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Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): How does the hon. Gentleman view the fact that the Republic of Ireland is building boats yet our Northern Ireland fisheries are asked to decommission? Quotas and the tie-up schemes are decimating our industry, yet across the border we see a vibrant fishing industry compared with Northern Ireland in particular and the rest of the United Kingdom in general.

Mr. Mitchell: I did not intend to reach Grimsby via a detour to Northern Ireland, but I agree. The problem for fishing communities such as mine and other communities in Northern Ireland and Scotland is that if the cuts go on, the critical mass of the industry will be insufficient to support the facilities needed to keep it going.

Mr. Bradshaw: If my hon. Friend did not already know, it might interest him and the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) to learn that the Government of the Irish Republic are in the process of implementing the decommissioning of 20 per cent. of their current fleet.

Mr. Mitchell: After the huge vessels that have been built in the Republic of Ireland, that is more than welcome.

With regard to critical mass, we have already had a report on the east coast fisheries industry which suggests that one or more of the white fish ports there will have to close. We have seen what has happened in Lowestoft.

Mr. Salmond: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Minister, who is extremely vigorous and ruthless, could be persuaded to lay before the House an examination of the capacity in the Irish white fish fleet over the past 10 years, compared with the capacity in the fleets of England, Scotland and the other countries of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Mitchell: That would be interesting to know, and it would be interesting to have it reinforced by figures for
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new build in other European countries, particularly that financed by the European Union in Spain. The figures make me envious, so reading them will be a form of masochism, but it is necessary information that should be provided to us.

When the industry shrinks to a level below the critical mass, we need to take measures to support it—for example, to keep a regional industry going by buying licences and track records to keep them in the area, otherwise the Scots poach the lot. I do not want to sound contentious towards my colleagues in Scotland, but that is what has been happening on the east coast.

When we pressed for some measure of financing to allow the fishing communities to keep quota locally, we were referred to the regional development agencies. They initially took a firm line that they were not allowed to give support to the industry because it was against European competition rules. The only support that was offered was for health and safety measures, which would have enabled the Grimsby industry to purchase millions and millions of plastic helmets for fishermen to wear. We saw the Minister in August and I hope that he has put that right. Yorkshire Forward, for instance, is still too slow to provide the help that is necessary, and is unadventurous in keeping catching capacity in the area so that we have no further shrinkage.

I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sub-Committee inquiry into fishing, which produced a very good report. The report emphasised the need to move forward through co-operation and devolving power from Brussels to the regional advisory councils. The Sub-Committee backed the approach developed by the strategy unit, which resulted from the Prime Minister's intervention. The Government reply to the report was lethargic and did not indicate that the issue was being pursued with the necessary dynamism. It did not address the concern that if we are not going to provide the direct aid that the industry wants—I still think that the industry should receive it—we must be vigilant in order to prevent others from providing it to their industries, which returns us to the Irish Republic and Spain.

There have been attempts to reopen the issue of whether there should be investment in new vessels and new capacity. Such investment should have ceased and that position must be maintained, but the Government must safeguard our industry against other industries that receive support.

Mr. Paterson: Conservative Members endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. When I attended a meeting in Northern Ireland, strong words were used to criticise the handing over of money to the southern Irish. There is no place for subsidies—the lesson of Newfoundland concerns the grotesque damage caused by excessive subsidised capacity. In our paper, we make it clear that there is no role for subsidies.

Mr. Mitchell: I wish the hon. Gentleman joy in announcing the Tory policy of no subsidies for the fishing industry, which in my view requires a measure of Government support to perform the necessary transition—in particular, it needs the Government to be vigilant on subsidies to competing European industries. I am worried about fuel subsidies, which have recently
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become an issue in France. They are a traditional French reaction to a difficult situation, and they are totally unacceptable, because our industry is subject to the same costs. If our industry is not subsidised, nobody's industry should be subsidised.

The slower approach than I would have liked has left the industry to seize the initiative, which it has done because it wants to co-operate. The RACs resulted from not only the importance placed on them by the strategy unit, but the importance attached to them by the industry, which has committed itself. They have been handicapped by the lack of advance information on the Commission's proposals. If they had received an indication of the Commission's proposals by the middle of the year, they would have been able to develop plans on how to apply them and to make suggestions on what should be done. However, they had to work in the dark, and the timetable was put back to a November meeting, which did not achieve as much as it should have done because it did not have the material to bite on.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) is right about the difficulties for the industry in long-term business planning and investment, because the policies change year by year. Because the industry does not know where it stands, it cannot invest, but that does not seem to be the case in Ireland. In 1973, the total catch by the Irish fishing fleet was 78,068 tonnes; by 2003, it had risen by 195 per cent. Somebody is doing well within the EU, and it is not the UK—it is, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) has said, Ireland.

Mr. Mitchell: The problem in this country is that the fishing industry has never been big enough to be a powerful influence on Government. It is more powerful in Scotland, and it exercises more influence on the Scottish Executive than it does on the UK Government. Smaller countries with bigger fishing industries focus more intensely on the issue and can achieve more.

The building of ever bigger and more powerful vessels goes against conservation. We need older and less efficient vessels, such as those in Grimsby, because their catches are much less damaging environmentally. What has happened in Ireland is bad for the industry and bad for conservation. It is unfortunate that the machinery in Europe is so cumbersome that it does not allow us to stop such practices immediately.

There is a case for re-organising the fishing year, which is out of kilter. We should bring forward what the Commission wants to achieve and hold earlier talks with Norway to set total allowable catches. We should also revise the scientific advice, which is increasingly questioned. It provides a freeze-frame of the previous year, so it may well be out of date by the time that judgments are made on it—it is published in the middle of the year, and the decisions are made in December.

I agree with the evidence put forward by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and    others have acknowledged that the scientific underpinning for the catch limits is wobbly. The number of times that the words "uncertainty" or "unreliable data" enter into those calculations means that we should not base tough judgments and restrictive measures on them.
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The fishing industry and I welcome the fisheries science partnership. That welcome innovation by the Government allows fisheries vessels to undertake DEFRA-funded research, which has been very successful in making the scientific advice more practical. Given the wobbly scientific underpinning, decisions on restrictions and cuts are based on inadequate information. The industry is right to protest against the proposals on cuts, because it has been slowly ratcheted downwards by that process. We need a better organisation of the year and more information to allow the industry to become more involved in taking the necessary decisions.

We must take a long-term view of how to reach sustainable catch levels and a sustainable industry, but the Commission is still motivated by a short-term view. I was disappointed when Commissioner Borg's promise on advanced information about the Commission's objectives was not fulfilled. Unless we receive such information, the RACs cannot work effectively, because they need to take views on what the Commission is proposing in order to allow their own views to be taken into account. Those views should be enforceable, so we do not want advisory councils; we want regional managerial committees to determine the targets for their area and the means of reaching those targets—in other words, how to limit catches, if they are to be limited. What the industry wants is right. We must move on to the future by co-operating with other countries, through the RACs and more powerful bodies that will succeed them, and with scientists and Government. That is the only way in which we will achieve a sustainable industry.

I am grateful that some of the industry's demands have been taken into account and that it has been consulting so effectively. More power to that process, because the industry needs to be brought much more into it. The industry's aim, like that of the Government, is sustainability. It might be necessary to give it more financial support than the Government have been prepared to give. However, there is a common aim that will be achieved by better organisation of fishing in Europe, with more flexible management instead of blanket bans and the cod fish recovery programme.

We need more temporary closures of areas and more selective measures taken vigorously through the RACs. We need the ban on industrial fishing for which we have been asking for years. I was delighted to hear from the Minister that the effective ban on sand eels and pout will close down much of the industrial fishing, which has been an abomination. I could never understand the scientific advice on which it was maintained. Licensing will deal effectively with the black fish industry. The industry grumbles about the regulation involved, but traceability and registration are the only effective way forward in that respect.

That brings me back to the main issue that faces us: cod recovery. It is clear that the cod recovery plan is not working, yet it inhibits the rest of the industry, because what it can catch is geared to it. Haddock is more plentiful and can still be caught, yet it is not allowed to be caught because of the coupling with the cod recovery programme. The industry wants a full review of the cod recovery programme in 2006. I would go further, although it grieves me to do so, because Grimsby has always been a cod port. The time may have come for us to recognise the fact that cod stocks are not going to
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recover. In the North sea, the decline was mainly caused by over-catching. That has brought stocks to the point where it is questionable whether they will survive. There is also the problem of climatic effects and the warming of the waters, which was mentioned by the Opposition spokesman.

Frankly, we do not know in scientific terms whether cod stocks will recover if the cod recovery programme is maintained. If they are not going to recover, that is an end of it. Let us remove that ratchet, which is screwing down on the rest of the industry, and give up on cod. Certainly, the Canadian experience indicates that there will not be a recovery. When cod stocks reach a particularly weak point, predators come in and eat the eggs and the whole environment becomes more hostile. We may have reached that point.

I am not qualified to evaluate whether the warming of the waters will be countered by what is happening to the gulf stream. I am affected by that only to the extent of bathing from Cleethorpes beach, and I am not qualified to assess the effect on fishing. However, there is a process that is driving out the cod. It might be as well to recognise that and to say that we are not going to engage on a ratcheting process which is screwing the rest of the industry down on the basis of a cod recovery programme that will not succeed, especially as we could achieve the same objective by other means— for instance, geographically focused measures on cod taken by the RACs.

That brings me full circle to the argument on whether we are in or out of Europe. I hope that the Conservatives' position is not changed by the rush to the middle ground—or middle waters—that the new leader seems to be embarked on, and that they will maintain a position that is important, because it is an assertion of our national rights. Whatever position is taken, the transfer of power needs to be away from Brussels and down to the national and regional levels so that the industry can shape its own future and has the necessary powers to do so. That is the only way in which to achieve the sustainable industry and sustainable targets that we really need and should be the basis of our discussions today.

2.36 pm

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