We have made some progress in reforming the common fisheries policy so that there is a commitment to fish sustainably, a ban on the wasteful practice of discarding fish, and new flexibilities to improve the way quotas work. As my hon. Friend knows, the formal Government position is that the UK should remain a member of the European Union. However, should there be a decision to leave in the forthcoming referendum, there are well-established international conventions that govern territorial scope and the way nation states manage fisheries.
The EU’s common fisheries policy has been a disaster for both the British fishing industry and our marine environment. Overfishing by heavily subsidised Spanish trawlers has seen North sea cod stocks fall by 80% and the number of fishermen halved, and Britain is constantly outvoted on matters affecting our traditional British fishing grounds by EU member states that have no coastlines themselves. Will the Minister draw up plans to repatriate our fishing grounds as soon as possible?
As I said, the formal Government position is that we should remain a member of the EU, but my hon. Friend knows that Ministers have been given the discretion to take an alternative view if they want. We have made progress in reforming the common fisheries policy. This year at the December Council we saw increases in cod and haddock quotas in the North sea. As a result of the work that we have done with other countries, including Norway, Iceland, the Faroes and other EU countries, we have seen a recovery of stocks, in the North sea in particular.
With many countries—EU member states and also countries such as the Faroes, Iceland and Norway—we have mutual access agreements, and we have annual discussions about the allocation of fishing opportunities. This is the norm. Whether countries are in the EU or not, there is always a large degree of international debate on these issues.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that whatever happens on 23 June, there will still need to be quotas, fishermen will still want to export to EU countries two thirds of the fish and 86% of the shellfish that we land in the United Kingdom, and fishermen will still want to retain rights to fish in EU waters?
My hon. Friend is right. Countries outside the European Union do have quota systems. We have considered alternatives, but a quota system of some sort, with the flexibilities that we are trying to introduce, is the best way to conserve fish stocks, we believe. Just as Norway, the Faroes and Iceland have quotas, we would retain those too. When it comes to the market, whichever side of the EU debate people are on—whether they believe we should stay in or leave—we all agree that free trade is to the benefit of everyone.
I commend the Minister, who is obviously walking a very careful line today. He knows, however, that we had foreign trawlers operating in British waters before we were in the UK—[Interruption.]—sorry, before we joined the European Union, and that would remain the case if we were to leave. How many bilateral arrangements would be necessary if we were to leave the European Union? Can the Minister tell the fishermen in my constituency how the crucially important EU-Norway negotiations, which have a tremendous direct impact on us every year, would be conducted?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a misconception that the December Fisheries Council of the EU decides fishing opportunities in the North sea. As he and others know, fishing opportunities in the North sea are decided at the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission through the coastal states meetings and then EU-Norway. The UK currently does not have a seat at those meetings; we are represented by the EU. Obviously, if we were to leave, the UK would regain its seat on NEAFC.
There is little doubt that membership of the EU has been damaging to the deep-sea fishing industry, but looking to the future, does my hon. Friend agree that our relationships with non-EU countries such as Iceland are particularly important to the industry?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. For Grimsby and his constituents, the close relations and the partnership we enjoy with Iceland in particular is extremely important. There is a tradition in this country that we import much of the fish that we consume, notably from Iceland and to a limited extent from Norway, and that we export much of the fish that we catch to the EU, but also to other third countries, such as China and Nigeria.