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5.29 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I apologise to the Minister for having to leave the Chamber during his speech. This was no discourtesy to the House or the Minister but, as a member of the Committee dealing with the Proceeds of Crime Bill, I found myself in mid-sentence when the Committee was adjourned at 11.25 this morning, and was left with no option but to return. I welcomed much in the Minister's speech, and shall make every effort to familiarise myself with it in its entirety in the Official Report.

I welcome this debate, as many other Members have done. It has struck me, as a fairly new Member, how difficult it is to get the opportunity to discuss fishing matters. The Minister is no doubt aware that at the last Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time there were no fishing questions. On the previous occasion,

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the one question on fishing—about total allowable catches and their effect on Essex, that great fishing community—was given less than two minutes. Therefore, I am glad to take part in this debate.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of fishing to my constituency, especially to Shetland. Some 33 per cent. of the Shetland economy—£180 million—is derived from fishing and some 20 per cent. of the active Shetland population is employed directly in fishing. The Minister knows that because he attended a seminar in Shetland as recently as May this year. His attendance was greatly welcomed and I hope that he will return there soon to keep up to speed with what the fishermen in my constituency are saying.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has ever been to Shetland. I suspect that after her contribution to the debate, if she were minded to make the journey she might be given a rather hotter welcome than would previously have been the case. We have long felt that the 18 years of a Tory Government damaged the fishing industry in Shetland and elsewhere in Scotland because of their indifference towards us. I was intrigued to see from her contribution that their policy has moved on from indifference to downright hostility.

I was particularly concerned that the hon. Lady—who, unfortunately, has not had the courtesy to stay for the rest of the debate—felt it necessary to quote from the minutes of the Shetland Fishermen's Association in trying to support her contention that the Scottish pelagic fleet was given the benefit of a different enforcement regime. She referred to one of my constituents, Josie Simpson, and quoted the part of the minutes that said:

That would be a fairly flimsy justification, at best, for the hon. Lady's remarkable assertion. However, I have obtained the whole minute, and from what follows it occurs to me that the hon. Lady may have come very close to misleading the House with regard to the position of the Shetland Fishermen's Association and my constituent. The minute continues:

That does not sound like an enforcement regime that is in any way lax or indifferent. I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) will address that matter and put things straight when he sums up. The hon. Lady has just returned to the Chamber, but I shall not take interventions at present.

The Minister made reference in his speech to the elements of the common fisheries policy that he considers work well. I commend him for that and hope that he will give his blessing to the continuation of another element of the current policy—the position with regard to the Shetland box. That is crucial to the fishing industry in the

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northern isles. It has worked exceptionally well and might indeed serve as a prototype for zonal management under a reformed common fisheries policy. The licensing scheme limits the number of vessels of more than 26 m in length, and it is extremely important as it also allows unrestricted access for smaller boats.

The scheme is an important element in sustainability. It encourages small boats and it is crucial that inshore fishermen in Orkney and Shetland have such unrestricted access. They must be able to continue landing in Shetland and Orkney, as their contribution to the local fish processing industry is also of immense importance.

Several hon. Members referred to decommissioning and tie-up. The Scottish decommissioning package of £25 million is most generous. I ask the Minister, however, not to shut the door on tie-up and not to close his mind to it. I commend to him the report issued by the World Wide Fund for Nature, "Now or Never", which makes a strong case that short to medium-term financial assistance of that sort is a sensible long-term precaution and a conservation measure. I urge the Minister to use every available opportunity to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that funding will be available for a tie-up scheme in the future.

I thank the Minister for his support—unlike the support of the hon. Member for Congleton, his was unqualified—for the case being put by the Orkney islands and Shetland islands councils for the supremely important leaseback schemes for quota that they are operating in the northern isles. I have no doubt that they are doing so properly. I urge the Minister vigorously to pursue at every opportunity the case for maintaining such schemes. They are of crucial importance to one of the most fragile industries in one of our most remote and peripheral communities.

Sustainability for the Shetland fishing industry is not some high principle or a great ideal to which we must aspire. No community depends on fishing as we do. For us, it is essential to our continued survival and economic prosperity. I urge the Minister to remember that when he goes to Brussels.

5.39 pm

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). As I come from the community of Scarborough and Whitby, I can appreciate that he has a complete grasp of the strong wishes of his community in respect of the fisheries debate. I welcome him to this debate, and hope that he will make speeches in many such debates.

We experienced a sense of deja vu during the contribution of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I am sorry that he is no longer in his place. In fact, it was not so much deja vu; his approach to this annual debate was more like "Groundhog Day". Obviously, I am sure that all hon. Members were pleased to hear that he had flown back specially from New York to make his contribution, but I had a feeling that I had heard his speech many times before.

Unlike many of the other hon. Members who have spoken, I feel that the agenda is moving forward. I commend to the Minister the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), for Blackpool,

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North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), and I commend them for the fact that the agenda is moving on.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the one Tory Member who has been here for most of the debate. I have listened to many speeches made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), and the one that he made today was the most practical, most up to date and most open-minded that I have ever heard him make. I think that he is changing his mind.

Lawrie Quinn: I bow to the hon. Gentleman's wisdom on the issue, but from my perspective, having replaced a similarly minded gentleman in the Scarborough and Whitby constituency in 1997, it certainly sounded like "Groundhog Day". For those who are not aware of that movie, the point is that when the principal character wakes up in the morning he has forgotten what he learned the day before. He finally gets there, but it takes a long time. Surely if the Conservative Benches are to be filled in future annual fisheries debates, they have a long way to go and many more groundhog days before them.

I regret that, once again, the editorial line taken in today's Yorkshire Post—the principal newspaper in Yorkshire and the Humber region—involves a sense of "Groundhog Day". I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to read that article if he has not already done so. The headline is "Fishermen fear scrap heap in quota cuts". I recall seeing that headline as a preface to the debates that we had last year, the year before and the one before that. In any case, I suggest that the media need to play their part in the wider national debate on the economic, environmental and socio-economic issues that are important to the fishing communities. They need to get down to the quayside more often.

I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for visiting my constituency on numerous occasions in recent years. He has met my constituents, who rely on the industry for their incomes. He has listened to them and engaged with them, and he goes from strength to strength in their minds, especially given his record of representing the industry, which is very important to my constituency and many coastal communities around the country.

On most of the visits that my hon. Friend has made to my constituency he will have met Mr. Arnold Locker—a well-known fisherman in Whitby, the principal fishing port in my constituency. I am glad to say that he is now the NFFO's chairman-elect. I very much look forward to receiving the national briefings that he may send to those of us in the all-party fisheries group next year. I hope that Arnold will take the time to come to London to help to brief us for next year's annual fisheries debate, and I hope to see him then.

Like many fishermen, Arnold Locker is very good at communicating verbally. Having previously heard from Arnold an awful lot, I was very pleased that he has now put pen to paper. He has written a very interesting article in the current edition of NFFO news, which is an important newspaper for the industry. In many respects, Arnold's "View from the wheelhouse", as it is called, reflects the current opinion, which may be dangerous to my hon. Friend, that the great esteem in which he is

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held in Scarborough and Whitby and other fishing communities may be affected and that the choppy seas that he may face in the negotiations may be even rougher than any of us had previously thought.

Arnold Locker's article is entitled "Why the cod plan must be scrapped" and it conveys the message that I have heard on the quayside. Fishermen in Whitby are suspicious of the Commission because, as the Minister said, its recovery plan for the North sea chooses to ignore key parts of the science.

Arnold writes:

Such areas include Yorkshire. He adds:

Arnold Locker is not only putting pen to paper but talking to many people in my constituency and up and down the Yorkshire and Humber coast. The fact that someone like him is doing that means that the immense credibility of the long-term sustainable approach to fishing policy that scientists have been able to generate in the fishing community is being questioned. We must be able to demonstrate to the industry that the science is being applied, so, as many Members have said, I hope that the Minister will stress in the Council meeting on 16 and 17 December that the science cannot be ignored.

If the science is ignored, short-term damage will be done to the delicate relationship between the quayside, the scientists and this place. Furthermore, longer-term damage might be done to a conservation programme that fishermen and key stakeholders can buy into. The problem is not just the short-term one of quotas, but the long-term credibility of the Minister and this place when we talk about the national interest.

People on the quayside have asked me to raise several other specific questions in the debate. If the Minister does not have time to respond in his closing remarks, I hope that he will be able to write to me.

Does my hon. Friend accept that effort control in the form proposed by the Commission for the recovery plan will be both brutal in effect and uncertain in its benefits? Does he accept that the short-term losses associated with the North sea mesh size increase to 120 mm will be crippling for the industry? Does he accept that there is manifest agreement for public investment in recovery measures that will allow the fishing industry to rebuild its stocks to optimum levels? I stress to my hon. Friend that many Whitby fishermen have benefited more from the recovery package in Scotland than from the English scheme. Those fishermen are sceptical about what the public purse is managing to achieve.

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Access to the North sea—my hon. Friend has heard us get on this old hobby horse many times before—is pertinent to the debate in which he will engage in Brussels in the next week or so. What steps will the Government take to ensure that Spanish access to the North sea from 2003 will not result in a by-catch of quota species and an overall increase in the fishing effort?

Other hon. Members mentioned industrial fishing. Every fisherman finds it abhorrent that Denmark and other north European countries can still use industrial fishing for non-human consumption purposes. Will he ensure that he is seen to press for that to change?

On a local issue, a few salmon netsmen still fish out of the River Esk. My hon. Friend is aware that there is great concern about how long it is taking to conclude the negotiations on a compensation package to buy out the netsmen's licences. Obviously a tendering process is going on and I would appreciate it if he referred to the conclusion of that delicate negotiation.

I wish my hon. Friend well on behalf of the fishing communities of Scarborough and Whitby. I hope that he comes back with a headline settlement that is far better than the bleak prospect that we currently face, and that the next time he visits my constituency he is held in the same regard.

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