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Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I seek your advice on the problems of the postal service to and from the House of Commons using franked House of Commons envelopes, and the disadvantageous effect on constituents? I had an advice centre session lasting from 10 o'clock to 6 o'clock on Saturday, and I did a tape, with which I travelled 25 miles to Totnes to catch the midday post on Sunday. The franked House of Commons envelope has still not arrived. There were some important cases and serious issues on that tape, and the Post Office has completely failed to deliver the mail. Is there anything you can do to ensure that House of Commons envelopes get priority when posted from constituencies to the House of Commons?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): The House authorities will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments, and no doubt they will make any report if necessary.

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[Relevant document: European Commission Document COM (2003) 746 Final: Commission proposals for 2004 TACS and Quotas.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kemp.]

4.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am pleased that it has proved possible to arrange this annual debate at the most appropriate time. The European Commission published its key proposals for the management of fisheries in 2004 late last week, on 4 December. The Council of Ministers is to meet from 17 to 19 December to reach its decisions on them, so today presents an opportunity, which I welcome, for us to debate the important issues that are to be addressed.

I hope that it will be helpful if I start by sketching out the state of our progress on the recovery of fish stocks, and then what the Commission proposes. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the hard decisions that the Council of Ministers had to take this time last year. The scientific advice on a number of key fish stocks had emphasised the need to act urgently to avert the risk of collapse, and for some stocks, the closure of fisheries was recommended. The scientists also stressed that setting total allowable catches—TACS—alone was not an adequate means of addressing the depletion of stocks in mixed fisheries. More direct measures to curtail fishing effort were essential as well.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why cannot the EU understand that abolishing the discard policy and stopping industrial fishing would solve the problem in the North sea? Will the Minister put that case strongly, and win it for Britain?

Mr. Bradshaw: The right hon. Gentleman does not speak with great authority on these matters. There is a problem with discards, which the European Commission is addressing already. The right hon. Gentleman is clearly not aware of that. However, discards are only part of the problem. As the Norwegians have discovered to their cost, abolishing industrial fishing and banning discards will not solve the problems.

In response to that advice, the Council of Ministers in December 2002—

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, as the hon. Gentleman speaks with more knowledge on these matters.

Mr. Salmond: I have a specific and important question. Mr. John Rutherford is the chief executive of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. He was able to tell the all-party fisheries group a few hours ago that the results of the authority's survey in the North sea showed that cod by-catch in pursuit of the haddock stock was less than 3 per cent. Will the Minister take that vital

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information to next week's talks, and get for our fishermen the bumper stock of haddock to which they are entitled? That would be instead of the derisory quota that they are being offered by the European Commission.

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. I shall be happy to take with me that extremely useful piece of information from the all-party fisheries group. The hon. Gentleman is right: we must do whatever we can to separate the measures that may have to be taken to protect cod stocks from opportunities to continue to fish varieties such as haddock, whose stock levels are healthy.

In response to the advice last year, the Council of Ministers set out to find the right balance between ensuring the recovery of depleted stocks and maximising the availability of continued fishing opportunities. The package agreed for 2003 included two basic elements. First, there was a one-year regime setting maximum permitted days fishing per month by vessels having an impact on cod in the North sea and the west of Scotland. Different monthly allowances of days were set according to gear type. This measure was designed to reduce the fishing effort on cod by 65 per cent.

Secondly, a set of TACs was established for commercially exploited species, specifically set—in the case of recovery stocks and the stocks associated with them—to equate to the 65 per cent. reduction in fishing effort.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I do not understand.

Mr. Bradshaw: The right hon. Gentleman does not understand because he knows little about fisheries.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): The Minister wants authoritative contributions, so would it not be helpful to UK fishermen—especially those in Brixham—if we got out of the common fisheries policy? That would mean that fewer boats would be chasing the available fish. We could then get rid of the discard policy and have a much happier industry. Why has not the Minister approached that matter in the constructive way adopted by authoritative people who have been saying the same things for 20 years?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the policy of those on the Opposition Front Bench. I suspect that he does not, but I am prepared to answer his question. The smiling contours of his face suggest that he does not agree with his Front-Bench colleagues, and that he agrees with other, sensible Conservative Members—that the Opposition policy of withdrawal from the CFP would be an absolute disaster, not least for the fishermen of Brixham. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] I shall deal with that later in my speech.

For the UK, an absolutely key issue was that there be fairness in the number of days at sea per month that our fishermen would receive. The Commission's original proposal for the figures in what is now known as annexe XVII would have given our key whitefish trawl fleet a mere seven days per month. The outcome negotiated by

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my predecessor, who is now the Minister for the Environment, and his Scottish colleague, Ross Finnie, was 15 days.

To complete the background, I need to mention just a few subsequent developments during this past year. Aid amounting to £60 million has been made available by fisheries Departments in the UK. This was mainly for decommissioning, as an adjunct to the days-at-sea restrictions. In April, various adjustments were made to the days-at-sea rules to reflect practical points, many of them identified by UK fishermen in their discussions with us. In May, the Commission issued its proposals for a longer-term recovery plan for cod. This reflects the Commission's view that the current regime, which allocates days according to gear type, is essentially an interim measure.

The Commission's longer-term proposal would allocate a quantity of kilowatt days of fishing effort to each member state according to its fleet's historical fishing record and it would leave it to each member state to decide how to allocate these days among its fishing vessels. The recovery plan would also contain harvest control rules that would commit the Council to reacting in a prescribed way each year in response to the annual scientific advice on the state of the stock. The prescription's basic aim would be to increase the biomass by 30 per cent. each year until recovery was achieved. A parallel proposal from the Commission is on the table for a hake recovery plan.

That brings us to the latest developments, which are this year's scientific advice and the Commission's proposals that are based on it. The scientific advice reports some small improvements in the state of the cod stocks in the Irish sea and North sea. We can draw just a little encouragement from that, but we need to see greater signs of improvement sustained over a longer period before the scientists will be able to conclude that the recovery plans are working.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Not only the scientists but the fishermen recognise that cod stocks in the Irish sea have improved and are improving. However, it is utterly bewildering to the fishermen of Fleetwood that, although they are seeing a small increase in the amount of cod that they can catch, they have been told that they will have to reduce substantially the amount of plaice that they can catch given that plaice is the only species in the Irish sea that is designated as being within its safe biomass.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend may be putting her finger on one of the problems of setting TACs and quotas in a mixed fishery where cod, which is an endangered species, may be caught as a by-catch. I shall come to that point a little later in my remarks.

In any case, there is a high degree of uncertainty in the assessment because the catch data are not entirely reliable. The basic message drawn by the Commission from the advice is that we do not need to change our aim of achieving a 65 per cent. reduction in effort compared with 2002, but that, on the other hand, we need to make sure that we actually achieve that reduction.

Unfortunately, though, the scientific advice indicates that some further stocks are in need of recovery action. Plaice in the North sea and sole in the western channel

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are examples that are of direct concern to the United Kingdom. An important new feature of the advice this year is that it recommends a fishery-based approach to management on the grounds that single species management does not adequately reflect the complexity of mixed fisheries in which stocks are caught together. Therefore, the recommendations for each management zone now aim to take account of the need to reduce effort not only on the stocks that are outside safe biological limits, but on the associated stocks that involve a by-catch of the recovery stock concerned.

That brings me to the issues that will be before us next week at the December Council. The first is the TACs and quotas for 2004. They are the main features of the voluminous Commission proposal—document No. 15388/03—that was issued on 4 December. The Commission has, of course, aimed to reflect the scientific advice and the commitments made at the Council last year to reduce the effort that impacts on depleted stocks. It would be entirely absurd of me to try and convey to the House the full list of proposals, but I will note one or two key features.

For cod in the North sea, Irish sea and west of Scotland and stocks associated with it, the proposals are generally for roll-overs of last year's TACs, for minimal increases or for further reductions. There is also a proposal for a closed area west of Scotland. Around the fishing grounds of interest to the UK, there are proposals for TAC reductions for stocks newly shown to be in decline. There are, on the other hand, some more positive features—for example, an increase in the North sea nephrops TAC, an increase in the western anglerfish TAC, which confirms what we found and fought for successfully in 2003, and a higher TAC for North sea herring. We are currently studying these proposals carefully and will, of course, be discussing them with the industry.

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