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3.6 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and other hon. Members who have expressed their admiration for the bravery of fishermen who endure the perils of the sea in order to feed the nation.

I rise with a degree of diffidence; looking round the House I see hon. Members on both sides who will know a great deal more about the subject than me, and from different perspectives. Until 18 months ago, when I had the honour of being elected for Torridge and West Devon, my knowledge of fish was probably confined to what happened after it reached the plate.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. and learned Gentleman is confessing a lack of knowledge but at least he is present, unlike so many of his hon. Friends who may or may not know more about fishing than him.

Mr. Cox: The House generally is not as full as it ought to be when such an important subject is being discussed.

Over the last 18 months, I have had the pleasure of corresponding with the Minister and I am grateful for the invariable courtesy and general promptness—not always—of his replies to me. He will know that, in Torridge, I represent a fishing industry largely concerned with fishing coastal waters and, casting around to help my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) to find some gloom to put to the Minister, I find that it has endured a number of problems in the last year and a half. I cannot present the picture of a garden of Eden that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who is no longer in his place, produced earlier.

I am certainly not going to pretend to the Minister that I rise to convey to him a picture of unrelieved gloom. He will know that some profound concerns and anxieties have been expressed to me, and through me to him, about the situation in the Bristol channel and the coastal fishery there.

I want to speak first not about the European Union—although I confess to a considerable degree of reservation about the effect of its policy upon our national fisheries—but about domestic measures that this Minister and the Government have imposed or are
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proposing to impose upon the fishermen whom I represent. Two of the major fish stocks providing revenue to the fishermen I represent are ray and bass. I wish to speak specifically about measures applied to those species by this Government.

When I visited A. J. Fisheries of Appledore and the fishing centre there, it was explained to me that there had been a singular error in interpretation of some of the facts, as a result of which the Government appear to be about to apply, or have already applied, a maximum landing length for skate and ray. I know that there has been considerable concern about the depleted stocks of skate and ray in the North sea and that there has been a Greenpeace campaign in relation to skate—which, I should add, impacted very severely on many fishermen around the country—but I am told that that was based to some extent on a misunderstanding, and I will be grateful if the Minister provides clarification on that.

The type of ray that is abundant in the North sea is the common skate. I have brought into the Chamber an illustrative aid to show the Minister—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Visual aids are discouraged in the Chamber, not least because they make it very difficult for the Official Report, whose staff have to endeavour to explain our proceedings with words rather than pictures.

Mr. Cox: They are rather simple illustrations, but I shall have to attempt to describe them, instead of showing them to the Minister. The common skate is the species that I understand to be at risk; that is the skate that is abundant in the North sea. However, there is a fundamental difference between the common skate and the thornback ray and the spotted ray, which are both native to the Bristol channel. Those types of ray are the source of the greatest catch for fisherman in the north Devon and Torridge fisheries whose fishermen I represent.

I am informed that there is no shortage of thornback ray or spotted ray, but the proposal is for the Minister to apply an 85 cm maximum landing length, and that will cause a major problem for the fisheries in my constituency. I am told that—I apologise in advance, as I may use inaccurate terminology—current trawlers tend to wing the ray while they are still at sea. Their fishermen will prepare it, bring it back and land it already winged because that is the economical way of doing it. The Minister’s new rule will require them to land the ray whole. That will lead to all kinds of changes to the manner in which they process the ray: they will no longer be able to do what I have described on board so they will have to find space and facilities to do it onshore. It will also add to the economic cost of processing ray. Indeed, I am told that it is likely to add 25 per cent. to the cost, which is enough to turn their current profit into a loss.

Landing whole and gutted ray severely increases the costs for vessels and processors. The proposal would force the purchase of a new configuration of storage containers for vessels, and by implication because of the size of the rays, fewer could be stored in the same space. Extra staff would be needed onshore for winging
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and transporting the rays, and extra storage space would be needed in the cold store.

The real concern of the fisherman I represent, which I hope that the Minister will accept, is that it is not suggested that the same problem exists for the species native to the Bristol channel as exists in the North sea for skate. I would be grateful if the Minister could either provide clarification today on that point, or produce evidence to suggest that that interpretation of the facts is wrong if he thinks that that is the case.

There is another problem, which applies not only to the fishing of ray in the Bristol channel but to the fishing of bass. These domestic measures apply only to British fishermen. As I understand it, they are intended to be conservation measures applicable to the 12-mile limit, but the fact is that every day in the Bristol channel, foreign vessels with greater capacity than any of the smaller trawlers and fishing vessels in the North Devon fleet fish right up to the six-mile limit. I have written to the Minister about this issue, so he may be aware of it—I know that he questions some of the evidence—but there is no doubt that huge vessels are operating there. I point out for the benefit of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), in particular, that I have evidence that a Belgian beamer-turned otter trawler with an 883 kW engine is fishing, by historic right, up to six miles off the coast of Wales—and of the south-west—and is landing some 600 boxes of fish at a time, largely, as I understand it, into Welsh ports.

What is the point of telling British fishermen that they cannot land ray under 85 cm if a Belgian trawler of that size and capacity is able to cruise along the six-mile limit hoovering up ray of any size and land them in a British port? It is obvious why the fishermen of north Devon and Torridge are saying to me, “What are our Government trying to do? They are tying our hands behind our backs and doing precious little to stop foreign vessels from hoovering up fish right on the six-mile limit.” Moreover and as the Minister has said several times today, fish respect neither international boundaries nor six-mile limits. A shoal 100 yd inside the six-mile limit can be the same shoal that the Belgian trawler is hoovering up a few yards outside that limit.

One can understand the sense of grievance and injustice that hard-pressed fishermen in Torridge and north Devon express to me when they see that phenomenon daily, weekly, monthly, annually, without apparent action from the Government. That is the situation regarding ray—a species that is in abundance in the Bristol channel and is not threatened. This maximum landing length has been applied to it because of a mistake of identification; the truth is that another species—skate—in the North sea is threatened and depleted.

I point out with considerable diffidence, knowing that some experienced anglers are here today representing angling interests, that the same point applies to bass. The angling lobby has applied a great deal of pressure regarding bass landing sizes. However, bass is another staple of the north Devon fishing industry, and once again the Government have chosen to impose a maximum landing size. If I am not mistaken, the Minister has decided on a 40 cm maximum landing size. Why has he chosen that limit? Just a few weeks ago, the Welsh Assembly Minister with responsibility for such matters decided on a
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different limit—a 37.5 cm maximum landing size. How can the science in Wales be so different from that in England? The waters that the fishermen whom I represent are fishing are precisely the same ones as Welsh fishermen are fishing. This situation will doubtless cause some resentment and tension between Welsh and Devonshire fishermen, although they are working together to resolve the problem. If the limit is 40 cm in England and 37.5 cm in Wales, the risk is that Welsh fishermen—

Martin Salter: With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, both he and the hon. Gentleman are wrong. The optimum spawning size for bass is 42 cm. If we are serious about protecting bass stocks, both Administrations have to move toward a 45 cm limit. Members in all parts of the House have to have the guts to stand up for the measure that is right for the environment.

Mr. Cox: I knew that it would not be long before the hon. Gentleman upbraided me, although I was only tentatively posing questions on behalf of a group of commercial fishermen in my constituency who feel strongly and passionately about the point, and who do not agree with him.

Bill Wiggin: A more fundamental problem than the adult breeding size of bass is the change made in the minimum landing size by the Minister. He might have changed the size of the mesh to allow breeding bass to escape. Instead, increasing the minimum landing size simply increases the number of bass that are discarded.

Mr. Cox: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because that is the point that I was about to make. In relation to both ray and bass, that decision will cause a major discard problem. As I understand the Minister’s letter of 30 November, the research into the ability of ray to withstand discards—I believe that the same is true of bass—is negligible, although a project is under way at present. Why is it that the Government have imposed those maximum landing sizes and lengths without researching properly whether the fish will survive the inevitable discards that will result?

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman is to be hugely congratulated on the detail of his speech, but a significant event has occurred. He has tempted the first policy out of the Conservative Front Bencher in this debate. We know nothing about individual transferable quotas, but we seem to have absolute clarity on the minimum landing size of bass.

Mr. Cox: I knew that I would regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman. All I can say is, “Hooray.” I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) had to say.

The problem of discrimination between British fishermen, such as the Devonshire fishermen whom I represent, and those operating foreign vessels is again brought into stark and acute relief by that rule. The 40 cm rule does not of course apply to the Belgian and French trawlers that are busy fishing for bass in the Bristol channel. Indeed, I am told that 75 per cent. of the bass catch is taken by French vessels—although the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) may
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correct me. However, those French vessels will not be subject to the minimum landing size rule. Given that the fishery that I represent has made great efforts to devise a system for maintaining its sustainability, the sense of grievance and injustice is plain when one talks with the fishermen. They see the French and Belgian trawlers, which have a much greater capacity than their vessels, hoovering up fish and landing 600 boxes a time in Welsh ports. Those boxes are full of bass and ray. What will my fishermen think of a Government who impose that impediment on them? With regret, I have to say that there has been some talk of judicial review of the 40 cm limit. I urge the Minister to take cognisance of the very real concern that the Government’s rules are damaging the fishery that I represent.

Martin Salter: I apologise for intervening on the hon. Gentleman again, and I am impressed by the manner in which he is making his speech. However, I am at a loss to understand what he is driving at. He seems to be saying that the French and Belgians are destroying UK bass stocks, so we should join in as well. What does he want to achieve?

Mr. Cox: If we are to have the limits, we must persuade the EU that they should be applied fairly across the board. What is the point of those limits six to 12 miles from our coast? In the Bristol channel, Devonshire fishermen have already established no-take and closed zones. They have made enormous strides towards making the fishery there sustainable, and they have changed their tackle and upgraded their gear so that juvenile fish can escape. However, the Belgians and French are hoovering up vastly greater quantities of fish, so why are the Government applying a fetter to our industry before they have succeeded in applying it to other countries?

I do not accept that bass stocks in the Bristol channel are being devastated. They remain abundant, and I am not aware of any major problem.

Martin Salter: What on earth is sustainable about continuing to take bass at a size—that is, 36, 38 or 39 cm—that is below the optimum limit for the survival of that species?

Mr. Cox: I know that the hon. Gentleman has long fought for angling interests in the House, but it is not accepted that taking bass of between 36 and 40 cm in size necessarily places Bristol channel stocks at substantial risk. What is wrong is to fetter our industry when European vessels can cruise along the six-mile limit and simply vacuum bass and ray into their holds.

The overall effect of the rules imposed by the Government is unfair to British fishermen. They punish an industry that is struggling, and whose members feel that their voice is not heard, even though they have adapted to challenging conditions. The rules will turn even the most modern business from profit to loss. I hope that the Minister will reassure the fishermen in my area that their voice is being heard, and that the Department will work with them to determine the best policy going forward.

The hon. Member for Reading, West has characterised the people whom I represent as some sort
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of depredating vandals of the sea, but I repeat that I will not accept that. Those men and women have lived their lives by the sea: they have protected their coastline and taken measures to ensure that fish stocks survive, because those stocks are their livelihood, both now and in the years to come.

I hope that the Minister will pay heed to what my fishermen are urging. I hope that he will listen to their concerns and help them to devise a way forward so that their struggling industry can survive and prosper.

3.29 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): It was interesting to hear the opening statement of the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) in which he demanded stronger leadership in a direction yet to be decided by the Conservative party— [Laughter.] It is an interesting position, but I hope that the review will not lead to the abandonment of the previous policy of withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, which I, though not Conservative Front Benchers, supported.

I do not want to start too sycophantically by deferring to the Minister, but I reject the impression created by Conservative Members that we are not getting strong leadership—we are. The Minister is giving the industry strong leadership and has done well in the fight for British interests. We are now gathered together in our annual pressure group campaign to put lead in the Minister’s pencil and send him off to Brussels armed to fight for Britain, and I am sure that he will.

I want to make two points about the fight to improve Britain’s position in the CFP. It is a disadvantageous position and it is unrelenting, so we have to keep up the pressure. I hope that the Minister’s new responsibilities—he is rapidly rising in the hierarchy—will not lead to him take his eye off the ball. We need his effort, his energy and his support for the industry. I note that he ended his speech with a Christmas message of good cheer, which Fishing News echoed, so it must be true that things are going well. However, I hope that that will not lead to complacency, because there is a battle to be fought at the Council over the various proposals that are being made.

The industry is doing well because prices are up and the system of registration by buyers and sellers has caused black fish landings to fall rapidly, which has been very beneficial and done the industry good. As I say, though, battles are still to be fought on this front. It has been a better year in the North sea.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman, who is a very experienced Member, will understand that the individual viability of a boat depends certainly on the total income coming to the industry, but also on the number of boats. It is factually true that if we reduce the fishing industry to one boat, it would be an extremely prosperous one.

Mr. Mitchell: I was about to make exactly that point. I am sorry to have given way to the hon. Gentleman at this stage, as I was hoping to provoke him into an intervention later on. I shall now withdraw that provocation.

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It is an improving situation for a highly attenuated industry, which we need to rebuild, but just because things are improving I do not resile in any way from my position on the common fisheries policy. I am sorry if the Conservative party is resiling from it and I am sure that the SNP will not. We would be better off controlling our own destinies. The CFP is, frankly, no policy with which to handle the situation. It produces the crazy anomalies that the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) mentioned in respect of their effect on the fishermen of north Devon, and it proposes blanket measures on the basis that one measure covers any situation when it does not.

Quotas are an implicit part of the CFP and they lead automatically to discards. Discards increase as quotas fall. It is not a sensible way of handling fishing policy for the whole of the EU waters. It inevitably leads to more by-catching. It leads to blanket measures such as the cod recovery programme, with its associated cuts, and to cuts in catches for other species associated with cod.

I start with cod because it has become almost a symbol for what the Commission wants to do to fishing—control it. The cod recovery programme is heavily backed by the Commission’s environmental department, which has put its oar in and made the programme totally inflexible. In my view, it is totally inadequate.

The cod recovery programme needs revision and change. The EU-Norway talks, which generally determine what will happen at EU Council meetings, predicted a 14 per cent. cut. I see in Fishing News—so it must be true—that the Commission is adhering to its hard line on a 25 per cent. cut, which would be disastrous. I hope that the Minister will fight the good fight and not be moved by all the environmentalists who are lamenting in advance the death of cod, when that is not on the agenda. Those environmental panics are damaging to sound, continuous, steady judgment in the fishing industry. I also hope that he will not be moved by European pressures, because Europe tends to respond to such environmental panics.

I am getting fed up of the jokes: when I go to restaurants, I am told, “You don’t want any cod, do you? You cod killer!” It has just gone too far. Cod is not in danger of extinction. I do not know what the future will be, but neither does the Commission. The situation is very different in the North sea from that in the Irish sea, which tells me that common measures are not a good idea. I do not know whether cod stocks will recover. We do not know how much of the decline in cod stocks is due to global warming and the stocks moving further north because the whole sustaining environmental support mechanism is not responding well to global warming. As the waters warm, there is less sustenance for the cod. Is that the case, or is it not the case? I do not know, but the Commission does not know either.

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