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16 Jan 2003 : Column 899—continued

Mr. Morley: I was.

Mr. Salmond: The fisheries Minister says that he was supported. There was a last-minute telephone call to Fischler. The matter was on the margins of the summit agenda. If we had hired Rory Bremner to telephone Fischler, we could have achieved more. We should have got Rory Bremner to telephone him and say, XI am the

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Prime Minister. I think that fishing should have the highest priority." Or to say, as the French representative did to Fischler, that Chirac would be there on Friday morning unless the French industry got out from under—which it did.

I have never doubted the Minister's knowledge of the industry but I wonder whether he was fully backed up and supported. When fisheries account for 70 per cent. of a country's resources, I do not understand how negotiations can be brought to a conclusion when that country totally rejects what is happening.

Angus Robertson: What optimism does my hon. Friend have that the Government will come up with a substantial aid package when the Secretary of State for Scotland cannot be present at an important fishing debate? He is acting as a tour guide for the Prime Minister at a Labour party meeting in Scotland. Or when a debate—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mr. Salmond: I take my hon. Friend's point. Hopefully the Secretary of State is lobbying the Prime Minister as we speak. At least that is a face-to-face meeting, not a telephone call from the right hon. Gentleman to the Prime Minister or vice versa.

It is absolutely vital that the Minister realises that the package cannot be allowed to stand for any length of time because it aims a dagger at the heart of an aspect of the Scottish and Yorkshire fleets, which have survived flagging out but will not remain intact if the new measures are allowed to stand. And while a better deal is renegotiated, there must be a substantial package of assistance funded by new money from the Treasury, in giving the industry the priority that it deserves but to which it is certainly not accustomed.

5.23 pm

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Representing as I do the largest beach-launched fleet in the whole of Europe, never mind the United Kingdom, the fishermen of Hastings are thankful that my hon. Friend the Minister has once again shown his commitment to their industry. They are grateful to him for listening and doing his best in the negotiations.

Almost by definition, the under-10m sector comprises natural conservationists. The overall catch is minimal compared with the number of jobs dependent on the industry. It is not just jobs in fishing that are important to an area such as Hastings but also in tourism and related areas of employment that depend on the industry's survival. The fact that the under-10 m sector will be exempt from days at sea is a welcome concession, and is in marked contrast to the impositions made when the Opposition were in power and faced a similar crisis.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I want to put that right on the record immediately, as I was the hon. Gentleman's predecessor. There was indeed a derogation from days at sea under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992 which allowed boats under 10 m not to take part in the scheme.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Lady knows better than I because she was MP for Hastings and Rye at the time,

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and I apologise to her if what she has just said is the case. Undoubtedly, local fishermen did not think so, otherwise they would not have hung her from the yard-arm before the 1997 election. The present derogation is certainly important and the Minister is to be applauded for achieving it. My constituents are concerned about survival until better times are with us. Recent decisions mean that they will not be too distant, although we have some way to go.

My local industry has little interest in decommissioning and wishes to preserve its historic birthright—it does not want out, it wants a future. To be parochial, it is important that my local fleet has access to the reduced cod quota. At present, it has access only during the winter period, because that is when the fish are in the eastern end of the channel. Often by November and December, the quota for the whole channel is nearly exhausted. My hon. Friend has certainly made efforts on this, but has he made any progress on achieving a sub-quota for area VIId, which would allow the fleet its full allocation at the end of the year, when it became available naturally?

We need to look at alternatives during the short period when the fish are returning. My local fishing industry has a side catch of spider crabs, an important delicacy in southern areas such as Spain and parts of France. Is there any opportunity to provide, for example, capital for holding equipment, so that such a catch can be exploited? There may be other opportunities as well.

As hon. Members have said, financial support is needed while people get through these hard times. The Conservative proposals, some of which are quite outrageous, are not the answer. For example, the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) made an outrageous suggestion, with which those on his Front Bench seemed to have some sympathy, when he said that markets should be opened up. He said that there should be opportunities for quotas throughout the market. That is simply not on. To suggest that my constituents should bid for their birthright is as objectionable as it is impracticable. That needs to be stated clearly.

Most hypocritical of all, perhaps, was the Conservatives' suggestion that withdrawal from the CFP is a practical solution. In recent years, they have said that they would withdraw, then that they would not. Today, it appears that they are withdrawing again. My fishermen constituents are unequivocally in favour of withdrawal from the CFP, but they are unequivocally in favour of withdrawal from the European community anyway—there is no misunderstanding their position. The Conservative spokesperson refused to allow an intervention on the hypocritical proposal to withdraw from the CFP while leaving open the question whether the Opposition would seek to withdraw from the EU. I ask and hope that during the remainder of the debate, there will be some opportunity for the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman to say honestly whether it is their policy to withdraw unequivocally from the EU. That is the only possible way that they could withdraw from the CFP. In any event, fish do not carry passports, so it is within the EU that the answer must be found. We can achieve that and so much more through our membership.

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5.30 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): First, we must all recognise that the Minister is Mr. Fish. If he were on XBrain of Britain", he would be able to answer every question about fish. Nobody knows more about fish. Secondly, he does his best. When he goes to Brussels, he negotiates as much fish as he can for Britain. There can be no doubt about that. However, under a system of quotas, he will always have to argue about how much is coming to Britain. He does his best, but it is never enough. The Scots, the North sea and the west country all want more. What is the Minister to do? All he can do is be a whipping boy. He comes to the Chamber every few months like a masochist. He gets beaten, goes off with his tail between his legs, and comes back for another performance. That is all he can do, as long as we have a common fisheries policy.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster), in his customary way, misunderstood everything that I proposed. I have a great affection for him and expect him always to misunderstand me. I suggested that we need a different system. As long as we have the old one, under which we come to the Chamber and argue about how much should go to Scotland, whether we should have more cod, whether the scientists are wrong, and whether we can have more crab, please, we will just go on arguing about it. The Minister will be benign and good-natured, and do his best. I have been going round the course for 20 years.

Mr. Peter Duncan: Although we cannot expect Labour Members to come round in the immediate future to our way of thinking on the subject of withdrawal from the CFP, surely even they must be made to admit that that cannot be worse than the situation currently facing British fishing communities.

Mr. Steen: I am always puzzled by the fact that the Government go on arguing. They must know that that is the scenario. I shall explore a different idea, if the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye will bear with me. I shall go slowly, so that he can understand the argument.

The system already operates in New Zealand, Iceland and the Philippines. It sets a limit on the total available catch of any fish. Within that total catch, quotas are established, either by auction or by gift to incumbent fishermen, so incumbent fishermen get a share of the quota. The quotas are tradeable among individual fishermen. That offers an escape clause for some fishermen who are no longer able to operate economically. It encourages more successful fishermen to buy fishing rights and exercise their property rights responsibly by fishing within that quota and monitoring others to make sure that they do so, as well. It also encourages brokers to speed up transactions to allow environmentalists to enter the market and buy and retire quotas if they believe stocks are being overfished.

I do not know whether such a scheme is the answer. All I know is that the present system does not work, so we must find some alternative. The anguish of the Scottish fishermen is understandable. I agree with them and with my west country fishermen. The situation will not get any better.

Society wants to eat more fish. There is a recognition that fish is better for our health. There is also a recognition that there are 6 billion people in the world,

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and that that figure will rise to 12 billion by 2060, according to the scientists, although they may be wrong. Where will the fish come from to feed them and maintain their health? Perhaps one should take a Machiavellian view and say that we should all eat meat so that we do not live so long.

I want to explore the topic of fish farms. I am concerned about the piece in the Daily Mail that hon. Members may have seen a few weeks ago, which said that salmon fisheries were poisoned and that the fish were being fed pellets which were not good for them and which were coming into the food chain. I am concerned about fish farms. If they are to be the future of the fishing industry, are we going to get rid of our boats and have fish farms for all types of fish? Are we then going to feed those fish with chemicals and colouring which will come into the food chain and which is bad for us? The Minister needs to look at that issue.

If we are not going to change the common fisheries policy, are we going to have arguments like this every few months? Are we going to keep on coming back to the House and arguing that the Minister is not doing well enough? Or is he going to follow a new thought process about how we are going to produce more fish? Are we going to reduce the amount of fish by over-fishing and then develop fish farms, with all their consequent problems? I also wonder whether he is going to pursue the idea of an alternative approach to the quota system. Is there a proposal on the cards to change the other EU countries' approach to fish quota?

I am always ready to give way to anyone who would like to intervene on me, but I do not want to let the Lib Dems in; they have had a good run already.

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