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10.35 am

Mr. David Porter (Waveney): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on securing this debate. He and I attended the same fringe meeting at Blackpool last month, which was attended by 400 people. Apart from the meetings addressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), that meeting had the biggest attendance of any fringe meeting.

It does not take a genius to realise that the common fisheries policy has failed to conserve fish stocks. If fishermen catch anything outside their quota, they have to discard it and throw it overboard dead. How does that help conservation? A Shetland skipper recently described how a young lad, on his first trip, wept as 10 tonnes of prime fish were dumped dead back into the sea, simply because that vessel had no licence for the particular species.

22 Nov 1995 : Column 586

I have always likened the common fisheries policy to a raft that does not float properly. Each year, a new piece of bureaucratic nonsense is bolted on to try to keep it afloat. Eventually, the raft will sink and take most of British fishing with it. It would be better to get off now.

The official line is often that in a mixed fishery nothing can be done. That is not true. Successful selective gear is being developed in other countries, and their method of management has changed to stop immoral practices. The rape and pillage of the seas takes place even in the third world, where the European Union buys fishing rights at vast expense. In some areas, European Union vessels have been thrown out of fisheries because of the damage that they have caused. Local fisheries have then reverted to local country control and marine resources have recovered significantly.

Brian Tobin, the Canadian Fisheries Minister who visited the United Kingdom this summer, said:

The recent United Nations conference on fishing highlighted two points: the importance of fishing to coastal communities around the world and the need to work together to maintain the tremendous resources of the oceans. However, the common fisheries policy of the European Union, as implemented in this country, has become so rigid that it is scarcely possible to make a living legally, much less co-operate to conserve fish stocks.

The common fisheries policy encourages law breaking. Our industry has proposed many ideas for sensible management in the past few years. Not all of those ideas have yet been considered by the Government. Fishermen who want to conserve can reap no benefit under the CFP. If they stop killing the small fry and stop dumping mature fish into a stinking, rotten mass on the sea bed, the preserved stocks just go back into the great European pool.

The driving force in the market is the southern states, whose traditional cooking and eating habits require small juvenile fish. Therefore, as those fleets come through our back door with their armadas, they scoop up the juvenile stocks that British fishermen are trying to preserve. The common fisheries policy is therefore a disincentive to conservation. Potentially, if left to run, it will destroy a renewable food supply that is more valuable over the years than even our gas or oil reserves, and will have devastating consequences for the social fabric of our coastal communities. That is criminal.

A Conservative Member of the European Parliament who lost his seat at the last Euro-election told me many years ago that if we did not have the common fisheries policy, we would have to invent it. Surely, if we were starting again, we would not start with the premise that the seas are a common resource open to all, unless we were Euro-fanatics or my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), or both. We would start from the premise that British fishermen have a historical, economic and cultural right to fish British waters and then do bilateral deals, as appropriate, with our neighbours. We would not, as the Government did in Lowestoft this year, swap North sea plaice with the Dutch in exchange for soles that were then given to the south-west--a quota that those fishermen cannot probably take up in full. That meant that £1 million worth of plaice went out of Lowestoft this year. Following scientific evidence, the likely TACs for next year will mean a 47 per cent. cut in North sea plaice.

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As recently as yesterday, I had a very constructive meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister of State and some fishermen from Lowestoft. I understand my hon. Friend's dilemma: does he set the quota high enough to allow fishing to continue and risk there being no fish in two years' time, or does he ignore scientific advice and listen to what fishermen are saying?

The Commission has determined a target size for the European fleet and Britain has accepted the British share of that fleet reduction. Thousands of fishermen have lost their jobs, and more will follow; that is European Union policy.

Quotas, fuel and tax, salaries, bureaucratic procedures and unfair competition from our partners make our fishermen bankrupt, and they are then told that some of them can apply for money to retrain. What do they retrain for in parts of the country where unemployment is already high? They can move away, but where do they move? It is madness.

Fishermen following lines of generations born and bred into the job, simply want to fish. In any local family in Lowestoft, one can find that, dating from one, two or three generations previously, there is fishing in the blood. Those people are not being allowed to fish a manageable and renewable resource because of a wider, sinister European agenda. It is a national disgrace, and the sooner we get out of it, the better.

10.40 am

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on initiating this important debate. Obviously, many issues relating to the common fisheries policy need to be considered and acted on by all parties, especially the Government.

Obviously, people approach that issue from several different directions and there are many different agendas in the debate. Although there is a very significant issue relating to the CFP which must be considered, the CFP should not be used as a vehicle for those people who wish to attack the principle of the European Union without recognising the CFP's role.

I was one of the people who voted against membership of the European Union and campaigned accordingly, but I do not believe that any Member of the House seriously believes that we intend to withdraw from the European Union. It will not be on the agenda.

My opinion, and that of the Labour party, is that we must work in the European Union for the best interests of our country and our communities. That can be done by taking a positive and constructive approach, which means that on occasions there will be disagreements with other member states; it cannot be done by taking a negative and isolationist approach, which I am afraid has been all too common in sections of the Conservative Government.

The demand for a 200-mile exclusive fishing limit is attractive. In an ideal world, if we could achieve that, no one would disagree with the object. However, I do not believe, with the greatest respect to those people who have been leading such a campaign, that it is a credible or achievable object, for reasons that have been outlined in the debate. There would be great problems with that.

Even if we adopted that position, we would be negotiating with other North sea states with traditional historic fishing rights in the North sea, and those

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negotiations would be extremely difficult. Trade-offs would be inevitable. I do not deny that trade-offs took place in the negotiation for the original CFP, or that some of the principles behind that have been to the advantage of the fishing industry.

Nevertheless, the CFP has certain advantages. I also draw attention to the fact that the 1980s was a time of great prosperity for the United Kingdom fishing fleet and no complaints were made about the CFP at that time, when the fleet was expanding and grants were given to expand the fleet.

The argument has been well made in the debate that, even without a CFP, there would be problems in our fisheries management. The UK fleet has problems now, such as black fish, which has a devastating impact on fish stocks and prices.

It is not fair to consider the role of other member states negatively. In recent discussions about the western controls, the Spanish presidency helped us to reach a workable compromise that was acceptable to the fishing industry.

The principle of relative stability protects the interests of our country, and has protected the interests of our country in such things as preventing access to the North sea by the Spanish. It does not necessarily follow that an extension of the European Union would mean that other member states' fishing vessels would have access to our fishing stocks.

I acknowledge the frustration of many sections of the fishing industry. I have visited many fishing ports and spoken to fishermen. I understand how they feel; I understand the fear for their jobs and their future. I understand their worries, with an aging fishing fleet and little chance of a scrap-and-build policy while we are so far adrift from our multi-annual guidance programme targets. In that respect, it is not fair to blame the current problems of the fishing industry entirely on the CFP. The Conservative Government must take some responsibility.

For years, the Government refused to introduce an effective decommissioning scheme although European Union funds were available. Part of the problem that we have now, with the lack of modernisation, stems from that. I question whether, on occasions, our Government took a tough stand in representing the interests of our fishing industry, because of the number of other conflicting interests that were of concern to the Government.

I return to the involvement and responsibility of the country's fishing industry. The industry has been constructive and helpful in suggesting good ideas for fisheries management and fisheries conservation. Some of those ideas should be taken more seriously--such as a ban on twin prawn trawls and the introduction of square mesh panels. There are ways in which that might be done in the CFP, as I shall explain later.

We cannot ignore the fact that our fleet has undertaken illegal activities. There has been increased pressure as a result of increased catching ability, more powerful vessels and increased use of technology. We cannot ignore those issues. We cannot ignore the fact that gear conflict, which sometimes occurs between our vessels and French and Spanish vessels, goes on regularly along our south coast among our own vessels, between the mobile fleet and the static fleet. Co-operation is therefore needed within the industry, and we need a united fishing industry.

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The campaign for a 200-mile limit and withdrawal from the CFP has proved extremely divisive in the fishing industry. That is not helpful.

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