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14 Dec 2006 : Column 1068

Mr. Williams: It is encouraging that such proposals are working, and I am sure that the Minister will take on board my hon. Friend’s recommendations.

The white fish fleets in the constituencies of Scottish Members have been forced to make drastic cuts in their days at sea, pushing many fishermen to the margins of profitability. All the while, there has been no substantial recovery or evidence of recovery in cod stocks. The Minister knows that fishermen’s groups lobbied hard for a review of the cod recovery plan, which has been granted for next year—a move that I welcome. What does he think of the idea floated by such groups that because of the impending review, we should ask for a roll-over of current arrangements until we know where we stand with the cod recovery plan?

I was disappointed to discover that there would be no marine Bill in the current parliamentary Session. While greater protection has been given to the countryside through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Commons Act 2006, no such provision has been made for the marine environment. Good stewardship of our seas and their natural resources is vital to the continued sustainability and future prosperity of our fisheries. Furthermore, the proposed Bill was supported in all parts of the House.

As the Government are consulting for a second time on that important legislation, will the Minister reconsider the role that fisheries might play in marine conservation and in the Bill? We would all agree that it is impossible to differentiate between environmental marine concerns and fisheries, just as it is impossible to draw a distinction between farming affairs and concerns for wildlife. Sustainable fisheries and the protection of the marine environment must go hand in hand. It is impossible to address one concern while neglecting the other.

Too often, the complaint is made that the science that we use to inform our decisions in negotiations is not sound, and is more concerned with making immediate political headlines than with the long-term sustainability of fish stocks and the fishing industry. Every year for the past five years the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas has advised that the cod fisheries in the North sea, west of Scotland and the Irish sea be closed to restore stocks. Those arguments cause concern among the fishing communities across the UK.

Despite cuts of £200 million in the Department’s budget, I was glad to hear that the fisheries science partnership budget of £1 million has so far remained unchanged, although the level of funding could be changed in January 2008, which causes much anxiety to those who run the partnership. The FSP has been an innovative and highly successful initiative which, alongside work carried out by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Lowestoft, has complemented the work done by ICES. We would all agree that a scheme that seeks to involve fishermen with the scientific process that dictates our political decision making should be maintained.

I am concerned about the decision-making process for the FSP for commissioning research. Any project over £50,000 must be agreed by a Minister in the Department. That new layer of bureaucracy means that decisions will take longer to make, whereas previously the partnership would make a decision on
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scientific research through its steering and evaluation committees. The new arrangements will affect two or three projects a year which might entail greater expense because of the length of time at sea for the collection of data.

Other concerns expressed to me by those from the FSP were that delays could be caused by Ministers deciding which research projects should be carried out. I seek the Minister’s reassurance that whoever makes those decisions, they are made in a timely manner, and that any delays in decision making will not result in future cuts to the partnership’s budget.

I welcome the changes to the release of scientific information that will come into effect from 2008. Advice that was previously released in October is to be made available in June, allowing adequate time to consult all the regional advisory councils and other stakeholders before the Commission produces its formal proposals later in the year. Can the Minister clarify which stocks of interest to the UK fishing industry will benefit from the release of scientific data being brought forward?

We supported the establishment of regional advisory councils in 2003, bringing a local perspective to fisheries management, and we hope that RACs will take on a more managerial role in future. What are the Minister’s views on the excellent work done so far by the RACs? Will he outline any plans that his Department may have to give the councils greater autonomy in their decision making? Unlike the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats do not want to withdraw from the common fisheries policy and believe that we are better in than out. Fish do not recognise international borders. If we want to be involved in fisheries negotiations with other European countries, we cannot afford to pull ourselves out of the CFP.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. The Liberal Democrats’ original policy, which was put forward in the early 1990s, proposed regional management committees and wanted the regional advisory councils to develop in that way. I understand that the Minister and the European Commissioner are keen to encourage policy in that direction too. My hon. Friend will share my disappointment that Conservatives who engaged in this debate in years gone by scoffed at that idea, because fishermen now consider it to be one of the single most important developments in fisheries management and one of the most useful tools available to them.

Mr. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend, who makes the point well. I recognise the value of the work that he has done on fisheries as a spokesman for the party and as a constituency Member.

While ambitious and sometimes misinformed, the idea of an overarching European policy such as that which the CFP attempts to embody is a positive one, but within that management of fish stocks is best carried out by regional advisory councils or committees involving local fishermen, scientists, Government and other major stakeholders. It is vital that RACs are given sufficient time to respond properly to Commission proposals, as they will be putting the decisions reached in Europe into effect on the front line. What plans does the Minister have to involve them more in the European phase of the negotiations?

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Mr. Carmichael: Does my hon. Friend share my dismay at the truly appalling treatment of the North sea RAC by the Commission during the recent EU-Norway negotiations, when the advice that was given in relation to cod was for a roll-over of the total allowable catch, whereas the Commission’s initial position was a 25 per cent. reduction?

Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend reinforces the point that there is considerable scope for taking more advice from the RACs, because they have experience and knowledge of the situation as it really is.

The RACs are traditionally disadvantaged at this time of year by the lack of advance information on the Commission’s proposals. The people on the front line need to be told of the plans for the coming year more than a mere 10 days before the changes will be put into effect. There is no time for them to develop plans, to make representations, or to make their views known on the changes that they will have to work hard to enforce. Will the Minister clarify the way in which the changes to the release of scientific advice will have an effect on the role of the RACs?

The harvest of the sea is rich in variety and quality. Our fishing industry should be supported and encouraged to gain more value from the stocks that remain available to it. While the Minister will say that we have a highly successful fishing industry, the figures speak for themselves: 6,000 British fishermen have lost their jobs since Labour came to power, more than 1,000 vessels are no longer in action, and total landings are down in quantity and market value.

Will the Minister give the House his view on fisheries industries also becoming value added businesses where fish is landed in local ports and, as much as possible, processed by local processors? That has massive benefits for local employment as well as ensuring that seafood retains its place as a regional cuisine and cutting down on all-important food miles. In farming, hundreds of new initiatives nationwide have made use of local shops, box schemes and other ways of capitalising on raw products. That engenders a huge amount of consumer enthusiasm for local produce. I can see no reason why that thinking should not be extended to the fishing industry. In the south-west we already have an excellent project, “Invest in Fish South West”, which aims to lead to a stakeholder-developed regional strategy for fisheries management in south-west waters and consults organisations as diverse as fishermen’s federations, non-governmental organisations and retailers. What more does the Under- Secretary believe that the fishing industry could do to profit further from the increasing demand for local, sustainably sourced, healthy food? What support is available from the common fisheries policy for that?

All parties agree that more selective fishing gear is required to tackle and reduce the by-catch of cod and other species. Nets with technical adaptations such as sorting grids and escape panels are fundamental to reducing by-catch. Mixed fisheries for haddock and whiting, and some nephrops fisheries are especially worrying because of the high cod by-catch. Fleets in those fisheries should be required to introduce more selective gear immediately. Financial support should be forthcoming from member states and the Commission to assist in implementing such measures. By-catch and discarding is not a new problem and selective gear is
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widely recognised and available as the solution, but there is a lack of political will to implement its use. In the light of the Commission’s review of technical measures to reduce discards, will the Under-Secretary give his views on what he deems to be the difficulties with enforcing such measures throughout UK fleets?

The success of our fisheries depends on three important factors: ensuring sustainable stocks through protecting marine ecosystems, making our fishing industry profitable and viable, and enabling compliance between all key players, national and international, in that line of business. That can be achieved only if we continue to talk to our European partners and oppose any ratcheting up of the cod recovery plan. EU fisheries management has been a failure and needs reform, but that can be achieved only if we play a part in the proceedings.

2.56 pm

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), I pay tribute to the work of fishermen around the country and in my constituency.

In Hartlepool, fishing has a long and proud history, spanning more than 800 years. The North sea is often harsh and unforgiving. Over the years, countless fishermen from Hartlepool have lost their lives trying to make a living for themselves and their families. Sadly, fatalities continue. Earlier this year, Edward Bissell’s empty fishing boat, “Bonny Lass”, was found by rescue teams. On the same day as last year’s fisheries debate, town fisherman Stephen Horsley, part of a long-standing Hartlepool family who have fished off the coast for generations, was saved from the sea by lifeboats after his boat sank off the coast. The danger that the fishermen face to make their living and the bravery shown by rescue teams are awesome.

I also take the opportunity to mention the bombardment of Hartlepool. On 16 December 1914—we are two days from the anniversary—Hartlepool became the first place on the British mainland to be attacked by German ships in the first world war. More than 100 people, including fishermen returning from their early morning catch, were killed during the bombardment. The North sea has presented danger to the people of the north-east in many ways.

As I said in last year’s fisheries debate, because of other industry Hartlepool has not had to rely on the sea and fishing as much as other communities have. However, there is a small and intense fishing community with great characters and traditions and I am determined, during my time in the House, to ensure that it goes from strength to strength. I therefore want to use my speech to set out the challenges for the fishermen in my constituency.

Two principal and related aspects are the levels of stocks, as other hon. Members have said, and the extent to which fishing quotas can be flexible about stocks to enable fishermen to catch other types of fish apart from, for example, cod. Pretty much everybody agrees that cod stocks, certainly in the mid North sea, have been falling at a dramatic rate over the last few
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decades, although there is some debate about the nature and location of the replenishment of cod stocks. I agree with the striking points that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made in his contribution to last year’s debate, namely that spawning grounds with immature cod must be identified and protected for the long-term future of the industry as a whole.

A move to multi-year agreements on quotas should be seriously considered. It is difficult for any business to try to plan on a one-year basis, but it is especially difficult for sole traders such as fishermen. I do not believe that data and evidence for future fish stocks are so volatile and unreliable that a multi-year agreement could not be negotiated. A three-year rolling agreement on quotas, even it were to be reviewed on an annual basis, would make it easier for fishermen to plan.

I think that the fall in cod stocks has been caused not by overfishing but by long-term environmental pressures. The North sea appears to be getting warmer, and cod stocks find colder waters more conducive. The supply of plankton on which they feed is also moving north, largely because of the need to find cooler waters. There seems to be evidence that cod stocks are moving north largely because of the environment. That is positive news for Scottish fishermen but provides greater challenges for those on the north-east English coast who make their living from cod.

Mr. Salmond: It would be positive news for Scottish fishermen were it not for the fact that much of the EU’s effort control assumes that cod can be in the central North sea, where, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, they are in ever-decreasing numbers. If the European Commission keeps restricting effort in relation to other species because of that perhaps natural phenomenon, it will be bad news for everybody.

Mr. Wright: I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will refer to diversification and fishing of stocks other than cod, which will be important for north-east English fishermen over the next few years.

The move to colder climates is seeing cod replaced by more diverse types of fish. Fishermen in my patch tell me that there is a massive supply of shellfish, of which they could catch a much larger amount than they are allowed at present. That could provide a decent living for them without comprising the long-term sustainability of the stock. I hope that the Minister will push for better shellfish quotas in negotiations with the EU, and I was pleased by his opening remarks in the debate.

Even more exotic fish are being spotted in my area. Off the north-east coast, there is a growing supply of non-traditional fish species such as tope, sea bass, pollock, brill and turbot. A number of Mediterranean swordfish have even been caught off Hartlepool in the past 12 months. Such developments provide a significant opportunity for diversification away from traditional cod fishing towards other stocks, which could provide local fishermen with an alternative income stream with higher margins.

It is vital to seek alternatives and opportunities for diversification in the industry. I am keen for the Government to endorse and support enthusiastically
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the development of recreational charter angling. Over the past 10 years, the Hartlepool marina has become one of the leading centres of maritime excellence in the north of England. It is a great place from which to explore not only the north-east coast but the tourist delights of Northumberland, Durham and York. I am keen to extend that success to the traditional Headland fishing community.

Providing the means of diversification would be a good way of securing the future of the industry in the town. The recreational charter angling sector provides a great opportunity for communities such as the Headland, and could be part of a co-ordinated tourist and visitor package for Hartlepool. I hope that the Minister will signal his support for providing investment to enable that opportunity to be realised. Will he also expand on his opening remarks about a new strategy for diversification in the new year?

In the debate last year, the Minister mentioned, as I did, 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 in the fishing industry. What progress has been made on that in the past 12 months? Will money be available to my constituents?

Fishermen in my patch are also concerned about illegal fishing, both by organised criminals and foreign countries. Boats from foreign countries are entering our waters and fishing blatantly, often running up a British flag, which causes a great deal of anger among local fishermen. There is a perception among my constituents that our regulatory regime is complied with by British boats in a strong and robust manner, but that other countries are perhaps not so diligent. Will the Minister outline in his response what action he plans to take to ensure that a level playing field is refereed consistently, so that British fishermen are not unduly penalised by such illegal practices?

Fishermen have also expressed concern to me about the rise of organised gangs operating in the north-east fishing industry. I do not have a great deal of information about that—there is an awful lot of rumour and conjecture about it at the moment—but I am worried that exploitation of workers in the fishing industry might be taking place in the north-east, despite the remarkable efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) over the past couple of years. What steps are being taken to ensure that illegal activity that is compromising the livelihoods of honest fishermen and exploiting vulnerable workers is identified and stopped?

I passionately believe that the future of the fishing industry should be based on effective partnerships of, and consultation with, all relevant stakeholders, particularly fishermen. Therefore, I would like to see much greater involvement and consultation carried out between fishermen working in the industry and the body charged with regulating the industry in my area, the North Eastern sea fisheries committee. I am concerned that fishermen in my area have told me that they are not being consulted when changes to regulations and byelaws are being proposed.

For example, nothing is put in the local press and the committee does not provide a great deal of information, as I found for myself today. I went on the committee’s website today, seeking the amendment that concerned some fishermen in my patch—byelaw XXII,
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concerning the permit to fish for and sell lobster, crab, velvet crab and whelk. However, the website said that it could not be found. That does not exactly inspire confidence that full engagement with stakeholders is being offered and undertaken.

It is not right for changes to regulations and byelaws that will have effects on the livelihoods of fishermen to be merely posted to a regional, as opposed to a local, newspaper, or for public meetings to be held in Scarborough, Whitby or Bridlington, rather than further north up the coast. I ask the Minister to help ensure that policy making and decisions carried out at a local level with regard to fisheries can be conducted in full engagement with those who make their living from the sea, to allow them to play their part and to ensure that fishing in Hartlepool, after some 800 years, has an optimistic future.

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