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European Standing Committee A Debates

European Standing Committee A

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European Standing Committee A

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


†Mr. John Cummings

Dean, Mrs. Janet (Burton) (Lab)
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit (Gloucester) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
†Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Green, Matthew (Ludlow) (LD)
†Hamilton, David (Midlothian) (Lab)
†Hoban, Mr. Mark (Fareham) (Con)
Lamb, Norman (North Norfolk) (LD)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
†Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Viggers, Mr. Peter (Gosport) (Con)
†Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
†Wright, Iain (Hartlepool) (Lab)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):

Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Murphy, Mr. Jim (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Paterson, Mr. Owen (North Shropshire) (Con)
Robertson, Angus (Moray) (SNP)

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Tuesday 8 March 2005

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

Fisheries: Total Allowable Catch Quotas in 2005 and 2006

2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending this debate on the Commission’s general proposals for total allowable catches and quotas for 2005 as well as those specifically for deep-sea species. I am happy to answer questions about the outcome of last December’s Fisheries Council, but perhaps I should start by explaining the elements underlying the UK’s objectives for those important negotiations.

As always, our primary objective was to secure continued conservation of fish stocks in EU waters as well as those in international waters which are managed in the context of regional fisheries organisations and bilateral fisheries agreements with third countries. We recognise that reductions in TACs and quotas are unwelcome to the fishing industry, so we endeavoured as far as possible to secure an outcome that guaranteed the viability of our industry while respecting our conservation objectives.

Work on developing the UK’s negotiating objectives started earlier than usual in 2004. We worked closely with the industry in identifying its priorities. We also worked intensively with our scientists in commissioning and co-ordinating scientific data, which we used in preparing our arguments for lobbying the Commission. We carried out sustained and intensive lobbying of the Commission well before publication of its proposals. We concentrated on seeking increases in the TACs for western channel sole, for the northern monkfish and for nephrops stocks to the west of Scotland and in the Irish sea. I am pleased to report that we were successful in persuading the Commission to propose increases in TACs for all those stocks when it drafted its proposals for 2005.

I particularly welcomed the fact that the Commission withdrew its proposal for closed areas in the North sea. We believe that closed areas have a role to play in fisheries management provided that they are scientifically justified. However, the Commission’s proposals were not soundly based. We did not believe that they were necessary, nor would they have made an effective contribution to cod recovery. They would, however, have had significant detrimental impacts on the operations of the UK fleet.

Another important discussion that took place at the December Council was on setting TACs and quotas for deep-sea stocks for 2005 and 2006. The
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Commission extended the list of species for which TACs and quotas were set, to include deep-water sharks, orange roughy in two new management areas, forkbeards, alfonsinos and Greenland halibut. In the event, however, the Council agreed that the new TACs for Greenland halibut and the existing TACs for ling and great silver smelt, albeit at reduced levels compared with those agreed for 2003–04, should be transferred to the main TACs and quotas regulation on the ground that they were not true deep-water species.

The levels of TACs proposed by the Commission were based on cuts in effort of between 30 and 50 per cent. Ultimately, however, the Council voted for TAC levels that were in most cases higher—sometimes considerably higher—than those proposed by the Commission. The Council adopted the Commission’s proposal for creating a closed area for orange roughy fishing in the north-west Atlantic and its proposal for effort reduction for that stock representing a 10 per cent. cut compared with 2003. The levels of TACs for all deep-water species will be reviewed in the course of the year.

Another two important developments took place in 2004, to which I would like to draw the Committee’s attention. First, considerable progress has been made on establishing regional advisory councils. The North Sea regional advisory council is up and running. It has established working groups for demersal species and flatfish, and is in the process of establishing a working group on spatial management, including closed areas. Work has begun on setting up a north-west waters regional advisory council, and two more, on pelagic species and on external fisheries, will also be established.

Secondly, there has been an encouraging reaction from interested parties to our engagement with them following the “Net Benefits” report on the future of UK fisheries from the Prime Minister’s strategy unit. The analysis in “Net Benefits” showed how the UK fishing industry could have a sustainable and profitable future, and made a number of recommendations on how to achieve that. We are in the final stages of producing a Government response, which will set out how we will move forward in partnership to a better future.

I probably need not remind the Committee that the UK assumes the presidency of the European Union at the beginning of July. Much work has been done on developing UK objectives for that important leadership role. The UK wants a healthy and sustainable fishing industry, and to achieve that our aims are, first, appropriate and effective measures to restore depleted fish stocks and protect vulnerable marine species and habitat; secondly, improved decision making under the common fisheries policy, with better stakeholder engagement and a more regional focus; and, thirdly, simplified fisheries legislation that is consistent with environmental and international development objectives.

We will also consider the possibility of more front-loading of Commission proposals, especially those for TACs and quotas. I am not happy that the
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Commission is still making proposals so late in the day—something that the European Scrutiny Committee mentions every year. To streamline our end of the process we plan to start consultations with the industry in April on the UK’s priorities for fisheries management measures for 2006. We are looking forward to a challenging but successful presidency.

The Chairman: We have until 3 o’clock for questions to the Minister. If hon. Members are brief there will be plenty of time for everyone to ask several questions.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cummings, and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I begin by asking the Minister what scientific advice Her Majesty’s Government take.

Mr. Bradshaw: We take scientific advice from several sources, including our agency the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the international organisation responsible for providing advice.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): We meet to discuss measures that have been recommended for debate by the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I serve. The Minister did not take the opportunity to react to the conclusions that the Committee drew in recommending these measures for debate. What is his view about the Committee having decided, in relation to one of the documents, that the Department’s approach to the issue had been “unacceptably slipshod”? Is that a fair characterisation of the Department’s approach?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is not. As I said in my opening remarks, we share the concern expressed by the Scrutiny Committee about the tight timetable within which all Governments, not just the UK Government, have to operate because of the structure of the annual fisheries calendar. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that the new Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg, has also expressed his concern. We would certainly support his proposals to create a more sensible fishing year.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Minister rightly said that, for the Council, the negotiations are very much eleventh hour. Although he did not mention it in his opening remarks, the Minister was worried about how the cod spawn enclosure off the north Cornish coast in the southern Irish sea was agreed at the December Council, and the fact that it excluded vessels under 10 m from fishing off that coast. What reassurance can the Minister give the Committee that in future negotiations will ensure that the interests of the inshore industry are properly protected and represented, so that such a ridiculous outcome can be avoided?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. All hon. Members present recognise the complex and comprehensive nature of the annual fisheries negotiations. They are even more complex for
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the UK because of the extent of our fisheries and their variety. We rely to a certain extent on our contacts with the industry to ensure that the interests in the inshore sector to which the hon. Gentleman referred are properly represented. The industry did not spot the problem until the last minute and the closure was based on its own recommendation. However, as soon as the problem was spotted we raised the matter with the Commissioner. Joe Borg, whom the hon. Gentleman met when Mr. Borg visited the south-west, said that he would ensure that the regulation was amended. He gave an assurance to the hon. Gentleman and his fishing communities that it was not the intention that the provision should apply to vessels of less than 10 m. That is currently the case.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

We have before us this afternoon an incredible bundle of 887 pages and an addendum of 17 further pages—a total of just over 900 pages of A4. How much of that has the Minister personally read?

Mr. Bradshaw: I have read a great deal of it over the past weeks and months. However, some sections are parts of the December agreement in which the UK has no interest. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to pore over the details of TACs and quotas in CFP areas in which we have no interest. Certainly, I have read the sections that are of concern to us, and I believe that that helped us to achieve what most fair-minded people agree was an excellent settlement in the December Council.

Mr. Paterson: What independent source of advice do the Government have?

Mr. Bradshaw: We are constantly listening to marine biologists. I meet them regularly, and they write to me expressing their views. I am always open to the views and advice of any scientific expert or marine biologist.

Angus Robertson: The Minister rightly characterised closed areas as having a significant detrimental effect. There is some concern that plans are currently being worked on in the Commission to reintroduce the idea of closed areas as early as this year. Is the Minister aware of that and concerned about it?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not aware of any specific proposals. We would want to study any such proposals very carefully. However, I welcome the fact that the North sea regional advisory council is embarking on a study of the potential efficacy of closed areas in the North sea. Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the proposals as they were formulated last autumn—too close to the meeting of the December Council—would not have worked, I believe that hon. Members have to take seriously the potential for the use of closed areas and marine protected areas in future fisheries management. There is growing evidence from around the world that such areas can help, but we face specific challenges in the sort of
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mixed fishery that we have in the North sea, particularly when one is considering migratory species such as cod, which swim around a lot.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is already a closed area off the north coast of Devon, which has been very successful in protecting and increasing shellfish stocks. However, so far we have no clear evidence of closed areas that could be beneficial in managing the stocks to which he refers.

Andrew George: Does the Minister agree that the introduction of new regulations and technical improvements such as the application of satellite transponding equipment on all vessels of 15 m and above means that many of the regulations that applied to those fishermen in the past are now obsolete? I refer in particular to the regulations requiring fishermen to telephone enforcement authorities when they cross boundaries, or to telephone ports in advance of their arrival, to meet designated port restrictions. Does the Minister agree that we can now do away with a number of regulations that provide belt-and-braces enforcement that should not be necessary for vessels of 15 m and above?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I do. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, that will be one of the priorities of our presidency. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that many technological advances have been made. They include not just satellite monitoring technology, but electronic and computerised registration of sales of fish, and systems such as the one that the Icelanders operate to trade their quotas using computerised systems. All those advances should make the effective management of our industry, and effective enforcement, easier, less complex and less onerous for fishermen.

Mr. Francois: It is obvious from the Minister’s evasive reply to my initial question that there are considerable parts of this 900-page bundle of documents which he has not read. If he turns to page 337, he will see a list of annual reports on fishing from member states. The reports are in a variety of languages, including German, Italian, Greek, Dutch, French and, I think, even Flemish. I know some Italian by virtue of the fact that my late mother was Italian, but I confess that I am not so hot on some of those other languages. Can the Minister explain where in the bundle the English translations of those documents appear?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, I cannot. If English translations exist, I will let the hon. Gentleman know where he can find them so that he can spend the next few weeks reading them.

Angus Robertson: The Minister will probably be aware that the new Fisheries Commissioner is floating the idea of more multi-annual rounds to get away from the annual December auction. Superficially, that idea has many attractions, and as we learn more details, it may have more significant attractions. It would be better for parliamentary scrutiny and it may avoid the
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oft-repeated bad decisions that we have to discuss at this time of year. What is the Government’s position on the prospect of more multi-annual rounds?

Mr. Bradshaw: We support them. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: it makes sense to try to minimise the number of decisions taken on an annual basis, not only because of the huge scope and complexity of the regulations that we deal with, but to give more certainty to the fishing industry, which does not like major lurches in TACs and quotas from one year to the next. Multi-annual agreements not only make our lives and those of fishermen simpler, but are a much more sensible approach to stock recovery.

Angus Robertson: A number of unresolved issues have emanated from the December Council, and one area of concern is deep-sea species. Will the Minister update us on any developments that have taken place since December?

Mr. Bradshaw: We are aware of some concerns expressed about the level of TACs and quotas for deep-sea species. Everybody recognises that there has been a great deal of pressure on fish stocks around the world. We need to be particularly cautious about pressure on fish stocks in international waters, where the system of governance is not as strong as it is under the CFP or in national waters. It is absolutely right to adopt a precautionary approach as far as possible. Of course we will try to maximise opportunities for fishermen to exploit stocks in good shape.

As I said in my opening remarks, we will look to the Commission to review the level at which TACs and quotas have been set. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the final Council agreement was far less precautionary than the Commission had recommended, so I cannot hold out any hope that we will achieve an in-year change in TACs and quotas.

Mr. Paterson: The Minister says that he gets advice from CEFAS and ICES on the one hand, and a number of independent marine biologists on the other. Does a peer group review that advice? How does he reconcile any conflicts or differences of opinion in order to come to a conclusion?

Mr. Bradshaw: All scientific research and advice is open to peer review. I have often challenged maverick scientists who do not seem to agree with the vast majority of marine biologists to offer up research papers for peer review, but they have signally failed to do so. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would encourage them to do the same.

Andrew George: I am sure that the Minister would agree that those people concerned about the high level of cetacean by-catch—in a number of fisheries, but there has been a particular focus on bass pair trawling—will have been disappointed by the outcomes of discussions at the December Council. They will also note that British scientists and ICES scientists, as far as I am aware, do not agree on the basic population of the common dolphin and the impact that bass pair trawling is having on that species. What encouragement can the Minister give the many
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thousands of people in this country who are concerned about the common bottlenose and harbour porpoise about future negotiations and the protection of those important species?

Mr. Bradshaw: I hope the hon. Gentleman will have drawn some encouragement from the remarks of the Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg, when the hon. Gentleman raised this subject with him at our meeting in Devon last month. The Commissioner takes this issue seriously. He has promised a review by the summer of how the cetacean by-catch strategy is working. We agreed that strategy for the first time last year. The hon. Gentleman is right to note that the latest population estimates for dolphins are far higher than previously thought, which makes it more difficult to make the case, which he would like us to make, on the grounds of threats to population status. We will continue to press for further action to be taken to prevent cetacean by-catch. It is a problem not just in the pair shore fishery, but in a number of fisheries here and worldwide.

Mr. Francois: When was this bundle of 900 pages made available to members of the Committee? I gather from speaking informally to some fellow Committee members before we began that most of them did not get the documents until yesterday and, if I heard him correctly, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) did not get them until this morning.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not sure that that is a matter for me.

The Chairman: Order. I am advised that the papers were available last week. If hon. Members who are not members of the Committee wished to have them they could have picked them up from the Vote Office.

Mr. Paterson: On a point of order, Mr. Cummings. My secretary went to the Vote Office on Thursday to get the bundle; she posted it to me, but sadly it failed to arrive. I asked her whether it was lengthy and she replied that it was quite modest. I was therefore surprised when I went to the Vote Office yesterday morning to be given 887 pages, and I am intrigued to find that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) has found another 17 pages.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman must take that up with the Post Office. It is not a matter for me.

Mr. Paterson: Further to that point of order, Mr. Cummings. My secretary said that she posted a modest bundle on Thursday. She never mentioned this very substantial bundle of 887 pages.

The Chairman: I am sorry, but I cannot be held responsible for what goes on between you and your secretary.

Mr. Francois: Further to that point of order, Mr. Cummings. That is why I specifically asked the question of the Minister, who has departmental responsibility. Can the Minister tell us when these papers from the Department were released to the Committee?

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Mr. Bradshaw: The answer is that they were released in good time. You are absolutely right, Mr. Cummings: how documents are distributed to Committee members is a matter for the Clerk to the Committee, not for me.

Mr. Francois: Further to that point of order, Mr. Cummings. I have simply asked the Minister for a date. Perhaps he can provide it.

Mr. Bradshaw: I will write to the hon. Gentleman with a date, but I am assured that the documents were made available to the Committee in good time.

Angus Robertson: The Minister will be aware that there is a derogation that enables North sea vessels using highly selective gear to gain three extra fishing days a month. He will also be aware that owners of many boats have spent significant sums on new gear so that they can take full advantage of those days. He may also be aware of the move by the Commission to claw back those three days. What is his assessment of whether, and when, that will happen?

Mr. Bradshaw: We do not have information on that. As soon as we do I will write to the hon. Gentleman and let him know. I am aware that discussions are ongoing.

Mr. Paterson: On pages 11 and 12 we read:

    “Where there is scientific evidence from discard data and/or surveys . . . the Government recommends putting in place alternative measures to protect stocks.”

What alternative measures are the Government recommending?

Mr. Bradshaw: It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman was more specific about the particular discard data to which he is referring. Or is he referring to general discard data?

Mr. Paterson: I am picking up on the statement on pages 11 to 12 of the documents which says:

    “Where there is scientific evidence from discard data and/or surveys . . . the Government recommends putting in place alternative measures to protect stocks.”

I am referring to the stocks that are discussed in this large bundle of documents.

Mr. Bradshaw: Part of the evidence that we use in deciding how healthy stocks are and where further measures may be needed to protect stocks is based on discard data. For example, one piece of evidence that helped us to argue for a substantial increase in the monkfish quota for the past two years was the discard data that we collected in the collaborative scientific work with boats off the south-west of England.

Andrew George: Can the Minister help me with a discrepancy that was identified in the letter to him from the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), which is on page 887 of the document bundle? It relates to conflicting information provided to the Committee previously in respect of deep-water species, in particular the great silver smelt, ling in the North sea and western waters, and Greenland halibut in the
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North sea and western waters. There seem to have been significant discrepancies in both the stock assessments and quotas.

Mr. Bradshaw: I accept that there was a discrepancy. It was rectified in subsequent correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale, which is part of the bundle.

Mr. Francois: May I ask the Minister a procedural question? We are debating two draft regulations this afternoon. Will they eventually be subject to unanimity voting, or to qualified majority voting, in which the UK could be outvoted?

Mr. Bradshaw: The CFP is subject to qualified majority voting, and the regulations are the result of the December Council, which was the subject of qualified majority voting.

Angus Robertson: I will return to the derogation that I mentioned a moment ago. The Commission has vowed to remove the North sea element of that derogation in what it describes as “a top working priority” for 2005, which means that it is a matter of urgent concern for many fishermen in Scotland. The Minister said that he has no information about when that might happen. Can people rely on the fact that he is unaware of the timing, in the sense that it is not imminent?

Mr. Bradshaw: It would not be sensible for fishermen in Scotland to assume that there will be no change. The fishing industry in Scotland welcomed the outcome of the December Council as positive and was grateful for the fact that we managed both to defend the number of days and to fend off the idea of closed areas. It is not unreasonable for the industry to accept that the extra days were given as the result of an oversight. Given the overall positive outcome of the agreement, I hope that the industry would be prepared to engage with the Commission in finding a solution. Unforeseen consequences can sometimes work against UK interests, and it is important that when there are such consequences or oversights, which can never be ruled out in any negotiation—for heaven’s sake, the EU-Norway negotiations were difficult enough with just one country—we have a consistent approach to having them resolved.

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