Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Mr. Nicholls: A seal cull.

Sir Robert Smith: Seals can be killed at the moment, but in an area such as Aberdeen where the mouth of the river is in the city, the police will not look kindly on people with rifles shooting in the river mouth.

The Minister recognises the seriousness of the industrial fishing problem, and he now has to convince his colleagues of it. Unless we get long-term, sustainable balance in the fishing stock, we will not have an industry for the future. I repeat the message that there is optimism for the future, because fishing has the capacity to be sustainable. That is still to be achieved: the Treasury must recognise the seriousness of the problem.

6.44 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): In view of time constraints, I shall be brief. I, too, welcome the Minister's assurance that he will use his best offices to secure a full debate in the new year. I go further than some right hon. and hon. Members in saying that if he does not do so, it will be a worrying demonstration of the importance that the Government attach to the fishing industry.

My views on fisheries policy are well known to the Minister. We have crossed swords in many previous debates. My view remains that the common fisheries policy is a practical and environmental disaster. I share the belief of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) that fisheries policy must be repatriated. I have never changed my view on that: I have expressed it for as long as I can remember and there is increasing evidence that it is the only way in which to proceed. Control of our own fisheries waters must be returned to our Westminster Parliament. We are making no progress in the collective at Brussels. This afternoon we have mentioned technical and other measures that have simply not materialised after so many years.

I want to make three points. First, I want to illustrate the effects of quota cuts, which have failed to address the fundamental problem. They will increase the discards—of that I have no doubt. Even the Minister accepts that there is a risk—shorthand for agreeing with me. The quota will impact drastically on the economies of fishing countries, on jobs in the fishing industry and on the viability of fishing communities.

Eight years ago, the Commission concluded that quotas were not working satisfactorily as a conservation measure. However, we all know that the Commission's answer to every problem is more of the same appalling medicine—quota cuts or additional regulations. All we ever get is tinkering with the existing mechanism and no fundamental reform. As my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge said, fundamental reform is impossible to achieve within the collective: it takes only one country to veto it.

My second point is extremely serious; I would like to address it to all Members of Parliament. It is a shame that we are not conducting the debate on the Floor of House, where more Members could consider the morality of the policy. How much longer can we go on supporting a policy, year after year, when we all know from evidence—some of it photographic—that thousands of tonnes of perfectly fresh saleable fish are being dumped back into the sea every day of the week? That is an outrageous affront to ecology and the environment. Many Government Members are supposedly concerned about animal rights and cruelty to animals, yet the most obvious aspect that everyone knows should be dealt with is the one that they choose to ignore.

That brings me to my third and final point. The responsibility for this appalling policy rests with Members of this House. It is not the Commission, the European Parliament or the Commissioners who are responsible; we voted for these measures and we are responsible for them. I should like to have had the opportunity to say that in the House. It will not be on my conscience when we continue with a policy that is exterminating entire species of fish. I have consistently voted against the common fisheries policy and I shall continue to do so on every occasion. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to search their consciences and ask whether they can go on supporting this appalling policy.

6.49 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I shall try to answer the points raised by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, my hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) and for Great Grimsby, and the hon. Members for St. Ives, for Teignbridge, for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

Many points have been made about the format of our debate. It will be beneficial if we have the full-scale debate on the Floor of the House as a follow-on. We are talking about the detailed aspects of the forthcoming Fisheries Council on TACs and quotas. Perhaps I am putting my neck on the block by arguing for a format in which I receive an hour of grilling from well informed hon. Members. I can see the advantage of a format such as this in principle, followed by a debate in January or February. The matter is not in my power, but in that of business managers. I have undertaken to speak to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as the case for a full-scale debate is entirely justified.

I reassure hon. Members about the link between the cod quota and other quotas, especially haddock. That link would generally be managed by individual producer organisations, which would make matching stocks to effort a little easier. MAFF data on catches show that we can distinguish between cod and haddock fisheries, so there are areas of sea with predominant cod or predominant haddock. A fishermen told me that there is anecdotal evidence that cod, being a cold water species, have retreated northwards into deeper water and that there may be a concentration of cod stocks in the deeper water of the north North sea. We can identify where the fisheries are, which makes effort control easier. It also makes it easier to argue about the Commission's proposal for a blanket effort reduction across all stocks.

A perfectly reasonable point was made—I think by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire—about TACs for dab, flounder, skate and rays. It is predominantly a by-catch fishery, but the uptake in the United Kingdom was well below the TAC, or that proposed by the Commission with a 20 per cent. cut. I do not feel greatly concerned about that stock; I think that we can manage.

Questions were asked about restructuring and adjustment of the UK fleet. Given the pressures on the fleet, it is inevitable that we shall have to consider it. I have said that I am willing to talk about it with the industry in the new year. Some funds are available through FIFG. If we go for a decommissioning scheme, we shall need considerable extra funds, which will mean making a case on behalf of the industry—and I have told the industry that I shall do so if need be. I am worried about decommissioning, because it has knock-on effects that cannot be ignored. It has benefits, too. In the most recent decommissioning round, some of the money went into modernisation of the fleet, but I am sensitive to the fact that it has consequences on individual ports.

Decommissioning is a cost commitment. I gently say to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that if one promises tax cuts and cuts in budgets, one cannot promise additional expenditure elsewhere. I notice that there were no promises of figures from the Conservative party about decommissioning and restructuring or support packages. The balancing of resources has to be borne in mind. I am prepared to make the case, but one has to do so in an overall Government policy.

I accept the issue of enforcement, although progress in common European standards has been made. The UK was a big driver in that, incidentally. We believe that we are making progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned seals, so I repeat that the issue is one of evidence. I have studied in detail the Canadian research about the effect of seal predation on the cod fishery on the grand banks. The Canadian Government started that research to prove that seals were a factor; it was not independent research. However, they could not prove that seals were responsible. Although cod stocks went down and have not recovered, the seals are healthy because they eat a range of species, including some predators of commercial stocks. The issue is complicated, and we should not allow seals to be used as a scapegoat, as often happens. I am not clear about the Opposition's policy. It seems that they have moved from executing burglars to executing seals. Neither policy is without risks, as we shall see in due course.

The hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned undersized hake and megrim, and I freely concede that that is an issue. The introduction of the 100 mm meshes has been helpful, although there was resistance from some people, even in the industry. However, those meshes are the right way forward and the solution to the problem of juvenile discards. The hon. Member for Ludlow feels strongly about the issue, but in his enthusiasm he sometimes forgets that the bulk of discards of juvenile and unmarketable fish occur as a consequence of normal fishing patterns. We must address all discards, whether they occur as a consequence of quota policy or fishing methods, and I am more than willing to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby apologised for not being able to be present at the end of the debate. He supports a change in format and mentioned the Hague preference. Implementation of the Hague preference is a complicated issue and not automatic. It requires the support of the Commission and other member states. From a minority position, the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be trying to push through a policy that essentially took fish from other member states and gave them to us. It is not easy to take such a position, but our right to do so was established in the common fisheries policy and I intend to use it where appropriate. I will certainly consider it carefully.

My hon. Friend also mentioned industrial fishing, and I have made our position clear. The Danes are decommissioning some of their industrial fishing vessels, and there is a strong argument for reducing the amount of sandeel stocks, but I suspect that we shall not resolve the argument at the forthcoming Fisheries Council. The debate is on-going, but must be addressed. Although it may take time to effect changes, I assure the Committee that I am committed to doing so.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge mentioned west country stocks and the fact that the Commission has gone beyond science. It is a question of effort. I absolutely accept that quotas are a blunt management issue, but they are not a feature of the CFP. We have used quota management before as a member of the CFP. Other fishing countries use quotas as part of their fisheries management. They are an established part of such management, not an invention of the CFP, but that does not mean that there are no problems.

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