

I thank my hon. Friend for all that he has tried to do for the under-10 metre fleet. Will he say more about how the “non-sector” will be affected by the settlement, in particular people fishing out of Harwich, Brightlingsea and Wivenhoe, a fleet that he knows well?

As I have said, there is good news for the under-10 metre fleet, which is particularly effective at targeting stocks such as sole and plaice. There is quite a large increase in the plaice quota and we managed to avoid a big cut in other stocks by presenting the science and working with my hon. Friend’s constituents who fish sustainably. The under-10 metre fleet can feel proud of their contribution towards the sustainability of our fishing industry and I commend those in his constituency for that.

The Minister has taken a sensible approach to the dispute over mackerel with Iceland and the Faroes. In the discussions that he and his colleagues have with them, will he ensure that the point is made that they will be the biggest losers if there is an unsustainable approach to mackerel fishing in the North sea? It may be attractive to Iceland to get immediate economic returns from the mackerel stock, given its current economic situation, but it would not be in that country’s interest to see the stock diminished beyond recognition.

There is a perfectly acceptable international method for resolving these disputes, but it requires countries such as Iceland to take part in the process. We remain willing to discuss the matter with them in an open and meaningful way. The ball is in their court. In the meantime, this is a difficult time for the industry, with the threat to the viability of the pelagic fleet. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that bad practice is not rewarded and that we are working hard to achieve a happy solution to this problem.

I congratulate the Minister on securing an increase in the quotas for cod and whiting in the south-west and for plaice and sole in the channel. How quickly does he think it will be possible to roll out the catch quota scheme to further eliminate discards?

I was really pleased that fishermen in my hon. Friend’s constituency entered the scheme last year. I want many more vessels to do so, because fully documented fisheries are the only way forward, not only to have proper management of our fisheries, but to address the concerns of all our constituents—even mine inland—who are affronted by the idea of perfectly edible fish being thrown away. Through schemes such as the catch quota scheme we can give assurances to our consumers and make life better for our fishermen, who are landing more and being better rewarded for it. This is an entirely virtuous circle.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his work in the negotiations before Christmas and over the past two and a half years on behalf of the under-10 metre fleet. There is concern that in future work on the reallocation of quota, the under-10s will be compromised by not having kept records. Will he confirm that he will work with the industry to address that concern?

I hope my hon. Friend would concede that I am on record as having faced criticism from some quarters for reallocating quota to the under-10 metre sector. I strongly believe that fishing opportunity is a national resource, and this rather bizarre business is about the allocation of that national resource. I firmly believe that the under-10 metre sector is important socially as well as economically, and I will continue to do what I can to make its life better.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on both what he has achieved and the manner in which he has conducted the negotiations. He mentioned the context of the common fisheries policy reform. Will he reassure the House that his counterparts in Europe will respect the fact that we are introducing marine conservation zones that extend beyond the six and 12-mile limits, to ensure that British fishermen are not constrained in areas where foreign vessels are not?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is really important. I am not in the business of proposing restrictions for our vessels only to see vessels from other countries entering the restricted areas in our waters and fishing in a way that our fishermen cannot. We must have the matter agreed at European level, and I have already had discussions with my French counterpart on it. We will have further discussions to ensure that it is completely clear at every level that we are not imposing a restriction on ourselves that will not be recognised by other countries.

I welcome the Minister’s success in getting the scientific evidence heard, particularly when it comes to haddock in the south-west. Why were the Commission’s original proposals so far wide of the mark, and why is it apparently so dysfunctional on the issue and so deaf to the evidence?

The issue of haddock in the south-west is a product of the situation that I mentioned earlier, whereby the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea simply examines one stock on its own. In most of the UK waters we have mixed fisheries, and there is a danger that we can—I have already used this expression in Committee today—make the perfect the enemy of the good. If we are tied to one species, in this case a “choke species”, it can result in more discards and worsen the sustainability of wider stocks. That was why we argued successfully for a reduction in the cut.

I am sure that the fishermen who fish in Sole bay will be delighted by the increase in eastern channel sole, as will those in Southwold, Orford, Sizewell and elsewhere in my constituency. Does the Minister share my concern, though, about the comments of the chief executive of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association that the deal was damaging, when it has actually proved a lifeline for many of our coastal fishermen?

I think the chief executive’s comments were a pity, because if he had looked closely at what we achieved he would have seen an improved prospect for the year ahead across all sectors and around all our coasts. That includes some valuable stocks that are of particular interest to his members, so I accept my hon. Friend’s point.

May I add to the chorus of congratulations from Members on both sides of the House on the Minister’s his genuine achievements? In particular, the increase in the nephrops quota will be most welcome in Fleetwood and is a real success. Now that he is back, may I ask him to keep an eye on the new wind farm applications in the Irish sea so that there might be some space left for my local fishermen to catch the new quota?

My hon. Friend may try you, Mr Speaker, but I listened to what he said. I want to ensure that we get away from the silo mentality in managing our fisheries of talking about fishermen in one forum, conservation in another and other marine activities in a third. Following the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, we are moving towards much more holistic management of our seas, which is right.