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9 July 2008 : Column 435WH—continued

I am only too aware of the difficulties and pressures that fuel prices are placing upon the industry. Fuel prices have doubled in the past 12 months, not only for
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the over-10m fleet, which has less fuel-efficient vessels, but for the under-10m fleet. I believe that what is needed is a strategic approach that helps the industry to adapt to higher fuel prices. Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to reduce the price of marine diesel. As has been said, marine diesel is already duty free for fishing vessels. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), who is no longer in his place, is aware of that now; he did not seem to be earlier in the debate. The fishing industry therefore already has advantages over other businesses in relation to fuel prices.

I am asked by colleagues here and by the industry why I do not provide monetary help in the way that some of my counterparts in other countries, particularly my counterpart in Spain, have done. In my opinion, such short-term interventions and subsidies are of limited effectiveness and divert resources from longer-term efforts. I prefer to work with the industry to identify what can be done in the longer term.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said that there is unfair competition. The de minimis rules say that the amount of money given to a business must not affect competition; that is the criterion. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland knows that we are making that case on behalf of his constituents. We cannot have it both ways. The fact is that during the meeting on 3 June, I was asked to pay the maximum de minimis amounts. That would provide for the UK fleet one month’s subsidy at last year’s prices—prices vary, of course, but that was what I was asked for. I do not think that that is a short-term solution, or even a short-short-term solution. Hon. Members talked about such a move sending a signal, but it would involve tens of millions of pounds of public money and I really do not think that it is the best and most effective way of using public money. We must use it for sustainable reasons, not for a short-short-short-term comfort, as it were.

Michael Jabez Foster: Would it not be a really good deal, because we would get 15 per cent. back from Europe? It is a good investment anyway for the UK.

Jonathan Shaw: The reason I wrote the letter to a number of regional and local newspapers, to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred, was that I was receiving letters saying, “Why don’t you go and get this European cash?” and I wanted to explain that there was not a pot of money that I was refusing to collect. Any such money would come out of national funds; it would come out of my Department’s settlement. There is no pot of money just sitting there; it comes out of the national pot.

Mr. Carmichael: rose—

Jonathan Shaw: I have tonnes to get through, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will be quick.

Mr. Carmichael: I promise that I will not detain the Minister long on this point, which is about the question of short-term aid for long-term gain. If we allow the under-10m fleet in particular to go under, that will mean that there will be no money coming from these people in taxes or national insurance contributions; there will, in fact, be money being paid to them in
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unemployment benefit, and there will be an effect on the processing sector onshore. Surely that calculation must be made and some balance struck.

Jonathan Shaw: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as I have said, on fuel, we are talking about one month’s subsidy at last year’s prices. I will talk about the quota for the under-10m fleet in the remaining time allowed.

We are working with the industry to come up with new solutions to the present difficulties, and I am looking at how we can best use the European fisheries fund. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), asked about that. At the recent Council meeting it was agreed that we would review the EFF so that it would become more flexible. All member states are now reviewing their programmes to consider implementation as soon as possible. The French presidency is keen to crack on with that. We are having those discussions now with our industry—it is also happening in the devolved Administrations—to ensure that we get our operational programme in quickly under a new guide that is more flexible and allows us to look at how we can help fishermen to adapt to the new environment of higher fuel prices. We are getting on with that work.

The high price of fuel mainly affects the over-10m vessels, but the under-10m vessels are experiencing problems in relation to quota. It is clear that there is an imbalance in parts of the under-10m fleet between the quota available and the capacity of vessels accessing quota. That has arisen for a number of reasons. In some areas there is insufficient quota for the number of vessels that wish to target available species, while in other areas there is sufficient quota but a small number of high-catching vessels exhaust it, leaving little or nothing for the remaining fleet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is a champion for his community. I know Paul Joy well and I have welcomed the National Under Ten Metre Fishermen’s Association, having met its representatives on a number of occasions. My hon. Friend rightly emphasises the importance of heritage and tradition for Hastings and Rye. However, he will appreciate that a number of vessels are catching a disproportionately high amount of the quota. I want to tackle that problem in my consultation.

The Marine and Fisheries Agency has successfully obtained swaps for the under-10m fleet. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned North sea whiting and cod quotas. There have been gifts of whiting quota—50 tonnes—which is helping his fishermen, and there is assistance on nephrops as well, which I worked with the MFA to bring them. The quota available for whiting is small. That is borne out by the increase in rental costs, which stood at £50 a tonne last year and are now £350 a tonne. We have made mackerel quota available as well. Additional quota has also been obtained through economic links. That mechanism will allow vessels operated by companies based in other member states to satisfy the criteria linking them to the UK. One way of doing that is for vessels to agree to donate quota to the under-10m pool. I have been working on that with the producer organisations over the past year, getting them to donate more regularly. That work is bearing fruit.

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Although there are no easy answers or solutions, given the difficulties with quota available to the under-10 m fleet, I will be consulting shortly. What I am consulting on will not be new to the industry; I discussed my proposals with the industry in February and briefed a number of hon. Members on them. The object of the consultation is to ensure that as many fishermen as possible can access the pool viably and legally and in a place that has its foundations in the introduction of other measures that will put the industry on a firmer footing. In February, I said that I would run a decommissioning scheme to help under-10m vessels to leave the industry, freeing up quota for the remaining vessels. I am also setting up an access to fisheries taskforce with an independent chair. That group will have strong stakeholder membership, which will help to deliver practicable solutions on quota management and vessel licensing to ensure the industry's long term future. Those measures will represent an investment of £4.6 million.

I should also like to mention the important environmentally responsible fishing research pilot, the aim of which is to quantify all the components of the environmental footprint of commercial fishing vessels and charter angling boats targeting fin fish in inshore waters off England. Thirty vessels are taking part in the project, nine of which are in the north-east. The pilot will collect data across a range of indicators associated with the fishing operation, marketing and ancillary services. That information will fill key gaps in the evidence base for these activities, particularly on defining an acceptable impact of producing and consuming fish; on ensuring fishing activity contributes to local communities; on optimising economic returns from fish stocks; and on access to fish stocks by commercial and recreational users.

For the first year, the 30 vessels in the pilot scheme will be able to keep what they catch and will operate outside the quota system. We have permission for that from the Commission because it is a fisheries science partnership scheme. The pilot is costing us money: we are putting in the vessel monitoring systems. At the end of that year we will consider continuing for a further year. Then, we can properly assess what the under-10m fleet catches and, on that basis, discuss with the fishermen and the Commission how to proceed.

It is important to recognise that we have not seen the decommissioning in the under-10m fleet that we have seen in the over-10m fleet. I have to consider how many vessels there are versus how many fish they can catch, and I will have to consider making tough decisions on that after the consultation. I am putting in money for decommissioning and for the fisheries science partnership, and I will have to take some difficult decisions.

Sir Alan Beith: How are vessels chosen to participate in the pilot scheme—I am thinking particularly of fishermen working on under-10m vessels—and will its results generate any kind of basis for quota entitlement, which was previously said to be lacking because of the lack of historical data?

Jonathan Shaw: My colleagues in the Marine and Fisheries Agency identified 30 vessels in the English fleet that applied. Those are spread around the coastline and nine of them are in the north-east, mainly operating out of Hartlepool.

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I do not have a great deal of time left, so I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the Hague preference. No, I did not give all that quota to the under-10m fleet. There are pressures on the over-10m fleet as well and other difficulties, but there has been some increase for whiting.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Northumberland and North Eastern sea fisheries committees. There are 12 sea fisheries committees at the moment and we want to see a reduction. They agree that there can be a reduction and some savings, but where the amalgamations take place will be a difficult matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that he wanted assistance to be given in a number of areas, including electronic logbooks. I have announced that over-40m vessels will receive financial support for electronic logbooks from next year; such vessels will be the first to receive such support. I am also discussing light dues with the Department for Transport. My hon. Friend also asked people to eat more fish. The good news is that red gurnard was on the menu in one of the House of Commons restaurants last night. It is important to recognise that we need to encourage people to eat non-pressured stocks. That is beginning to happen, but more needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Leominster mentioned the quota management change programme, which he will know was halted because the Administration in Scotland no longer wanted to co-operate. We have to co-operate. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman supports the 2027 vision that we published last year.

The Government want under-10m fleets to continue, because of their importance to the cultural heritage of the communities in which they operate. We are putting in more than £4 million. I will make some difficult decisions. The fisheries science partnerships, for which the under-10m industry has asked for many years, are now in place, because although that industry does not have the same pressures in relation to fuel as the over-10m fleet, it suffers from a lack of quota. On the industry’s sustainability, we need to understand that, if we are to get additional quotas or operate outside them we need to make the case based on science and with the co-operation of the Commission.

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Local Government (Norfolk)

11 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Weir, to speak under your chairmanship.

Fortuitously, I obtained this short debate two days after the boundary committee published its draft proposals for local government unitary authorities in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. The Minister for Local Government has written to all MPs in those areas to stress the independence of the boundary committee and to say that

I hope to put some arguments in this short debate to show that the Government have a crucial role, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will listen to some of my points and reply to my questions. If he is unable to do so today, perhaps he will write to me.

The purpose of my debate is to put down several important markers for the Government about the way in which the reorganisation is being conducted in Norfolk: the failure to provide any credible costings and the lack of local democratic accountability. Those markers are for the Under-Secretary, who will have to make a final decision in about seven months and for the National Audit Office, which may want to consider the financial and costing aspects at some stage. I see a civil servant frowning at that. He may live to rue the day that he made such an offstage facial expression. I hope that he has not had a bonus under the civil service bonus scheme. It is not a laughing matter for my constituents, and it might not be a laughing matter for the Public Accounts Committee. If matters reach judicial review, some of my questions might be useful at the audit level.

The Government have been preparing to push through proposals for unitary authorities for nearly two years. Like many Members of Parliament of all parties in Norfolk, I have been sceptical about the motives and whether better services and delivery would be provided for my constituents. Norfolk’s track record on consistency and transparency has not been good. In the autumn of 2007, the boundary committee led us to believe that, when it was eventually given ministerial guidance, which it did not have at the time, the status quo—two levels of authority—would be excluded and that there would be no cross-county border options. Indeed, the chairman of the boundary committee told the BBC’s “Politics Show East” on 26 October 2007 that he was not in favour of cross-border options, such as Yartoft—a combination of Yarmouth and Lowestoft—

I initiated a debate on local government reorganisation in Norfolk on 20 November 2007 to express my concerns, particularly the problems associated with the Norwich unitary proposal, which seems to have driven the thinking behind the Secretary of State’s original proposals. Eventually, on 6 February 2008, the Minister for Local Government issued his guidance for the boundary committee, which stated, interestingly, that the Ipswich and Norwich unitary options were the trigger for the review, but at the last moment, somewhat to his surprise, the boundary committee was told that it would have to
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consider the Yartoft option. In other words, it would have to cross county borders, which the boundary committee had specifically excluded until then.

Over the past five months, the boundary committee has invited the district, city and county councils to come forward with unitary options. They did so, but most of them did so under sufferance, as most of them preferred the status quo. Only one district council—Broadland—did not come forward, because it believed that the status quo was the preferred option.

On 7 July, two days ago, the boundary committee proposed a single, unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk, including Lowestoft taken from Suffolk. The boundary committee said that the draft proposal would

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman astonished that both Norwich city council and Broadland district council—on which we collaborate in our constituency work—would be blown out of the water by the scheme? Both councils have proud records, and we do not know what would happen to all the services and the people who work for those services.

Mr. Simpson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I shall return to it in a moment. Our constituents, in particular, will measure the options against the criteria that the Government laid down. I shall return to those criteria.

The boundary committee also saw what it called merit in two other options. The wedge option would, bizarrely, divide Norfolk with a line north-south from Sheringham to Diss. Everything to the east—Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and their hinterland—would be in one unitary authority. The rump Norfolk to the west—King’s Lynn and everywhere else—would be in the other unitary authority. The so-called doughnut—greater Norwich—would be a single unitary authority with the rest of Norfolk as a second unitary authority.

From the start of this exercise, I have been open about being a status quo man on the grounds that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That opinion has been reinforced over the past nine months, and particularly over the past 48 hours by the boundary committee’s proposals. So far, the reaction of the majority of MPs and local councillors to those proposals has been sceptical or downright hostile. The hon. Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) were still in favour of the wedge on the grounds that that might be a chance for Yartoft to come about.

This is not just a matter of vested interests. There is genuine concern about whether any of the options will produce better local government for our constituents, with value for money. I do not believe that they will. I understand that the boundary committee’s preferred option of a single large unitary authority flies in the face of the Government’s recommendations about the size of such authorities. It would have a population of about 700,000, and the Government have concluded that any unitary authority of more than 500,000 would start to decline in terms of efficiency and value for money. I cannot think of another similar model elsewhere in the United Kingdom that is producing efficiency and value for money.

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On affordability and value-for-money services, all the councils have spent several million pounds to participate in this exercise. So confident was Norwich city council in its unitary bid that it appointed a director of transformation at £90,000 a year and introduced a transformation scheme, costing another £300,000. A couple of post offices in Norwich could probably have been kept open with that.

My problem is that the boundary committee has admitted that it did not undertake any costings when considering all the options submitted. Those costings will be done only now, and will involve the three options. That is bizarre. No other area in the public or private sector would undertake that. The Ministry of Defence would not have a competition that involved eight or nine companies and put forward two preferred options, and then cost them. No private business would do that. That is a ministerial responsibility, and the Government will be held to account for it. It also flies in the face of the advice that the Government have laid down. For example, among many of the things that the Government have laid down to constrain affordability, they are clear that all costs incurred as a result of reorganisation must be met locally, without increasing council tax. How can the boundary committee at this stage have any idea whether council tax will be increased? There are other issues that I will not go into, but on affordability, the proposals seem to fall at the first fence.

There is also the matter of value-for-money services. The Government’s riding instructions that they gave to the boundary committee state:

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