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6.55 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Like many Members in the Chamber, for the past few years I have talked about the depressing situation of our fishing industry and the European quotas. This year, paradoxically, the backdrop to our debate is, for the fishermen of Fleetwood in my constituency, a success story in the Irish sea, which makes the cuts that they now face all the more bewildering.

I should like to clarify a point that I made in an intervention on the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). I referred to the Irish sea cod recovery programme, which he interpreted as support for the common fisheries policy. However, I should like to point out that nobody in the Chamber thinks that the CFP is an unmitigated success. In my own constituency, the fishing fleet has deteriorated and declined over the past 10 years. However, I should like to emphasise the fact that the fishermen of Fleetwood and many of the fishing communities around the Irish sea accept that fish stocks need to be conserved if they are to have hope for the future. They want fairness from the CFP for all the different national vessels that fish the Irish sea, and have worked hard to make sure that the CFP works.

We are now in the fourth year of that policy, and the fishermen tell me that when they go out they see not just more cod but more mature cod. They are catching mature cod, not codlings. They are therefore seeing the success of their investment, but have been told that they cannot profit from it. That is the difficulty that they are experiencing, and that is the message that the Minister must take to his meetings in Europe. There has been a reduction in the British fishing effort, and spawning stock biomass has increased. Unfortunately, however, the Belgians and the southern Irish have not decommissioned any of their fleet, and their catch of cod and plaice has gone up, while ours has gone down.

The European Commission must accept that it will only secure support for its proposals if it manages to achieve a balance between stock recovery and vessel viability. Fleetwood fishermen need to earn a living, and whatever the Commission's decision, it must guarantee that. The Fleetwood fishermen have been working closely with other Irish sea communities, and have formed the Pan-Irish Sea Alliance, whose immediate priority is that

Many fishermen who target the Irish sea are concerned that proposals that may be appropriate for the North sea or Scottish waters are not appropriate for the Irish sea—we need our own special measures and recognition of what mixed fishery means in the Irish sea.

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The objectives of the Pan-Irish Sea Alliance include the need for

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, when considering reform of the CFP, to ensure that we get regional management for the fishing industry. PISA also calls for further

I repeat the point that many other people have made about the need to listen to fishermen. They have a voice and it is as important as the voice of the scientists.

Another key objective is building fish stocks to optimum harvesting levels, recognising the natural fluctuations in species' levels. Those alter from year to year, and we should not panic and bring in draconian measures if a species' numbers go down one year, just as we should not allow over-fishing if the stocks go up a little in one year.

In every annual debate I have argued that the voice of the fishermen must be listened to. That is why I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's comments that he is considering much closer working between fishermen and scientists. That will be vital. Such collaboration is set against huge reductions in quota over the past several years. In 1996 the cod quota from area VIIa was 288 tonnes. Next year it will be reduced by 75 per cent. In 1996 the sole quota was 83 tonnes. Next year it will be just 5 tonnes. That is a 94 per cent. reduction. The plaice quota will be down 85 per cent. since 1996 and the whiting quota will be down by 96 per cent.

There is serious concern, especially about the proposals for a substantial reduction in plaice quota. Over the past three or four years of the cod recovery programme, because Fleetwood fishermen could not target cod, they targeted plaice. Now they are being told that they can catch a little more cod, but at the cost of not being able to catch the fish that they have been catching successfully over the past three years. The irony is that Irish sea plaice is being fished within safe biological limits. The advice from the Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management in October was for a roll-over. Why is the advice now a 46 per cent. cut? What has happened between October and now?

Fleetwood fishermen need an answer to that, because without that plaice quota, they will be in serious difficulties. They are concerned that they seem to be taking a disproportionate share of the pain of managing the cod recovery programme. They see Belgian beamers increasing their cod by-catch by a large amount—it went up from 283 tonnes in 2001 to 318 tonnes in 2002. In three months Belgian beamers—I cite them not because I am anti-Belgian, but because it is a blatant example of what is happening—are taking three times as much cod as the Fleetwood fish producers organisation is allowed for a year. That is not seen as fair by the fishermen of Fleetwood.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned, the advice from ICES is that the spawning biomass of cod has tripled. The Irish sea cod recovery programme is working, so why does the European Commission not recognise that Fleetwood fishermen, who contributed to that, should be allowed to earn a livelihood? The Commission seems to be

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linking the catching of cod with the catching of plaice. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether that link exists. Fleetwood fishermen tell me that when they catch plaice, they are not catching cod. The plaice quota could be increased while protecting the improvement in cod stocks.

Tom Watson of the Fleetwood fish producers organisation is quoted in Fishing News of 5 December as saying:

So will I. I am standing up to defend the fishermen of my community, and I urge my hon. Friend to fulfil the promise that he made at the beginning of his address to us that he will defend fishing communities and, if there are cuts that are disproportionate and not justified by science, he will fight against them. I urge him in the strongest terms to do that at the Council of Ministers meeting.

7.4 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I have been in this House longer than most Members sitting around me today—more than 30 years in the House and 25 years in Europe—and this is a matter of great seriousness; it is not a party political issue. It unites all the people who are associated with and know the needs of the fishing industry and what it faces.

No one would say that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and the hon. Member for North Antrim agree on the big issues in Northern Ireland, but we agree on this. I should like to put it on record that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he graciously hung up all over Northern Ireland a beautiful photograph of me and my son. It is not very often that the opposition puts out photographs of its opposition, and I am grateful, but it did not have the decency to send me a copy. I had to go round and get one when the election was over.

Mr. McGrady: I guarantee to send the hon. Gentleman an autographed photograph.

Rev. Ian Paisley: The photograph was auctioned for my election, and I obtained a massive sum—I will not say how much—but what money a photograph autographed by the hon. Gentleman could bring in. I thank him. I await the day.

The House should remember that when we joined the Common Market, as it was then, we controlled, owned and had sovereignty over a vast stretch of territorial waters. We were told by people who wanted us to join the Common Market that, as the voting was based on a weighted majority, we would always be able to protect our fishermen. But the fishing industry today is only a slight shadow of what it was. This jewel in the crown of industry has been taken away from us bit by bit. Those who control it are interested not in the well-being of fisherman in Britain, but in the well-being of fishermen in their own countries, and, unlike Britain, those countries do not police the regulations against fishermen—and they get away with it.

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Our once prosperous fleet is tiny today. In 1993, 213 commercial fishing vessels were registered in the Northern Ireland fishing fleet. By the beginning of 2003, that had been reduced to 136, and with the continuing decommissioning schemes the number has now been reduced to around 110. Since 1999, the average profit, before depreciation, of a Northern Irish-based whitefish trawler has fallen by 76 per cent. to £10,400. The average profit of a nephrop trawler has fallen by 48 per cent. to £15,600. That is a reflection of the imposition of four years of temporary closures in the spring of the year, which have removed the whitefish fleet's main fishing season and led to an increased supply of nephrops undermining the market for all nephrop fishermen.

I speak for the fishermen who have asked me to take part in this debate tonight, and if this plan, or any semblance of it, goes through, it will sound the final death knell of the local fishing fleet, and I am sure that my friend across the way, the hon. Member for South Down, will agree with that, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) who represents the other large part of the fishing industry in South Down. This is a very serious matter.

I was saddened at the start of the debate when the Minister said that he felt that there was something wrong in respect of fishermen and scientists. I sat in a meeting at Brussels—I would like him to remember this—and we argued the matter out. The fishermen said, "All right, you say that the scientists want to hear our side," and they named a boat, appointed a day and gave a schedule so that the scientists could go out in the boat with them, allowing them to show the scientists what they saw when they were at sea. Not one of the scientists turned up. I must ask why. I am glad that the Minister has said that encouragement is being given, as there is a battle between certain scientists and the fishermen, who think that the truth is not being fully told.

The time has come when that obstacle must be overcome. The scientists must see that they can make mistakes and recognise that, while the fishermen are filled with zeal about keeping their fisheries, they are also the friend of the fish. If the fish are destroyed, their activity will be destroyed as well. Let us think of the fishermen. They do not want to put out of existence their own industry.

The Minister will face a difficult situation, as this decision will be taken not on the truth but on politics. Let no one in this House be mistaken about that. For all any of us know tonight, it is probably all fixed, fiddled and finished. If it is fixed, fiddled and finished, it will have dire consequences for our fishing industry and we will see the result in coming days. This is not a matter of being for or against the European Union or of what view we take of the constitution, but a matter of the well-being of our fishing industry. If the European Commission cannot look after our industry, let us look after it ourselves. What is wrong with that? Is there something immoral in a nation looking after its own fishing industry and in a person saying "We gave you the job and you failed; we do not have any waters or territorial claims, we have given everything that we could give and, at the end of the day, we have seen our fishing industry lost to society"?

In Northern Ireland, we cannot afford the loss of one job, let alone of this whole industry, as it feeds a number of fishing villages. In those villages, fishing provides

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employment. Once we close down the boats, we will close down the village and the future of the men and women, and boys and girls, in that village.

I know a little about Europe and I say to the Minister that I pity him. He faces a hard task. One does not know why a man leaves a meeting and comes in again having had a road to Damascus experience. He will have suddenly changed because something has been offered to him—a pay-off. Our fishermen should not accept a pay-off. They deserve what is right, and I trust that the Minister will succeed in getting what is right for them.

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