Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. I shall call only two more speakers, so that the Minister has time to wind up.

6.30 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The hon. Member for Great Grimsby rightly said that the debate had been successful. However, he made the mistake of believing that he had been promised a sequel on the floor of the House. The Minister, with his usual cunning, appeared to suggest that, before slightly backing off from the idea.

The debate has been successful, but it was not held here for that reason. I acquit the Minister of responsibility for what has happened, but the debate was held here today simply because the Government have mismanaged their timetable. They filleted the House of Lords—to use a topical phrase—in the belief that it would then become nice, kind and tractable. Finding that that did not work and that they had got themselves into a mess, they realised that they had to go through some show of holding a scrutiny debate on this matter. ``That's OK,'' they thought, ``We can put it on in European Standing Committee A and we will have done the absolute bare minimum.'' That is what lies behind the debate—the question of priorities.

The Government have found the time for, and given priority to, a fully contested Bill on fox hunting. The fox is not an endangered species, but they will devote lots of time to a completely fruitless debate on the matter. In this Committee, we are dealing with two endangered species: fish and fishermen. The Government decided that the matter could be put before a European Standing Committee, and that that would be sufficient scrutiny.

Mr. Gill: Does my hon. Friend see any contradiction in the Government's declared intention to push through a Bill that will save the lives of a few thousand foxes, because to kill them by hunting them—

The Chairman: Order. We are not debating fox hunting. Can we stick to the question?

Mr. Gill: Indeed. Let us compare the hunting of foxes to the wanton destruction every day of the week of thousands of tonnes of fish discarded dead into the sea.

Mr. Nicholls: My hon. Friend is entirely right. This is all about priorities, and it says something about the Government's priorities that the debate took place in this way. I hope that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby is successful in his negotiations with the Leader of the House, and that in due course there will be a full-scale debate on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman is right when he talks about publicity. Yes, in a sense, what have we lost? All the old favourites—to use that term widely—are, I hear, having that debate today. However, the House of Commons should hold this debate on the Floor of the House. It is that important.

The Minister may have been beguiled into a false sense of reassurance by the fact that, on this occasion, no one attacked him particularly. The Minister has been lucky—the Commission has done him a favour by taking a position that is so extreme and absolutely barking that he can pose as the great champion of the fishing industry without having to address the fact that the policy within which he works is wholly unsustainable. He came here today fearlessly pledging—I am not being sarcastic—that he would go to Europe and demand that scientific advice be adhered to. Well, I would hope so.

I will not go through all the species again because time is short. The Commission is overturning the advice on various species given by scientists who, in the opinion of west country fishermen, already take a fairly rigorous view of the matter. That Commission decision has particular relevance to the west country. The Minister says fearlessly that he will go to Europe—but I know what will happen. He will come back in due course and say, to coin a phrase, ``Fish in our time.'' He will say that he has insisted that the scientific evidence be adhered to, and if he can secure a debate on the Floor of the House, or, more to the point, if he cannot avoid it, he will try to claim credit for the fact that the policy is intact and scientific advice has been adhered to. What we should have been talking about today—on the Floor of the House—is the policy itself. The common fisheries policy is hopelessly flawed. That explains the speeches of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. On the one hand, he wants to be a party loyalist. He still believes that it is a slight possibility that one day he will be made a parliamentary private secretary to someone, but on the other hand, he is absolutely—

Mr. Mitchell: There is always hope.

Mr. Nicholls: There is always hope. On the other hand, he is absolutely itching to get stuck into the CFP.

We have been discussing the conservation of species today as though the common fisheries policy were designed as a conservation measure. It was never designed as a conservation measure. Every time quotas are imposed under the CFP, are fish in some way safer? Of course not. Fish do not know about the policy. Fish swim into the nets regardless of whether they are within the quota. Every time we decrease the quotas, we do not save the life of one solitary fish. All we do is produce the abomination whereby many millions of dead fish are hurled back into the sea. That is the common fisheries policy. My own party should have realised that many years ago, and now it has.

We should like to have heard from the Minister a recognition that the CFP cannot continue. If anyone coming out of the cold and sitting in the Strangers Gallery wanted to know what aspect of the CFP shows how wrong and rotten it is, we would have to come back over and over again to the baby fish, as they are sometimes called.

The Minister is cunning and beguiling. He commits himself to doing everything and giving all possible assistance, short of actual help, with regard to baby fish. He tries to imply—within the present policy he has no choice—that the problem of baby fish is very difficult, that we must tackle it, and that baby fish should not be part of the discard. However, that is quite deliberate. Minimum sizes are set because some of our European partners want to catch baby fish, and with several species can do so legally.

Within the common fisheries policy as presently constituted, and within any CFP remotely like it, the problem will never be solved. It will never be tackled while a lot of Ministers from disparate countries sit around the table at the Fisheries Council and say, ``Over the years we have pillaged our own waters, but at least we still have the British waters to pillage.'' While a CFP is based on that policy, it will never be possible to solve the problem.

Year after year, until the past two to three years, we have heard the nonsense of the Minister responsible, be he Conservative or be he Labour, threatening Armageddon and being criticised by the Opposition. He then returns with slightly less than Armageddon, and proclaims it as a triumph. That is the nonsense of the CFP. Species come close to extermination, and fishermen are likely to go out of business.

There is only one way of dealing with the problem, and it is this: we need a policy whereby this country controls its own waters. Why would that work? Because if we were to control our own waters, we could quickly introduce the necessary measures relating to netting to catch specific species. There would be no horse-trading about fish. There would be no question—

Mr. Andrew George: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Nicholls: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, as I am always anxious, for electoral purposes, to let him say as much as possible about fish.

If we set our own policy, we would have an incentive to get it right, and if we were in that position, others would assert their own control, too.

Mr. George: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that it is Conservative party policy to re-establish national control over UK fishing waters?

Mr. Nicholls: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been for the past two years—the west country or the Houses of Parliament. I shall tell him what he clearly does not know, although everyone else does. We have made it absolutely clear that when we are returned to government we shall insist on return of control, and we shall do so with all the firmness that we showed when we said that we wanted our original budget rebate. That was given to us not by concession but because we made it clear that that was what we were going to demand.

What the Minister will have to do—but, frankly, he is almost too honest, and certainly too intelligent, to try—is to show why there is a possibility of radical reform within the CFP. It will be a happy Christmas for him, because all he has had to do today is discuss a ludicrous situation. However, when he has found that the scientific advice has been adhered to—as I am sure that he will—he will still find that the CFP is about dumping dead fish in the sea, and that conservation has not been advanced by one jot.

6.40 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): The Minister's reply to the debate will be important. It will enable us to know exactly what message he is taking away from the Committee. I shall be brief and, to that end, I shall pass the briefing of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation to him after our proceedings, in case he has not seen it, to avoid my having to read certain details into the record. We have benefited from hearing the statement. It should be exported to the Floor of House to ensure that the background details of our debate are known. The pressure is on the hon. Gentleman to succeed in persuading the Leader of the House to hold a fuller debate in the Chamber.

Sadly, the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) are no longer in Committee, but in the debate on the Queen's Speech the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central talked about seeing a glass half full rather than half empty. Perhaps that might have affected him, because he took away from our debate on the fish processing industry and our meetings with the Minister a feeling of optimism about the industry. The telephone calls that I have received from fish processors in the north-east of Scotland have highlighted optimism about the future being stable, but I do not detect that in the short term. While I do not want to talk down an industry, it is important that Treasury Ministers recognise the serious and immediate crisis facing the fishing industry. Whatever comes out of the negotiations will be extremely important. Whatever the results, the problems facing that industry will have to be addressed before the debate early in the new year.

One message that I have received from fishermen is that fish do not know national boundaries, and thus the solution to the problem must concern the fishing zone—the North sea as a whole. Drawing artificial lines on the map and saying, ``We'll have one rule here and another rule there,'' is not the best way to save fishing stock. A key measure is zonal management; it must come into force. Square mesh was dealt with in the statement.

In response to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), the Minister said that he was not sure where he stood on decommissioning. If it is recognised that we must have a certain amount of catching power versus a certain amount of sustainable fishing stock, we must somehow reach that balance. It seems that the industry's case for decommissioning is strong, and it feels that it is a victim of the Fontainbleu agreement. I point again to the Treasury. In the good years, it was banking its money under the agreement from both agriculture and fishing. These are the bad years. If we were another country in the European Union and were not affected by the agreement, there would be much more incentive to put the money back. The message is that if we get cheap insurance with a big no-claims discount, when it comes to making a claim we have to stump up that no-claims discount. The Minister must go back to the Treasury and say, ``That is the position, and you, the Treasury, must recognise it.''

I shall finish with some technical details. The Minister accepted that the Commission has gone overboard on nephrops, monkfish and herring, and said that he would consider the position. We shall see how he succeeds. As for the predators, the argument about the saithe seems strong. I do not want to create too much confusion about seals, but let us consider any balanced ecology where man has interfered. Man has taken away the killer whales that were predators on the seals. The seal population has grown. We must constantly be looking at such matters and recognise—

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