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Mr. Weir: My hon. Friend observes that when the Conservatives took us into the European Union fishing was considered expendable. When he hears that the new leader of the Conservative party reportedly said that there are other things in Europe more important than fishing, does he fear that he may be thinking along the same lines?

Mr. Salmond: In the immortal words of the new leader of the Conservative party, "I agree". After listening to today's exchanges, I say that we should bring back Punch and Judy, which was infinitely preferable to the love-in between the Prime Minister and the new Leader of the Opposition. I am told that it is the new politics, but I predict that after three weeks there will be a public demand for the return of Punch and Judy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) is absolutely right. The Conservatives have been, as it were, caught amidships by the transition of their fisheries policy. I see no anxiety on the face of the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). He has obviously received some instruction since his earlier contribution. Of course, we all offer him our best wishes for retaining his post over these next few desperate hours. No hon. Member has travelled further in the interests of the fishing industry than he has over the past few years. Norway should be his next port of call, so that he can see the practices and procedures there.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made the important point that priority was all, in regard to how countries deal with their fishing industries. I am not making a personal criticism of this Minister or his predecessor, both of whom, on account of their longevity in post and knowledge of the industry, have been substantially preferable to many of the Ministers who came and went before them. I have always found the present Minister most amenable and co-operative when listening to the concerns of hon. Members. However, it is a reality that fishing will never be an overwhelming priority for this country in the way that it is for other fishing countries within the CFP.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says that fishing will not be an overwhelming priority for Britain, but the fact is that Britain has one of the largest fisheries—if not the largest—in the European Union. Fishing forms a much more significant part of our economy than it does in other countries of the European Union.

Mr. Salmond: As one would expect. None the less, the priority that it is given here is dwarfed by that given to Spanish fishing interests and those of other nations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said earlier, fishing is about 20 times more important to Scotland's economy than it is to that of the UK as a whole, bearing in mind their relative sizes, and sometimes it acquires 20 times the importance within the body politic in Scotland when the subject is debated. I think I am right in saying that the first defeat of the
 
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Scottish Executive in the Scottish Parliament was sustained on the fishing issue. It is difficult to imagine fishing severely denting, if not breaking, the Government in this House. None the less, it was the issue that mobilised people to defeat the Government in that first term of the Scottish Parliament. That shows the relative scale of the priorities involved.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is the chair of the all-party fisheries group and has long experience of the industry. I am hoping to take part in enough of these fisheries debates to rival his record, but I think that he has made more contributions to them than the rest of us combined. He was absolutely right to make that point about priorities.

I want to talk about the rebate that was agreed at Fontainebleau. There have been stages in the history of the fishing industry at which it has been quite clear that certain countries—Spain, for example, but others as well—were building up their fishing fleets. I must caution the Minister not to give us the impression that the Irish decommissioning scheme will result in the Irish capacity following the pattern of the capacity in the white fish fleet in the United Kingdom. When he publishes the figures, they will show that exactly the opposite is the case. Ireland was another country that managed to exercise a substantial ability to modernise its fleet. In this country, however, our white fish and nephrops fleets have gone from being the most modern in Europe 25 years ago to being among the more elderly fleets over the piece, certainly in those sectors of the fishery.

One of the reasons for certain countries building up their fleets was their ability to access European funding. However, when we, as fishing MPs, argued for parity and comparability, we were told that under the Fontainebleau agreement, such funding would not be cost-effective because 87p in every pound would come off the UK rebate. Fishing was not the only industry that came up against a Treasury blockage as a result of the Fontainebleau agreement; the rebate has been a two-edged sword for many industries in this country. Perhaps now that the agreement is under negotiation, DEFRA will find a way of unlocking the funding that has long been available to other countries.

The Minister might say that this is not the time to build up capacity in the fleet. It might be the time, however, to make available grants for extremely fuel-efficient engines. That would be both environmentally friendly and extremely cost-effective at a time of high fuel prices. Other mechanisms apart from grants and help to build up capacity can therefore be used, and I hope that the Minister will explore them.

Lastly, one of the nubs of the debate has been whether it is tactically inept, as the Minister claimed, or strategically necessary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar explained and argued, to revisit the cod recovery plan. I take the Minister's point that he is in the middle of the current negotiations. Many of us would make the point to him, however, that if we are signed up to the 30 per cent. increase in cod, year on year, and if, as much of the scientific evidence accumulating tends to indicate, that will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve—if it is correct that conditions in the central North sea are by and large no longer amenable to cod as a stock—no amount of instruction from the European Commission will
 
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persuade cod to return in large numbers to that ground. That might or might not be the case, but there is a disconnection between the weight of building scientific evidence on this matter, the ICES and the cod recovery plan, which has apparently been set in total isolation, without reference to that body of evidence.

If we cannot meet that 30 per cent. target year on year, every single year, regardless of the state of other stocks, we will find ourselves negotiating from an extremely difficult position. Whether the haddock biomass is 300,000 or 500,000 tonnes, it will not matter in the sense that the quota suggested for haddock will be lower, not as a result of the haddock biomass but because of its attachment to cod in a mixed fishery. Many of us therefore think that revisiting the cod recovery plan—in public not in private, with the weight of accumulated scientific evidence taken into consideration—should be a strategic objective, to consider whether the variety of stocks can be detached from one another. Otherwise, I fear that Ministers will face an uphill battle for the foreseeable future when success is presented as turning a 20 per cent. cut into a 10 per cent. cut as opposed to allowing fishermen to exercise the full fishing opportunities that should be available to them.

If the Conservative party has been caught amidships in the transition of its fisheries policy, that is a great pity. No one, if they were starting from now, would have devised the common fisheries policy that we have at present. It is self-evident that any fishing country will have to embark on national and international agreements. It is also self-evident, however, that those that do so—the Faroes, Iceland and Norway—are a great deal more successful than those that are locked into the common fisheries policy. Whether or not the Conservative party is departing from national control, neither I, nor the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, nor the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is doing so. Those of us who care about fishing have a substantial argument in that regard, and we shall continue to pursue it.

4.33 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is an immense pleasure to speak once again in the annual fisheries debate, particularly as there are so many familiar faces. The debate has the feel of a reprise, with all the charm of familiarity if not the excitement of novelty.

I begin where the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who always speaks with great authority on these matters, ended—to say boldly that the common fisheries policy has been a disaster. We would be less than honest if we did not start from that point It has been a disaster in terms of economics and ecology.

The economics are clear. The common fisheries policy is estimated to cost about 1 billion ecu a year, if we take into account Community and member state funding, to support production of something like 7 billion ecu a year. That does not make economic sense.

As for the effect of the common fisheries policy on our own industry, the story is a sad one. It is extraordinary that an island nation, a country with a seafaring history, can no longer harvest cod from the North sea. In the
 
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year of my birth, 1958—I know that it is hard to believe that I have reached the age of 47; Members must be asking "How can this callow youth possibly be 47?"—no one would have imagined that we would be in such a position.

Whatever statistics we consult, and according to almost any criterion, the CFP's performance has been disastrous for the British fishing industry. I plucked some figures from the Library. Not 47 but just 20 years ago, there were 22,224 fishermen in the United Kingdom. In 2004–05, there were 11,559. During those 20 years, the number has halved. As for the size of the fishing fleet, in 1985 there were 7,920 vessels; now there are a little over 6,500. Let us now consider employment in the fishing sector as a whole. A fall of 49.8 per cent., almost 50 per cent., has been disastrous for many east coast fishing ports, a number of which are no longer fishing ports. In many of those proud towns the deep sea fishing industry has all but collapsed, and on the Lincolnshire coast the fishing industry is in a sorry state compared with the position of earlier generations. It really is not good enough for the Minister to do what he will undoubtedly do when he sums up the debate and adopt the position adopted by his predecessors—one of simply managing the decline.


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