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21 Nov 2002 : Column 830—continued

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he says about imported fish applies to large processors? There are many small family firms in my constituency and they rely totally on fish landed at

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Scottish ports, principally Fraserburgh, Peterhead and Aberdeen. The closure of the fishery will destroy such firms. The large firms may be able to survive with imports, but the small ones cannot.

Mr. Doran: I understand that point entirely. The firms in my constituency range from small one-man businesses to larger companies.

Lawrie Quinn: Does my hon. Friend agree with the concern expressed on the quayside at Whitby about the Faroese, in particular, dumping stock, depressing the price and, therefore, compounding the problem that the industry faces?

Mr. Doran: Prices are falling because supplies are healthy from the Faroes and Iceland.

Mr. Savidge: My hon. Friend is making an excellent, balanced and comprehensive speech. As recently as last week, our producers in Aberdeen were telling us that, although it is true that some people can rely on imports, a number of local processors rely on perhaps as much as 85 per cent. of white fish caught locally.

Mr. Doran: My hon. Friend makes his point.

I have spoken to many processors and they express a range of views. The most consistent opinion that they express—this will probably cause dismay to many catchers who do not already know this—is that they support a total ban on cod fishing but that the quotas for haddock and whiting should be appropriate to the stocks. There will be a by-catch with the haddock and whiting, and many processors recognise that such a ban would cause great difficulties for many fishermen, particularly those who invested heavily in buying up cod quotas. They would face serious difficulties. It is not an easy choice and I do not pretend that it is. However, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear such issues in mind in the negotiations.

The fish processing industry employs about 4,500 people. The figure constantly fluctuates, but processing is still a major industry in the north-east of Scotland. Even Aberdeen, which is a significant oil town and known as the energy capital of Europe, relies heavily on the fish processing industry. In fact, my recent discussions with the industry have concentrated as much, if not more, on labour shortages as on quotas. The industry is still a major contributor to the local economy. The industry will find it difficult if cuts to the haddock and white fish sector of the market take place on the scale suggested. The industry already faces a skills shortage and we might lose the skills that we have. We lost skills in the herring industry 20 years ago, and we do not want that experience to be repeated. A significant number of my constituents depend on the fishing industry, and skills have been acquired. Those skills are not transferable, and we want the industry to be sustained.

We face difficult times. I know from my private conversations with my hon. Friend the Minister that he fully understands the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland and to the whole UK. I know that he will

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fight our corner—this is the party political broadcast. It is important at any time of crisis to recognise that there may also be opportunities. For years in Edinburgh, London and Brussels, we have debated the need for a sustainable sea fishing industry. We have made some progress, but most of the time we have lurched between annual quota negotiations without too much sense of direction. Out of this crisis may come an opportunity to lay the ground for a properly structured system that is based on sustainability and tied to conservation measures that can guarantee a viable future for the industry.

3.9 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, leave out from Xfishing" to end and add:

Given that we have little more than two hours left, I shall do my best to be brief. Many hon. Members have a great knowledge of the fishing interests in their constituencies, so it is a pity that a disproportionate amount of time was taken up by the Tory Front Bench. Although I like the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes)—[Interruption.] I do not want to get into an argument about time, because that will only result in the loss of yet more time.

There is a gathering consensus among hon. Members who represent constituencies with a fishing interest. The Government motion is ostensibly about the common fisheries policy. A great tome has been presented to the House on aspects of that. It is clear that those who know about and understand fishing constituencies are coming to recognise the right and proper direction that the policy is taking.

The Liberal Democrats have not tabled the amendment because we disagree with the Government motion. Our concern is that it does not reflect the debate in the industry and the concerns about what might happen as a result of negotiations on future quotas for stock, especially around the UK's coast. It is important to ensure that the debate gives time to those issues. We want to put fire in the Minister's belly and hope he accepts that some of the science is questionable. He said that we should challenge the science if it can be robustly attacked on scientific grounds, and take our concerns to the Commission.

The question is whether we will sustain enough of the fishing industry in this country to make a debate on the future of the common fisheries policy worth while. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) rightly said that we often debate the future of the fishing industry at this time of the year, and every year we are at various degrees of crisis management. Although I do

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not want to say that we have cried wolf, it is important to realise that the issues are now so serious and deep that we have gone beyond crisis management. If the proposals by the Commission and ICES are accepted, they will have a significant impact on fishing communities not just in Scotland, but around all the UK's coast. The problem demands special measures and urgent attention. We need cross-party consensus on how to proceed. It is clear that the future of the fishing industry is far more important than narrow party political point scoring, which is often a factor in the debate. I will do my best to avoid that.

Lawrie Quinn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. In that spirit, does he agree that it would be appropriate for fishing communities around the country for the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their amendment? They have in a sense provoked the debate, although it is not necessary to put fire in my hon. Friend's belly.

Andrew George: I am sure that the Government will accept our amendment after the Minister reflects on what my hon. Friends and I have to say on such serious issues. Our amendment embellishes and improves their motion.

Mr. Salmond: I think I have a way out of the impasse. If the Liberals and the Government accept the Scottish National party amendment, we will all be in agreement.

Andrew George: Enough of this jocularity. Let us get on with the main business.

The Minister said that his criticism of our amendment was minor because we have not incorporated the word Xenvironmental", but Liberal Democrats do not need to do that. As we have tabled the amendment, it is self-evident that it is on the basis of environmental sustainability. We do not need to state that, but the Government clearly do.

We welcome the general direction of the common fisheries policy, which favours the implementation of multi-annual quotas. In the first year that I came into the House, I could not believe that we had to face 11th-hour brinkmanship. I suggested multi-annual quotas, but that was met with derision. So if they are successful, I want to claim some credit for them. If they are not, however, I might find someone else to blame.

Regional advisory councils are welcome but do not go far enough. I think the Minister accepts that we need regional management councils instead. They need teeth. It is clear from unilateral measures in one fishing zone in Scotland that the industry can benefit from a more localised shared concern about the future of a fishery in one region or zone. That is helpful.

Extension of the six and 12-mile limits is also important for sustainability, but the common fisheries policy is weak on the problem of industrial fishing. As I said, an impact study on industrial fishing is only now being considered for next year, but draconian measures are already being introduced to many other sectors. Attention is only just being turned to the full impact of industrial fishing.

The Government need to be certain that aquaculture, which is dealt with at the end of the papers, is properly assessed. We need to be sure that the sea has the capacity

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to enable that to happen. I hope that in developing aquaculture we will not deny or discourage hatchery projects. Those have been successful, certainly off the north Cornish coast, and we should encourage them.

We all agree that it is important to have a sustainable fishing industry. However, we must stick to sound science. Obviously, that raises questions about how sound the science is and whose science it is. I caution the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings in appealing to the emotions of people in coastal communities by saying, XWe will not let you down." The fact is that we will let them down if we do not stick to the sound science because they will end up with no fisheries for ever. If difficult decisions need to be taken, it is important that politicians are tough, strong and robust enough to see them through.

Much of the science has to be questioned. Serious and genuine arguments are being put forward by the industry to counter the science. Questions inevitably arise about the science itself. The science is not an unquestionable pronouncement of God. We must consider who is producing it and how sound it is. If it is based on a balance of probability using projections, who is doing the assessment, is it up to date, and are all the factors taken into account? The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) gave alternative figures that challenged the science on the spawning stock biomass in a number of important fisheries. In fisheries in area VII—the western approaches—the hake recovery programme is showing a decrease, admittedly small, in mortality and an increase in the spawning stock biomass. Most of the science on cod in area VII comes from area VIId, where conditions are closer to those in the North sea, and does not take proper account of the state of cod in the western approaches and the Celtic sea. Some of those issues must be considered before making hard and fast decisions about managing and setting quotas for important species in those areas.

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