Fishing vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2001

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Andrew George (St. Ives): I join other hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair, Miss Widdecombe. We last shared an interest when we both won prizes in the Pre-School Learning Alliance painting competition of childhood memories: a happily blank sheet of white paper was horribly disfigured by my scrawlings, but I am sure that yours was beautifully enhanced.

I hope not horribly to disfigure the debate, which I welcome as it deals with such an important measure. Like the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for Great Grimsby, I welcome the decommissioning scheme for England, although many questions still need to be asked. Some questions have been asked, so I shall not repeat them.

I am disappointed that the Minister reached the conclusion that the trade in quotas, which flows from the sale of licences, cannot be geographically restricted. He recognised the need, as far as possible, to maintain viable fishing communities. Quotas should be retained in fishing areas that are under particular threat and that could be undermined by the quota market. I am sure that the Minister could identify such threatened communities, and I would welcome his thoughts about future quota management.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the Worldwide Fund for Nature report called ``Now or Never'', which is part of its oceans recovery programme. I noticed that in Fishing News on 26 October the Minister said that he was not persuaded by the argument about tie-ups rather than a decommissioning scheme. He may wish to comment on that. Clearly, the wider debate about decommissioning and controlling effort in the fishing industry must examine alternatives. Past decommissioning schemes have not always had the success that people hoped. It would be helpful to have a wider debate about methods of effort control within the industry. Intelligent, well-thought-out and carefully costed—as far as is currently possible—proposals have been made by the environmentalist movement that now they have the industry's support. Such proposals deserve further investigation.

I understand that the decommissioning proposals altered the first decommissioning scheme that was introduced in the 1980s, which was criticised by the National Audit Office for not representing value for money--it thought that it was a waste of money. In May last year, the European Commission's review of decommissioning that had taken place in the mid-90s resulted in the decision to extend MAGP IV by a further year, to the end of next year, to allow more time to meet effort reduction targets. The method used to calculate the reductions in effort was criticised and, presumably, that was taken into account when the Minister and his Department brought forward proposals for the gross tonnage method of calculation, rather than the VCU method. Activity limitation schemes were also criticised. They are a bone of contention in the industry.

We must emphasise the points made by the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk and for Great Grimsby. We are all looking for evidence and guarantees that fleet reduction efforts are genuinely being shared across the Community. Will the Minister reassure the Committee that efforts in Scotland and England to meet production targets are also being made in other countries, and that we are not laying ourselves open to a fresh wave of flag of convenience purchases of spare quotas, which will be freed up as a result of licensed purchases?

How effective does the Minister anticipate the scheme will be? In view of the criticisms of past schemes, especially the 1980s scheme, he must have considered how many vessels would be taken out of the industry, or how much gross tonnage could be purchased with the £6 million available? Have those calculations been made?

Why does the English scheme provide such a paltry amount? As I understand it, the Scottish scheme provides £25 million, whereas the English scheme provides £6 million? What factors came into play when that amount was considered? It would be useful to know whether the calculation was scientific or based on a hunch?

Hon. Members referred to the problems being caused by the current market in scrap metal, the impact that that will have on the decommissioning scheme, and the need for more time? I echo their concerns. Will the Minister be receptive to requests for an extension if skippers and owners of vessels find it difficult to meet the end-of-February deadline for decommissioning, given the paltry state of scrap metal prices?

Paragraph 8(4)(a), on page 6, refers to

    ``breaking up the vessel or otherwise permanently disabling it (but not, in either case, by scuttling)''.

Many in the fishing industry have recognised the value of artificial reefs in providing fertile ground for a certain species of fish. I understand that a licence or authority has recently been given for the scuttling of Ministry of Defence vessels. If such a practice is acceptable for the Ministry of Defence, why cannot the decommissioning scheme allow for the creation of artificial reefs, which enhance the marine environment, provided that all toxic and other waste is removed from the vessel before it is scuttled? An explanation would be appreciated, because it seems to be firmly and clearly ruled out of the scheme as the Minister has described it.

I think that the Minister may be the longest-serving Minister with responsibility for the fisheries. People in the fishing industry greatly appreciate the fact that the Minister knows what he is talking about, because they know that it takes a lifetime to get one's head around the politics and the technicalities involved.

Mr. Mitchell: How long will it take the hon. Gentleman?

Andrew George: It will take too long for my lifetime, given the small amount of grey matter that I can apply to the problem. Nevertheless, I do my best with that limitation.

The Minister will recognise that such knowledge, despite its accompanying accolades, comes at a price, which is that he can be reminded of commitments that he made years ago, and I shall now do that. He will remember the enjoyable meetings that he had in the Beachfield hotel near Newlyn in Penzance when he visited my constituency in February 1998. Following the EU ban on tuna drift net fishing, he made several commitments to those holding tuna drift net licences and who therefore found themselves in parlous circumstances. He stated that he would consider a compensation scheme. The people who still hold such licences are facing an EU ban at the end of this year. They need information in the next few days about whether they should apply for compensation. They need a response to requests that they have made to him, both in person and through me, about the settlement he had in mind when he made his commitment to look into their circumstances.

Since that meeting, I have written to the Minister requesting information on behalf of my constituents Barney Thomas, Donald Turtle and Mike Williams. I wrote on 29 May, 11 September and 24 October, but I am sorry to say that I have not received a response. I should be grateful if he would give a response or, at the very least, get back to me and to those three fishermen as quickly as possible. It will soon be the eleventh hour when fishermen must decide whether they should apply, so it will be no good responding to my requests on 17 November, because that will be too late.

All fishermen are aware that their track record of total allowable catch species is now expressed in fixed quota allocations based on their landings between 1994 and 1996. Industry representatives tell me that the application form states that a vessel's track record of non-TAC species can also be sold. However, the Department has not clarified the reference period for non-TAC track records. Clarification is clearly needed before 16 November, because fishermen need to calculate the value of their track records before they submit their decommissioning tenders. Industry representatives have asked me whether further clarification can be provided.

Turning to gross tonnage calculations—there are limitations to my ability to get my head round these calculations—the decommissioning scheme invites tenders according to sterling per gross tonnage, but previous schemes were judged on sterling per VCU. The problem is that only vessels more than 15 m in length have been measured in gross tonnage using the ITC 69 measurement—whatever that may be. Vessels below that size will have their tonnage expressed either as net tonnage or gross registered tonnage. However, DEFRA and the Sea Fishing Industry Authority use a simple conversion formula known as GT* to convert GRT into gross tonnage. It is therefore right and fair that DEFRA officers who assist fishermen in completing their forms and making the GT* calculations advise them in such a way that all bids can be compared and evaluated fairly, and fishermen are not sold short.

Paragraph 8(5)(b) of the instrument refers to decommissioned boats and their possible

    ``preservation for the public benefit of a collection of historic, artistic or scientific interest''

that is

    ``wholly or mainly maintained out of moneys provided by Parliament.''

Historic collections may be mainly or wholly funded by other legitimate sources for the preservation of vessels of historic interest—for example, charitable funds or lottery moneys. Will the Minister consider widening the definition of such funding to provide flexibility and allow some vessels to go into other collections?

Can the financial instrument for fisheries guidance, or DEFRA funds, still be used in future to support investment, safety and crew comfort? Both the House of Lords inquiry and the Commission drew attention to the use of some FIFG funds to enhance effort in the industry. However, there is a strong feeling in the industry that FIFG funds that are directed towards safety and crew comfort could be disaggregated from effort. Can the Minister reassure me, and thus the industry, about the directing of grants for investment in boats?

Will the Minister give us his best estimate of what MAGP IV will be replaced with? I understand that there is a view in the Commission that the current multi-annual guidance programme has not been the success that was hoped, and that the approach has largely been a failure and a waste of time. Will he clarify the views expressed in his discussions with the Commission and with other nation states?

I am sorry to have detained the Committee, but important questions need to be addressed. The scheme has support, but it requires more flexibility.

5.24 pm

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