Thursday 10 September 2015
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2013-14, on Rural communities, HC 602, and the Government response, HC 764; Seventh Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2014-15, on Rural broadband and digital-only services, HC 83, and the Government response, HC 1149.]
Thank you for passing the motion to me, Minister. Don’t worry, once I get going, it will be fine.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered delivery of rural broadband.
Next time, Mr Betts, I will make sure that I know the new procedure. It is a great pleasure to work under your chairmanship. It is a delight to have the Minister here this afternoon, and I shall put some questions to him at the end, which I am sure he will be more than able to answer. I thank hon. Members for turning up this afternoon. We are all concerned not only about rural broadband but about the delivery of broadband throughout the country, which is very significant.
The internet is increasingly important to everyday lives, whether for online shopping, for staying in touch with friends or for all our rural businesses, such as farming and tourism, which are keen to have broadband. Despite a public subsidy of about £1.7 billion, too many consumers, businesses and individuals cannot access broadband. Theoretically, until we had to change the system, farmers were expected to deliver payments online, and next year they will have to, but if they do not have superfast broadband or a good internet connection that will be impossible.
BT owns a lot, if not all, of the infrastructure and is the largest retail provider using it. Ofcom is considering whether to propose separating the infrastructure division, Openreach, from the rest of BT, which would create more competition and mean that BT no longer had a conflict of interest in delivering the high-quality broadband that everyone deserves. I do not know whether this afternoon the Minister will want to be drawn on the question of what should happen to BT. An independent Openreach would improve the quality of service and increase infrastructure investment.
There are two elements to the delivery of superfast broadband in most constituencies: the publicly funded programme—in my constituency, Connecting Devon and Somerset—and the commercially funded roll-out of superfast broadband in larger towns and cities. We must remember, however, that Government and council money is all taxpayers’ money, and we want to see value for it. In earlier debates in the House, we have been very concerned not only about the pace of broadband roll-out but about whether it is being rolled out with value for money for our taxpayers.
For the Devon and Somerset roll-out, the first delivery contract was let to BT and is believed to be on time; it has been suggested that it is also within budget. The target refers to 90% coverage of the area by 2016, but that is where the problem lies in many respects. If roll-out across a constituency or a country is in percentages, people automatically roll out to the areas that are easiest to get to and, all the time, we will have to put public money in to get to those hardest-to-reach areas. I have yet to be convinced that we are getting the necessary value for money from many of the contracts.
If we let one contract get to 90% of the population and another to 95%, and if it is the same company rolling out the broadband, what stops the company from not delivering what it should have done under the first contract but delivering it under the second contract and saying, “Of course it is all too hard to reach. We need more money to reach the hardest-to-reach areas”? One of our problems in Devon and Somerset is that there has not been enough competition in letting the contracts. A contract was let to BT, then a further one was to be let to it again. There has not been enough competition, so there are not enough people out there with wireless connections or different types of technology to keep BT moving. BT has been slow at bringing in the new technologies.
Many Members present have constituencies with a hilly topography and many farms, villages and hamlets are stretched out and a long way from the cabinets and the fibre cable. In the end, there will have to be a system not only of fibre cables but of wireless and other technologies to deliver broadband.
I cannot stay for the whole debate because I have to go to the main Chamber, but given the very name of my constituency, the High Peak, I want to echo what my hon. Friend is saying. Broadband has very much become the fourth utility, and businesses and farmers need it. The terrain of the area that I represent makes broadband difficult to get, so we need to put some effort into that last 10%, because those people are as important as the first 10%.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There have to be other initiatives, or other existing systems. Can we use church towers or mobile phone masts, if there are any? Do we need more of those, or do we need to link the broadband or internet connection to other systems? Otherwise, we seem to be getting only to those areas that we can get to and not to the hardest-to-reach areas. I am not yet convinced, even with the latest contracts, that we are getting where we need to be.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct about reaching the hardest areas. A key driver for the final 10% is getting more competition into the market for broadband provision. Was he as concerned as I was to read in The Times this week that BT Openreach had been referred to Ofcom? The article claimed that it was to some extent fiddling figures to avoid having to proceed as quickly as possible with the installation of fibre-optic cables. That must be of concern to him and to rural residents in my constituency, in places such as Water, Lumb, Lower Darwen and Whitworth, who have been waiting a long time to be remembered as the final 10%.
Yes. If we look at the contracts with BT in particular, there is money that is supposed to be delivered into the contract, but that always comes at the end. I do not know what the situation is in my hon. Friend’s area, but there is certainly little under the Devon and Somerset contract.
My hon. Friend is altruistic, so he will not mind me commenting on other constituencies. He mentioned what the situation was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), so I am sure he will welcome the fact that broadband will reach 98% there under our scheme, and High Peak 93%. That is good news—thousands of our constituents being connected, thanks to this superbly successful broadband programme.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. It is all very well to talk about the great delivery of broadband in those areas, which is fascinating, but it does absolutely no good to many of my villages, which have only 25% of people connected. The more he keeps on about how much other areas have got broadband, the more it annoys those who have not got it. That is the problem with rolling out statistics.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Although I welcome what the Minister has said about percentages for individual constituencies, the great concern for my constituents in Dorset will be that last 5% to 10%, as they are the hardest to reach and are clamouring the loudest to make sure the broadband is actually delivered.
Occasionally, on a good day. To be serious, the people who have broadband are very happy and we do not hear much from them; the issue is the people who do not. I repeat that the more we talk about all those who have it, the more it drives on those who do not.
I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that those of us who represent coastal communities face a real barrier to the delivery of infrastructure, better known as the sea, which rules out some of the options he has talked about. I welcome the Minister’s announcement in a previous debate that Torbay would have 100% coverage, but sometimes in an urban area it is the site that most needs to be covered—a business park or a development park—that is left out, even though nearby housing has been covered.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. That is part of the trouble and is hard to understand. When someone knows that people right next to them have a good connection but they themselves have not it seems a huge anomaly. BT has so much fibre-optic cable that where it is rolling out the contract it tries to deliver broadband with that cable, but sometimes it simply will not work. I do not think that BT is necessarily deploying the other technologies that we need as fast as it should be.
It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the areas that are of most concern to him are the 5% who are not going to get broadband if the 95% target is hit. What about my constituency? Fermanagh and South Tyrone has coverage for only 55% of the population; are the other 45% not as much disadvantaged as the 5% in the areas with 95% coverage, or even more disadvantaged?
The hon. Gentleman stresses the point that people in a large area of his constituency are not getting the connection that they should be getting. That is the problem. We have done well in the areas we can get to reasonably easily, but given the amount of public money going in to deliver to the areas that are harder to get to, I feel coverage is not getting there fast enough and there is not enough concentration on that problem.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Many businesses are looking to relocate to rural areas, which presents us with a big problem. Those businesses do not want to be confined to industrial estates; many looking to relocate to my constituency of North Cornwall are food based and want to have access to broadband on farms. What can be done about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I also thank him for elevating me to the status of right honourable; however, I am only an hon. Member. To be serious, we talk a lot about infrastructure and about roads. It is right that the Government are doing a lot about our roads, and I fully support that.
Yes, and broadband, but the issue is the speed with which we are getting the broadband out. There are individual areas with quite a lot of really good businesses that want to stay, but some are considering whether they will have to relocate if they do not get broadband quickly. That is the conundrum. I therefore echo what my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) has said.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate and on his elevation to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. He is very well placed to debate this subject and has been a champion for rural broadband. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) indicated that his constituency has low coverage. We are talking about the last 5%. As has been said, the Government are encouraging innovation, and encouraging farmers to diversify, yet there is still not the broadband coverage that is needed. Surely as well as investing, we need to think outside the box. Whether we are using church towers or whatever, we need to be innovative in our thinking.
One question I will be putting to the Minister is whether we will need to use some form of voucher system to enable the hardest-to-reach areas to do their own thing. In Devon and Somerset we often get BT starting on part of an area, which stymies work for the rest of it, and then nobody else wants to come in to finish the job. We have to get to grips with those sorts of issues. It is good to have the Minister here because we shall get such clarity when I ask him my questions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We are continuously talking about this subject and are edging the Minister forward; he realises how serious this is. In my constituency, the Blackdown hills, which border the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), are a harder-to-reach area. Might it be possible to consider giving that area special designation, such as Dartmoor has, when the contract process for phase 2 of Connecting Devon and Somerset begins? It could then be considered for one of the new different methods, so that those hill people could be catered for. Will the Minister comment on that?
I thank my hon. Friend and new constituency neighbour. It is great to have her in Parliament—she really speaks up for her area. We have treated Exmoor and Dartmoor as a special entity, and most of the area will have a wireless connection. I think that we should look at the same sort of treatment for the Blackdown hills. I know that the Minister is not keen on the benefits of not having signed the contract with BT earlier this summer, but one benefit of looking at a new contract for Devon and Somerset is that there is some competition out there. Other companies are prepared to come into the area and so may be prepared to come in to the Blackdown hills. The Devon and Somerset contract is probably one of the biggest in the country—
I thank the Minister for that clarification. I think it is too big in some respects—[Laughter.] No, I do. It is too big, so it is unwieldy. Some of the other companies providing broadband are not of the same scale and size as BT, so because the contract is so large it is almost tailor-made for BT and no one else. If the Minister wants greater competition, I suggest that a smaller contract could be the way forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the conversation about superfast broadband we should not lose sight of those people who do not have broadband—by that, I mean a connection at a speed of 2 megabits per second? Cheltenham is not wildly rural, yet there are people there who are on dial-up speeds. It is no good saying that 93% are on superfast broadband, as that could obscure the fact that lots of people really have no broadband at all, as is the case in my constituency. Funding has to be sent towards those people in e-poverty as a priority, to take them out of the digital dark age.
If my wife was here, she would be reinforcing exactly what my hon. Friend is saying. Every time she gets on to our computer and it does not dial up properly or get any connection, she says, “What are you doing about it?” so hon. Members can see how I have been encouraged to hold this debate. He is right; what is driving everybody so crazy is that some people have superfast broadband, some people have some form of connection and some people have either a very slow connection or no connection at all. As we get towards 2 megabits, the argument then will be whether it is 24 megabits, 50 megabits, or 100 megabits. I am not the most technical man in the world, but I imagine that those are getting faster—but seriously, this is a problem and we somehow have to get everybody on to a reasonable speed and connection for broadband before we drive everything forward. Otherwise, people will be treated doubly badly as a result. That is what we are all worried about in our individual constituencies, and I am sure that the Minister is taking note of that.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. As a new Member of Parliament, I find that the question of broadband is one of the biggest in my inbox. My only problem is that in the village in which I live, I have a very slow speed, so I cannot get back to my constituents as quickly as I would like to.
I thank the Minister for coming to Brecon and Radnorshire during the election campaign. He had a look at broadband in the town of Brecon and I am delighted that Brecon now has a good speed. The problem is in Brecon and Radnorshire. The county is vast—the largest constituency in England and Wales—and it is very difficult to get to many parts. We need to think outside the box. In a part of my constituency called Elan valley, 27 homes are not even on mains electricity, so how we are going to get them to mains broadband, I really do not know. However, I would be grateful if the Minister looked into such matters. We have a long, long way to go in rural broadband, but please look into this issue. Like the rest of the Members here—and, I am sure, Members who are not here today—I find that business and social elements in my constituency are being stifled. Broadband has to be pushed further up the scale and the delivery of rural broadband has to be a top priority.
I welcome my hon. Friend to Parliament, and I am sure that he will do a great job for Brecon and Radnorshire. My brother used to live in Lampeter, so I drove quite regularly through the Brecon Beacons. Brecon and Radnorshire must have some of the most hilly and mountainous country in the nation of Wales and in the United Kingdom. I therefore suspect we will have to use lots of different methods of getting broadband and internet connections to those areas—I expect the Minister at least to provide my hon. Friend’s constituents with generators where they do not have electricity. In very drawn out constituencies that are difficult to get to, we will need different technologies. I am sorry to labour the point so much, but I do not think that it has had enough focus, and it is what my hon. Friend will need more than anybody. I and many other hon. Members will need it as well, but my hon. Friend’s constituency will need it in particular.
Is not one of the problems the fact that BT will not be open about which premises and cabinets will not be connected, particularly in relation to its commercial programme? It has been extremely difficult to get information from Connecting Cheshire because it says that it is prevented from releasing that information under a freedom of information request, because of BT. Many of the communities that are not connected, if they knew they would not be connected, would be willing to band together to try and find a solution if they could, and if there were some sort of voucher scheme.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and welcome her to Parliament. She is right. I do not know whether Cheshire is the same, but Devon and Somerset signed a confidentiality clause with BT in the first contract, so that has made it doubly hard. The situation has got better and in Devon and Somerset, websites have been set up and people know roughly where they are going to be. The people at BT argue that is a commercial matter, and if they say they are going to be in a certain place at a certain time and they do not arrive, they leave themselves open to a legal challenge. However, it is still very frustrating for people. I am a little concerned that BT is inclined to move faster when it thinks somebody else might move into the area. It is just a feeling of mine, but I think it is probably shared quite a lot in this Chamber. Perhaps we can ask the Minister about that: does he actually like the confidentiality clauses in these contracts, and would it be better if we did not have them? It would be interesting to see what he has to say about that.
In 2010, Ofcom put regulation in place to allow competing broadband providers access to Openreach national infrastructure and access to passive networks, so that their own fibre to the cabinet or fibre to the home superfast networks could be deployed. That has been helpful for non-BT providers such as Sky and TalkTalk. The majority of superfast investment comes from BT and Virgin Media, and both are investing in upgrading their existing networks. We need, all the time, to keep as much open access as we can.
I turn to Britain’s digital future. The UK has one of the most competitive broadband markets in the world, with lower prices than most other European countries. Once people actually get access to the internet and broadband, they get a very good deal, but it is about making sure that we can get people connected in the first place. The UK has an ambitious digital plan, which will help the economy and result in world-class connectivity, so we are going in the right direction—I thought I ought to put something in this speech to make sure that the Minister felt that I have listened to what he has said. This will help to decrease business costs as well as reduce the cost of public services and help our long-term economic growth. Indeed, it might even help our long-term economic plan, might it not? However, the current market structure is letting Britain down.
There are over 500 different telecom companies, the majority of which depend on Openreach. It is worth remembering that when other sectors were privatised, such as the electricity sector or the rail network, they were prevented from simultaneously owning the infrastructure and being a retail provider. Ensuring that Openreach was independent of BT would help to extend internet coverage, which, in turn, would help to support small local businesses. In addition, that would help to cut back on the red tape and ensure that the process of installing broadband across the country is much more transparent.
I have emails in my inbox from businesses that feel like they are being let down by the Government not getting broadband to them fast enough. I know that the Minister is working hard on that, but it is what people are concerned about. Over 200 businesses have been in touch to say that they do not have the internet connectivity that they need to be able to run their business. Indeed, 75% of Federation of Small Businesses members say that the internet is vital to their businesses. One particular business said that as a result of the internet, its sales increased by 40%, and 46% of members would like faster internet provision. It is extremely important that businesses have good internet speed and access so that they can promote themselves online. It is essential for tourism, shopping and market research.
In rural areas, Broadband Delivery UK intends to roll out superfast broadband to 95% of the UK by 2017, with universal access to broadband speeds of up to 2 megabits. The final 5% is primarily made up of rural areas, which is mostly what we have been talking about today. Although that is only 5% nationally, it probably means that in many of our constituencies, up to 50% of our areas will not be covered. Rural areas also have slower superfast broadband coverage. There are also related technical issues, as rural areas tend to be further away from the cabinets. That means that companies and the Government should be looking at more efficient and cost-effective solutions, which we have largely covered this afternoon. We appreciate that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has announced a £10 million fund to pilot technologies such as satellites to address the problem, but we would like to see more speed due to the negative effect on businesses and constituents. I want to labour this point for a third time. We have not concentrated enough effort and resources, and certainly BT has not, on the different technologies. We will not by 2020, 2021 or 2022 get to the hardest-to-reach areas if we are not using the better and newer technologies to get to them now, because all these things take time. That is what worries us. We are very pleased for all those who have the broadband connection, but we are very worried about our constituents and businesses that do not have it.
Finally, I come to my questions for the Minister. Can he extend competition to keep the pressure on BT to deliver on its contracts more quickly and effectively? Can he persuade BT to use extra technologies, especially in the harder-to-reach areas, to ensure that BT is delivering on its contracts as promised? Will he encourage other companies to bid for contracts to deliver superfast broadband, especially in difficult to reach areas, so that there is local competition in the marketplace? Can businesses and individuals be given vouchers that would go some way towards paying for broadband, which in many cases individuals have to fund privately, out of their own pockets, instead of through the huge taxpayer subsidy that BT is already receiving? Will the Minister keep up the pressure on BT to ensure that it keeps its promises, as already too many people in rural areas do not have broadband and that is only adding to the problems of rural isolation?
Six hon. Members have applied to speak. I shall restrict the Front Benchers to nine minutes, rather than the usual 10, to allow everyone else five minutes to speak. It is a five-minute time limit, including any interventions, because obviously we are restricted.
It is quite an interesting debate here today—and we have almost had the debate already. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) has secured this debate. The last time I spoke in this Chamber, he intervened. The debate was on fracking, and I recall that he was blaming Europe, or he was taking the blame for most decisions that had been taken in Europe. I am surprised that he has not also taken the blame for the decision on rural broadband.
As I said, I welcome the debate and I want to touch on a few aspects of the issue. One critical aspect is how targets will be met. It is okay to reach 95% in some areas. As with rural farm payments, it is often possible to reach the first 90% or 85% quite easily; it is getting to the last ones that is very difficult. However, in my constituency and others in Northern Ireland, we are not near that: 55% is the figure for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the situation is similar in other areas. For West Tyrone, the figure is also 55%. Only four constituencies in Northern Ireland—the urban ones in Belfast—are meeting the 95% target. I am sure that other people in rural areas are in a similar position.
We need a much more in-depth look at who can get broadband when there is a fibre-optic cabinet in the area. I have found two examples recently. About a year ago, we found that the Department of Education was bringing fibre optic to a local village school, but no one else in the village or in the area—no business and no resident—could access that fibre-optic connection. We have now found that BT is bringing fibre optic to the village and putting it into a cabinet, but many people in the area still cannot obtain it from BT. I cannot understand the technology of that.
This issue is regularly raised in Wales. We get notification that fibre optic is enabled in our area, but if we ring to sign up, it is not. How much can we rely on BT’s statistics? I ask my hon. Friend the Minister this question through my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott). How robust are the statistics that tell us that these targets are being met if we are being told one thing but the physical reality on the ground is another?
Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; what he says is right. I do not have an answer as to how reliable the figures are, but obviously the Minister may be able to give us more information on that. Clearly, if fibre optic is in the village, whether it is going to the school or to a cabinet through BT, the real question is why businesses and residents cannot access it. I just do not know. That has not been addressed.
Another issue in the EFRA Committee report that I noticed was not addressed is how farmers in particular, and people in rural areas in general, cannot now access business opportunities. Some of this is just about the simple registration of births of animals. Doing that online is actually very efficient. Someone may make a mistake on a form, and farmers quite often do—I am a farmer myself, so I hold my hand up—but it is very difficult to make one on the electronic form that is submitted, because it will be rejected. In fact, it is almost impossible to make a mistake on the application form that people put in. Many farmers are disadvantaged because they cannot do that online. In Northern Ireland, we can apply for the single farm payment process online, but many farmers in Northern Ireland cannot do that, simply because they do not have broadband availability. Even the dial-ups in Northern Ireland are quite slow—much slower, I am sure, than the broadband or dial-up connection used by the wife of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton.
We want answers to those questions. I noted that the Minister had referred to two areas, saying that there was 98% and 93% availability of high-speed broadband. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) referred to Dorset, saying that the last 5% is key. It is the last 45% in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It is the last 45% in West Tyrone, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) will make the case about his constituency, where I am sure the figure is equally low, so I think—
Thank you, Mr Betts, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing it. One of our roles as parliamentarians must be to create a level playing field, so that businesses can compete wherever they are situated. I give credit to the Government and to the Minister, because we have seen huge improvements. I am referring to the £1.7 billion of investment, the target of 95% of people getting superfast broadband by 2017 and the fact that we are one of the leading nations in the European Union for broadband access.
However, the issue is not just what we are spending, but where. The key question is whether we have a level playing field. Some 5% do not get good access; they have poor or absent broadband and mobile phone coverage. There is the issue of rural areas gaining access to schemes such as the £3,000 broadband connection voucher scheme, which was aimed only at cities.
As we have heard, broadband is now an essential service. The Institute of Directors names it as its No. 1 priority for businesses. Rural Action Yorkshire says that it is now a “necessity” and that poor mobile coverage and slow broadband make it nearly impossible to run a business. Many businesses in my constituency are struggling to compete. Businesses used to compete just locally, but now businesses compete nationally and internationally. I recently visited a Michelin-starred restaurant in my constituency that is competing against other Michelin-starred restaurants in other parts of the country. If people are sat waiting to be able to book a client in online and the screen will not change, they are losing business. Other companies selling goods online are competing against businesses internationally.
We want to attract great businesses such as architects and graphic designers, but they cannot operate in rural areas with slow broadband, which means that they will relocate out of our areas. They will move to urban areas or places where they will get faster broadband. It is not a level playing field, and that is contributing to a depopulation of young people and businesses, which hampers job creation and investment.
A report by the National Farmers Union recently stated that 40% of farmers are without access to broadband and 90% have no reliable service. Despite that, we expect them to fill in forms, use the common agricultural policy information service, complete VAT returns and manage vehicle tax and animal passports online. North Yorkshire County Council recently announced that its third-stage investment in broadband would still mean that some isolated areas would not get access to high-speed broadband, so those businesses have no prospect of a solution in the foreseeable future.
The position is similar for mobile phone coverage. Yes, there have been improvements, and we are delighted to hear of the £5 billion investment in new masts in our major networks around the UK. On the ground, however, we see little apparent improvement in access to mobile phone coverage.
How do we help rural businesses on to that level playing field? There are solutions, of course. Point-to-point wireless is an effective solution. Fixed-line to wireless and back to fixed-line is another. I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet in October one of my providers, Moorsweb, which provides those excellent solutions in my area. Its business model is contingent on finding long-term customers in its area, but as soon as it achieves market penetration, BT or Openreach can come into the area and take those customers back. As a result, Moorsweb has no long-term customer base, which is a disincentive to it to invest. It is a good, not-for-profit organisation that is keen to deliver a service to local people, but when it invests, there is no long-term return. We need to make sure that such providers have security of commercial opportunity.
Effectively, we have a market failure. The bundling of BT with Openreach almost disincentivises the company from rolling out superfast broadband to industrial estates, where it already has leased lines—
Over the summer, I had the privilege of speaking to a great many of my constituents about broadband access in north Lancashire. It has been clear since my election in May that many of my constituents, from both the farming community and the wider rural community, find poor broadband to be one of the biggest barriers to maintaining family connections—because they cannot Skype, for example—accessing things such as BBC iPlayer, and carrying out their the day-to-day business. As farmers increasingly diversify, poor broadband access cuts them off from many business opportunities. I will not cover ground that other speakers have covered on those issues, but I encounter very similar problems in north Lancashire.
Instead, I will tell a positive story about a community-led group in my constituency called Broadband for the Rural North, which has come together and, in true Lancashire spirit, decided to dig the trenches and lay the cables required to deliver broadband to rural communities. On 12 August this year, I joined Allen and Bruce, volunteers for B4RN, in laying cable and connecting the properties and premises just outside Dolphinholme in my constituency. That was fibre to the premises, delivering hyperfast—not just superfast—broadband, which is capable of 1,000 megabits per second. That is about 100 times faster than the superfast option delivered by BT.
That is an innovative and exciting project. What frustrates me, however, is that with the support of Lancashire County Council, after B4RN has connected up a village and achieved 80% or 90% take-up of its fibre to the premises, Openreach comes in and fits cabinets in the centre of the village, which offer a poorer service so people are not switching. My concern is that a few miles down the road, other villages have access to neither of those services, and it strikes me that it is not the most efficient use of Openreach’s resources for it to supply services to villages that have already found alternative ways of accessing high broadband speeds.
I end by noting my congratulations to Barry Forde and Christine Conder of B4RN, who were recently awarded MBEs in the Queen’s birthday honours.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing the debate. Although Eddisbury is in Cheshire and would not appear to have the engineering problems described by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), it has poor broadband coverage—in fact, coverage in my constituency is only 70%. Like the hon. Gentleman, I find that that is the issue about which I get the largest amount of correspondence from constituents. They are particularly concerned about the lack of information from Connecting Cheshire about when they will be connected.
There are considerable delays to the project—we understand that some of the delivery will be delayed until 2017—so although it should be a phase 1 roll-out, it will actually happen in the phase 2 timeframe. Another enormous frustration is that we will get three cabinets, say, in a village such as Little Budworth, but the fourth cabinet there will not be connected. That has a massive impact on the value of people’s homes. It also has an impact, for example, on their children’s ability to do their homework.
There are two strands to the problem. The first is quickly identifying those who will definitely be in the 5% or 1% who will not get broadband under phase 2 so that alternative solutions can be offered. A very good rural broadband support scheme was started in 2011; perhaps that should be looked at again, particularly for premises further than three kilometres from the cabinets. Even if fibre comes to a cabinet in a village, someone who lives three kilometres away cannot get superfast broadband speeds, so we need to deal with such premises. I believe that BT is already aware of the problem, but it will not tell the occupants of those properties that they will not get broadband under the scheme.
I know that the Minister is genuine in his commitment to rolling out broadband across the UK and making this country one of the most competitive in the world. As many hon. Members have described, the rural community has a high proportion of small businesses. Farmers are trying to diversify and set up other businesses, and to add value to their product so that they can export it. A lot of small businesses in my constituency make yoghurt and cheese, and they want to export and get their product out there in the market. The way to do that is on the web; not being able to access the internet prevents them from doing it. Not only that, but the cattle tracing system relies on movements of cattle being reported largely online, partly because if a farmer’s reporting card goes missing in the post, they will get heavily penalised.
Minister, we request clarity about which cabinets will not be covered. We ask the Government to consider a voucher scheme that will allow communities to band together and get in the innovative solutions that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) described in her constituency from Broadband for the Rural North. There are solutions out there, but BT seems to be hiding behind its commercial roll-out programme to discourage such competition and prevent communities from being reached.
I find that, on the whole, the rural community are resilient, inventive and resourceful, and they are willing to work around problems. What they do not like is to be told that they will get this in 2015, and then to be told that it will happen in 2017, and finally to be told that they will not get it at all. I have no doubt that that frustration is driving the correspondence in my email inbox and those of many other hon. Members.
My second point is about the minimum service provision of 2.2 megabits per second. People are paying for their broadband service, but they are not getting those 2.2 megabits per second. I would like a clear statement, or something to which I can point providers, so that I can say, “The Minister has made it clear that you are required to provide 2.2 megabits per second as the minimum service obligation.” If we cannot get BT —Openreach, more specifically—to up its game, we should introduce a universal service obligation for it to provide that service across the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for this opportunity to debate the roll-out of rural broadband. This matter arose in oral questions this morning, when there were a number of discussions about it. I apologise if other Members have previously had an opportunity to debate this subject, but as a new Member this is my chance to put on the record the experience of my constituents in the county of Gwynedd in relation to connectivity.
I appreciate that we have been talking about 2.2 megabits but, compared with the UK average speed of 23.4 megabits, Gwynedd experiences average download speeds of 14.6 megabits per second. Superfast broadband coverage in that county is 53%, compared with 75% across the UK as a whole. Looking at other aspects of connectivity, 17% of Gwynedd has 3G coverage, whereas, at 84% coverage, 3G is effectively the norm for the rest of the country. We have approximately no 4G coverage in the county.
I welcome the fact that the UK Government, along with the Welsh Government and the European Union, have been funding the Superfast Cymru scheme that is being carried out by BT. It is anticipated that that scheme, along with other Welsh Government projects in this area, will achieve 96% coverage by 2016. None the less, it is disappointing that the Welsh Government and BT have so far refused to disclose which parts of Wales are likely to comprise the remaining 4%—those areas, of course, are most likely to be rural.
It should be appreciated that people living in rural areas find that the slow progress of superfast broadband roll-out is aggravated by all-round poor connectivity, given how the unreliable mobile data signal varies from provider to provider. We have talked about Brecon and Radnorshire, but please bear in mind that Dwyfor Meirionnydd includes Eryri—Snowdonia—and Yr Wyddfa, the mountain. We have the most mountainous area in England and Wales, and that topography has a direct impact on rolling out this technology.
The Welsh Government also have Access Broadband Wales, so if people cannot get on to the BT scheme, there is £1,000 per household to connect via wireless or satellite, provided the household can demonstrate that it meets one or two basic criteria. That is a practical solution. For once, the UK Government can learn from the Welsh Government.
Upgrading digital infrastructure in rural areas is crucial to ensuring that the rural economy is not further disadvantaged. We have a duty to ensure competitiveness. The current situation evidently puts rural businesses at a disadvantage and may make potential employers think twice about investing in such areas.
Rural businesses cannot afford to rely on passing trade in the same way as businesses located in great conurbations such as London and Cardiff. There is therefore a greater pattern of reliance on online customers. In my discussions with businesses in my area, I have heard that that is particularly true for tourism and accommodation. Such businesses’ shop window, and their crucial initial interaction with customers, is dependent upon slick interactivity, and some of these businesses, by their very nature, are located in areas that are the most difficult to reach.
What will the UK Government do to ensure that the remaining 4% of homes and businesses that fall outside the Superfast Cymru scheme are provided with a dependable high-speed broadband connection? As I mentioned, it would be useful to know where those areas are, although I anticipate that they will be in rural areas. On the wider question of connectivity, does the Minister agree that network providers should be obliged to provide roaming across Wales, and the UK as a whole, to ensure that rural communities have a reliable data connection at all times?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate and introducing it in his inimitable style. He is surely emerging as a champion for agriculture and rural communities across the country. It would be churlish not to start by applauding the success of the phase 1 roll-out. It got off to a slow start in my county of Somerset, but in the past few months a satisfying number of villages have been connected each month. However, there are three key issues connected to phase 1.
First, there is a lack of awareness that cabinets have gone live, which means that the uptake in many places has been disappointingly low. Does the Minister have some ideas, or even some resources, to assist in the promotion of cabinets that have gone live so that there can be better uptake?
Secondly, it is not only farms and isolated hamlets that are at the end of long lines. In many linear villages in Somerset where the cabinet is in the middle, homes that are very much in the village suffer from being on the end of a long line. Indeed, the same is true of homes within the larger towns in my constituency, particularly Wells, where properties are connected directly to the exchange. It is hugely frustrating for people who live in a concentration of premises that have been connected and that have superfast broadband when, because they are connected directly to the exchange or because they are on the end of a long line, they do not have the connection that their neighbours have. We should prioritise such people when identifying who we address in phase 2 or phase 3.
Finally, there is a group of people for whom I feel very deeply: the people who live within the areas that were grabbed by BT for commercial roll-out but who BT has not yet got round to delivering. Those people live in villages just on the edge of a town. When BT’s eyes were bigger than its stomach, it said, “We’ll take that.” Villages all around them have since been helped by the state aid programme, but they are still waiting. Will the Minister consider imposing a time limit on BT for the commercial upgrade of cabinets? If BT fails to do so within that time, it should be made to forfeit so that the village can benefit from the state aid programme that is unwinding around it.
Looking at what comes next, I have a parochial plea. The Minister is well aware of the collapse of the phase 2 negotiations between Connecting Devon and Somerset and BT. There is no doubt that that has caused concern locally. Despite my earlier welcome for the acceleration of the process over the past couple of months, we should not ignore the danger that, with the phase 2 contracts not having been signed, there is a real likelihood that the progress in Devon and Somerset will plateau, which would be hugely frustrating for homeowners and businesses alike. Will the Minister consider imposing a deadline on Devon County Council and Somerset County Council for the negotiation of the phase 2 contracts?
In the process of working out what is in phase 2, we should identify what is left. My final plea to the Minister is, when we know what is left because it has not been included in phase 2, let us be bold and get on with connecting them concurrently. There is no reason to wait to connect the final 5% sequentially after the completion of phase 2. We know what is left, so let us do it at the same time.
The Minister is right to shout about the success of this programme. It is a huge state aid project and a real investment by this Government in our country’s future, but the frustration grows in rural areas every time we are lapped by those in the cities. The reality is that, every time the cities get something more—dial-up, broadband, superfast, ultrafast, 3G, 4G and 5G—we are left even further behind. Every time we are lapped, the frustration grows, the productivity gap widens, the competitiveness advantage becomes more stark and the sense of isolation becomes more acute. We must not rest on our laurels. We must accelerate into the final 5% to make absolutely sure that no community in Somerset, or anywhere else in the country, is left behind.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate and on his election as Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I was interested in his comments, I agree with many of them and I share the social and business concerns that he has highlighted.
As the Member for the UK’s northernmost mainland constituency, I have seen some progress in the delivery of broadband in rural areas. There is still much to do, and I think that we all share the view that the internet, and broadband in particular, has the potential to change our lives, especially in rural areas, where shrinking distances can have life-changing impacts.
A huge amount of business in the modern world relies on the internet, for research, advertising, selling and communicating. By letting people work remotely or run small businesses from their home, broadband is clearly good for local economies. For all those reasons, we in the Scottish National party believe that there should be a universal service obligation for broadband, and we are working towards that objective. The Scottish Government, through their Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, are working to deliver 95% superfast broadband coverage in Scotland by the end of 2017. The initiative has already delivered £400 million in investment to extend fibre broadband access to areas where commercial organisations simply would not otherwise go.
The programme consists of two regional projects, one covering the highlands and islands and the other covering the rest of Scotland. Both those contracts were awarded to BT in 2013. The Digital Scotland roll-out has covered more than 394,000 premises since it started and is more than halfway to its target of making the technology available to 750,000 homes and workplaces by the end of the contract period.
Just two weeks ago, the new Scotland rural development programme broadband grant scheme opened for applications from community-led broadband organisations such as GigaPlus Argyll, a ground-breaking scheme in which numerous hard-to-reach communities have come together to procure superfast broadband services from commercial providers. We support such initiatives, and to date the SNP Government have made more than £16.5 million available for similar community broadband projects, in addition to the £400 million Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme and the larger £13.4 billion Scottish rural development programme for 2014 and 2020.
The Scottish National party has a strong track record of supporting Scotland’s rural and remote communities. We will continue to identify further opportunities to boost Scotland’s rural economies. I would like to see the UK Government support those efforts and implement complementary actions to ensure that rural communities benefit fully from the roll-out of broadband and 4G technologies in addition to mobile connectivity in its broadest sense. I am aware that the UK Government have committed to ensuring that 95% of households can access superfast broadband at a rate of 24 megabits per second by 2017. I applaud that commitment, just as I applaud the Scottish Government’s enhanced strategic approach.
However, the time has come for the UK Government to be creative and innovative in their thinking, and to prepare now for the future, particularly the future of our remote and rural areas. The UK Government must begin to consider issuing licences and providing the necessary financial incentives and support to encourage providers with the technological capacity to deliver broadband to rural communities that might never receive broadband services through conventional routes, in order to allow those communities to exercise their civic rights fully and participate fully in our society.
The UK Government must consider the supply opportunities for the 5% of households that are unlikely to have broadband before 2017. It is now time to consider high-quality service, measured in terms of speed, volume and latency, and to commit to ensuring that 100% of households have the opportunity to access broadband at a minimum of, for example, 20 megabits per second with a latency of not more than 30 milliseconds. I urge the UK Government to deliver on the Scottish Government’s call for a universal service obligation for broadband and to recognise that this crucial technology must now be considered a basic utility, one essential for those in remote and rural areas if they are to exercise their civic rights.
It seems clear that broadband will not reach all communities in the immediate future, and that there is consensus in this Chamber on the fact that the UK Government must now intervene to secure the necessary investment in our rural communities. I support the questions raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and what he will do to take forward the objective of establishing a universal service obligation for broadband.
I will try to make my contribution short, because the Minister appears to have a little list—in fact, it appears to be a large list. It probably has the names of all our constituencies on it and how things are improving, so I will allow him a little more time to engage in dialogue with Members about that.
We have had a good debate, introduced by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). A lot of thoughtful speeches have been made. I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman speak about the importance of value for money and how we deal with broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas. There has been a great deal of discussion about businesses and their receipt of broadband, or in many cases about how they cannot receive it properly. Furthermore, if we consider business development and rural regeneration, we see that there is an untapped source of private regeneration involving home workers living in rural areas, perhaps travelling sometimes to a company in the city. For that group, too, it is vital for there to be good access to broadband in rural areas.
I will not be able to mention all the speeches made by hon. Members, but I would like to draw attention to a couple of them, including the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). She made the important point that farms today must often diversify their business, and good broadband is vital for that. She also spoke about Broadband for the Rural North, which seems to be doing a valiant job.
My Welsh colleague and neighbour the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke about Superfast Cymru, which I think we all agree is a good programme that will deliver real improvements. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) referred to Access Broadband Cymru. Although Conservative Members do not always praise what is happening in Wales, there is widespread agreement that that is an excellent initiative that deserves serious consideration.
This always happens at the summer recess: we come back and discuss the Government’s failure to deliver rural broadband. The Minister makes another speech; he often comes with a little list. We wonder whether the Prime Minister could not get mobile coverage on Polzeath beach during the summer, or whether it was difficult for him to chillax in his holiday cottage, but whatever it was, the view is always that something must be done, and the Minister is always dispatched here to tell us that he is the person to do it.
However, the facts are fairly simple. We all know, especially those of us from rural communities, that far too many parts of the country do not have any broadband coverage whatever. Some areas cannot get the most basic broadband at 2 Mbps, which is not even fast enough to watch iPlayer, and the roll-out of that basic broadband is three or four years late. Some people are still unconnected now, in 2015. The Minister says that the Government will provide basic broadband in 2015, while the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website says that it will be 2016. It would be interesting to hear which year we are talking about.
The Government are considering a minimum requirement or universal service obligation; I know that that has been raised in various speeches in this debate, including by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). However, I believe that the universal service obligation that the Minister has discussed is only 5 Mbps, not the 10 Mbps that Ofcom says we need as minimum. Why has he not listened to Ofcom? Perhaps he has, and can clarify or even correct me.
The level up from basic broadband is superfast. The Government’s target is 24 megabits per second, but even that target is a long way short of what Ofcom and the EU call superfast, namely 30 megabits per second. Why do the Government promote that dodgy definition? They promised the
“best superfast network in Europe”,
but their broadband scorecard does not even measure its speed. At the same time, research shows that our rivals are speeding ahead. One study even showed that Ukraine’s capital has faster broadband than ours. Why is Kiev faster than London? The Government missed their superfast roll-out deadline of May 2015 and shifted it back by two and a half years to December 2017.
The Minister is writing furiously; I hope that he will correct me and bring the deadline forward a bit. Even the 2017 deadline is only a hope, as senior BT executives and almost half of councils have warned that it could be 2018 before the roll-out to 95% of the country is finished. Is the Minister really going to get up and say that BT Openreach has been doing a brilliant job or will he get things sorted?
The Government designed the tender process for superfast roll-out so that it was virtually impossible for any company other than BT to win. The hon. Member for Eddisbury and the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) also raised points in connection with that. What was the result? Funnily enough, BT Openreach won 44 out of 44 contracts, and its monopoly on the existing copper network was reinforced. BT Openreach delivers the Government’s delayed roll-out.
Although it is nominally at arm’s length from BT, Ofcom says that it still has an “incentive to discriminate” in favour of the rest of BT Group. Ofcom is now considering whether the situation provides an unfair advantage to BT and whether BT Openreach should be split off in the interests of transparency and fair competition. The Opposition believe that the situation is now so bad that Ofcom’s review should work on the presumption that BT Openreach should be split from the rest of BT unless the review produces conclusive evidence to the contrary. Surely the Government, apparently wishing to champion free enterprise—at least some of the time—should consider that view.
Beyond the existing roll-out, at least there is a plan for getting superfast broadband to 95% of the population, even if it is two and a half years late. The Government do not seem to have any plan whatever for how to get superfast broadband to the final 5% of the population, let alone how to pay for it. It is not 5% of the population, however, because as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton made clear, we are talking about 50% in certain areas. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) spoke of similar proportions in Northern Ireland. The Government have pilots looking at different ways to get to that 5%. When will those pilots definitely report? Will the Minister confirm the story in the Financial Times that he is considering an industry levy of £500 million?
The Government have missed target after target on basic and superfast broadband, and yet despite their record of failure, they are setting themselves another goal to miss. [Interruption.] The Minister smiles; he is going to correct me. The Government have set their sights on an ambition that ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises. They plan to review progress against that ambition annually, starting in April 2016. Will the Minister commit today that the review will be conducted independently and then published for proper scrutiny? Will the Government be able to deliver on all their goals? At the Edinburgh TV festival, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport got the definition of “superfast” and “ultrafast” wrong. He said that it was “up to” not “at least” 24 and 100 megabits per second. That does not fill us with confidence.
What does the Government’s performance mean for rural communities up and down the land? Many of us fear that broadband is too slow and too late for many people and that the Government are creating a digital divide. We all rely on the internet. Broadband has become as much a public utility as electricity and water. People in rural communities expect decent, high-speed, reliable broadband. We all shop online, pay our vehicle duty and council tax digitally and check deliveries on the go on our mobiles and tablets.
We want high-speed, reliable broadband for social media, for catch-up TV and iPlayer. The NHS orders drugs, shares patient records and sends x-rays and test results online. Farmers are supposed to register and receive their common agricultural payments online. Builders and plumbers rely on internet searches for new clients and many of the burgeoning new industries, such as video games, are entirely dependent on the fastest possible broadband. Rural communities need broadband to diversify economically. Reliable superfast internet and mobile connections are essential for farmers who want to diversify their business, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, and for the geographically isolated. It is not an added extra any more; it is essential for every aspect of our lives and the economy. That is why we hope that the Government will get a grip and deliver decent rural broadband, so that the Minister might have a glimmer of good news for us for once.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I hope that you will signal the time to me, because I get so passionate and carried away about the subject. In fact, in the previous debate, I was meant to finish two minutes early, but I forgot because I had so much to say—not just a glimmer of good news, but a bucketful.
In the same way as we had a debate at the end of the previous parliamentary session, we meet early in the new parliamentary session to celebrate the world’s most successful state-sponsored broadband programme. Our cousins in Australia look at the UK and at their own broadband programme, which has not yet started and has already doubled in cost. Our cousins in America look at their rural broadband connection programme, which is much more expensive than ours and delivers to far fewer homes. Our European cousins in the big four member states look at us and see the UK powering ahead. They are celebrating our unequivocal success story. As I look at the thousands of homes being connected in the constituencies represented here today by my hon. Friends and hon. Members, I can say only that I am delighted to be the steward of this highly successful programme.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for calling the debate, because it allows me to once again rehearse some of the landmarks. Most of the debates begin with hon. Friends and hon. Members saying how important broadband is for rural communities. I get that point, which is why we started the programme in 2010. We understood that rural communities needed broadband and we also understood that it would not be delivered commercially. In Brecon and Radnorshire, not a single home in that constituency would get broadband under a commercial roll-out scheme. It is entirely subsidised by our rural broadband scheme because companies do not go where they cannot get a return on their investment. We are all agreed on that.
I notice a change of tone in the debate. Because we are now focusing on the last 5%, there is a quiet acknowledgement that the main job is done; we will get to 95% and now we need a solution for the last 5%. I understand that the role of the Opposition is to pick holes, particularly when they have no policy of their own. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) has to tread carefully; her party is in power in Wales. She lives in a world in which superfast broadband roll-out in Wales is going absolutely fantastically well and it is a disaster just in England, so we can discount pretty much everything she has said.
Let me remind hon. Members what the Government have said from the outset. In 2010 we said that we had a certain amount of money and would get to 90% of the homes in the UK by the end of 2015. I am still confident that we will do that. We have never changed that target. People think that we moved the goal posts; we have not. The programme was going so well that the Chancellor gave us more money, so we said that we would get to 90% by 2015 and use the extra money to get to 95% by 2017. So we have always said 90% and 95%. And I am no fool: I know that that means that we were not going to get to the last 5%. However, I also said as we approached our targets that we would look at how we get to the last 5%, and all my hon. Friends know—they have seen the curve—the enormous expense of getting to the most hard to reach premises.
Nevertheless, we have been working on that. Two Secretaries of State ago—under my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—we set out very clearly a £10 million fund to pilot new technologies to get to the last 5%, because we did not want to go to the Treasury, give them a back-of-the-envelope costing and say, “Give us 2 billion and I think we could probably get to the last 5%.” We wanted to see whether we could drive down the cost and we wanted a good idea of what the cost would be. The good news is that we have a range of different providers already delivering to homes that count in the last 5%—in terms of competition, that is good news—and we are now actively working on a solution for the last 5%.
In the eight minutes I have left, let me address some of the points that have been raised. I completely accept the point that has been made about clarity. It is important to remember that this project is a partnership with local authorities. Every local authority that is managing one of these schemes should publish on a map where superfast broadband is going. I say to any hon. Member who has an example of a local authority that is not doing that to let me know please, and I will personally ring the chief executive of that council to ask why that is the case.
It is the case that sometimes the target is relatively flexible, because when someone is on the ground actually delivering broadband it is important for us to remember that they are part of an engineering project. Delivering broadband is not about flicking a switch; trenches have to be dug, cabinets have to be put in and power has to be put in. Sometimes, providers allow an element of wiggle room, but people should be able to get clarity.
As far as competition is concerned, the process was competitive; the 44 contracts were let as part of a competitive process. However, let us not forget that European state aid rules require open access for anyone who builds a network using state aid money. That is why Virgin did not compete with BT for these contracts. But there will be competition for the last 5%, because we are showing that smaller providers can come in for these smaller contracts. Nevertheless, we wanted to get to as many homes as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton asked about new technology. BT is already introducing new technology, G.fast, which uses existing infrastructure to get speeds of up to 300 megabits a second, as well as fibre to the remote node. As I said earlier, one of the reasons that we have these pilots is to test new technology for the last 5%.
My hon. Friends have asked about vouchers, which brings me to the solutions for the last 5%. We are looking at a whole range of solutions. Funnily enough, some of the last 5% is in cities and we are looking for a bespoke solution for that; there might be a voucher solution, or a fund that companies can bill into. And yes, it is no secret that a universal service obligation is under consideration. We hope to announce our proposals towards the end of the year, to coincide with the spending review. However, it is our intention to get to 100%, in effect, by the end of this Parliament.
My hon. Friend also asked us to keep BT’s feet to the fire. We keep BT’s feet to the fire; we meet with BT regularly. As he will know, any Member of this House who comes to me with concerns about roll-out in their constituency will have a meeting with me, and BT will be asked to respond to those concerns.
I was asked whether we could rely on BT’s statistics. In the middle of August, I was very pleased to be able to say that we had passed the landmark of 3 million homes, and by the end of 2017 we should have about reached about 5 million homes. The 3 million figure is an audited statistic of premises that are capable of receiving speeds of at least 24 megabits a second. Roughly speaking, probably by the end of this month we will have reached 3.5 million homes, but we will not announce that as an official figure because it will not have been audited. We only announce figures that have been properly audited.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) talked about making people aware of superfast broadband. It is important to make people aware of it, because the more people who take it up the more money we get back. In fact, under the terms of the contract BT has paid back £129 million early; by the way, it did so earlier than it had to under the terms of the contract. That means that with the same money we might reach 96% of the country rather than 95%. We had a superfast broadband campaign towards the end of last year. Of course, we were mocked for spending money on that campaign, but it drove up take-up and pulled back money to allow us to go further.
I also take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton about a time limit for BT where it has said that it will roll out broadband commercially in an area and is effectively putting a block on a competitor that might wish to go into that area. I will take that point away with me and ensure that we can make progress.
I am an unequivocal fan of this programme, because—obviously—I am responsible for it but also because I am the only one who seems able to talk about its benefits. I always like to hear speeches that refer to how well we have done and that simply request improvements, because that is the approach I take. We are doing well; we have hit all our targets; we are technically under budget; and this project is probably the most impactful and most successful Government infrastructure project of the last five years.
I will not take lessons from the Opposition. We had to write off £50 million of investment in South Yorkshire from a contract negotiated by the last Labour Government to deliver superfast broadband. They had a pathetic target of 2 megabits a second by the end of 2012. Members can imagine what kind of debate we would be having today if I was standing before you now and saying, “Well, we reached our 2 megabits target in 2012. What on earth are you complaining about?”
As for the absurd suggestion that London has worse broadband than Ukraine, that is for the birds. It is the finding of a bogus survey put forward by a rival of BT, and my hon. Friends must remember that everyone in this debate always has an angle; this marketplace is a highly competitive one and we will always hear from other people saying that they can do a better job. My hon. Friends should also remember that we lead the big five; that this country has the highest rate of e-commerce, so some people must be able to get online to buy goods; that two thirds of the people in the country have smartphones; that we have the fastest roll-out of 4G anywhere in the world and we will reach 98% of premises with 4G by the end of 2017; and that the Government have also negotiated a landmark deal with the mobile companies to get to 90% geographical coverage, because we do not forget rural areas or the roads that our rural constituents have to drive on. So I look forward to a weekly debate on broadband, so as to continue to celebrate this fantastically successfully programme.
Thank you very much, Mr Betts, for calling me to speak again and if my wife is listening I am sure that she will hear immediately.
I thank the Minister for his straightforward replies and the work that he is doing. He can judge by the number of Members who are here today and by the number of interventions that were made that there is still much concern about this issue. Naturally, because he is a good Minister, he will put forward a very good line that everything is working well, and we accept that much of it is working well. However, many of us in Westminster Hall today represent areas in which there is much more to do. What pleased me about the Minister’s answers is that they showed he is listening to us and working hard on those areas.
The Minister made the point that there are now competitors to BT out there that can deliver to people in the last 5%, and that BT itself is now rolling out these different technologies that can get us to the last 5%. What has been frustrating for so many of us is that we have felt that BT was just not moving fast enough.
I am reassured by the Minister that he is working to get to the last 5%, that there is greater competition and that broadband will be delivered. However, I also assure him that I and many Members in Westminster Hall today will be back here again regularly, just to make sure that he and the Government are delivering on their target. That is because in the end—we have made this point many times before—our constituents are not worried whether it is BT or another company that delivers their broadband; they do not care who delivers it. But they want broadband and if they are living next door to a house that has it when they do not, that is hugely frustrating.
Of course, the one political point that we all know, whichever party we represent, is that those who have broadband are not necessarily the ones rushing to come in and tell us they have it; it is those who have not got broadband who come to us. We must make sure that we work hard for those people, and I think the Minister has received that message loud and clear.
I look forward to greater competition and to the Minister keeping the pressure on BT. He should look at universal coverage. Much can be done to ensure that BT delivers broadband better than it does at the moment, but I thank the Minister very much for his response.
Common Fisheries Policy (Reform)
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I am slightly disappointed to see the Chamber thinning at the rate that it is, but I am resigned to it. This topic has not suffered from a lack of debate over the years, certainly not during my time in the House. As we can tell from the number of Members leaving the Chamber, this issue matters a lot to a small number of communities and to a smaller number of people in a wider range of communities. My constituency of Shetland, in particular, is one of those communities where it does matter a lot.
In 2014, we in Shetland alone landed in the region of 78,000 tonnes of fish or shellfish with a value of £76 million from local and visiting boats: 24% of all fish landed in Scotland in that year. In fact, the amount of fish landed in Shetland is greater than the amounts landed in ports in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Some 30% of our local economic product comes from fishing or fish farming—the seafood industries taken as a whole. I tell hon. Members that so that they can understand. Talk about common fisheries policy reform can often be quite jargon-heavy and a little bit dry and academic, but for us, as a community, it is anything but that. The fishing industry defines us as a community and underpins just about everything else that happens within our community.
Indeed, across all sectors of the industry, more traditional models of boat ownership and operating exist in Shetland than in other parts of the country, from where they have perhaps disappeared. We retain fishing as a family industry, where generation after generation will want to go to sea and make their living as fishermen. That came home to me in 2002, as a fairly new Member of Parliament elected in 2001: we had the December Council result, which was probably one of the most difficult for the industry to manage that people can ever remember. The week before Christmas, when the House had gone into recess, I went home to Shetland and had to address a mass meeting of the local fishermen’s association in the mission in Lerwick. It was as bleak and grim a meeting as I have ever seen; a week before the end of the year, not knowing what was going to happen come 1 January, the rug had been pulled out from underneath these men’s feet and they had no idea how they were going to manage the deal that had been landed on them. No other industry would manage itself, or allow itself to be managed, in that way. It was in that 2002 deal that the seeds of reform were sown, and we have seen significant progress since then.
In 2000, before I was elected to Parliament, I attended a conference in north-east Scotland where Mike Park of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association was one of the speakers. He said that the further a skipper is from his home port, the less he cares about conservation of stocks. That has stuck with me ever since. I have always taken that as being the justification for regionalisation and bringing control of the industry back as close as possible to the communities most directly affected by it.
That was very much the context of the day. My only rejoinder to Mr Park’s statement would have been that the same was also true of Ministers and officials: the further removed they were from the management of stocks, the easier it was for them to impose unworkable deals that caused an enormous range of difficulties in practical terms. I exempt the incumbent Minister from that; he has always demonstrated a tremendous willingness to engage with industry and has a good working understanding of it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the great problems of the common fisheries policy is that even the regional organisations are too large? If local fishermen realise that if they conserve fish they can get them at another time, they are more likely to go along with the measures. The trouble with the common fisheries policy is that there are too many fishing, from too far and wide, who are really not concerned about conserving fish now—they know very well that, if they do, somebody else will get them before they do. That is one of the worst problems of the CFP.
There is not much that I disagree with there. The essence of the problem that the hon. Gentleman highlights is that fisheries management is something done to the industry and to the communities affected, rather than being something that they feel they have any ownership of, or are able to influence. Although there have been an enormous number of problems with the regional advisory councils, they have been a source of enormous progress and benefit and are certainly infinitely preferable to what we had before they were established, when everything was done in Brussels with simply no opportunity to challenge it.
How we have been able to build partnerships between fishermen, conservationists and scientists, through the regional advisory structures, is exceptional. That has been taken on by various people. I commend the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), for the work he did in the lead-up to landing a reformed common fisheries policy, because that developed the first iteration of the regional advisory councils to the point where they might even become regional management councils. That is the first point that I would like the Minister to take on. The advisory councils themselves are best placed to author the next iteration of their development. With the history of joint working and the body of expertise within the councils, that could now be done to improve and speed up the present rate of change.
One reason why I love being in debates with the hon. Lady is that she always anticipates my next point. That is exactly why I think this is a timely debate. However, before I touch on that, I should like to make a brief reference to one other aspect that hinders the work of the regional advisory councils and everybody else involved in fisheries conservation. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and all the scientists involved in it are required to use data that, by the time they are implemented, are about two years out of date. One of the biggest difficulties with our total allowable catch and quota system is that it will work only if it accurately reflects the amount of fish in the sea at any moment in time. For that reason, if the data are two years out of date, there will eventually be a difference between what fishermen are told is in the sea and what they actually find in their nets. That then results in a downward spiral, where the fishermen have no respect for what the scientists tell them, and the TACs and the quotas do not reflect what the fishermen find.
The problem will become particularly acute as we implement the next stage of the discards ban; it has always been difficult, but it is now positively urgent that we deal with it. There must be some way in which an early, quick and dirty analysis can be done so that the data can be used in as close to real time as possible.
The reason why I sought the debate, and why I am so pleased we have a good turnout, is the very point raised by the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). I hope Members will forgive the pun, but we have been pushing water uphill a lot of the time in reforming fisheries management and the CFP. That is because of the constitutional architecture within which the CFP, in its various iterations, has had to sit: the various treaties, the acquis communautaire, the principle of common access, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and the Lisbon treaty, which enshrined the principle that the conservation of marine biological resources, as only the EU could call fishing, was to be a sole competence—something about which I felt so strongly that I resigned from my party’s Front Bench when the issue came to a vote.
We have had to live with all those matters, because it has been next to impossible to find our way around them. If we proceed piece by piece, we will reform neither the policy nor the constitutional architecture that sits around it. Now, however, we apparently have an opportunity to bring about reform. The Prime Minister has said that we are to have a referendum on a reformed European Union, and the issue before us is one of the areas of community policy and responsibility that is absolutely ripe for reform. The CFP has not worked for fishermen, fishing communities, conservationists or scientists, so this is surely the time to take a blank sheet of paper and say, “We can do this differently.”
When we talk about regionalisation and regional management, we should say, “Those can be written into any new or changed treaty.” When we talk about the principle of common access, we should be honest about the fact that it had its roots in the very earliest days of the community. It was perhaps understandable for a community of six nation states, but for a community of 28 member states—not just around the North sea, but stretching right across Europe, and including many that are actually landlocked—it makes no sense whatever.
I cannot see many people in Europe, beyond the confines of the Commission perhaps, wanting to argue against such reform. The CFP has badly served all the member states and all the various interests affected by it. It has affected particularly badly the communities that I and others in the Chamber represent. We now have an opportunity, and I suspect that the Government would find it rather easier to make progress and to deliver positive change in this area than they might in some of the others that the Prime Minister has listed as priorities.
My request to the Minister is a simple one. On behalf of the House and the various fishing communities represented here today, will he make the need for reform and for tackling historic anomalies that have caused so many problems in Europe a priority for negotiation with other member states? In that way, he could deliver a change that would make an enormous difference to the industry and to the communities we represent, which would serve us all better as a result.
Mr. Walker, I know that you have an interest in the angling fraternity, as well as the fishing industry, and it is a delight to be serving under you.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate. He has been involved in fisheries for a long time, although not quite as long as I have. When he sums up, I hope that he will reassure me that the Liberal Democrat party is now looking to secure a little more national control over our fisheries, because its position has never been really clear. Perhaps he could reassure us that it has changed its stance somewhat.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and Cornish colleague, the Minister and to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who have worked tirelessly on securing quota entitlement, which has allowed fishermen to continue to eke out a living in the short term.
We hear an awful lot about the UK’s financial contribution to the European Union, but one of the UK’s greatest contributions over the last 43 years has been the contribution of around 80% of European fishing waters. I have lost count of the number of occasions on which the House has debated reforming the CFP. It might benefit some Members if I set out the historic timeline, but I do not intend to go into detail, because we would be here until next week.
In 1970, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the original six member states introduced a policy of equal access to a common resource. I have always been suspicious of the reason for that, given that an agreement called the London convention had been reached in 1969 restricting access to UK territorial waters. I believe that there was a reason why the original six member states decided to come together to draw up regulation 2141/70, which includes article 2 on equal access to a common resource.
The 1972 treaty of accession, which the UK signed up to, included a derogation for the six and 12-mile limits, which, at that time, was our territorial sea. The UK was allowed sole access within the three and six-mile limits, but it had to open up the waters between the six and 12-mile limits to certain vessels that had traditionally fished in them. That was 40-odd years ago, and those vessels are not fishing any longer, but we still have to have other member states’ fishing vessels coming into the waters between our six and 12-mile limits. There is an anomaly there.
In 1976, member states declared a 200-mile median line limit. For those who do not understand what a median line is, I should explain that it is the line drawn—for example, down the channel—where there is not 200 miles each side to land masses. Despite the best efforts of Ireland and the UK, which argued at first for the 12-mile limit to be extended to 100 miles—they subsequently reduced that to 50 miles—the EU insisted that we settle on a 12-mile limit.
The CFP management system of total allowable catches and quotas was settled in 1983, more than 10 years after our accession to the EEC. Historical fishing activity was used to share the total allowable catches among member states, with those for each stock dictated by scientists and historical landing data. The UK gained very low quotas in many areas, while other member states benefited. In area VII, on the south-west coast, the UK got 8% of the cod and 12% of the haddock, while our colleagues across the Channel secured something in the region of 60% of the stock. The 12-mile limit restrictions were continued for 20 years and there was a mid-term review in 1992, but nothing changed. In 2002, there was a further review. Regional advisory councils were set up, but they had no power to change regulations, and they still do not. Sometimes that has been sold to us as the answer, but it is not for the UK fishing industry. The regional councils were large and burdensome and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, they were of course trans-European.
In 2012 there was another review. Throughout the time I have been talking about, we have seen the UK fishing fleet being reduced to a shadow of its former self, together with the UK share of the fish stocks found in the UK sector of the EU pond, which are 80% of it. Enough is enough. It is time for our fishing industry, which makes a disproportionately large contribution to the economy of many coastal communities that rely on fishing, to get the recognition it deserves. No one more than I and my family knows the real price paid by the brave men who put to sea to bring such a healthy source of protein to our table.
In 2003, the then Leader of the Opposition and right hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, Michael Howard, said:
“The CFP has been a disaster for the British fishing industry and we want to withdraw from it and establish national control—and that is what we will do.”
On 9 December 2003 the shadow Secretary of State said:
“By any measure, the CFP has been a disaster for the British fishing industry, which is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition reaffirmed on Sunday that ‘we are committed to a policy of withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy and restoring national control for our fishing industry’.”—[Official Report, 9 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1000.]
Unfortunately, the party in question remained in opposition and so could not deliver that promise; but I believe that the only answer for our fishermen is to regain national control. Forty years of senseless destruction are enough. Britain’s fish stocks are our responsibility. It is our duty to protect them and the communities dependent on them.
I notice that there are some hon. Members from the Scottish National party present. If one of them makes a speech, perhaps they will clarify their policy, which I am confused about. In 2003 the SNP MEP Ian Hudghton said that equal access to a common resource was fundamental to the common fisheries policy, and that no one could change it. Yet I remember that in the early days of my involvement in fisheries policy the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who was then the Member for Banff and Buchan, promoted a private Member’s Bill to restore national control.
I am asking my hon. Friend the Minister, and the other right hon. and hon. Members who are present, to join me in asking the Prime Minister to include restoration of national control over our 200-mile/median line limit in the negotiations when he goes to Europe.
I agree that, as we are now looking to renegotiate many of our arrangements with the European Union, the common fisheries policy is one that is ripe for reform, and for our taking back much of our national control. That would be good not only for our fisherman but for conservation and fishing management. Those fishermen would know that fish that were retained would be there for them to catch another day. At the moment, they think, “Let’s take them before the Spanish, French, Belgians or anybody else come to get them.” There is a lot to be said for taking back much greater national control and for pushing our limits back out to at least 12 miles, if not further. We should control our own waters. I would urge the Minister to urge the Prime Minister to go for that renegotiation.
My hon. Friend has served the fishing industry in this place and, I believe, as a member—I believe as chairman—of the fisheries committee in the European Parliament. He served them well.
Of course we are not saying that we should tell all foreign fishermen not to come into our waters. We should allow fishermen from other member states limited access, but on our terms. In 2003 it was reported that the then Leader of the Opposition claimed that Prime Minister Tony Blair had missed an opportunity by not using the draft European constitution as a means of tackling the fishing issue. That was a failure for our fishermen. Unfortunately between 1997 and 2010, when my late husband was fishing, he was under far more pressure than he had ever been before, because he felt ignored.
We must now call on our Prime Minister to rectify the situation, so that our Fisheries Minister, who has done a fantastic job so far, can have real power in controlling British waters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this afternoon’s debate, and bringing the important issue of reform of the CFP to the House.
About 80% of the UK’s fish landings of key stocks, by weight, are landed in Scotland, much of them at Peterhead and Fraserburgh in my constituency, and at Lerwick in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland; so we have a shared interest in defending the Scottish fleet and the onshore industries that depend on it. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I represent some of the most fishing-dependent communities in Europe. Peterhead and Fraserburgh are home to an exceptionally diverse fleet. We have a substantial part of the white fish fleet, a large part of the pelagic fleet, a sizeable nephrops fleet, and a host of larger and smaller inshore fisheries around our coast. We also have numerous and significant onshore industries, which employ thousands of my constituents.
I would be guilty of great understatement if I were to say merely that the common fisheries policy has not served our fishermen well. The unambiguous consensus is that the CFP has been a disaster. The truth is that it has been disastrous for our fishing industry for the past four decades. Over the years, we have seen a pernicious combination of wanton neglect and political ineptitude and bureaucracy undermine our fleet and cause enormous, untold damage to our fishing communities. The CFP has also been the major driver of the degradation of our marine environment, to the extent of forcing fishermen to throw good-quality fish overboard into the sea, creating the massive problem of discards that we are only now starting to tackle.
I have waxed lyrical many times in the House about the shortcomings of the common fisheries policy. I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) thought that there was any ambiguity in the SNP’s critique of the CFP. I think we have been robust in outlining what we see as its shortcomings.
Members will be pleased to know that I do not intend to rehearse all those points in this short debate. When looking at reform of the CFP, we have to ask ourselves how we got here. Like the hon. Member for South East Cornwall, I am keen that we remember exactly what happened in the 1970s. It has not been a happy history, but if we have any hope of reforming the CFP, we need to understand what happened. The truth of the matter is that the Scottish fleet was sold out right from the very start of the UK accession process. Back in the early 1970s, when the Heath Government were negotiating the UK’s entry to what was then the European Economic Community, they decided that fishing was, in the words of official Government documents, “expendable”. They signed an accession treaty in 1972 committing the UK to a European common fisheries policy that established exclusive competence over fisheries and enacted legislation that enshrined the principle of equal access to our waters—that common resource that was alluded to earlier—and that has bedevilled us all ever since.
The steep decline in the fortunes of fishing communities right across the UK can be traced back to that moment in history. The deal that was struck was frankly not in the interests of our fishermen or our fishing communities. It has created untold problems over most of my lifetime. We can acknowledge that the CFP has changed a lot since the 1970s. It has been through various incarnations. There have been successive derogations of one sort or another, but the most problematic parts of the regulatory architecture remain intact to this day, including the problematic regulation 2141/70—the equal access regulation—and they still put barriers in the way of progress. We should not be shy of saying that the CFP has proved itself again and again to be an unworkable policy.
It is really only with the most recent round of reforms that we have even begun to move towards a workable common fisheries policy, and that is largely due to the introduction of the regionalised model, which has for the first time brought fishermen and other stakeholders into the process. Having the industry at the table is a big step forward, and it is helping to create an approach that is more sustainable economically, socially and ecologically, but I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on how the regional advisory councils can develop and be strengthened going forward.
The great irony of this conversation is that, aside from the CFP itself, being part of a single European market has brought good opportunities for our fishing and processing industries, whether that has been through the development of healthy and lucrative export markets or though the ability to address labour shortages thanks to the free movement of people, goods and services throughout the EU. The wider social benefits accruing from EU membership have also benefited people in fishing communities.
The Government have, however, now stated their intention to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership ahead of the proposed referendum, so there is an unprecedented opportunity to right the historic wrongs of the CFP. At the heart of today’s debate is a very simple question for the Government on the priority that they will put on renegotiating the EU’s exclusive competence over fisheries and the regulation that enshrines equal access to a common resource. It is the single most useful thing that could be achieved. While it would not repair the structural damage that has been done to our communities over the past 43 years—most of my lifetime—and we cannot pretend that that has not happened or turn back the clock, it would nevertheless go a long way to removing some of the barriers to the future sustainable development of the industry.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the fishing industry can expect out of the renegotiation process, and I hope that he will address that in some detail. I also hope that the Government will grasp the opportunity to demonstrate that the fishing industry is a valued industry. The industry is inherently sustainable. It provides healthy food and sustains thousands of livelihoods. It supports our exports, yet remains one of the most dangerous occupations in our economy. I hope that the Government will give the industry the priority it deserves and push the reform right up its agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate. The issue that I wish to focus on is the allocation of fishing resources—the quotas. There is a pressing need to address the current inequitable distribution, whereby smaller inshore boats continue to get a raw deal. I particularly wish to look at that from the perspective of Lowestoft, which is in my constituency. The port of Lowestoft was once the fishing capital of the southern North sea, but it is now a very pale shadow of what it once was. If fishing is to have any future at all in ports such as Lowestoft, we need to address the quotas, which have very much become the elephant in the room.
The reformed common fisheries policy that came into effect in January 2014 provides some sort of framework for addressing the issue, but progress has been slow in implementing its provisions. The situation is becoming urgent and needs to be sorted out quickly. As we have heard, we need to consider using the forthcoming renegotiations of our membership of the EU to obtain further reforms so as to enable a once great industry to have a sustainable future around the whole coastline of the United Kingdom.
In years gone by in Lowestoft, one could cross the water from one side of the Hamilton dock to the other by walking from boat to boat. Today, the dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. In the past four decades, Lowestoft has been hit hard by over fishing, wrong decisions by politicians and the vulnerability of the very make-up of the industry, where the large trawlers helped to sustain the smaller boats. The existing quota system has played a major role in removing the larger trawlers, and we now have a situation where the seven affiliated vessels in the Lowestoft producer organisation have a fixed quota allocation of 79,097 units that is landed elsewhere. That is an enormous amount of fish. It was previously landed in Lowestoft, underpinning so many fishing and ancillary businesses. Dutch vessels fishing British quota have an annual turnover of £48 million, yet only 1% of the fish they catch is landed in the UK.
In recent years, the small boats—the under-10s—have had a raw deal and 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 was a best estimate. That was subsequently shown to be a major underestimate, for which they have been paying ever since. There have been attempts to address the situation, but as Jerry Percy of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association has pointed out, the under-10s are starting from such a low level of quota in the first place that an additional percentage simply based on past allocations is of little, if any, use.
Since 1999, the situation has got worse. 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 can retain them if they do not use them. They can sell or lease them to the under-10s on their own terms, at their own whim and fancy. It conjures up the image of the under-10s taking on the role of Oliver Twist, holding out the bowl for more fish, only to be denied by an overbearing Mr Bumble. 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 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. Attempts by the Government to encourage gifts of unused quota have often come to nothing.
While the Marine Management Organisation allocates catch limits on a month-to-month basis to each vessel in the under-10 metre pool, in practice what often happens is that the vessels end up with high levels of one species when it is not available and low levels for others when they are abundant. Reallocations of quotas from the producer organisations to the under-10s do take place, but, as I have said, they are neither predictable nor permanent. Such a month-to-month, hand-to-mouth existence is not conducive to building a business. There is an urgent need for a reallocation of quotas in favour of the inshore fleet so that the under-10s can deliver benefits to the communities in which they are based.
It is against that backdrop that the Government must focus their attention on the needs of the inshore fleet, including the one that still fishes out of Lowestoft. While nationally under-10 metre boats comprise 77% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the total workforce, they receive only 4% of the total quota available. Currently, under-10 metre boats fishing along the Suffolk coast receive what has been described to me by one local fisherman as a “miserable share of catch”. The inshore fleet can bring significant economic, environmental and social benefits to the ports out of which it fishes. Unless it is provided with the means of doing so, with a sensible amount of fish to catch, it will continue to dwindle. That would be a real tragedy for many coastal communities.
The reformed CFP, which came into effect in January last year, provides the regulatory framework under which to carry out the much-needed redistribution of quotas. Article 17 not only allows for such a reallocation, but actually requires it. There is a legally binding commitment to encourage the sustainable fishing that is carried out by the inshore fleet, which has the least impact on the marine environment but maximises the economic and social returns to coastal communities such as Lowestoft. Not much has happened regarding putting the article 17 provisions into practice. We await the outcome of Greenpeace’s successful application to the High Court for a judicial review of the Government’s failure to implement the requirements effectively.
I appreciate that a judicial review might delay matters, but it is important that the UK does everything possible to address the current plight of small-scale coastal fishermen. There was an undertaking to provide the under-10s in England with approximately 25% of the English—not just the under-10s—quota uplift that will result from the implementation of the discard ban in 2016. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give us an update on whether that undertaking will be kept to?
I urge the Minister to do all he can to adhere to article 17. If he does, real benefits can be brought to fishing communities such as Lowestoft. That said, we must also have in mind the needs of the fishing industry in the forthcoming renegotiation of our terms of membership of the EU. We should be looking to prioritise access for low-impact fishermen in UK waters within the 12-mile zone. In carrying out any renegotiation of our terms of membership of the EU, the Government should consider: an effective repatriation of the 6 to 12-mile zone for UK fishermen only; a review of the historic rights of other EU member states’ vessels in our waters; and a review of relative stability, the grossly unfair historical share-out of access to fish stocks that the UK lost out on when we joined the Common Market.
The Government must deliver on the pledge to reallocate the UK’s inland water quotas to smaller, locally based fishing communities. There is a need to give communities such as Lowestoft a long-term vision of a future in which fishing-based businesses can have a realistic hope of a reasonable living, invest in their businesses with a degree of confidence and, most importantly, create and sustain jobs. The inshore fleet must have proper representation on advisory councils. Skippers of inshore boats must receive an increase in their monthly catch limits so that they are no longer beholden to producer organisations for handouts. Quotas should be held only by active fishermen who bring real benefits to their local communities, not by either foreign vessels or non-active fishermen who hold quotas only as an investment. Any renegotiation of our future membership of the EU should include as a priority demand the reclaiming of the UK’s territorial waters in the 6 to 12 nautical-mile area so as to allow fish stocks to be properly protected, with primary access being given to local fishermen who depend on those waters for their very survival.
It is important that we grasp the nettle now so as to give many fishing communities such as Lowestoft the opportunity of a viable future. I sense that if we do not do so in this Parliament, the fishing industry in many ports around the United Kingdom will disappear.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate and enabling me to make my first contribution in the House to a debate on the fishing industry, which has been important to my constituency, particularly the town of Fleetwood, for many years.
Currently, seven fishing vessels over 10 metres in length and 55 under have Fleetwood registered as their administrative port, with all the over-10s and approximately a third of the under-10s also making Fleetwood their home port. That is a far cry from 1929, when the Fleetwood fishing industry provided direct employment for nearly a quarter of the town, and far more indirect employment. At its peak, 70,000 tonnes of fish were landed in Fleetwood by British and foreign vessels, but that has steadily declined: in 2013, the Marine Management Organisation recorded just under 9,000 tonnes of fish landed via the Fleetwood Fish Producers Organisation. Those 9,000 tonnes have, however, the considerable value of approximately £24 million.
The fishing industry in Fleetwood does not rely only on fish landed in Fleetwood; a significant and growing processing industry draws on fish brought into Fleetwood over land. The development of a new fish park is a sign of the ongoing importance of fishing and a welcome investment in jobs and skills in the town. I was pleased to welcome the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), to my consistency this summer for a public forum on the future of fishing in Fleetwood. The issues raised at the meeting were many and varied, but central to them was the need to maintain and increase fish stocks and to ensure that our small-scale domestic fishermen get their fair share of the quota under the common fisheries policy.
Our local under-10s fishermen pointed out that there are environmental constraints on their maximum catch—the wonderful weather of the north-west—but that the current quota arrangements were seeing some fish stock quotas exceeded before the fish even reached our local waters. Also, because of delays in how the catch is recorded, the current arrangements do not properly address overfishing.
Small-scale fishing enterprises comprise the overwhelming majority of the fishing fleet—77% last year—and employ the vast majority of people in the industry, yet they get only a tiny proportion, around 4%, of the overall quota. That means that the viability of many small-scale fishing businesses is jeopardised. But these are the people who provide the most jobs in the industry and fish in the most sustainable ways.
Greenpeace and the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association have come together to highlight five key actions that they believe are needed to ensure both the viability of the small-scale fishing fleet and the sustainability of the fishing industry. The recommendations include the redistribution of quotas to the under-10 metre fleet, the restoration of fish stocks, the protection of the marine environment, the prioritisation of access for low-impact fishing in the UK’s 0 to 12 nautical mile zone, and the regionalisation of fisheries management.
As it stands, the fish quota is largely controlled by a powerful minority. Recent reforms to the common fisheries policy have created measures that reward those who use more selective and low-impact fishing methods, but the responsibility now lies with implementation. Member states and our own Government must act to ensure that small-scale fishermen get their fair share of the fish quota, because it will be better for jobs and better for the environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I join colleagues in congratulating the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate.
My constituency, Great Grimsby, was once the fishing capital of England. Our fish dock was built more than 150 years ago and, at its peak, received around 600 trawlers. I recognise the comments made by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) about walking across the trawlers; the story in our local community is that people could walk perhaps a mile out, from trawler to trawler. It is sad that the demise of the fishing industry means we can no longer see that. Our town still celebrates the proud history of the industry, this week hosting the World Seafood Congress—the first time that has been held in the United Kingdom. It is perceived as a great success, so I congratulate all who were involved in its arrangement.
Today, the industry, from catching to distribution, is still worth £1.8 million to the local economy, but it would be wrong to over-romanticise what was, and still is, a difficult, dangerous and sometimes insecure industry. We cannot simply blame the European Union for the loss of jobs in the industry over the past four decades, as some have tried to do. Of course, not everyone thinks that the common fisheries policy has worked for them, but it is overly simplistic to lay all the industry’s problems at the EU’s door. The policy’s inception came when the industry was already in decline due to shrinking fishing stocks, environmental concerns, which were not necessarily known about previously, and other factors. The sharpest fall in the employment of fishermen came before Britain joined the EEC, between the years of 1948 and 1960.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come on to the 200-mile limit later on. I defer to her superior knowledge of the smaller fishing fleets and boats that are pertinent to her constituency.
Since the cod war, Iceland has lost more fishing jobs than Britain. The number of people employed in Iceland’s fishing industry has halved since the 1980s. That is why it is misleading to use the common fisheries policy as reason to exit the European Union—although I note that today’s comments have focused on renegotiating the policy and withdrawing from the restrictions. UKIP has tried to sell people in Grimsby the myth that we would return to 1960s levels of fishing if only we were no longer burdened by Europe’s regulations. That is simply not true. We need not to hark back to the past, but to secure a real, sustainable future for the industry, which will only come from working with our allies in Europe.
With that in mind, there is much to welcome in the recent reform of the common fisheries policy. Changes such as the decentralisation of management and decision making are certainly steps in the right direction. Fishing is a diverse industry, particularly when the whole continent is considered. No catch-all policy can work without exceptions. There has also been a feeling that decisions on everything in the industry have been made for fishermen by people who have never been on a fishing ship in their lives. Moving away from that will restore confidence in the process and ensure better decisions. A more localised approach, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, working from the bottom up with industry, regions and nations, allowing those people most affected by the decisions to have a real role in making them, is surely the best way of doing things.
Some will say that we should follow that logic to the inevitable conclusion: opt out of the CFP and the EU altogether and make all our decisions at the national and regional level. Yet we have to face the challenges of sustainability of the industry and of stock levels together. Breaking apart will only make that harder. It is necessary that some overview and decisions are taken at a macro level—that’s macro, not mackerel. We cannot have a free for all where each nation tries to outdo the other on fishing levels. That is recognised by Governments, whether they are in or out of the EU.
We should not allow the lie to spread that withdrawal from the EU would somehow allow our fishing fleets to do whatever they wanted, regardless of the effects. Norway, despite being outside the EU, still has to negotiate shared management of the seas within Europe. Were we to leave Europe, there is no guarantee that we would be able to negotiate a more generous quota share than is allocated to the UK today. We would also have no influence over the future of the common fisheries policy, but the seas we fish would still be affected by it.
This is the first occasion that I have participated in a debate with the hon. Lady. I am delighted that she is here as successor to Austin Mitchell, who took part in these debates for many years but in a very different manner.
On Norway, the sensible regional management of the North sea would involve the coastal states that are members of the EU and Norway. The point about the current EU architecture is that that is simply not possible. With a different constitutional architecture, there could be genuine regional management involving Norway and EU member states.
Order. Before the hon. Lady answers, I just want to say that I will call the shadow Minister at 3.8 pm and there is one more speaker. I would like to get the SNP speaker in as well, but I will be calling the first Front-Bench spokesman at 3.8 pm.
I am happy to have further discussions regarding the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
Turning to the discards ban, those in the fishing industry to whom I speak seem to agree that it is one of the most significant changes to the CFP since its creation. They tell me that the big picture of the fishing industry is currently positive after a painful few decades, but the uncertainty around the landings obligation is their biggest concern right now. Clearly, discarding usable fish does not make economic or environmental sense. Moving away from a system that creates the perverse outcome of thousands of unused fish being thrown back overboard is certainly a move in the right direction. It is also vital for preserving and rebuilding stocks.
However, in 2012, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reflected the feeling among many in the industry when it argued that an immediate ban could lead to further unintended consequences, which would not necessarily solve the issue. The example the Committee gave at the time was of the landings obligation simply moving unwanted fish from the sea on to the land, presumably to be discarded in another way.
I therefore welcome the efforts of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Marine Management Organisation and indeed the Government to find potential uses for undersized fish that are unsuitable for human consumption—fish oil, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and so on. It is no good replacing one form of discard with another, so we need to ensure that the catches have markets. It is important that the Government and the EU work with the industry throughout the staged implementation of the discard ban. They must ensure that the rules are responsive to the evidence gathered over the next five years, which will be particularly important with regards to mixed fisheries. Some in the industry are worried about the prospect of fleets being prevented from going out halfway or two thirds of the way through the year, leaving people unable to work and earn. That is a concern in many of our already struggling coastal communities. Can the Minister say how that potential situation is being avoided?
Another unintended consequence of the landing obligation that was raised with me by the chief executive of Port of Grimsby east is the issue of transportation of unwanted fish once they are landed; I believe he has had previous discussions with the Minister on that matter. While Grimsby has a fishmeal plant to which unwanted fish can be taken, ports elsewhere have to shoulder the cost of trucking the discards to fishmeal plants or landfill sites. Can the Minister clarify where the responsibility lies for the cost of that transportation?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)on securing this important debate. As someone new to these Chambers and new to some of my portfolio, I found the dialogue positive, engaging and constructive. The comments have been high quality and I am sure that all of us—not least the Minister—will reflect on the many interesting points.
Fishing is of huge importance to Scotland. The Scottish fishing zone makes up more than 60% of UK waters and accounts for 80% by weight of landings of key stocks, as we have heard. The marine industry is also of significant importance to Scotland and the UK’s economy. In 2012, it was worth an impressive £4.5 billion to Scotland, and directly and indirectly employed no fewer than 45,700 people.
None of that is a surprise to the hon. Members present in the Chamber. We all understand the importance of the industry. Scotland has a long and proud history as a fishing nation and we remain a leading player in the sector. Clearly, therefore, we should be a key participant in the EU’s fishing discussions and policy formulations. The Scottish Government are a strong supporter of the industry and fight for our fishermen in Brussels.
The Scottish Government work hard to win backing from our European partners to minimise new burdens and to maximise the catch. I am pleased that our reputation is as a co-operative and responsible fishing nation, which allows us to exert influence over the outcomes of international fisheries negotiations. I encourage the UK Government to engage our Government in Scotland as much as possible, especially because of that record of success.
We must, of course, pay tribute to our fishermen, who have invested in the long-term recovery of stocks—cod, in particular—by agreeing not to over-catch. That self-denying ordinance has been painful, but in the northern North sea it has worked, and worked well. The Scottish Government argued for and secured agreement among EU member states for a phased introduction of the landing obligation in 2016 in order to avoid a “big bang” approach for our fisheries. That has been helpful, but Scotland’s record on discarding is already making good progress.
In the North sea, combined discards of cod, haddock and whiting have fallen from 40% of the catch in 2008 to only 18% in 2014. Of course more needs to be done, but we should be satisfied and pleased with progress. All in all, the picture in much of the Scottish fishery is a positive and encouraging one. A vital natural resource is being restored, and that is good for the environment, for conservation—and, of course, for our fishing and food industries.
The common fisheries policy is the cornerstone of Europe’s fisheries management. It was designed to cement the sustainability of the EU’s fishing stocks by managing them as a shared resource, but historically it has not been effective, as it has paid out large subsidies against a backdrop of declining stocks and poor resilience. Today we have heard some worthwhile contributions about the CFP’s inadequacies.
Earlier this year, DEFRA revealed that 32 stocks of fish species were being fished at maximum sustainable yield, a figure that was up from 26 in 2014. An EU publication has also highlighted that as many as 75% of EU stocks are being overfished, compared with a worldwide average of only 25%. That is unacceptable. To put it bluntly, the common fisheries policy is not working. It has been extended, as the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) explained only too well, beyond its original limits. We want to see a framework that delivers meaningful regional fisheries management and gives fishermen a greater say and greater involvement in their own industry.
Despite our deep cynicism about the CFP, we travel hopefully. At an EU level, we believe in negotiation and in moving things forward by persuasion and partnership. The Scottish Government have approached reform constructively and have worked successfully to win key concessions on reform of the policy. Ministers have championed the move to a regional fisheries management approach in order to enable tailored measures to be identified and implemented on a fisheries-by-fisheries and region-by-region approach. Over time, that will mean that those working in the industry will have greater say and there will be less of a top-down, one-size-fits-all model dictated by the EU.
In our dialogue today, we have heard a number of important suggestions and ideas about how we can improve the common fisheries policy. Despite some differences, even over the EU itself, we have consensus on the need for reform and on the huge opportunity presented by the renegotiation that we understand the Government to have under way.
This Minister seems to be my favourite Minister at the moment, because he replies to all my written questions, so I am delighted that he is present today. This area is new to me, but someone does not have to have worked in it for all the years that some of our predecessors have to understand its importance or that we need change. Not only do we need change, but we have an opportunity such as we have not had before. I urge the Minister to consider all the points made today and I look forward to hearing his proposals.
It must be your benign supervision, Mr Walker, but every debate that I attend when you are in the Chair involves a remarkable degree of consensus. This debate has been good natured and exceptionally well informed. I put that all down to you, sir.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate about an industry that has been in decline for far too long. I pay tribute to the courage and sheer hard work of our fishermen, who brave the dangers of the coastal seas and the open oceans to bring fish to our tables.
No one present can remember the time when our fish stocks were at their most productive. Old postcards show harbours crammed with fishing boats, about which the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—for Lowestoft—and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) were trading stories. Sepia photos show giant fish dwarfing the men who caught them, and those who represent fishing communities today have heard the stories of quaysides buried in haddock and cod—but they are stories from their grandparents. The truth is that the UK fishing industry was at its most productive not a few decades ago, in the 1980s or before, but more than 120 years ago, in the 1880s. The peak year was 1889.
Today, even with satellite navigation systems and sophisticated mechanical gear, not to mention sonar and metal-hull vessels, our fishermen have to work 17 times harder to catch fewer and smaller fish than people did in the age of sail and steam in wooden-hull vessels. Decades of poor fisheries management have led to a collapse in the productivity of our fisheries and a continual loss of jobs and livelihoods. For every hour spent fishing today, fishers land only 6% of what they did 120 years ago.
In June this year, the Commission set out its proposals for fishing opportunities for 2016. This debate will be able to inform the Minister’s contribution to that consultation and, I trust, will shape the recommendations and suggestions that the UK has to make to the Commission by 1 October. The fishing opportunities for 2016 will operate under the objectives of the new CFP, which was so ably set out by former Commissioner Damanaki. In particular, it will aim to bring fishing mortality—what the Commission refers to as
“the impact of fishing fleets on the stocks”—
into line with the levels required to allow stocks to rebuild to biomass levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield, or MSY, and to do so in the shortest possible timeframe.
The Commission wants to achieve good environmental status in European seas by 2020 and to reduce the impact of fishing on the marine ecosystem, as set out in the marine strategy framework directive. The Commission proposals for fishing opportunities are based on the available scientific advice that it receives from ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, and other scientific and technical bodies. Where no such advice is available, the Commission has stated that it will apply the precautionary approach in line with the CFP objectives.
The Minister knows that I have had occasion in the past to challenge his Department’s failure properly to apply the precautionary principle on a number of fronts. I trust that he will be able to provide assurance to the House today that the UK will argue on the side of the Commission against increasing total allowable catch for those species for which the science is less than secure, and that he will not risk giving a green light to overfishing.
With that in mind, it is worth noting that 2016 is the year in which the landing obligation for demersal fisheries in the North sea and the Atlantic EU waters comes into force, bringing an important part of the EU fleet in the north-east Atlantic under the obligation to bring, retain on board and land all catches. The discard ban, as it is more popularly known, will ensure that quotas for stocks falling under the landing obligation take into account catches rather than landings. That has been controversial with fishing communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby outlined, but it will enable everyone to get a far better picture of precisely what is happening with the stock as it has to be landed and recorded. If we are to proceed on the basis of sound science, as all parties say they want us to, the landing obligation will improve our capacity to properly assess the biomass and health not only of the target species that people like to eat but of the whole marine ecosystem. That is fundamental.
Many hon. Members are aware of the issues that the landing obligation creates in the short term for fishing boats beset by the problems of choke species. Fishers can find themselves unable to pursue a stock for which they have remaining quota because of fears of catching a stock for which they have no quota or no quota left. Various suggestions have been made as to how to resolve that problem, including quota leasing and even transferring 10% of quotas from year to year. Will the Minister outline the Government’s preferred way of addressing those real, live issues for fishermen up and down our coastal waters?
After the reform of the CFP, a taskforce was set up to solve the inter-institutional deadlock on multi-annual plans. It finalised its work in April 2014 and concluded with a framework to facilitate the development and introduction of multi-annual plans under the CFP. The new generation of multi-annual plans should include targets for MSY, with deadlines, for the stocks that define the fisheries. The plans may, in addition, introduce ranges of exploitation rates considered to be in accordance with MSY.
On the basis of the taskforce conclusions, the Commission just last week tabled a proposal for a multi-annual plan covering Baltic sea fisheries that includes proposed target values and deadlines for achieving MSY. The proposal for 2016 sets the total allowable catch from the Baltic sea’s 10 main commercial fish stocks for EU fishermen. This year, for the first time, the TAC for plaice has been set in line with the MSY approach, bringing the total number of Baltic stocks covered by MSY to seven out of 10. For seven out of 10 stocks, the available data from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has allowed the Commission to propose catch limits at sustainable levels for more stocks than ever before. The EU aims to achieve MSY for all fish stocks by 2020 at the latest.
Under the proposals, the TAC for all stocks except salmon would decrease by about 15% compared with 2015 and would be set at approximately 565,692 tonnes. The catch limit for salmon, which is measured in pieces rather than tonnes, would increase by 6%, to 115,874. The Commission proposes to increase the catch limits for herring in the western and central Baltic, as well as for main basin salmon and plaice. Decreases for the remaining stocks either reflect the natural fluctuations within the MSY range or are linked to the improved perception of stocks’ status as a result of recent data revision. The European Council will discuss the Commission’s proposal at its October meeting. Will the Minister indicate whether the UK will be supporting this new and more scientifically rigorous approach to quota setting at that meeting?
Other proposals are under discussion with stakeholders for both a North sea and a western waters demersal mixed fisheries plan, and a multi-annual plan for the Atlantic pelagic fisheries is under consideration. In preparation of its proposals for these plans, the Commission has requested that ICES provide MSY ranges for the stocks concerned where quotas are fixed by the Council for use in the management of mixed fisheries under plans. I understand that ICES has provided such ranges for an important number of those stocks. Will the Minister advise us as to whether he has had the opportunity to examine that scientific evidence and advice? If so, will he be minded to accept it and argue that it should be respected when the Council meets in October?
The Council has achieved significant progress in setting TACs in line with MSY over the last few years, from five in 2009 to 36 for 2015. That has resulted in an increase in the number of stocks that are fished at levels corresponding to MSY to 26 stocks in 2015. The Commission has made it clear that it believes it is necessary to continue along that path for 2016 and 2017, and to create the conditions for achieving MSY as soon as possible, and by 2020 at the latest. It therefore intends to propose total allowable catches in line with achieving MSY in 2016.
The Minister will be only too well aware, however, that there are those who would like to ignore the science and look for short-term gain by arguing for an uplift in TAC. Will he confirm that he shares the Commission’s view that it would be unacceptable to delay the objective of setting TAC in line with MSY beyond 2016 unless doing so would imply very large annual reductions in quotas that would seriously jeopardise the social and economic sustainability of the fleets involved?
A few weeks ago, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) has already said, I had the pleasure of visiting Lancaster and Fleetwood and discussing the challenges facing the fishing community. It is a perfect example of the sort of local community I spoke of at the beginning of my remarks. The glory days of the past, when Fleetwood was a major fishing port, are no longer, but for those still carrying on the great fishing tradition of their grandparents the dangers of their trade seem not to have diminished at the same pace as the rewards have.
I was privileged to go out with one of the under-10 fleet there and discuss with skippers the problems they face. I thank them for the robust honesty with which they shared their fears and concerns about the challenges facing their industry, and pay tribute to the way in which many of them have embraced wider net gauges and other progressive ways of restoring biomass.
On behalf of those skippers, I want to ask the Minister one final question. It echoes the remarks of the hon. Member for Waveney—I will call him my honourable friend—whose admirable speech was absolutely spot on, on so many fronts. The Government won a significant court battle that established that the UK fishing quota was the UK’s to dispose of, and that we could effect a redistribution of quota that took little away from the offshore fleet of larger vessels but could be of significant benefit to the smaller under-10 fleet that is the mainstay of fishing ports such as Fleetwood. When will the Minister begin to exercise that right and redistribute quota to the under-10 fleet so as to redress the balance and make it easier for these brave individuals to carry on the livelihood of their grandparents?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. I know that the fishing industry is of huge importance in his constituency. I welcomed the opportunity that I had last year to make the long journey to visit his constituency and meet industry representatives.
I will try to cover as many of the points raised by hon. Members as I can. However, I will first give my reflections on my job from the two years that I have been Fisheries Minister. The marine environment is incredibly complex. No man-made policy designed to manage it and deliver sustainable fisheries will ever be perfect. The science will never be perfect, and we will never be able to pick up every interaction between different elements of the marine environment. If we want sustainable fisheries, there is no alternative but to have some kind of catch limit on vessels and some kind of quota system. Whether we were in or out of the common fisheries policy, we would have that quota system, just as Norway, the Faroe Islands and other states pursue catch limits, and we would still have arguments with other countries about allocation of fish stocks and seek reciprocal access arrangements.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about forums for discussion with countries such as Norway and Iceland. Those forums exist. The coastal states meeting takes place each autumn, where we argue about, for example, the allocation of mackerel quotas in his part of the world. There is already an EU-Norway agreement that precedes the discussions at the December Council.
We should all pay tribute to the great work of my predecessor in this post, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who I believe made some important breakthroughs on reform of the common fisheries policy. Unlike the negotiations on reform of the common agricultural policy, which were very difficult and where we made little progress, even I, a strong Eurosceptic, recognise that good progress was made on CFP reform.
Four key things were delivered. First, there was a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably—to fish at MSY by 2016 where possible, and everywhere by 2020. Secondly, there was the discipline of a discard ban to ban the shameful practice of discards. Thirdly, in order to help deliver the policy and make it a reality, there was the regionalisation of policy making, so that nation states multilaterally agreed between themselves how they should manage the waters in which they have a shared interest, with the role of the Commission reduced to simply rubber-stamping those agreements at the end. That is really important. Although it is sometimes difficult to get member states to reach those agreements, it forces them to work through their differences, and these are the countries that actually have an interest in an individual fishery.
The final important element in making the discard ban work, as a number of colleagues have alluded to, was the introduction of flexibilities in the quota system. Those flexibilities include the ability to bank and borrow quota from one year to the next, which has been extended, and an inter-species flexibility, so that if a fisherman runs out of quota for one species—say, haddock—he can count some of his cod quota against haddock within certain limits. There were exemptions involving survivability on certain flat fish, for instance, and a quota uplift to take account of the fact that fishermen are no longer discarding. The deal to the fishermen is, “Stop discarding the fish and we will increase your quota by the amount that we estimate has been discarded previously.”
We should also recognise that good progress has been made. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) said, the most recent assessment shows that we now have 32 stocks being fished at MSY. That is up from 26 in 2014 and from only around 13, if we go back around a decade. That progress is starting to feed through into benefits for the fishing industry. In relation to the North sea, last year’s December Council was much easier, and there were recommendations for increases. In fact, in certain species, such as cod and haddock, there is a similar situation this year, so where we have shown restraint, we are starting to see benefits accruing to the fishing industry. I always try to get this point across to fishermen: “If you show restraint now and allow stocks to recover and achieve that maximum sustainable yield, you are safeguarding your own financial future, because you will have more fish tomorrow.”
We have made good progress with the regional groups. A number of people have mentioned the importance of getting the industry involved, and I confirm that there is an industry regional group. The regional groups have been successful in developing the discard plans, both for the pelagic species, which is now in place, and for the demersal landing obligation, which was submitted in May. Following on from that discard plan, we now have the multi-annual plan for management, for instance, of the Baltic area, and we will shortly be beginning work to take forward ideas for our own plan. Therefore, good progress has been made, and as we made clear in our manifesto, our primary objective during this Parliament is to ensure that we get the hard-won CFP reform properly implemented.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland commented that some of the science is out of date, and it will not surprise him to learn that I hear that all the time from fishermen. The reality is that we always try to make sure that we have the most up-to-date science. At last year’s December Council, we brought scientific results that were collected during the month of November/December straight to the Council. ICES always tries to project trends, so when it publishes its advice for a particular Council, it is not as dated as people suggest, because it factors into that the ongoing trends. I sometimes hear fishermen say that it goes where the fish are; that it goes to the same part of the ocean each year when it does its surveys. That is true, but some kind of basic yardstick is needed, which is consistent from one year to the next, so there is a control. In addition to that, we put scientists on actual fishing vessels, so that they can see fishing activity and the stocks that fishermen are landing.
The right hon. Gentleman and a number of colleagues asked about the renegotiation and the Prime Minister’s plans to renegotiate our relationship with the EU. The Prime Minister probably would not thank me if, here in a Westminster Hall debate, I were to add something to his renegotiation list, but I will say that, in common with the CAP, we have regular reforms of the common fisheries policy. They happen every 10 years. The next one is due to commence around 2019 and to be implemented from 2022, so there is a natural timetable for the next reform of the CFP.
Although our focus now is on making the existing reform work, I can say that the next reform might look at a couple of areas—it is too early to say whether it will. The first is to move from the rather arbitrary single-stock quota system to something a bit broader that recognises that biomass would be a natural step forward from MSY—but that is difficult to achieve. The second is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and a number of colleagues mentioned, to look at the issue of relative stability. The reference period for the quota system that we have was set between 1973 and 1978. It is undoubtedly dated. However, we should not enter that venture lightly, because many other countries would believe that they have a claim for more fisheries, and we always have to be cautious that we are not unlocking something that would leave our industry at a disadvantage. They were set in that way at that time to end disputes about who should have access to what.
I will carry on, if I may. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) gave us a very detailed history lesson, and I will not challenge her historical knowledge of these things. However, we should recognise, as the shadow Minister said, that fish stocks were in a really bad place in the 1930s. We had suffered overfishing. Although we hear now about the discard ban and how the common fisheries policy created that, the truth is that as long ago as 1942, George Orwell was complaining about the discarding of fish. The fish stocks were basically saved by the second world war. We then had a period of plenty for the fishing industry during the ’50s and ’60s, but we then needed to move on to a quota system.
Along with a number of other colleagues, my hon. Friend mentioned the issue of access. She is right that when we joined the EU there was equal access in the 12 to 200- mile, or median, line in our waters, but access to the six to 12-mile line was for countries that had access agreements prior to accession. It is also important to recognise that we have access to other European countries’ waters. If someone were to talk the French industry, they would find that it complains, usually to the fishing Minister, about British access to, for instance, the bay of Biscay and the baie de Seine, which is important to part of our fleet. We also have access to waters in Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made a very important point about the under-10s, which I recognise. We have consulted on top-slicing 25% of the quota uplift for stocks and allocating that to the under-10s, on the basis that at the moment, they have to discard quite a lot of the fish that they catch because they do not have enough quota. He is right that during the reference period in the late 1990s, there was patchy reporting, which means that the under-10s do not really have a fair deal at the moment. We have already taken on Mr Bumble, as he would have it, and we have had legal challenges with the producer organisations to realign some of the quota. We will be doing more on that as well.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) raised the issue of choke species, among other things. The flexibilities that we have in the common fisheries policy can, I believe—if deployed correctly—deal with those problems. We start by not having every species covered from year one with the discard ban, and with the key species that define the fishery. For instance, in Scotland, fishermen often cite hake. Hake does not define the fishery in the North sea, and it is a species that would be returned to later in that window, closer to 2020. However, I was pleased to meet her, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) earlier, with representatives from fish processors in her constituency. I recognise its importance there.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) mentioned relations with the Scottish Government. We are fully engaged and work very closely with my opposite number, Richard Lochhead. He attends trilaterals with the Commission at December Council and we will be working closely together, leading up to that.
Finally, the shadow Minister asked lots of questions that I cannot answer in full now, but he also asked about the precautionary principle. Of all the countries in the European Union, the UK has the strongest history of relying on and arguing the science, so we do have a science-led approach to fisheries management.
That was an impressive canter by the Minister through the issues raised in this debate. I have only one point that I want him to take away. I accept and welcome the progress that he has outlined in reform of the common fisheries policy. He has my support and the support of my family—well, my family certainly, but also my party. [Laughter.] He has our support in moving towards the next stage of CFP reform. The truth is that that strengthens, rather than weakens, the case for reforming the constitutional architecture on which the policy base sits. That is the architectural framework that really has to reflect the policy that we now have. There is an opportunity here and I do not think that the Government should be resistant. They could become heroes at the end of the day.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.