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21 Nov 2002 : Column 808—continued

Andrew George: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Morley: I want to make a little progress.

The advice is that we must introduce a moratorium on fishing for cod and stocks such as haddock and whiting, unless we can find ways in which to minimise by-catches and discards of cod. The implication is that the North sea will shut. Let me make it clear that I do not believe that that is a realistic option. However, we cannot simply oppose it. We must recognise that the Commissioner is responding to the science, and welcome his wish to identify alternative approaches. We should be in no doubt that such alternatives will have a serious effect on fishermen if they are to lead to any stock recovery, but there are options other than wholesale closure. That also applies to the Irish sea and the west coast of Scotland.

David Burnside: Will the Under-Secretary assure hon. Members that a moratorium is not being considered for the Irish sea because of the current state of stocks? He recently said:

Will he confirm that the Irish sea is not under consideration for a moratorium?

Mr. Morley : I have that point in my notes. A great deal of work has been done in the Irish sea. Although we must be cautious about interpreting the science, it encourages me that there has been an upturn from the almost terminal decline of the breeding biomass of cod in the Irish sea. However, the upturn is modest, and we cannot

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ignore that. One upturn in one year does not mean that we have turned the corner. We cannot be complacent about the Irish sea, but we are making progress.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I am pleased with my hon. Friend's statement. Will he reassure Fleetwood fishermen that the full impact of the Irish sea cod recovery programme will be taken into account? They have co-operated with the programme and worked hard within it, and they are more than happy to continue with it. They want it to be fair, and they want the full impact of the past three years to be taken into account so that there is no complete closure, and to ensure that they have a future.

Mr. Morley: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. She arranged a meeting between the Fleetwood fishermen and me at the recent Blackpool conference. That was constructive, and I acknowledge the work that they have done in co-operating with the recovery programmes in the Irish sea. I understand their point of view, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I will take it seriously in future negotiations.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Does my hon. Friend recognise that long-lining is a highly environmentally sustainable method of catching fish, particularly cod, because it does not result in young dead fish being hauled up in nets, only to be thrown back? Bearing that in mind, whatever has to be done to preserve, or to try to resurrect, cod stocks in the North sea, will he seek a future for long-lining? I do not believe that long-lining is the reason that cod stocks have been so badly damaged.

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend has arranged meetings for me with his long-liners to discuss the issue. Certain methods of fishing are highly selective and have a very low impact, and I do not think it unreasonable that people using such methods should get some special consideration or treatment. That view may not be shared by other member states, but I am certainly prepared to make a case for it.

Andrew George: The Minister's remarks are welcome, but will he comment on the uneven focus that a number of the member states are giving to other fishery methods? The result is a much-needed focus on the white fish industry, but we are only now reaching the stage of planning that an impact study of the effects of industrial fishing will take place next year. We should be much further forward in dealing with that issue, as industrial fishing has the greatest impact of all on fishing, especially in the North sea.

Mr. Morley: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I do not disagree with many of the points that hon. Members have made, particularly on behalf of their constituencies, which can be quite severely affected by these changes. They are right to raise these issues; it is the responsible thing for constituency MPs to do, and taking their views into account is the responsible thing for me, as a UK Minister, to do.

We cannot, however, get away from the fact that we must take the scientific advice seriously. Without fish, there will not be a fishing industry. That is not to say that we should not challenge and examine the scientific

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advice, and I give the House an assurance that that will be done. Attacking the science is not helpful, however, and one or two politicians—not, I hope, those in the Chamber today—have made unhelpful remarks about it. They think that they are doing the industry a service by rubbishing the science and pretending that there is not a problem—but we cannot do that; we have to recognise the reality.

We must identify an approach to achieving recovery that will impact even-handedly on all the fleets in the European Union, because I have no intention of allowing the UK to take all the impact of such measures. The approach must apply to all affected fisheries, and it must maximise the possibilities for fishing to continue. My ministerial colleagues from the devolved Administrations and I, and our officials, are talking urgently to the industry to identify the options.

Mr. Salmond: The Minister has said openly that he disagrees with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea on industrial fishing. Does he appreciate how disillusioning it is when, after many years of effort by him and other Members, myself included, a fleet moves to using a big 100mm mesh with square mesh panels, only to find that no one else is doing so—not even south of Newcastle, as the Minister is well aware—and that that huge move, in environmental and conservation terms, is not even being taken into account when the recommendations are being made? Does he understand the frustration and anger that that causes among fishermen?

Mr. Morley: Of course I understand that, but it is important for those who represent the industry not to start panicking at this stage. There is a lot to do. The work that we have done on effort calculation—some of which is quite recent; we are still calculating the effort—has not been factored into the equations, but I assure the House that it will be. I will ensure that it is.

Ann Winterton (Congleton): The Minister has played the environmental card throughout the debate, but is not there an inherent danger in that, as it masks the true agenda for integration and plays into the hands of the Commission? If agreement is not reached by the end of the year, the Commission can introduce six-month emergency measures—which can, I hasten to add, be continued under article 174 of the Maastricht treaty, which relates to the environment.

Mr. Morley: If there is no agreement in the Council, the Commission can introduce emergency measures that could include closing the North sea. For that reason, the alternative case that we make must be sensible and able to stand up to examination. I have a lot of respect and time for the hon. Lady, but I hear a hint of Eurosceptic conspiracy theory creeping in here. I believe that there is a broad-based approach in the House, across parties, to the points that I have outlined and to what we need to do. There is support for that.

Ann Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, because I asked a simple and

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straightforward question. He answered the first part, about the six-month emergency powers, but will he now accept the fact that article 174 of the Maastricht treaty—

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Which the Tories introduced.

Ann Winterton: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman voted for it as well.

Mr. Foulkes: The Tories put it through.

Ann Winterton: Right. I shall talk about that later, but now I am asking the Minister, who is in government and in power, whether those emergency powers can be continued under that treaty on environmental grounds.

Mr. Morley: In terms of how the powers apply to fisheries, I understand that they cannot. They are time-limited and temporary. However, I do not apologise for acknowledging environmental issues; they are very important. There is no contradiction between concern for the marine environment and concern for the fishing industry, because the fishermen themselves are concerned about the marine environment. They know that if we do not have strong environmental measures, we shall have no fishing industry. I am perhaps unique among European fisheries Ministers in that I am both an Environment Minister and a fisheries Minister. I find that a strength in my approach and my negotiations, not a weakness.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) brings me on to other points. On the environment, for example, I am surprised by the Liberal Democrat amendment, because it is weaker than the Government motion. We make it very clear from the beginning of our motion that we recognise the importance of the environment, but there is no such acknowledgement in the Liberal Democrat amendment. I am sure that I shall not disagree with a lot of what the Liberal Democrats say in the debate, but if they want a strong, credible green policy to defend our fishing industry, they should vote with us tonight. I make that minor point to them now.

I am sure that we shall hear about national control from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), but I hope that he can define better than his predecessors exactly what that means. We have national control. I say to him that we face an important issue and a serious situation for fishing stocks. It is important to achieve some consensus here, and ensure that the Conservative party is not dictated to or distracted by its Eurosceptic fringe. That was a real problem for the previous Government and it had far-reaching consequences—one of which, incidentally, is that my Government have been taken to the European Court for fisheries enforcement infractions dating back 11 years from 1996.

Responsibility for that court case does not lie with Conservative Ministers. I was an Opposition spokesman at that time, so I know that they were doing their best to get to grips with the enforcement problems affecting our own fleet, but the climate created for them

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by a Eurosceptic rump dictating to the Government made it impossible to introduce such measures. As a result, when I became Minister in 1997, black fish landings were rife in this country. I do not dispute criticism of the common fisheries policy, which is often justified, but the fishing industry must take some responsibility for infringements in the past. Not only is such action damaging; it undermines the science when scientists suspect that declarations are not accurate. That helps no one. It does not help the industry, it does not help the science and it does not help me to make decisions.

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