Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2003

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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. As we may be looking forward to slightly longer speeches, will you allow hon. Gentlemen to remove their jackets?

The Chairman: Yes, although that does not have much to do with the scope of the debate.

Mr. Hayes: We are all benefiting from your benevolent stewardship, Mr. O'Hara, although I remove my jacket only on high days and holidays and during heat waves. As today is none of those, I shall keep my jacket firmly on—but we are deviating even further and I am at risk of testing your legendary indulgence, so I shall return to the subject of the debate.

The decommissioning proposal must be seen in the context of its purpose, which is to reduce effort and the capacity of the industry to fish. The reason for that is that fish stocks are in difficulties. We do not debate or deny that. However, without digressing, it is right to say that the way to move forward is to see the measure in the context of a strategy for UK fishing. I want a positive strategy and an optimistic future for the UK industry, based on a viable fleet.

The problem with decommissioning is that there is a difference between a viable fleet and a viable industry. It is possible to have a viable fleet without any of the services and facilities—the ancillary trades—that are essential to maintain a viable industry. If we decommission boats to a point at which a viable industry cannot be sustained, there simply will not be a fishing fleet available to harvest the stocks when they recover.

However, there will be fishing fleets from other countries that are all too ready to take advantage of the situation, so when we talk about decommissioning, we should look not only to the next few months or

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even the next year or so, but to where we want fishing to be a decade from now. That means having the strategy that I described, for both conservation and effort. It means having a notional view about the size of the catch, the size of the fleet, the viability of the industry—

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hayes: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend, who is a champion of fishermen, although not quite in the same league as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who is legendary in that regard.

Mr. Osborne: Some time ago, I was the special adviser at the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I remember that, at the time, decommissioning was a hangover scheme from the days-at-sea scheme that was struck down by the European Court, and was never particularly effective. I remember various ministerial discussions at the time concluding that that was not a particularly good way to spend money, because often the vessels that were decommissioned were the oldest and least effective at catching fish. Even if decommissioning were an effective way of preserving fish stocks—and I question whether that is the case—the scheme as it currently operates does not work in the way that was intended. I know that from internal discussions at the then Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend must have been even younger in those days. He draws on important expertise and experience that he gathered in those youthful years, when he served in the capacity that he described. He is right that the scheme is a relatively crude instrument for achieving the sort of conservation advantage that I described. Effort control and decommissioning are easy—it is easy to propose a scheme such as this—but they are more straightforward than effective. I share my hon. Friend's reservations about the effect of the proposals. I am concerned that we may not focus on the boats that need to be decommissioned.

I was quoting from Fishing News, but was taken down a tributary by interventions. The article went on to comment:

    ''At the root of the trouble is the drive to cut fishing effort in all areas and on all species that are in any way linked with cod.''

That illustrates my point about the specificity that is required in order for decommissioning and similar measures to have the desired effect. The problem is that because such measures are crude instruments, they may not be aimed at the targets at which we should be firing. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's observations in that regard.

I do not wish to delay the Committee long, as I know that numerous hon. Members want to make pithy contributions to the discussion. I shall therefore pose a few technical questions on decommissioning.

Is there any target for decommissioning, so that older boats are taken out of the equation, along the

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lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)? The average age of vessels increases every year, and I am concerned about what will happen when there is the upturn in stocks that we hope for.

Is the Minister aware of anecdotal evidence indicating that major owners in some applicant EU states—such as Estonia—are purchasing run-down vessels that would otherwise be scrapped, so that they can appear to be decommissioning, whereas in fact they will get the money and keep competitive vessels? Will there be binary decommissioning? We do not want the UK fleet to go, while other countries' fleets stay put. That would not achieve the results for which the Minister and the Government are aiming.

Is the Minister aware of other indicators that suggest that segments of other countries' fleets—for example, Poland's—are already being bought up by current EU fleet owners—for example, the Danes—leading to a new generation of quota-hopping? Does he think that that will create long-term problems, as the investment incentive to access North sea stocks is a real and growing possibility? While we are cutting back, there will be pressure for access to the very waters that our fishermen are leaving. Can the Minister confirm that any resolution of the issue of historic access will be covered by qualified majority voting?

Can the Minister confirm the level of support that the EU will give to the scheme—less the Fontainebleau payback—and to schemes that are planned for other parts of the UK fleet, such as that in Scotland?

Has the Department undertaken a study of how many vessels are likely to remain part of the UK fleet for each of the coming years, and has it, in conjunction with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, undertaken a study of the impact of unemployment in fishing communities? The Minister will be aware of the study that was done in Scotland to measure the economic value of fishing to some of the east coast communities, which has been debated in the House. What socio-economic assessment has been made of the proposals? If such assessments have not been made, they should be, so that we can determine the damage that the proposals will do and what the costs, including the cost of benefits, will be to the Exchequer.

Which branches of the UK civil service will be covered by paragraph 14(7) of the statutory instrument, which covers indemnification from prosecution? That might also apply to EU employees. There have been many regulations prohibiting fishing, especially in Belgium, Spain and Norway, since September because of quota levels being reached. Will the Minister say which major stocks remain closed to UK vessels but open to other countries, and what the relative quota levels are?

What decommissioning plans are there in other countries with large quotas? If we were to decommission, our fleet would be further reduced, and that reduction would affect the viability of those fleets, as well as the industry. That would be inappropriate if others continued to fish the grounds,

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and if there was no matching binary decommissioning elsewhere. Quota-hopping is growing and applicant states are better equipped than ever to take advantage of the absence of British boats in seas that are already suffering from depleted stocks.

As you rightly advised the Committee, Mr. O'Hara, the legislation concerns decommissioning. However, we must view the statutory instrument in the context of the sad picture of the declining UK fishing industry, and the failure of the common fisheries policy to halt that decline or maintain a healthy marine environment and decent level of fish stocks. If we do not, we would not be doing our duty as responsible members of the Committee and people who care about fishing, and I know that hon. Members from all parties care about it.

We wish the Minister well, and we hope that he will take the points on board and listen to what has been said to him today and by the industry. However, I am not hopeful. Despite the Minister's willingness to lend us an ear, the sad truth is that as long as we remain wedded to the failing common fisheries policy, and we refuse to take control of our fishing policy boldly, bravely and properly so that it is governed by Parliament and accountable to the British people, I fear that more decommissioning will come until there will be no UK fishing industry at all.

The Chairman: Order. I generously interpreted those final remarks as contextual allusion to fisheries policy as related to the decommissioning scheme. I trust that hon. Members will bear that interpretation in mind.

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Andrew George (St. Ives): I may stray into the area of contextual comment, but I shall try to limit that. Before I make my brief remarks on the statutory instrument, I offer the Minister a bit of sugar with what may be a pill, by congratulating him on the intervention he made last week on the subject of inshore vessels targeting monkfish. Officials from his Department wrote to those fishermen affected in area 7 to say that there would be a closure last Saturday. I expressed concerns about the impact that that would have on the fishermen, and the Minister generously found a way round that difficulty and kept the fishery open, which is much appreciated.

My further contextual comment is on a subject that was referred to by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central. We should put the debate on decommissioning in the context of fishing as an industry or trade that is plied on a damp piece of common ground. Fishermen in many areas have an interest in the product of that area. Whether the area is managed by the United Nations, European Union, United Kingdom or any other body, unless the fishermen have a shared interest in its management, they will put their self-interest above that of the collective interest of ensuring a sustainable industry.

I want to talk about the decommissioning scheme in the context of other provisions. There has been a cod recovery programme, enforcement measures are being applied across Europe and we now have decommissioning, but there is an urgent need to establish regional advisory councils to enable

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fishermen to be engaged in the management of their own stocks. They would be stakeholders with a shared interest, but proposals for such engagement and effective stock management are not being introduced. We are a year on from the revised common fisheries policy, and we are not taking the proposals significantly further forward.

In the context of other measures in the revised common fisheries policy, decommissioning is one of the least effective ways of controlling effort at sea. Fishermen should be able to engage with scientists, environmentalists and the enforcement agencies to establish more effective methods of managing stock. That could include closed areas or seasons and extending satellite surveillance. There would be no need for us to talk about decommissioning vessels, because there would be a more effective management of stock. We would be talking about working vessels.

What impact does the Minister think the other measures will have, including effort control and the hake and cod recovery programmes? Are they sufficiently effective? Is the introduction of the decommissioning scheme an acknowledgement that the other schemes are failing, or is decommissioning an integral part of those schemes?

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings rightly mentioned the impact of industrial fishing. As the Minister knows, enforcement agencies have identified a significant by-catch of white fish on industrial fishing vessels. I know that the point has been repeated to the Minister and his officials often, but it seems pointless to go through the effort of spending relatively small amounts of money to decommission boats and establish cod and hake recovery programmes when one of the most destructive impacts on fish stocks in the North sea and elsewhere is a fishing method. It should be more closely scrutinised, and more effective regulation needs to be introduced quickly. Given that concern is shared across all parties in the House, I urge the Minister to confirm that we will move more swiftly to controlling the extent to which industrial fishing and significant by-catch are having an effect on the biomass and the stocks from which those species that we want to protect feed.

What timetable can the Minister present to the Committee for the introduction of the regional advisory councils? His Department seems to be using decommissioning as a means of treading water and keeping the issue under control, but an essential part of the long-term solution is the establishment of a mechanism that enables fishermen to be engaged in the management of their stocks. We need to know when that system can be established.

The Minister will have seen from the notes handed to him by his predecessor, now the Minister for the Environment, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), that I made some significant complaints about how the last decommissioning scheme was operated, particularly for the boats registered in Cornwall, and the use of objective 1 funds. I still believe that objective 1 fisheries funds were raided to the extent of £1 million in order to fund the decommissioning scheme. We have been told that

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16 boats have already been approved, and 16 more are being considered, but will the Minister reassure me that the £5 million going into the decommissioning scheme is new money? Will he also confirm that objective 1 funds, which are available for the restructuring and economic development of Cornwall under EU structural funds, are not raided to fund the decommissioning scheme?

The previous raid on funds resulted in disillusionment among those in Cornwall engaged, or trying to be engaged, in the restructuring and economic development of the fisheries sector. The Minister will know that they found it even more galling that half the funds—about £500,000—went to the decommissioning of a Spanish flag of convenience vessel. People would have preferred the money to be spent on the economic development of their industry.

Will the Minister reassure the Committee on historic vessels? I discussed the subject with his predecessor. Some vessels have historic importance because of their technical significance, their age or the craftsmanship with which they were built. I have corresponded with his predecessor about the coble, which is a traditional vessel from north-east England, and the Cornish lugger. Will he reassure us that those vessels will not be severely damaged or broken up, and that the Department will ensure that they are retained, either in museums or trusts? Will he further reassure us that when such vessels need to be kept in water, they will be?

Will the Minister also give us his assessment of how the last decommissioning scheme affected his Department's plans to control effort? I am not aware that any proper assessment has been made of whether the last decommissioning scheme had the impact that was hoped for. The report by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, published a couple of weeks ago, said that decommissioning schemes do not appear to work, which is all the more reason for the Minister to be working hard to introduce other methods of more effective management, including regional advisory councils.

Having given the context of the wider issues and the need for more effective methods of management, I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. O'Hara, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

3.3 pm

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