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5.32 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): It is some time since I have tried to speak in a debate on fisheries policy. I note that the issues are evergreen—as are most of the speakers, with the exception of our bright, shiny new Minister, whom we wish well in his job.

I intend to limit my remarks to the issue of discards, which has featured much in the press of late, particularly in relation to cod, as well as in this debate and at Question Time earlier today. There is absolutely nothing new about this situation, for it is simply a direct result of European Union fisheries policy. Not only is the thorny issue of discards being repeated in relation to cod, but I can assure the House that the situation will continue to recur unless common sense eventually prevails. In 1986, the fishing industry itself highlighted the amount of haddock that was being discarded, and a debate followed about how discards of small fish could be avoided by the use of technical fishing gear. In the 1980s, vast amounts of small fish were being dumped, whereas now, with increased mesh size and different trawl designs, mainly marketable fish are being thrown over the side. The problem then affected coley, or saithe, another species that British vessels discarded in abundance.

Now, however, it is the cod catch that is being seriously affected. In the case of cod and coley, I must make it clear that we are talking about mature, marketable fish which are thrown back dead over the side to pollute the marine environment. People may ask why this disastrous and wasteful practice is being allowed. The simple answer is that it is entirely due to the European Union’s quota system. For those Members who may not remember when Britain joined what was then called the Common Market, on 1 January 1973 Parliament handed competence of Britain’s living marine resource over to what has subsequently become the European Union, that competence to be shared equally between member states without discrimination.

As more countries have subsequently joined the EU, so the cake—the share each country is entitled to—has had to be divided up into smaller units. As a result, British vessels have been driven off the water to make room for the newcomers. The quota system was introduced in 1983 in order to comply with an obligation in the original treaty and was disguised as a tool of conservation, although in reality it was a tool of integration. How else could the new EU resource be divided up to distribute to the participating states without their fishermen realising what was going on? Let us not beat about the bush. The politicians involved at that time did not tell the truth about the situation until 2002, and the industry was strung along until then.

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Those Members who support the common fisheries policy, as an undisputed consequence, also support the greatest environmental marine disaster. That is a direct result of the integration process to secure the achievement of one European Union fishing fleet in what are now EU waters. Only a couple of days ago, as I mentioned earlier, the special report by the European Court of Auditors confirmed that the common fisheries policy was a failure—quite an indictment, I should have thought. The CFP has failed because it is really about political union, not the management of fisheries. The quota system has created the discard system, which in turn has produced faulty scientific evidence.

One only has to look at the successful system introduced in the Faroe Islands, where adult species are fished to a level that is sustained by the available food source. The Faroes still have limits on each species, but control catch rates by days at sea. They do not discard, so accurate figures are available about what is caught, unlike in EU waters, where no one knows exactly what has been killed. Therein lies the dispute, I should have thought, between the fishermen and the scientists. In the flawed European Union system, the food source itself has been destroyed—

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Winterton: I will not, because of the time.

The food source has been destroyed by the EU’s previous high quota for those species lower down the food chain, such as sand eels, so is it any wonder that the adult stock is unsustainable? If the food stock is not adequate, it makes it incredibly hard to have a sustainable adult stock, and if you force that adult stock up by virtually not fishing it at all, the adults will have to eat their own young or the young of other species. Any form of life can only be sustained by the availability of food, so the concentration of effort and policy should now be to increase the base of the pyramid of the food chain, not the other way round, which is the present practice.

However, it is encouraging to know that one of the wonders of nature is that this political, integrationist onslaught of mismanagement could still be overcome if the right policy were to be introduced. Only the rump of the original British fishing fleet survives today, the rest having been eradicated by Britain’s European Union treaty obligations, but the unpalatable fact is that we can huff and puff in this House as much as we like, but as long as competence for fisheries remains in the hands of the EU Commission, there is nothing—repeat, nothing—that the UK can do to stop the discard problem.

When the European Union stops expanding and it presides over one integrated EU fishing fleet in all EU waters, which is what the Maastricht and Nice treaties were leading up to—that all national considerations should cease—it may take a look at the Faroese system and adopt it. However, I have made no secret of the fact that I have always been an enthusiastic proponent of a return to British control of fisheries policy. I was delighted, therefore, to see that the Scottish National party’s policy is to stick to its guns and continue to support the return of national control. If that policy were eventually introduced in Scotland, admittedly against the odds, it would create an immediate improvement for the Scottish economy
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and coastal communities. It would also be wonderful to witness genuine marine environmental progress, even if it were limited only to Scotland at first. If only we and the rest of the UK would follow suit.

5.39 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on taking over the most important job in Government. He follows two able and energetic Fisheries Ministers. We have a no-discard policy when it comes to Ministers and fishing—unlike on the Opposition Front Bench. They consulted widely and got to know the industry, as my hon. Friend is doing. I congratulate him.

I am disappointed that debate on such an important subject is crammed into a quick gabble in the dying two or three hours of a deadly dull day. Fishing is more important than that. We should have had the debate earlier, because the shape of the settlement that we are debating was determined by the EU-Norway agreement earlier this year, which told us that haddock quotas will be reduced by 15 per cent., whiting by 25 per cent. and herring by 41 per cent. That shows that the advice of the regional advisory councils, on which the common fisheries policy should be based, will be ignored. The position paper from the North Sea regional advisory council complains that

in a way that the council does not support. We should listen to the RACs.

The Norway agreement also tells us that there is to be an increase in the total allowable catch of cod in the North sea. The cod preservation plan is totemic for the EU. We could and should have argued for a bigger increase. Cod stocks grow phenomenally and recover very quickly. The fact that recovery is now well under way would allow us to take a bigger quota. The lower the quota, the greater the discards. We could take a bigger quota and cut down the discards. The Minister has emphasised that fact during his comments on the radio.

It might be necessary to do something more on discards. Why cannot we consider the Norwegian arrangements, whereby all fish caught has to be landed and is then sold at a lower price so as not to reward the landing? That gives value to it, and means that it is not wasted, as it is now, by being thrown back into the sea. That has to be our approach to the coming talks. On the east coast, this last year has been a good year, but we face a more difficult year ahead, particularly in Hull. The Norwegian quota for “others” was cut by 28 per cent. at the last minute in the talks. Why was that done? It will be a serious blow for Hull.

We need to consider much more flexible arrangements during the talks. We need to consider the cod avoidance plans that the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has proposed, which are very important and a successful way of maintaining other catches while avoiding the cod stocks. We need to look at selective gear. It is of concern that the terminator, important though it is, was developed in Canada—it is used in Canada and New Zealand—and
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followed the experiments with square mesh panels, of which our Government took little notice and which were financed by the industry. Those experiments pioneered the way for the terminator. We should take up the terminator, but we should have taken up the square mesh panels much earlier.

We need real-time closures of the kind that the Scottish industry has pioneered and video recording of catches, as practised in New Zealand, as a tachometer for the industry. All those elements of flexibility need to be introduced into the talks and the common fisheries policy. We should argue against continuing the big blockbuster measures, such as days at sea limitations, decommissioning and others that have led to the current state of affairs, and argue for more selective measures—selective gear, selective catches and selective fishing in some areas.

I would also argue for more flexibility in our country. For example, the Under-Secretary could allow a little more flexibility to the under-10 m class of vessel. The tight quota limits that are imposed on those vessels need to be eased. We could also allow the long liners more flexibility. I have corresponded with the Under-Secretary about Grimsby skipper John Hancock’s vessels, the Apollo and the Genesis—long liners—which could be kept going by a slight increase in the catch of tusk and ling. That would not be associated with any increase in cod catches, because long lining is conservation-effective. We should therefore be more flexible rather than maintaining a position of absolute inflexibility.

We should argue for more flexibility in the common fisheries policy and give more flexibility to our industry, because all the other countries do that when it suits their interests, and we should do the same. Through allowing greater flexibility, the Under-Secretary will enter into closer relationships with the industry, which he wants, and which we, as representatives of the industry, also want. We must work together and try more concertedly to bring scientists and fishermen together. The Under-Secretary must listen to the industry, as Scottish Ministers do. That puts them in a much more powerful position for knowing what the industry wants and getting it in Europe. My hon. Friend’s background in social work predisposes him towards working together. In doing that, we will be successful, as he deserves to be.

5.46 pm

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am glad to contribute to the debate, especially as I have had to hang around London, and the outer Hebrides are far away.

I have worked twice as a fisherman and I therefore believe that it is important to add my voice to the debate, which, I note, takes place in the window between the Norway talks and the main EU horse-trading. Again, I remark on the power of Norway to stand toe to toe with the European Union—something that has probably not gone unnoticed, especially by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton).

Many parts of my speech have already been covered, but I should like to emphasise some of the concerns that have come my way and some things that the Under-Secretary should have ringing in his ears from the last Back-Bench speech of the debate. There is anxiety on
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the west coast of Scotland about the suggestion of cutting days at sea for boats—the 25 per cent. cut to which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) alluded—in Mallaig, Barra, Lewis and Kinlochbervie. There is major concern about a cut from 227 to 170 days. Mallaig and North-West Fishermen’s Association believes that 215 days is the bare minimum for scratching a living. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute pointed out the error in the translation that last year enabled the 28-day cut. I emphasise to the Minister the dangers of translation when one does not use Gaelic.

The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association asked me to speak about monkfish. Although ICES is sceptical, the fishermen believe that the stocks on the west coast are good and that there is no need for a cut in quota. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take cognisance of that. The fishermen feel that there should be no cut in the haddock quota, especially as, on the west coast, they have enabled the windsock, an area of closure between Lewis and Orkney. Before any complete data come from that area, the fishermen should not be penalised, especially given that they are prepared to increase the size of escape panels from 90 mm to 120 mm. I therefore believe that technological measures can be considered before the fishermen and fishing interests are penalised. The inshore fisheries agreement in the western isles has been successful and the fishing has been much healthier there as a result of it. Autonomy, responsibility—and perhaps even independence—when it is given to fishermen appear to work wonders.

I am also concerned about the pelagic stocks. When the all-party fisheries group discussed the cut in the herring quota, I drew to the Under-Secretary’s attention a boat that was involved in data gathering about the herring stocks and said that the skipper remarked that the scientists had asked him to fish for herring in places where he would not fish for them. When he did not catch any herring, that was used as evidence that there were no herring. The fishermen who work the herring stocks know that the herring have changed their patterns of behaviour over the years and would therefore not expect to catch any in such places. Inaccurate data might therefore have been fed into the resultant cut in the quota. Although I mentioned that at the time to the all-party group, I am not sure whether the Minister has managed to find any further information on it.

On the ICES figures for the past few years, although the council recommended a total allowable catch of 732,000 tonnes in 2006, the quota was 967,000 tonnes. The advice the following year was for a higher figure. The figure for mackerel followed a similar pattern. Perhaps we need to be more dynamic. Mention has been made of the horse-trading at the fishing talks. Perhaps we need to move to a more dynamic and, as it were, liquid period for quota-setting. When it becomes apparent from the evidence over the year that the quotas are not as poor as expected, perhaps some adjustment could be made.

Finally, I would like to point out to the Minister the dynamism, which has been alluded to a couple of times, not only of the Scottish Executive but of fishing innovation in Scotland, with real-time closures and the lead that Scotland is giving the EU. Under the CFP, Scotland has 70 per cent. of the UK quota, two thirds of the landing, 70 per cent. of the effort and all the expertise that comes with that—as well as, perhaps, some of the expertise of
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Scottish Ministers, which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned. Should the Minister not therefore give some consideration to allowing the Scottish Minister, Richard Lochhead, to lead the negotiations at the EU, no doubt ably assisted by the Minister himself? I say that with the greatest of respect to the Minister.

5.51 pm

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to this debate, although I now have just nine minutes to respond to all the contributions that have been made. I thank all hon. Members present for wishing me and my colleagues from the devolved Administrations well when we enter into those negotiations.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) is a fine chap. He gave us an entertaining speech, which was big on rhetoric but small on policy. He promised big fish under the Conservatives, but he would not say that there would be a minimum landing size for bass. He also asked whether I supported the fishermen or the scientists. At that stage he became completely isolated in the Chamber, because all the contributions that we have heard from colleagues today have emphasised the need for partnership between the scientists and the fishermen. That is how we made progress and that is how we marshal our arguments, not by going back to the old days of polarised positions, which would not do the hon. Gentleman any good and is certainly not something that the fishermen want to hear, either.

Bill Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?

Jonathan Shaw: No, I will not give way.

The hon. Gentleman castigated us over discards. Although 8,000 tonnes in the North sea in 2006 is not acceptable, it is reasonable for me to point out that there were 33,000 tonnes of discards in 1997 and 99,000 tonnes in 1994. Discards are not new. As I said earlier, it is important to bear in mind that one of the reasons for discards is that we have a mixed fishery. Fishermen themselves will say that, particularly in areas such as the south-west, where there is a range of different fishes. Fish swim together, so discards will happen. Minimum landing sizes are also a cause. However, where there are valuable stocks of cod, for instance, we need to take action, and we will take action.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who represents a fishing community, spoke passionately. He referred to the pain that many in the industry have suffered owing to the reduction of effort. However, I have heard from fishermen in Scotland that things have been good for the past two or three years. Obviously, they do not want to go back; they want to continue to go forward. There has been a reduction in capacity, and in the amount of fish that we catch. In 1987, we took 170,000 tonnes of cod out of the North sea. Last year, it was fewer than 20,000 tonnes, so of course people are concerned. Interestingly, however, the value of the landings in 1987, which were considerably larger, was around £600 million. It is about the same today, so we are getting more money for fewer fish.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the EU-Norway settlement, and about discards. He mentioned days at sea; I think that I explained my views on that during my
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earlier speech. He also mentioned nephrops, although I was told when I was in Scotland that they are Scottish langoustines, and I now always refer to them as such. Indeed, I have enjoyed a plate of Scottish langoustines with Richard Lochhead, and very nice they were, too. He talked about the importance of megrim, about mackerel, and about looking at the science. He also gave us his good wishes, and I am grateful to him for that.

My hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) represented the under-10 m fleets in their constituencies. I recognise that there are huge challenges faced by the under-10 m fleet, and I have met a number of colleagues, including the hon. Member for Leominster, to discuss the problems. We all want to resolve them. We must get the under-10 m fleet on to a sustainable footing. I have said to the fishermen in South Thanet, and I say again here, that I am not top-slicing. People have quotas and I am not going to top-slice. We need to find other arrangements. I want a better relationship with the producers’ organisations and with the under-10 m fleet. There are opportunities throughout the year for gifts, and perhaps we can put that arrangement on a regular basis. I have met those involved and they say that they want to do that. That is not the whole picture, but it is part of it. We know that a small number of under-10 m boats take a large proportion of the quota. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye mentioned decommissioning, and there might well be an opportunity for a small amount of targeted, focused decommissioning.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet talked about fishermen’s markets. We have to develop that idea; it is something that sea fishermen could do. We have seen the success of the farmers’ markets, and that could be replicated by fishermen’s markets. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) mentioned the good prices that could be obtained for fish, and the quality of fish. He also mentioned new partnerships, which are absolutely essential. He talked about the importance of the processing industry for his constituency, about sea fish and about training. He also talked about the difficulty of waste disposal in the nephrops and shellfish industry. I am aware of those difficulties, as I have met representatives of the industry. That is something that we need to look at.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) talked about the proud history of his fishermen and also, quite rightly, paid tribute to our lifeboatmen and to the sacrifices that they make. He also mentioned whaling. We have condemned Japan for its recommencement of whaling, and he and the rest of the House will be hearing more on that issue. He kindly invited me along to a great party—

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