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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): May I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have in writing to Mr. Speaker, for the overlap in my diary, as a result of which I was detained for the first few minutes of the Minister's speech? I mentioned it in person to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to others for their forbearance.

I join other hon. Members in saying that it is traditional and appropriate in the annual fisheries debate that we acknowledge the hundreds and thousands of fishermen who risk their lives to put fish on our dinner tables and pay respect to the men who have lost their lives in recent times.

The debate has ranged wide. It is appropriate that, before he attends the Council meeting just before Christmas, the Minister should understand the strength of feeling in fishing constituencies about the issues with which he and other Ministers will grapple. It is frustrating that we have had some indication of what the proposals will be—I understand that they will be published on 8 December—but that we do not know for sure. We are, in a sense, arguing in the dark.

There were two sides to the speech made by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). One side, which was helpful and constructive, dealt mainly with technical measures, the absurdity of the mesh sizes for some fisheries and the need to adapt measures to take account of those absurdities. He referred to the way in which decisions have been made in the past about mesh sizes, especially in mixed commercial fisheries. I commend him for the comments that he made, and I hope that the Minister was listening.

In the other side of his speech, the hon. Gentleman put a little more flesh on the bones of the Conservative party's fantasy policy of withdrawing from the common fisheries policy. He said that it would be the intention of a Conservative Government to negotiate their way out of the CFP. It is extremely unlikely that they could do so. I wonder whether he would ask fishermen around the coast to bet their boats on the Conservatives' succeeding if they were given the opportunity to attempt to negotiate their way out.

The only other alternative would be to breach the accession treaty of 1972 or to seek a derogation. We could not obtain a derogation because the decisions were, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) rightly said, made by the Conservatives and at that stage they felt that the fishing industry was largely expendable in the wider context. However, I came to politics and to this issue in 1997, and I have to deal with the world as I find it. I would not necessarily have started from here, but we have to be pragmatic and
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ensure that we do not commit a cruel hoax on the fishing industry by offering a policy that is clearly unachieveable.

Mr. Paterson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew George: I will gladly give way in a moment. Perhaps when I do so the hon. Gentleman would like to address the question. Although he said that the regime would be better and that the outcome for other EU nations would be beneficial if the UK withdrew from the CFP, the fact is that it may not happen. As the Conservative Government found with the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, Factortame came along, and it was an extremely expensive process for the UK. Tens of millions of pounds were expended on pursuing what was largely an ill-thought-out policy. If we were to do what the Conservatives propose, the potential cost to the UK taxpayer would be manifold compared with the cost in respect of the Merchant Shipping Act.

I hope that if the Conservatives introduce the policy and a White Paper they will have done the costings, because it is important that we fully understand the implications.

Mr. Paterson: I repeat that this is an issue of political will. We have decided that this activity is unsuited for direction at continental level. We have followed the policy since 1972—the final details were, of course, endorsed by the Wilson Government, who renegotiated the deal—but it has not worked. We have looked at other areas where successful fisheries thrive, because the measures that the hon. Gentleman admires—closed areas, mesh size and others—can be imposed only with national overall control. That is not a hoax: it is deadly serious. We believe that the European Union is in a constant state of flux and, when one exercises political will, as the French and the Germans have done on the stability pact, one can get results. It is not a zero sum game; the other fishing nations would benefit because we would manage our stocks far better than the CFP does at present.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman takes a brave and optimistic view, but I do not think that anybody who is seriously concerned about the future of the fishing industry is engaged in that way.

Mr. Salmond : It is certainly true that we would not have to repatriate fishing if the Conservative party had not expatriated it in the first place. I served on the Committee that considered the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 and tabled a series of amendments warning the Government of the day of the consequence of their policy. If they had based their policy on the residence of the crew, as opposed to the ownership of the vessel, it would have had an excellent chance of coming to fruition. It was an obsession with ownership, as opposed to any interest in where the crew of fishing vessels might come from, that undid that policy and resulted in the many tens of millions of pounds of damages that were eventually paid to Spanish fishing vessels.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. With the benefit of hindsight, those who want to go into that issue may be able to learn lessons from that
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intervention. I have not had the benefit of the experience of the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure that his interpretation of what would have followed is necessarily right.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire said that the issue was a matter of political will, but the Major Government made it a matter of political will to take on Europe over the beef ban. Of course, we all know what happened on that occasion. One can have all the political will and optimistic outlook in the world, but it does not necessarily mean that one will win—or achieve a better outcome for the UK fishing industry.

The Minister said that he was likely to disagree with the Commission's proposals on several stocks— for example, on sole in western area VII. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) also mentioned that. I hope that the Minister will argue strongly for a review of the proposals from the Commission, as we understand them. Both the UK and French Governments, as well as the UK and French industries, are coalescing around an agreement that I hope will win the day on 21 December, because that would be helpful. I hope that within that we will have an agreement to increase mesh sizes for that stock, because of concern about the impact on the year classes.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned—I am sure that others will also do so—the potential severe impact of the Commission's proposals on North sea cod. I am sure that the Minister will know that the UK, through the decommissioning scheme and other efforts, has substantially met the target of 65 per cent. effort reduction. I hope that in the negotiations the UK will therefore be in a strong position to argue for a beneficial outcome for UK fishermen in the North sea.

The Minister also knows that the science on monkfish has never been accurate. The margin for error in the scientific advice is very wide, and the Minister recognised the need to revise the science and increase the quota for monkfish in area VII during a catch year. I hope that he will bear that in mind when he is negotiating the outcome for monkfish in area VII.

I am delighted that the North Sea regional advisory council has met and I hope that the Irish Sea and the Western Approaches councils do so soon. Having spoken to some of the people involved in that meeting, I know that they want those advisory committees to take a proactive rather than a reactive role in their relationship with the Commission—to set the agenda for policy and enforcement in those regions, rather than merely to respond to the Commission's proposals. Some people suggest that the regional advisory councils should be de facto management councils. I strongly endorse that and hope that the Minister will do all he can to ensure that they operate in that way, as many of us want.

There is significant disquiet about the precipitate way in which closed areas have been defined. As the Minister knows, for many years there has been agreement in the industry about a closed area in the Trevose head region of the Bristol channel, but that has taken a lot of scientific work and discussion with the industry. There is concern that the co-ordinates for the closed areas of the North sea have been somewhat snatched at rather
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than carefully considered and subjected to consultation. Although we want to pursue a closed areas policy, and to put a greater emphasis on that type of approach, it is important that proposals are soundly based.

On UK matters, the Minister has largely endorsed the proposals in the Bradley report for a significant change in the role of sea fisheries committees in England and Wales and their amalgamation. Will he clarify his views on that point? Sea fisheries committees are a classic case of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", certainly in my constituency area. There are separate committees for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which work extremely well and are appropriately intertwined with the industry. There is good partnership in the area and the byelaws that the committees draw up can be closely and carefully inspected, due to the local nature of the committees' operation. I hope that the Minister will consider those issues carefully rather than rushing headlong—I hope he will not—to endorse and implement some of the proposals in the Bradley report.

I was disappointed that the Queen's Speech did not mention a marine Bill. Although such a measure would deal with many aspects apart from fisheries, many people in the industry, as well as those concerned about the marine environment, would like some consolidating legislation. That includes the sea fisheries committees, which largely operate under laws passed in the Victorian era. Such legislation needs both updating and consolidation, so I hope that the Minister will take that point on board and that there will be proposals for a marine Bill to bring all those aspects together in the not-too-distant future.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing in the welcome ban on pair trawling in the 12-mile zone from the beginning of November. I encourage him to continue his negotiations with his European counterparts, especially the French, over pair trawling in the western waters and the channel. I know that the French deny that their industry has a significant dolphin and cetacean by-catch, but I have spoken to several academics working with Brest university who are confident that there is sufficient evidence to show a connection between the French pair trawling industry and strandings on the west Breton coast. I hope that the Minister will look carefully into that matter and press it home very hard indeed.

The Minister will also be aware that, around some coasts, there is a strong argument for the establishment of voluntary codes with regard to gill nets and cetacean by-catches, particularly of the harbour porpoise. I am pleased to say that, for example, in the Cornish fishery, significant progress has been made in Mounts bay and St. Austell bay, where the voluntary code that has been established between the wildlife trust and the industry is working well.

Some important issues have been raised in the debate today. Obviously, we are concerned as Members of Parliament that we have been given an opportunity to debate these issues before we have seen the Commission's proposals. I hope that the Minister will consider allowing us a further opportunity, either later this month or early in the new year, to review the decisions made, so that we can make further progress. I hope that the Minister will take those issues on board.
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4.41 pm

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