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Mr. Salmond: I do not want to take any credit away from the hon. Gentleman, but we should acknowledge that the first politician who pursued the policy and took it through the European Fisheries Committee was the late Dr. Allan Macartney, from the north-east of Scotland.
Mr. George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his lesson in history, but whether the policy was developed in separate vacuums we shall have to investigate. Whoever claims credit for the origin of the policy--whose gestation, as I said, was many years before its publication--it was met with great derision when it was published. Perhaps the late Dr. Macartney found that, too. However, it is now the only realistic game in town.
Mr. George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. His colleague, Struan Stevenson, was one of the Members of the European Parliament who issued a joint statement from the European Parliament Fisheries Committee backing zonal management proposals. I do not know whether Mr. Stevenson will be taken away and given a stiff talking to, or whether Labour Members will call him Nigel. The joint statement called for
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire continues to ask from a sedentary position whether treaty changes will be required. If we are to achieve such a change, it needs widespread political support, which the Conservatives do not have. It needs widespread political support, and not only across this country. All sensible people support it. Clearly, it has received widespread support in the European Parliament from all parties, including, oddly enough, the Conservative party.
Mr. Gill: Why is the hon. Gentleman finding it difficult to answer the perfectly straightforward question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), and say whether his proposal requires a treaty change? Surely, the answer is yes or no. Will he give the House that answer?
Mr. George: It will be interesting to see what the European Commission comes up with in its Green Paper next month. When we are in a position to see what it believes will have widespread political support across European member states, we can begin the negotiations on what kind of treaty change, if any, will be required. However, we are more likely to get the kind of change that most rational people believe is required for the future of the fishing industry if we have more widespread political support across Europe.
We are also seeking to secure continued derogation for the six and 12-mile limits around these shores, and to make those a permanent feature of the common fisheries policy. We have pressed the Minister on those matters, he has taken them on board and I very much welcome his approach. We would certainly encourage him to achieve those ends if possible. It would also be welcome if, through his offices, it were possible to outlaw industrial fishing. I am pleased to hear that his negotiations with the Danes are making progress.
The Conservative spokesman had an opportunity to lay out his policy and justify it to the House. He clearly has not persuaded the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who has experience of being in government and taking decisions with all the responsibility of power. No doubt, when the Leader of the Opposition spoke at a fringe meeting at the last Tory conference, he got the pulses of the rank and file racing when he claimed that the Conservatives were "going the whole way" and taking back full national control of the industry.
That statement was not from any Back Bencher, but from the Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, commenting on the proposals of the NFFO and SSF--which were discussed earlier--said those organisations were
Mr. Moss: Yes, "barking" is the word. The advice that I read out to the Minister from his own MAFF officials concerning regional policy, zonal policy, the NFFO and the SSF proposals stated that those proposals are a non-starter. Treaty changes are possible, but the hon. Gentleman did not give a straight answer, yes or no, to my question about whether the Liberal Democrats would support fundamental treaty change to empower those regional and zonal management arrangements. To have any power to do anything, treaty change would be needed.
We should get down to brass tacks and look at what Conservative Members are proposing now. Every time they utter a word on the issue of fisheries, squadrons of flying pigs take off all around the country. Moreover, if we look at their record, in 1983 they negotiated our quota share and botched that. They failed to grasp opportunities to invest in the industry throughout their period in power, when other European nations were investing in their industries.
The Conservatives presided over the biggest loss of licences to flag-of-convenience vessels ever, and they cost the country what could eventually be £100 million--money which could be invested in the industry--in compensation to foreign-flag companies, which were thrown off the register following the botched Merchant Shipping Act 1988. They negotiated Spanish access to western waters six years before they needed to.
Mr. Nicholls: Does the hon. Gentleman regard an Act as botched when it was passed by both our Houses of Parliament and then struck down by the application of European legislation? Is that the Liberal Democrat party's definition of "botched"?
Mr. George: What was botched was the advice that the previous Government either received or took. Clearly, whether they received or took it, they botched the matter. They knew what the situation was at the time and what was likely to happen. Now the Conservatives are operating on the entirely fanciful notion that they can pull out of the common fisheries policy.
Mr. George: I would make a choice there. If we can determine the development of the Conservatives' policy on fishing by their behaviour and comments today, although I do not know what their policy is in the Welsh Assembly, I would guess that it is probably for the birds.
This is a serious debate about the future of the fishing industry. The industry is at a point of crisis and needs to make sure that any future plans ensure that sustainable fishery can continue in the long-term future. We need a sustainable fishing industry and sustainable stocks, and we need to make sure that our processors have output supplies.
Already in this debate it has been mentioned that WWF has produced an excellent policy proposal, which is certainly worth serious consideration in future discussion. Adopting an approach that involves a recovery plan for both stock and the industry will take concerted effort and will require, as WWF indicated, investment rather than subsidy. WWF is not simply playing with words, as it is a question of investing in the future. The costs attached to that policy are unclear, and, having discussed them with WWF, I am currently undertaking inquiries to try to get an indication of what they are likely to be. I would welcome the Minister's comments and advice on that.
Even if that policy were to cost in the region of £0.5 billion over a five-year period, as it would establish a sustainable fishing industry in the long term, all parties--and I shall certainly ask Liberal Democrat Treasury spokespeople to do this--should look seriously at whether it is an investment that the country is prepared to make. We need to look seriously at how we will haul ourselves out of the crisis that the industry is in at present. I look forward to future opportunities to debate that.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): It is with pleasure that I participate in this debate on an important and serious issue. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for visiting Fleetwood again and for showing his willingness to come and listen to the concerns of the whole fishing industry--not only fishermen but the onshore operation and all the other elements that are involved. My hon. Friend impresses everybody with his knowledge of the industry and with his commitment to seeing what is happening on the ground and in the seas.
I want to restate some of the issues that were raised with my hon. Friend during his visit and about which the Fleetwood Fish Forum has written separately to him. They are important and we want them to be addressed, as there is huge strength of community feeling about the industry. We have heard some references to the House of Lords report on unsustainable fishing, which is an interesting document. Paragraph 4 of the report speaks of the relatively minor economic importance of fish in the national economies of EU states and of its disproportionate impact on coastal communities.
I agree with that view. In my constituency, 1,000 jobs are at stake in a small town. The issue is not just about jobs. It has to be looked at in the historical context of a town that started as a fishing village and grew into the third largest port in the country. That town has now seen its fishing industry decline. We all want to halt that decline, to rebuild the fishing industry and to protect what we have. Paragraph 85 of the report proposes the following objective for reform of the common fisheries policy:
The Fleetwood Fish Forum is unique, as it brings together catchers, processors and merchants, as well as representatives of the port authority and the local council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) said, it is vital for all elements of the fishing industry to come together and try to ensure the continuation of a viable industry. Although those elements sometimes have competing interests, they are forming a united force in Fleetwood and arguing the case together.
The Irish sea cod recovery programme is now in its second year. Lessons should be learned from its first year, especially as we are now considering the introduction of similar policies in the North sea. Last year, the closure of the fishing grounds came with short notice and caused serious problems for Fleetwood. Those problems affected not only the inshore fleet, which was tied up, but the merchants and processors. If less fish is being caught, less will be landed, less will be sold in the auction hall and less will be processed. In other words, everybody is affected.
That is not to say that my local fishing industry did not agree that something had to be done. As has been pointed out, the main problem is the shortage of fish, which must be dealt with. However, that must be done without destroying the industry. Any programme must ensure that there is an industry that can take advantage when cod and other fish stocks recover.