Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Mr. Mitchell: That is xenophobic.

Mr. George: The hon. Gentleman suggests from a sedentary position that I am taking a xenophobic line, but the relative stability tenets worked very much against Cornish fishermen. The mathematical fact is that the impact of a substantial cut in the cod quota will be significantly greater for Cornish fisherman than for their French counterparts.

Several hon. Members have commented on the French proposals to introduce a new regime for deep sea fisheries. Some have suggested that the proposals are opportunistic and cynical, and should be blocked, but deep sea fisheries should be protected. We should take this issue seriously, although not in the manner that the French propose. At the moment, their record catch would give them an unprecedentedly high proportion of future deep sea stocks. There is a similar broad consensus on industrial fishing, and I hope that the Minister will remember that in his meeting at the end of this week.

I repeat that I wish the Minister well in his negotiations. His responses have established a sound basis for his approach, and I hope that he will live up to the expectation of a full opportunity to debate this issue early next year.

6.18 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I will not join the chorus of critics who complained that this debate has not taken place on the Floor of the House. Under your benign chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien, this has been a very successful debate. It has provided a useful opportunity to put questions directly to the Minister, and to listen to and test his responses. This is a good formula—better, in many ways, than the formula that was used when the Conservatives were in power. We used to tell the Minister concerned to fight for a particular issue when negotiating in Brussels, and he would go away and say, ``I'm fighting for Britain.'' There would be no debate on his return, because other interests of particular importance to Conservatives would take precedence, and fishing would once again be betrayed.

Mr. Nicholls: It will be this time.

Mr. Mitchell: No, we get several bites of the cherry. We are putting our questions to the Minister and testing his responses, with the prospect of a debate when things have moved further on. That is a good way of doing it. It is also good because, in many respects, the only advantage of having a debate on the Floor of the House is publicity. It gets into the newspapers, but that just means that the parties take unrealistic stands, as in the debate on the presidency conclusions on the Floor of the House this afternoon. I mention that in passing, because those are the conclusions of a meeting held on 7, 8 and 9 December, but they were written and transmitted from the British representative in Brussels on 8 December. In Europe they write the conclusions before the meeting, which is a sensible way of doing things.

The Liberal Democrats will probably want to defend those European standards, but a debate on the Floor of the House leads to people taking unrealistic stands. The Conservative Front-Bench team would be saying that they would have got a better deal and supported field subsidies for the Government. There would have been the usual abject grovelling sycophancy from the Liberal Democrats, ``My Europe, right or wrong,'' whereas here, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George), actually ventured a criticism of France, which took unusual courage. Because it has taken place in Committee, under your skilful chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien, it has been an effective and interesting debate.

Mr. Quinn: Perhaps my hon. Friend, in his capacity as chairman of the all-party fisheries group, would suggest that all members write to the Leader of the House and not only advocate a debate in the new year, but say that this is the better format in which to take on board our business.

Mr. Mitchell: It would be useful to use this format again when my hon. Friend the Minister comes back. It stands to reason that we must have a debate on the Floor of the House. However, this debate has been so successful that it is well worth repeating that format. My hon. Friend should be congratulated on agreeing to present the case in that way.

I was a little worried by the response of my hon. Friend the Minister on The Hague preference, because that was sanctioned by the 1983 stability agreement. It is a means of safeguarding the position of the British industry. It gives us a guaranteed tonnage if the TAC falls below a certain limit. Grimsby does not qualify. Logically, it should be included in north Britain, but we are not included in that definition for some reason—probably as a result of an obscure European prejudice, or perhaps geographical ignorance on the part of Commissioners drawing up the areas.

The benefit of an increased guaranteed tonnage for the UK in the affected quotas is that it could be distributed throughout the British industry, so that, although Grimsby would not benefit directly, it would benefit indirectly. I was worried when my hon. Friend the Minister said that he would look at the matter in the light of the negotiations, because asserting The Hague preference would be unpopular among his European colleagues. He would not make himself loved. The fear of a row should not be the reason for not introducing it when necessary, and it is necessary at this juncture, particularly because of the link between cod and haddock in the EU-Norway agreement. If we catch the much reduced cod quota— we did not last year; the Minister is absolutely right about that, but this year the quota is reduced—then haddock stops too. That would be disastrous, although we must bear it in mind. It is a way of helping the British industry and asserting ourselves—something I like to see in the negotiations and something that the Minister will, I hope, consider very seriously indeed.

I was enormously cheered by his comments on industrial fishing, which must be stopped. It is impossible to justify to our fishermen—and to our electors—carrying on the massive industrial fishing effort, grinding everything into fishmeal, including fish good for human consumption, thus devastating their stocks. That must be stopped. A total ban is the only approach.

I hope that British representatives in Brussels will fight the link that the Commission has created between cod, hake and the other stock. It means that, when there is a reduction in cod, there must be an automatic reduction in other TACs. That makes no sense at all. There is different scientific advice on different quotas, and the prevailing circumstances are different. If the Commission's decisions, justified for cod on scientific advice, cannot be justified for other species on the same advice, we should mistrust them. Indeed, such decisions would fly in the face of scientific advice. I am not sure why the Commission introduced the link—possibly to show itself as effective and vigorous.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely strong case. There is no logic to the Commission's proposals. We have all, including previous Governments, said that we depend on advice from scientists, but the Commission appears to be ignoring such advice. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is a hidden agenda?

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman must not tempt me down that path. I always think that there is a hidden agenda. In terms of the Commission, there almost certainly is one, but discussing it would divert me from the main thread of my argument—which is to go out and have a fish dinner as soon as possible.

We are at an important stage in the life of the fishing industry, which is so vital to our constituents, as it is to our country, our national diet and everything else. We must confront the crisis. The shock of the decline in stocks and the threat to cod has brought the industry and the public up against the conservation problem. We have come up against it not when the cavalry is on the horizon, but when there are prospects of change and a more rational approach.

The cod and hake recovery plan must be developed into a recovery plan for the whole North sea. The Ministry is devising a plan for fishing based on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Agriculture, which reported 18 months ago. We need a national scheme for the rejuvenation of fishing and a recovery plan for areas that are especially threatened. If a plan were successfully developed for the North sea and enforced by regional co-operation and all the technical measures possible on mesh sizes, closing of grounds, and especially on spawning grounds, it could lead on to an overall recovery plan, which is what we need. We need a recovery plan for species and areas, and a national plan for fishing.

Fishing has rightly been a paranoid industry—it has been persecuted, or certainly not helped as it should have been. Fishermen are beginning to realise that they need to work together and plan in the face of the conservation problem. Now comes the problem of their survival in future. They are aware of and accept the necessary measures, are conversant with the conservation problem and are prepared to go along with the sort of measures that will produce the needed recovery plan. However, it is important that the mood change at this juncture, so that the industry is helped over the hump to inherit the future that lies ahead. It would be disastrous if, for want of Government support because of the financial crisis at MAFF, and for want of European support as well, the fishing industry in this country shrunk, began decommissioning and sold its quotas so that more quota-hoppers came in. The beneficiaries of such a decline in the British fishing industry would be my friends the French, the Dutch and the Spaniards.

We should help the British industry by seizing the mood that is now emerging, and use the pressures of the crisis to alleviate that mood. We should hold out hope to people in the industry, and show them that the prospect is there and that the Government will work with them to grasp it.

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