Mr. Moss: For the second time, I rise to confirm that I did not say that we were committing £300 million to the fishing industry. Those are the figures communicated to me, and no doubt to the Minister, by the NFFO and the SFF as their estimation of what is needed to sustain them through the interim period. I made no comment on that, but the Minister certainly has not commented either.
Mr. Savidge: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman did not say that he would commit himself to it. He could see it being added to the £16 billion gap in the Budget. Immediately a haunted look came over him, and I thought to myself, "He is haunted by the spectre of the shadow Chancellor." I would not wish to specify a sum, but I hope that the Treasury can look sympathetically on a one-off investment in the industry. I believe that by giving not just financial assistance, but all the other assistance that the Government are giving to the industry, we can continue fishing's vital role in our culture, our employment, our economy and a healthy life.
To summarise my basic theme, I believe that through co-operation involving the industry and its representative bodies both internationally and nationally--with the Scottish Executive and their taskforce action group at the government level; with local councils; and with the other interested bodies--fishing can come through the present crisis and continue to make a vital contribution to our national life.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I am very pleased to take part in this debate, which has been excellent. I agree with those who say that, compared with the usual end-of-year total allowable catch rants that we all have in panic-stricken mode, trying to deal with details from Europe at the last minute, this is a much better way of dealing with the matter.
The way in which the Minister introduced the debate was exemplary, and we are all grateful for that. It does not diminish the difficulties facing the industry, but the Government cannot be accused of running away from the arguments. It is right that we should acknowledge that.
I also subscribe to the view that tribute is due to those who go down to the sea in ships and do business in big waters. I was disappointed, as I am sure the Minister was, by the number of fatalities this year. We all share that disappointment, and I am sure that the Government are doing all they can. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, the figures remind us all that the industry is a hazardous one.
To make a Scottish point at the beginning of my speech, I think that the unique kind of industry that we have, based on share fishing and share fish boat ownership, embeds the industry in coastal communities in a way that is perhaps not matched in other parts of Europe. The future of coastal communities is deeply and closely related to the future success of the industry. Therefore, it is particularly important that we get it right.
I think that the difficulty the industry is in now is as great as it has ever been, but there is some ground for optimism. I am worried because some of the banks are beginning to lose confidence in the industry's middle-term and longer-term prospects. We cannot ignore that.
One of the principal and most optimistic lessons that we can learn from the past few weeks is that when the industry obtains access to the decision-making process at the highest level, it can make a positive difference. I hope that that lesson will be learned at all levels. I know that the Minister has been trying to promote that idea recently. It has been demonstrated over the past few weeks that the way in which the cod recovery plan has been amended for the better is almost directly attributable to the industry's participation at the decision-making tables of the Commission, which augurs well for the future. It gives the industry confidence if it feels that it will be able to continue to operate at that level and timeously; getting into the decision-making process at the right time is very important.
In today's debate, the industry must be looked at in two different ways. We need to address the long-term approach and the short-term necessities. I agree with all those who said that conservation and sustainability must be the paramount concern in the long term. That involves measures such as the five-year cod recovery programme. I hope that the negotiations are brought to a successful conclusion in the coming weeks and months, and that the June Fisheries Council produces an agreement which everyone can support and use to move forward with confidence.
On the unilateral decision by the Scottish industry to introduce square mesh panels, we have been arguing about those in debates such as this for at least 12 years. It is a great tribute to the Scottish industry that is has decided unilaterally to introduce such mesh. It is still early days, but I believe that the results will show the decision to have been a positive contribution to stock conservation.
Those are the key issues that we need to address. I shall make one or two brief points about the short term. I agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. The cod conservation closure from 14 February through to the end of April is another tribute to the industry, whose leadership is taking a huge risk in trying to argue with the membership that that is the right way to go.
The Government and the Treasury should provide backing through limited public finance. Of course, such things must be worked out carefully. One cannot wander into the Treasury with fag-packet calculations. The Minister was right to say that. The industry has some work to do, to calculate the finance that is needed in the short term, but if the cod closure is to be successful, it must keep the cod fishing capacity out of the other sectors of the North sea, otherwise, as was said earlier, there will be an inevitable and destructive impact on the nephrops fishery, which will be impossible to control in a sensible way.
The Minister is right to gather further details of what is needed. Money is always short, although the Treasury is probably in a better position now than it has been in recent years when we have had fishery debates. That is a factor that must be taken into account. In the short term, some kind of compensation measures must be put in place to finance a successful cod closure from February to the end of April.
Decommissioning is essential. If the figure of £100 million is decided on, that is a fair price to pay, especially considering the Fontainebleau rebate that we have had--since 1986 we have had to pay £2 billion a year less. That is a huge sum of public expenditure that we have not had to pay. When the fishermen see the balance sheet in the fisheries account over that period, they are right to seek such sums, with a view to achieving a balanced catch and a real biomass stock balance in future.
I return to the nephrops problem that we have on the south-east coast, if I may so describe it. There is no danger of a 3 per cent. white fish catch in the prawn fishery prosecuted from ports such as Eyemouth. That may not be the case in other parts of the North sea, where there may be a question about the by-catch, which obviously has to be taken into account. It is essential that the Minister does the necessary work to check the logbooks so that we can argue a case for removing the 10 per cent. restriction on the TAC.
If that can be done, if money can be put into short-term compensation for the cod closure; if, in the longer term, we look at decommissioning; and if the industry is involved in all of those decisions until June and beyond, the Government will have gone some way towards making the best they can of what the industry faces at the moment. I do not think that there is any doubt that urgent measures need to be taken if the future of the industry is to be protected.
I had intended to concentrate on onshore fishing. Inevitably, in a fishing debate, the majority of the discussion has been about the catching side. I do not want to repeat many interesting points that other Members have made, to which, I am sure, the Minister will respond. Instead, I should like to pick up some of the comments made by the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). I tried to intervene twice in his speech but, despite my bright red jacket--a nice tartan that I am wearing specially for Burns night--I obviously did not catch his eye.
Like several other hon. Members, I waited with bated breath to hear the Tories' solution to the fishing crisis. I listened carefully throughout the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. At first, I thought that the solution would be compensation for fisherman because they could not fish stocks that have been lost. However, as he developed his theme, and as he replied to hon. Members' questions, it was obvious that compensation was off the cards. After all, had compensation been a good idea, surely the Tories would have used it in the 18 years in which they were in power.
I remember problems with herring fishing in the late 1970s, and I do not recall compensation ever being offered to fishermen then. Indeed, one complaint that we get in Aberdeen, particularly from processors, is that many skills in gutting and filleting herring were lost when those fisheries closed. Moreover, there was no help from the Government at the time. So compensation is not the Tories' solution. Eventually, the hon. Gentleman came out with it and said that they would return the waters around Great Britain to our national control--talk about locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.
The Tories had 18 years to find out whether that was the solution to the fishing industry problems, so surely they might have come up with it before. I was trying to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because I am still puzzled as to how returning the waters around Britain to national control solves the crisis of there not being enough fish. Do the fish who are presently in British waters say, "Alright, chaps, the British have control. We can now breed lots and grow very fast so that we will be there for the fishermen to catch"? Will fish spawning outwith British waters say, "Alright, chaps, let's go over the border into British territorial waters, where we will be under the British Government's control. We want to be there for all of the British fishermen to catch"?
I know that I am being flippant but, for the life of me, I cannot understand why returning the seas around Britain to national control is a conservation measure, as the hon. Gentleman said. That is not the case, as our conservation and restocking needs are far more complex and must be dealt with through a more multi-faceted approach. No one simple answer exists; rather, a range of measures are needed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been listening and that he will provide help to the industry on that basis.
It is by ensuring that the industry helps itself, along with help from the Government, that the current circumstances, which almost resemble the boom and bust of the fishing industry, will come to an end. We must end conditions in which there are plenty of stocks of a particular species in one year, but virtually none three years later. We must ensure a sustainable fishing stock to help the on-land processors, who are my main concern.
My constituency probably contains most of the fish houses in Aberdeen. Some 1,500 people there have jobs that depend on the fishing industry. They work predominantly in onshore operations. Ironically, many of the fishermen who lived in my constituency and who have not yet retired now work on oil supply vessels. Although there are fewer fishermen in my constituency than there were previously, many highly skilled and dedicated fish processors remain. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) pointed out that such workers are
Fish processing is a highly important industry in my constituency. I appreciate that neither my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, nor the fishermen, nor the fishing industry can magic the fish out of the sea and that a sustained and long-term strategy will be necessary to get them back. I am concerned, however, about the loss of skills and jobs in the short term. Some gutters in Aberdeen who will lose their jobs in the coming year because of fish shortages might go and do other jobs, but many of the women in such jobs are in their 50s and might decide that they are too old to find alternatives and take early retirement instead. Such people will be lost to the fishing industry. When the fish stocks have recovered, in three, four or five years' time, the skills of such workers will have been lost. That is my primary concern. I want to ensure that short-term help is available to ensure that people get through the difficult times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central spoke about the need not to talk down the industry. I agree with him on that point. Yes, a crisis exists and I do not want to play it down, but we must not talk only about the difficulties of the fishing industry. If we never talk about its potential, we run the danger of losing it for ever. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made a valuable point in that respect. When a fishing boat owner goes to the bank for money to reinvest, the banker might say, "But there are no fish; why would I give you money that will go into a black hole?" Inevitably, such a cycle will become difficult to escape, which is why I am keen for us to consider the industry's future potential.
Why do I have that optimism? Partly because the fishing industry does not resemble other industries. Some industries in this country, such as the coal industry, have ailed and almost disappeared. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) spoke in his maiden speech yesterday about the loss of the iron industry. The great Carron ironworks were situated in Falkirk, which was an iron town in 1971 but no longer has an iron industry. Such industries ailed because there was no market for their goods. They lost the markets that kept them viable.
That does not apply to the fishing industry. People continue to eat fish; they want to eat fish. Perhaps we have not encouraged them to eat a variety of fish, and there may be a great deal more work to do. However, fish is a sustainable and renewable resource. If we can survive the short-term difficulty, the industry could again be vibrant and feed the people. People will always need to eat, and we must ensure that there are always fish for them.
The fishing industry has a future because fish is perceived by many people as a healthy food. Oily fish in particular contains vitamins and essential nutrients. Many people who are worried about eating beef after the BSE crisis now eat fish. Some who describe themselves as vegetarians in the loosest sense eat fish as part of a balanced diet. People who object to some forms of animal husbandry, such as factory farming, know that fish are at least allowed to swim freely before they are ultimately caught and processed.
I was interested in the comments of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) about the search for other deep-sea fishing grounds. He said that some were found off the coast of Africa, but fishermen would not go there because the fish were ugly. They were perfectly good fish, and a different way of presenting them had to be found.
There is a job to be done, but we cannot do it if, in the short term, there are no fish for the processors in my constituency to process. Consequently, skills can be lost; retaining them is crucial. The processors realise that some restructuring is necessary and that they must consider the size of some fish houses and companies. They do not bury their heads in the sand, but appreciate that changes must take place. They are willing to work with the Government to ensure that restructuring happens. Again, they are looking for support to see them through that transitional stage.
I am worried about one of the results of the drop in quotas that has been negotiated this year. Black fish had virtually disappeared from the north-east of Scotland. However, I have it on good authority that, three weeks after the new quotas were introduced, black fish were beginning to reappear. That is worrying. Lack of supply has led some people who would never have touched black fish because they did not approve of dealing in them to consider doing so. They have to make a hard decision between dealing in black fish and the survival of the company. That is an especially worrying aspect of the shortage of supply. I hope that it will not happen, because it would be detrimental to everyone and would do nothing for conservation of stocks, which is crucial for the survival of the fishing industry.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. We have reached a crisis point, but there is a future. If we can get through it with Government help, and that of various other agencies working locally, there is a great future for British fish.