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Fishing Quotas

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013

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

I am pleased to have secured this debate before the summer recess, as it provides us with a timely opportunity to consider the future of the fishing industry in the United Kingdom. Last month, the Minister provided details of the agreed reforms to the common fisheries policy, which provides the framework within which fishing in the UK will be administered over the course of the next few years. Its provisions are generally welcome, though its success will depend on how domestic fisheries are managed.

Last Wednesday in the High Court, Mr Justice Cranston delivered an approved judgment that will pave the way for the introduction of a new system of management that could be fairer and more environmentally friendly than its predecessor and that could provide an opportunity to reverse the fortunes of many fishing communities around the British isles. That is good news, although I sense that the path to this promised land will not be an easy one to travel along.

My interest and concern are for the inshore fleet that fishes out of Lowestoft in Suffolk, in my constituency. Like so many other fleets, it has had a raw deal in recent years. The Lowestoft fleet, which is a pale shadow of its former self, used to dominate the local economy. A significant contributory factor to its decline has been the way in which fishing quotas have been allocated in recent years. It is not possible to turn back the clock to the town’s glory years, but there is an opportunity to build an industry that can play a role in bringing back prosperity to an area that has struggled in recent years.

It is important to state at the outset that the Minister has achieved an enormous amount in the three years he has been in post. He has negotiated hard in the CFP reforms and delivered a settlement that is good for the UK. He has also listened to the concerns of the inshore fleet and made proposals to address those in the face of opposition from the producer organisations. His Department then defended this decision staunchly and successfully in the High Court. We owe him a debt of gratitude, for we have arrived at a position where we can provide a new beginning for the fishing industry in the UK. As Charles Clover concluded in his article in The Sunday Times, the Minister and

“his heirs have a once in a generation opportunity to throw the dice again on behalf of wild fish and the greater good”.

It is appropriate to say a bit about the inshore fleet and the under-10 metre boats—about the people involved and the situation they find themselves in today. Such boats comprise more than 77% of the UK fleet and employ over 65% of the fleet’s total work force, yet they currently receive only 4% of the total quota available to the UK. What is good for the under-10s is largely good for the ports in which they are based, and vice versa; they have considerable potential to deliver economic, environmental and cultural benefits for their coastal communities, many of which are among the most deprived in the country. They are also good for fish stocks, as theirs is a low-impact, sustainable form of fishing. Moreover, the income they generate is likely to stay in these communities and permeate down the supply chain, which has invariably been built up over many decades but which has been much eroded in recent years.

Today, that is very much the case in Lowestoft. It now has a small industry, but the infrastructure is still there and with the right policy framework it can deliver more for the area. The work of these fishermen still fishing out of Lowestoft should be contrasted with that of the eight affiliated vessels in the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation, which are all controlled by fishing interests based in the Netherlands. Those boats have UK fishing licences and hold British quota, but they contribute nothing to the local economy. Dutch-controlled vessels fishing British quota boast an annual turnover of £48 million, yet 1% of the fish they catch is landed in the UK.

In recent years, the under-10s have had a raw deal and in the Minister’s own words they have been “hanging on” by their “fingernails“. The root cause of their plight is the fixed quota allocation system introduced in 1999. As the under-10s did not keep records of their catch in the 1994 to 1996 reference period, the quota they received at that time was a best estimate, subsequently shown to be a major under-assessment, for which they have been paying ever since. Although there have been attempts to address the situation, as Jerry Percy of NUTFA—the New Under Ten Fishermens Association—has pointed out, with the under-10s starting from such a low level of quota in the first place, an additional percentage based simply on past allocations will be of little, if any, use.

Since 1999, the situation has got worse in many respects. The way the system was devised has meant that the producer organisations have been able to hold or acquire fixed quota allocation units, knowing that they could retain them if they did not use them. They could sell or lease them to the under-10s on their own terms, at their own whim and fancy. That conjures up the image of the under-10s taking on the role of Oliver Twist holding out the bowl for more food, only to be denied. Moreover, where reallocations have taken place, they have been profoundly unsatisfactory, as they have been neither permanent nor predictable, and they have invariably taken place towards the end of the fishing season.

The 2007 decommissioning scheme simply exacerbated the problem, creating more “slipper skippers”, with vessel owners entitled to retain the fixed quota allocation units even when their vessels had been decommissioned. A system has, thus, developed whereby the under-10s do not have enough quota to make a living and are in effect dying a slow, lingering death, while quota held by the producer organisations is not being used, and attempts by Government to encourage gifts of unused quota have invariably come to nothing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House, because it is important to him, to other Members in the Chamber and, especially, to me and Portavogie in my constituency. The problem is not just the quotas that are set, but those that are reduced by Europe. The Minister works energetically on behalf of the fishing industry in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that Europe needs to give quotas that will make the industry that I represent viable? The industry has evidence to support its belief about the numbers of fish in the sea, so it needs Europe to give them back.

Communities and the fishing industry all around the coast have been affected. The problem in recent years has essentially been quota management, but the common fisheries policy, on which the Minister has been fighting tirelessly over the past three years, is also a factor, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The Minister, to his credit, tried to impose a modest redistribution of unused quota, which equated to 0.1% of the fixed quota allocation units in the UK. He sought to be reasonable and conciliatory to POs in doing that, and when representations were made against his proposals, he reduced the number of realigned units from 10,494 to 7,901. Despite that, the producer organisations took the view that the Government’s proposal deprived them, without compensation, of what they viewed as a valuable entitlement, even though it was minimal and, in effect, represented quota that was not being used. They therefore launched a judicial review arguing that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully, was interfering with their property rights, and had behaved in a discriminatory manner.

Last Wednesday, Mr Justice Cranston delivered his judgment. He found in favour of the Government, dismissing the producer organisations’ challenge. His judgment contained several conclusions. He summarily dismissed the producer organisations’ main argument as

“falling at the first hurdle”.

He expressed sympathy with the views of NUTFA and Greenpeace, the two interveners in the case, that fishing quota and the fixed quota allocation system should always be considered against the backdrop of the principle that fish are a public resource, which is an understanding that dates back to the Magna Carta. He said that the Secretary of State had done nothing that disabled him from changing the fixed quota allocation system to address consistent non-use of quota. He expressed the view that the Secretary of State’s decision to reallocate quota was justified and that the means chosen were proportionate. He said that the Secretary of State’s decision did not constitute interference with, or deprivation of, possessions, as the producer organisations had contended. He also expressed the opinion that the producer organisations and their members have no proprietary interest in the fishing stock itself, and that fixed quota allocation units give no right to any specific amount of fishing stock in advance of the annual ministerial decisions on quota that take place each December.

With the decision coming shortly after the agreement on CFP reform, there is now a real opportunity to carry out a root and branch reform of UK fishing and to replace a system of management that has become dominated by big vessels with no connection to local areas and provides no significant benefits to either the local or the national economy. Instead, we should be looking to put in place a system that supports local communities and brings with it significant environmental, social and economic benefits.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the manner in which he is making his case. I entirely agree with the conclusion that he is reaching, but does he acknowledge that large producer organisations work well with local inshore under-10 metre boats in some parts of the country? Does he agree that it would be appropriate for those vessels to ensure that they keep a record of their catch of non-quota species forthwith, because it is inevitable in the years to come that they will be asked to demonstrate what fish they have been catching over a reference period?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is wrong of me to tar all producer organisations with the same brush. Back in 1994 and 1996, it was probably wrong that the under-10s were not keeping such records, and they have learned a lesson from that.

Based on the response from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign, such a reform would in my view have public backing, as well as the support of fishing communities from all around the UK, and it would now have legal justification. Common fisheries policy reform, as well as setting out the courses for the elimination of discards and the introduction of a decentralised management system, also has the requirement for member states to allocate fishing quota taking into account environmental, social and economic considerations. This provides the framework for root and branch reform. I urge the Minister to pursue such a course and, as the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended in its 2011 report, to base these reform proposals on the needs of the inshore fleet, rather than on the existing patterns of work of the offshore fleet. DEFRA should identify those stocks and areas where a re-alignment of quota allocation would be of real benefit to the inshore fleet.

To prevent the problems of the past recurring, there is a vital and urgent need for transparency. As a high priority, it is important that a publicly accessible register of quota allocations and transactions is published as soon as practicably possible. I would welcome an update from the Minister as to the progress being made in providing that by the end of the year, as has previously been stated. Without a clear register, it is incredibly difficult to see who is benefiting from the nation’s fish resource and to work out whether it is being properly shared out so as to get maximum social benefit. Such a register should establish what proportion of quota is currently held by non-fishermen. It would, I hope, at least dispel the urban myth that has grown up that football clubs hold quota. I urge that consideration be given to introducing a requirement that in future quota should be held only by active fishermen. A further proposal to consider is that in future DEFRA should make greater use of its powers to re-allocate unused quota in-year.

For whatever reason, we have allowed an inexplicable system to develop, with a barely comprehensible trading method inside producer organisations which is both complex and opaque. We need to consign this to the dustbin of history and move forward to a more professionally managed system with direct licensing from the Crown to fishermen, with more clarity over who has what. This way the public can get the best out of what is, after all, their fishery. There is a need for a proper formal mechanism to grant fishermen new fishing rights. A new fisheries Act may be necessary to achieve that

It would be helpful to know the timetable that the Minister has in mind for coming forward with proposals on which the industry can be consulted and which this House can debate. It is important that the right decisions are made and a management system put in place that provides fishing communities all around the coast with a sustainable future and ensures that the inshore fleet is able not only to survive, but to flourish.

I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing the debate, but on delivering a very powerful speech. I agree with everything he has said. It is undoubtedly crucial that we shift the balance in favour of the smaller fishermen, as he has described. Another opportunity for levelling the playing field, which has gone under-reported but which results from the Minister’s negotiations in the CFP reform discussions, means effectively that laws applied by our Government in our waters, which previously have only ever applied to our fishermen, now must apply to everyone, so foreign vessels operating in our waters must for the first time adhere to British law. That surely is another string in the bow of the smaller fishermen.

I acknowledge that point, well made by my hon. Friend. The decision is helpful. Also, we now have a sensible framework in the common fisheries policy. I pay tribute to Maria Damanaki, the Commissioner, for taking a lead on that, and again to the Minister for fighting hard when the negotiations got tough on that issue. As a result, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In conclusion, we need to get on with this, because time is very much of the essence. In years gone by it was possible to cross from one side of Lowestoft’s Hamilton dock to the other by walking from boat to boat. Today the dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. However, if we now put the right system of management in place, fishing will be able to play a continuing role in the future economy not only of Lowestoft, but of many other communities across the four nations.

I start by paying great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). His constituency might have a much diminished fleet, but he is a worthy champion of it and has stood up for it on many occasions. Having visited Lowestoft’s fishing industry with him, I have seen at first hand his passion to see it return to economic viability—to flourish, as he puts it—and to protect it from the complications of a system that has failed it, failed the marine environment and failed the coastal communities on which it depends.

I was of course pleased that the judgment in the judicial review between the UK Association of Fish Producers Organisations and my Department went in our favour. That completely vindicates the decision I took in 2011 to realign consistently underutilised quota from producer organisations and allocate it to those able to fish it. I agree with my hon. Friend that we are not talking about a huge amount of quota, but we have won on a key point of principle. I entirely agree with the view, commonly held across the House, that we are talking about a national asset. It is my Department’s job to allocate fishing opportunities in this country in as fair a way as possible. The judgment might still be subject to an appeal, but I will set out what I intend to do to ensure that we can maximise the value of our fishing quotas and the sustainability of the fleet while guaranteeing the transparency and accountability of those who have access to this priceless public resource.

My Department has undertaken a wide range of initiatives in recent years, and I would like to set them out briefly, along with some of the other projects being undertaken by different stakeholders. Work to finalise the reallocation of the fixed quota allocation units had been put on hold pending the outcome of the judicial review. That work will now proceed to allow the transfer of units from producer organisations to the under-10 metre English pool. I encourage the industry, particularly producer organisations, to support that work. I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said about the many producer organisations that have under-10 metre vessels in their membership and that work well with them whether or not they are in those organisations.

I previously updated the House on 17 June 2013 on the vital progress to secure radical reform of the common fisheries policy. I do not underestimate the challenges fishermen will face as we adapt to the new provisions, especially those relating to the discard ban. We are already working with the industry in the UK on a range of projects, including catch quotas, more selective gears and the identification of discard rates in our fisheries, to ensure that we can make the new system work effectively for the whole fleet. However, the deal that has been agreed—to introduce a ban on discards, manage our fish stocks sustainably and manage our seas on a regional basis—will benefit all of our fleet, large and small.

At long last our fishing industry will be able to have some certainty as to its future. Although the introduction of a ban on discards has taken the headlines, the requirement to manage our seas to maximum sustainable yield by 2020 is perhaps the most significant element of the reform. When we look back on this period, perhaps in a decade or two, we will see that as the really big win in returning our seas to sustainable harvesting of wild fish. Fishermen will have certainty over the future of the stocks they fish and depend on.

In addition, I am pleased to inform the House that yesterday we successfully secured a general approach on the European maritime and fisheries fund at the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council. The agreement means that the EMFF will be an effective tool for supporting delivery of CFP reform, and it clears the way for discussions between the presidency, Commission, and Parliament to continue in the autumn.

As part of a package of measures to reform domestic fisheries, my Department is running a pilot community quota scheme, working with a group of fishermen from Ramsgate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for her support for that scheme. She has been a tireless supporter of the fishing industry in her constituency—just as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney is in his—and of the under-10 metre fleet in general. The purpose of the scheme was to give a group of inshore fishermen some quota from the under-10 metre pool and for them to manage it themselves. The scheme ran from 1 June 2012 to 31 May this year, and has been extended in response to calls for the pilot to continue from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, and the Ramsgate fishermen group. It will now operate until 31 December with support from the Fish Producers Organisation. The group will have full management control over the quotas it has been allocated.

The project demonstrated key benefits such as more flexibility and greater certainty in fishing activities that supported better business planning and efficiency. The group preferred the management arrangement under the pilot, which was reflected in its request for it to continue. The offer by the FPO demonstrates the willingness of producer organisations to help the inshore fleet, which is a welcome development. By working together, different sectors of the industry can bring about initiatives that help maximise their catches, get better value for their fish, and promote a common interest in managing those resources effectively. The outcome of the pilot will be used to help us determine ways in which we may seek to manage the inshore fleet, and the quota available to it in the future.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently funding an activity-based research project piloting a community supported fishery approach on the south coast. Under that project, communities in Brighton and Chichester have formed co-operatives through which local fishers supply weekly boxes of fish directly to subscribing members. As well as testing the appetite for consumers to work with their local fishers in that way, and sharing both the risks and benefits faced by the fishers, the project also provides a mechanism to create a market for underutilised or discarded fish species. The project is due to finish at the end of July, but the co-operatives and fishers involved have found the approach beneficial, and intend to continue without Government support in the future. I welcome that and congratulate them on the way they have used Government funding and will carry forward the project.

Last year I and the other UK fisheries Ministers announced our intention to produce a publicly accessible register that would show exactly who had ownership of fixed quota allocation units in the United Kingdom. DEFRA and Ministers in the devolved Administrations continue to work on that with the industry, and it remains our intention and aim to publish that register by the end of 2013. The public have a right to know who receives the UK’s fishing quotas, and I am delighted that we are on track to do that. I will keep the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney informed of our progress.

I also thank other organisations for their efforts in helping to secure a bright future for the nation’s fisheries resources. The Marine Stewardship Council has launched phase 3 of its Project Inshore initiative. The purpose of the project is to assess all inshore fish stocks in England and Wales so as to determine their preparedness for certification. The aim is not to seek certification for all stocks, but to produce a road map outlining the status of the fisheries in order to develop best practice so they can be managed sustainably. That is a timely project, supported by a range of stakeholders such as Seafish, NGOs and retailers.

Fishing into the Future is another initiative that focuses on the viability of our fishing communities and the sustainable use of fish stocks. It was launched by the Prince of Wales’s international sustainability unit in collaboration with Seafish, and aims to encourage sustainability and marketing efforts through the exchange of new knowledge and ideas between fishers, scientists, fisheries managers and supply chain experts.

I welcome such initiatives and my Department is pleased to be part of them. Making sure that our stocks are exploited at optimal sustainable levels and reallocating quota to maximise their use is only going so far towards addressing the challenges that the inshore and, indeed, other fishing sectors face. We also need to ensure that our fleet size matches the fishing opportunities available. For that reason, my Department is exploring ways in which this can be achieved, and we will be discussing it with the industry.

The task now facing us is a challenging one. Let us not run away from that fact; it is well understood by the fishing industry and by everybody who minds about the health of our seas. It is important that we all work together to grasp the opportunities provided by CFP reform and other initiatives. I hope that now that the court case is behind us we can all work together to make sure that we have a meaningful future for our fishing industry. Let us not hide from the fact that there are many fishers in the over-10 metre sector as well as the under-10 metre sector who have found life next to impossible—who are hanging on by their fingertips, as I have said before. The opportunity now exists for them to see a future that will really make a difference and encourage future generations.

I cannot guarantee that people will be able to walk across Hamilton dock in Lowestoft in the way that they could in the past. It is possible, however, that people will see that this is a business they want to go into and can manage in the same way that any other small business can be managed. However, they can do so only if there is a rising biomass of fish in the sea. Our overriding determination must be to ensure that fish stocks increase, and then the fishing opportunities that we allocate as fairly as possible can be of much more economic benefit to fishermen fishing in harmony with nature. In recent years, great inroads have been made into improving the sustainability of fisheries, and I really hope that we can build on that excellent work. I commend my hon. Friend again for bringing this important matter to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.