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Annual Fisheries Negotiations with EU and North Atlantic States

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the outcome of the annual fisheries negotiations with the European Union and other North Atlantic states. Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

I am responding on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

As an independent coastal state, we have taken back control of our waters and have the freedom to negotiate on our own terms and push for deals that will deliver for the UK fishing industry, for the marine environment, and for all parts of the United Kingdom. I am delighted to say that this autumn the UK has secured vital deals for 2023 with our coastal state neighbours, including the European Union and Norway. Taken together, these deals have secured more than £750 million-worth of fishing opportunities for the UK fleet in 2023, £34 million more than last year.

The UK has put sustainability at the heart of these negotiations, and an initial estimate suggests that nine more catch levels align with the scientific advice than did so last year. This is an important step forward and will allow our most important stocks to be fished sustainably. That is essential for a thriving fishing industry for the future. The UK will continue to champion sustainability throughout all negotiation forums and push for other coastal states to do so too.

Through the trade and co-operation agreement we will also have the specialised committee on fisheries with our EU counterparts. We use this forum to consider a range of issues, including how to increase the sustainability of certain stocks, which we hope will improve the outcomes of the negotiation in the longer term.

The UK’s fishing opportunities are negotiated in three main forums. First, the UK-EU bilateral. Today the UK reached an agreement with the EU on total allowable catches in 2023 for 69 stocks, as well as arrangements for non-quota stocks. This deal provides fishing opportunities for more than 140,000 tonnes for the UK fleet and is worth around £282 million based on historical landing prices. As part of this deal, we have agreed access arrangements on albacore tuna and spurdog in the North sea for the first time through the UK-EU written record. For non-quota stocks, we have agreed a roll-over of access arrangements for 2023 to ensure continued access to fish non-quota stocks in EU waters, worth around £25 million a year to the UK fleet. The House will also want to note that, as a result of the quota share uplifts agreed in the trade and co-operation agreement, the UK has around 30,000 tonnes more quota from these negotiations than it would have received with its previous shares as a member of the EU.

The second main forum where we negotiate our fishing quotas is the trilateral arrangement that focuses on stocks that we share with the EU and Norway in the North sea. In that negotiation, there were significant increases for North sea whitefish quotas, all set at levels either in line with or below those recommended by scientists. This deal is worth over £202 million to the UK fishing industry in the North sea and a further £11 million in waters around the UK based on historical landing prices. The UK also reached a deal with Norway that ensures stability for the UK whitefish fishing industry through continued access to each other’s waters for 2023. Our arrangements with Norway also mean that our crucially important long-distance fleet has access to fishing opportunities worth over £12 million in the Arctic region at a time when the main quota in that area fell by 20%.

Many Members will know that the UK has a significant interest in pelagic stocks, and these form the third main negotiation each year. This autumn we have agreed quotas with the other coastal states in the north-east Atlantic for mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring. These quotas were all set at the level advised by scientists and will be worth over £250 million to the UK fleet in 2023.

These deals are crucial to the long-term health of our vital fishing industry, but it is not just about securing financial value for the year ahead, important though that is. These negotiations are a crucial route for the UK to protect our fish stocks, to safeguard the marine environment and, in turn, to ensure that the fishing industry can profit and thrive for future generations. As we head into 2023, I am excited to carry on working with the industry to maximise fishing opportunities and put sustainability at the forefront, and, in short, to continue to support a fantastic sector to profit, modernise and succeed.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I should point out that I chair a community interest company, REAF—Renaissance of the East Anglian Fisheries—which has the objective of regenerating the East Anglian fishing industry. Much of our fleet is inshore in nature, pursuing non-quota species, and thus the outcome of these negotiations is only of some relevance with regard to stocks such as sole. That said, the matter is of vital importance to the whole industry, as it provides the foundation stone on which it can be rebuilt all around the four nations of the UK.

It used to be an annual tradition that the Minister would come to this Chamber to make a statement at the conclusion of the negotiations, and thus it is to be regretted that it has been necessary to submit this urgent question, particularly taking into account the enormous interest in fishing generated by Brexit and the role that the industry can play in levelling up coastal communities such as Lowestoft, which I represent.

My right hon. Friend highlighted the fact that the total UK fishing opportunity secured across the three main negotiating forums totals £750 million, an increase of £34 million on the previous year. This 4.7% increase is considerably below the level of inflation, which is currently hitting fishing businesses particularly hard.

I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend could add to his statement by answering the following questions. Will he advise the House as to the preparatory work that is carried out to ensure that the UK achieves better outcomes from negotiations now that we participate as an independent coastal state and are not part of the EU? What monitoring work is carried out after each annual negotiation?

The negotiations were due to complete by 10 December; I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend could advise the House as to the reason why they did not. Have the issues that caused the delay been concluded satisfactorily from the UK’s perspective?

To revive the fishing industry post Brexit, it is necessary to enhance trust and for the Government to work in partnership with the devolved nations, industry and conservation organisations. This is best achieved by increased transparency, so will my right hon. Friend publish the positions that the UK took in respect of the total allowable catch levels for each stock? Progress towards sustainable fishing requires accountability, and the Government would contribute to that by making that information available.

Finally, as mentioned, East Anglian fishermen will accrue limited immediate benefit from the outcome of the negotiations, but from that outcome should flow the improved management of fisheries and increased access to fishing opportunities for local fishermen. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend provide a progress report on the Government’s plans in that regard?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for tabling the urgent question but for the work he does to represent his constituency. It is a little disingenuous of him to say that he dragged me to the Chamber for the urgent question; the ink went on the agreement when it was signed this morning, just after 10.30 am—around quarter to 11—which was after the statement deadline, meaning that it was not possible for me to bring a statement to the House.

Nevertheless, I am delighted to be here to celebrate what is a great deal. As my hon. Friend has identified, we are 30,000 tonnes better off now that we are outside the EU than we would have been had we remained a member state.

My hon. Friend made reference to the 10 December deadline, which I think was a false deadline. We were of course always ambitious to try to conclude the negotiations, but as the Minister I was always clear that it is more important to get the right deal than to get a quick deal and that setting false deadlines does not always bring us to the right deal.

My hon. Friend mentioned our negotiating position and asked whether we would lay it out in public. I am afraid to say to him directly that no is the answer. I am not prepared to share our negotiating position. I do not think that is how we get a good deal for the UK, which is what we have secured. If we set out in public where our red lines are before we enter the room, we tend to move quickly towards those red lines and fall back from that position.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the urgent question. I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration that it took an urgent question to hear about the negotiations. I hear what the Minister said about the timeframes, but there was a convention under which each year the House had a proper discussion about the outcome of the negotiations. I hope the Minister will promise today to return to that convention so that we can have proper and full discussions.

I pay tribute to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and other charities, as well as the fishers, who last week intervened so effectively to save human life in the channel. I remind the Minister of the continuing anguish that is being caused to many in the inland fleet at the hands of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; the Minister really needs to work with colleagues to get a grip on that.

On the recent negotiations, it is clear that many industry players have welcomed the outcomes of the various sets of talks, and that is positive, but may I ask the Minister about the status of the Faroe talks? What efforts were made to ensure that the deals made with the EU and other coastal states included a commitment to keep Russia’s fleet out of their waters? Although we welcome the promise to stop the fishing of sand eels in our waters, will the Minister tell us when that will take effect and whether we have secured commitments from others during the negotiations?

In general, we will, of course, want to see the detail of the outcome and understand the potential environmental impact, but not everyone in the industry is quite as happy as the Minister says. Therein lies a fundamental problem that we have identified in the new architecture, including in the latest version of the joint fisheries statement, something also recently published and not discussed in this House. Although the Minister speaks for the UK Government, the devolved Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also play an important role in fisheries management, so we ask again: who speaks for England?

Labour has consistently pointed out that no one fights the corner for English fishing in these negotiations. The statement has been welcomed by the Scottish Government and fishing sector, but can the Minister explain how much of the increase in catch will be available to the hard-hit English fishing sector? What will be the overall impact on jobs and economic opportunities in our English North sea fishing ports and surrounding communities?

The Minister mentioned the distant fleet. Jane Sandell, the chief executive officer of UK Fisheries Ltd, which is based in Humberside and operates in distant Arctic waters, did not react with any positivity about this outcome. She called it

“yet another body blow for fishers in the North East of England. While the government is gloating over its ‘success’ in the Norway talks, we are having to make skilled people redundant in the Humber region. It’s an absolute travesty of fairness and common sense.”

She also said:

“The few extra tonnes of whitefish in the Norwegian zone won't come close to offsetting the loss in Svalbard due to the reduced TAC. Defra knows this, and yet it simply doesn’t seem to care about the English fleet.”

That was borne out at the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a couple of weeks ago, when the Secretary of State appeared to be unaware of the problems facing the English distant fleet. So perhaps the Minister can explain today why the English distant fleet has fared so badly, and what he plans to do about it.

We have of course tabled a written statement; we did that as soon as we were able, give that we signed the deal this morning. Once again, it is a little disingenuous to say that we were not prepared to make a statement, as the deal was not signed until after the statement deadline.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Faroe Islands has just concluded its general election and is in the process of forming a Government, so it is difficult to negotiate with its Fisheries Minister when that Minister has not been appointed. As soon as that Minister is appointed, we will be back around the table talking to them to try to sort out the challenges we face, particularly on the Russian fleet, which the Faroes has allowed access to its waters.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the details on sand eels. He talked about the devolved Administrations, the north-east fleet and who represents England. We tried very hard on this. We work with our devolved Administration colleagues constantly and we worked very hard to get a fair deal for all parts of the UK. We get the best deal for the UK and we try to divvy that deal up as best as we can among the devolved Administrations and around the coastline. I think we have struck the right balance. It is entirely possible to increase quota for any part of the UK that we want to, but we have to take that off somebody else. If he wants to write to me to tell me from whom he wants to remove quota, we will give due consideration to that representation and consider his thoughts.

I am surprised to hear the Minister say that he could not make a statement on this before today, because there was a statement on the Government website on 9 December.

I welcome the fact that we have got an agreement for the North sea that relies heavily on scientific advice. However, although an increase in catch quotas is welcome, certainly for the Scottish fishing industry, we also need seamless access to export markets. So will the Minister listen to calls from the industry for an improved deal for market access to the EU for Scotland’s fishing industry? The all-party group on fisheries recently reported that the fishing industry now takes a “principally negative” view of Brexit. In Scotland, that industry was almost the only voice for Brexit before the referendum. Does the Minister agree with the Scottish White Fish Producers Association Ltd that

“Brexit failed to deliver any benefits of being a coastal state”?

Given that Brexit red tape and paperwork alone cost the UK fishing industry £60 million in just the first 12 months, not including the cost of lost trade, when will the Government recognise the damage that Brexit has done to our fishing communities? When will they compensate them adequately for that loss?

Finally, I note that one big increase in quota is for blue whiting, which has increased by 80%, against the strong wishes of the UK and Scottish Governments, who wanted a more cautious approach on that species. How much of the increased value of this deal for the UK fishing industry relies on that increased quota for blue whiting, which the UK Government fought against?

Clearly, this deal is better than what we would have negotiated had we been within the EU. I hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about market access, and we continue to work with our colleagues in Europe to secure better access to those markets. That is all part of a long-term strategy to negotiate with our friends on the other side of the channel. Clearly, the 30,000 tonnes we were able to negotiate is a significant amount of fish, and better than we would have done as an EU member state.

I also say gently to the hon. Gentleman that this time we have seen increases in cod; in whiting and in saithe in the North sea; in megrims and in anglerfish in the Irish sea; in nephrops in the Irish sea and the Celtic sea; in nephrops in the west of Scotland; and in hake and in spurdog in the western area. I could keep going down the list, but we secured a good deal for the UK. Scotland gets its fair share of that deal, and I would have hoped that he would be more positive, on behalf of his Scottish fishermen, than he has been.

What assessment has the Minister made of how much of this increased quota will be landed in English ports, in order to bring jobs and economic opportunities to coastal communities such as Fleetwood?

That is a good question. We need to do all we can to support the processing industry in the UK, because it is vital that we can process UK fish caught in UK waters in UK ports, to create UK jobs. We continue to work with our friends in the Home Office to make sure that the industry has access to good staff and to plentiful employment. We will do all we can to support ports such as Fleetwood, and others up and down the country.

May I place on record my thanks to the crew of the Arcturus, a Plymouth-based fishing vessel that was first on the scene to rescue the capsized people in the channel last week? Their brave actions saved lives.

The majority of the employment in fishing lies in small boats, but they have only a fraction of the overall quota. Super-trawlers, especially foreign-owned ones, are hoovering up huge amounts of our fish from our marine protected areas. Is it not now time to ban foreign-owned super-trawlers from fishing in marine protected areas and to make sure that where they do fish in UK waters they land all their catch in UK ports?

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who were first on the scene; it emphasises what a dangerous occupation fishing can be at times.

Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman sort of contradicted his Front Bencher to a certain extent, in that the huge north-east shipping fleet that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) was talking about could be a victim to the sort of policy that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting on hoovering up large amounts of white fish in the Arctic. However, I recognise the importance of small boats, particularly on the south coast. We continue to support that sector of the fishing industry, and I look forward to visiting it soon to hear from it directly.

Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone in the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the urgent question. We know that following the trilateral deal, what was critical in the UK-EU deal was mitigating the 30% decrease in monkfish stocks. Part of that has come about because of precautionary advice on monkfish stocks, but we know that the data on monkfish is not as robust as it could be. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we have the right data so that we can take the right actions?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Of course, I have had discussions with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation to make sure that we have the best data available on monkfish. There were a few issues in obtaining the right sort of data during the covid period. We are satisfied that the data we have is accurate, but she is right to identify that during negotiations with the Norwegians we were able to secure more anglerfish and monkfish quota to try to help out and mitigate the impact of the drop in the total allowable catch overall.

A merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and to all the House.

Many of my constituents in Newcastle enjoy fresh fish landed locally from the North sea—they know that it is fresh because it is landed locally. There have been a number of questions on this, but I am still not sure whether I have an answer. Can the Minister say that, as a consequence of this deal, more fish will be landed in English ports? Moreover, can he confirm that, in the North sea ports, we will have more local fish landed locally as a consequence?

Many of those are individual decisions for skippers of boats. They choose where to land their fish, and I do not want to start dictating to skippers where they can and cannot land. In securing more quota, a greater share and more tonnage, it is very much hoped that those boats will land within our ports. We will do all we can to support the processing industry and those markets to ensure that that happens.

Panic was setting in there, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Minister for his answers to the questions. He understands the issues for fisheries and, in particular, for fisheries in my constituency of Strangford and also in Portavogie. I spoke to the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers Organisation this morning. Will the Minister provide an assurance that the necessary parliamentary time will be provided to ensure the urgent passage of the statutory instrument to remove spurdog from the list of prohibited species? That will allow British fishermen to take advantage of the fact that there could be a fishery for this species in 2023, which is good news. My understanding is that the EU could fish for spurdog right now, but it has deferred the decision for two months. Time is therefore urgent. I know that the Minister will not want the British fishing sector to be disadvantaged in any way, so the two months must be used for the necessary SI to be introduced in this House.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman is very well-informed. There is a requirement for a statutory instrument to allow the spurdog quota to be accessed. This is a new quota. He is right in saying that we will have to process that SI as rapidly as possible. However, I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and make commitments on behalf of the Leader of the House or business managers, but he can rest assured that the Department is working very hard to make sure that that SI is in a place to be deployed, and we will be pressing business managers to get it through the House as rapidly as possible.