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21 Nov 2002 : Column 843—continued

Mr. Austin Mitchell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, although she might not like the reason for my intervention. I accept her lavish praise for my 1996 Bill—it was a brilliant Bill—but I must remind her that it received practically no support from the Conservative Government at the time.

Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but that was then. We are now facing the meltdown of the United Kingdom's fisheries. The situation is so dire that politicians who are elected to the House—those in Government in particular; after all, it is they who propose measures, not Back-Bench Members—must take action. I hope that he will join me in encouraging his Government to follow the excellent example that he set many years ago, when he had the foresight to know what needed to be done.

I ask again: are the Government prepared to take the action that I have outlined? Would the other political parties in the House support such a move? I have no hesitation in saying that the Liberal Democrats would not, because their declared policy is unequivocal support for further European integration. [Interruption.] It is. That is well known, and no Liberal Democrat Member has got up to deny it.

Mr. Carmichael: We are hoping that the hon. Lady will sit down.

Ann Winterton: I have given way to interventions, but I shall be as quick as I can so that the hon. Gentleman can speak.

If we are not prepared to act in the best interests of our country, we relinquish our responsibilities to our constituents. Those hon. Members who represent coastal constituencies, in particular, will need to think carefully about this. If they are honest, they should tell their constituents that they support the unelected European Commission having the control and management of this vital resource—a resource that, by Act of Parliament and under international law, belongs to the British people.

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The common fisheries policy has a track record of producing social and environmental disaster of unbelievable proportions in United Kingdom coastal communities. Those who wish this policy to continue in any form have already decided that the interests of European Union integration come before the interests of the United Kingdom. I am one of those who believe that the interests of our country and its people are paramount, and we have one last chance to save the British fishing industry. I hope that we do not fail it.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Clearly, a considerable number of right hon. and hon. Members want to catch my eye. I therefore urge them to make shorter speeches.

4.3 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I do not think we have ever had a fisheries debate that has been surrounded by such an air of gloom, particularly from the fishing organisations. The DEFRA officials in the Box have not even smiled once during it, so I take it that the situation is fairly serious. I have been worried that the crisis has been hyped up by the Commission as a justification for more draconian changes to the common fisheries policy. I was not going to voice that suspicion, because I want to advance my career in the Labour party. My hon. Friend the Minister has, however, given us his Xless Eurosceptic than thou" peroration. I accept that there is pleasure to be gained from jumping on the guilt scars and the Heath complexes of the Conservatives, who are so embarrassed by the situation that they have created that they have not even bothered to attend this afternoon's debate, in contrast with every other party.

It is fair to recognise that we are in this crisis largely because of the common fisheries policy. A policy that is based on equal access to a common resource cannot provide for effective conservation in a way that a nation state controlling its own waters—and making swap arrangements with other countries on that basis—can do. In Europe, politics is more important than conservation. There has been a tendency to give everyone a catch, to trade catches, to make room for incoming states such as Spain, and to dole out catches by means of quotas, which is an inherently bad means of conservation. Those faults are implicit in the policy and it would be unreasonable not to recognise that.

If the nation that contributes two thirds of the stocks to the so-called common market pool—which once had the richest fishing grounds in Europe and which needs a healthy fishing industry and healthy fishing communities—has to accept the biggest cuts in its efforts and its fleets, that outcome will be totally unacceptable to the House. That will be compounded if we maintain for too long the current policy of accepting only minimal grants from Europe. Other fishing industries have done far better out of grants from the common fisheries policy than we have, partly because of the Fontainebleau agreement, which means that the Treasury does not want to make its contribution. It would be unreasonable to see other industries financed to take the stocks—when they build up—that our industry cannot because it has not been adequately financed. We need to make that point to the Government.

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I have every faith in my hon. Friend; he has been an excellent Minister. He has done well for the fishing industry and consulted it closely. He has to build up coalitions in Europe, however, and we cannot therefore expect pristine clarion declarations from him. It is fair to point out, however, that fishing organisations have questioned the science, and I believe that they should do so. They have pointed out that the measures make no allowance for the fact that fishing effort has been falling while the stock biomass has been increasing, and that there has been no time to assess the new measures involving mesh sizes, and fleet reductions produced by decommissioning, particularly in Denmark. They also point out that the advice can be contradicted in some areas—perhaps only in area VII, although I have heard of this in other areas, too—by the practical experience of the fishermen.

It is fair to point out that the advice from the scientists is tentative; it is not absolute. I shall quote them:

If we were to allow the scientists to produce a ban—particularly on North sea cod—we would be making a serious mistake.

It would be ludicrous if we did not ban industrial fishing in this situation. The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) made the point earlier that this is the equivalent of killing eight cows to produce one genetically modified cow. That is the feeding ratio of fish caught in industrial fishing to farmed fish. The industry could not accept a situation in which draconian cuts were made, but industrial fishing carried on. There is always a by-catch, a catch of immature, juvenile fish that will grow up, and I think that we have to have that.

There is a case, too, for postponing the advent of Spain in the system. I know that it has a legal right to join, but it is going to want to establish a track record. It is unrealistic to expect that it will not fish in these areas. If it establishes a track record, there will be by-catches and discards, and it will have to put back species that it is not allowed to catch—that is, most of them. We cannot afford that further damage to the stocks.

It is right that the regional advisory committees, which are a very tentative part of the Commission's proposals, should, in fact, be regional management councils. That is what the industry wanted when it adopted that measure as a means of giving the stakeholders, the fishermen, a say—in fact, giving them management and control—in the catching in their area. We must beef up those committees to that level very quickly, because only they can apply the specific measures that specific areas need. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations has said that it is prepared to talk about the targeted, special measures that are needed—indeed, it should talk about them. Those measures would be a far better way of dealing with this situation than an outright ban. The NFFO lists the following suggestions:

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I would add a one-net rule to that list. Those are all approaches that we need to embark on in this crisis.

I come to days at sea. I fought alongside my hon. Friend the Minister—I was his bag carrier, for which he gave me the valiant service medal, but not the job as his parliamentary private secretary that I was looking for—when the Conservative Government proposed the days at sea limitation. The NFFO is still strongly and strenuously opposed. In fact, it destroyed days at sea with its appeal to Europe.

Days at sea limits, or time limits on fishing, still have a problem of intellectual consistency, although that is par for the course on this side of the House: having opposed it, can we now accept it? I am coming round to the view that, because we would limit the time spent fishing, which is crucial, we could consider it on two grounds. First, the benefit of being closer to the stocks than competitors, if we receive it, is substantial; secondly, the lying-up periods, tying-up periods and non-fishing periods are financed by Europe or the Government—they have to be. The industry is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in many cases, and it is unreasonable to force it to accept a limit on effort without financial compensation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) made a point about discards. When we saw the Commission's director of conservation—if I had that title, I would commit suicide—he told us that the Norwegian system of requiring all discards to be taken back to port is not working, but there is a case for it that we should consider. If all discards had to be brought in to be used for fish-meal or to be sold for whatever purposes, provided that the minimum landing rules are changed, we would know exactly what was going on, and we certainly need to.

That point brings me back to where I started. My hon. Friend the Minister will fight for the British fishing industry—I have every confidence in his doing so—and Labour Members are not here to negotiate the death of the British fishing industry. The World Wildlife Fund has produced an important set of proposals on what it calls investment in fishing, and it is quite right. How do we finance a fishing industry from here, where it is going to contract and there has to be decommissioning? Those matters should be handled fairly between Scotland and England, not by the Minister being left to scratch round in DEFRA's back pocket for whatever money is left over to match the #25 million provided in Scotland.

We must help to finance that managed decline and curtailment of effort to the point at which we get sustainable stocks and sustainable fishing, which will be the reward for the conservation measures that we are being asked to accept. We will accept them, if there is a future for fishing and if the Government or the Community—I am not bothered which—invest in the industry.

There must be investment in fishing so that it can come through from where we are now—the prelude to further decline—to the point we shall reach if and when those conservation measures work.

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