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9 July 2008 : Column 429WH—continued

My right hon. Friend made an exceptionally good point when he spoke about the cultural importance of the small inshore fleet, the under-10m fleet, particularly to the smaller fishing communities around the coast. If we lose that—we have lost it in so many places already—we
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lose not just the fishing industry but some of the unique selling points for tourism, and for the other industries that may take its place.

Another point needs to be made about the importance of the under-10m fleet. For a number of people, it allows a reasonable and achievable means of entry to the fishing industry, which is not open to them through the larger boats—the white fish and pelagic boats. To get into an under-10m fleet is an achievable aim for those young people who choose to make a living from the fishing industry.

My right hon. Friend expressed particularly well the general problem that faces the fishing industry: management is something that is done to it, not something that the industry feels a part of. My right hon. Friend said that the industry is not allowed to catch the fish that are there, but the fish that it is allowed to catch are not there. Does that not sum up the consequences of the fisheries management regime that we have endured in this country for so long? That was a thread that ran through so many contributions. Fisheries management—whether it is by days at sea or by quota and total allowable catch—will work only if it involves the industry at every possible level. The situation that hon. Members have outlined today about the historic problems with the quota for the under-10m sector is perhaps one of the most clamant examples of that. It is clear that had there been proper engagement with the sector at the relevant time, the situation that we now face would never have been allowed to happen.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) spoke, as others have done, about the anger in the fishing industry. Like him, I spent some time with people who were demonstrating outside Nobel house when the Minister was meeting the fishing industry representatives. I subsequently spoke to a number of people from my own community. Those who have spoken about anger are absolutely right because there is a real feeling of impotence about the situation. People from the industry face increased costs, particularly for fuel. They are in the position of being market takers, rather than market makers. By that I mean that they are landing a dead product into an auction over which they have no control. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) pointed out, they are part of a global and highly competitive industry. They are not able to pass on the costs. So, when the Minister asks—as he effectively did in the letter on the front page of Fishing News on 4 July—“Why should the fishing industry be treated differently?”, the candid answer is “Because they are in a different position.” They are not able to pass on costs in the way that other industries do. They are between a rock and a hard place, and they are not given the opportunities to fight their way out of that position.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby spoke about the relatively small figures that would be involved, and he is absolutely right. Sometimes it is about sending signals. I fear that, at the moment, the signal that is being sent from the Government to the fishing industry is that they do not want to know, they are not interested and they have no solutions because they are not prepared to come up with the money.

A few weeks ago, it was put to me by a fisherman in Shetland that when Northern Rock got into trouble, billions could be found overnight. Here is an industry
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that stands on the brink, as a result not of its own mismanagement but of forces that are beyond its control, yet relatively small sums cannot be found.

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute rightly focused on the problems faced by the fleet of one of his constituents because of increased fuel costs. I thought that he dealt very well with the intervention from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) about the applicability of a fuel duty regulator to an industry that does not pay any fuel duty. It was perhaps coincidental that the hon. Gentleman left the Chamber fairly quickly thereafter.

Finally, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) spoke about the creation of NUTFA, the under-10m organisation. He also spoke about the anger in his fishing industry and the consequence of that now manifesting itself in legal action. I am tempted to say, Mr. Weir, that as a former practitioner yourself, you would say that legal action is not necessarily a bad thing, because the people who make money out of legal action are inevitably the lawyers. The hon. Gentleman’s point is that if political will and impetus can be injected into this debate, our learned friends might have to go elsewhere to earn their crust for that particular week.

Finally, I want to turn to the question of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s proposals for a zero cod catch. One knows that it is summer when an ICES proposal is made for a zero cod catch in the North sea. It comes every year with monotonous regularity. The assessment this year is that a zero catch is necessary because even that would not restore cod stocks to a sustainable level by the start of 2010. That brings sharply to mind the fact that we must start asking ICES different questions, because the question on which it bases its answer results in the same assessment, year in, year out. Everybody knows that it is unworkable, and that a zero cod catch in the North sea would simply result in discard problems that will be worse than those that have been described today.

The fact is that because ICES is asked a particular question every year, it comes up with the same answer every year. And every year that sets off a spat between the industry, which says that it cannot cope with the proposal, and conservation groups such as Greenpeace and the WWF, which say how awful it is that the industry and the politicians are ignoring scientific advice yet again.

The scientific advice has to be put into a proper context. There has been a significant improvement in cod stocks in the North sea over the past five or six years as a consequence of many of the measures that have been taken under the cod recovery programme, yet year in, year out we get an assessment such as this. Can the Minister assure me that the proposal for a zero cod catch in the North sea will be resisted by this Government, and that he will look at how we might better frame the questions that are asked of ICES so that we do not have the same pantomime every summer?

10.31 am

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this timely, important debate, and on
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the way he presented his arguments. Also, it is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who summed up the debate extremely well. I congratulate him on that.

Our fishermen risk their lives to make a living for themselves and to provide us with an important source of healthy food. On the radio on the way here this morning, it was made clear that deep-sea fishing is the most dangerous profession. The courage and bravery of our fishermen are too often taken for granted, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them.

At a time when domestic food security and food production are so important, we need a thriving, sustainable fishing sector, but serious problems are threatening the industry. Despite all the hardships that they face, those who work in the fishing industry in this country rarely protest; for example, we do not see the demonstrations and blockades that take place in France and Spain. However, UK fishermen came to London last month to demonstrate peacefully about the spiralling fuel costs that are eroding their profit margins and threatening the survival of their businesses. In the past year alone, the cost of fuel has doubled from around 31p per litre to 60p, with reports of prices reaching 70p in some places. The fuel cost per trip is in the region of 35 to 50 per cent. of gross earnings. As we have heard, with the costs of fuel reaching such heights, around one quarter of the fleet could find it uneconomical to fish, while the rest would continue to struggle. That would be a terrible loss to our coastal communities and, of course, to fishermen and their families.

The rising costs of fuel are not directly the Government’s fault—we have all acknowledged that today—and the problem is not unique to fishermen. I suspect that we are all being lobbied by hauliers, farmers, industry and the general public about the rising costs of fuel; but when our fishermen see their counterparts in countries such as Spain receiving support and de minimis aid from their Government, it is not difficult to understand why they feel let down by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The headline on the front page of Fishing News—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) held the paper up—says, “Thanks for Nothing”, which neatly sums up the fishing industry’s response to the Government’s attitude.

In his defence, the Minister has said that he cannot provide de minimis aid because it would mean having to

But there should be money for the fishing industry this year, in the form of the European fisheries fund: £97 million should be available for the whole of the UK, including £7 million for Cornwall and more than £26 million for the rest of England. That helpful information came from a DEFRA news release on 29 November. It is money that the fishing industry is supposed to use to invest in sustainable gears, more fuel-efficient engines and some non-fuel costs.

Our fishing industry should have been starting to receive some of that money this year, as fishermen in other EU member states will. The Minister proclaimed on 4 July:

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but the money is not there now, when it is needed, because the Government failed to agree with the devolved Administrations and it failed to consult on and submit to the Commission its EFF operational programme by the deadline at the end of last year. Although the consultation process is finally taking place, moneys may not be paid out until later this year, after the Commission has approved the operational programme now being consulted on. That will leave our fishermen once again lagging behind their European counterparts. When the Minister responds at the end of the debate, it would be helpful if he could let us know when our fishermen will be receiving their share of the EFF. I would also welcome his giving us a cast-iron guarantee that the Commission is not likely to withhold some of the money because the operational programme was submitted late.

Another source of support that may be available for most of Europe comes under proposals on the block exemption of state aid, which are due to be discussed by Ministers next week. According to the Commission, the aid available under the proposals will be given on condition that it is in compliance

That came from the Fisheries Commission press corner on 2 July. We are concerned that, once again, our fishermen will miss out on a pot of money and that DEFRA will decline to use the measures. It would be helpful if the Minister told us his views on the Commission’s proposals and said whether there will be any benefits for UK fishermen, how the aid would be used in the United Kingdom, and whether the fact that his Government failed to get the UK’s EFF operational programme approved will prevent the aid from being made available.

With fuel costs as high as they are, fishermen need to make the most of every journey. It is devastating for them to catch healthy, edible stocks but be forced to throw them back into the sea because they are prohibited from landing and selling them. Fishermen, anglers and the public are horrified by the practice and disappointed that the Government’s ambition is only to minimise rather than to eliminate discarding. The Conservatives are committed to introducing, with permission from the EU, a scheme that would end discarding and provide financial incentives for the fishing industry to become more environmentally sustainable.

Government action is also needed on the reform of the quota system. Vessels of 10 m or less, which make up around 75 per cent. of the fleet, still receive only about 3 per cent. of the annual quota. I welcome the formation of the National Under Ten Metre Fishermen’s Association and in particular the work of Paul Joy, whom I have met. Under-10 m vessels do not have the quota they need to fish and are struggling to survive because long-term reforms that they were promised have not been delivered. In the North sea, for example, it has been reported that 10m and under vessels pass over substantial quantities of mackerel, which they are unable to catch and sell to the food market. Quota swaps alone are not enough alone to support the industry in the long term.

The Minister since his appointment, and before him his predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), promised to look into the quota problem. They claimed to be working towards a solution.

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Michael Jabez Foster: Would the hon. Gentleman commit to changing the quota system if he were able to make such a decision? That is, will he take quota from the over-10m fleet to give to the under-10m fleet?

Bill Wiggin: I will not make any commitment until we win the election, which is not guaranteed. We do not even know when the election will be. We expect it at the end of May 2010—perhaps we will win, perhaps we will not—but the Government get everything else wrong, so we suspect they may get even that wrong. I cannot make such a commitment today.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): That’s a no, then.

Michael Jabez Foster: So that’s a no?

Bill Wiggin: That was definitely a no. I will not make any spending commitments. However, if we have to wait that long, I hope that there will still be a 10 m and under fleet for which we can change the quotas to suit. That is as far as it would be safe to go, given the time constraints of the general election.

The Minister’s predecessor had said that there would be a consultation on quota reform:

He also said that changes would be implemented before this year. However, since 2007 no proposals have been brought forward for consultation. The spring 2008 edition of “Fishing Focus” promised us, on page 4, that the Minister, as a result of a discussion paper being circulated:

We all want to know when those proposals will be forthcoming and what will be in them.

In a written answer earlier this year, the Minister hinted that a decommissioning scheme could be introduced and that he would:

It is now the summer and in a few minutes’ time the Minister will have an opportunity, which I hope he will take, to update us on whether there is likely to be a consultation on decommissioning soon and whether he has any long-term proposals to assist the 10 metre and under fleet and to reform the quota management system. As the Minister will be aware, his Department’s “Fisheries 2027, a long-term vision for sustainable fisheries” document states that in 2027:

Unless there are reforms made sooner than 2027, I fear that there may not be much of a 10 m and under fleet left by 2027.

I acknowledge that reforming the quota management system has been made more difficult due to the apparently complete breakdown in communications between the Minister and his Scottish counterpart. On 6 February, in a written answer, the Minister stated that he had:

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We have yet to receive confirmation from the Minister on whether the quota management change programme has now been abandoned and, if so, what will be put in its place.

When the Scottish Executive announced that it had issued a moratorium on fishing licence and quota transfers, the Minister admitted:

At that time, he had not yet made:

It would be helpful to know where the Minister is on this issue now—whether an assessment has been carried out and what plans he has to improve the relationship between his Department and the Scottish Executive. It is not good enough for the UK industry to have the country divided and for there to be hostilities. We would also welcome an update on DEFRA’s response to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plan to take control of fisheries management and enforcement in Wales, and to create a Welsh fisheries zone.

Britain’s fishing industry has lurched from crisis to crisis under this Government. Despite the very cheerful characteristics of our Minister, the industry has lost confidence in DEFRA to take its concerns seriously and to act in its best interests. The cost of fuel is preventing fishermen from fishing; the quota opportunities are inadequate; discarding remains a problem; and making the lasting and necessary reforms to deliver environmentally sustainable fisheries seems to be impossible for this Government.

10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on the way that he presented the case for his constituents and the various fishing communities in his area in the north-east.

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) remarked, when we have these debates, they are measured. Concerns are expressed about particular parts of the fishing industry—as we all know, parts of the industry differ enormously from each other—and the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman represent both ends of the fishing industry spectrum. We all attended the debate in December, when many hon. Members spoke about the positive features and the good prices that many of their fishermen were getting. I have not reread the transcript of that debate, but I do not recall hon. Members talking about fuel then; I do not remember fuel being a feature of that debate. Of course, quotas were discussed—my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) mentioned them—and concerns were expressed about various species and the quotas that would be allocated at the December Council. It can be seen from that that the issue of fuel prices has come upon us very quickly.

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