Previous Section Index Home Page

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1055

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I have spoken to the Scottish Minister and I would be interested to hear how the right hon. Gentleman’s conversation with him went. We hope to make progress in time for his fishermen’s next season. I acknowledge the problem, as on a visit to the north-east of England I met either the right hon. Gentleman’s fishermen or those from a neighbouring constituency. That fishery is very sustainable. Indeed, I was given some of the catch and enjoyed it for a number of days afterwards.

As I hinted earlier, the main concern about the Commission’s proposals as they stand is the rather drastic cut for cod, which we feel, given the relatively good year class of young cod in 2005, would simply result in more discards. We think that the Commission needs to be more sophisticated about how we protect cod, while allowing fishermen to catch those stocks that remain plentiful.

It is also important that any decisions at next week’s Fisheries Council do not undermine our ability, following the review of the recovery programme planned for next year, to deliver a more effective cod recovery programme in the long term. It is also important that the Commission fully recognises the significant contribution that our whitefish fleet, and particularly that of Scotland, has made to reducing effort on cod. The past few years have been a painful readjustment for the industry, involving a significant level of decommissioning. Credit must be given for what has been achieved at EU level.

I am pleased to say that, as a result of some of those painful moves, we now have the prospect of a much more stable, more profitable and more legal industry that is sustainable for the long term. Indeed, I do not believe that many of my predecessors in recent years could have stood at the Dispatch Box to lead the annual fishing debate and been able to quote an editorial from a recent edition of Fishing News that says:

Happy Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.

1.59 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I pay tribute to the fishermen who have lost their lives or been injured in the past year. Recently, the loss of the Meridian from Scotland reminded us of the risk that fishermen face every day to provide us with food, and Opposition Members extend our sympathies to the families of all those who have lost relatives in that way.

Hon. Members will be aware of the increasing consumer demand for fish over recent years. In Waitrose, for example, sales of fish have increased 20 per cent. year on year, and fish has overtaken chicken as the main source of protein in its customers’ baskets. Last year, the UK recorded fish sales totalling £1.8 billion. With such numbers, the UK fishing industry should be feeling confident and optimistic, as the Minister suggested. It should be prosperous and perhaps even growing.

According to the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report, “Net Benefits”, 1 million sea anglers in the UK
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1056
generate £1 billion in revenue. Recreational sea angling flourishes throughout the EU, where it is worth up to €10 billion, and that includes UK activity. Direct comparisons between RSA and commercial fishing are difficult—one is a sport; the other an extractive industry. However, both are entirely reliant on the same natural resource: the publicly owned fish stocks of inshore waters. Most angling takes place within six miles of the shore—half of it from the shore itself.

In England and Wales, the Drew report, published by DEFRA in 2004, shows that the recreational sea angling industry is worth £538 million and supports 19,000 jobs. An overarching issue confronts the recreational and commercial sectors: the need to stop over-exploiting inshore fish stocks and to develop conservation programmes to improve the quality and quantity of fish in the sea. Regrettably, a year after our previous annual debate on fisheries, our fishing industry still looks as fragile and vulnerable as ever. The Government and the EU have not yet succeeded in striking the balance between the environment and the economic needs of British fisherman. An atmosphere of gloominess and pessimism has once again descended over our fishing communities, as they await the outcome of the December Council and their future for the next 12 months.

Mr. Steen: Although the picture might look rather gloomy in many parts of Britain, my hon. Friend should know that in Brixham—the port I represent, which is the largest fishing port in England and Wales—everyone is rather optimistic. Although I appreciate what he is saying, I can tell the House that fishermen on the docks there say that trade is booming. With lobsters and crabs in abundance, it is like the Garden of Eden in south Devon.

Bill Wiggin: No doubt that is because of the excellent Member of Parliament that those fishermen have—who is famous, no doubt, for his helpful interventions on his own Front Benchers. Perhaps if my hon. Friend had allowed me to make a little more progress, we could have said a little more about that.

Mr. Salmond: Of course there is no end to the abilities of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who is an experienced Member, and I understand that the regeneration of the lobster stock was entirely due to his efforts.

Bill Wiggin: Perhaps this is a good moment to mention the difficulties that face lobster fishermen, particularly those in Scotland who are catching lobsters at 87 mm, while those in England will be catching lobsters at 90 mm. That will cause tremendous difficulties in determining whether catching cross-border lobsters that travel from Scottish to English waters will be illegal and for the fishermen of those crustaceans. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was considerably more helpful than the previous one.

In October, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s reports and recommendations on fish stocks affecting UK fisheries were published. Again, the recommendations were grim reading for the
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1057
fishing industry. For Celtic sea cod, a zero catch was recommended. For cod off the west of Scotland, ICES recommended a zero catch and criticised the current cod recovery plan for being inconsistent with the precautionary principle. For North sea sand eel, the closure of the fishery was recommended until more information becomes available.

With the scientific advice posing problems for the UK industry and the EU-Norway negotiations yielding mixed results for the UK, now more than ever before, the political decisions made at the December Council will need strong political leadership. The Minister will have to put up a very sturdy fight at the December Council to get the best deal for the UK fishing industry and the 26,000 jobs that depend on it. He cannot afford to repeat the blunder made at the December 2004 Council with regard to the 6,500 square mile cod recovery zone between Padstow and Pembroke. His excuse then was that, “You sometimes get details like this that slip through unnoticed.”

Last year, the Minister’s DEFRA colleague and also Northern Ireland Fisheries Minister, the noble Lord Rooker, failed even to show up, despite important discussions taking place on North sea and Irish sea cod quotas. There must not be a repeat of that this year, because all of Britain’s fishing industries deserve to be taken seriously and deserve a strong voice. The Minister must make sure that Britain gets its fair share of sustainable stocks. Fishermen have already seen their total landings fall by over 50 per cent. since the 1960s and a third of their colleagues lose their jobs since 1997, and further losses simply might not be sustainable for the communities that rely on them.

With that in mind, I urge the Minister to take the science offered and decide whether it is right or wrong. If he decides that the science is wrong, how will he ensure that the scientific advice is correct in future? We must have credible science, and if the Minister thinks that it is credible and accurate, he should, as we are so often told, take the scientific advice. However, if it is wrong, should he not agree with the fishermen, particularly those who want larger total allowable catches? It is not possible to disagree with the scientists and disagree with the fishermen. Either the fishermen are right, because they know what they are discarding, or the scientists are right, because their models work. Being somewhere in between might seem expedient, but it cannot be logically defended.

Mr. Carmichael: With respect, the hon. Gentleman is slightly off beam. The problem with the scientific advice is not that it gives the wrong answers but that the scientists are asked the wrong questions. In the circumstances, ICES cannot give any other advice, but the questions that they are asked to answer are, frankly, meaningless.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, the questions to ICES are posed by the Council of Ministers and the people in the Commission who are paying for that research. It is the Government’s job to get the requests right, so that they get the right scientific advice. We are told in every debate in the House that the Government must take the scientific advice. If the hon. Gentleman is right—I am sure that he knows a great deal about the issue, so I am
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1058
sure that he is correct—the Government must ensure that the advice that they are given is right.

It is no good saying that the fishermen and the scientists do not agree; closing that gap must be the most important thing that the Minister does. If I were in his shoes, one of my top priorities would be to ensure that the fishermen and scientists agree on what is out there and what can be harvested. After all, that is what sustainability is all about, both for fish stocks and the livelihoods of fishermen and their families.

The truly difficult decision is who gets to take what, but we rarely even get to that part of the debate, because there is no consensus on what we are arguing about. After 10 years, many jobs have been lost and, sadly, that looks likely to continue. I have looked back over the fishing debates of the past few years, and the fact that a substantial amount of the issues raised and subjects covered are repeated year after year demonstrates how slow the Government’s progress has been in reforming fisheries management to establish economically and environmentally sustainable fisheries.

Mr. Salmond: Is the Conservative party in favour of individual transferable quotas? If so, what impact does the hon. Gentleman think that they will have on the remaining section of the English fleet that is in English ownership and on the much larger share of the Scottish fleet that is in Scottish ownership?

Bill Wiggin: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Conservative party policy on fishing. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We have heard about it so far only from the Minister, and it might be more helpful if it came from me. The position is that, after the last election, we formed the policy boards, which are looking at all aspects of Conservative policy. They will produce a menu of choices from which the policies that go into the manifesto will be taken. At this stage, the policy board on fishing has not reported. Therefore, I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about individual transferable quotas; but when the board reports, the information will be published on the internet and available for the Government to read. We have consulted widely, and I am sure that it will be extremely helpful.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): This issue is of great interest. Will my hon. Friend clarify whether the review of fisheries policy that Her Majesty’s Opposition is undertaking is confined only to the United Kingdom’s fisheries policy staying within the common fisheries policy?

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend for her intervention. It gives me great pleasure to say that the people on the board are widely recognised as experts. They have considered fishing in totality, including within or without the CFP. Until we see what they report, I am not in a position to offer proper advice on what they are going to recommend. I have not seen their report, so I cannot answer whether we will be dealing with that.

Ann Winterton: I do not want to be a bore, but it seems extraordinary that those excellent and experienced people are undertaking that review but that the terms of the review do not appear to be in the public domain and
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1059
my hon. Friend, as the shadow Minister with responsibility for fisheries, does not know whether the report will be confined to the United Kingdom staying within the common fisheries policy or whether those involved will be free and encouraged to look at alternatives.

Bill Wiggin: I apologise to my hon. Friend if I was not clear enough. The policy board is looking at fishing in totality, within or without the CFP. She is seeking to tease a policy commitment out of me, but that is not available at this stage.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Conservative party, in its discussions about policy review, in the totality, has some way to go before it catches up with Labour’s excellent charter for angling, which was published in 2005?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The motion for debate does not necessarily include the respective parties’ proposals either for the present, or indeed the future.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Bradshaw: Has not the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) already ruled out a policy of CFP withdrawal?

Bill Wiggin: The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that the policy boards will look at fishing in totality. They will make a report. That report will be available and in the public domain and then he can draw whatever conclusions he wishes from that. I hope that all anglers will be delighted with that policy, whether they are sea anglers or fishermen of any other kind.

We all want a solution to the problem that leads to 2 million tonnes of edible fish being thrown overboard each year, with 600,000 tonnes allegedly coming from Scottish fishermen. That figure comes from the Fishermen’s Association. Just imagine how much extra value could be added to the economy if discards were prevented, or the impact that that could have on the sustainability of our fish stocks, or how much fish meal that would provide for farmed fish. I must congratulate the industry on the significant improvement in relation to illegally landed black fish. The industry has made great progress. With that under its belt, let us hope that 2007 becomes the year that discards are tackled.

Despite the challenge of mixed fisheries, the solutions are there to be found. Changes in gear, changes in quota management and changes in policy will be the way to make progress. We have already seen numerous studies examining discards and I hope that the Minister will stick to the commitments laid out in his Department’s 2006-07 marine and fisheries business plan, which states that the Department plans to:

SEA is a rather neat mnemonic. We shall see whether progress is made or whether this initiative, like the marine Bill that we asked questions about earlier, sinks.

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1060

Mr. Steen: Will my hon. Friend give way for a helpful intervention?

Bill Wiggin: I do not think that the House could bear me not to give way after such a tempting offer.

Mr. Steen: I want to support my hon. Friend wholeheartedly on the obscenity of throwing dead fish overboard. That is why I have opposed the common fisheries policy. If we could find a solution to that, it would open up a different arrangement. Does he agree that the big weakness of the common fisheries policy is the obscenity of throwing thousands of tonnes of fish, which could be eaten, overboard, dead, because of the quotas on each species?

Bill Wiggin: I agree with what my hon. Friend says about discards. Nobody would defend the concept of discarding. It is quite wrong. When I took the trouble to go to meet the European Commissioner on fishing, he also recognised that, sadly, progress was not being made that quickly. That is a great tragedy. Over the past year, I have had the privilege of meeting representatives from the fisheries industry and the environmental lobby. Despite their often opposing views, they all agree that the current policies for fisheries management are not working, and discards have highlighted that more than anything else. The current policies are bad for the environment and they are bad for the fisheries industry. The various bodies also agree that changes are needed to produce the maximum sustainable yield required from the Johannesburg commitments. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has stated:

Greenpeace has agreed, arguing:

Although we have needed changes, instead we have had too much talk and seen too little action. Fishermen have accepted the changes—often imposed on them—with dignity and honour. They have accepted that they are a part of perhaps the most regulated industry in the EU. They have also accepted that, especially in the white fish fleet, there is a degree of overcapacity that needs to be addressed. However, what they cannot and should not accept is the inconsistency in Government policy towards their industry.

The state of our fishing industry is a failure not just of European policy, but of this Government. With that in mind, I would like to draw the attention of the House to decommissioning. Again, it has been discussed in many previous debates. There is agreement between the industry, the Government and the environmental lobby that, despite the decommissioning that has already taken place, the UK fleet, and, in particular, the white fish fleet, is currently at overcapacity. The NFFO has stated:

The royal commission’s “Turning the Tide” report stated that

With all that support for the original policy and the possible use of European fisheries funds, everyone seems to be left asking the question: why have the Government stalled? It is that slowly grinding process of reform and change that is in need of a catalyst and the Government, sadly, are not providing it. The UK needs to show stronger leadership, but under Labour we have not been getting it, and our fisheries and marine environment lose out. Whether the Minister wants to include fisheries in a marine Bill or not, it is still essential that policies designed to protect the marine environment are integrated with those designed to make use of its economic resources. Indeed, in last year’s debate, the Minister himself highlighted the importance of a marine Bill to the marine environment, stating:

Next Section Index Home Page