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7. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What discussions she has had with representatives of the fishing industry ahead of the forthcoming European Fisheries Council. [198959]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Ross Finnie and I met UK industry leaders in October. Mr. Finnie and I also met industry representatives at the successful launch in Edinburgh on 4 November of the
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North Sea Regional Advisory Council. We expect to have further discussions in the margins of the Fisheries Council next week.

Mr. Carmichael: I thank the Minister for that answer. I know that the process of engagement with the industry will be ongoing over the next few weeks, but may I urge him to recognise that that process should not end at the Council door, but continue throughout the negotiation process, and that the fishing industry's views should be sought before any deal is done? In that way, we might avoid the unintended consequences from the deal that we had last year, whereby fishermen in my constituency were left with a permit scheme that was both bureaucratic and, frankly, unworkable.

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I agree. I know very well the problems that the hon. Gentleman describes in his constituency, having visited the Shetland islands myself in the summer. He is right that it is important that we work closely with the industry, as we are doing not only through the new regional advisory councils, but through the science fisheries partnership, investing £1 million every year in collaborative work to try to bring science and the fishing industry closer together. That collaborative work is important. It is not always the case that we can do what the fishing industry wants, but it is still very important that we work together closely to get the best deal for the UK.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend bend his efforts to ensure that the Commission's proposals are based on accurate up-to-date stock figures that take into account the effects of decommissioning and the conservation measures taken so far, rather than the worst-case scenario of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which the Commission seems to prefer? Secondly, the industry would want to him to recognise that, while the British industry has taken the biggest hit on decommissioning and reduction of the white fish effort, other fishing nations are still building up their white fish effort. That is totally unacceptable to the British industry.

Mr. Bradshaw: I certainly accept that we have to take account of the most up-to-date figures. My hon. Friend is right that, because of the decline of the cod stocks, it is the UK white fish fleet, which has traditionally relied on cod and has the biggest quota of cod, that has suffered the most. I suspect that at the forthcoming December Council, there will be some difficult decisions for the Spanish and others about hake, but we will certainly make it plain to the Commission, as we did at the launch of the regional advisory council, that it is important that it takes into account the decommissioning that has been so painful for his fleets and so many others in the rest of the UK.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister may know that the Canadian Fisheries Minister visited last week and had a meeting with the all-party fisheries group. One of the points discussed was the effect of the closure of the Canadian grand bank cod grounds on the cod fishery, but it appears that the long-term closure has had no appreciable effect on cod stocks in Canadian
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waters. Given that, can the Minister tell us what his attitude will be to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommendation on the closure of the North sea cod fishery, which will have a dramatic impact on the Scottish haddock fishery?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman may well be aware, if he has studied the history of the grand banks of Canada, of the scientific consensus that the reason cod stocks have not recovered is that the decision to close the fishery was made too late. If cod stocks are depleted to that extent, they often do not recover. Instead, there has been a growth in prawn stocks, which the fishing industry has been able to exploit.

I shall certainly make the hon. Gentleman's point during the December negotiations, but he should note that for the past two years ICES has advised a total closure of the North sea cod fishery. That advice has not been followed in the Council of Ministers.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to get our fisheries policy right, we shall need very good information from our scientists? Scientists at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—CEFAS—in Lowestoft are unhappy about the fact that their rates of pay are significantly below those of my hon. Friend's officials in the Department. Will my hon. Friend look into that? I would not wish the advice that he receives to be impaired by a work force who are becoming really fed up with not being treated very well.

Mr. Bradshaw: I certainly undertake to look into the matter. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend's constituents do at CEFAS, and the invaluable advice that they give not just to us but to other decision-makers in Europe and the rest of the world.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the growing improvement in relations and co-operation between fishermen and scientists, despite the pay levels. As he knows, however, we are one month away from making momentous decisions once again on the future of the fishing industry, and the European Commission has still not published stock assessment or effort control proposals. Is not leaving the opportunity for proper consultation and discussion with the industry until that late hour in December a recipe for the kind of mistakes that the December Council has made all too often?

Mr. Bradshaw: I take the hon. Gentleman's point to some extent. One of the reasons for our attempt to achieve multi-annual recovery plans was not having to go through that annual process, but ICES reports in October, which gives both us and the Commission a fairly tight time frame. That does not mean that we cannot have discussions with the industry based on our best guesstimate of what the Commission will recommend as a result of scientific advice, and we have had such discussions both before and since ICES reported.
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Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Last year's Council resulted in a most impractical scheme in the North sea. The Minister did not consult the numerous British fishermen who are currently dotted around various hotels in Brussels waiting for news. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that this year, before accepting any proposals, he will discuss them in detail and in a practical manner with those fishermen? He did not give such a clear reply to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Mr. Bradshaw: It is not true that we did not consult fishery representatives during last year's Council. I should like to think that we have improved the process this year, not only through the personal contact that I have mentioned between leading fishing industry representatives and the Secretary of State and me, but through my regular, intensive contact with senior fisheries officials. What I cannot guarantee—and I hope the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to—is a veto for the fishing industry on any decision that we might make.

Rural Strategy

8. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If she will make a statement on progress towards implementing her Department's rural strategy 2004. [198960]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): We are making very good progress. Last month I announced the launch of seven local pathfinder partnerships, which will test practical ways of improving local delivery. Indeed, the pathfinder in the north-west includes the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. We hope to publish a draft Bill in the new year, and we are also making good progress towards setting up the integrated agency and the new countryside agency.

Mr. Jack: It is interesting that the Minister thinks that he is making good progress. I commend to him the evidence of the centre for rural economy at Newcastle university to the Select Committee, which is inquiring into the matter. The centre has criticised the Minister's strategy for lacking vision and clarity.

The Minister is currently establishing regional rural priority boards. Will they have rurally based business people on them, and how will their work under the aegis of Government offices relate to the economic development work being embarked on by the regional development agencies?

Alun Michael: I will read with interest any comments made by Newcastle university, but it is plain wrong to say that there is a lack of vision because we have a clear vision of a sustainable future for rural communities. We seek to engage with rural businesses in that work. At the beginning of this week, I met business representatives in the west midlands specifically to discuss engagement with rural business. We will provide details of the priority boards in due course, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we seek to engage with business and extend all aspects of sustainable development—economic, as well as environmental and social.
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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): We are rapidly moving towards a situation in which payments to farmers are decoupled from production. What assessment have the Government made of the risk that UK agricultural output will fall dramatically over the next five years?

Alun Michael: That is an interesting question that goes much wider than the question tabled by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). We have, of course, assessed the impact of changes on farming and food. Modernisation will challenge the farming industry, and that is why we established the policy commission on the future of farming and food, with which the farming industry has engaged strongly—indeed, Sir Donald Curry led the commission from within the industry.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the speculation about the subsidies that individuals receive under the present scheme and whether those individuals will continue to receive the same subsidies under the decoupled scheme? Although such matters are private—unfortunately, they do not fall under freedom of information legislation—it has been speculated that one individual in this country gets £20 million a year in subsidy and that a number of others get more than £10 million. Will those individuals continue to receive those subsidies just for keeping their farms pretty and cutting the grass?

Alun Michael: As my hon. Friend anticipates, I will not comment on individual payments. At the moment, farm incomes are increasing by about 15 per cent. and the benefits of decoupling are beginning to work through into the farming industry's performance. We are seeking to strengthen the weaker aspects of the rural economy through the rural development regulation.

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