Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nicholls: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George: No. I would enjoy an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but, in view of the time constraints, I have to move on.

The Conservative amendment is curious, because, in the Scottish Parliament last week, the Conservatives tabled an amendment advocating the reform of the common fisheries policy that devolves powers to regional and zonal levels. There was no mention of national levels. That is a curious and perplexing amendment, and I cannot help but note that the Conservatives have criticised others for saying one thing in one place and another thing somewhere else, because that is what they are doing now with their amendments in the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments.

Mr. Moss: I have a news release from the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) who visited the Looe fishermen. It says that if the Liberal Democrats do not get their way, they

In a letter, Mr. Robin Teverson MEP says that the Liberal Democrats would advocate

    "actual changes to the Treaty of Corfu"

and other treaties.

Mr. George: The hon. Gentleman is right, in that, in all Opposition parties, there are some who stray--he made that point earlier--and make irresponsible calls for pulling out of the CFP and repatriation. I speak on behalf of the

13 Dec 1999 : Column 71

Liberal Democrat party in Parliament. I could appeal to irresponsible and populist opposition and call for a unilateral withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, but I am making it absolutely clear that that is not our view. The Liberal Democrats provide responsible opposition. We want radical reform of the common fisheries policy, but not withdrawal from it, as that is unrealistic and not on the agenda.

The background papers to today's debate refer to progress towards meeting targets under the multi-annual guidance programme--that matter has not been dealt with in the debate--and the TACs and quotas for next year. As other hon. Members have said, here we go again. What other industry would tolerate being managed in such a way that it has to limp on year after year, never being sure where it is going? That is a product of either poor circumstances or poor policy management.

Politicians who engage in the fishing industry and anyone who has responsibility for fishing policy will know that fishing is a no-go, no-win area: it is a poisoned chalice, as I have told the Minister before. Last week, the Minister was harangued and verbally roughed up in the south-west. Given the views expressed by fishermen in that area, he may have thought that not being given worse treatment was tantamount to a ringing endorsement. The fishing issue is not for politicians of a nervous disposition. This issue either results in Ministers being harangued and verbally roughed up, or is an opportunity for certain people to get on their high horse about European constitutional issues and to use fishermen as front-line troops in their own xenophobic war. The fishing industry requires responsible and serious leadership, not such an irresponsible approach.

If we wanted to contrive a set of circumstances in which to produce really bad policy, we could not do much better than start here. The relationship between politicians and fishermen has not been good for some time. That relationship needs to be worked on, as does that between fishermen and scientists, which, despite some improvements, is still not what it should be.

The fishing industry faces this 11th hour brinkmanship: this annual short-term, short-sighted approach to the management of fishing policy in which the crucial issue of the quota for the following year is decided only a few weeks before the end of the year. We need a coherent, joined-up strategy to take the industry forward. We need a coherent policy on quota management and trade, technical measures, equality of monitoring and enforcement across Europe and policies to improve the relationship between scientists and fishermen.

Many hon. Members have already made the point that the quota settlement proposed for next year would take quotas for all stocks to their lowest levels for a considerable time. The industry is also facing increased fuel costs, compliance costs and satellite monitoring costs, and the introduction of a global maritime distress system and tonnage proposals. The quota cuts could take £88.5 million from an industry with a total revenue of £660 million.

The scientific base is in the form of advice, not instruction. Some assessments of stock, such as west of Scotland monkfish, do not have an adequate scientific base. The industry has argued to that effect, and I think that it has sound evidence.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 72

Fishermen feel that no proper account is taken of effort limitations, or of decommissioning controls, when quotas are set in the beam trawler sector. As others have pointed out, advice is sometimes out of kilter with experience--for example, in the case of the wholesale dumping of saithe in Scotland. This is no way in which to planfor such an important industry. The industry needs meaningful mid-term blueprints, and it needs discussions early in the year between fishermen and scientists.

I heard the wise words of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), and I am aware of his experience. I have to say that, for fishermen in Cornish and south-west waters, the original quota settlement on which relative stability is now based was not satisfactory. It was clearly not good enough in places like area VII, where the French have 75 per cent. of the cod quota, while local fishermen have only 15 per cent.

Mr. Nicholls: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. George: I cannot possibly do so, given the amount of time that remains.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the Hague preference. The Minister said that he would consider invoking it in Scotland, and I hope that he will extend that to include hake stocks in western waters.

I think that the Minister accepted our arguments about low-impact fishing, which is mentioned in our amendment, but I do not think that his answer to me about bass was adequate. Fishermen in Cornish waters, and in the south-west, are concerned about the way in which the "15 tonnes per month" decision was made. It was not part of the original consultation. The Minister will appreciate that the fishermen are not happy, and I ask him to keep the matter under close review.

Safety is an important and tragic issue. Today, we learned of another tragedy in Grimsby, involving a Brixham trawler, and in October, we lost another of my constituents off the coast of the Isles of Scilly. Following the announcement of an end to fishing safety grants in May, I am encouraged by the fact that the Minister--having gone round the mulberry bush of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Deputy Prime Minister--is now reconsidering their reintroduction.

Concern has been expressed about the safety of beam trawlers following the investigation of the loss of the Margaretha Maria, a trawler from my constituency, in November 1997, with the loss of four lives. The findings of the marine accidents investigation branch make it clear that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's own stability tests may not be adequate. I am not saying that all beam trawlers are fundamentally unstable--I have been out on them, and they have a good track record--but the MCA has been criticised by the MAIB. It is important for the tests to be improved, and for our fishermen to know that they are adequate. That means carrying out the tests in dynamic, rather than static conditions.

I have spoken briefly on what is a substantial amendment. It is important to reinstate fishing safety grants, to encourage low-impact fishing, to establish regional forums--the Minister has referred to that in regard to the Irish sea--to encourage, through the reformed common fisheries policy, an increased regional

13 Dec 1999 : Column 73

dimension, and to bring about a medium-term joined-up policy based on a clear vision and the introduction of multi-annual quotas for future years.

6.45 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): It is a long time since I spoke in a fisheries debate. Although I shall vote with the Government, I can tell the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) that I have some sympathy with his amendment. I think that he and the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) were absolutely right to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that our fishermen were being asked yet again to swallow a bitter pill because of what I consider to be a lousy common fisheries policy.

I must tell the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), with great respect, that I, too, have some experience of the industry, but my experience is a little different from his. I am the son of a fisherman and a fishhouse lass. When the right hon. Gentleman and his Administration were mishandling the fisheries dispute between the United Kingdom and Iceland--popularly known as the cod war--three of my brothers were fishing on trawlers off the Icelandic coast and facing the dangers of wire cutting. I can tell him from personal experience--because I was up there as well--that wire cutting was very dangerous for the lads who were on the decks of those trawlers.

Coming, as I do, from a fishing community, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman something else, again with great respect. Many members of our fishing communities feel that his Administration sold the pass when they took us into the European Economic Community, because the common fisheries policy and, more important, our fishing industry were used as a bargaining counter. Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman's Administration and his officials were too ready to listen to the representatives of the British Trawler Federation, which represented only the trawler companies on the Humber and, to a lesser extent, in Aberdeen.

The interests of the share fishermen, in communities throughout the United Kingdom--in Northern Ireland, the Shetland Islands and in Cornwall, for instance--were disregarded in the right hon. Gentleman's honourable drive to take us into what was then the EEC. Since those days, my brothers have been on the dole for many years, together with many friends and many other relations, and I blame his Government for that.

As one who was born into a fishing community, and has stayed with the industry all his life, I can tell the House that successive Administrations, both Labour and Conservative, have let our fishermen down. In the 1960s and 1970s, they behaved with appalling arrogance to the small nation of Iceland when we were involved in that fisheries dispute. Our fishermen are still suffering the aftermath--the unintended consequences--of British arrogance towards a nation that was wholly dependent on the catching and processing of fish for the livelihood of its communities, from Akureyri in the north to the Vestmannaeyjar Islands in the south. A deal could have been done; indeed, the right hon. Gentleman struck a deal with the Icelanders. All that led to the common fisheries policy. Our communities still suffer because the right hon. Gentleman's Administration sold the pass.

As I said earlier, we must be fair-minded: Labour Administrations have not done much better by our fishing industry. That was always the view of my late mother,

13 Dec 1999 : Column 74

who first worked "on the herring" when she was 13. She did not have much regard for Labour or Conservative Administrations; she lost a brother and a brother-in-law at sea. We, too, have some experience of the industry, perhaps more than the right hon. Gentleman.

Respect has been paid to the fishermen. A character in Scott's novel "The Antiquary" says--my Scottish friends will forgive me for the accent; my grandmother came from Aberdeen, but I did not--"It's not fish you're buying, but men's lives." That is precisely the case. I hate the fact that fishermen go out in bad weather to fish. I was brought up in a community where, if the ice room was empty or half empty, skippers would shoot the gear in very bad weather, often resulting in deck hands being knocked overboard, as happened to two school friends of mine, Harry and Terry Williams.

My hon. Friend the Minister should listen to what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said. If a share fisherman cannot fish because of heavy weather, he should not be denied a legitimate claim for jobseeker's allowance. I hope that a Labour Government will do something about that. I do not want men fishing, shooting the gear and having to work on deck in anything over a force 6.

If I push other hon. Members out of the debate, they will have to forgive me because it is a long time since I have spoken on the issue and I do not think that we sufficiently discuss the safety concerns of our fishermen. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned safety grants, as did the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss)--it is a bit different from our usual exchanges over Northern Ireland, but I welcome him to his post. Can safety grants be used to purchase survival suits?

I shall ask my hon. Friend a question. He will not be able to answer it tonight, but I would welcome a letter, with a copy put in the Library. What proportion of our fishing vessels carries survival suits for their crew members? If we are to talk about safety grants, as the Minister did, that issue will be critical. I shall give an example. A friend's trawler went down off St. Kildare a few years ago--in the month of February--with a crew of 27. The men who were on watch had time to put on their survival suits. The lads who were down below went over the side in their underwear or pyjamas. Some of the men with survival suits survived for almost four hours in freezing waters--the lads who had to go over the side in their simmits and drawers were dead literally within minutes. My view is--and the fishermen's organisations know it--that no fishing vessel should be allowed out to sea without survival suits for all crew members. My hon. Friend needs to look at that in terms of safety grants.

I think that I am right in saying that no French trawler whose overall length is 15 m or more can leave port without survival suits. The Minister and his ministerial colleagues have been informed by Brussels that survival suits should be carried. I should like him to examine the matter.

Another question comes to mind in relation toour fishermen, who follow that most hazardous of occupations. When will financial compensation be paid to former trawler company employees? Does my hon. Friend have an answer for me tonight? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and others, including the Minister himself, have pursued that issue.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 75

Men who were put out of work saw their employers given money. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) gave a lot of money to Humber trawler owners by way of compensation, but the crews did not get a penny. That injustice--many of the crews are in their 60s and 70s--should be remedied.

The motion refers--my hon. Friend mentioned it--to regional management. The Opposition amendment talks about national management. That is nonsense, but I should like to know what the Government's definition of regional management is. I wrote a paper on it for the Scottish government yearbook of 1975; my hon. Friend the Minister might like to read it.

My view is that with regional management comes local preference. It is a difficult issue because it means giving local fishermen preference over nomadic fishermen--not just from other countries, but from the same country; from other parts of Scotland. There will be conflicts among the nation's fishermen--for example, those in Ullapool and those whom the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan(Mr. Salmond) represents--but, if we are to talk about regional management, we will have to talk about protecting local fishing communities against the depredations of big trawler operators--against beam trawlers. I would ban beam trawling if I had my way. We have to protect those communities, many of which are far removed from London; they are far removed even from Edinburgh.

That is the problem with the review of the common fisheries policy in 2002, which my hon. Friend mentioned. What will we do about regional management? Will we give autonomy to local fisheries committees of one sort or another? Looking at Brussels, I do not think that we have a cat in hell's chance of having regional management that protects the local indigenous industry from nomadic fishermen, who are often not concerned about preserving the stock that they are dipping into and then disappearing over the horizon.

Another question arises from the review of the common fisheries policy. Have applicant countries that are seeking to join the European Union--obviously, I am talking about the maritime nations--been told that they will play no part in the CFP review? Let us not forget the Polish fleet.

Next Section

IndexHome Page