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Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that although the people who he listed will not be involved in the negotiations, member states that are completely land-locked will be? Does he think that fishing will be their priority in the negotiations?

Mr. Paterson: I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) is in the Chamber, because having someone who is really interested in fishing present to speak on behalf of Scarborough and Whitby is in stark contrast to the situation last year. He is absolutely right that decisions will be taken at the Council by nation states with no real interest in fisheries, no real understanding of fisheries, or any background in fishing. Buccaneering countries with real agricultural interests, such as Hungary and Austria, will be present, but those interests will be traded off with deals on other people's fishing interests. That is not the way in which things should be run. In reality, there are 887 pages of detail somewhere in the Commission, which, in fairness, the Minister cannot possibly understand. Last time there were two big slips, although I do not blame him for that.

Mr. Carmichael : The hon. Gentleman remarked on the former Member for Scarborough and Whitby, who served in the House before the general election. He was not a member of my party and I have no interest in the politics of Scarborough and Whitby, so I shall not get involved in that. However, the hon. Gentleman referred to him in a way that was, frankly, unworthy of him. The former hon. Member always attended and spoke in fisheries debates. He and I were usually boxing and coxing for the last speech, trying to get in after the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman had, as seems still to be the practice, taken so long. The hon. Gentleman should reflect on that.

Mr. Paterson: I am perfectly happy to apologise if the hon. Gentleman thinks that I cast a slur on the previous Member for Scarborough and Whitby. My point was that when I went to Scarborough and Whitby, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, the new Member, introduced me to fishermen and we had a most interesting discussion because of his real interest in the subject. I did not mean to cast an aspersion on the previous Member, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will shortly draw my comments to an end. I do not intend to plough through the 887 pages of the documents.

I do not blame the Minister for this, but there were two serious slip-ups last year. One was in the North sea, when a complete muddle led to fishermen buying 120 mm nets when the regulation was intended for the Baltic. The other was in Trevose, where there was a
 
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muddle over a closed area. Those serious problems for British fishermen were not even mentioned in the enormous bundle of documents.

It is no wonder that the chairman of the Icelandic bank, the largest investor in fishing businesses around the world, has made it company policy not to invest in any Russian or EU fishery because of the arbitrary political nature of decision making. No other fishery in the world is run quite like ours and none is run quite so badly as ours. The CFP is a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster. It is beyond reform. Our policy is to establish national and local control.

1.42 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome the debate and the opportunity to raise once again inshore fishing in Morecambe bay and the need to change legislation so that there is proper regulation of shellfishing and a national licensing scheme.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for recently meeting me and Steven Atkins, the chief executive of the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee, along with Margaret Owen and Mark Hamer, who sit on it. Margaret and her husband Trevor have fished in Morecambe bay for many years and are well aware of the dangers posed to inexperienced strangers who cockle out in the sands of the bay. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for the generous amount of time that he allowed for us to apprise him of our concerns about health and safety, damage to the natural environment of Morecambe bay, the loss of taxation revenue, and fishing and the depletion of stocks.

My hon. Friend is aware of the dangers of Morecambe bay, with its fast rising tides and shifting sands. Indeed, he was the first politician to visit it after the terrible tragedy in February 2004 when 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives in appalling circumstances. People who live around the bay value its beauty, but they are well aware of the need to take great care when venturing out on to the sands. It can be treacherous for those who do not have local knowledge of the tides and the shifting quicksands. Indeed, the Queen's sand pilot, Cedric Robinson, who has been leading walkers safely across the sands for more than 25 years, recently told the BBC:

I share his view completely.

The cockle beds that surround Morecambe have been closed since April 2005 by the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee. Legislation allows it to close beds to protect cockle stocks, but not to close them to protect human lives. That is crazy and unacceptable. The law must be changed to take health and safety concerns into account.

The closure of the cockle beds was warmly welcomed by me, the police, the coastguard, the lifeboat, the parish councils of Slyne with Hest and Bolton-le-Sands, Lancaster city council and, indeed, the local fishing community. I am pleased to note that the sea fisheries committee has not reopened the beds. However, a cockle bed further down the coast at Fleetwood reopened yesterday. My concern is that the beds will
 
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reopen and that, without proper regulation, they will once again put people's lives in danger. When the Morecambe bay beds were open for cockle fishing, the lifeboat had to be called out on numerous occasions to help cockle pickers who were in danger. In fact, the lifeboat locally became known as the "cockle taxi". People cockling were taking serious risks with their lives and were often unaware of the danger in which they placed themselves.

The problem is that Morecambe bay is a public fishery, so just about anyone can go cockling when the beds are open. A permit scheme is in operation across the bay, but again, anyone can apply for a permit by providing identity and a national insurance number. When the beds were open, hundreds of permits were issued. It is alleged that many people obtained permits to fish who were in receipt of state benefits and were not declaring their income, and that others gave bogus or fake national insurance numbers. Although several million pounds-worth of cockles were collected from the bay, I am sure that many cocklers did not pay taxation on their income.

As the sea fisheries committee has limited resources and there is only a small number of fisheries offices to deal with enforcement for a huge area, proper checks on permits did not take place. There also appeared to be problems with sharing information across Departments as a result of the Data Protection Act 1998. The weakness of the permit scheme is that just about anyone with a national insurance number and identification can apply and be granted a permit, regardless of their total lack of knowledge of health and safety issues in the bay or, indeed, of any knowledge of fishing.

The Minister knows that the situation is different for fishermen who go out on boats on Morecambe bay, because they require qualifications. There is, however, no restriction on the number of permits issued when the beds are open, which can lead to over-fishing and a depletion of stocks over a short time. Also, no charge is made for issuing a permit. The sea fisheries committee says that it is unable to charge, to restrict numbers or to link the permit to health and safety considerations because of the outdated fisheries legislation. The committee also voiced concerns to my hon. Friend and me about resourcing issues relating to law-enforcement activities in Morecambe bay.

The solution is simple: we need to change the legislation, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, to allow a proper licensing scheme to operate. A restricted number of licences should be issued to the bona fide fishermen—those who depend on fishing for their main source of income and who pay taxes on that. They should have first preference to hold licences for shellfishing. A charge should also be made for every licence issued. The fishing community supports that because if they paid for a licence, the regime would almost become self-policing because it would ensure that people who did not have licences were reported to the relevant authorities. That income could go towards employing more fisheries officers to deal with enforcement. A licence should not be issued to anyone who has not taken a short course on health and safety and obtained a certificate of competence. I understand that the sea fisheries committee could organise such courses relatively easily. Small changes to legislation are
 
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required, but they could make Morecambe bay a much safer place to harvest cockles and lead to long-term sustainable shellfishing in the bay.

I have talked specifically about Morecambe bay because it is the public fishery about which I have the most knowledge and because it can be so dangerous. However, I am aware of similar problems in other coastal areas, such as the Dee estuary, where a licensing scheme could also be helpful.


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