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20 Nov 2008 : Column 393

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Has the Minister estimated the multiplier effect of fishing jobs onshore for processing, packaging, engineering, shipbuilding and so on? Is the multiplier five or nearer 10? Does he have an estimated figure?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. The multiplier effect on communities inland through the producer chain is significant. If I gain some inspiration during the debate, perhaps the figure will spring to mind and I can give him the accurate figure, but it is not there at the moment. However, I will try to get back to him. He is right to say that the impact goes beyond the coastal communities.

We need to continue working towards a more sustainable approach that protects our marine habitats and species and ensures—to pick up on the hon. Gentleman’s point—a viable and profitable future for our fishing industry and all the sectors that depend on it.

As the Prime Minister said on 5 November, we are continuing to prepare the marine Bill for introduction early in the fourth Session, and we do not intend to reduce its scope or coverage. The Bill is a groundbreaking measure, which will greatly improve the way in which we protect and manage our marine environment. It will help us to achieve a more sustainable future. It includes proposals for a new system of marine planning, better licensing for marine developments, improved protection for natural resources through marine conservation zones, and the creation of the marine management organisation, which will be the strategic delivery body for marine matters. We are now considering a shortlist of locations for the MMO headquarters and expect to announce a decision by the end of the year.

The Bill also includes proposals for modernising inshore fisheries management in England by replacing sea fisheries committees with inshore fisheries and conservation authorities—IFCAs. They will have a clear duty to ensure that exploitation of sea fisheries resources is undertaken sustainably, by taking account of the impact of fishing activity on marine ecosystems, along with other considerations. They will also be responsible for sensitive ecosystems, such as estuaries and sea bed habitats, and for enforcing designated marine conservation zones—MCZs.

I believe that management of the inshore area is best carried out by bodies with local knowledge. The IFCA model relies on local decision making to solve local problems. IFCAs will have members from local authorities and other key local stakeholder groups, as well as the marine management organisation, Natural England and the Environment Agency. They will have stronger enforcement powers than sea fisheries committees, and we are significantly increasing funding so that they can deliver their new responsibilities effectively.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): My hon. Friend refers to the suggestion that local people should make local decisions. Will that include the local fishing industry, including, for instance, the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association—or NUTFA—for the 10-metre groups, and will the industry be involved in the decision about quota division within the powers that he is proposing?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the local sea fisheries community and industry, such as his own in Hastings, must be part of the process.
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The issue of quotas is slightly different, however, and is tied up with the longer-term reform of quota management and the common fisheries policy. However, in respect of the marine Bill, a key part of local decision making on sustainable fishing in local areas is having the buy-in and the engagement of the sea fishing community. However, I will return to the issue of quota management and make some wider comments later.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): In view of the Minister’s plans for the management of inshore fisheries, can he reassure me and my constituents that the current geographical arrangements for sea fisheries committees will be respected? The boundaries are working well and do not need to be tampered with. Can he also reassure the House that the plans for the future management of inshore fisheries that he has described will chime in with the negotiations, which he is no doubt already engaged in, on the future of the CFP beyond 2012?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes on both counts. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there has already been a great deal of discussion and debate about the number and geographic spread of the new bodies and how they tie in with the existing bodies. I hear what he says. We have not reached a conclusion yet, but we are cognisant of the representations being made. We want to ensure that the way in which we localise the system means that we have the most effective structure. His comments about how that fits in with the wider reforms and the wider forward programme are absolutely right.

The proposal is not isolated, but fits into where we see the management not only of fisheries, but of sustainable fisheries and conservation, which are paramount, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes on both counts. We will consult on the future number of IFCAs and their membership structure in the new year. I believe that the proposals will deliver strengthened inshore fisheries and environmental management, so that more effective action can be taken to conserve our marine ecosystems and achieve profitable and sustainable fisheries in the sector, which I know hon. Members in all parts of the House share an aspiration to deliver.

The inshore fleet is a vital part of the UK fishing industry. “Fisheries 2027” sets out a vision of sustainable access to fisheries for small-scale fishing vessels and recognises the value of the inshore fleet. The fleet faces a number of challenges. We have consulted on a package of measures that will constitute the first steps in moving the fleet on to a more sustainable footing. Our current proposals focus on targeted decommissioning to release quota back into the fleet, combined with proposals to cap effort and quota stocks at current levels.

I assure hon. Members in all parts of the House that, after listening to the consultation and the input of various hon. Members, I am prepared to take hard decisions now, to ensure that we can support the inshore fleet in becoming economically and environmentally sustainable in the long term. I am considering the responses to the consultation, including the contributions of hon. Members, and continue to meet representatives of the inshore fleet. I intend to announce my decision within the next few weeks.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I hope that the Minister realises that some fishermen who had entered into commitments to buy replacement vessels
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are now finding that the licence quota brokers are increasing prices, and this at a time when the Department is advising people to take only licences with a substantial track record. That is making life pretty difficult for those fishermen who have so far borrowed money with difficulty for a commitment that is now being stretched even further.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point, which has also been made to us by stakeholders in the under-10 metre fleets and others, including hon. Members. We are cognisant of the issue. However, I stress again that some of the challenges that lie ahead in putting the inshore fleet on a sustainable footing—not only for the next 12 months, but the next two, five and 10 years, and longer hence—will need not only a considered view, but a definitive view on the shape, structure and size, in order to make things work. We all share the aspiration of providing the fleets around the entire UK coast—in Wales, where I live, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland—with an assurance that what we will put forward will ensure a profitable and sustainable livelihood for them and their families and also effect our commitment to a sustainable use of the seas.

Andrew George: I have been a consultee to the document that the Minister has cited, as have many of my constituents. There is enormous concern that he is proposing to apply the 300 kg limit on quota species in a very short reference period. Does he not recognise that the fact that many inshore fishermen target non-quota species when there are obvious difficulties with the prosecution of quota species has created a period for which the track record is not accurate? It will be very unfair on those fishermen if the Minister proceeds with his proposal.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Once again, the hon. Gentleman makes a strong point on behalf of his constituents, which has also been put forward as part of the consultation and in more recent dialogue with the under-10 metre fleet and other stakeholders. I am aware of those concerns and others, and although he is tempting me to bring a decision forward, I stress that I will try to make note of those concerns and offer a set of proposals that will balance conflicting views on the way forward for the under-10 metre fleet.

We continue to work closely with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, including on wider quota management and enforcement issues, to ensure both that we have the best arrangements in place for all parts of the fleet in all regions of the UK and that the UK can continue to meet its obligations to Europe.

As we develop and implement our fisheries policy, we will also take more account of the needs of recreational sea anglers. Next week we will publish a summary of responses to our consultation on the draft recreational sea angling strategy for England. The strategy provides a framework and measures for the development and enhancement of sea angling. We are currently revising the strategy with key stakeholders and I will launch it early in the new year.

Let me turn to the important issue of the upcoming review of the common fisheries policy. The review offers an opportunity to deliver improvements in the management of European fisheries. I want the UK to play a key role in shaping the reform agenda. The CFP needs a stronger
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focus on delivering outcomes that secure both the conservation of fish stocks and long-term economic viability for fishermen and the associated industries. We need a more stable regulatory framework, with more emphasis on long-term management planning and better stakeholder involvement. We support moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach, with stronger regional management. At the same time, we want to establish principles to ensure a consistent approach across the European Union. I welcome hon. Members’ views on how we should seek to change the CFP.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Turning the regional advisory committees into regional management committees is the obvious outcome that would deliver that stakeholder involvement, in the context of much longer-term strategic management of the seas by those affected. What is the Minister’s reading of the thinking in Europe and in the European Commission on building up regional advisory committees’ strength?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. As he will know, we are among the most supportive of the role and the potential role of the RACs. I recently spoke at the meeting of the North Sea RAC. The contribution that RACs can make to the sort of reforms that we are taking forward is singularly impressive. I also know that they are aware of our support, among that of other EU nations, and of the growing strength of bodies such as the North Sea RAC, which I single out at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman says, we think that there is immense potential for them to play a major part in a regionalised strategy. We have some way to go, but we are making inroads into persuading fellow Europeans of the same approach. I welcome the support of the hon. Gentleman and others in following that trajectory.

Common fisheries policy reform is working towards achieving long-term sustainability. The European fisheries fund is a key tool that is available now to secure a sustainable and profitable future for the UK fishing industry. I am very pleased that the Commission has approved the UK operational programme and that the scheme is up and running. The EFF now provides more than £100 million for UK fisheries to improve sustainability and provide marketing and technology to help the fleet adapt. We are working closely with the industry to make best use of EFF to benefit fisheries across the whole of the UK.

Our dependency on imports of fish is growing. In the EU, we import about two thirds of all the fish we eat and up to 90 per cent. of white fish, so we have a responsibility to ensure the sustainability of global fisheries. At the forefront is the fight against illegal fishing, which is a major threat to the sustainable management of global fish stocks, to marine biodiversity and to the livelihoods and security of coastal communities, particularly in developing countries. The UK has long taken an international lead in combating illegal fishing.

With strong UK support, the EU has recently introduced new measures to address the incentives and poor governance that drive IUU—illegal, unreported and unregulated—fishing and to help prevent illegally caught fish from entering the EU market. The new rules, which come into force with UK support in 2010, will require action from both importers here and third-country exporters.
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We are working closely with the European Commission, other Government Departments and our own industry to ensure that the new rules are effective and enforceable.

The major event coming up is, of course, the December EU Fisheries Council, where next year’s catch levels and other management controls for a wide range of commercial fish species will be decided. We will, as usual, be guided by the scientific advice, but we also need to take account of the impact on the social and economic viability of the fishing industry. We will aim for a framework that provides long-term stability in the fleet.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): How confident is the Minister that the scientific evidence that he is given reflects the level of stocks out there at sea?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Some of the negotiations with Commissioner Joe Borg and others have reflected what is sometimes described by our stakeholders as a gap between the scientific evidence and what they observe. There are always at least two sides to the story—and sometimes more. We are sometimes told that we could walk across the North sea on cod, but cod stocks are still very fragile. Our arguments are based on the evidence from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, but they reflect not only the science, but what we are told by our own fishermen as well.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I caution the Minister about paying too close attention to people who think they can walk across the North sea—whether it be on cod or otherwise—as they may not provide the most reliable source of advice. I want to press the Minister on the question of science. His predecessor, to whom I would like to pay tribute, visited Shetland in the summer and acknowledged that it was unacceptable to be relying on science that is effectively two years old. That is how old the raw data are before they come before the Commission or the Council for decision. Will the Minister carry on the work that his predecessor undertook to start in finding a quick and dirty analysis of the scientific evidence so that it more accurately reflects the position as it stands today?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, indeed. Because of this time lag that affects even the most accurate and comprehensive scientific data, we certainly need to find ways to work on the evidence that we know exists out there in the fisheries; we need a quick and dirty method of achieving that. Officials are engaged in that process. The UK is very advanced in its scientific evidence: England has its Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and Scottish colleagues also have a very good scientific base. As to the hon. Gentleman’s point about walking across the North sea on cod, I was recently reading a fantastic history book on fisheries, in which it was said that back in the 15th century, it was possible to go into the rivers of Newfoundland, pitch an axe into the sea and it would stand upright because of the density of fish. We sometimes take that as the fishermen’s tale. As I said to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), our actions will be based not only on the best scientific evidence, but also on what we are seeing.

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Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): In respect of cod discards, many MPs were fortunate enough yesterday to receive a briefing from the fishermen federations. One question raised, to which no concrete answer was given, was about the level of our cod discards. An anecdote was mentioned about a fishing trip that dumped 300 boxes of cod. Does the Minister have an idea of the tonnage of the boxes of cod discards in UK waters by UK boats over the last year?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will try to provide an accurate answer later rather than mislead the hon. Gentleman now. I am seeking some inspiration, but I will come back to him on that. Discards is an important issue and the people most concerned about the problem are actually the fishermen themselves, who absolutely abhor the idea of having to throw dead fish back into the sea. Equally, the housewife or house husband going through the supermarket does not like the idea—they are much more aware of it nowadays—that their fisheries could be predicated on the idea of throwing dead fish back. That issue has been the thrust of our negotiations, and I believe that we making some ground.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD) rose—

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will take one final intervention, but then I have to make some progress, as so many Members want to speak.

Mr. Reid: I am grateful. Is the Minister aware of the concerns of the west of Scotland nephrops fleet—that it might be forced to use a Swedish grid, which it says is incompatible with the vessels and gear that it uses? It believes that the introduction of that grid, which has not been properly tested, would devastate the industry. Is the Minister aware of that, and will he consider the alternative proposal made by the west coast nephrops fleet of increasing the square mesh panels up to 160 mm?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman helpfully gives me the opportunity to provide some of the detail of progress in the negotiations. Yes, I am aware of the problem and we are discussing possible solutions with the fleet. It is a critical and difficult issue, so I do not want to raise expectations about what can be delivered, but we need to assure the fishing fleet that we will work with it and look into the available alternatives in order to find an answer. As I say, this is one of the most difficult areas of the negotiations, and let me try to explain why briefly.

I have talked about our relationships with the devolved Administrations, who are key to our progress in the negotiations. I am currently working with my Fisheries Minister colleagues to ensure we maximise the UK’s influence on these key negotiations and speak with one voice. We have already identified and agreed priorities with all the relevant stakeholders and I discussed them with Commissioner Borg earlier this week before the negotiations began. He was left in no doubt about the importance of the issues, including the one raised by the hon. Gentleman a few moments ago, to the UK and he knows that we are looking for changes to the Commission’s proposals to reflect our views.

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