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Mr. John Maples accordingly presented a Bill for the equalisation of the size of parliamentary constituencies; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January, and to be printed [Bill 98].
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know of the concern about the fact that the Government are now allowing time for a debate on police restructuring. I wrote to the Home Secretary last week, because he had said outside the House that the House would have three opportunities to debate the matter before the Christmas recess. At business questions last week, the Deputy Leader of the House confirmed that there would be no such opportunity before Christmas. There appears to be an inconsistency.
I wrote to the Home Secretary to inform his private office that I would raise a point of order last Friday. I have still not received a reply. Perhaps you will advise me, Mr. Speaker, on what steps I should take next.
[Relevant documents: The Sixth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 200405, on the Future for UK Fishing (HC 122) and the Government response thereto, First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 200506 (HC 532).]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): It gives me great pleasure to open our traditional annual fisheries debate. I am grateful both to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the business managers for enabling us to adhere to the recent convention that the debate should be held before the important December Fisheries Council. That allows hon. Members to make points of particular interest to their constituents, and me to take them on board before entering the negotiating rooms in Brussels. I know that hon. Members are extremely grateful for that opportunity.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early in his speech. This debate is important in the context of the Council and the Government's position, but would not it be useful to have another parliamentary debate before the EU-Norway negotiations? Although there are things to be decided at the forthcoming Council, the framework and the total allowable catches have already been set in the negotiations with Norway. It may be useful for the Minister and Parliament to engage before the EU-Norway negotiations.
Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the EU-Norway negotiations are important. They were successfully concluded last week. My officials put a great deal of work into them and most, if not all, of the United Kingdom's main objectives were achieved. Whether Parliament can find time to have a debate every year before the EU-Norway negotiations is a matter not for me but for the House. However, it is open to hon. Members to request such a debate, or even to apply for one in Westminster Hall.
Total landings of fish from UK vessels increased last year. They are now worth about £510 million to the UK economy. Our exports of fish and fish products were also up, valued at around £880 million. The pelagic sector, which relies mainly on herring and mackerel, continues to do well, as does the shellfish sector. The importance of nephrops, more commonly known as prawns, continues to grow as a proportion of the UK's total catch. However, some other species are still in decline, or their stocks remain at dangerously low levels, most notably cod.
The UK also has a substantial fish processing industry that continues to go from strength to strength; in all, it is worth about £1.5 billion a year. I am pleased to report again, not least because of the benefits to our nation's health, that fish consumption in the UK is still growing.
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Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Will the Minister raise with the Irish Fisheries Minister my concerns about the Irish drift net fishery, which is ravaging salmon stocks bound for Scottish, Welsh and English rivers, and ask him to take action on it?
Mr. Bradshaw: I have already raised that matter not only with the Irish Minister but with the European Commission. I understand that the Government of the Republic of Ireland are working on proposals that, I hope, may go some way to dealing with the hon. Gentleman's concerns.
This year has reminded us of the dangers faced by fishermen. Losses of UK vessels amounted to 27, of which 22 were lost at sea, and there have been seven fatalities involving fishermen. I am sure that the sympathy of the whole House will go out to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives at sea and as a consequence of harbour accidents.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I echo the Minister's sentiments about the dangers that are faced by the fishing fleet in our waters and elsewhere. Does he share my concern, and will he speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport, about the new search and rescue helicopter contract, which is currently held by Bristow's and operated in my constituency from Sumburgh and elsewhere? There are concerns both about the helicopters that are to be used and the transfer of staff who are currently operating the helicopters. Will he convey to his colleagues in the Department for Transport the serious concerns in the fishing industry about that contract?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am helpfully informed by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), that he is having discussions with colleagues in other Government Departments this very day on that issue, because I think that he has a similar constituency interest.
The Minister says that many stocks are under pressure but, as he knows, all white fish stocks and indeed others are to some extent being dictated by the cod recovery plan. Therefore, even if a stock is in robust condition, because of the attachment to cod in a mixed fishery, it can have a very low quota estimate. Is there not a case for a full review and public examination of the cod recovery plan, taking into account recent scientific evidence on climate change and other factors, which perhaps can look to establish a plan that does not discriminate against other fisheries in pursuit of an attempt to recover cod in the central North sea?
I certainly agree that it is sensible continually to review our fisheries policy, not least the
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cod recovery plan. In tactical terms, it would be a mistake, however, for the UK Government to argue for an earlier review, because I suspect that that might open up a number of proposals that the hon. Gentleman would find much less attractive than the status quo. We are, however, constantly trying to satisfy ourselves that the plan, which has not had long to work in fisheries calendar time, is right. At the December Council we will argue very strongly against further pain being inflicted on the UK fleetI will deal with this issue in a momentincluding the important Scottish white fish fleet, because in our view we have yet to give the plan enough time to work. So to call for a review of it would not serve our interests well.
Mr. Bradshaw: We accept that the cod stock is still very low in historical terms and does not show any sign of recovery. However, it is our very strong view that the United Kingdom has done more than any other member state to reduce effort on cod, and the Commission accepts that. We have reduced it by some 62 per cent. since the cod recovery plan came in, so in our view it is other people's turn to take a bit of pain.
This year has also been a very important one for the development of fisheries policy. In June, my colleagues in the devolved Administrations and I published our response to the Prime Minister's strategy unit report, "Net Benefits". That response, "Securing the Benefits", sets out a framework for the development of fisheries policy around the UK and how we will change for the better. I followed up "Securing the Benefits" by publishing a detailed action plan, "Charting a New Course", in October. This plan sets out how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will deliver the commitments made in "Securing the Benefits" in England. These actions will help to deliver a more sustainable and profitable sector.
We have already made progress in delivering these commitments. "Net Benefits" recommends that fisheries management take more account of recreational sea angling interests. We recently launched a consultation on proposals to increase the minimum landing size of bass, in recognition of anglers' strong interest in this stock and of pressure for a bass management plan. These proposals could provide real benefits to all interested parties by increasing the overall value of landings and by allowing more fish to spawn. We have also increased the representation of recreational angling interests on the sea fisheries committees.
The documents that I have just mentioned, together with our response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report, which we anticipate making in the spring, set the tone for how we will address the challenge of achieving the sustainable exploitation of marine resources that we all want to see. This is a major and global challenge that we must not underestimate.
It is with the aim of achieving real integration of the management of human activities in the marine environment that the Government are now preparing a
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marine Bill. The Bill will introduce a new framework for the seasbased on marine spatial planningthat balances conservation, energy and resource needs. We need new approaches and better arrangements to replace systems that have grown up piecemeal over the years and do not meet current needs.
Our coasts and seas are biologically productive and support a wide range of marine life, but they are coming under increasing pressure through development and exploitation. Fishing is one among many developing industries operating in this extremely important but delicate natural environment. Any new legislation will have to recognise the importance of all those interests, as well as the need to protect the environment in which they operate.
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