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5.51 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I am pleased to participate in the annual debate on fisheries. It has been of a high quality, and I hope that the Minister appreciates the assistance that we are trying to give him in his difficult job as he takes his arguments into Europe on 16 and 17 December. In fact, I think that we should have an annual dinner each year in which mugs are cast. The Minister could be the honorary patron of the organisation and I might even buy some of the drinks.

The debate has been valuable. The Minister has done well to secure a full day. I have much more confidence that the industry is in his hands rather than those of some of his predecessors who have sat on the Treasury Bench during my 18 years in this place. That is good. We hope that he will build on his reputation and use his experience to great effect on 16 and 17 December.

Although I concur with much that has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I fear that the situation in my constituency is as bad as it has ever been. We cannot avoid that, and it is not the Minister's fault. I have noticed for the first time that any sense of hope is beginning to disappear, especially among young skippers. That is very bad. In larger coastal communities and bigger sections of the industry, such as in Peterhead and the places represented by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), there is a higher critical mass. A village-based industry or a small coastal community reach a level at which skills, and the investment, go.

There are two things that are different this year and that worry me. The volatility of scientific advice makes it harder for people to plan investment, marketing and processing. We have had long battles. The Minister has led the argument, with some success, that science is the thing to follow. Cod recovery plans and so on are the only way forward in the longer term. However, there are deeply worrying wild fluctuations in scientific advice and the statistics on which we base policy decisions. As a lay person, one would think that they cannot be right every

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year. On top of that we have to deal with the Commission's new complementary measures, which do not have anything directly to do with science and produce more difficult TAC situations with which we have to cope.

In addition to those difficulties, we face an uncertain year come 2002. Everybody understands that the common fisheries policy needs reform. I know that the Minister understands that, and that he is aware of crucial issues such as zonal management and relative stability in the six and 12-mile limits, but they represent yet more uncertainty, and that does not help. We must all work harder still to address those issues.

I am very worried about the level of discards in 2001, which other hon. Members have mentioned. It seems to me, from my experience and from what I am told, that there is a big biomass of undersized fish, and catching them is leading to discards on a scale that we have not seen for a long time. That may get worse next year. I do not know what can be done. In my constituency, 250 boxes of haddock that were just above minimum size were left unsold, so it is clear that even if one lands this stuff, there is no market for it. We need actively to address the issue of discards, and if the Minister can get better scientific advice and support on that, so much the better.

I agree that transitional protection, to which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and many others referred, needs urgent consideration. I think that I can win an argument in my coastal communities that with the industry in a state of flux, if sensible scientific advice is consistently followed for five years, there will be better times ahead. However, fishermen will not be able to survive for that time, so some support is necessary. In Scotland, £25 million for decommissioning has gone a long way, and that programme has allowed people to exit the industry with dignity. Fishermen, particularly those with smaller boats, will find it hard to deal with the technical conservation measures that will come in early next year. The Government need to work harder and harder to provide the support that the fishing industry needs to survive until, we hope, the cod recovery programme and other measures come on-stream and come right.

I subscribe to the view about ambient temperature changes that the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) usefully put on the record. We need to understand those important issues, but it is difficult for us, as policy makers who are laymen, to do so. I hope that we will not ignore the advice that we are being given.

As I said, decommissioning is important, and industrial fishing must be dealt with, but I want to leave the Minister to consider two other issues. The first is the effect of the proposed cut in nephrops in my area, which will be very difficult to sell to fishermen. It is almost impossible to convince the sector in my constituency that such cuts are necessary. There has been a huge diversion of effort, which we all expected as a result of the cod recovery programme, so it is impossible for me to return to my constituency and defend nephrops cuts on the scale suggested by the commissioner. We produced evidence on that, and I was surprised by it because I thought that in the north-east sector there would have been a bigger cod by-catch. If the Minister takes any message from me

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to the negotiations on 16 and 17 December, it is that he should fight his hardest to try to inject more common sense into them.

Secondly, as someone who spends quite a lot of his time in this place considering social security issues, I know that there are big changes ahead in the social security programme. The Government are sensibly moving towards working tax credits, but the way in which the fishing industry works, with days at sea determined by the weather, makes it difficult for people on jobseeker's allowance to try to get any sustainable help coherently delivered by the benefits system. It would be sensible if the Minister could spend half an hour with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. He could then explore whether the introduction of tax credits, later this year and beyond, will provide better support and ease access to the benefits system, particularly for crewmen.

Of all the resources, fish are probably the main one on our minds in this debate, but if we do not have the skilled labour to go to sea, we are all wasting our time. It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that young people are not prepared to contemplate any career in fishing, and it is becoming harder and harder for share fishermen north of the border to find crews to go to sea.

Let us hope that the Minister can keep in mind all the points that have been raised. If, after the resolution of these difficult matters on 16 or 17 December, he can secure a meeting of the European Standing Committee under the scrutiny process, that would be appreciated by all.

6 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): It is a pleasure to be called to speak in a fisheries debate, especially as it is the first time that I have been able to speak in one for more than two years, having served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That experience gave me some insight into the role of the Department in dealing with fisheries.

I am sure that we could not have a more committed Fisheries Minister than my hon. Friend. As has been said, he is clearly the most knowledgeable Fisheries Minister we have had. He has become irreplaceable, even if after four years of fishing and floods, some of us may feel that he deserves promotion, or perhaps relief. It was said earlier that he was the best Fisheries Minister in a Labour Government; I think that he is the best in any Government. I know that he has a hard task in government carrying the flag for fishing, which is why I begin my contribution by saying why I believe fishing is important in national terms.

First and obviously, fishing is a source of healthy and nutritious food—non-fattening food, as I have discovered in recent months, by focusing my diet more on fish. It is also an extremely popular food, though not always in the least fattening form. Fish and chips is our national dish. If hon. Members have not tasted them at their best, I invite them to sample the fish and chip shops of Lowestoft. It is inconceivable that we in the UK will not want to eat fish.

We are an island nation, so it is unthinkable that we will not want to catch a substantial proportion of our fish ourselves. We expect to be a top fishing nation. We know that we are now catching much less than we did and that

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there are fewer fish to catch. Governments cannot conjure up more fish, but our industry is becoming weaker, relative to that of other countries that fish our waters. I shall return to that.

All round our island are fishing ports and fishing communities. Fishing is especially important to places such as Lowestoft, where I live. It is not easy to find other work in such peripheral locations. Fishing in those communities is in people's hearts, as well as their minds. We know that there are only a fraction of the jobs that there were and that fishing is no longer the major part of those local economies as it once was. However, it is still a substantial part of the economy in Lowestoft, and it is an emotive issue.

Everybody in a fishing community knows a fishing family and sadly, everybody knows a fishing family who has suffered a bereavement at sea. Fishing is rather like mining. When we see it in those terms, fishing has political importance, like mining. We should recognise that.

Other hon. Members referred to the recent WWF report, "Now or Never", which is one of the most significant reports that we have had for a long time. It is significant because it resulted from a partnership between the WWF, an environmental organisation, and the fishermen's organisations. This is the first time that that has happened, as far as I know. It is the first of two new partnerships that I shall mention.

I do not have time to dwell on the report, but it paints a grim picture. It notes that our fishing industry is disintegrating before our eyes. It charts the decline, and points out that the financial assistance to the UK fishing industry is among the lowest in the European Union: 850 euros per fisherman in the UK, compared with 3,532 in Belgium, 3,524 in Germany, 1,222 in the Netherlands and so on. As I said, the Government cannot conjure up more fish, but those figures suggest that we could do more. All countries face the same problem of stock depletion, but the Dutch and Spanish industries seem to be in a stronger position than ours.

My principal contention is that this country needs a comprehensive plan for fishing, which will be achieved only by the Government and the industry working together in a formal taskforce. There should be a plan not just for conserving fish, vital as that is, but for the industry as well. The plan for the fish is obviously the common fisheries policy, which we are trying to reform; it certainly needs to be much better. We come to the House annually to discuss the usual measures—tax, multi-annual guidance programmes or MAGPs, recovery programmes, technical measures and so on—but what about the fishing industry? As other Members have said, if we succeed in conserving our fish and achieving a recovery of stocks, what shape will our industry be in? We must ensure that there is still a worthwhile industry to catch the fish.

I want to put to my hon. Friend the Minister the views of my local fishing industry on measures for the year ahead. In Lowestoft, the fleet of North sea plaice fishermen agrees with the scientists' recommendation of a total allowable catch of 77,000 tonnes for North sea plaice. The fishermen make that suggestion, despite knowing that there has been a better year class for plaice this year; they have asked me to urge my hon. Friend not to agree a higher quota in the Council of Ministers. They accept that the Dutch may try to push it up to

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86,000 tonnes, but they do not want that because they want to conserve the fish. There is therefore a second remarkable partnership; fishermen and scientists agree on what the level of fishing should be. That came out yesterday in the meeting between the all-party group on fisheries and the NFFO, which is at one with the scientists. In those circumstances, the Commission should not disregard the science; I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that on 17 December, the politicians do not disregard it either.

My plaice fishermen do not want closed areas, whether for North sea cod or other fish; they regard such areas as unfair for plaice fishermen, who have a tiny by-catch of cod. Last year, they were prevented from going to catch plaice by the cod closure programme. They appreciated the extra little box that my hon. Friend negotiated, but last winter was extremely tough, especially with high fuel prices. Like them, I feel that they could be allowed into closed areas under satellite monitoring, with their catches validated on landing. If there has to be a closure period this year or in future, I do not see why they cannot be allowed to do that. We would know exactly which boats are fishing; my fishermen do not catch much cod and must be allowed to carry on catching plaice when those fish are there to catch. They do not want proposals for tie-ups or days at sea, which would be impossible to manage because of their difficult circumstances.

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