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Mr. Walker: Will the Minister update us on the status of commercial sand eel fisheries, which have had a catastrophic effect on the food chain in our oceans?

Mr. Bradshaw: The fishery to which the hon. Gentleman refers has been closed for the past two or three months because of the collapse of the stock. The UK will certainly argue very strongly in the December Council for continuing measures to protect the sand eel stock.

We want a framework that helps us to use our marine resources in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way, in order to conserve ecosystems and to achieve maximum environmental, social and economic benefit from the marine environment. We wish to promote and encourage environmentally sustainable use of natural resources to ensure long-term economic benefits and sustainable employment.

The Government have also listened very carefully to the concerns expressed in the royal commission's report about the environmental effect of bottom trawling—an issue that I take extremely seriously. The UK's position is that where there is no competent regional fisheries management organisation or arrangement, we now favour a moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling in known areas of vulnerable or high biodiversity.

There have been one or two other important developments this year that I should mention before turning to the detail and to our priorities for the December Council. Modernising and streamlining fisheries management has been another priority. In October, I launched the new Marine Fisheries Agency, which is formed from the sea fisheries inspectorate and other delivery teams within DEFRA. Separating policy and delivery functions in this way will strengthen our ability to provide a professional and efficient service. This change goes hand in hand with improving compliance, so that we can secure an industry that is profitable in the long term.

Another high priority for the Department is the better regulation initiative. Rules are necessary to manage the fisheries, but the combined effect of current controls on fishermen is to impose too great a burden on them. We need to cut back on red tape wherever we can, and I am very pleased that DEFRA has linked up with the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations in a joint project to identify what changes we can make. Working with the NFFO, we have already proposed to the European Commission a number of changes that
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should be made to EU law. We have pressed Brussels for an effective action plan to cut burdens on fishermen, and the Commission has promised to provide its ideas at the December council.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given that the Minister has been talking about ecosystems and the health of fish stocks, can he tell us about the consequences of the 1998 ban on the dumping of sewage in the North sea? Has there been a noticeable improvement in the marine environment, and is he satisfied that other EU countries with North sea coastlines are complying with that regulation?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. That regulation has had an enormous impact on the quality of our marine environment; indeed, the measures that the UK and other countries have taken to deal with sewage in a more sustainable way have contributed to our seas being cleaner than at any time since the industrial revolution. But there are other pressures, which are still growing. One reason a marine Bill is so important is that it will enable us to take an overall, holistic approach to the management of our marine environment. That is an enormous challenge, given that most of what happens occurs underwater and is invisible to the human eye. Nevertheless, we are talking about a very important resource for our country.

Mr. Salmond: Before the Minister moves on to the Fisheries Council, will he comment on a point of detail concerning the pelagic fleet? A scheme has recently been developed through which white fish licences can be aggregated into the pelagic sector. That is obviously a very good thing for the five boats that have such licences, but the other 15, which will not have time to acquire such licences and aggregation, are to some extent being discriminated against. At first sight, this scheme therefore appears to discriminate against some fishermen and in favour of others. Will the Minister have a look at this issue and see whether the time scale can be extended, so that all boats can be treated on equal terms?

Mr. Bradshaw: I certainly will examine this issue. The decision to which the hon. Gentleman refers was subject to extensive consultation over a number of years and was taken with the support of fishing industry representatives. But I undertake to write to him or to say a little more about this issue at the end of the debate.

Another issue flagged up in "Net Benefits" is problems with the current quota management system, which is regarded as confused and confusing. I agree, and in response we initiated a major programme earlier this year to reform our quota management arrangements. The programme is being undertaken in collaboration with the devolved Administrations and in full consultation with the industry. The plan is to deliver changes by 2008. They will bring clarity to the use and transfer of quota, while recognising the impact on vulnerable communities and on the small vessel fleet.

In addition to effective management of quota, the fishing fleet must be of the right size to take advantage of fishing opportunities in a sustainable way. This balance of capacity and opportunity is particularly relevant in the western channel, where the Commission
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proposes further restrictions to protect flatfish stocks. In addition, our economic modelling of the south-west beam trawl fleet, which targets these stocks, suggests that there is some overcapacity. I have therefore asked for an assessment of capacity across all fleet segments so that I am in a position to take a strategic view of how best to achieve a fleet structure that is sustainable in the long term. On the basis of that work, and in the light of the conservation needs, I will be actively considering further decommissioning in England and Wales in 2006–07.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): The fear, certainly in Grimsby, is that in the process of decommissioning—unfortunately, some Grimsby owners want to decommission, because the industry is not profitable—preference will be given to the south-west, especially the beam trawlers, which are heavy users of fuel. The problems of the whole nation, and particularly of Grimsby, need to be taken into account and the aid should not be focused only on the south-west.

Mr. Bradshaw: I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will take a holistic approach to the capacity situation. He is right to highlight the problem caused to particular sectors of our industry by high fuel prices, but I suggest that they are here to stay. If we are to achieve a sustainable and profitable fishing fleet in the long term, it makes sense to take such considerations into account when considering decommissioning. I will certainly bear in mind the representations that my hon. Friend has made and will no doubt continue to make on behalf of his constituents.

For the second half of this year, much of our focus has been on delivering a successful UK presidency of the EU. Further progress in engaging stakeholders has been made through the setting up of regional advisory councils. The UK has been a key player in this process, and under our presidency we have seen the launch of both the pelagic and the north western waters RACs. Those new RACs have already provided advice on the annual quotas regulation. The established North sea RAC has also made significant developments, including providing advice on the Shetland box that has directly influenced European policy. The RACs are now planning to advise on key Commission policies, such as maximum sustainable yield, over the coming year.

We have also achieved agreement on measures to restore and maintain healthy fish stocks. We agreed a recovery plan for southern hake and nephrops in the Cantabrian sea and western Iberian peninsula, and technical conservation measures for the Baltic sea were agreed last month in the Council. Both will be of long-term benefit to fish stocks.

One of our other objectives is to improve decision making under the CFP, with better stakeholder involvement, and we hosted a constructive meeting on that at the October Council to consider possible changes to working methods for adoption of the annual fisheries total allowable catches—TACs—or what most people refer to as the fishing year. We now expect the Commission to make concrete proposals for changing the fishing year in the spring.
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Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): While the Minister is talking about improving the way in which those issues are dealt with, will he consider how advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is released? The run-up to the Council is always a difficult time for fishermen, but this year advice was released from ICES that haddock stocks were plentiful. Within a week we were told of a proposal for a 40 per cent. reduction. I appreciate that that reduction has been scaled down since, but it caused much anxiety to fishermen, who feel as though they are on a rollercoaster ride.

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