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6.21 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): In moving the motion, the Minister made a broad sweep of the canvas. In the time that will fairly be allocated to me, however, it will not be possible to deal with many of those issues and I shall therefore concentrate on one or two matters specific to the Northern Ireland fishing industry. It would be an understatement to say that our fishermen are greatly disturbed and alarmed by the total allowable catches and quotas proposed for 2000 for most of the main marketable Irish sea species. Such proposals are totally unacceptable to them and will place an enormous economic burden on them and their families, on the onshore industries that depend on them and on the economies of the fishing villages in my constituency--Kilkeel and Ardglassas--as well that of Portavogie, in the constituency of Strangford.

The cuts are of a most dramatic dimension. The European Commission has proposed 69.1 per cent. reduction in the TAC of Irish sea cod and, if that is not bad enough, 40 per cent. reductions for Irish sea whiting, haddock and herring. How can our industry survive such cuts made in one fell swoop? It is not possible. On top of that, there is a proposed reduction from 23,000 tonnes to 17,200 tonnes for nephrops, which is our main crop. That will immediately wipe out in that sector alone £3 million of gross takings for those small communities.

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It is argued that many of the reductions are based on scientific facts, but most of us could be forgiven for questioning some of the bases on which these scientists make their recommendations. I shall give the House a brief example. There were substantial stocks and catches of all those species for the first six months of 1999, but then the fish disappeared for no apparent reason. The scientists said that the temperature of the inner Irish sea had increased by 2 per cent. and the stocks would come back in the autumn when the temperature returned to its normal seasonal average, but it did not do so. The migratory habits of the fish had changed and their dispersal was such that the trawlers could not make economic sorties on the shoals. That, however, does not mean that the fish are not there; they have simply moved across the demarcation lines that have been so conveniently drawn on the map. I suspect that these drastic and unacceptable reductions in respect of all those main species are based on not the scientific fact of the absence of fish, but the evidence of a lack of catches, and that is an entirely different concept.

I must say to the Minister that there is no doubt whatever that the Northern Ireland fishing fleet, the industry and the onshore jobs that come from it will be decimated if the proposals are carried. I am sure that he is not content with the figures. I hope that they are not a fait accompli and that the Council at its meetings on December 16 and 17--wherever they are held, be it London, Brussels or anywhere else--will reject them for their lack of scientific basis and because the proposals will decimate the north Irish fishing industry.

In 1991 and 1992, the Commission recognised the uniqueness of the ecosystem that is particular to the Irish sea, which is virtually an enclosed seaway, and that the special circumstances and needs of the fishing industry had to be addressed. That has never been done, but I ask the Minister to look back to that debate to see where there is reason, justice and logic for allowing him to convince his counterparts in Europe that the cuts are not acceptable. He has rightly mentioned their socio-economic consequences and the motion itself says that

I ask for that regional difference to be fully recognised and for the drastic and unacceptable cuts in TACs to be eliminated. The TACs should revert to what they were, at least for 1999, to provide a sustainable industry.

In an intervention, the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) briefly touched on the Hague preference and its invocation by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Surely, under the new political dispensation--which I welcome and to which the Minister has referred--and, in particular, in the North-South Ministerial Council, special attention could be given to that particular problem to ameliorate the adverse effects of the Hague preference where it is called upon by the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, that should also be a matter for the proposed British-Irish Council, but such consideration cannot be given in this round of talks. Our Agriculture and Fisheries Minister will not have a place at the table with the Minister in the negotiations, I assume, so we depend totally on him and his Department delivering on this problem.

Mr. Gummer rose--

Mr. Curry rose--

Mr. Morley: I assure the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that the Irish Minister, along with the

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Scottish Minister, will be with me at every stage of the discussions and fully involved.

Mr. John D. Taylor rose--

Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I make it clear to the House that the hon. Member for South Down was allowing the Minister to intervene?

Mr. McGrady: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. John D. Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. McGrady: Yes.

Mr. Taylor: Was the hon. Gentleman referring to the presence of the new Northern Ireland Fisheries Minister or that of the Irish Minister? I think that the Minister's reply referred to the Irish Minister, but we want to know about the Northern Ireland Minister.

Mr. McGrady: I am not sure that I can clarify an answer that was not given by me. The Minister referred to Brid Rodgers, the Minister responsible for agriculture and fisheries in the new devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. I am delighted to have the assurance that she and her officials will be with the Under-Secretary at the table, and will share responsibility for delivering a much better deal for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

In view of the time constraints, I shall not pursue any other issue except a matter that has not been mentioned but is particularly important to the fishermen of Northern Ireland. The Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced a new scheme for small businesses whereby, in Northern Ireland, as a sort of peace dividend, there would be 100 per cent. capital allowance grant on capital expenditure. Up until the past two or three days, it was anticipated that such a facility would be extended to capital expenditure in the fishing industry. Before leaving home this morning, I was informed that the fishing industry is excluded from the 100 per cent. relief that was given to small businesses in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Minister will be as surprised as I am by that decision, and will think it unjust, inequitable and unfair. I hope that he will take the matter up with his ministerial colleague for the purpose of clarification.

I cannot emphasise enough the fact that the 70 and 40 per cent. cuts across the main species will decimate the Northern Irish fishing industry. The Minister must not allow those figures to be on the paper at the end of his negotiations.

6.32 pm

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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    relationship between fishermen and scientists, to avoid the last-minute annual total allowable catch and quota-setting process which does much to damage this relationship and the ability of the industry to plan ahead, to bring forward proposals to regularise and manage the trading of track records and fishing licences, to establish a decentralised system based on regional fisheries management whilst seeking to reduce the need for discards and engage fishermen in management decisions, to ensure equality of monitoring and enforcement across the European Union, to develop a pan-European policy to encourage low-impact fishing methods, and to reinstate a system of fishing safety grants.'.

There is little time left to discuss this substantial amendment to the Government's motion, the spirit of which the Liberal Democrats agree with, although we want to beef it up along these lines. I have some sympathy with the Minister because of the great difficulty that he is in, especially over the scientific advice. I am sure that he would not wish this on himself, and it puts him in a difficult position in the negotiations that he faces later this week in Brussels. However, as a member of an Opposition party, I shall exploit his discomfort whenever appropriate, but in a responsible way.

The Minister accepts, as I do, that some stocks are in a serious state of decline, and robust and responsible action must be taken. The industry wants a medium-term vision, as described by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), with a multi-annual quota. That would make it much easier for the industry to swallow what I think will be an extremely bitter pill this year.

As for Conservative opposition, I was waiting in anticipation to see whether there would be a significant change in Conservative party policy with the change of its spokesperson. It is unclear, and the jury is still out on the Conservative party's position.

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