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Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab):
I want to associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) regarding the criticism made by the hon.
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Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) of Lawrie Quinn. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was very gracioushe did not have to make those comments. It strikes me, however, that there are many physical similarities between him and Lawrie, and I do not think that I have seen them in the same room. Perhaps Lawrie is back in the House, in which case he is warmly welcomed. [Laughter.] He is on the wrong side of the House, but he is welcome.
I understand that Lawrie worked hard on behalf of the Scarborough and Whitby fishing industry and always participated in the annual fisheries debate. I felt that the comments of the hon. Member for North Shropshire were unnecessary, and made a mockery of the new Conservative leader's claim that we would see an end to "Punch and Judy politics". That's not the way to do it.
Like the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), I am making my first contribution to the annual fisheries debate. I hope that it will be the first of many, and that during my time in the House the fishing industry of the United Kingdom, and that of Hartlepool in particular, will go from strength to strength. As it is my first fisheries debate I hope that, before I speak of the challenges facing the industry in Hartlepool, the House will indulge me for a moment so that I can briefly set out the history of the fishing industry in my constituency.
Fishing has a long and proud history in Hartlepool. Before the industrial revolution and the rapid expansion of the town, it was predominantly a fishing settlement. The town received its charter in 1201 from King John, not only because of its military and strategic importance as a port against the French, but because of the strength of its fishing fleets and the regular town market's influence on the commercial activity of the north of England.
The harshness of the sea and the difficulty of making a living injected a great deal of character into the local people. In his "A History of Hartlepool", written in the middle of the 19th century, Sir Cuthbert Sharp expressed himself vividly:
"The inhabitants of Hartlepool consist principally of fishermen, a hardy race: their manners are courteous and civil, especially towards strangers; their mode of life and thinking is characterised by stern and unbending independence. They are in general sober, and their luxuries seldom extend beyond the indulgence of fine white cakes. They marry early, have in general large families, and their wives are universally the purse bearers."
"The women perform the most laborious part of the occupation on shore. They are seen to be on the beach waiting the return of the cobles and carry the lines home; the task of baiting is performed by them, and they likewise have to procure the mussels from the scalps".
Within living memoryalthough not mineit was possible to leave the pub, "The Fisherman's Arms", and walk on to the fish quay, where a fishwife, shawl on her head and knife in her hand, would give people a cod slice from her pram while they waited. That was a good meal, certainly on a Friday.
Sir Cuthbert's comments were written just before West Hartlepool was established. Because of the rapid expansion of the town through the industrial revolution
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and the growth of heavy manufacturing, we as a community have not been as reliant upon the sea and fishing as other constituencies may have been. Nevertheless, in the oldest part of Hartlepool, the headland, we still have a strong and proud fishing community that catches fish that is renowned for its quality. Not for nothing is Hartlepool fish served at the tables of the finest seafood restaurants in the north of England. Some, such as Ocean and Big Musselalong with Don Bee's and Verrall's fish-and-chip shopsare in Hartlepool itself. We have a high quality industry with high added value, dating back for many centuries. I want to make sure, during my time in the House, that it remains sustainable and profitable in the long term.
In the summer, I met representatives of the Hartlepool fishing community. They raised concerns with me, which I passed on to the Minister in the form of written parliamentary questions. The four broad themes that I raised in those questions form the basis of my speech.
I asked the Minister about the use of larger mesh nets as a means of enabling younger fish to escape and repopulate the seas. I was trying to ascertain the long-term viability of fish stocks in the North sea, particularly cod. Cod has been the staple catch of Hartlepool fishermen for centuries, but today's fishermen confirm from experience that there has been a massive decline. That was reiterated by the Minister in a reply during last month's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. I understand that if we take a baseline of 100 for the year 1963 in the North sea, current cod stocks amount to about 25.
Fishermen in my constituency vehemently deny that the shortage has been caused by overfishing. Quotas have been too low for too long. The fishermen, many of whom have been at sea for decades, tell me that they detect a change in the habits of the cod. Essentially, they are migrating further north, presumably to find appropriate plankton for food. Evidence on the groundas it wereseems to support research done in the past few years, which suggests that global warming, and a subsequent reduction in the supply of appropriate plankton, is having a knock-on effect on cod supply. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby that the shortage has not necessarily been caused by overfishing; it could be due to environmental changes.
Mr. Carmichael : I am familiar with the arguments about environmental changes and their impacts, and indeed I have advanced many of them in the past. My difficulty, which the hon. Gentleman may now share, lies with increasing evidence of a growing stock of young cod along the east coast, such as we last saw in, I believe, 1996. That demonstrates that neither the hon. Gentleman nor I, nor even any of the clever scientists, really know what is happening. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is now imperative for the spawning grounds to be protected at all costs?
There is an absolute need to link the study of the maritime environment with the fishing industryalthough I bear in mind the observation of the hon.
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Member for Orkney and Shetland that scientists really do not have a clue about stocksto determine how the UK fishing industry can adapt to the effects of a changing environment. I hope that the Marine Bill, which the Minister mentioned, will reflect that. It causes me some concern that the Prime Minister's strategy unit has said,
Given what has been said, I understand that fishermen cannot catch stock that is not there. That brings me to my next point, which concerns diversificationnot only in the industry, but in interests outside fishing. My fishermen tell me that there is a massive stock of shellfish, particularly prawns, in the North sea off the coast of Hartlepool. We are currently developing the velvet crab industry, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. I hope that the Minister will take that into account when considering the negotiation of total allowable catches and quotas in Europe that will permit the fishermen in my constituency to continue to make a living.
My area in the north-east is all too familiar with the dangers of failing to diversify. The collapse of heavy manufacturing industry in the 1980s, for example, had a devastating effect on communities in my region, and we are only now beginning to pick up the pieces. The town of Hartlepool is regenerating itself as a major tourist and leisure destination, supported by our jewel in the crown, a world-class marina. I do not wish to see the fishing industry in Hartlepool "Disneyfied", as I want it to remain a true, real and vibrant industry, but I think there is an opportunity to expand the role of fishing within the leisure and tourism sectors. There are plans, for instance, for a fish restaurant on the Kafiga landings at the headland, which should give an additional boost to tourism.
The Minister may recall that in his reply to my question about diversification in the summer, he mentioned that his Department tasked regional development agencies with boosting rural economic development. While I welcome thatparticularly as I was employed by One NorthEastI agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby that RDAs could do more to stress the importance of fishing ports. Will the Minister tell us in his winding-up speech what additional pressure he is placing on relevant development agencies to boost the fishing industries in their areas?
The Minister also mentioned in his reply that the new EU grant scheme for fisheries, under negotiation in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, would from 2007 include powers to grant aid for diversification from fisheries. I should like to know what progress is being made and whether the recent debate in Europe on the future of the EU budget has had any impact on that work.
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May I mention the increase in fuel prices in recent months and years? Other Members have mentioned that, too. It is having a huge effect on fishermen, as well as others. When I raised the issue with the Minister, he mentioned that DEFRA officials have met representatives of the fishing industry to discuss the increases in fuel prices and how the industry can respond. I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House an update on those discussions.
The Chancellor's pre-Budget report this week mentioned an increase in tax rates on oil companies. I know that there will be a long queue of interested parties who would like to get their hands on that increased tax revenue, but does the Minister think that additional support will be provided to those in the fishing industry whose margins are extremely tight? Fluctuations in fuel prices can mean the difference between profit and loss.
Another factor in ensuring profitability is bureaucracy. That is seen by the Hartlepool fishermen as a major concern and something that takes them an inordinate time to process. I found the Minister's reply to my written question on the matter in the summer extremely helpful. He stated that reduction of bureaucracy and simplification of the legislation was a huge priority for his Department. I welcome the improvement in application procedures for the fisheries grant scheme.
The Minister also mentioned in his reply that work is going on between his Department and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations on a joint research project to identify specific reforms. I think that he mentioned that in his remarks today. I welcome that and look forward to the industry, particularly that in Hartlepool, reaping the rewards. Also, simplification of EU law is seen as a priority for this country's presidency of the EU, and I understand that an action plan is due by the end of the year. I would like to know from the Minister what progress has been made on that.
Hartlepool has a very long tradition of fishing. I want that to continue and, indeed, to thrive and expand. I hope that the Minister will take on board, when he goes in to bat for Britain in the EU in the coming days and weeks, the concerns of Hartlepool fishermen to ensure that we have a vibrant industry in the years and decades to come.
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