Sea Fisheries (Restriction on Days at Sea) Order 2003

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Mr. Morley: There are valid arguments on how one approaches the economics of the industry. I do not dispute that. Of course I take note of the opinions of the signatories to the letter, but they are not, as the hon. Gentleman is implying, necessarily criticising the order, which is an essential part of stock management and conservation.

Andrew George: The signatories are arguing in particular that the order is driving policy in the wrong direction. The Minister's defence of the order is that it is a short-term measure and not something that the Government intend to continue for a long time, but the letter makes the point that there should be partnership and long-term recovery programmes. This is a short-term measure that will have a draconian effect on the industry.

Mr. Ainsworth: I may be able to help the hon. Gentleman. The letter says that

    ''we, the undersigned, have no confidence that the measures adopted will be sufficient to deliver the recovery of the fish stocks.''

The order fails to deal with the human issue that he has spoken of and the conservation issues.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that the Minister is gathering his arguments, and he may reconsider the letter.

We as legislators and policy makers need to understand the environment in which the policy is being developed and delivered. We know that the industry sometimes tends to cry wolf, but on this occasion it is strongly unconvinced. We should be creating a new environment in which regulators and industries can work together. That is the case in the Irish sea. In other areas, the industry is making proposals of which the Minister is well aware—a mix of closed areas and technical conservation measures. It clearly believes that they would deliver stock recovery and industry recovery, and that they would achieve the same objectives that the Minister claims he wants to achieve.

The financial support measures—the £5 million decommissioning package—is, according to the industry, insufficient to cope with the problem. The package in Scotland is significantly larger, as the Minister knows, and we would all want to ensure that

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parity of finance is available for England and Wales in the decommissioning plan.

When does the Minister believe that the cod recovery plan will be in place? I hope that it does not run at the same speed as his Department in introducing proposals for a United Kingdom sea fish industry strategy. That was first proposed by an Agriculture Committee report in summer 1999—nearly four years ago—and the Minister should reflect on the fact that the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Great Grimsby were on the Committee with me when that was proposed.

I asked the Minister recently when the first draft of the long-term strategy would be published. In his answer on 8 April, he said:

    ''The fishing industry took on the task of developing a strategy through the Fish Industry Forum and in liaison with Government.''

He continued by saying that the matter has been passed to the Prime Minister:

    ''As announced on 26 March, the Strategy Unit has been requested by the Prime Minister to develop a long-term strategy for a sustainable sea fishing industry in the UK: the final report is intended to be completed by the end of 2003.''—[Official Report, 8 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 134W.]

If the Department is incapable of producing the promised long-term strategy on the future of the sea fishing industry in four years, what hope does the industry have of seeing any significant recovery plan introduced for the areas affected by the order?

The Joint Committee report raises significant issues. Paragraph 4 says:

    ''The Committee draws the special attention of both Houses to this Order on the ground that it is defectively drafted in two respects, one of which gives rise to doubt as to the vires of the provision in question.''

The Department has introduced a shoddy and flawed order. The Minister has to account for that and, as a Committee, we must consider whether it is appropriate to agree to a flawed order. If not, it will be appropriate to divide the Committee.

9.23 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): This appalling order is being dealt with at an appalling hour, which is brightened only by the radiant loveliness and charm of your presence in the Chair, Miss Widdecombe.

The order represents an approach that I have consistently opposed in the long period in which I have represented what, in a decimated industry, is still England's premier fishing port. The industry has consistently opposed it, and my hon. Friend the Minister led the opposition to it when the Conservative Government proposed it in the 1980s. It was a vigorous and effective opposition. The battle ended up in court, but we prevailed and the then Government were prevented from implementing days-at-sea legislation.

The order also represents the nadir of the common fisheries policy, which has always been sold to us on a lie. The lie was that fish know no boundaries, so it is necessary to have a collective conservation regime in which all other countries can have equal access to a

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common resource. That resource was essentially ours, as the richest waters were British.

We provided three quarters of the fish by value within this so-called common market pool. That was also a lie, because the common fisheries policy is not about conservation, but is a political policy that doles out shares of our fish to other countries. That process has continued over the long period since Ted Heath accepted it in 1972, when he tried to smuggle it through without discussion in this country, and has led to the decimation of fish stocks and to our imposing control on the fishing industry.

The Commission is using the decimation caused by the common fisheries policy as an excuse to tighten the CFP, as it always wanted to do. As the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) said, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is now rushing through the legislation, so that we cannot debate it and point out its faults. It is a deficient order, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on petitioning against it. It is clumsily drafted, as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments points out on several pages of its report.

The order is objectionable, but we cannot stop it as it is already in force. The process is highly undemocratic and represents a failure to consult an industry that needs to be consulted and on side. The industry needs to be carried along if it is to co-operate properly with the Government and be a partner in the management of its own resources. It is entirely wrong to inflict pain on the industry by imposing the order on it in such a clumsy and heavy-handed way.

The whole process is totalitarian. It goes against the principle of conservation, which is that we should conserve something only by taking account of the economic pressures on a local population that are harming the resource. We would not try to stop hill farmers in Afghanistan from growing opium for export to the world without providing them with some economic alternative and support to compensate for the loss of revenue. Nor would we try to stop tribes in the Brazilian jungle from logging, which is so damaging to the environment, without providing them with some economic alternative, yet we are proposing to stop fishermen fishing when they are already fishing below the limits of economic viability, as the SEAFISH's report shows.

Mr. Salmond: As always, I support the trend of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am not sure that the analogy with Afghan farmers and opium is the right one, given the indications that they are growing a great deal more opium this year than last.

Mr. Mitchell: In that case, they are not receiving enough compensation for having to stop growing it, which proves my point.

The point is important in any approach to conservation, yet we require fishermen to stop fishing on most days in the month without, or with next to no, compensation. That is certainly the case for English fishermen: Scottish fishermen have done rather better thanks to the delights of devolution, towards which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)

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was so tepid, or so I thought, when it was introduced. [Laughter.] Well, he wanted the whole moon.

Thanks to devolution, Scottish fishermen received £40 million for decommissioning and £10 million for interim aid, whereas English fishermen received £5 million—[Interruption.]—£6 million. I apologise, my hon. Friend the Minister is more generous than I assumed him to be. That brilliant letter to The Times on 24 February put it well: there must be compensation. We have a resource that is threatened, and the only way to deal with that is to rebuild the industry and help it financially until the resource can be effectively managed to grow back to levels viable for sustainable fishing. That is an investment, as money will be put into the industry now because the resource will return and regrow as a result of the protection measures in force. When that happens, we will have a viable industry that makes profits, pays taxation and more than repays the comparatively small costs needed to keep it going. That is the argument.

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth): Brilliant though the letter was, there may be something missing, which is a serious consequence of the lack of profitability for those who stay in the industry and the lack of incentive to leave it. That is the question of safety. Is the pressure that the industry is now under not likely to make a dangerous industry even more dangerous?

Mr. Mitchell: I have to agree. It is an important point. In its submissions, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations said that fishermen will do what they have to do to stay in business, which will include taking risks to struggle through. We should remember the NFFO's other point, which is that stock regeneration will take place only when industry-led, multifaceted recovery plans are in place, underpinned by financial support during the recovery period. As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, the present approach is marching steadily in exactly the wrong direction.

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