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Common Fisheries Policy

Volume 564: debated on Monday 17 June 2013

On 14 June EU member states signalled their agreement to a deal on reform of the common fisheries policy. After more than three years of difficult and protracted negotiations, the agreement confirms that EU member states can support the deal brokered among EU institutions. All that remains is for the European Parliament to give its approval, which we expect in the coming months, and then the new CFP will be put into law.

I am delighted to report that my fellow fisheries Ministers, and EU institutions, have risen to the challenge of agreeing an ambitious reform of this broken policy. The CFP has become a totemic example of failure at EU level. Centralised micro-management and fudged objectives have left us with fish stocks and fishing businesses that are nowhere near as healthy as they could be. The public are rightly disgusted by the spectacle of edible fish being thrown back into the sea.

I have reported back to the House several times on the progress we were making in addressing those failings through the reform negotiations, but despite support for a series of positive commitments, through some difficult Councils and late-night drafting discussions, the robustness of that reform could not be assured until we secured detailed text that addressed the UK’s priorities. Subject to those last processes to translate and ratify the regulation formally, we now have that text agreed.

Perhaps the most tangible leap forward comes through the agreement of provisions to eliminate discarding. The reformed CFP includes a discard ban starting in 2015 for pelagic fish, which will be rolled out to other fisheries from 2016. Importantly, that is supported by the practical provisions to make the ban operational. The provisions recognise the complex causes of discarding and address them, rather than simply ban the practice on paper and consider that sufficient.

I do not underestimate the challenges fishermen will face as we adapt to the new provisions, but we are already working with the industry in the UK to ensure we can make the system work effectively in practice. A key element of that will be working with the industry to develop effective management rules. It has always been a top priority for the UK to achieve a genuine regionalised process through reform to replace the centralised one-size-fits-all approach. The UK led the way on that, building support to move decision making closer to fisheries, with a process that works within the existing treaty framework. The provisions allow us to work together regionally, to agree the measures appropriate to our fisheries with other member states, and to give them legal effect through EU law or national measures.

I am pleased to report that we achieved provisions to put fishing on a sustainable footing. For the first time, we have a legally binding commitment to set fishing levels sustainably, eliminating over-fishing so that we can increase biomass in the sea and improve fishing yields in the long term. That could have a huge positive impact, not just on stock levels and the marine ecosystem, but on the bottom line for UK fishing businesses.

Other reforms will ensure that the same principles of sustainability apply to EU vessels fishing outside Europe. Fishing agreements with non-EU countries must be based on sound science and monitoring, with clauses on respect for human rights. Under the common market organisation of the CFP, we have secured sensible labelling rules and a strengthened role for producer organisations to support growth in the sector and add value. Reforms to the structural fund element of the CFP are being discussed on a slightly slower time scale, with further negotiations expected in the autumn.

We should not underestimate the significant opposition we have faced in achieving that momentous deal, or the rollercoaster of protracted and detailed institutional discussions involved. The UK has been in the vanguard of fundamental reform since the Commission published its green paper in 2009. We have drawn support from member states and MEPs across Europe, helped in no small part by grass-roots campaigns that have generated public enthusiasm for reform. Devolved Ministers have played a strong part in the UK delegation to help us to face down those who would prefer to keep the status quo, and to make the case for the practical detail needed to make the reform workable in the diverse fisheries that exist around the UK.

The result demonstrates the leadership role the UK has played in Europe, and the resulting text shows how European legislation can and should be drafted. It shifts responsibility away from Brussels to those who understand and manage specific sea basins. We have responded to the calls from European citizens to end the practice of discarding.

I should like to put on record my thanks to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for their support in our pursuit of fundamental reform. I was able to draw strength from that support during some of the darker moments of the negotiations. I also register my thanks to the fishing industry, which has actively and positively engaged in the process, and with which we will work to make the reform work in practice. Finally, I thank members of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team for all their efforts. They have worked tirelessly over the past three years and have made a significant contribution to the shape of the final text.

There is still plenty of work ahead, but the agreement gives us the tools to turn a broken policy around. The agreement is good for the sustainability of the fish in our seas, good for the sustainability of our fishing industry, and good for the sustainability of our coastal communities. I am sure the whole House will welcome this significant development.

Before I begin, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the shadow environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), and his wife Lucy. He celebrated his first father’s day yesterday with the arrival of a beautiful baby daughter.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and congratulate him on his real achievement in reforming the common fisheries policy, 2014 to 2020. The deal was the culmination of three years of difficult negotiation and I congratulate him on surviving what he calls the “darker moments” of that process. We on the Opposition Benches have consistently called for ambitious reform of the CFP. These reforms are a good start. They end the disgraceful practice of discards, they decentralise and regionalise the CFP and allow member states to support small-scale fisheries, such as those in Devon and Cornwall, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk; and they take a scientific approach to setting sustainable fishing levels away from the discredited system of total allowable catch with a transfer to maximum sustainable yield by 2020.

We welcome the time scale for banning discards starting with pelagic fish on 1 January 2015, but the package still allows for exemptions to the discard ban of up to 5% in certain circumstances. How does the Minister see the discard ban working in practice? We also welcome a firm time scale to implement maximum sustainable yields by 2020 at the latest, and by 2015 “where possible”. Will he assure the House that the UK will adopt the earliest possible implementation date, and when will that be?

We welcome the requirement for the Commission to report annually to the Council of Ministers and European Parliament on progress towards delivery of maximum sustainable yield. Given past criticisms of the CFP, transparency is important.

The reforms acknowledge the need for further work on marine protected areas, particularly in biologically important areas. The final document states:

“In order to facilitate the designation process, Member States should identify suitable areas, including areas that form part of a coherent network, and, where appropriate, they should cooperate with one another, preparing and sending joint recommendations to the Commission.”

Has the Minister had any contact with any other EU member state on a joint marine conservation zone? If he has not, does he anticipate co-operation with any other member state on such a zone to ensure maximum ecological benefit for both countries from the designation? Will he tell the House what contact he or his officials have had with the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries on the establishment of the UK’s marine conservation zones?

The reforms contain provisions to support small-scale and artisanal fisheries—a measure that he and my Labour colleagues in the European Parliament lobbied hard for. Small-scale fishing vessels make up 77% of boats in UK waters, but they have access to only 4% of the quota. What changes will the reforms bring to those small-scale fleets and their communities? Will they help to achieve smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and contribute to direct and indirect job creation in our coastal areas?

In a Westminster Hall debate in December 2012, the Minister assured Members that he would publish the details of who owns the UK’s fishing quota. When will the list be published? What steps does he envisage the EU taking to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to ensure a level playing field between the EU and third countries?

This is a good day for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, campaigning groups and the 860,000 people who signed up to Channel 4’s Fish Fight campaign. I again congratulate the Minister and his team, and devolved Ministers, on the long hours they put in. I congratulate the fishing industry on its co-operation. After three years of negotiation, we look forward to these good reforms being implemented at last.

I thank the hon. Lady for her congratulations. I would also like to pass on my congratulations, and those of everyone in the House, to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) on his happy event.

On exemptions to the discard ban, we believe that the maximum 5% de minimis contains so many caveats that it will be used only in exceptional circumstances: where the discard plans are part of a multi-annual plan; where they are co-decided; and where there is scientific evidence to support them.

In certain fisheries, changes in behaviour can be driven only through a land-all policy, and we were absolutely determined about that: it is the right approach and one that has proved to be a driver for change in other areas. It should not take away, however, from the fact that the industry has made huge strides in reducing discards. Around the coast in all parts of the United Kingdom, there are wonderful stories of leadership from the industry. I want to build on that.

The hon. Lady asked about a maximum sustainable yield. We have committed to imposing one by 2015, where possible, and by 2020 in any event, and I will be very open with the House about our progress on that, but she will understand that it will have to be on an almost annual basis, as we announce our fishing opportunities each year. There is now a firm driver and legally binding commitment to achieve such a yield.

The hon. Lady also talked about marine conservation, which is an absolute priority for us. We have had conversations with France, through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, because we do not want to look at this issue through the myopia of an English or UK solution; our approach has to be ecologically coherent, which means talking to countries such as France, Ireland and others. A provision in the text allows us to ensure that any conservation measures we introduce beyond the six-nautical-mile limit will have to be obeyed by fishermen from all countries in the EU. That is a big win.

The hon. Lady talked about the needs of the inshore fisheries sector. She will be aware that we have taken steps to improve the fishing opportunity for this sector, and we will continue to do so, although I am wary about this question of 96% and 4%, because the inshore fleet would not be able to access many of the 96% of quotas held by the larger fishing vessels. She is right that there is a disparity, however, and we are trying to address it. I can also provide confirmation about our plans to publish a register of who owns quota and has access to fishing opportunities in this country—I must correct that: they do not own the quota; the country owns the quota. This is a national resource. However, the register of who holds quota will be published by the end of the year.

I entirely agree about the importance of bearing down on illegal, unreported and unregistered fishing. It is vital that we use every tool in the box to stop people fishing illegally. They are stealing fish from legitimate, law-abiding fishermen. Technology is working in our favour, however: through vessel monitoring systems, e-logbooks and a range of other enforcement measures, we can protect honest fishermen and catch and prosecute those who break the law.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all he has achieved and on the news that the register of quota will be published by the end of the year, which will help under-10s and others in coastal areas. Alarm bells started ringing when he said that legal effect would be given through either European law or national measures. Can he assure the House that where a regional agreement is reached, the Commission will no longer intervene?

My hon. Friend raises a very good point about regionalisation—and one that detained us a long time as we tried to find a solution. Under the Commission’s original text, which could have had a centralising effect, if the countries around a sea basin—the North sea, for example—failed to agree, the power to decide on the technical measures would have been taken by the Commission. We thought that that was wrong, so we developed—under the leadership of my Department, I have to say—an idea that found its way into the text. Under this provision, a measure becomes law where there is agreement among all the countries fishing a particular sea basin, and where they cannot agree, the matter is determined by co-decision. That is a much better way forward. Throughout these discussions, I have always said, “I would never start from here”. We are trying to improve something that is very, very wrong. We are going to make it halfway right, however, and there is still much more work to do.

Can the Minister explain how the small-scale fishing fleet in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom will benefit from the adoption of this deal by the EU and by national Parliaments?

Things will improve on the wider scale because the commitment to maximum sustainable yield, fishing sustainably and more sensible management will lead to increased biomass in the sea, so there will be more fish for the small-scale fishing fleet to catch. However, the one thing I find as I go round the coast—the hon. Gentleman will know about this from when he was the shadow spokesman—is how remote the decision-making process is. I have sat up in the small hours of the morning discussing mesh sizes for fishing nets that will be used off the north-west coast of Scotland, 1,000 miles from where I was sitting. I am not an expert and nor was the Commission official who was having the discussion with me, but the fishermen who fish there are. They will now be part of that decision-making process. They will be able to drive those technical details in an effective way, not one that is so remote from how they fish.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I offer my condolences to the family of the skipper of the Sarah Jane, in view of the fact that the marine accident investigation branch report into the accident in which he lost his life was published last Thursday? I know exactly how they feel.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the deal he has secured. On 30 May, Greenpeace issued a press release that said:

“An eleventh-hour compromise over new EU fishing laws reached early this morning by top decision-makers…could usher in a major shake-up in the way UK fishing quota is allocated, throwing a lifeline to thousands of small-scale British fishermen whose livelihoods are hanging by a thread.”

Will he confirm that that is correct, and will he expand on that statement please?

There is a commitment at EU level that we must protect small-scale fishermen. I entirely agree with that, because there is a social dimension to the policy that must never be forgotten. Part of the trio of awfulness of the common fisheries policy is that we not only have fewer fish and fewer fishermen, but damaged coastal communities, right through to the land-based jobs of those who support those industries, so I absolutely agree. However, national and devolved Governments have a responsibility to manage fishing opportunities to ensure that we recognise the social dimension and do what we seek to do, which is to transfer unused quota in particular from certain sectors to the inshore fisheries sector. We accept that the inshore fisheries sector is engaged in sustainable management of our fisheries, so we want to see more of that, as well as enhanced social conditions in coastal communities.

Obviously the deal reached in Brussels is very encouraging indeed and is a major step forward in obtaining true reform of the CFP, but our fishing industry is contending with steep overheads for quota and fuel, and the market conditions in recent months have been challenging. Does the Minister believe that the agreement reached and how it will be implemented in the UK will make enough of a difference to ensure that fishermen are kept in business?

There are two sides to this. First, we are busy getting round the fleet in all parts of the United Kingdom and having discussions on the quayside about what this means for each vessel owner on each trip they make. An enormous amount of work has been done, but more needs to be done to satisfy that. Let me also take this opportunity to say that one of the most important things for fishermen in Scotland is to remain part of one of 29 voting members of the European Union. Those fishermen are best represented by a country the size of the United Kingdom, because we were able to have negotiations with other large fishing countries, which we would not be able to do if they were independent.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches also commend the Minister and his team for the marvellous work they have done and the results that have been achieved, as do the wildlife trusts throughout the length and breadth of this land that have campaigned on the same issues. They, too, will be pleased.

It has been suggested that the North sea cod fishery could soon be designated as sustainable, which would be a tremendous achievement. Would the Minister like to comment on that?

I entirely agree on the wildlife trusts and their firm commitment to marine conservation; I continue to work closely with them. It was very good news on cod stocks. In the Barents sea to the north of our waters, they are going to catch over 1 million tonnes of cod sustainably this year. Cod is increasing in quantity and biomass in UK waters, but it is not yet at the point where it is a sustainable fishery. Two of the three Marine Stewardship Council boxes are ticked—the healthy ecosystem and management—but the stock is not yet quite at that rate. It is on an upwards graph, however, which is to be rejoiced at, and the fishing industry is to be applauded for its role in achieving that, too.

I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement, but I was surprised that he did not mention marine protected areas and I was not entirely reassured by his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) when she pressed him on the issue. Will he tell us how many marine conservation zones will have been designated in UK waters by the time these reforms come into effect next January? Does the Minister agree that, if we are to use these zones to implement some of the proposals in the reforms, we need to be moving towards the 127 end of the scale rather than the 31 that he talks about?

I think we need to understand what marine conservation zones are about. They are not principally about fish stocks. There are loads of different ways of conserving fisheries, but it has to be an integrated system in our marine environment. There are loads of marine conservation measures—marine protection areas, marine conservation agreements and 300 sites of special scientific interest in the inter-tidal region, for example—and we want to add to them through the excellent Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the implementation of marine conservation zones. At the moment, we have gone out to consultation on 31 and we are about to report on the results of that consultation. We shall make an announcement in the autumn on the number that we are going to designate, and our ambition is to designate more in future years as we can afford them and as the scientific evidence supports them.

I congratulate the Minister on his efforts over the past three years in securing a fair deal for the British fleet. My concern is that these reforms come very much at the 59th minute of the 23rd hour for the Lowestoft fleet, which is very much a pale shadow of its former self. What Suffolk fishermen now need—urgently—is a fair share of quota for the inshore fleet. Will he outline the work that his Department is doing to secure this goal?

My hon. Friend should be congratulated on his tenacity in supporting what is left of his fishing industry. When we know the history of that great port, it is sad to reflect on what it is now. I want to see not only those fishermen keeping their jobs, but even more fishermen in places such as Lowestoft, bringing prosperity to the town. We are transferring modest amounts of quota from the over-10 metre fleet to the inshore under-10 metre fleet. It is not proving to be without difficulty—there is an ongoing court case taking place—but I am absolutely determined to look at this and a variety of other measures, building on the good work of the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project, which was started by the last Government, so that we can see further prosperity. The best way to help my hon. Friend’s fishermen is to have an increased biomass so that they are able to catch more fish, their children will want to become fishermen and the fishing industry will start to grow in a way that I know it can and contribute to the economy.

I worked as a fisherman 18 years ago, and fishermen often tell me nowadays that they have to dump non-targeted dogfish or spurdog, particularly each winter, as they go into their nets and have no quota to land them. What will change for these dead fish and for those fishing boats on the back of this statement?

A lot of scientific work is happening to understand more about survivability. Many shark species and cetaceans have very good survivability rates. That will be built into the discard plan, and fish that will survive will be allowed to be returned to the water. That is an important point. We are clear that we need a minimal by-catch provision for a lot of these species because they are extremely rare and their stocks are deteriorating.

The Minister is very self-effacing and really deserves the commendation of the fishermen of Ramsgate for his determination and persistence throughout some very difficult negotiations. My fishermen were very interested in what the localisation of the management of fisheries will mean in the long term. That means using the expertise of my fishermen to help manage their fisheries sustainably.

My hon. Friend will be coming to see me with a leading member of her local fishing community to discuss how we can introduce a better system of management for fishermen in her area. They will be closer to the decision-making process when they are part of that regionalised system of management, but I hope that they will also benefit from a rising biomass that will make them more prosperous. We are doing a great deal of work with stocks that they target in terms of survivability, and we are trying to ensure that the discards ban works not just for them, but for the marine environment.

I agree that the Minister has been heroic in his determined efforts to achieve a reform of the discredited common fisheries policy, but fishermen in my constituency will be asking me a very simple question: what will that reform mean for them? Will it mean an end, at last, to the annual reduction in their quota which has been so appalling up to now, so that they will benefit once more from sustainable fishing stocks as well as sustainable fishing fleets?

The most important element of the discard ban is the provision of incentives for fishermen in my hon. Friend’s constituency, who will be able to land a proportion of the fish that they are currently having to discard as extra quota. Changes in the arrangements governing where and how they fish will enable them to reduce the other proportion as well. They will have a direct incentive, because, as they have been telling me very clearly, there are plenty of fish in those waters. This reform is good news for them. However, I want the beach at Hastings—the last beach in the country where a fishing fleet lands—to see more of those boats in the future, and that will come as a result of an increased number of fish in the sea and the increased marketability of those they land.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his work. What impact will the new policy have on fishermen and the fishing industry in Plymouth? Has he estimated the likely size of the fishing stock over the next five years, and the likely increase in that stock? If he has not had an opportunity to do that, would he like to talk to experts at the university in my constituency? I am sure they could help him.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for showing me the wonderful marine science hub in his constituency. Amazing work is being done there, demonstrating what a mobile and fluid ecosystem the marine environment is, and important work is also being done on acidification and sea temperature changes. It is impossible to be precise about the number of fish stocks and the trajectory of the rise, but we are already hearing a lot of good news. There is much more work to be done, but I hope that the combination of top-quality science that is respected internationally and the experience of the fishing industry will lead inexorably to greater prosperity for the industry.

I join many other Members in all parts of the House in paying tribute to my hon. Friend for his tremendous efforts. Many people in Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe, West Mersea and Harwich are full of hope for the first time in a generation that they will be able to expand their industry—but is that not the test? Unless the under-10-metre industry expands on our coasts, the policy will have failed, and we shall have to think again. Will my hon. Friend undertake to persist in his efforts, and may I thank him for them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He was keen to put me in touch with those in the fishing industry in his constituency, so that I could listen to them and observe at first hand the impact of the industry on the local community, and its intrinsic links with tourism and a community’s sense of place and worth. Nowhere is that more apparent than in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

There is a vibrant marine environment just off the coast of that part of Essex. A variety of stocks are fished in the same waters. The European Union, with its one-size-fits-all common fisheries policy, has never seemed to understand that complexity. Now we have a system that will enable us to try to introduce some common sense that will benefit the fishermen in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We want that to be at the heart of the detailed, technical management of an overarching policy.

When the history of the common fisheries policy comes to be written, I hope it will be acknowledged that it simply would not have been possible to end discards on this timetable without the leadership, determination and tenacity of the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). In his own words, he confesses that the CFP is still broken and flawed, however, so given his expertise, newly acquired, will he give serious consideration to continuing as fisheries Minister when the UK repatriates its fishing grounds and territorial waters after 2017?

I know where my hon. Friend is going with this. I am obsessed with an ecosystems management of our fisheries. Fish do not have passports; they do not understand lines on maps, and they may spawn in one country’s waters and mature in another’s. Therefore, whatever our status within the EU, we need to have a system, and that means we have to talk to all the countries who have responsibility for that ecosystem, and some of them in the North sea are not members of the EU, yet we talk to them and we work with them. That is the way to manage conservation properly.

As a firm supporter of the Fish Fight campaign, I take great pleasure in the Minister’s statement and welcome it; I applaud him on his considerable achievement. Does he agree that his success demonstrates that the UK can work constructively with our European partners by seeking allies and making sure that we make a case for reform where necessary, and that that is how the reform of the CFP, first entered into by the UK in 1982, has been done?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Interestingly, in these negotiations I was sometimes the first British Minister in Brussels and would follow a speech by someone from another country who was much higher up the pay grade than me. People in this country were saying, “The UK is going to be marginalised,” but that was absolutely not the case. We were front and centre in driving this reform. We built alliances, particularly, but not exclusively, with big-voting countries such as Germany and the other northern European countries. By being diplomatic and working hard with people, we can reform some of the worst policies the EU has come up with. That bodes well for the future.