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Mr. Bradshaw: During his visit to Lowestoft yesterday, did the hon. Gentleman visit the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which conducts those trials, and did he put those questions to it?

Mr. Whittingdale: I did not go to CEFAS, but certainly intend to go back and talk to it. As the hon. Gentleman should know, because he was there a few months ago, there is a CEFAS laboratory in my constituency, so I talk to CEFAS quite regularly.

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The conclusion that we must draw is that ever-reducing quotas are calculated from TACs that are based on questionable data. While the CFP may be limiting unnecessarily the fishing of mature fish, it is failing to prevent industrial fishing, which may be doing far more damage. Trawling for sand eels results in hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the basis of the marine food chain being scooped up every year, while landing at the same time masses of juvenile cod, haddock and whiting as by-catch. To produce fishmeal to feed farmed fish and Danish pigs and, it is even said, fish oil to run a power station, the basic foodstuff on which are fish stocks depend is being removed.

By any measure, the CFP has been a disaster for the British fishing industry, which is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition reaffirmed on Sunday that

In the next few months, we will develop a new way of managing fish stocks based on controlling inputs by limiting fishing effort and banning industrial fishing in place of the discredited and damaging quota system of output controls. As I have said, other places such as the Faroes operate such management schemes extremely successfully. We therefore intend to sit down with the fishermen to work out the details of an alternative to the CFP.

Mr. Bradshaw: How is the hon. Gentleman going to ban industrial fishing if he takes national control, which he knows is impossible, in those bits of the North sea over which we have no control?

Mr. Whittingdale: I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely how we will do so. It is not impossible to restore national control over our own waters—it is a question of political will. I shall explain to the hon. Gentleman how we will do so, as there is a genuine opportunity on the table right now to carry out a renegotiation of the CFP. In the draft constitution that is being considered by the intergovernmental conference, article 12 gives the European Union exclusive competence over

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who served on the Convention on the Future of Europe, said that

There is therefore no reason why the Government cannot introduce a proposal in the IGC to renegotiate the CFP and restore national control. That should be a red line issue for the Government, but instead they are meekly prepared to continue with a failed policy that is destroying our industry.

Mr. Blizzard: If that is the case, why did the Conservative representative on the Convention on the Future of Europe not make an issue of that in all the months in which he talked about it? He made one feeble reference to it, and did not turn it into a major issue. Why, when the Conservative party had the chance to put it on the agenda, did it fail to do so?

Mr. Whittingdale: I have the highest regard for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr.

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Heathcoat-Amory), who represented my party on the convention, and I am told that he did move amendments to that effect. Nobody could be more robust in their defence of British industry and the British fishing industry than my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Bacon: My hon. Friend may like to know that our right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said in the Standing Committee on the Convention that he would often move amendments. He also protested about the fact that an amendment moved by someone opposed to a proposal would not even be recorded.

Mr. Whittingdale: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that that is the case. I am afraid that all too often during the process of that Convention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells was a lone voice of sanity.

Mr. Savidge: If the right hon. Member for Wells was a lone voice of sanity, what chance does the hon. Gentleman think he would have of conducting a successful negotiation?

Mr. Whittingdale: I will tell the hon. Gentleman precisely. I quote the example of his own Prime Minister, who said before the general election in 1997:

Now his Government are not even prepared to put it on the agenda.

The Government have said that they are prepared to fight to prevent the European Union having any say over our oil and gas reserves, as is proposed in the energy chapter of the European constitution.

Mr. Salmond: May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that Professor Neil McCormick incessantly moved amendments on fisheries in the Convention? Perhaps a little more support from the Conservative representative would have been appreciated. The Conservatives did not raise the matter on 16 September 2003. The hon. Gentleman has alighted on a good policy. It would help his credibility if he admitted that it is also a very recent policy for the Conservative party.

Mr. Whittingdale: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support, but it was the policy of my party rather earlier than it was the policy of his party. The policy was advocated under the past three leaders of the Conservative party.

I return to the Government's determination to fight to prevent the EU having any say over our oil and gas reserves. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) tabled a good early-day motion on the subject which has been signed by almost 100 of his colleagues. It calls for the Government to veto any proposal to cede competence over licensing and other national control of the UK's oil and gas reserves to the European Union. Although the Government are prepared to stand up to protect our oil and gas reserves, they seem unwilling even to contemplate mounting a similar fight to re-establish national control of our fish reserves.

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When France and Germany recently decided that the terms of the stability pact were operating against their national interest, what did they do? They simply ignored them. It is not true to say, therefore, that a policy to restore national control cannot be achieved. It is a matter of political will. It is time for the Government to start standing up for the interests of the British fishing industry. Unless they do so, there soon will not be an industry left.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. That applies from now on.

5.42 pm

Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles) (Lab): I shall raise a matter that is of great importance for my constituency and for fishermen up and down the west coast of Scotland. It is a matter that has already been mentioned in the debate: the nephrops stocks on the west coast of Scotland.

In opening the debate, the Minister observed that nephrops stocks are perfectly healthy and viable. Indeed, my fishermen tell me that the catches are as good as they have been for 20 years, in terms of both the quantity of the landings and the quality of the prawns. The catch is exceptionally good, but stocks are affected by the linkage to the threatened cod stock.

The Minister suggested in his opening remarks that we should consider finding technical solutions to the problem. Instead of going down the road proposed by the European Commission this year and last year of reducing the prawn stock or other viable stocks in order to have a positive impact on cod, we should look at technical measures that would allow us to continue fishing for viable stocks without having an adverse impact on cod.

I should like to use my few minutes to flag up one proposal that has emerged recently from within the industry, which I urge the Minister to consider and to ask his officials to study with a view to pressing it at the Council later this month.The Commission, in its proposals for the west coast nephrops stocks, has once again advocated a reduction, this time of the somewhat puzzling figure of 40 tonnes, which set against an overall TAC of 11,300 tonnes would not seem to make much difference one way or the other, and one wonders how on earth it came up with that particular figure. The concern of my fishermen is not simply to avert that reduction but, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said earlier, to try to restore the previous 10 per cent. cut, and even to go beyond that and increase the TAC to a sustainable level that can provide a viable fishery.

The proposal that has emerged recently is to try to target conservation measures on the best spawning grounds for cod—to try a zonal approach to the problem of the west coast prawns and cod linkage. I am told that the consensus in the scientific community is that the best spawning ground for cod on the west coast is just north of my constituency, about 40 miles off the Butt of Lewis, and the proposal that has achieved a consensus in the industry is for a full closure of that area

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for prawn trawling at least during the spawning of the cod, which is typically from about February through to April. A complete three-month closure of prawn trawling could be targeted on that area to ensure that the spawning grounds are untouched, giving the cod a chance then to move on into the wider area.

In return for such a complete closure, affecting prawn trawling in that area, the industry wants not just a holding off of the proposed 40-tonne cut, but a restoration of the 10 per cent. cut that happened some years ago, and a fresh look at the case for a gradual restoration to the original TAC of several years ago, when it was in the order of 16,000 tonnes. As the Minister is already aware, the case for a restoration to that figure is considerable, because there is a strong argument that the current TACs are based on a misreading of the landing figures some years ago.

I should be grateful if the Minister would give an undertaking that he will look closely at that new proposal that has emerged to tackle the problem that has already been flagged up in the course of the opening speeches, and that he will look sympathetically at the case for a zonal closure in return for a restoration of the 10 per cent. cut on the west coast. It would be helpful if he could tell me later or in writing whether he is sympathetic in principle to such a zonal approach—so that the industry will know whether it should continue to investigate and research the matter—and give a commitment to look hard at the new proposals, and with urgency, so that they can be raised and, I hope, pushed at the summit later this month.

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