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9 July 2008 : Column 423WH—continued

9.55 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the debate on a very important subject, at an important time. The small but, as anyone present can see, very select band of fishing-motivated Members of Parliament here for the debate have seen the industry go through many crises. Indeed, in my long experience it has had continual ups and downs and crises, including the shrinkage of the industry, the adjustment of the size of the fleet to stocks—a reduction of 60 per cent. in Scotland—and the closure of ports. It is interesting to note that Lowestoft went out of business at the time of the last fuel spike. Because the costs of the infrastructure were too high to be financed by the landings, the port effectively closed down for fishing.
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All those crises have happened over the years, but the industry was coming through. It was getting better organised: it was organising itself through the regional advisory councils and getting closer to the scientists. It was more effectively going for new investment and new methods.

However, that is now all thrown into question by yet another crisis—the fuel crisis to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred. Fuel costs have gone up 320 per cent. over the past five years. Since January they have gone up 40 per cent.—and they have probably gone up more since that figure was calculated, because they go up each month. It is now estimated that the fuel costs of the European fleet are 30 per cent. of the value of the fish that it lands. That is a burden that is too heavy to bear. I have not seen a crisis on this scale before. It is producing deep anger, born of desperation. This is a question of survival—the survival of a viable fishing fleet—not of trying to adjust policies.

There have been more dramatic events in the industry in Europe, where people are more volatile than they are here, but that anger and desperation is felt, and it produced a plea to the Minister, backed by a demonstration outside DEFRA a few weeks ago, not for a fuel subsidy—fuel subsidies have been paid in the past by the French Government in particular, but also by the Spanish—but for de minimis aid. That is the kind of aid that is allowed to a certain level in the common fisheries policy. It has already been paid in Spain, France and Italy, where effectively aid is being given to fishermen to fish in our waters and compete with our industry, which is not receiving aid. De minimis aid could be up to £30,000 per enterprise over three years. The industry asked for that and for relief from light dues. Ours is the only fishing industry in Europe that pays them. We have been asking for relief from them for years. The industry asked for help with the costs of the improvements required by the common fisheries policy, such as satellite monitoring, electronic log books and survey costs.

That was a desperate plea. The Minister, as can be seen from the dramatic headline in Fishing News, said no. He said he could provide some aid, and he has talked to us about that on different occasions, but he would do nothing on the basic plea for de minimis aid. The argument was that his hands were effectively tied, and DEFRA is certainly in a financial crisis. However, I have to point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that whenever the farmers have a crisis, whether it is BSE or foot and mouth or whether it is to deal with the recent mess made by the Rural Payments Agency, massive sums are provided by DEFRA—indeed, there is provision for an EU fine on that issue—but when fishing has a crisis, nothing is forthcoming. The Department always says before every round of decommissioning that it has no money and that it cannot finance a decommissioning round, but then suddenly money is produced. That is a conventional plea by DEFRA and Ministers, but it is a question of political will to produce the money that the industry needs to survive.

We obviously need to modernise and to concentrate on improving fuel efficiency. We need to encourage those forms of fishing that use less fuel. As has been pointed out, small-boat fishing is much more fuel efficient, and the distances travelled are far shorter. We need to encourage things such as gill netting and long lining that use less fuel, rather than beam trawling, which is
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also environmentally damaging. We need to modernise in all those directions, but we cannot get to that modernisation stage unless temporary aid is made available to see the industry through. We want an orderly transition. That involves helping the vessels’ crews and their communities.

I rarely speak well of the common fisheries policy. Indeed, my most apt description of it can be summed up in five words, four or which are “the”, “common”, “fisheries” and “policy”. However, we are seeing hopeful signs from Europe. The commissioner is putting forward sensible proposals.

Agreement has been reached on temporary derogations to the rules of the European fisheries fund to allow help by providing temporary relief, which is what our fishing industry needs during the transition period. More, and more flexible, decommissioning aid is needed. Aid is needed to encourage a switch to more environmentally friendly methods of fishing. Emergency aid is needed to cover the temporary cessation of fishing, which is the industry’s aim, because people cannot afford to put the vessels out to sea. That aid will be needed for up to three months, provided it is used as part of a restructuring plan.

Provisions should be made to help industry employees. They, too, are hard hit; if they are not going to sea, they are not earning. Their social security contributions could be temporarily reduced. That would be a gain for the industry, and it would help to support the fishermen.

We also need measures to promote the value of fish. I am not sure how it could be done, but it is clearly one of the stones between which the industry is pressed. The costs are increasing, but the market return—it is an option system—is not. The industry is squeezed between rising costs and stagnating prices.

It is clear that, in the long term, consumers will have to pay more for fish. We already import 65 per cent. of our fish. The costs will increase as the pound goes down and as competition increases. The consumer, thank heavens, is consuming more fish. We want them all to be as healthy as us. I am the product of a fish-and-chip diet: it has made me what I am today. We want people to eat more fish, but they will have to pay more for it, and they will have to pay more for domestically caught fish as well as for imports. I do not know how the prices will be increased, but that is clearly on the agenda. However, the point now is to act on the costs of catching.

The European proposals are sensible. In fact, they are the most sensible proposals that I have seen from Europe for a long time. The drawback is that the costs will have to be shared by the nation states. The Department has been refusing to provide support for the industry, and it seems reluctant to share those costs. If they are not shared, it will be inequitable and unfair, as we will be competing against industries that are better supported and better financed than ours. Our industry will be shackled, and will find it difficult to survive, but it has to survive to inherit the catches that will come as the stocks are rebuilt. They will be rebuilt if we fish on a sustainable basis, but we have to work to that end. Meanwhile, the industry needs help.

There is a proposal to increase the de minimis payments—the Minister has refused to make them—from €30,000 per enterprise to €30,000 for each vessel, with a cap of €100,000 per enterprise. European fisheries funding
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will pay a substantial proportion of that, but it will have to be supplemented by national aid. That national aid must be forthcoming to see the industry through; it will be a major contribution.

In the view of those Members who represent fishing ports, such aid must be paid. The industry needs to be supported. We do want to see it die. Nor do we want to see our European competitors being financed and supported by their Governments, as they will inherit the fish stocks as they build up. We will have a short-term survival problem before reaching the long-term process of adjustment. European policy proposes financing it. The Minister has to act in concert with those European proposals, but we must bear an appropriate share to support our fishing industry.

I do not criticise my hon. Friend; he is an excellent Minister, and he has certainly taken steps to be in close touch with the industry and to bring it together. However, I do not want his hands to be tied when facing the need to keep the industry going through its present financial problems.

I know from a presentation that he gave that the Minister is keen on proposals for marine conservation areas. I regard fishing as being the best source of conservation at sea, because of its interest in sustainable catches from sustainable stocks. That is an effective way to approach conservation. However, the marine conservation areas are being sold to an environmentally concerned public as a means of stopping fishing altogether. I am now getting cards—financed, I think, by the World Wide Fund for Nature—demanding that marine conservation areas are used to stop fishing in a quarter of the North sea. That is impossible. It will be another nail in the coffin of the industry. Some are talking of a third of the North sea being turned into conservation areas.

In an incredible article, the all-purpose environmental guru George Monbiot said in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian that the best way to provide conservation was to stop fishermen fishing completely. He commended the example of the Spanish fishermen, saying that their going on strike was the best thing that could have happened. That is an unenlightened point of view, because fishing is an agency of conservation. We cannot have environmental advances like marine conservation areas that entirely exclude fishing, as they would stop its work of conservation.

I hope that the Minister will work towards a common fisheries policy that gives us sustainable fishing, that he will work towards the present Commission proposals of giving temporary support to the industry, and that he will ensure that the rigid framework of controls—days at sea, catch limitations, cod bans and so on—is reduced to a more simplified and sustainable system that does not shackle the industry. I hope that he will think not of fishing in the long term, but of the survival of fishing.

10.9 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate at a critical time for the fishing industry, which seems to be going from one crisis to another. The current one is not of its own making, but a result of the rapid increase in fuel prices, which is having a serious impact on fishing and many rural industries.

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Fuel represents an essential—there is no way around that—and proportionally high part of a fishing vessel’s operating costs. However, the structure of the market is such that fishermen cannot pass on those increasing costs to consumers—a high proportion of the fish consumed in the EU is imported—because the processors and chains buying fish in the market, with their strong buying power, can access cheaper fish from outside the EU. It is fairly obvious that if costs are going up, but prices are staying the same, businesses are in deep trouble.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying about costs and the price of fuel, but does he wish that only last week he had voted to support an amendment for a fair fuel duty regulator, which would have helped to solve some of the problems that he identifies and no doubt will continue to identify?

Mr. Reid: I suspect that you would quickly rule me out of order, Mr. Weir, if we went on to debate the price of fuel on land. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is perfectly aware that the amendment tabled last week by his colleague the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) would not have helped the fishing industry, because it does not pay fuel duty. However, he tempts me to enter a different debate.

As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out, our fishermen are competing in the same market as French, Spanish and Italian fishermen who get help from their Governments. We are supposed to have a common fisheries policy whereby fishermen fish the same waters for the same fish and sell to the same market, but obviously there is unfair competition if other EU Governments give help to their fishermen, but the UK Government, as well as those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, do not give the same help to our fishermen. That is hardly a common fisheries policy. If other fishermen receive state aid, how can our fishermen compete? I understand that the French and Spanish Governments have given their fishermen about £100 million of aid.

Every year, the EU sets quotas at a level so that waters can be fished sustainably, but there is no point in fishermen trying to catch that quota, if the cost of doing so is greater than the price at which it can be sold. It is important to recognise that if fishermen and businesses are forced out of work, those jobs are gone for ever. Fishing businesses cannot afford to tie up their boats for months, or even years, in the hope that the price of fuel will go down. If the fish are not being landed, the fish processing industry cannot sustain itself either, so it is important that we help the fishing industry through this crisis.

I hope that the Government will support moves in Europe to give Europe-wide help to the fishing industry and also support our own fishing industry. Fishermen need help to see them through this crisis caused by the price of fuel and to modernise their fleets to make them more fuel efficient in the long run. We are in a state of crisis, and if the fishing industry in my constituency is to survive, it needs all the help that it can get from the Government in Westminster and from the Scottish Government. I hope that both will listen to the pleas
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from the fishing industry and will help it both with emergency aid to see it through this crisis and to modernise the fleet and make it sustainable in the long run.

10.14 am

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate. I want to make a few brief comments in support of his main thrust about the protection of the under-10m fleet. The Minister will know that a constituent of mine, Paul Joy, and others, recently set up the New Under Ten Metre Fishermen’s Association. For the first time, the under-10m fleet has a voice, which is important and necessary, because it has been under-represented in representations made to the Department in the past.

Why is that so important? I have said before, and I say again, that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the fishing industry for small ports, such as Hastings and many others, is more important than the fishing industry per se. It is important for the wider economy. Could any of us imagine going to the Hastings seafront and seeing the fish huts there up for sale? That is what the Minister will soon see, if nothing is done to preserve at least this now minimalist industry in places such as Hastings. It is important for our heritage, terrorism—[Laughter.] It is also important for tourism. Although perhaps it was not such a bad point; I was going to talk about just how angry the fishermen are. I am not suggesting for one moment that they would resort to illegal actions by doing over the fishing Minister—I have steered them away from that option. They are very angry, however, because they see their livelihoods at an end. What they saw as an industry that just maybe their children would move on to does not exist anymore. That is a problem. We are only talking about the next five to 10 years, during which many of our current fishermen will be trading, but if they do not have an industry to pass on, the fishing industry in small ports will die. We might retain an industrial fishing industry, of some kind, but that important heritage that we love so much will be at an end.

What can be done? Not direct action, if it can be avoided! Seriously, however, unlawful action could be taken, because the fishermen cannot do anything else. At the moment, they go to sea and throw back more than they bring ashore. I think that it is wicked to destroy animals, whether fish or anything else, for fun—I take that view about hunting as well. Killing animals for food is fine, but doing so for waste is disgraceful, and I do not accept that any system should allow for such a thing. We need to address that problem.

I want to speak particularly about the under-10m fleet. I believe that this Minister is one of the best in the Government—he is very capable and he listens—but I want him to be bold and to take people on. I do not know what forces of darkness are preventing him from making the right decision, but I want to encourage and embolden him to do something for the under-10m fleet. He wrote to me last week sadly saying that he wanted everything done through negotiations. He agreed that there was an issue about the quotas—this is my main point. Of course, our share of EU quotas is too small, but within what we have it is simply outrageous that 50 per cent. of the work force representing the under-10m sector receives 3 per cent. of the total quota.
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I know that he will say, “Well, some of it is further out at sea and cannot be used”, but the bald facts are that the sector gets 3 per cent. of the total quota, but the 50 per cent. of the work force in the over-10m sector receives 96 per cent. of the quota. However one looks at the quotas, they are wrong and must be changed.

The quotas could be changed by a legal action, which is what NUTFA is now pursuing. That is a shame and unnecessary, because the Minister has the power to intervene. In his letter to me, he very reasonably—he is such a reasonable man—said that that is a matter for negotiation. But he told me that last year, and I was told the same by other Ministers in previous years. The time comes when we can no longer rely on negotiations between the industries to reallocate the quota but must step in and say, “This is so manifestly unfair that you must do something not next year, not after the consultation”—we hope that it will conclude at the end of this month—“but today”. In fact, it should have happened yesterday.

If that is not possible, let us be positive and say that the time has come when these reallocations have to happen. If they do not happen, I can say confidently, even though there are other lawyers here, that the industry has a very good case against the Government. If it be determined that the Government—not just this Government, but previous ones, too—have wrongly allocated this arrangement, massive compensation may have to be paid. That could be avoided if action is taken now.

I say to the Minister, “Please set free the under-10m fleets. Allow them to fish.” The fleets will not overfish; they cannot overfish—they do not have the capacity. The amount that the fleets can catch is so small that it cannot affect anything. In the meantime, they are finding it very difficult. If we tie one hand behind their back through the quota system, we surely should not deny them the opportunity of a lifeline. That may be a mixed metaphor, but that is the situation that they now face.

Finally, if we allow the under-10m fishing industry to be quota free, which I appreciate is rather difficult, the fishermen will not need subsidies or hand-outs. Such a move may even save DEFRA’s budget.

10.21 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I see that we are slightly ahead of time. I hope to restrict my remarks to the time allocated to me, which will allow the Minister more time in which to respond.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the debate. The manner in which he presented his constituents’ case this morning was a textbook example of how to highlight the concerns of the industry in his constituency. His speech was comprehensive and exceptionally well informed. With the possible exception of one small intervention, which I might address later, the whole debate has been characterised by a very high standard of contribution. That is true of most fishing debates in this Chamber.

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