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Mr. Morley: May I deal with that point? I do not intend to wind up, in order to give maximum time to Back

13 Dec 1999 : Column 61

Benchers. On the point about QMV, that is true, but no country has expressed an interest in not renewing coastal limits. That is why I am confident. It is in the interest of our industry and that of other states. With regard to the Opposition motion, there has been a significant shift of emphasis in the Opposition's attitude to the CFP. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is not their policy to withdraw unilaterally from the CFP?

Mr. Moss: We have never said that we would withdraw unilaterally from the CFP. We said that, in negotiations, we would insist on repatriation of national control. The hon. Gentleman agreed with that when he was an Opposition spokesman.

Portugal is another coastal state which, like Spain, would lose out because it has no proper coastal shelf. It is difficult to see how the blocking votes of those countries could be overcome without a change in the voting system. Such changes imply a direct assault on the acquis communautaire.

It is comforting to hear the Minister's reassurance that all will be well on the night. He has just reiterated that at present there is no sign of any state not wishing to extend the derogation, but, judging from the shenanigans over the beef issue, until countries cast their vote, it is difficult to anticipate their attitude.

Why cannot the Minister acknowledge the pitfalls that can be seen by every commentator to whom one turns for advice on the issue? Does the Minister have a deadline by which he would require agreement? If so, will he tell us what it is? Are the UK's six and 12-mile limits non-negotiable, or will he yield them up in the interests of some compromise agreement?

The CFP claims to be science-led, but regularly fails to match that claim because the data that it uses are far from solid or reliable. No one envies the administrators who have to come up with the TACs each year at about this time. To balance the many variables--including stock counts, increasing catching efficiency, estimates of illegal landings and discards, how recruitment operates, and the inter-connectivity of the food chain--must require the patience of Job and the genius of Einstein.

Given the lack of real communication between fishermen, administrators and scientists, it is no wonder that the annual announcement is considered by many to be a rather futile exercise. It also has the ability to generate anger and frustration, not just because of the disputes over fish stocks, but because fishermen are tied up in UK ports and see other EU boats fishing on the horizon and taking the so-called "limited" stocks from under their very noses.

Some years ago, illegally landed fish, or black fish, were reliably estimated to amount to up to 40 per cent. of reputed catches. The other wild card that derails a science-led CFP is discarding, which occurs most where quotas are tight, as in the North sea, and least where under-sized fish can find a ready market or where there is a lax policing system at the ports, as in some southern countries. At the Select Committee, the Minister boasted that he had solved the black fish problem, but the industry acknowledges that it is still significant.

Discarding is scandalous. No doubt many hon. Members will refer to it this evening. It has already come up in questions to the Minister. Some scientific estimates put discards at more than 30 per cent. of the fish stock.

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It is not good enough for the Government to argue that discards are an inevitable consequence of a quota system, particularly as the justification for the TACs and quotas is largely the conservation of stocks and a sustainable resource.

Why is not the Minister pressing for changes that would at least start to tackle the problem? As we know, Norway bans discards. Admittedly, it monitors catches at sea, has fewer ports and has fewer species in its fisheries, but why could not the CAP introduce rules for spot monitoring? Seasonal closures could reduce discards, but the most practical way is through technical measures such as improved fishing gear and mesh sizes.

I know that the Minister has been active in that regard, and he announced earlier that the UK would regulate a larger mesh size in the near future, but that unilateral decision may again limit the ability of UK fishermen to compete.

The problem of introducing technical measures is one of harmonisation between member states, which is almost impossible, given the wide variation in fisheries and environments. That does not mean that the Government should not have a policy on technical changes, and a programme and timetable for their introduction.

It is difficult to find anyone who believes that the common fisheries policy is working. The general downward trend of the total allowable catches is testimony to that. The CFP is full of contradictions. It seeks to conserve under-age fish that have not yet reached breeding age, but brings in changes to lower minimum landing sizes. We believe--as the Minister and his party believed only a few years ago--that there must be fundamental reform of the CFP.

Conservative policy is therefore to insist on such reform to devolve power to national, regional and local levels. We will press for national or local controls to be established over our own waters, through zonal management or coastal management or in some other way. We are more than happy to discuss a way forward with the industry. These are not exclusive rights of access, and we would hope to develop sensible bilateral agreements and give recognition to the historic rights of other countries.

The Minister has a tough task ahead of him in the Council. We urge him to be robust and to fight for the interests of UK fishermen.

5.59 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important annual debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his constructive approach, which contrasts with the spirit in which these debates used to be held. We do not hear any of the aggression and bad feeling that existed previously. That is reflected in my experience of the way in which the industry is co-operating. Now even the fish catchers speak to the merchants in my part of the world. There is a much more constructive and co-operative approach.

I do not know whom the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) consulted in the industry when he prepared his amendment to the Government motion. When representatives of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, whom I met earlier today, saw the word "national" in the amendment, they were extremely

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concerned. The federation is working across national boundaries with other European countries, their producer organisations and Governments. It does not like the thought that we shall return to the petty nationalism that identified the approach taken by the Conservative Government. That certainly worries it as it wants to see a constructive approach.

The importance of the debate is coloured by the debates that are still to take place with the other EU members. At the top of the agenda for the fishermen and fish processors in my constituency is the proposed new total allowable catches, and particularly the reduction in some of the quotas. Some of these are causing considerable concern, such as a 26 per cent. reduction in the haddock quota--although that is much better than we had feared.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to saithe and monkfish quotas. I am aware from my discussions with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation that there is especial concern about the monkfish quota for the west coast fisheries and the way in which that quota reduction has been reached. I am advised that there is virtually no scientific evidence relating to monkfish and that it is particularly difficult to calculate the age of the fish. The experience of west coast fishermen is that there are large numbers of monkfish and ample fish to meet the existing quota.

A research project is under way that was jointly sponsored by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the marine laboratory in Aberdeen. It is only six months into its work, with another 18 months to go. As I represent a constituency on the east coast, I am concerned that there will be a displacement of fishing activity from the west coast round to the east, where there is also a reduction in quota but where the baseline is that much higher. The removal of virtually 1,000 tonnes from a 3,000 tonnes quota will have a major impact, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to examine that problem in his discussions in Europe.

A major problem in the management of the industry has improved over the past few years. There have, for example, been references to multi-annual quotas. The way in which the fishing industry--processors and catchers--has accepted rather than simply moved towards the concept of a sustainable fishing industry is interesting. It is important that that is recognised. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises the constructive approach that the industry is taking.

There is concern about huge reductions or fluctuations in quota. Sometimes we see an increase in certain quotas, although not so many this year, but it is possible that there will be quite a large increase in the haddock quota next year because there is such a strong year class this year. I have received several representations recently about a multi-annual approach. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister about the need for stability in stocks, but I would argue against that being seen as an excuse for not preparing multi-annual quotas.

There needs to be some predictability in the industry. We are discussing in December quotas that will take effect in about three weeks' time. It is difficult for fish catchers, processors and the entire industry to plan ahead if the market is thrown into turmoil. It is important that we move towards a system that leads to much more predictability within the industry.

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We know that huge sums are invested in the industry, both onshore and offshore. In my constituency, there is a sea change in the way in which the processing sector has developed. Traditionally, it has consisted of small, one-man businesses. They are usually one-man businesses because there are not many women at that end of the industry. However, we are going through a period of consolidation. Sectors and companies are being forced to merge because they cannot meet the competition. As for the retail side of the industry, almost two thirds of produce goes through supermarkets. The traditional method of retailing has changed. We need much more certainty and predictability in the industry. It is important that that is examined.

There are questions about the way in which decisions are taken. I think we all accept that scientific evidence is crucial. However, I think it will be accepted on both sides of the House that that evidence is not necessarily complete; certainly it is not perfect. I am concerned that scientific evidence leads to a proposal for significant reductions in quota when that goes against the experience of fishermen who report in certain areas. Saithe is a good example on the west coast. The fishermen there claim that there are abundant supplies of saithe, but the scientific evidence suggests that there should be significant reductions in TACs. It is an issue which has been discussed by the all-party fisheries group.

We are concerned that what starts as scientific advice is almost treated as the rule of law by the time that it gets to Brussels. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will do all that he can to argue our case nationally. It worries me that officials in Brussels--I hope that this does not apply to United Kingdom officials--tend to hide behind scientific advice, with the result that practical evidence, such as that of fishermen, is not taken into account.

Both sides of the industry--catchers and processors--recognise the need to have an environmentally sustainable policy. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation recently proposed to my hon. Friend new technical measures that would result in the introduction of square mesh panels and thinner twine, which makes up the nets. If implemented, these proposals would allow more smaller fish to escape. These are constructive proposals from the industry, which I hope will be introduced, I hope also that they will help to reduce discards, which is a concern for us all.

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