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16 Jan 2003 : Column 893—continued

4.54 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): Usually when I rise to speak I say what a pleasure it is to engage in the debate, but unfortunately I find precious little pleasure in taking part in our discussions today. There is gloom not only among hon. Members but also in the fishing communities that we represent, with only a very dim light at the end of a very, very long tunnel.

However, I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister on the efforts that he has made on our behalf, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) outlined, many people were fearful before the discussions at the end of last year and many of those fears have been allayed. Despite that, we should not underestimate the serious impact that the agreement will have on all our constituents. It was not as bad as we feared, but it was still a dreadful result for all too many of the fishermen we represent.

Tomorrow, I shall meet representatives of the Fleetwood Fish Forum. I want to be able to offer them some hope and reassurance, but I find myself in a difficult position. What reassurances can I give them about this year, next year or the years to come?

I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister assured us that he would look into an appropriate aid package. I emphasise the point that I made earlier: any economic assistance must bring positive benefits to our fishing communities. Such a package will have to include help with decommissioning, but it must also recognise that our fishing communities want to remain fishing communities.

In Fleetwood, there is still optimism. On a recent visit to my constituency, my hon. Friend met representatives of the local fishing community who told him about the investment that they were making. He met Chris Neve who was investing in new vessels. That is positive. Many people hold out hope for the future, but they want reassurance that their investments are appropriate for that future.

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When I meet the forum tomorrow, I shall certainly ask its members to give me details of how the negotiated package will affect them in the future. I look on this debate as merely the start of discussions and give notice to my hon. Friend the Minister that I shall undoubtedly be writing to him after my meeting tomorrow to outline the concerns of my constituents.

However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that Fleetwood fishermen understand the need for conservation. Over the past three years, they have taken an active part in the Irish sea cod recovery programme; they understand that, without conservation, there will be no fish.

Mr. Weir: I am interested in what the hon. Lady says about her meeting because, tomorrow, I too shall be meeting representatives of fishing-based industries in my constituency. Does she agree that it would be useful if we could tell our constituents that there will be additional money from the Treasury for an aid package? Was she as disappointed as I was with the Minister's earlier answer on that point?

Mrs. Humble: I was not disappointed with the Minister's answer; I was pleased that my hon. Friend is considering the type of aid package that he outlined. I realise that my hon. Friend is at the start of negotiations and I shall do everything in my power to help him in his negotiations with other Departments and I look forward to an outcome that satisfies my constituents.

The position of my constituents is rather different from that of people in many of the fishing communities that were referred to in the debate. There is no effort limitation in the Irish sea; Fleetwood fishermen are allowed to go out and fish, but they are not allowed to catch much when they do so. The context for any aid package for them will be different from that for Scottish and North sea fishermen.

The Minister mentioned the nature of the Irish sea cod recovery programme, and it has been confirmed that the western Irish sea will be closed. I must remind him, however, that Fleetwood fishermen believe that the eastern Irish sea should also be included, as substantial cod stocks are to be found there. I know that his scientific advice disputes that, but I was told that in the first quarter of 1999, the model year used by the Commission, more cod was caught in the eastern Irish sea than in the western Irish sea. The Dutch and Belgian beamers that fish those waters, although they target sole, have a substantial cod by-catch. I am told that, last year, in area 7A, the Belgians had a sole catch of 674 tonnes and a cod catch of 283 tonnes. That is a considerable amount of cod. If cod stocks in the Irish sea are perilously low, we need to examine carefully the closed areas to make sure that we are protecting what cod is there, and other species.

As I mentioned, Fleetwood fishermen are allowed to go out in the coming year, apart from in the closed areas, but they are deeply shocked at the level of the cuts in quota. The Minister agreed that there had been some recovery in cod stocks, which is what the fishermen tell me. They say that they enjoyed a good year last year in terms of catches, so they are seeing benefits from the cod recovery programme, although they moderate their remarks by saying that it is a slight recovery. They think

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that the 59 per cent. cod reduction, 55 per cent. haddock reduction and 56 per cent. whiting reduction imposed on them is not justified by the evidence that they see as fishermen in the Irish sea, and they are especially concerned about the 65 per cent. cut in plaice, as they tell me that the plaice stock is within safe biological limits. Will my hon. Friend therefore consider whether the scientific evidence justifies those quota cuts, and whether they can be re-examined?

I also want to raise a technical issue with my hon. Friend. He will recall that I corresponded with him in 2001 about extending the Irish sea cod recovery programme technical measures up to 56° north and 7°30 west. Many Fleetwood men go up into the northern channel, and they were concerned that the nets that they use and the technical measures imposed on them changed once they had crossed over an arbitrary line in their fishing ground. My hon. Friend agreed, and the Commission changed the rules so that there was one set of EU rules all the way up to 56°. There is some confusion now about whether the technical measures applying to the Irish sea cod recovery programme still apply up to 56°, because there is an overlap with area 6A, where the effort control measures now apply. Will he consider that issue, so that I can reassure the fishermen of Fleetwood that, as they take their vessels all the way up into the northern channel, they are sailing under one set of Commission rules, not two?

Finally, I want to reinforce the point that I made in an earlier intervention: it is vital that the voice of fishermen is heard in these discussions. I was pleased to read in the Minister's letter that we have all received today:

That is a chink of light and a glimmer of hope for the fishermen of Fleetwood who want to engage in constructive discussions about the future of any proposals for the Irish sea. Will my hon. Friend assure me that they will be included in the discussions about the future of the cod recovery programme? They feel that they have a lot to offer to the debate. I shall certainly do my best to represent their wishes. I conclude my remarks now to allow other Members to make their important contributions.

5.6 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I return to the central paradox of the debate. We have heard that the Scottish Fisheries Minister—a similar point is made in the Liberal Democrat and Scottish National party amendments—accurately described the deal coming out of Brussels as unjust, unfair and discriminatory. He was thoroughly depressed. The Minister in this House agreed with that at certain points in his speech, but he also described the deal as the best-balanced process. We have even heard the word Xsuccess" used in terms of the outcome of the Brussels negotiations. If we have more successes like this, there will be no one left in the fishing industry to celebrate.

The Minister, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I have debated these issues on innumerable occasions, and I have a memory for what

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people have said over the past few years. I could direct the Minister's attention to the debates on the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992 when he described an eight-day tie-up—not a 16-day one—as a betrayal. If an eight-day tie-up under the Conservative party was a betrayal, what is the 16-day tie-up that the Labour party has agreed to in these negotiations?

I have other comments from the Minister in the debates of 11 years ago. It is excellent stuff. He said:

That is what he said 11 years ago when he was facing the Conservative party.

I have with me an industrial fishing net. It is like a hair net—absolutely nothing could get through such a net. Industrial fishermen fish in the same waters as other fishermen, but the Minister tells us that there is no real scientific back-up for an end to industrial fishing. Eleven years ago, he thought that there was absolutely no doubt about it. It could not be allowed to continue. It was unacceptable. There had to be an end to it. Eleven years later—for half that time he has been in office—we find that he believes that the science is ambiguous.

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