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21 Nov 2002 : Column 857—continued

4.54 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Given the time that was available, it is regrettable that Opposition Members who represent substantial fishing communities have been restricted to three or four-minute speeches at the end of the debate. I want to make a few observations on some issues that relate to my constituency, which covers fishing communities in Kirkcudbright, Newton Stewart and the Machars. Indeed, some of my constituents have paid the ultimate price within the past couple of years in the pursuit of a commodity that some of us take for granted.

I am concerned about the complacency that has been shown in this debate. The industry, especially in Scotland, takes sustainability immensely seriously. When one speaks to some of those business men—for

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that is indeed what they are—one finds that they are part of family businesses that have been established for many generations. Could any commercial entity have a greater concern about the sustainability of fish stocks than those family businesses? I come from one myself so I am well aware that sustainability means preparing for future generations.

I am only too well aware that such family businesses have played their part during the past year. The decommissioning scheme was more than 100 per cent. oversubscribed in Scotland. A #25 million fund was available, but #50 million could have been paid out. There were 215 applications—a third of the fleet wanted to leave the industry. Those people have played their part.

When I spoke to fishermen this week, they expressed frustration that no cognisance was being taken in the current review of what they had already delivered. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) mentioned increased mesh sizes. No cognisance was taken of that; nor of the introduction of Xwindows" for the release of small stock. There can be no frustration greater than that of fishermen who know that there are problems and are doing what they can to address sustainability, while the Commission seems to take no account of what they are doing.

The key point is that fishermen want to be involved in the process. They want to know what is going on, yet they feel excluded. Why has the two-volume report been available for two weeks, but has apparently not yet been provided to the Commission? Why are fishermen excluded from the negotiations? I can see no reason why fishermen's representatives could not attend as part of the delegations. That would do much to reassure fishing communities, which have sustainability at heart, that there is nothing to hide.

I suspect that there is something to hide, however. For example, on the west coast of Scotland the historic deep-sea fishing grounds have been carved up in a backroom deal in which Scotland accounts for only 2 per cent. of the available catch, while 80 per cent. goes to Spain and the rest is carved up between Ireland and France—[Interruption.] I accept the Minister's correction: 80 per cent. goes to France and the rest is split between Ireland and Spain. It was a political stitch-up. The ultimate sting in the tail is that the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency is expected to police that dirty deed.

4.57 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I begin by informing the House that I made the Speaker's office aware of the fact that I would arrive late for the debate.

I appreciate that many hon. Members have spoken about the fishing fleets that operate out of their constituencies. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) mentioned Annan, which is my home town. It no longer has a fishing fleet; its fishermen fish out of Kirkcudbright.

Two major employers in Annan, however, are fish-processing businesses, and during the past couple of days I have spoken to management at both factories. On the surface, it seems that there will be little impact on those businesses. Both developed from cottage industries over many years. One started out producing smoked salmon and the company has now expanded to

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give regular employment to between 700 to 800 people. At this time of year, the number increases to between 1,100 and 1,200 to cope with seasonal work for the Christmas and new year period.

The company uses very little white fish and I was assured that the current proposals would have no impact on their business. The only thing that might happen would be a small rescheduling of certain processes and the introduction of alternative product lines.

The other company, which was known in the town for many years as nothing more than Xthe shrimp factory", is now run by Young's Bluecrest, whose main product is breaded scampi. Clearly, it has serious concerns because although it has been stated that stocks of nephrops are perfectly healthy, if the Council of Ministers decides fully to implement the scientific recommendations of ICES without heeding any other arguments about nephrops, the business could close down. The issue at stake here is by-catch, the problem identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird).

My point to the Minister is that he has an important job to do, as others have said. It is important to take heed of much of what the scientists are saying in the ICES recommendations, but it is important also that scientists do not overstep the mark with certain elements of the recommendations. I hope that my hon. Friend will, as hon. Members from all parties have requested this afternoon, put up a fight for our UK fishing fleets.

5.1 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): It is clear that if the Commission's recommendations were implemented, they would have a devastating effect not only on our fishing communities but on communities throughout the country that rely on fishing-related industries such as processing. However, the main impact will be felt by fishing communities, many of which are by their very nature isolated, so other sources of employment are hard to find.

Let us be clear: even with the Commission's latest proposal for an 80 per cent. cut, the recommendations would still lead to the complete shutdown of the work of many fishing communities, and that shutdown would be permanent. The vessels, skills and infrastructure would all disappear, so even if the industry were allowed to resume fishing in 10 or 12 years, there would be nothing in place to allow it to reopen. If the Commission's proposals are accepted, the results will be permanent. That is how important it is that the Government argue vociferously for Britain in negotiations.

This is not only a case of arguing vociferously, however. The Minister has been advised to adopt the tactics of the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is no good arguing and then losing the qualified majority vote; deals have to be done. I agree with what the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) said about deep-sea trawling off the west of Scotland earlier this year. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation supported the scientific advice, but in the

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secrecy of the Council of Ministers meeting a deal was done and Britain lost. This time we want the Government to negotiate seriously, and to succeed.

Much has been said about the scientific evidence, and I echo what the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said. The ICES figures show an increase of well over 20 per cent. in cod stocks this year compared with last year, and that, with the technical measures and the decommissioning that has taken place, indicates that the cod recovery plan is working. We should give it time to see whether it will work, rather than taking draconian measures now.

The proposed measures for nephrops are particularly ridiculous. I have written answers from the Minister saying that his officials agree that the cod by-catch from nephrops is insignificant. The fact that the Commission's recommendations are in complete disagreement with British scientists shows how discredited they are.

5.4 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I want to reinforce the message that the industry will die if fisheries are closed, and even at 80 per cent., the industry has no future. That is why it is crucial that the right decisions are made this time.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) expressed worry about some of the figures. However, the figures for haddock come from the scientists' research, and the stock-spawning biomass has not been as high since 1971, so this is not just a minor blip; there is a reasonable stock-spawning biomass for haddock. The problem for the industry is that media coverage concentrates on cod, but that represents only between 10 and 12 per cent. of the business, and to close down the whole business for the sake of between 10 and 12 per cent. seems a draconian and risky measure.

It would far more effective to take the research on board. After all, the Scottish Executive did not spend #1 million for nothing. To have all that research available but not to use it at this crucial time would be a ridiculous waste of that investment, so the research must inform the debate, which is about getting the balance of risk right and recognising the fishing industry's valuable role in the community.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to consider what happens in the Norway negotiations. The fishermen certainly find that the Norwegian side seem to have far more direct input into those negotiations. Resolving that issue is crucial to building up good will.

I want to reinforce the crucial message about European negotiations that has come from this debate. The Prime Minister may have been briefed, but he did not show that when he answered a question yesterday. However, having been briefed, he must understand the complexity of the situation. With qualified majority voting, we need him to say, in quiet negotiations at the highest levels, that the proposals on the table cannot make progress unless people recognise that although the whole United Kingdom does not depend on what happens in those negotiations, vital communities within the United Kingdom do. In particular, the north-east of Scotland is highly dependent on the fishing industry, and a positive outcome is required.

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