Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Mr. Morley: I support scientific analysis, and we spend a lot of money on research and development and on the assessment of stocks. During the past 18 months, I have been anxious to involve fishermen more directly in scientific assessment, to the extent that we have invited representatives from the fishermen's organisations to sail on our research ships and to see what happens on board them. They have contributed suggestions and ideas.

I have also been anxious to involve fishermen in the analysis of information and the development of scientific advice. They examine the advice and the figures coming in, and that leads to better mutual understanding. The scientists gain from the practical experience of the fishermen, and the fishermen gain from observing the methodical way in which the scientists collect the information and how they apply it. That does not mean that there are not sometimes disagreements on the interpretation of the information. There is disagreement between the fishing industry and our scientists on the availability of saithe stocks. It appears that those stocks are improving. However, the improvement is fragile and I am not convinced that saithe are as prolific as some in the industry suggest. I am nevertheless prepared to listen to the industry's point of view: it is right to take practical experience as well as scientific advice into account.

Mr. Quinn: My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern among fishery communities in the North sea about the size of the seal population. Will the recovery plan for the North sea deal with that serious concern, which is certainly felt in my constituency?

Mr. Morley: I am aware of the views on seals expressed by some of my hon. Friend's constituents. In all my ministerial actions—not just those regarding fisheries—I always seek to take scientific advice. I always examine scientific evidence about trends and take particular note of ecology. I have to tell my hon. Friend and the Committee bluntly that there is not the slightest evidence that seals are responsible for collapsing cod stocks. I will examine any scientific evidence to the contrary, but I know of no such evidence.

Mr. Gill: The Minister will be aware from his reading of the trade press of widespread concern that further drastic quota reductions will drive fishermen out of business. Does he not believe that, when people's livelihoods are destroyed by legislation, they should be compensated?

Mr. Morley: There is compensation to the extent that, where major changes in employment trends are evident in regions, considerable Government funds are available for retraining and restructuring. I hope that that will not apply to the fishing industry, which I hope will get through this difficult period. If some encouraging signs of stock recovery flow through, the industry should stabilise. That can be done, but I do not doubt that short-term pressures will be significant as a result of the decline in profitability of some sections of our fleet. I understand and sympathise with those circumstances. As I said, various measures can be taken, but they are not designed to provide direct short-term subsidies. There are no structures in place for that. The considerable funding available is intended for longer-term restructuring.

Mr. Mitchell: I am still worried about my hon. Friend's position on subsidies and support for the industry. The Irish package mentioned earlier amounts to £11 million, £1 million of which is for fuel efficiency schemes. It provides direct support to the industry. My hon. Friend's answer is dictated more by the financial position of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food than by an aversion to supporting the industry. Will he bear it in mind that, if we do not subsidise our industry and help it to pull through, the catches will be inherited by nations that did subsidise to keep their fleets going?

Mr. Morley: Yes, that is a serious point and I accept my hon. Friend's case, but the Department's funds are limited. If major restructuring is required, we shall have to seek a new package. I have to consider circumstances and the potential impact of recovery programmes and MAPG5, which cannot be ignored. I genuinely believe, however, that short-term fixes are not the answer. If there is a case for public support for the fishing industry, it should address long-terms problems to put it on an even keel.

Mr. Nicholls: The Minister will know that south-west fishermen were encouraged to freeze some of their quotas this year. Is there some logic to freezing quotas at present levels rather than increasing them? Is that the logic of bankability?

Mr. Morley: Yes, I think that that is the logic. Stocks can be banked only when they are in a favourable position; otherwise it would be impossible to do so. I accept that, when stocks have been banked, that has been done in good faith. I think that banking and borrowing are an improvement in fisheries management and I am keen to defend the interests in question.

Mr. Andrew George: If the Minister is not prepared to countenance consideration of short-term measures to deal with the industry's problems, perhaps he will consider one conclusion that can be drawn from this year's likely settlement on quotas, given what has happened in previous years. A long-term solution would be based on devolving the responsibility for managing stock in the zones and regions of Europe. For several years, this country's industry has recognised that technical measures are as important as quotas and TACs. Does the Minister agree that one of the conclusions that we should draw, and that he should take to his counterparts in Europe, is the argument for regional management of the common fisheries policy?

Mr. Morley: I strongly agree. A regional approach is essential to the future of the common fisheries policy and we shall be arguing in that direction in the 2002 review. In some ways, we have introduced an element of regional management with the Irish sea cod recovery programme, which is a regional management structure involving those countries with a direct interest—predominantly ourselves and the Republic of Ireland, but also France and Belgium—and the fishermen who fish in those areas. It has worked. Given the sacrifices that fishermen have made, if there is the potential for an increase in quota, in line with the science, we should be arguing for it in Council. I shall be keeping a close eye on that.

The cod and hake recovery programmes are an element of regional management, so that dimension is beginning to develop. Other member states are beginning to show interest in it. Some United Kingdom associations have been in communication with associations in other countries. A great deal of work has been done in that respect in Cornwall, by the Cornish fisheries organisations. It is having an effect and beginning to pay dividends. I believe that we can make progress in the forthcoming negotiations in 2002.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of the unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated 28th November 2000 from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, relating to the fixing of fishing opportunities for 2001 and certain conditions under which they may be fished; recognises that a number of fish stocks have fallen to particularly low levels; and supports the Government's intention to sustain stocks for the future, and assist recovery of those stocks which are in danger of collapse, while negotiating the best possible fishing opportunities for UK fishermen.— [Mr. Morley.]

5.32 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): No doubt the Minister has received the feedback that we have had from the industry about the relegation of the annual debate on total allowable catches and quotas from the Floor of the House to the Committee. I do not want to imply that the Committee is an inappropriate place for a debate of this nature, but it has its limitations. The Minister was right, with a view to building bridges and dealing with his public relations in good time, to state that, because of the seriousness of the situation, a full debate will be held in the new year on the Floor of the House—

Sir Robert Smith: Hopefully.

Mr. Moss: Oh, I see: hopefully, there will be a debate on the Floor of the House. The Minister, I think, promised it.

Mr. Morley: I am not in a position to do that.

Mr. Moss: I think that the Minister said that, in discussions with the Leader of the House, he had engineered time for such a debate. However, we shall certainly keep up the pressure, because it is vital that the matter should be debated in full on the Floor of the House, and that there should be time for all those with fishing interests to make their views known.

Sir Robert Smith: Would it have helped our case if other hon. Members had realised that, under Standing Orders, they could have been present for the statement and contributed to the debate?

Mr. Moss: That is a fair point. These issues are often relegated to page 3 or 4 of the Whip, and, dare I say it, not many colleagues look past page 1 or 2. However, I do not think that sufficient publicity has been given to the matter. That concern ties in with the Minister's comments about the Commission's proposals being issued later and later every year. We are left with little opportunity to read the tomes, which are thicker this year than most, in time to make a significant contribution to the debate. I hope that, at the Council meeting later this week, the Minister will tell the Commission that that tardiness is unacceptable.

Today's debate can be approached at three levels. First, it can be tackled at the level of the immediate situation. No matter what the Minister says, there is a crisis in the industry, especially over the cost of fuel. He admitted that in his later contributions to the debate. We must also bear in mind the short term, which leads to the question whether the industry can survive next year, given the swingeing proposed cuts in quota.

Thirdly, there is the survival of the industry in the medium term. What is the future, for example, for post-December 2002? Is the CFP the answer? Is there not now an overwhelming case for its drastic and fundamental reform? Along with many others, I support the view that the over-centralised management system has been exposed as incapable of delivering a sustainable and profitable Europe-wide fishing industry. As the Minister said, last year's ICES report was the most severe for a decade, while this year it is even more severe than that. Is not that an indictment of the CFP and how it works, with its emphasis on TACs and quotas?

As the Minister admitted, on their own, quotas do not work. Reducing them each year is not the answer to the problem. Each reduction seems to lead to a further reduction. We have entered a downward spiral and the way out of such difficulty is not clear. In fact, the science on which we are basing some of the proposals is not clear either. As politicians, we are entitled to say—as, indeed, many fishing industries have been saying for several years—that such proposals are all too little, too late. Action should have been taken years ago. The future is bleak for our fishing fleet.

To give him his due, the Minister accepts that TACs and quotas are not the only issues that should be considered. He referred to his support for technical measures, such as mesh sizes, fishing gear and the setting of higher minimum landing sizes. Most people would agree with his statement that ``We need to think of a more sophisticated approach,'' but why, oh why, have we had to wait so long for management changes to come into the fray for discussion? It is accepted that there is now more fertile ground for the introduction of larger mesh sizes and square mesh panels but, for there to be an even playing field, there must be better policing and enforcement. There is little point in British fisherman signing up to the measures, as the Scots have done in the North sea, if others are not taking them on board. Without enforcement, the changes are not worth the paper that they are written on.

The Commission promised us a paper on enforcement back in 1996. Where is it? Will the Minister press for it at the meeting later this week? It would be helpful to know either today or later his views on enforcement and whether such a proposal should come forward sooner rather than later. Even before the proposals for the much-reduced TACs for 2001 take effect, the fishing industry is already facing a significant crisis, half of the reason for which lies in the threefold increase in the price of fuel. That problem, allied to low catch rates, has not only put into question the economic viability of much of the United Kingdom, but is increasing the risks to our fishermen as they go out in all types of weather in their desperate search for a catch that will cover their fuel costs, let alone pay part of their mortgage. If the price of fuel does not fall significantly—there is no sign of that happening—operators will have no option other than to tie up and many of them will be forced into liquidation.

In England, if the larger trawlers—which will be particularly hit by the fuel increases—at our major ports such as Newlyn, Brixham, Plymouth in the south-west and Lowestoft, Hull and Grimsby in the east tie up in significant numbers, that will have a considerable knock-on effect on port and transport infrastructure as well as fish processing and the ancillary industries. There is strong case to be made that, such is the state of our industry in respect of this problem alone, it is, above any of the potential effects of the reductions in quota, the issue that could make or break the United Kingdom industry, certainly in the short term.

Despite numerous meetings with industry leaders at various levels, the Minister and Government have been ominously silent on the matter. Other EU countries have responded positively to lobbying from their industries. Apparently, those countries that have provided short-term packages for their industries—France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy—have now been joined by Ireland, which has added to the already uneven playing field. It means that, once again, UK industry will be poorly placed to benefit from an upturn in opportunities, should it occur.

In the absence of an EU-wide aid package, which will not happen now, it is down to individual Governments to devise their own. We understand that a direct fuel subsidy is not realistic but there is word on the block—to coin a phrase—that some countries are getting away with it, contrary to EU law. It is time that someone stood up and said something about that. The Government could take measures to offset huge fuel increases that would not contravene competition law. A long list of proposals has been put to the Minister, so he will find the following points neither unfamiliar nor exhaustive.

Help could be provided in relation to regulatory costs by removing or reducing payments for vessel survey charges, light dues and satellite monitoring charges. Landing charges and soft loans could also be looked at. On taxation, the Government could consider suspending class 4 national insurance contributions, temporarily suspending the share fishermen stamp and lowering the threshold for tax credits for share fishermen. Other measures could be taken in relation to levies, such as the producer organisation levy and sea fish levy.

Apparently, the UK's financial instrument of fisheries grant allocation is subject to an underspend of £4 million. I think that the Minister alluded to his opportunities under FIFG, which might be a useful place to start to look for financial help of the kind that I mentioned. The Government's continued inactivity on the matter gives the impression that they have no view on the future for British fishing fleets.

All hon. Members are aware that the ICES advice for next year is severe, but is it not true that ICES has changed the way in which it applies the criteria to a more purist approach? Has that not been compounded by the Commission's draft proposals, in which it seemed to discard its usual role of filtering advice from the Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management? Instead, it seems to have focused almost exclusively on cod and hake stocks. Some of those problems seem to have been overcome as a result of recent negotiations in Norway, during which the linkage with other species was rejected. That resulted in much smaller cuts in haddock and whiting. However, the question remains of how confident the Minister will be in carrying forward a common-sense approach in negotiations later this week. At the heart of the problem is the Commission's wish to go further than the scientific advice. One is tempted to surmise that there may be political machinations in the background.

It is widely accepted that cod stocks, especially in the North sea, are not in a healthy state. Fishermen tell us that their catches are well down. The Minister glowed when he told us that he was right to resist last year, as he believed that they would not catch up to quota, and he was correct. The statistics on landings tell a similar story. There is general agreement that urgent remedial action is vital. However, a reduction in quota of the magnitude proposed will have an unequal and disproportionate effect on the fishing fleets involved. The situation was made more uncertain by last week's agreement—mentioned in our question time—which was pushed hard by the Commission. According to that agreement, the North sea haddock fishery will be closed if the cod quota is taken before the end of the year. Many within the industry regard that as most unwise, and as setting an unwelcome precedent. If the deal is cast in stone, will the Minister say whether it can be revisited during negotiations later this week? Perhaps more to the point, does the Minister believe that the agreement is unwelcome and against British fishing interests? Will he urge his fellow Ministers to have a rethink about this linkage?

That brings us to the arguments about playing our Hague preference card. Again, there was some discussion about that in question time. There is a view that we did not play the card last year so as to secure more fishing opportunities in haddock for the benefit of those with haddock quotas. The Hague preference was introduced to address the very problems that the UK industry faces by allocating higher TAC quotas to member states whose fleets are especially vulnerable. There is no question now that the extra quota will not be required next year, especially in keeping the haddock fishery open if there is no change to the linkage proposal. The Minister did not answer clearly whether he would resist all the pressures on him to continue the linkage or would play the Hague preference card. He reserved his position, as he did last year, but, given the present situation, he will never have a better opportunity. If the quota is set too low and is reached by the year end, it will have a massive knock-on effect on haddock fishing.

There is some puzzlement, not to say anger, at the Commission's CAP proposals for nethrops next year. It had been assumed that, like the other proposals, they are linked to the restrictions on cod fishing as it is believed to be an important by-catch. There has been no new advice from ACFM this year, so why is there a proposed reduction of 3,440 tonnes in the nethrops TAC? It seemed to be quite an arbitrary decision. The Minister gave some indication that he could not see the reason for it and we hope that he manages to obtain a fundamental change in that direction.

Another outcome of the species linkage on which the commission seems keen is the 20 per cent. reduction proposed in the North sea for species such as dab, flounder, lemon sole, skate, turbot, brill and the rays. There is a fear that this huge reduction will run counter to earlier Commission proposals to safeguard discards and that that will lead to an increase in discards, which is contrary to the whole purpose of the conservation measures.

One of the issues raised in our question time was industrial fishing, which includes a large proportion of sandeels. The proposal on the table at the moment is that the quota is rolled over in the North sea and northern waters at around 1 million tonnes annually, despite the fact that the catch of sandeels last year was just under half of that total. Why was the rollover, which is set at that huge level, not reached last year? Was it because of the market for the produce or is there a real problem, such as the Minister alluded to with regard to cod last year, and the sandeels are just not there?

Sandeels provide some 40 per cent. of the North sea food supply. It therefore seems of crucial importance to the fish stocks and to any programme of conservation that we look carefully at the matter. The headline on page 23 of last week's Fishing News, ``Big broods slow growth'', refers to the concern felt by many fishermen in the North sea that the big incoming brood of young haddock is not growing at a fast enough rate. The article quotes a Dr. Hawkins of the FRS Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, who maintains that there is no link between slow growth rates and lack of feed. Notwithstanding the rather obvious statement that, if there is a large brood, they are in competition for the food, it seems common sense to take note of the fishermen's concerns and to investigate them. Surely, under the precautionary principle alone, we should cut back on the sandeel quota; it makes little sense to initiate a cod recovery programme with all its upheavals, and not to build into the equation consideration of all food levels. It is unfair to put the blame for collapsing fish stocks on overfishing, rather than adopting an all-embracing approach, including the food chain and technical measures.

The Minister made light of the matter of seals, which was raised earlier. He said that, if people could provide evidence that they are causing a problem, he would do something about it. There is plenty of evidence: the seal population is expanding dramatically in parts of the United Kingdom. Research on how much one seal can eat in a day would show that, if fish stocks are under pressure as they are at present—

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