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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Obviously, when the Select Committee considered the matter, we had quite a debate about putting people on ships to inspect what was being caught. Would he go as far, particularly in relation to foreign vessels, after the agreement that he would have to negotiate, as to say that there should be people put on ships, at least on a random basis, to see exactly what they are catching?

Mr. Paterson: Absolutely. The problem with putting observers on ships is that it is expensive, but it has worked extremely well. In Bergen, Norway, I was told on Tuesday that in the Barents sea, one observer will be on one boat, among, say, eight or nine Russian boats in the joint zone. He will keep a close track of what is happening on the one boat that he is on, and then make a comparison with the landings recorded by the other Russian ships. Earlier in the week, talking to John Barton, who runs the fishery in Stanley in the Falklands, I found out that it has a similar system with the hake fishery. It will have one observer on one of the Korean boats, who will watch closely what the surrounding ones are doing. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is therefore good, but the problem is that it is expensive.

One last case that shows the ludicrous state to which regulations have brought some people is that of Paul Joy in Hastings, whom I met three weeks ago. He runs a small vessel under 10 m. Neither he nor his vessel have a quota for cod. He takes his cod as part of the inshore fleet allocation. Although that was not fully taken up last year, DEFRA is prosecuting him for going over quota—which he does not have—on the basis of an arbitrary decision to break the quota down into monthly allocations. The whole case is utterly absurd and an outrageous waste of public money. We would make fishing regulations subject to civil, not criminal law, and would therefore decriminalise fishing. It is wrong that those who risk their lives at sea should also risk being turned into criminals by petty regulations.
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I shall describe those ideas in greater detail soon when we publish our Green Paper, which will set out our proposals for running a successful fishery under national control. I look forward to receiving comments from all parties.

David Burnside: On the hon. Gentleman's point about a Green Paper in which a national policy for fisheries will be outlined, will the Conservative party, should it become the national Government on 5 May next year, try to make the reform of fisheries policy coincide with the anniversary of our greatest ever naval victory, the battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October?

Mr. Paterson: That is a splendid idea. We said that we would raise the issue at the first Council, but whichever is earlier, perhaps we can celebrate our success in October next year, on the next anniversary.

I must conclude, as other Members wish to speak. I look forward to receiving comments on our paper, which we will produce soon. I repeat that we believe that the CFP cannot be reformed. Only the Conservative party can return Britain's coastal communities to prosperity, and its marine environment to health, by establishing national and local control, to 200 miles or the median line.

4.8 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I woke with a shock last Friday morning to find how near to Christmas we are. It must be near Christmas, as we are having a fishing debate. I want to express the concern of fishing Members that we have only this short debate, crammed in—in this hole-in-the-corner fashion—at the end of a day of very serious and heavy business. Fishing deserves better. It is interesting that fellow Members, enthusiastic as so many of them are about Europe, have spent so much time trying to tease the Conservative spokesman on the policy of withdrawal, which I think is an eminently sensible policy. Without wasting any more time on the issue, it might be sensible for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who I know is an enthusiastic pro-European, to use the opportunity presented by the Conservative party committing itself to withdrawing from the common fisheries policy to go to the negotiations in Brussels quaking with terror, saying, "This firebrand spokesman for the Opposition is going round the port rousing the fishermen to a policy of withdrawal. You must give us further concessions so that we can beat off this threat." That would be a sensible negotiating approach

Mr. Bradshaw: First, let me reassure my hon. Friend: I think that I would be correctly described as a pragmatic rather than an enthusiastic European. Secondly, let me tell him that I do not need to point out to the Commission that the United Kingdom is unique in having a main Opposition party—and, indeed, one or two other parties—with a policy favouring withdrawal from the common fisheries policy.

Mr. Mitchell: Nevertheless, it is sensible to publicise the anger of fishermen who feel, rightly in my view, that this country has not had and is not getting a fair deal from the CFP.
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I have another reason for deploring the shortness and lateness of the debate. We are, I hope, at a turning point in Europe. We have certainly reached a conservation crunch, but I think we may also see an end to the panic measures that have dominated up until now. The Government's strategy unit's investigation will be important to the industry: it will, I think, constitute a prelude to change and will point us in new directions, although the Government have not yet accepted responsibility for investment in the industry. It is an important new beginning, in any event. At this time of change we deserve more time for discussion, perhaps both before and after the negotiations. We need a major fishing debate.

Will the coming discussions in Brussels mark a new beginning there? We have a new Commissioner, Joe Borg, who does not have a second job and who I hope will bring a more relaxed approach to the common fisheries policy. It must be said that during his last couple of years in office Commissioner Fischler, accustomed as he was to devoting most of his time to negotiating on the common agricultural policy and to bullying, bashing and acting tough, tended to apply the same tactics to fishing—which, being a much more complex industry, needs nurturing and support rather than bullying.

To an extent, that attitude continued as fishing moved into a conservation crisis caused, essentially, by the CFP itself. The CFP presents itself as a conservation policy, but it is not. It is a political policy whose purpose is to dole out catches and satisfy as many people as it can, which leads to overfishing. When overfishing generated a conservation crisis, the European Union resorted to panic measures—draconian and ill-considered panic measures that all too regularly had to be chopped and changed. That required new legislation, and months spent tinkering with it to bring it up to scratch. We have seen 60 per cent. reductions in total allowable catches, and an increase in mesh size to 120 mm. Huge areas have been closed for cod conservation. I hope the Minister will accept that it is possible to relax some of those measures.

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend clearly shares my scepticism. Does he agree that one of the biggest problems of the CFP is that it has done nothing about industrial fishing? We have all these wonderful quotas and controls, and the system is supposedly there to deal with conservation, but outside it nations are ripping the heart out of our marine environment. I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about that, but I thought he might want to comment on it.

Mr. Mitchell: I am glad that my hon. Friend has made that point. There is still a substantial by-catch in industrial fishing. Danish industrial fishermen have been found to be catching white fish on a considerable and damaging scale, and the practice continues despite all the efforts of most other fishing nations and continuous condemnation that is echoed in every fisheries debate in the House. It is a scar on the face of the common fisheries policy, and it should be stopped.

On the need to relax some of the draconian measures, the calculations of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea are based on fairly old science, dating from 2003, and make no allowance for the
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huge reduction in our fishing effort, particularly in Scotland but also in England. Nor does it allow for the improvement, as has been pointed out, in the availability of haddock and monkfish. Yet instead of looking forward to a relaxation of such measures, the first indications are that policy is going to be tightened.

The Commission is talking of designating closed boxes in areas in which 60 per cent. of cod is taken, including a spawning ground just off the Yorkshire coast. I should make it clear that the industry supports such closures, but not ill-considered, ill-defined ones that are imposed as a panic measure. Closures need to be made in consultation with the industry, which has practical experience of what is happening in such grounds. The industry certainly deserves to be consulted, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will oppose this substantial use of closed boxes. I hope, too, that he will ensure that cod conservation areas will be policed by way of licences to go in and take cod, rather than licences to go outside and take something else. The latter approach seems a very strange and anomalous one.

I also hope that there could be some relaxation of the time-at-sea limitations. I remind the Minister that if the Government are not going to support the industry financially, they need to allow it to be as profitable as it can be in the current straitened circumstances. In other words, it needs more time at sea to make itself more profitable. But above all, we owe it to the industry to ensure more stable management routines. As the fishing organisations pointed out to us this morning, the indication in the summer was that a more consultative approach would be taken, and that the Commission would be more flexible and would produce an outline agreement in October, so that everybody could be involved in the process.

Here we are in December and it is just like old times: we do not know what is going to happen or what the proposals are, and the figures have not been pencilled in. How can an industry that needs to move towards a sustainable future, and which needs investment and a sustainable employment pattern, plan ahead in these circumstances? It seems that a hard core of officials in the Commission want to carry on ruling by diktat and control. They do not trust fishermen, so they want a tightly regulated industry. Hence the talk of designating closed boxes, of effort limitation in the western channel in respect of sole—unnecessary, according to the fishing organisations—and of further restrictions in the Irish sea.

We want a sustainable industry that can think ahead and invest ahead, and which can provide steady employment prospects, rather than being subject to sudden changes in policy. In the past couple of years, it has borne the brunt of cuts—made necessary by the conservation crisis—that the common fisheries policy itself imposed. Yet other countries—France, Ireland and Spain in particular—are still building their fleets. That building process is supposed to stop at the end of this year, but it is still going on. While we are drastically cutting our fleet, others are still building theirs in order to inherit the future. The industry needs a level playing field with our European competitors. It needs a level
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pattern of enforcement and the confidence that enforcement is as vigorous and effective there as it is here.

We have been told that we face a further run-down by the strategy unit, but it is unreasonable to expect the run-down of the industry to happen unless it is managed and financed by the Government. Part of the original plan proposed by the World Wildlife Fund stressed the importance of investment in getting the industry from position A to an improved position B. It was about investing in the future. The strategy unit did not opt for that, but it should have.

We face a real problem now and the threat to the English industry, particularly on the east coast, is serious. It looks as though one whitefish port is going to have to close. The threat is there and if it is going to be carried through with confidence, there must be proper management decision-making and compensation arrangements. If licences and entitlements are flowing out of the area to other areas that are doing better, we should try to keep them in order to maintain the essential critical mass that the industry needs to be viable. There must be some financial support for keeping the licences in the area.

I understand that the Minister is strongly concerned about stability and we all agree on the need for it, so I am sure that he welcomes, as I do, the establishment of the regional advisory council. In passing, I want to say that I am still not reassured about how regional management conflicts with exclusive competence. We need to look into that matter very seriously.

We all welcome the working group on demersal stocks, that the regional advisory council has set up. It produced an excellent report, that points the way forward. For too long, fishing in this country has been ignored by the Government, only to be restructured by liquidation when the British Government avoided responsibility. Under the Fontainebleau agreement, they would have had to make a major contribution, but they did not want to finance it. The Government did not draw on European funds in the way that applies to some other European countries, but they did not provide an alternative either. As far as the industry was concerned, it was a double whammy. That was the position in this country, and it was subsequently replaced by a system of draconian decisions from a panic-stricken Commission, desperately trying to clear up the mess that it had created.

I have every confidence in the Minister's commitment to stability, stable management and moving towards a sustainable future. I hope that, in the forthcoming discussions, he will begin the process towards achieving that. We want an industry that works and the Minister is trying to develop that—all credit to him and all power to his elbow—in consultation with the scientists. It is important to exchange points of view so that the two sides can understand each other. The gap between them has often been a crying shame. The industry should be brought into the regional management structures.

The fishing industry must be listened to by the Commission and the Government. We must have co-operative management of fishing. For too long, it has been a hunting industry and it is crucial to bring it into a process of co-operation and consultation if we are to achieve the sustainable fishing future that we need. If we
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can work towards that goal at the forthcoming talks in Brussels, we may be able to stave off the worst of the threats of more draconian management from the Commission. We may then be able to start the turn-around towards the sustainable future that we all want.

4.24 pm

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