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21 Nov 2002 : Column 853—continued

4.38 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I understand through the usual channels that if we all speak for five minutes, we might all be allowed to speak, so I shall try to limit my remarks. I agreed with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, so I shall try not to go over the same ground.

It is almost a cliché to say that there is a crisis in the Scottish fishing industry and the white fish fleet in particular. However, it is difficult to overstate the severe difficulties that it faces, as we have heard today. In the past 12 months, some 150 vessels have been removed

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from the Scottish white fish fleet through decommissioning, losses and sinking, transfers to the pelagic sector, and sales outwith the United Kingdom. This is the second year of the cod recovery plan, and, as others have said, the target of 30 per cent. year-on-year improvement in cod stocks was very nearly met last year when, according to ICES figures, there was a 27 per cent. improvement in the spawning stock biomass for cod.

I do not wish to dwell on what was said by Conservative Members, but I have to say that I take issue with the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). She suggested that those of us who promote reform of the common fisheries policy do so because we are prepared to be European before defending our industry. That is a misrepresentation of the situation.

Ann Winterton: That is not what I said.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Lady says that that is not what she said. I accept that, but it is what I understood her to say. In the previous two renegotiations of the CFP, which happened under a Conservative Government, we said that the policy would not work. History shows us to have been correct, and we are saying the same again now. Our belief about what is best for the fishing industry is shared by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, the Shetland Fishermen's Association, Shetland Oceans Alliance and the Orkney Fisheries Association.

I welcome the Minister's assurances that proper account will be taken of the experience with the larger mesh sizes, the square mesh panels and the painful decommissioning that we have gone through in Scotland. I merely observe that the fact that it has taken until now to get to the point at which the Minister says that he will take the matter to the European Commission tells us something about the process in which we are engaged. Surely any process that is truly scientific and objective would look for information, so why do we have to drag the Commission, kicking and screaming, to see the benefits of what we have done.

I was in Brussels last week. I spoke to John Farnell who, unless I am more out of touch with Scottish politics than I thought, is not the Scottish fishing Minister. I also spoke to other EU officials. They were not encouraging. The Minister is not going to find it easy. I wish him well: there has been talk about the fire in the Minister's belly, but I hope that it is well stoked up when he argues the case for the Scottish industry. I shall give him a bottle of Highland Park whisky if he can pull it off.

The right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) spoke about the need for hon. Members to argue for conservation in their constituencies. It is a pity that he is not in his place, as I regard that attitude as misguided and patronising. Fishermen in my constituency are well aware of the need for conservation. Their livelihoods, and the livelihoods of some 30 per cent. of the population of Shetland, depend on having fish stocks. That is what is at stake for us.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) spoke about the need for rollover. There is some merit in that argument, but monitoring will present a difficulty. Again, I return to the need to get scientists out of their offices and off their research vessels, and onto commercial fishing vessels. That is where they will see the reality of the situation.

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Much has been said about industrial fishing, but time does not permit me to do more than add my weight to what the Minister said. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that the important thing was not whether the CFP should be reformed or abolished, but the passion and significance that we attach to the fishing industry. The future viability of the whole community in Shetland depends on the Minister getting it right next month. For that reason, I want him to display passion and vigour in the negotiations, and in that way save our white fish fleet.

4.44 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I have attended nearly all the fisheries debates since I came to the House, as Lowestoft has always been an important fishing port. Records show that, until recently, about 10 per cent. of the fish landed in England was landed at Lowestoft. However, if things carry on as they are it will not be long before I shall have no special reason to come to these debates.

A year ago, there were nine beam trawlers in Lowestoft, and an inshore fleet of about 40 vessels. That was a historic low, yet in August this year the beam trawler company, Colne Shipping, ceased fishing. All we have now is about 18 inshore vessels. The end of Colne's was the end of generations of fishing in Lowestoft, and we have no more deep-sea trawling any more. The subject is very emotive, and last August was a very depressing month in Lowestoft's history.

Sad to say, it has taken the end of Colne's to make us all recognise what has happened. I fear that, even now, hon. Members still do not accept what is happening. Representatives of Colne's told me when the news was announced that they could not make fishing pay any more. They said that that was because they could not catch even the fish to which they had quota entitlement. Prices were poor, and the fuel costs incurred from vessels having to go to the Norwegian sector to try to catch the fish were too high.

The company was supported by the Government. In February, my hon. Friend the Minister authorised a payment of #650,000 for the decommissioning of two vessels. That huge sum was more than any company in my constituency has ever received. The Government were right to award that money in a bid to support the company through a difficult time, but the money lasted only six months. That shows how costly it is to try to buy our way out of the problem.

Was that good value for the taxpayer? The question is unavoidable. I supported the decommissioning award made to Colne's, and urged my hon. Friend the Minister to grant it. However, will the taxpayer consider paying #650,000 for six months to be a good deal?

I have referred to the Lowestoft example as a way of showing that the CFP has failed. We all know that. It has certainly failed Lowestoft. All the meetings, debates and activity in Europe have left us without deep-sea fishing, and with only a small remnant of our inshore fleet. However, that means that reality has now taken a grip. People in Lowestoft remember being able to walk across the harbour by means of the fishing boats all docked side by side, but that was the problem: all those boats plundered too many fish for too long.

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The story of the CFP is simple. Every year in this debate, the scientific figures are produced to show that quotas must be cut. Understandably, fishermen claim that they will lose their jobs and politicians like me argue on behalf of their fishermen, but what happens? Each year, the issue is fudged. Each year, we get compromises, and then we pay the price.

That is happening again this afternoon. People have claimed that that there is something wrong with the scientific advice and that we should just ease off a bit. I can understand that, but the lessons are clear. What has been remarkable in Lowestoft this year is what the fishermen have said to me. Inshore fishermen have told me that the scientists were Xright, horribly right". The representatives of Colne's told me, when the news was announced that the company would have to end its fishing interests, that we should have taken notice of the scientists all along, and that the problem started more than 30 years ago, before we ever got involved in the common fisheries policy.

The lesson that fishermen in Lowestoft have learned is to stick to the science. I think that our Government try harder to do that than those of many other member states. We know the desperate state of the stocks; we can argue that this year some year classes are a little better than the previous one, but it is all way below the safe biological limits. Whatever figures the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has, the scientists know that they are all below the safe biological limits. One year can be a bit better than the other but we are still in deep trouble.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Blizzard: I will not give way.

The first year that I was elected, fishermen told me that there were more plaice than the scientists thought. I went to see my hon. Friend the Minister, who sent the scientists out again. They came back saying that that was right and we increased the plaice quota. I wonder now whether that was a good thing to do—it was at the time, but now the plaice are in a diabolical state.

If we want to conserve fish, we will have to take draconian measures for a long time, possibly for five years. Scientists tell me that the fleet will probably have to be reduced by half. On the other hand, we could give up altogether and just let the fishermen fish it out—that might be no worse than what we are doing because what we are doing is not very successful.

Whatever we do, how do the fishermen survive? Will there be an industry left to catch anything once we have taken those draconian measures, assuming, of course, that there will not be an environmental problem that prevents recovery? It is very difficult. I have told the House how much it cost to keep the Lowestoft trawler fleet alive. I asked an inshore fisherman how much money he would need to help him because he cannot catch cod. He said #500 a month. That is not a lot but it adds up to #6,000 a year and #30,000 over five years for one fisherman on one boat. If we multiply that by 18 fishermen in Lowestoft, it comes to a lot of money to keep them going. I can understand people wanting financial support—I would like them to have it. However, we are talking about a lot of money and we would simply be tying up the same number of fishermen

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who will go out and catch the fish when it is all over. I think that decommissioning makes more sense than tying up. [Interruption.] I realise that I have been talking for six minutes, as I am reminded from a sedentary position, but there have been grosser abuses of parliamentary time this afternoon.

We have been through a difficult period but, as I said earlier, I do not think that it has been caused by fishermen who carry out long-lining, which is a method of catching fish. Will my hon. Friend exempt the long-liners from whatever restrictions are imposed regarding cod, as I do not think that they devastate the stocks?

We have been through this devastation before, 30 years ago when the herring disappeared and now they are back in our waters. Fishermen can catch herring, but they cannot get much for them—they tell me they get #20 for 10 stone. Could someone from the Department work with my local authority, using money from fisheries regeneration, to see whether we can do something about marketing herring? People in this country have forgotten about herring for generations. If we could get a price for herring, there would be a future for some of the fishermen.

The common fisheries policy has failed and we are trying to reform it. The new policy looks very familiar because no one could think of anything very different to do. The biggest flaw is enforcement. There has always been cheating, if that is what we call it. As the quotas have become tighter and things have got more difficult for the fishermen, so the cheating has increased. Probably only half the amount of fish landed is recorded. In some European countries there are other layers as well. We have all been to places and seen the small fish; we have all seen evidence of illegal nets. The cheating in some other countries is worse than it is here, but I am told that we have started to catch up. Unless there is enforcement, there is no point in having a policy. Ministers such as ours can sit up all night at the meeting in December, but if the rules are broken nobody is better off. If we cannot enforce them, we might as well give up.

The fish know no boundaries, and we must have a common approach. I do not have a great deal of faith that the approach will work but I wish my hon. Friend the Minister all the best for what will inevitably be an all-night session in December. We could not have a better representative, and I think that other Front Bench spokesmen are probably relieved that he is going and they are not.

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