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16 Jan 2003 : Column 881—continued

Mr. Salmond : The hon. Gentleman is talking a great deal of sense. However, I clearly remember that he has been quoted as saying that the processors could depend on imported fish. Was he again misquoted before Christmas?

Mr. Doran: When the hon. Gentleman asks such questions he usually pulls a newspaper clipping out to prove me wrong, so I had better be careful about what I say. I know that the industry has become much more reliant on imports—I have certainly said that in the past—but I have always acknowledged the importance of locally caught fish. I am simply trying to emphasise that point—and I know that the situation is exactly the same in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The fish processing industry is extremely important. According to the industry itself, there are some 200 fish processing companies left in Scotland employing about 10,000 people in direct jobs; there are another 2.5 jobs in the wider community for every job in the industry. There has been a considerable contraction since 1995, with the

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loss of about 150 companies. The industry has faced very difficult times recently, mainly in coming to terms with new requirements such as new water charges and the introduction of European hygiene regulations. One of the industry's main fears is that if there is further contraction—most people accept that that is almost inevitable—that that part of it that has invested most heavily in new equipment, and in coming up to scratch and providing the necessary quality of service would be least able to cope with the new pressures. I hope that when plans for support are drawn up, that will be taken into account.

There are other ways in which the industry could be helped. For example, the industry pays about #3 million by levy to the Sea Fish Industry Authority. That is an extremely important body, but the levy is a considerable drain on resources.

With reference to processors, will the Minister confirm that they will be invited to the meeting with the Prime Minister and will be part of the discussions on the future of the industry? It is essential that they are taken fully into account in all considerations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who could not stay for the debate, raised an important point in her intervention. In the past, most of the help directed to the industry has been directed to vessel owners through the decommissioning scheme. She rightly recalled the decommissioning that took place in the late 1970s. Substantial sums were paid to the fishing industry to decommission the fleet in the immediate aftermath of the Icelandic cod war. At the same time, many hundreds—probably thousands—of men lost their jobs or were disadvantaged in other respects because of the consequences of the cod war. It is only in the past two or three years that those men have been compensated. They were completely ignored in the 1970s and subsequently when their case was presented.

Because of the particular nature of employment in the sea fishing industry, fishermen tend to have no contracts of employment. They are share fishermen or, in the case of my constituency, they worked in a pool system, with no direct employer. In 10 years' time, I do not want us to have to cope with the consequences of the fishermen who may be made redundant in the downturn that we all anticipate. I hope that the nature of their employment will be taken into account in compensation packages or schemes to support them.

A particular concern of mine relates to the fact that in the north-east of Scotland, when times have been difficult in the fishing industry, there have always been opportunities for fishermen in the oil industry. They have been able to get jobs on stand-by vessels or supply vessels and in some other parts of the merchant navy. Those opportunities are receding, not just because of the downturn in the oil industry—the price is high and the North sea industry seems to be suffering a little at present—but for other reasons.

For some reason that I find it difficult to understand, the work permit system that operates onshore does not apply in the offshore oil and gas industry or in most of our inshore shipping. For example, the new ferry from Rosyth to Zeebrugge operates under a British flag, but with foreign sailors. In the shipping industry that services the oil industry in particular, most of the employment is now going to what we might call cheap

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foreign labour. There are substantial numbers of Filipino and growing numbers of Ukranian and Polish nationals. I ask the Minister to take into account the need for those job opportunities to be made available, which is not the case at present. I will be lobbying the Minister responsible for such matters for the extension of the work permit scheme to the offshore industry and to certain other shipping areas within our territorial waters. If we are to face difficulties in the industry, it is important that the work force—the day-to-day fishermen who may not own a fishing boat but are vital to the industry—are taken fully into consideration.

4.14 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) on his considered remarks in this debate, as in other debates on such an important subject. I hope that the Minister will take on board the hon. Gentleman's penultimate point about the parlous state of share fishermen who are joint venturers in fishing ventures. In my constituency, the vast majority of fishermen are engaged in that way and will face particular difficulty if the significant decline that is predicted in many regions occurs. Bearing in mind your very appropriate strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will do my best to contain my remarks from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench to 15 minutes plus any injury time incurred through interventions.

As I said earlier, I very much value the graciousness of the Minister, in this debate in particular, in taking the number of interventions that he does. Of course, that takes up some time, but, because he answers the questions raised in the interventions, a great deal of extremely useful debate is achieved by that method. I hope that, in future fishing debates, the Minister will not feel that he needs to curtail his speech, because many hon. Members consider this issue very deeply and come here with very sincere interests in the subject, and they value the way in which the Minister responds to the debate.

The Council dealt with two main issues in December. The first was the annual quota settlement; the second was the very important 20-year review of the common fisheries policy, which was clearly critical. The quota settlement was the issue that drew the publicity at the Council meeting. The problem with the blunderbuss approach of quota settlements and the crude use of days at sea is that they provide a stick without a carrot for the industry—a straitjacket without hope. As I said earlier, the approach treats fishermen as perpetrators rather than partners. We believe that they should be seen as partners in the future management of fishing stocks. There has clearly been a change in culture over the last five to 10 years in the way in which the industry approaches this issue, and it has come forward with proposals to contain and constrain its own activities by a number of measures that are certainly more sophisticated than the blunderbuss approach of quotas and days at sea. I believe that those measures should be very much part of the management regime of future stocks around our coasts.

My Liberal Democrat colleague, the fisheries Minister in the Scottish Executive, described the outcome as inequitable, unfair and crude, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said earlier. Having looked at it in detail, I think that my

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colleague was pulling his punches. It was a disaster for many areas, and it was a great disappointment that the more sophisticated approach that I have tried to describe could not have been used in a better way.

I listened carefully to the response from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). It was the customary brass neck ritual rant—

Sir Archy Kirkwood: Followed by an exit.

Andrew George: Indeed. We are used to such responses to these debates. The faces change, but the ritual rant never seems to. I noticed that the Minister came to the last debate with a large pile of Christmas cards. I was judging the interest and importance of the speeches by the number of cards that he signed during them. I think that he signed most of them during the speech from the Conservative Front Bench. On this occasion, he and his staff probably had ample time to revise for and complete the psychometric tests that they are undertaking at the moment.

I referred to the Conservatives' brass neck because, if it were so apparent that the common fisheries policy needed to be revised in the way that they describe—they wish to repatriate it, as they say—why did they not do that during the 18 years of Conservative rule? Why was it never put on the agenda during that time? Why did it suddenly became apparent to them that they should have pursued that policy only on the day after the 1997 general election? We are invited to believe that they would have done more and done better, and that the leader of the Conservative Opposition would apparently have done more and intervened a great deal more than the Prime Minister has done. I have to say that the Conservatives appear to be suffering from the Xbenefit of hindsight" disease when looking at this matter.

When the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) pointed out in an intervention that the Leader of the Opposition had not raised fishing in Prime Minister's questions, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said that that was a cheap remark. However, if fishing were the priority that those on the Conservative Front Bench claim it is, he would have raised it. The Conservatives still need to explain why, according to records made available under their 30-day rule—[Hon. Members: X30-year rule."] Perhaps we should have 30-day rules. According to information released under the 30-year rule, it is clear that the Conservative Cabinet felt that fishermen's livelihoods were expendable when we were negotiating a future role in the common fisheries policy.

On the common fisheries policy, some significant agreements were made in respect of six and 12-mile limits and, as I understand it, increased unilateral powers to introduce conservation and management measures. I am looking forward to seeing such measures and I hope that the Minister will expand on that matter. Agreement was also reached on the continuation of relative stabilities, the Hague preference and multi-annual quotas. Five years ago, when I first suggested the introduction of multi-annual quotas to avoid the eleventh-hour brinkmanship that occurs at the end of each year and often continues two weeks into the next

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one, the proposal met widespread derision. I do not know whether I can claim credit for it—perhaps others were making the same suggestion—but I am pleased to see that it has been agreed to, as it ensures that fishermen and their financial backers can plan for the future, certainly in the medium term. The regional advisory councils are another especially important development, but I shall return to them in a moment.

The Minister is right that the removal of subsidies for construction and modernisation, while limited grants for modernisation will continue, is a step forward. As he said, those subsidies should have been stopped immediately, but it is important for them to be phased out as quickly as possible.

I want to focus on two further issues. The Minister believes that there is a need for further research on industrial fishing. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I and other hon. Members have made it clear that we believe that sufficient information is already available. The illegal catches found on board two Danish vessels shortly before Christmas demonstrate the problem that we face. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence from fisherman to suggest that it would be impossible for such industrial fishing vessels to operate in areas where they have been seen to be operating without taking a very significant by-catch of white and other illegal fish.

It is therefore important that the Minister does not simply wait for further research, which is merely a delaying tactic on an issue that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. The reason why the industry feels particularly cynical about the issue is that, even though mesh sizes as small as 16 mm are used by those in the industrial sector, they are given 23 days at sea, while those with much larger mesh sizes have the fewest days at sea available to them. Surely, that is a contradiction.

Those in the industry will need a lot of persuasion that the regional advisory councils will provide an opportunity for them to work in partnership in its future management. I hope that the Minister and his Department will concentrate a great deal of attention, time and resources on ensuring that the councils work. The industry is on the verge of becoming cynical. It doubts whether the advisory councils will have teeth and fears that they will be expensive, large and pointless talking shops. The Government must encourage the industry to make policy, not advisory proposals, for fast implementation.

There are many fertile spawning grounds around the coast that need protection. The Trevose ground, which is off the coast of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), is one of the most fertile and productive spawning grounds in the UK. Juvenile spawning stock of cod, sole, pollock, whiting and haddock can be found there, especially from this time of year. It is worrying that the area is not protected.

I recently met Paul Trebilcock, general secretary of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. The organisation has devised responsible proposals for closing two areas around the Trevose grounds between 1 February and the end of April. It is vital that the Under-Secretary accepts such a responsible and

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appropriate proposal for closing down grounds at a time of year when they are often plundered by many countries.

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