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5.55 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I echo the gratitude that has been expressed for this full day's debate. Perhaps it was not planned that way, but, fortuitously, things have probably turned out the right way round for a change.

In a moment, I shall focus on the key issue facing the Ministry, the Treasury and the fishing industry. First, I shall mention a few of the technical measures. When my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) talked about the square mesh, I noticed that the Minister reiterated from a sedentary position that that provision was definitely coming. However, that was also said in European Standing Committee A, when we debated the fishing industry. I wonder whether anything has changed to bring its implementation any closer.

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Obviously, it would send the right signals if we could apply the same conservation measures throughout United Kingdom waters. That would strengthen the Minister's armour when he was trying to persuade colleagues in other countries that such a measure was an appropriate way forward. I welcome the fact that the industry has taken such an initiative and recognised that these technical and practical measures are important to conserving fish stocks and bringing benefits to the industry.

My next point has not been discussed in the debate so far. A great deal of concern has been expressed about the history of the problems, and about what happened 30 years ago in setting up the common fisheries policy. I detect from some of the briefings to the all-party group that what happens in the North-West Atlantic Fisheries Organisation will have more bearing on some of our fishing grounds and the conservation of stocks when the boundaries of the international 200-mile limit change, and Rockall will no longer be part of the UK mainland. Does the Minister have a view on how that organisation is developing, how it views conservation and what its potential is for achieving conservation through its negotiations?

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) rightly mentioned processing, given the importance that it has for her constituency. There are also processing interests in my constituency, and they are affected by whatever happens in the fishing industry. We have also had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall, when the industry was focused on for the first time.

My constituency interest is not confined to the fact that fishing is carried out from small ports there. The nature of the economy and the community in north-eastern Scotland is that we all sink or swim together. Fishing forms a major part of the economy in the north-east of Scotland, as well as of the Scottish economy as a whole. What happens to fishing is, therefore, extremely important to us.

Fishing does not, perhaps, hit the radar so much across the broad scope of events in England, but the Government must recognise that it is an important industry in many coastal communities. Michael Park, of Scottish White Fish Producers, said that we have already had the highland clearances, and if the Government do not grasp how serious the problem is, there could now be a danger of coastal clearances. In communities where 50 per cent. of the people are dependent on fishing, if that 50 per cent. lose their livelihood, there will not be much left to keep the rest of the community alive. We need a strategy from the Government on the survival of those coastal communities in this new era of fish conservation.

There have been three prongs to what has happened so far. The quotas have been set, and are now part of the process. Recognising the declining stocks, the quotas clearly had to come down, as one could not share out more than was available to be caught. We have now taken the step of introducing emergency measures, and the industry is working with scientific experts and with officials to try to produce a scheme that achieves the goal of emergency conservation.

The Minister has recognised the role that the industry has played in those arrangements, which may be a precursor showing what zonal management could be about. As I think he realises, however, further action will require more serious political negotiation between nations,

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and the issues are not simple. We therefore need to continue trying to reform the common fisheries policy and to formulate a common agenda. Unfortunately--as a general election is looming, and because of the issues at stake--I do not think that such an agenda will emerge from today's debate. Nevertheless, if the United Kingdom cannot agree on what is in the best interests of our industry, it will be difficult to convince and negotiate with colleagues in other parts of the European Union on the best way forward.

A key point emerging from today's debate--Hansard has to go to the Treasury; the Minister could take it there himself to make the point--is that hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who made the same point, believe that greater Government investment is the foundation of restructuring the industry and creating a sustainable fishery. We have to match catching power to the fish available. We have to understand that, without that balance, there will not be a sustainable future for United Kingdom fishing.

The financial issue highlights the great dangers of unilateral action in Europe and special opt-outs. The legacy of Fontainebleau for our fishing and farming communities has been to deny them an awful lot of the support that has been available to their competition. We are in a free and open market, but for those industries, we have tied our hands behind our back with the Fontainebleau agreement.

In the good years, the Treasury has pocketed the Fontainebleau rebates. However, just as some motorists agree to pay a lower premium in return for accepting a greater liability should there be an accident, the Government and the Treasury will have to accept the consequences of the Fontainebleau agreement rebates which they inherited from the previous Government.

The crucial point made at the all-party fisheries group meeting on Tuesday was that Treasury funding should be regarded as a one-off capital investment to protect our nation's natural resources and to make it possible for our communities to reap a long-term return.

Another point that was very strongly made at the meeting was that to fish, one needs a licence, a boat and a quota. Although there are concerns that previous decommissioning schemes never resulted in effective decommissioning, that situation has changed. If licences are removed, there will be fewer people putting their efforts into catching fish. The Government now have that mechanism to pursue an effective and targeted decommissioning policy, so as to get the balance right.

As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, in the immediate short term, to avoid the diversion of effort to other stocks, we need immediate implementation of a lay-up scheme such as the set-aside schemes that operate in agriculture when there is overproduction. We need that type of scheme in the fishing industry to strike the right balance and to ensure that the measures which have been so effectively negotiated really deliver. Agreement to such a scheme would be a very productive outcome of a meeting with the Treasury.

The all-party group is seeking a meeting with the Treasury. Older hands say that the Treasury will never meet us and say that we have to go through the Minister. However, as the Minister said, he does not have the

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money. The Treasury decides where the money comes from. Everyone says that one cannot treat the Treasury as a bottomless pit. However, the Treasury has to listen to a case involving an industry that is in crisis and transition.

What is the alternative to decommissioning? Some Ministers might say that the market will sort out the industry: fishermen will go out of business, sell up and disappear. However, their licences will still exist and have a residual value. If boat operators facing serious financial problems--or even bankruptcy, in the most draconian side of the market--sell their boats, what happens? The boat and the licence go on the market, where they are bought by someone willing to pay a price at which they think that they can make a living. So the boat will still be out there with its catching power, licence and quota, still chasing fish. It is an ever-decreasing circle. As the numbers stop adding up for the new boat owners, they will go bust and put their boats and licences on the market at a lower price.

Without decommissioning and the withdrawal of licences to reduce catching power, a balance will not be struck or sustainability achieved. Cod stocks may not recover. Nevertheless, we have to ensure that catching power is appropriate to the recovery measures.

In my earlier intervention on the Minister, I made the point--he may have missed it--that the investment should be made by the current generation who got it wrong in managing their fisheries, so that future generations have a fishery on their doorstep. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South spoke of a sustainable fishery that constituted, in environmental terms, an extremely sensible way of providing protein and other valuable nutrients for our families. It is important to sustain an industry in this country rather than importing fish. After all, if there is a demand for fish and we have taken all our own fish, we must import them.

All Aberdeen Members today said that we should not talk down the industry. If the Treasury gets it right--if the money is there to be invested, and to balance catching power with a sustainable level of fishing stock--we shall have a chance of creating an economically viable, self-sufficient industry with a long-term future. The industry has not relied on subsidy in the past, and we do not want it to ask for subsidy in the future. We want it to sustain generations to come, both in terms of fishing activity and as steward of natural resources in the seas for which we shall continue to have responsibility.

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