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20 Nov 2008 : Column 399

I would like to congratulate the Commissioner and the presidency on the very successful conclusion to the first stage of the negotiations at the November Council yesterday—although we have more to do. The issues include North sea cod and whiting; cod recovery; nephrops and west of Scotland white fish—the main headline priorities—and we have already made some progress on all of them. For example, at yesterday’s Fisheries Council, we reached agreement on a revised cod recovery plan.

I recognise that the cod recovery plan is a big and significant ask for the UK industry, but it should significantly improve the prospects for the long-term sustainability of cod stocks and the likelihood of substantially increased future fishing opportunities. This also gives us a good basis for seeking a more realistic allowance for catching North sea cod for next year. That will be decided as part of the European Union negotiations with Norway next week.

What we all want to see—what I want to see—is more cod landed and sold, and fewer caught and thrown away: more landed, fewer killed. We are committed to taking more action to tackle wasteful discards, because no one, least of all our fishermen, wants to see widespread discard in a fish species. We are devoting significant resources, including the expertise of scientists and gear technologists, to help fishermen to deal with the problem.

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister is approaching the nub of the matter. One of the original Commission proposals was for what was effectively a trade-off between reduced effort and increased landings. Such action is generally considered counter-productive, and would not survive a cost-benefit analysis. What progress did he make on that specific issue yesterday?

Huw Irranca-Davies: What we hope we achieved in yesterday’s negotiations, and will develop during the December Council, is the provision of incentives for fishermen to employ intelligent methods of cod avoidance that will be rewarded by additional days at sea. That constitutes significant progress on the part of the Commission, and is an improvement on the relatively crude measures involving simply a reduction of effort, or days at sea. As soon as we emerged from the negotiations, I spoke to fishermen’s representatives from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They realise that this is a big ask, but, although it requires a fundamental change in their style of fishing, it will deliver rewards to those who use proper cod avoidance measures.

Mr. MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Very briefly.

Mr. MacNeil: Would not one of those crude methods be any method that damaged or reduced the west coast Scottish langoustine and prawn TAC? Why should we introduce cod recovery or cod protection schemes when it is clear that other methods could be used which, while not damaging that important fishery, would also do something to help stocks of cod and associated species?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I should be happy to discuss that and, perhaps, other ideas with the hon. Gentleman after the debate. There is certainly more to be done, and we need to explore all the possible options.

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Andrew George: Will the Minister give way?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I shall continue for a moment, if I may.

The west of Scotland white fish position is particularly difficult. We need to be realistic about it, and tell the truth about it to our fishing fleets. There are poorer scientific predictions for cod, haddock and whiting this year. However, we do not believe that blunt cuts in the respective TACs are the answer. We will be arguing for more appropriate management measures, along the lines of those that we are suggesting in the North sea under the cod recovery plan. They would include closures where and when needed, and the use of more selective gear. They will be developed with the industry, whose buy-in will be essential to the success of any initiative. I plan to visit the area next week—I know that Ministers in the Scottish Executive are doing the same—to meet the fishermen concerned and explore the potential for such solutions at first hand.

Nephrops, which was mentioned earlier, is a very valuable stock for the UK and for the fishermen who rely on it. It provides an important outlet for fishermen to reduce fishing pressure on cod and other vulnerable species. In some areas, such as the Irish sea—the Irish delegation was with us throughout the negotiations—it is a mainstay for the local industry. We will therefore resist unreasonable cuts in the TAC. We are considering other potential priorities in the light of the Commission’s recently released proposals, and I should welcome views on what those should be.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The Minister is being extremely generous in giving way to Members in all parts of the House.

On the east coast of Scotland, off Berwickshire in my constituency, there is great concern about the proposals relating to nephrops. A particularly bad year of untypical weather has imposed huge additional costs on the fleet in the form of higher fuel bills, and the proposed cut bears no relation to what it believes to be the sustainability of the nephrops stock. Will the Minister assure us that he will not accept the current proposals? Given that the approach to the science is under review, should we not in the meantime maintain our present quota and effort arrangements?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the east coast fishermen whom he represents that we will continue to resist proposals that would have a significant impact on them. We have to work with the science, and we acknowledge what has been said about the time lag in relation to it and to observation of what is actually going on. I do not want to deploy all my cards now. However, I hope that the success we have achieved in the current round of negotiations, and the willingness of Commissioner Joe Borg and his officials to listen to well-argued views on the way forward for various areas of our waters, will continue to be reflected in the ongoing discussions, and I have no reason to doubt that they will be.

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Andrew George rose—

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD) rose—

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Huw Irranca-Davies: I must move on, I am afraid, but I will give way briefly to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).

Sir Menzies Campbell: I am grateful to the Minister. A good many constituency interests are represented here today, and he is being most generous. As the subject of the east coast of Scotland has been raised, may I draw to his attention—perhaps unnecessarily—the village-based fishing industry in Pittenweem in my constituency, which is based substantially on nephrops? Will he take account of not only the effect of some reduction in what is available to be caught, but the effect of displacement of effort if other fisheries elsewhere are curtailed? There is real anxiety among those who fish in Pittenweem that they may find themselves subject to—if the Minister will forgive the inelegance of the phrase—something of a double whammy.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I note what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said on behalf of his constituents, and will factor it into my deliberations.

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Andrew George rose—

Huw Irranca-Davies: I must make progress, or I shall annoy you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Ultimately, in my view, the UK Government’s role is to be at the forefront of the agenda on the marine environment and sustainable fisheries. I am pleased to be leading the delegation in December. I recognise that the decisions that we make then will directly affect the livelihoods of fishermen and fishing communities, as well as the marine environment. I do not underestimate the challenge of the negotiations, but I want to work with all concerned for a package that is fair to the UK, safeguards fish stocks, maintains a sustainable fishing industry and protects the marine environment, not just for the next year but in the long term.

1.57 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I pay tribute to all who have lost their lives in the fishing industry over the past year. We should never take the seafood and fish on our plates for granted, and we should not forget the dangers that our brave fishermen face every day in the seas and oceans to bring us that vital food source.

I welcome the new Minister to his post and to his first annual fisheries debate. He is the third Minister I have faced across the Dispatch Box in the past three years. We have a new Minister in a reformed Department, with some of its climate change responsibilities removed, so now is the right time for some much needed and long-overdue fresh thinking and decisive action on behalf of fisheries.

The Minister has just returned from negotiations in Brussels. I recognise that the parliamentary time available for this important debate is limited, but it would have been helpful to Members to have had a little more time in which to digest the decisions that have been made in the past couple of days and to consider the decisions that will be made next week in the second round of the EU-Norway negotiations.

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The revisions of the cod recovery plan that were decided yesterday are an encouraging step in the right direction. Shifting the focus away from Brussels and towards local solutions to reduce cod mortality by 25 per cent. is good for the industry and the environment. We have seen in Scotland the progress that can be made by taking a more flexible approach that rewards fishermen. I urge the Minister, when he returns to Brussels in four weeks’ time, to set the 2009 quotas for our fishing fleet and to press for more flexibility in the common fisheries policy and for quota levels and days at sea that reflect that.

We have to ask the Minister what side of the argument he will favour. Does he accept the scientific advice presented by ICES—the very same advice that has called for zero catches of cod west of Scotland and in the North sea and has labelled the cod recovery plan as

Or does he agree with the fishermen who, in relation to some stocks, have disagreed not only with ICES, but with the recommendations made by the Commission? Does he agree with the case advanced by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation that the Commission’s proposals for langoustine nephrops could jeopardise catches worth £65 million to the industry and that new proposals are needed? Or will he accept the Commission’s recommendations?

There are so many conflicts between the Commission’s proposals, the views of the scientists it relies upon and the experiences and views of our fishermen on the stocks that they see. These will remain unresolved until some progress is made on understanding what is in our seas. The Commission is calling for a 25 per cent. cut to cod quota, but over the past three years, vast quantities of cod have been discarded. According to the Government’s own figures, between 2005 and 2007 almost 5 million cod were discarded by English and Welsh vessels in the North sea and a further 10 million from Scottish vessels. Annual discard rates have ranged from 40.6 per cent. to 83.6 per cent.—that is over four times more fish thrown back dead than landed. I will comment more on discards later if I may, but it is difficult for the Commission and the Government to tell our fishermen to take further cuts in quota while, at the same time, the crazy rules that they have laid down are forcing fishermen to discard thousands of tonnes of fish each year.

As I said, the revised cod recovery plan is encouraging. Strong accurate and reliable scientific advice that is trusted by the fishing industry is needed now more than ever before.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I hope that I have chosen an opportune time to intervene. In this culture of waste in which cod and other fish are thrown away, does my hon. Friend feel that many of the skills in the fishing industry on land in terms of quality control can be easily lost? I represent an urban seat where local purveyors of fish and chips are saying that they are concerned about the quality of fish that is arriving. McDermott’s, an important provider of fish and chips in my constituency, finds that the loss of quality-control skills may be linked to the culture of waste within the system.

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the depth of feeling about the tragedy of discarding. No matter where one lives in the UK, one is
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never more than 70 miles from the sea. We all want to see a sustainable future not just for our fish stocks, but for our fishermen and for the people who work in related industries, be they fishmongers or fish and chip shop owners. Everybody needs that sustainable future. I do not believe for a second that we will be able to deliver a sustainable future if we throw vast quantities of valuable fish back into the sea. That is why I urge the Minister to think carefully about the quality of the science, because it cannot be right to disagree with the fishermen and with the scientists. Being somewhere in the middle can never be correct. That was the answer the Minister gave when he was asked about dealing with the ICES recommendations.

Huw Irranca-Davies: We can be quite categoric that although we are always led by the science, as has been observed by hon. Members, there are time lag issues with science and real-time observations. In fact, we have some innovative ways of analysing in real time what is coming into the nets. We will be led by that and we have some expert advice in DEFRA, the Scottish Executive and elsewhere. That is the point we will argue. We must act in the best interests of a sustainable marine environment, but take into account the livelihoods of the fishermen as well.

Bill Wiggin: I am glad that the Minister intervened at that point because that was not what I understood him to say earlier, which was that he was going to accept that there were limitations on the science and that he was going to take into consideration the needs of the entire fishing community. There must not be incompatibility and that is the problem we face at the moment. This is the only area where I believe DEFRA ignores the principle that everything should be based on science.

Mr. Carmichael: May I caution the hon. Gentleman against setting up some false conflict between the fishing industry and the scientists, because I do not think that the fishing industry would thank him for that? Does he accept that the problem with fisheries science is not that it is necessarily wrong, but that it is very often old because it is based on data that are two years out of date by the time it is put into use? Rather than setting fishermen against scientists, is not the real challenge to establish the better involvement of fishermen in the scientific process and to get an earlier analysis of the raw data?

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is right but it does not really matter if the data are old and therefore incorrect. It is the recommendations that come from the data that affect our constituents and the fishermen. If the data that the recommendations are based on are out of date or incorrect, we need to improve the scientific delivery of that recommendation that leads to the quota suggestion made by the Commission. We have to get the science up to date so that there is no dispute.

I do not agree that the fishermen think that ICES is doing a great job. They do not. There are genuine concerns about the quality of the data that come through to the European Commission, on which the Commission bases its total allowable catch recommendations. That needs to be tightened up.

We have seen cuts to the Government’s budget on fisheries research. During the fisheries debate last year, I questioned the then Fisheries Minister, the hon. Member
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for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), about the plans to reduce the budget for CEFAS. At that time, the Government had appeared to confirm that CEFAS would receive £30.9 million for 2008-09, falling to £28.8 million by 2012-13—a cut of £2.1 million or almost 7 per cent. When we presented these figures, the then Minister rose to intervene and proudly defended the Government’s cuts, explaining that the Government thought it

and that they had

He added that his Department had worked hard with

That is all well and good, but just three months later, in a written answer, the then Minister confirmed that CEFAS faced further cuts, with its budget for 2008-09 being slashed by a further £1.2 million to £29.7 million. He went on to say that subsequent years were still “subject to approval.” Perhaps the new Minister would like to intervene to let us know if there has been a further change in CEFAS funding. The truth is that, within just three months, not only was CEFAS’s budget slashed, but the Government’s promises for providing long-term sustainability for fisheries science were left in tatters.

Accurate science and understanding of our fish stocks are lacking and nowhere is this more evident than the assessment of the 47 finfish stocks of most interest to the UK.

Michael Jabez Foster: It is of course very important that there is certainty in funding for the future. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that, should a Conservative Government come to power and make the cuts being promised at the moment, the fisheries budget will be protected?

Bill Wiggin: There will be no spending commitments from me at any time; I have my Whip listening. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is critical. I hope that one of our top priorities will be to defend the scientific nature of fisheries research. Until we can do that, it will be extremely difficult for any Minister of any party to go to Europe and argue with certainty that the scientists are right. We have to put the work in and make sure that they are funded properly. I cannot say more than that because obviously I do not know what sort of budget we will inherit, but I agree that we need to think seriously about it, as a Conservative Government are very likely to take office—I certainly hope so, anyway.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman expresses his hopes and aspirations for what might be a priority within a Conservative Government, when or however that might come about. He is right that the 2008-09 budget for CEFAS has been reduced from £30.92 million to £29.72 million, but I caution him against overstressing what he describes as a slash in the budget. We have managed the budget with CEFAS, which has continued its expertise in science with the security of a 10-year commitment, which I am sure a future Conservative Government at any time would honour.

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