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21 Nov 2002 : Column 850—continued

Mr. Salmond: My hon. Friend is right about the Moray fishing communities, which feature heavily on the list, as do my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). As might be expected, those areas depend heavily on fishing.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Scottish Executive's statistics is the information that while Fraserburgh is the most fishing-dependent community in Europe—55 per cent. of employment there depends on fishing—the second most dependent travel-to-work area is Annan, in the south-west of Scotland. The figures relate to the whole coastline of Scotland. Even Motherwell contains many fishing-dependent jobs. It should be understood that this is not just a matter for the north-east or for Shetland, but for the whole coastline and, indeed, for Yorkshire and parts of Northern Ireland. In many communities the concentration of fishing jobs is enormous. That is why we are desperate to convey the message that the industry should at last be treated as a political priority. It has never been treated in that way before, by Tory or by Labour Governments.

Some of today's debate has been quite jocular. The Minister and I have known each other for a long time, and many Members here are veterans of fishing debates. The consequences of what we are discussing, however, go far beyond any badinage exchanged across the Chamber. The Minister speculated on the existence of a conspiracy theory in which fishermen and fishing communities believed. It is not necessary to have a crystal ball to find a conspiracy theory; it is necessary only to look at the background—at minutes and Scottish Office correspondence released last year under the 30-year rule. According to a Scottish Office paper,

the Scottish fishermen—

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby looks surprised, but that applied to negotiations that took place when Edward Heath was Tory Prime Minister.

The same pattern of fishing interests being traded away has been repeated time and again over the past 30 years. However, I disagree with Members who say that it is all to do with the CFP, or to do with not being part of the CFP, or to do with national control or with zonal control. I think the underlying issue relates to the extent to which fishing is seen as a priority. Spain, within the CFP, regards fishing as a priority. If the fishermen are in trouble, they will hold up the European Council until hell freezes over, or engage in a variety of other techniques to save the fishermen. It is the same as what President Chirac does for his farmers. Norway, outside the CFP, makes fishing a major priority and negotiates, year after year, a firm deal with the other fishing

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countries. I think that what really matters is the underlying question of the extent to which fishing is seen as a priority.

Such political arguments will not be the stuff of the next few weeks and months, which will prove vital for our fishing communities. I will not have an independent Scotland in the next few months. The Conservative party will not be able to withdraw from the CFP or from Europe over the next few months. The Liberals will not be able to have zonal management over the next few months. All we can do over the next few weeks and months is to ensure that the major part of our industry in Scotland will be allowed to survive.

We point out in our amendment that many of the changes proposed for the CFP are quite positive, but academic. They will be entirely academic if there is no industry to benefit from them. That is why we must have from the Minister not just the indications he gave at the outset, but two absolute assurances. First, we need an assurance that fishing will not be traded away yet again in European negotiations, as it has been progressively over the last 30 years. Secondly, we need an assurance that the Prime Minister—who is not engaged mentally at present, given the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland yesterday—will start to become engaged in this topic, as President Chirac would be engaged if French fishermen were currently under the cosh.

It is simply not acceptable to the Scottish fishing industry for the Prime Minster to be banging the phones for George W. Bush and concentrating on the international situation, rather than banging the phones for the fishing industry in its hour of need. We want to hear from the fisheries Minister that at last, at this moment of total crisis, the fishing industry will be given the priority it deserves, and that every level of Government, including the Prime Minister, will ensure that a viable future is negotiated for our fishing communities, rather than another sell-out.

4.29 pm

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), and I certainly do not regard the jobs of fishermen in my constituency, or elsewhere, as expendable. Although there has been some light-hearted banter in the Chamber, this is a serious matter—indeed a critical one for people in our constituencies. We are talking not about fishing communities and glory days of the past—I, too, am a student of history, and I listened with interest to the comments from those on the Opposition Benches—but about the livelihoods of hundreds of people who go to sea or work onshore in our constituencies. That is why I welcome the Minister's inviting us to discuss these matters with him soon, and to access scientific advice. He will know that we are in regular contact with fishermen in our constituencies. They are a source of information, and we take that very seriously. We seek to give voice to their concerns in the Chamber, and that is what I intend to do.

In turn, of course, the Minister is our strong voice in Europe, and he is widely acknowledged as offering a strong voice for the UK fishing industry, including the

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area of North Shields, which I represent. If the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) had ventured north of Hartlepool, the fishermen of North Shields would doubtless have told him that. However, the Minister will have to draw on all his strength and experience, because one gets the feeling that this is a critical period. A little over a year ago, we were debating in this Chamber the effect on cod fishing of the closure of areas of the North sea. What appeared then to be extremely draconian measures were accepted, albeit reluctantly, as necessary. Twelve months on, we are now told that matters are worse than that, and that in effect we are faced with the closure of the cod fishery. Even if that proves to be 80 per cent. true, rather than 100 per cent., for many people that will amount to much the same thing. I should point out that the fishermen in my constituency do not rely exclusively on cod for a living. Nevertheless, they tell me that they oppose, and worry about the effects of, a closure, which they consider a step too far.

Perhaps naively, I considered last year's cod recovery programme as an unprecedented coming together of scientific advice and the experiences of fishermen, and I hoped that that would continue. It was a shock to many fishermen—and indeed to me—to find that that position is now diverging. Scientists are taking a much more radical position that is increasingly at variance with the views and the experience of many fishermen. In view of that divergence and the sense of near-crisis in the industry, we need cool heads. We need a rational assessment—as far as is possible—of the reality of the existing situation, and we need to ensure that we work through each of the available options.

The fishermen whom I represent are concerned. They wonder why the cod recovery programme has so far not been allowed to take effect, and whether the evidence has been properly evaluated. They tell me that some of the evidence on which recent pronouncements were made may actually date from two years ago—before the measures that we debated were put in place. Of course, since then areas of the North sea have closed. I am told that cod catches are down by about 50 per cent. Some 170 boats from the UK fishing fleet, and 70 boats from the Danish fleet, have been decommissioned. We await the assessment of the impact of changes in mesh sizes, and the lessons learned from the Irish sea cod recovery programme.

My understanding was that the plan was never intended to be a short-term fix. People talked about a period of four to five years, and many of the fishermen that I have talked to think that the plan needs to be in place for a decade.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many Spanish fishing vessels have been decommissioned?

Mr. Campbell: I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman that information, but I do know that my fishermen are not concerned about the Spanish accessing their area of the North sea. They are not worried greatly by that, because it does not happen often.

Much was made in the previous speech about the cod spawning stock biomass, but fishermen tell me that evidence exists to suggest that it is in fact increasing.

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That is not to say that there is no problem, or that it is not at a very dangerous level. I am certainly not arguing that we should not take the scientific advice seriously. The fishermen whom I talk to are not saying that either, but what they do want is to ensure that we raise important questions before we take action that we may come to regret.

We should appreciate that the science involved is an inexact one, and it deserves to be challenged. That also allows us to take a perhaps longer-term view. I do not want to appear flippant, but if we are told that lawns are going to disappear from English gardens in the next few decades, who is to say that cod will not disappear from the North sea because of environmental and climate change? It would be a sad irony indeed if we were to adopt these draconian measures, and if fishermen were to go out of business, only for cod stocks to fail to recover in the North sea.

I said that fishermen in North Shields do not rely on cod for their livelihoods, but that does not mean that this issue does not matter to them. They rely heavily on prawns, and the provisional figures suggest that the news on that front is acceptable. Even if the changes do not amount to wholesale closure, any change in the cod regime in the North sea will affect the prawn fisheries that my fishermen rely on. It will exacerbate an existing trend—the divergence of effort towards the prawn fisheries. I listened to the comments suggesting that all seemed to be well with the prawn fisheries, and I hope that that is so, but I am told that the season started late this year, and that the prawns are smaller than might have been expected. I emphasise the point that the prawn fishery is not a bottomless pit. I trust my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that he does everything that he can to protect that fishery.

Various options have been suggested, including limiting effort. Let us not go down the route—either now or during the wider reform of policy—of a one-size-fits-all situation. We need to look at what works, and where it works. If we adopt a tie-up scheme or a decommissioning scheme for people who have had enough and want to leave the industry—I make this point as much for the Treasury's benefit as for the Minister's—the Treasury will eventually have to face up to the resulting cost. Either it will have to give moneys directly to the fishing industry, or pick up the cost afterwards.

These are extremely difficult circumstances. None of the available options will be pointless, and none will come cheap, but we should consider them fully before taking a step too far.

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