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16 Jan 2003 : Column 889—continued

Mr. Mitchell: I accept that, but the fact remains that because of the white fish difficulty, the main problems were incurred by us. It is permissible to ask, as some in the industry have asked, whether France would have gone gentle into that good night if they had been in our position.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman is chairman of the all-party fisheries group and knows the answer to his own question. As he goes through the list of countries that have established fishing as a priority, he will realise what can be done. Surely he would never suggest that any Scottish Minister would have signed up to a common fisheries policy that regarded the Scottish fisheries as expendable? That is what the Conservative Government did in 1972.

Mr. Mitchell: I accept that that is true. I have long regretted that fishing is not given the same priority in this country, as it is not considered economically important. An independent Scotland might not have accepted the 1972 CFP, but I doubt that it would have been able to put up a better and more effective fight than did the British Government of the time, in which English and Scottish Ministers worked together.

In any case, there is no point wasting time on historical matters, however interesting. My argument is that the Government have accepted this settlement, and therefore must accept the consequences. They are that measures, mainly financial, will have to be taken to ensure that a viable fishing industry survives to inherit the benefits of what I hope will be more effective conservation.

My hon. Friend the Minister will have seen the report from the Sea Fish Industry Authority on costs and earnings. It says that the average profit of the white fish fleet was 2.6 per cent. That is pathetic. The report states that 35 per cent. of vessels in the fleet were fishing at a loss, and estimates that the new measures would impose a further loss of #135 million on the fleet.

An interesting table in the report shows the effects of various levels of profit reduction. Even the most minimal reduction would lead to 953 job losses in the whole UK on the catching side, and to 2,186 lost jobs on onshore industries. That is a total loss of 3,500 jobs, and a reduction in output, in financial terms, of #279 million.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts those figures. It is often argued that the fishing industry often poormouths itself, and I agree: it often presents itself with its trouser bottoms hanging out, saying that it is going bankrupt. However, all the conversations that I have had with fishermen show that this time they are facing a disastrous financial situation. They cannot go on without substantial Government intervention to help them financially.

First, that help must certainly include a substantial decommissioning package. I disagree with other hon. Members in that respect, as it is clear that getting as

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many as 15 days at sea per month has required the acceptance of a 15 per cent. decommissioning package. Secondly, the quotas of the decommissioned vessels should be bought by the local producer organisations, so that they are kept in the locality. I hope that the Government will consider helping them with that, as many cannot afford to buy up quota in that way.

Thirdly, there has to be compensation for the men who are losing their jobs. They are share fishermen, and so not entitled to redundancy. However, it would be appalling if we were to allow another scandal to happen similar to what happened with the failure to pay compensation to the Icelandic trawlermen. They were later deemed to be employed, but it took 25 years to come through. The fishermen involved are losing their livelihood, and some form of compensation—I accept that it would be an ex gratia scheme—must be made available.

Two other things are needed as well. The first is operating support. It is a vexed issue, but vessels will not be profitable if they are allowed only 15 days at sea a month. Indeed, the Sea Fish Industry Authority estimates that 90 per cent. of the fleet will not be profitable in that situation. Therefore, there must be some support for the fixed costs that it incurs if it is to be kept going.

The World Wildlife Fund has proposed what seems to me to be an eminently sensible scheme. It points out that this is an investment in the industry, not a subsidy, to keep it going. If we do not keep it going, other countries investing in their industries, giving support to their industries, will keep theirs going. Therefore, there must be a measure of operator support and there must be aid for communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) argued earlier. Last time it failed, because it went through the regional development agencies and not directly to fishing. It went on lighting schemes, new paving on seafronts, and all sorts of other things, but did not go to fishing. It needs to be directed to fishing.

My hon. Friend the Minister must apply his very inventive mind and Department to other methods of support for the industry, which I hope would include paying fishing vessels to take scientists to sea, because the industry and the science are far apart.

Mr. Connarty: My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) made suggestions about how the fishing and sailing skills of people in the industry could be used in other areas if we changed the regulations on the people on vessels in Scottish waters. Particularly for Scotland, that might sustain those skills for a longer period, until the fishing industry can use them again.

Mr. Mitchell: I agree absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very valid and important point.

We also have to face the problem of port and dock charges, which are quite substantial in this country, whereas in many of our competitor countries, fishing pays no dock charges. They are paid directly by the Government or the municipal authority. There are ever-escalating charges on the processing side. Our industry bears light dues, whereas European industries do not. It needs help with installing the satellite surveillance system, which was going to be financed by Europe, but now the industry has been asked to pay for it itself.

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Any way in which the industry can be helped in its current difficulties should be used. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is conversant with the problem. I hope that he will apply himself to developing a package for fishing that ensures that we have a viable fishing industry in three or four years, when the catches begin to pick up and we can inherit the future, to ensure that that future does not go to other industries whose countries are providing the support that we should give.

4.47 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): The Minister behaved extremely well in the debate, and I pay tribute to the intelligence and concern that he brought to all the issues and to the fact that he took so many interventions.

I wish to make a few brief remarks in the spirit of trying to offer some constructive suggestions about how the position of this badly damaged industry could be bettered.

I draw the Minister's attention, first, to the question of how much fish is wasted. We see from the European Union documents before us that 50,000 to 75,000 tonnes of whiting are known to be dumped every year. The figures on haddock range from 55,000 to 125,000 tonnes. If we multiply that by all the different species of all the catches and by-catches, we must be in the realm of well over a million tonnes of fish being crudely dumped back into the sea. That is an environmental disaster, a biological disaster and an economic disaster.

I understand that the Minister wishes to wrestle with the problem, and I see from the good documentation before us that the EU, after these many long years, has at last made some suggestions that might begin to tackle the problem. I would ask the Minister to show a greater sense of urgency. I know that he has to work with 14 other member states and I know that the Commission often grinds very slowly when one wants it to do something—I attended enough meetings to find that out for myself—but there is much common sense on the side of those of us who say that we must stop this disaster in its tracks. We must be able to mobilise public opinion and ministerial opinion in the Community to do a better job.

The documents are long and copious. The Minister knows better than I do the various proposals that have been made. It would be possible, for example, to land all the fish that are caught and find some economic use for them. People are prepared to buy smaller fish if they are cheaper than bigger fish. Sometimes they are prepared to pay a premium for smaller fish if they are attractive and can be cooked in different ways.

We should certainly reconsider mesh sizes to ensure that fewer small fish are caught. There must be better guidance and systems of temporary control to deal with shoals of younger fish, which we need to protect to ensure that they can grow into bigger fish and to encourage recovery. We must be able to do something about the consequences of too much industrial fishing being undertaken, which is damaging so much of the seabed and the marine environment.

I also hope that the Minister will have another go at the overall quotas. Those who said that they are not fair are quite right. That problem has been greatly exacerbated by the final dénouement of the open policy, bringing in many vessels from elsewhere. We are cursed

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with a common fisheries policy, but, fortunately, from the point of view of the Spaniards, French and the others, we do not have common policies in areas where we could benefit.

Why, for example, do we not have a common wine policy, whereby we could supplement the grapes produced by our own wine growers with some of the higher quality grapes from Bordeaux? Perhaps we should have a quota. Why do we not have a common olive policy? We do not seem to grow many olives in Britain. Is it fair that the Spaniards and Italians grow so many but we do not have access to their resources, when they have access to the prime marine resource that we have brought to the Community, as we happen to have most of the important fish stocks and fish breeding grounds?

I know that it is more difficult to reopen all the quota issues—I do not suggest that the Minister should recommend other common policies, given the failure of this common policy—but it is vital, for the sake of the communities that are facing decimation as a result of the changes, that we have another go. I remember visiting the English ports a few years ago and seeing the consequences of previous quota decisions, which had been extremely damaging.

There has been a little bit of crude party politics in the debate, which is not particularly helpful. Many Liberal Democrat and Labour Members delight in saying that a Conservative Government first took us into the European Community and therefore that a Conservative Government first signed up to the common fisheries policy, but all those Members should remember that the 1974–79 Labour Government, supported for quite a long period by the Liberal Democrats, renegotiated our relationship with the EU and presented what they said was a much better solution to the British people in a referendum and the British people voted in favour.

At that point, if not before, all the parties in the House—particularly the Labour party, but also the Liberal Democrats—effectively signed up to the whole deal, including the common fisheries policy. So I am afraid that the blood of the fishing settlements and fishing industry is on the arms and hands of all the legislators of all the parties that have supported that renegotiated package and our continued membership of the Community ever since.

I have been a long-standing critic of the common fisheries policy. I was an unsuccessful critic of it in a Conservative Government, when colleagues did not agree with some of my views on how far we should go in demanding renegotiation. I was no more successful in trying to get the Conservative Government between 1995 and 1997 to accept my advice on this issue when I decided to return to the Back Benches and when I visited many of the fishing areas to see for myself the tragedy that was unfolding.

In recent years, I have been much more successful. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was very sympathetic and changed Conservative policy on fishing in the light of the tragedy unfolding in the fishing communities and fishing industry. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is carrying on with the work that was commenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks.

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I am not expecting the Government immediately to demand the fundamental renegotiation that the Conservative party now currently stands for and demands, but I hope that Minister will think again and see that for a long period, some 30 years, whatever party has been in power, our fishing industry has been in continuous decline, that far too much fish is being taken by vessels from other countries and that far too much damage is being done by the fishing techniques still permitted for a very precious marine environment off our coasts.

This could be a great industry and fish are a vital natural resource. The common fisheries policy is proven to be an environmental, economic, social and industrial disaster. I hope that the Minister will follow up at least my ideas on making better use of the fish that are currently wasted and changing the rules on what kind of fishing is permitted because the wrong kind of fishing is coming in from outside. I hope that, one day, we will get cross-party support for the idea that fishing could be better regulated and controlled in Britain than by the EU.

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