Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.25 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), because I cannot stay for the end of the debate.

I, too, want to scale down, and I invite the Minister to take the view from my constituency, Redcar, which has one of the smallest fishing fleets. We have nine cobles, which are less-than-10-metre boats that are launched afresh each day from the beach. They fish primarily for shellfish, but also for cod, Dover sole and nephrops.

For my briefing, I owe much to Mr. David Horsley, an executive member of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations from my locality. I am also indebted to him for a well learned bit of wisdom. When I said to him, during what he must have suspected was one of my early fishing conversations, that I knew that nephrops were important to him, he said, "Why, pet, if you're going to talk to us, you're going to have to learn to call 'em prawns, like we do."

The fleet fishes using gill netting, and long lines, and some of the small boats trawl. The less-than-10-metre boat fleet gets an annual quota from DEFRA of the TAC for each relevant fish. It has already received notice that this year's quota has run out. From 14 January to 30 April 2002, it will be banned from landing any Dover sole. There is a proposed further cut of 25 per cent. in the TAC for Dover sole and, unless there is a variation in the DEFRA quota to the less-than-10-metre boat fleet, that will have a great impact on it.

This argument has to be put into the economic context in which the fleet works. It has an approximate annual catch value of between £20,000 and £40,000. That is an annual input before any costs such as diesel, maintenance, shared hard-standing—because the boats are often out of

6 Dec 2001 : Column 558

the sea—and security from urban risks. Let us compare and contrast that with larger boats, which can catch up to £50,000 worth of fish from four or more days at sea. The larger boats obviously have higher costs, but the relative economic positions are clear from those figures.

Relatively and absolutely, small-boat fishermen in Redcar live hand to mouth. In that situation, they could easily be unbalanced and tipped into inviability, and they therefore merit particular consideration. A sustainable fisheries policy means taking measures to sustain fish stocks. It also means taking measures to sustain the fishing industry, so that its contribution to the local and national economy can continue.

A further problem that my constituents see on the horizon is the increase in mesh sizes in January from 100 mm to 120 mm for trawling. Large modern trawlers can drag their huge nets faster than an unladen coble can steam at full power. The mesh, heavy enough to remain rigid at a gauge of 110 mm, cannot be towed by a small boat at a speed sufficient to keep it rigid. The weight of the mesh does not allow the boat to get sufficient weigh on, so the mesh is not rigid but opens and closes, allowing the catch to slip through. Thus, for a small boat, the effect of an increase in mesh sizes goes beyond that for a large boat and it has a particular and perhaps unforeseen, but certainly disproportionate, effect on small-boat men.

In January, mesh sizes for gill nets will be upped from 4.75 mm to 5.25 mm. That will have a much more straightforward impact on those fishermen, because, inshore, they take smaller fish. There will also be a significant and deep impact on their takings. They are concerned, too, about the revival of the Minister's intention to impose shellfish licences on static gear at a cost that, at their subsistence earnings level, is meaningful.

A primary concern is that those fishermen fish for prawns, as I am learning to call them, at the west edge—a location in the North sea 15 miles offshore and hence not protected by the 12-mile limit. Access will soon be available to the French and the Spanish, who will not pay the costs of a British licence and will therefore be given a worrying economic advantage.

I must mention the importance of the fishermen in Redcar, which is primarily not a fishing port, but a small seaside resort backed by a poor, post-industrial area suffering from economic decline and social deprivation. The Redcar fishermen sell their fish direct from the coble, having been tractored up to the back of the sands on the esplanade. That is an attractive feature of Redcar's appeal as a resort.

People travel from further south and east in Cleveland and from Teesside, south Durham and north Yorkshire to buy freshly caught fish and, of course, to enjoy the picturesque spectacle. They stroll along the esplanade and are attracted to the shops, cafes, garages, amusement arcades and museums. They also pay to park and drink in the pubs. The point is clear: the fishing industry is, first, an integral part of the culture of a sea town and, secondly, engenders business for the town far beyond the value of the fishermen's earnings in a location in which every pound of local income is important to local people.

I must say again that there are general and specific problems for such a small fleet of small-boat inshore fishermen and I invite my hon. Friend the Minister,

6 Dec 2001 : Column 559

on behalf of everyone in the community I represent, to give all possible assistance to Redcar's highly valued fishermen.

6.32 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Like the hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), I represent a small fishing port, which is in the heart of my constituency. Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember when Arbroath was a bustling fishing port, but it has been in decline for a number of years to the extent that few boats fish out of it. Of those, three have applied to be decommissioned under the Scottish scheme, leaving very few still working. However, Arbroath still has a vibrant fish processing industry, and when we discuss the future of the fishing industry we should not forget that it sustains a great deal of onshore employment. Any Member who represents a fishing area also represents many fish processors.

My constituency is famous for the Arbroath smoky, the raw material of which is the haddock, so I am interested to note that the scientific evidence going before the Commission contains a recommendation for a considerable increase in haddock quota. That is welcome, but given the way in which the Commission has used other scientific evidence before it, I am apprehensive about whether it will ever come to pass. It should also be noted that, even if the haddock quota increases, levels would return to those fished in the mid-1990s, which were far below historic levels, so there is hardly cause for great celebration.

Over the past few years, there has been a problem with the continual supply of fish to the fish processing industry because of quota difficulties. That has affected my constituency, as some processors have been unable to obtain supplies and a main Arbroath smoky producer stopped making them because it could not obtain a consistent haddock supply. As a result, Arbroath smokies are now produced by small outfits.

We should bear it in mind that quotas are important not just to offshore fishing, but to onshore industry. A steady supply throughout the year is, perhaps, even more important to processors than to fishermen. Much of the fish coming into Arbroath comes from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), and from Aberdeen. It is transported by road, but that involves considerable cost.

I hope that when he discusses this in Brussels, the Minister will remember that for every job at sea there are numerous jobs on land—many in rural communities—that rely on those jobs at sea for a sustainable future.

6.35 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): We have been fortunate enough to hear, I think, 14 excellent speeches from Back Benchers, some of which had to be short. There was a common theme: the speakers represented fishing communities, and spoke on their behalf. A number emphasised the fact that we were discussing not just an industry but a community. One referred to mining. I come from a farming rather than a fishing community, but I too appreciate the point.

Members have put to the Minister the view from the fishing ports, and we all hope that he will convey that view at the important meeting that will take place on 17 December.

6 Dec 2001 : Column 560

Strong views were expressed, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), about the general nature of the common fisheries policy. Undoubtedly there must be reform at the very least, if not radical change. I do not want to concentrate on that because she made the necessary points. In the short time available, I want to ask the Minister two or three specific questions, because it is important for him to flag up Members' concerns at the meeting.

The first of those concerns, which the Minister himself admitted was causing anxiety, is the proposal for cuts in quotas. He rightly emphasised not just that we should question it for the scientific reasons adduced by a number of Members, but that it was unacceptable to fishing communities whom we, the politicians, must persuade of the efficacy of a policy proposed by the European Union as well as our Government. It is possible to put a lot of force behind Government policy and EU policy, but if the fishing communities reject proposals out of hand we are in dangerous waters. I know that his time is limited, but I hope that he will specify at least some of the arguments that he may advance, apart from his questioning of the science.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton expressed strong views about the CFP's appalling impact on the environment. It not only affronts tens of thousands of EU citizens but is totally counterproductive. I suspect that, with the exception of one or two bad fishermen, the fishing community rejects it as well. I should like to know what the Minister will say about that.

Finally, there is the whole business of compensation for fishermen, particularly in relation to the decommissioning of fishing vessels. The Minister and I were on a Committee debating a statutory instrument dealing with that. Our Scottish colleagues touched briefly on compensation in Scotland today, but perhaps the Minister will say whether all the compensation relating to English vessels has been taken up, and whether there is a queue for future compensation. That will be an issue that will come back and hit us again.

I wish the Minister well on 17 December and I hope that he will be able to address the problems raised by hon. Members. I look forward to further debates in the House next year on the issue and I am sure that we will have a robust discussion of the common fisheries policy. He will have had notice of some aspects of the argument from our side.

Next Section

IndexHome Page