Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 5 November 2003
[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]
Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2003 (S.I. 2003, No. 2669)
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2003 (S.I. 2003, No. 2669)
The purpose of the measure is to provide grants to help owners of English fishing vessels to scrap their vessels. The grant scheme works in a similar way to those we have run before in this country. Fishermen wanting to take the grant make a financial bid of the amount for which they will agree to scrap their vessel. The Department accepts those bids that are best value for public money, the vessel owner arranges for the vessel to be scrapped, and the grant is paid.
In scrapping his vessel, the owner gives up the licences he holds for it, which are cancelled. We do not issue new licences under the fisheries management system, so the grant scheme makes a permanent cut in the tonnage of the fleet. The scheme makes an important contribution to bringing the size of the fleet into better balance with the available stocks.
International scientific advice is that reducing overcapacity of the fleet is necessary to promote the recovery of our fish stocks, and of course a smaller fleet will also be more economically viable. The scheme is targeted at the part of the fleet that catches cod. It is part of our strategy to reduce the pressure of fishing on the cod stocks in the North sea and off the west of Scotland. Through the European Union we have established recovery measures for these stocks, which this year include limits on the amount of time that fishing boats can spend at sea. By taking out some boats altogether, it is possible to give the remaining boats more time to spend at sea, so the grant scheme helps to make the rest of the fleet more profitable.
The scheme applies in England. As the Committee knows, the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland are running their own schemes, which are designed to have a parallel effect to ours.
The scheme needed approval from the European Commission under the state aid rules. We asked the Commission for clearance to pay more grant to individual vessels than their standard maximum rates, to ensure that we could give a good incentive to fishermen. The Commission did not agree to this, so there are ceilings on the rates that can be paid. The maximum EU rate depends on the age of the vessel. Under the English scheme we have received 63 applications. A number made it clear that they needed a rate of payment higher than the EU ceiling, and they have therefore withdrawn from the scheme. The latest figures—hot off the press—show that 16
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vessels have accepted our offers of grant, and we await responses from 16 more.
We originally announced that we would pay £5 million in grant under the scheme in England. However, in the light of the bids that have been made, I have made it clear that we will pay more if necessary. We will approve payment to all those who have applied, where the withdrawal of the vessel will make a significant contribution to reducing fishing for cod in the North sea and off the west of Scotland.
As I said, the scheme is part of our strategy to restore fish stocks in the North sea and the west of Scotland. We are now entering the period leading up to the all-important December European Council of Ministers, when decisions on management of all our fish stocks are taken for the future. We are studying the latest scientific advice on the stocks, and we will consult the fishing industry on the way forward. There are important decisions to be taken for our fisheries, and the decision to be taken today to approve the grant is one of them. I commend the measure to the Committee.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am delighted to speak on the measure. There is little in the documentation to object to—[Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] Members of the Committee are jumping the gun, Mr. O'Hara. I shall come to the objections later. There is little on the surface to object to. In technical terms, the proposal seems well written, and there is little scope for ambiguity in its interpretation. As the Minister described, it outlines the process for applications, their approval, eligibility, the business of decommissioning and the potential size of the grant, among other arrangements and aspects of the scheme. Nevertheless, important questions remain. The decline in our fishing industry has been predicted by both the Opposition and the industry for a considerable time.
The Minister must understand that fish stocks will continue to fall as small fish, such as codlings, are eaten by bigger fish, as happened in the Barents sea some 20 years ago. He will know about that because his research on such matters is always exemplary. Industrial fishing is destroying the food sources, such as the sand eels on which white fish rely. Cod recovery and recovery of other threatened species will not be facilitated simply by reducing effort through decommissioning, unless an appropriate approach is taken to conservation. It is not good enough to rely on a combination of effort reduction, decommissioning and quotas to improve the situation, blindly ignoring all the evidence of what those things have done over the past 20 or so years.
Reducing the catch of cod alone will not solve the problem because the food chain has been broken. This is essentially a conservation matter, and until we renew the fish stocks at the base of the pyramid, there will be no recovery. The whole problem will be addressed only if there is a repair from the bottom up, not from the top down.
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I know that Fishing News tops the Minister's reading list. He turns to it every night before he goes to sleep. Fishing News stated:
''There is no doubt that fishermen are finding their quotas for some species way out of line with the amount of fish on the grounds.''
I know that there is always a difference between some fishermen's interpretation of the state of stocks, and the interpretation offered by scientists. I appreciate that there is a tension there.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): When I was a student, I spent a week in a fishery research centre in Lowestoft calculating the number of fish in the sea. My lecturers told me that there was a problem arising from the fact that when the scientists worked out how many fish there were in the sea and calculated the maximum sustainable yield, the fishermen always said that the figure was larger. The politicians did what they always do in such circumstances. They tried to come to a compromise between the two. As the scientists had calculated the maximum sustainable yield and the compromise was a higher figure, there were always fewer fish in the sea the following year. Listening to fishermen, as politicians have done for 30 years, has resulted in fewer and fewer fish.
Mr. Hayes: That is a harsh view of the fishing industry. As I said, there is a tension. There is always a difference between fishermen's instincts, their desire to fish and keep their livelihood, and the views of scientists. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is a seasoned observer. Indeed, he is more than an observer and seems to have had an exciting time counting fish. I am sure that he will acknowledge that the best way forward is a partnership between fishermen and scientists.
Fishermen have a good understanding of what is happening . They live with the seas that they fish. They often spot things like the movement of fish from one ground to another more quickly than scientists can. They live with these events day in, day out. We need to draw on the expertise of the scientists, which is fundamentally important, but we also need to take into account the knowledge, skills and experience of the fishermen.
Mr. Jones: That is the tragedy of the commons—I do not mean the House of Commons. There is a common catch. No one owns the catch. Just as farmers who do not own the land will over-graze, fishermen who do not own the seas will over-fish. Only an outside body can regulate that, unless one deals with the problem of the commons.
Mr. Hayes: Not for the first time in my experience, the hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. He is right that ownership is central to the issue. I am sorry to have to raise the matter so early in my speech, as it will come up again later, but unless we have national control of fishing, with local management and a partnership at local level between fishermen and Government, we will never achieve the ownership, and therefore the responsible fishing, that the hon. Gentleman advocates.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) rose—
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Mr. Hayes: I had hoped to make a fairly brief speech, but I will happily give way to my hon. Friend.
Ann Winterton: I am grateful. Has the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) not ignored the fact that the fishing policy is a European Union-driven policy and that part of it is political? It is common fisheries policy to allow industrial fishing, which, as he said, destroys the food stock. Believe it or not, if we drive away or destroy the food stock, fish will go away. The other part of the equation is that if we have a system that ensures that fishermen have to throw back, dead, into the sea more fish than they are allowed to land, we will have a problem with stocks. That is not exactly rocket science.
The Chairman: Order. The debate is beginning to develop as I thought it might. The scope of the debate is the decommissioning scheme, and debate should be confined to the grants and related matters. I allowed a liberal interpretation of that for the earlier remarks by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), because he might be talking about whether it could be advisable for fishermen to apply for the grants. That is a related matter, but the debate is beginning to stray into wider European fisheries policy, which is beyond the scope of the debate on the scheme.