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20 Nov 2008 : Column 405

Bill Wiggin: I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that commitment, because I have a copy of the written answer saying that subsequent years are still subject to approval. I hope that he is right, however. I think that Members across the House agree that the science is worth having and protecting, and we will need to make sure it is funded properly. When, as I hope, the Conservatives win the next general election, we will start to make sure that the cupboard is no longer as bare as I suspect it will be at that time. I will save my criticisms of that until Monday, however, when we will have the chance to talk about the pre-Budget report.

Returning to the importance of CEFAS, in 2006 we were informed by Ministers that there were 16 finfish stocks for which no assessment of safe biological limits had been made. By last year, the number had increased to 18. It is difficult for Ministers and the EU to make policies affecting fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on these fish stocks, when the science is so uncertain. The same assessments have also concluded that between 2006 and 2007, the number of stocks outside the safe biological limits increased from 13 to 14 and that the number of stocks within safe biological limits has fallen by one third, from 12 in 2006 to nine in 2007 and eight in 2008. Those are worrying figures. The Government must work with their European counterparts, scientists and fishermen to ensure that we have a more comprehensive understanding of the state of our stocks.

On ICES and the production of scientific advice, we know that there is a time lag between the data used by the scientists being collected and the current state of the stocks that the fishermen see, but there are other question marks over the methodology used. An ongoing priority for the Minister must therefore be to improve the scientific understanding we have of the state of our fish stocks.

One of the most important factors that distort our understanding of fish stocks is discards and the horrendous levels of discarding that plague our seas. Millions of tonnes of healthy fish—much of it edible and the remainder suitable for fishmeal—are being thrown back into the sea dead. Fish that could have ended up on a plate, contributing to achieving the recommendation to eat two fish portions a week, are of no economic or environmental value when discarded; and, if not caught by commercial fishermen, that fish could have helped to repopulate stocks or have been caught by recreational sea anglers. The effects of discarding and high-grading severely restrict our knowledge of the state of fish stocks, catch compositions, the presence of spawning grounds and the numbers of juvenile fish. The EU estimates that in the North sea, 40 to 60 per cent. of all fish caught by trawlers is discarded.

The UK Government have estimated discards of a number of stocks, and the figures are shocking. The discard rate for North sea plaice last year was 74.7 per cent.—more than 1.1 million fish. For haddock, the figures were 72.9 per cent. discarded from Scottish-registered vessels and 38 per cent. from English and Welsh vessels—more than 50 million fish. For west of Scotland cod, the discard rate from Scottish-registered vessels was 89.8 per cent.—up from 62.3 per cent. from 2005, just a couple of years earlier.

In mixed fisheries, such as those surrounding our shores, however targeted the technology, there will always be an element of unwanted by-catch, but present levels of waste are utterly insane. A clear and concerted effort
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is needed from the Government, the European Commission, scientists and the fishing industry to work together to rid our seas of this terrible waste. If discarding is tackled, we may be in a position to catch less fish but to land more, which would be beneficial to the environment and fishermen alike.

The revisions to the cod recovery plan are a positive step to reduce cod discarding, but more needs to be done. Unfortunately, the Government have very little policy or strategy to rid our seas of discard. The Government’s approach has been merely to have the aspiration to “minimise” discarding within the next 20 years. That was revealed in the summary of responses to the consultation on the marine “Fisheries 2027” vision document and requests that action be taken to end discarding. The view of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is clear:

That lack of political will from the Government is astonishing when we consider the repulsion everyone feels for that immoral practice.

Last year, the EU made a welcome commitment to reduce unwanted by-catches and end discarding on a fishery-by-fishery basis. By tackling discards, our fishing industry would be able to land more fish than it does at present, while at the same time catching less fish and ensuring that stocks are flourishing in a sustainable manner.

Mr. Goodwill: Does my hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to encourage fishermen to use new net technology such as the eliminator net, which can eliminate a lot of discards?

Bill Wiggin: Absolutely. The eliminator net has recently been rechristened the Ruhl net after the fisherman who invented it. However, constructive incentives and encouragement are needed to enable fishermen to change their gear. At present, that does not happen. Fishermen must have incentives to upgrade to fishing gears that are more sustainable and catch target species more effectively. Scientists and decision makers must have the knowledge and understanding to set realistic quotas, and catch composition and by-catch limits that are representative of the state of stocks in our seas.

With fuel prices peaking as high as they did earlier this year, it is essential that our fishermen are able to make the most of the time they spend at sea. On these matters, where the Government lack vision and ambition, it is the Conservative party that has the commitment and determination to end discarding and to support our fishermen and the marine environment.

Fishermen in the 10-metre and under fleet feel the full effects of discarding and would welcome any opportunity to land more of their catch. In the past two years, they have been hit particularly hard by the Government’s dithering and incompetent mismanagement of our fisheries. Having been allocated just 2 to 3 per cent. of the UK’s annual quota— [Interruption.] I see the Minister laughing at that, but that is the way it has been, and I sincerely hope he will change it; he has all our hopes resting on his shoulders. Having been allocated just 2 to 3 per cent. of the UK’s annual quota for around three-quarters of all vessels, they have had to live day by day, leasing quota and depending on the
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Government’s quota swaps and donations from producer organisations. For almost two years, they have suffered from being allocated an insufficient amount of quota for their needs.

Instead of developing and growing the inshore sector, as the “Net benefits” report recommended almost five years ago, the Government have left thousands of fishermen and their families facing an uncertain future. The “Fisheries 2027” document describes the situation in 2027:

However, unless the Government take action now—they have had two years to think about what to do—there may not be many small fishing vessels left in 2027.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important subject of the under-10 metre fleet, which I shall return to in my closing remarks. Is he proposing that we take a significant chunk of quota from the offshore fleet and give it to the under-10 metre fleet, and has he discussed that proposal with the over-10 metre fleet?

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the end of my speech to get the full answer to that, but let me tell him this— [Interruption.] I am coming to it. There are opportunities to reallocate quota that do not necessarily cost the Government, such as The Hague convention quota, which last year we saw allocated to the over-10 metre fleet. If I were part of the under-10 metre fleet, I would want any quota addition.

We must not forget that the under-10 metre fleet has found itself with this shortage of quota because of changes brought in by this Government. It is not right to throw the under-10 metres fleet to one side simply because it is a difficult challenge. If we are going to reallocate quota, we must recognise that quota is property and therefore any reallocation must— [Interruption.] I am answering the Minister’s question; I do not need him to help me. If we are going to deal with this problem, we must make sure we recognise the value of quota to the people who own it, but we must also recognise that a lot of quota is not used. More can be done, therefore, and every time we ask about what more the Government can do on alternative quota allocation, the first thing they say is, “We’re doing a lot already.” It is not working.

I recommend that the Minister speaks to the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association— [Interruption.] Good; I am glad that he has spoken to it, because it has a lot of ideas that would help him. It is not right at this stage to say to anyone owning any property that a Government will take it away, but it is right that the Government look at what can be done to make sure that the under-10 metre fleet get a fairer chance. For instance, we would like the discard pilot policies to be applied to the under-10 metre fleet. This would allow it to land more of the catch, and potentially go over quota, but with EU permission. That would make it wealthier, because it would be able to get more money for what it caught and it would mean there was less discarding.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman has put on the table one interesting proposal—the exercise of The Hague preference. It is used to examine the economically
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vulnerable activities of some of our communities, including the under-10 metre fleet, but it may also be applicable to other parts of our fisheries that are under pressure. He is representing the views of that fleet, and I have recently met both that fleet and Members of Parliament who advocate its views. One of their key arguments is that it is disadvantaged because it has lost out historically to the over-10 metre fleet, and it wants that to be redressed by quota being pulled back from the over-10 metre fleet. Will he make it clear whether he sees pulling quota away from that fleet and giving it to the under-10 metre fleet as an option? I would be interested to hear his answer.

Bill Wiggin: Unless there is an increase in quota, the distribution of quota must be a financially agreed decision. One of the problems that the under-10 metre fleet faces is that it simply cannot afford to buy or rent the quota that it needs. I do not see how that can be solved with a magic wand, so the Minister will need to negotiate on it. This depends on the price of fuel and the price of fish, and on what quota is available, but plenty of under-10 metre fleet fishermen feel aggrieved when what they call “slipper skippers” sit at home renting out their quota while they are throwing perfectly valuable and commercially useful fish back into the sea. My plea to the Minister is to take this matter seriously. I am delighted that he has already met the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association and that he continues to work on the issue, because it will not go away and it is extremely important.

Michael Jabez Foster: The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that quota is property in the ownership of the over-10 metre fleet. I understand from my constituents that it was always given to them. It may have acquired a value since, rather like carbon credits have, but is not the answer that this belongs to the nation? Thus, there is no reason why we should not take the nation’s property and distribute it in the fairest and most reasonable way possible. Why does he insist that it is property and, therefore, should not be subject to appropriation?

Bill Wiggin: That is not a particularly difficult question. When people live off a set of rules, which a quota essentially is, if one takes away their ability to earn a living, one should compensate them. There is a question as to whether or not that is feasible, and the Minister must deliver on that challenge. That partly relates to what we are allowed to do with the money within the fishing industry. The challenge is a difficult one for him, which is why I am pressing him to do what he can for the under-10 metre fleet. Obviously, as things change, we hope that the opportunity to do more for the under-10 metre fleet will increase. A lot could be done, and I have touched on one or two suggestions. This is by no means an easy thing to solve, but it is important, because the arrangements are disproportionately skewed against the smaller fishermen, who are largely constrained by the weather rather than by the size of their vessels’ engines or the type of fishing that they do.

Sir Robert Smith: There is an important lesson to be learned from Scotland. The Scottish Executive tried to change the rules on quota, but, overnight, they took away from fishermen the value that they could borrow against to run their fleet. It is very important that no damage is done to the industry by undermining the value of quota.

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Bill Wiggin: That is absolutely right. We must never forget that quota is property, and that this is about livelihoods—I hope that I have been clear enough about that.

The struggle facing the under-10 metre fleet first arose on the watch of the then Minister, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who promised action and a set of proposals by this time last year. Those were supposed to be part of the Government’s quota management change programme—QMCP—which has since been abandoned after the Scottish Executive pulled out. Nothing of substance was forthcoming. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, when he was Minister, went further, producing a paper of proposals early last year and a consultation document late in the summer. The consultation closed last month, but we still await a timetable from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on when any implementation of the proposals will take place. DEFRA’s marine programme for 2008-09 mentions the consultation on the short-term package for the under-10 metre fleet, but gives no indication of when the measures are to be implemented.

As well as a timetable for delivering the changes, we would welcome seeing more details of the Government’s proposals for supporting the 10 metre and under fleet. We know that they are planning to spend £5 million on decommissioning, but we do not know what the level of interest is from the larger vessels that take up a substantial amount of the pool allocation. It is also unclear what will happen if the scheme is over-subscribed or under-subscribed. Although DEFRA has indicated that from 1 January 2009 it intends to split the licences for under-10 metre vessels into full-quota licences for those fishing more than 300 kg in a twelve-month period and limited-quota licences for those fishing less than 300 kg in a twelve-month period, it is unclear whether that will happen on that date. Under 10 metre fleet fishermen and their families have been left with an uncertain future for far too long. I am delighted that the Minister has met NUTFA—a great group of people—especially in view of the fact that his two predecessors promised action that is yet to materialise.

Moreover, this is a problem for which the Government are responsible, as they underestimated the quota allocations for the 10 metre and under fleet in the first place. As well as making progress in the coming months on their short-term measures supporting the under-10 metre fleet, the Government need to make their proposals clear for the long-term reform of quota management. We were supposed to have proposals from the Government under the QMCP set out last year. The plan to

is still advertised on DEFRA’s website, but no proposals have been forthcoming and no changes have taken place.

In fact, it was not until the Minister answered a written parliamentary question that I tabled last month that it became clear that the QMCP had now been scrapped due to the withdrawal of the Scottish Executive. Why did it take the Government so long to wave the white flag and concede defeat? Now, in the aftermath, more than one year since the Government kicked this issue into the long grass and tried to forget it, new proposals appear to be resurfacing. Hidden within DEFRA’s
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marine programme plan for 2008-09, commitments are given to establish a quota reform task group in this financial year, with a decision being made about the direction of long-term quota reform next year. Given that much of the work on quota reform was apparently completed by last year and that, when he was the Minister, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford claimed that the Government were ready to consult on proposals last autumn, they need to explain why we will need to wait yet another year to see their plans for the future of quota management.

Also buried within DEFRA’s marine management programme is the Government's plan to hold this year a

Just last year the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford proclaimed that in respect of Scotland or England he had

He also stated that there were

These unclear messages on the future of quota reform are not helpful to the fishing industry. I hope that the new Minister, either in his summing up today or in writing, will provide an explanation for the sudden change in Government policy and give us all some clarity about the future of quota reform.

Decisions about the future management of this country’s quota must be made on the basis of doing what is best for our fishermen, not on the basis of what is politically expedient or the Government in Whitehall capitulating to pressures from the Scottish Executive. DEFRA and the fisheries administrations in the devolved Administrations need to work closely together and not oppose each other using fisheries as a political football, with our fishermen and the marine environment sidelined.

Mr. MacNeil: I heard the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made about the Scottish Government. If he were ever the Fisheries Minister, what tone would he bring to discussions with the Scottish Government?

Bill Wiggin: Perhaps it is fair to say that I do not have the same track record with the Scottish Government as the Labour party, so I hope that, given Richard Lochhead’s experience, it would be possible for us to work extremely closely and constructively together. However, everything that I have ever read, particularly in Fishing News, suggests that he is the driving force behind all quota negotiations—I suspect that that is an exaggeration. I hope that that answer helps the hon. Gentleman.

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