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6 Dec 2007 : Column 1043

Mr. Weir: Far be it from me to give aid and comfort to the Government, but does not the hon. Gentleman accept that measures such as the real-time closures represent a major step forward in trying to bridge the gap between fishermen and science, which has dogged fisheries negotiations for so long?

Bill Wiggin: I agree that it is the right way forward. I should like much more to be done. We are not even close to closing the gap.

Mr. Weir: It is a start.

Bill Wiggin: Yes, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that the gap is still there.

Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Bill Wiggin: I will in a moment—the Under-Secretary must keep calm. He has only just got the job. I cannot say, “Keep your hair on”, but I can say, “Keep calm.”

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) made a valid point. The Under-Secretary is right that steps need to be taken. I would argue that not enough is being done, and that steps are not being taken fast enough or effectively enough.

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman is getting on to a better footing after asking whether I agreed with the fishermen or the scientists. He has moved to a much better position. As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) said, it is not a case of polarised positions. Polarisation is the worst thing to do. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has moved on. Does he accept that there will be no more “them and us” and that it is all about working together?

Bill Wiggin: I should love to believe the Under-Secretary and I am sure that he means well. However, we heard all that last time, and when the then Minister came back, he had arrived at a position somewhere between ICES advice and what the fishermen asked him to deliver. It is no good saying that one group is right or one group is wrong and landing somewhere in the middle. That has always happened in the past. The Government have compromised and delivered neither the scientific advice nor what the fishermen request. Let us see how the Under-Secretary gets on at the December conference. I wish him luck, but until the gap is closed, things will be difficult for him.

At the December Fisheries Council meeting, we hope that the Under-Secretary will impress on his European counterparts the importance of reform and change. Moreover, if the Government are serious about making a long-term difference, the Minister and his EU counterparts must get to grips with the problem of discards. The EU has estimated that 40 to 60 per cent. of fish that trawlers in the North sea catch are discarded. In the last quarter of 2006, the discard rate for North sea cod caught by English and Welsh vessels in the North sea was 43.8 per cent. The discard rate by Scottish vessels for west of Scotland haddock was 42.2 per cent., and that for west of Scotland saithe was 62.7 per cent. in the third quarter of 2006. A staggering 83.5 per cent. of west of Scotland whiting was discarded in the third quarter of 2006. That means that 246.3 tonnes were discarded but only 48.6 tonnes were landed. That is the scale of the problem and the harsh reality faced by our fishermen, bound by the rigidity of the quota system and some of the
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unsustainable management measures currently in place. The Minister is reported as saying:

and “immoral”. However, unless he and his European counterparts have the political will to grasp the nettle, they will be the heartbreakers.

During last year’s fisheries debate, I called on the Government to make 2007

So far, however, the progress needed to end this wasteful and environmentally damaging practice has not been made. The EU discard atlas, due to be completed by next year, has not even been put out to tender, and the Minister has admitted that it is

According to the European Commission’s 2002 community action plan, discard pilot schemes were to be set up. There are two in the UK—one in the North sea and a joint scheme with Ireland in the Irish sea, which started only recently. However, as Ministers have admitted:

One is left wondering why there appears to be such an appalling lack of commitment and joint working on the matter.

The community action plan also indicated that the EU was planning to eliminate discards by 2006. That date has passed, but despite the Government’s holding the presidency of the EU in the latter half of 2005, the best excuse that they could give was:

Now the Minister’s answer to the discard problem is to argue for an increase in quota. Of course we should argue for an increase in quota to support our fishermen when the stocks are available, but that is not a long-term solution to the problem of discards, and if the Minister thinks that increasing total allowable catches is the answer to discarding, he should apply that logic universally to all stocks, such as whiting and haddock, on which there will be further cuts this year. When are we going to get a coherent policy on discards from DEFRA? We believe that as long as Labour is in government, discarding will continue.

We also recognise that part of the solution to discarding and by-catch is to prevent the active 10 m and under vessels from running out of quota so early in the year. One of the most important challenges that the Minister faces is to ensure that they get a fair deal; but we have already had the “Net Benefits” report—almost four years ago—which advocated long-term strategic planning for the inshore sector. In “Charting a New Course” in 2005, DEFRA boasted of how it had already taken the advice of “Net Benefits” and

There is also the inshore fisheries working group, with which the Minister has admitted he has not discussed quota management. However, between 1998 and 2004, the number of 10 m and under vessels
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registered in England and Wales fell from 3,342 to 3,004, while the total number in the UK has fallen from 5,474 to 4,979—a drop of 9 per cent. We have had all the talk from Labour, but no action and no long-term strategic management plan.

Michael Jabez Foster: I am encouraged by the hon. Gentleman’s apparent support for the 10 m and under sector. I join him in that support. However, I want to be absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding: is he prepared to say unequivocally that some of the over-10 m share should be redistributed to the under- 10 m sector? Yes or no?

Bill Wiggin: It is so tempting to make policy on the hoof, but I am not going to do it. When we come forward with our proposals, they will be carefully considered. However, again to give the hon. Gentleman’s constituents hope, there must be serious consideration of how just 3 per cent. of our national quota goes to 76 per cent. of our fleet. That cannot be right, and it is not sustainable. That is the best that the hon. Gentleman will get out of me today. Be assured of one thing, however: the issue has never been far from the front of my mind and it is one that we intend to tackle effectively in government, to the benefit of the under-10 m sector.

This year had barely begun when it became apparent that not enough quota had been allocated to the inshore fleet. Just 2 or 3 per cent. of quota had been allocated to 76 per cent. of the UK’s fishing vessels. The Government do not even have a view on how much quota the sector should have or the fish that it should be landing. That sector should not be dependent on gifts, or on in-year and cross-year quota swaps. When asked whether DEFRA had estimated the value of the cross-year swap of 40 tonnes of area VII angler fish in 2007 to the south-west producer organisation in exchange for 40 tonnes of channel plaice in 2006, the Minister stated:

When asked the reason why no estimate of the value had been made, he commented:

Common sense would suggest, however, that the value of the swap should be taken into consideration and should be among the primary factors considered, especially as, in this instance, the swap has cost the 10 m and under fleet some £300,000 in lost potential revenue, as angler fish are worth much more than plaice. The person in the Marine Fisheries Agency who made that decision did not seem to be aware of that or value it enough. Where was the long-term plan for the inshore fleet then?

The Minister may be relatively new in the job, but he needs to knuckle down and transform DEFRA— the Department that has become a byword for incompetence—because at the moment it is the barrier to sustainable fisheries management, when it should be providing the solutions. In recent years, we have seen non-stop consultations and publications from the Government, but a complete lack of action. We have seen wave after wave of documents and statements: “Net Benefits”, “Securing the Benefits”, “Charting
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Progress”, “Safeguarding Our Seas”, and the latest edition, “2027: a long-term vision for sustainable fisheries”. The Government might talk about a vision for 2027, but the reality is that they have not even got a vision for 2008. They have dithered over bass, failed to develop the inshore fleet, failed to tackle discards, failed to deliver the European fisheries fund on time, failed to deliver sustainable marine management, failed to bring forward the marine Bill, failed to protect the pink sea fans of Lyme bay and failed to take the leadership role within Europe that we need. In typical DEFRA fashion, they have missed targets, broken promises and postponed deadlines. This is a complete catalogue of incompetence. Next year will be make or break time for much of the fishing industry. Reforms must be effective, fisheries must become sustainable and real change is needed. However, that change is not going to be possible under this Government.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the next speaker may I say to the House that the eight-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches applies from now on?

4.32 pm

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): I have just heard the most extraordinary speech from the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). To summarise, he seemed to be saying, “Here’s the problem. The Government must sort it out, but I’m not going to commit to saying whether I would sort it out if I were in government. On the one hand, the Government should do this, and on the other hand, they should do that, but I’m not going to choose between the two.” I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to Liberal Democracy is imminent.

I want to take a few minutes of the House’s time to talk about the under-10 m fleet and, in particular, the under-10 m fleet that sails from Ramsgate, in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and welcome him to the Dispatch Box. I should also like to thank him for taking the trouble to come to Ramsgate to listen to the fishermen in the under-10 m fleet there. They were very pleased with his visit, and they have asked me to congratulate him on being frank with them. They did not like what he had to say, but they appreciated the fact that he said it to their face and did not try to gloss over the difficult problems that he faces.

The fishermen’s problem is that the allocation of fish that they are permitted to catch is insufficient to allow their industry to remain sustainable. They face ruin, and they expect action to be taken to deal with that. Quite simply, they do not believe that a sufficient quota is being allocated to the under-10 m fleet, and they are looking to the Government to do something about it. They are also looking for a much greater focus on their problems. They want a seat at the table.

I pay tribute to Mr. Tom Brown, the secretary of the Thanet Fishermen’s Association, who has represented Thanet fishermen in negotiations for many years and tried to get their point across. Over the past 10 years, he has also made sure that I was familiar with the problems
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that they face. He has validly pointed out that certain decisions were taken in the 1970s about how fishing would be managed as an industry. The producer organisations were set up effectively to promote and improve the fishing industry, but they were also given responsibility for negotiating on behalf of their members— the people who sail the larger over-10 m vessels that are part of those producer organisations. They have done a very good job of negotiating on their behalf, but because they have negotiated so well, the needs of the under-10 m fleet have been completely ignored.

I would like the Minister to undertake a complete review of the way in which the under-10 m fleet is consulted on issues surrounding quota—how the quota is going to be distributed and how the licences are going to be deployed. The producer organisations are more than just consulted: they have a seat at the table; they are players in the game. Those involved with the under-10 m fleet may be able to make their views known through advisory committees, but they are not players in the game—they are spectators—and until that changes, their needs will not be sufficiently taken into account.

It is my clear view that the allocation of quota to the under-10 m fleet is wrong. It seems to me that the division between the under-10 m and over-10 m vessels is an arbitrary one, as the Minister will probably acknowledge, but the distribution of the quota between the two sectors is equally arbitrary. Over the years, errors in how the quota has been managed have compounded the problems faced by the under-10 m sector, and it is now quite clear that its quota is inadequate.

My second suggestion to the Minister therefore is that he needs to grasp that nettle and get some quota on a permanent basis to increase the amount of fishing that the under-10 m fleet is allowed to engage in. In addition to the permanent transfer of some quota, we need a review of whether the under-10 m fleet should be allowed to buy additional quota for itself. Perhaps they should be able to form consortiums and go out and buy some extra quota, which could be restricted to the people involved in purchasing it. Will the Minister think more about that as a possible way forward?

The Minister would be the first to accept that there are far too many vessels in the under-10 m fleet. There has been no—or very little—rationalisation of it over the years. He discussed figures with several MPs the other day, which showed that a great many of the under-10 m fleet are not fishing to capacity; they are not even catching all the fish that they are licensed to catch. Many are dilettante fishermen or hobby fishermen, and some perhaps work only part-time.

I agree with the Minister that he should examine how the fleet is structured and he may need to look into the possibility of removing some people in the under-10 m fleet from commercial fishing. If he does, may I ask him to focus on the needs of those who are making their living out of it? Those who are trying to create and build businesses and who want to provide a sustainable industry with sustainable employment for local communities are the people to whom most of the quota should be allocated. They are the ones who should be allowed to fish at a level that allows them to make a living. Will the Minister also look into ways to help those people market
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their product or find other ways in which the Government can help us to create fish markets in very attractive locations such as Ramsgate harbour? That would be very popular, and it would help people who catch fish locally to get a good price for them.

There are several ways in which the Minister can help the under-10 m fleet. He can transfer some extra quota; he can make sure that the sector is listened to in the future; he can help it market the product better; and he can help distribute whatever quota is granted to people who make a living out of fishing. Those things would make a major improvement in the sustainability of the under-10 m fleet. They will not be easy to do. I do not relish the task ahead of the Minister, but I am quite sure that he is up to it.

4.39 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): First, let me associate myself, and my right hon. and hon. Friends, with the Minister’s very appropriate expressions of condolence to the families of the 10 fishermen who have lost their lives since last year’s fisheries debate. Let me also record my appreciation—and, probably, that of all Members—of the skill and expertise of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is often called upon when fishermen are lost, the selfless bravery of the search and rescue helicopter crews, and in particular the lifeboat crews who offer their services on a voluntary basis.

I welcome the Minister to his first fisheries debate. He takes up the brief at a time when the debate in the House is slightly less febrile than it has been, certainly in my experience, but he and his Department still face massive challenges, and I think it is in the interests of all of us who represent fishing communities and all of us who care about the sustainability of fish stocks for him to succeed in his job.

I also pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who is now a Health Minister, and also Minister for the South West. He took on the job when he was on a fairly steep learning curve, but he got to grips with it in time, and I believe that his view was respected in the industry by the time he gave it up. I have to say, though, that when he left the Chamber at the start of this debate, there was an ever-so-slightly wide grin on his face.

In recent years this debate has been dominated by the issue of cod stocks, and that issue has featured prominently again today. I am delighted that it is now accepted on all sides that we are seeing an upturn in the health of the spawning stock biomass of cod. Hansard will show that for the last couple of years a number of us have told the Minister that the upturn was already happening. It was perhaps unfortunate that not enough regard was paid to that, but I am pleased that at last the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea seems to be catching up with anecdotal evidence from the fishing industry.

I note in passing that this year’s ICES report speaks of “unaccounted removals”—a somewhat curious expression. Presumably they are unaccounted removals because there were never “accounted presents” in the first place, ICES never having accepted that the fish were there. Essentially, of course, it speaks of discards; but its acceptance of the position is welcome, as is the public evidence that it has supplied.

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