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5.50 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): May I welcome the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) to our annual fisheries debates? He was right to pay tribute to fishermen and fishing communities, and to reflect on the tragic loss of eight lives in the industry this year. Those of us who represent fishing constituencies fully understand the tragic circumstances in which the industry often has to operate, and we use this opportunity to reflect on them each year.

Once again, we are discussing in the annual fisheries debate rather panicked negotiations occurring at the eleventh hour about how we are to settle TACs and quotas for species that will be vital to the industry over the next 12 months. Although the revised common fisheries policy talked bravely of the need to establish a medium-term plan in respect of multi-annual quotas, which would at least inform the industry about the prospect of the indicative quotas for subsequent years on the basis of the best science available in making decisions for the next year, the fact is that no mention has so far been made of multi-annual quotas. One of a number of failures of the policy that have occurred since its reform at the beginning of this year is the failure to look for medium-term solutions to the very serious problems that are besetting the industry.

A complaint was rightly made in the previous debate on this matter about the fact that negotiations and discussions between fishermen and scientists were still not as productive and constructive as we would have

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hoped. In many other European countries, the relationship between scientists and fishermen is more productive, and greater confidence and respect operate both ways. When one speaks to fishermen in this country, it is clear that they still strongly feel a sense of disregard of the basis on which scientific advice is given. That is clearly an issue on which further work is needed.

Work is also needed on something that I detected at an early stage in the negotiations—the fact that the scientists are not bringing fishermen in early enough to discuss the science. In my view, the Minister has a role to play in encouraging better dialogue at a much earlier stage in the process. He knows from his own dealings in respect of monkfish in area VII, for example, about an indicative and precautionary quota that has been set on the best information that the scientists say is available to them, despite fishermen's claims that the stock is a great deal more healthy. When fishermen demonstrate what is happening during the year by referring to catch and landings, as well as to the speed of those landings, which is a clear indication of the health of the angler fish stock, it is important that scientists learn lessons from them, just as fisherman—to be fair, it is a balanced relationship—sometimes need to learn lessons from the scientists.

I think I heard the Minister, in response to an earlier question, make the telling remark that fishermen and scientists need to take responsibility for the management of the fishery. Indeed, one of the failings of the annual fisheries debate is the fact that we are here at all, debating the details about the relationship between nephrops and cod, and cod and haddock, and about what will happen in area VII and the North sea. Politicians, who merely dip into the subject from time to time, are not best placed to make decisions on those subjects.

The Minister must admit that when he goes to negotiations such as those in the Council of Ministers, which he is soon to attend, the Ministers, even with the benefit of their best experts' advice, are likely to come up with a political fix. That is what happens each year. All the evidence is pushing us towards recognising the need to give fishermen and scientists genuine responsibility for the management of their fisheries in devolved regions.

Mr. Blizzard: The hon. Gentleman is talking about fishermen and scientists. Does he also acknowledge the substantial contribution made to the local economy in his constituency and mine, and in the others all round our coasts, by recreational sea angling, which I believe is worth about £1 billion a year? Does he agree that as politicians we should give some thought to how we can manage the stocks immediately around our coast so that sea angling is encouraged, and can continue to make that important contribution?

Andrew George: Yes, but there are also other stakeholders who should be involved in the discussions and the production of management plans. Fishermen and scientists are the two groups that tend to lock horns most on the issue of what is best overall for fisheries management. Clearly they need to be there as two of the main stakeholders in any decision-making process, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that recreational sea anglers, too, need to be represented. Indeed, it was sea

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anglers who first drew attention to the problem of cetacean by-catch in western waters. They also pointed out that pair trawling was having a detrimental impact on bass stocks, which normally made a substantial contribution to the local economy of the coastal communities in the west, where many tourists are taken out to catch bass by line.

There are other stakeholders, too, such as processors and environmental bodies such as WWF, which is now engaged with the industry, including the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, in the establishment of the new project in the south-west. There are many bodies that could play a constructive and productive role in the future of the regional management bodies.

There was a policy within the revised common fisheries policy to establish regional advisory councils. We were all disappointed that those were to be purely advisory, and in discussions with Commissioner Fischler it was encouraging that he wanted to develop that idea into regional fisheries management councils, but as a written answer from the Department received yesterday shows, a year into the policy, little has happened.

Most of the development has resulted from the industry's desire to push the process along, which has not been helped by either the Commission or the Government. In that written answer, the Minister who is here today says:

That is largely the result of their own initiative, and not because the European Commission has pushed them in that direction. Support is needed if that policy is to make progress. We need to step up the momentum in delivering that policy.

I do not want to rehearse the arguments already made to some extent in interventions. The Minister will be armed with industry responses to specific proposals, especially for cod, monkfish, herring, haddock, nephrops and hake. However, it is clear that the industry is justified in querying the science. For example, the absolute measure for North sea cod spawning stock biomass shows an increase of around 60 per cent. over the past two years. That meets the SSB regeneration target of 30 per cent. that has been predicted, and planned for. Similarly, the hake recovery programme has been shown to have worked well so far. The Minister must take account of the variety of views about the science.

The same is true for the inevitability of a very significant mixed-fishery by-catch. There has been a high cod by-catch in western waters, for example. A lot of the area VII fishery is mixed, and the Minister must find new methods for the proper management of such areas. We need a more sophisticated and localised method of fisheries management, as it cannot be denied that the CFP has been extremely damaging to fishing

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communities, fish stocks and fishermen. We must move away as quickly as possible from the centralised basis of the CFP.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman therefore endorse the views of his colleague in Scotland, Mr. Tavish Scott, a member of the coalition Government in Scotland, who said:

That view has been endorsed by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Andrew George: Yes. The CFP has failed in exactly the way that has been described. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that we need to examine credible solutions that will deliver a better future for fishermen. However, the Conservatives were responsible for fisheries policy for 18 years, and never once in all that time did the apparently obvious—that they should unilaterally withdraw from the CFP—occur to them in a blinding flash. It was not muttered or mentioned even once, but that suddenly became party policy a few nanoseconds after the Conservatives lost power in 1997. The Conservative policy on fishing has no credibility.

Shona McIsaac: Did the hon. Gentleman notice that the anti-European brigade exited the Chamber a few nanoseconds after the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman sat down, and as soon as my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) rose to speak? Unlike Conservative Members, he knows an awful lot about this subject.

Andrew George: That is certainly true. Although many hon. Members are genuinely concerned about the future of a serious industry, it is tragic that many fishing communities and fishermen are used as convenient front-line troops in an anti-European war by many Members who represent land-locked constituencies. We need serious and credible solutions. If we can suspend disbelief and concede that the Conservatives have a policy that is legally and technically attainable, let us scrutinise it. I keep an open mind on all these issues, but I fundamentally believe that we should have a policy that is deliverable and that gives fishermen in the UK a better future than is currently projected for them. I am always prepared to consider alternative approaches.

I strongly endorse the views expressed by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, about industrial fishing. We need a more robust debate on that issue. We should take that bull by the horns, because such fishing has a detrimental effect on the stocks of sand eels and scad. As has been shown, a significant by-catch of white fish is also associated with industrial fishing.

I draw the Minister's attention to a deep concern in some coastal communities about the six and 12-mile zones. Fishermen in my constituency use inshore boats to fish to the six-mile limit, but they often find large French trawlers trawling across their fixed gear. That is happening with increasing frequency, and damage occurs to gear in many cases. That restricts many cove fishermen from the far west of Cornwall to within the

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six-mile limit, and it does not give them room for manoeuvre. Those fishermen already face tremendous problems, so they need our support.

A serious problem also relates to the future of small cove boats. Fishing from boats of less than 8 m—those that are dragged up the beaches in many coves in Cornwall and the south-west—is often restricted by quotas. Such boats use sustainable methods to catch shellfish and other species, and it is argued that they should form a sub-group below the 10 m restrictions and have different regulations applied to them.

I also wish to caution the Minister about the shellfish licensing scheme, which will be implemented progressively from January to April next year. Many young people are now able to enter the inshore industry literally with a punt and go out to catch crab. They have traditionally been able to build their own businesses in that way. Even though the shellfish licensing scheme provides them with the freedom to catch five lobster and 25 crab, that would not provide them with sufficient opportunity to succeed. Such young people are the future lifeblood of the inshore industry in many coves, and I would like the Minister to consider ways of protecting quotas so that young entrants are not excluded from the industry. There is concern in some communities that the introduction of shellfish licensing will mean the end of cove fishing.

With those remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your forbearance.

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