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Now, more than before, the fishing industry needs long-term stability to help it through these tough times. Not only will the fishing industry have to face the continuing effects of the economic downturn and credit crunch, but, as we saw earlier this year, it is very vulnerable to sudden steep rises in fuel prices. Between 2007 and 2008, the price of diesel fuel doubled from 31p a litre to a peak of around 60p a litre, forcing many vessels to stop fishing, jeopardising the medium-term viability of a quarter of the fleet and raising the possibility, as stated by Seafish, of substantial increases of between
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7 and 50 per cent. in the retail price of fish. Although fuel prices have reduced since then, relieving some of the pressure on our fishing industry, we need to ensure that the fleet is better prepared in the event of future increases, especially in view of the fact that fishermen from other member states were receiving direct help with their fuel costs through the de minimis aid payment, putting our industry at a competitive disadvantage.

These remain turbulent times, and we need to ensure that our fishing fleet can adapt to use more fuel-efficient engines and make the most out of every journey. It was therefore deeply concerning that the fishing industry in the UK had to wait longer than others in Europe for DEFRA to submit its European fisheries fund operational programme to the Commission for approval. We are indeed very fortunate that it appears unlikely that the UK will face any penalties for its late submission, but our industry has suffered as it is only since September that it has been able to apply for EFF money. Vital funds to help improve the sustainability of the fleet have been delayed due to Government incompetence.

I recognise that during the summer changes were made at a European level to the EFF with the intention of offering more support to fishing vessels in view of the crisis brought on by the fuel costs. However, that is no excuse for the delays that the industry has had to endure. Furthermore, the Government have yet to reveal to us their plans for the fleet adaptation scheme to which they signed up in return for the changes to the EFF.

We heard from the former Minister, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, that member states would need to submit a fleet adaptation scheme to the Commission and reduce capacity by 30 per cent., but the British fleet has already had substantial reductions since 1997. A third of fishermen have lost their jobs, the number of fishing vessels has fallen by around 20 per cent. and the industry, particularly in Scotland, faces severe reductions as part of the last set of CFP reforms. Given that the NFFO has already expressed concerns about the viability of the fleet adaptation schemes and the funds available, it is essential that the Government give a guarantee to the fishing industry that any plans developed will be well thought out and commenced in collaboration and co-operation with the industry.

In addition to the commercial fishing sector, we must never forget the contribution made by recreational sea anglers. Figures from 2004 show that there are at least 1.1 million recreational sea anglers, contributing £538 million from 12.7 million anglers’ days, supporting 19,000 jobs. Some 4 million people in total are involved in all forms of angling.

Last year, the Government announced their draft recreational sea angling strategy and put it out to consultation, which concluded at the end of March. Although the Minister has confirmed in a written answer that DEFRA may publish a revised strategy by the end of the year, we have not been given any indication of the measures that the Government plan to introduce or the time scales involved. Those who are involved with angling have little reason to trust the Government as they have already been badly let down by Ministers. The sea angling lobby should not forget the way in which Labour has treated its members. They were promised an increase in the minimum landing size for bass. Then the Government committed a last minute U-turn and scrapped those
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proposals. “Net benefits” contained a promise that efforts would be made to see whether bass could be designated for wholly recreational use. In Labour’s angling charter, it was promised that bass would be


Now the Government appear to be dithering again about taking action to support the nation’s sea anglers and bass fisheries. Promises have been made to review the measures that can be taken to support bass fisheries, such as the introduction of bass nursery areas and netting restrictions, but sea anglers are being left to wait for action. The current Minister has stated that research is being undertaken and a report is due to be published in 2011 on whether there should be restricted catch areas to benefit anglers in certain coastal and inshore sites, and measures to improve bass survival. That report is three years away. How much longer after that will sea anglers have to wait for a comprehensive package of measures to support bass fisheries and sea angling?

In Labour’s charter for angling published in 2005, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter)—he is usually in his place for this debate, but sadly is not today—boasted how Labour welcomed

and had

Those commitments, along with its angling charter, are now left in tatters.

The impression being given to sea anglers is that when Ministers are not ignoring them, they are breaking promises and paying them little more than lip service. Sea anglers have a vital role to play in managing our marine resources in a sustainable manner. I hope that the Minister will join me in paying tribute to those involved in promoting sea angling and merging together with other angling groups to form the Angling Trust. I also hope that he will be listening very closely to the Angling Trust. His predecessor ignored the views of anglers when he authorised a one-third increase in the rod licence fees for disabled and elderly anglers—hitting some of the most vulnerable in our society hardest. Now, with the marine Bill coming forward and the reform of the sea fisheries committees, their contributions will matter and must be valued.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman obviously missed the comments on the sea angling strategy that I made in my opening remarks. His comments are so shot full of inconsistencies that I hesitate to pick just one. However, given his protestations on behalf of the under-10 metre fleet, does he recognise that bass is also important to it, and that there might be some difference between its representations and those of the sea angling fraternity?

Bill Wiggin: The Minister has to decide which side he is on —[ Interruption. ] No, the promises were made in Labour’s charter for angling: they were not made by me. They have been broken by the Minister’s party and by his predecessors. It is a nice try. Of course bass is an important species for the under-10 metre fleet—it is not allowed to catch anything else. It is entirely down to his party’s mismanagement of that fleet’s fishing opportunities that it has that lack of choice.

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Many organisations have pinned their hopes on the Government delivering the marine Bill in the forthcoming Session. I pay tribute to the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and others for their endeavours in keeping this issue high on the political agenda and reminding us all of the importance of that legislation. I also welcome the many contributions received from marine-based industries, including those involved in the fishing industry, angling, marine aggregates, shipping and submarine cables. They all want to do their part to ensure that our marine environment is utilised in a sustainable and productive manner. It is imperative that all interested groups are constructively involved as the marine Bill is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get things right.

We all expect the Bill to be in the Queen’s Speech and the Government to make the necessary amount of parliamentary time available for us to debate the legislation. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Exeter, promised that we would have a “real” Bill in this current Session and we hope that DEFRA will manage to deliver this time. It would be an absolute travesty if the Government once again failed to give us the marine Bill, which they have spent the last four years promising. I look forward to working with the Minister on the Bill, as it is much needed legislation which we all support in principle.

We all want to see a more integrated system of marine spatial planning. A streamlined licensing system is long overdue. Reform of the sea fisheries committees is needed, and there must be provisions in place to safeguard and protect the marine environment from harmful practices. More than 44,000 plant and animal species depend on the marine environment and, when it comes to protecting these species, we must not have years of dither and delay, as we saw with Lyme bay and the pink sea fans. It is easy to make the case for more effective measures to protect marine life. Let us take, for example, the inshore bottlenose dolphin, whose numbers are estimated to be as low as 500 to 600. It would be a tragedy if those numbers declined further.

Although we are supportive of the Bill, the Minister will face some tough questions over the next year about the legislation and Conservative Members will scrutinise the proposals very closely. DEFRA has already failed to live up to its promises to protect the marine environment and to develop marine protected areas. Two years ago, in its 2007 marine and fisheries business plan, it promised to identify potential, multi-purpose MPAs but, earlier this year, the then Minister confirmed that no such sites have yet been formally identified. If DEFRA simply missed its target to identify some multi-purpose MPAs in two years, how long will it take to introduce plans for all our seas and measures to protect them?

There are also question marks over the Government’s commitment to funding the identification of areas that need protection. We all appreciate the present financial situation, but the minutes of the September board meeting of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee were worrying. The JNCC is responsible for identifying a set of marine conservation zones by Easter 2011, but it is still awaiting a decision on its funding for 2009-10 and 2010-11. Until the Minister sorts out the JNCC funding arrangements, it will be left to work with its
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hands tied behind its back. We would all like to see in the marine Bill a commitment from the Government to a time scale on measures such as marine conservation zones, policy statements and plans. Well intended measures are one thing, but delivering them is another. As we have seen with the Animal Welfare Act 2006, ministerial promises about secondary legislation are easy to break when there is no commitment in primary legislation.

We will also need greater information on the proposed marine conservation zones, the areas likely to be affected and the impact that they will have on marine-based industries. Many fishermen are concerned that no-take zones will be introduced with little consultation with them, and that they could be introduced in areas where it might be more practicable to restrict activities and practices rather than bring in blanket bans. There are also anxieties that the introduction of marine conservation zones, and other measures, beyond the six nautical mile limit will be of limited benefit due to the current CFP.

Under the present regulatory system, foreign fishing vessels with historic rights between the six and 12 nautical mile zone are subject to controls that the UK Government introduce only if the European Commission approves. That is why the Government were able to ban UK vessels from pair trawling, but not those from other EU countries, thereby weakening any benefits to dolphins and porpoises that the UK ban would bring. In view of that, we would like to be reassured that any measures introduced by the Government or the proposed inshore fisheries and conservation authorities that go beyond the six nautical mile limit will apply to foreign vessels, and that the Government will press the EU to recognise that.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Marine Bill suggested that

The Minister should certainly consider that in relation to the post-2012 CFP reforms, because there is little point in introducing measures that foreign fishermen can ignore and that leave UK fishermen at a disadvantage.

The relationship between the provisions in the marine Bill and two other flagship pieces of legislation—the Planning Bill and the Energy Bill—is also unclear. When it comes to marine planning on certain developments, including harbour facilities and those connected to energy, the infrastructure planning commission could override the views expressed by the proposed marine management organisation. According to the draft marine Bill:

However, it will be impossible for the MMO to fulfil its role as the champion of the marine environment when decisions are made outside of its remit and before it has even been established. We have already seen in the last few days the Department for Energy and Climate Change announce the outcome of the 25th round of offshore oil and gas licensing applications. Many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who signed up to support the marine Bill will be disappointed to see the measures weakened before they even get on to the statute book or come into force.

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The Minister has plenty to think about as he heads back to Brussels next month to get a fair deal for our fishing industry. He has also taken on this role at a very challenging time. He has been in the job only for a few weeks, but he has much to do over the next few months. The marine Bill must be forthcoming. We must see real progress on quota reform and help for the 10 metre and under fleet, and steps must be taken to end discarding. Efforts must be made to improve our scientific understanding of the seas, fish stocks and the marine environment.

The squabbling between Whitehall and Holyrood that has done so much damage to the fishing industry on both sides of the border must cease. The sea angling strategy must bring genuine benefits to anglers and rebuild the trust that has been lost in recent years, and the Minister must outline the Government’s approach to CFP reform. I wish the Minister luck in his post, but in the past year the Government have stumbled from one blunder to another, with the fishing industry paying the price and the marine environment suffering. Indeed, the Minister must stop squabbling.

2.43 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his first fisheries debate. While the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), was speaking, I was counting how many annual fisheries debate I have attended—I think that this is my 16th, so I am one of the grizzled regulars. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that his was the possibly the shortest Front-Bench speech from the Government side. At the same time, I think that we heard the longest speech from the Opposition Front Bench. Although the Minister took about half an hour and the Opposition spokesman 46 minutes, I must say that the Minister had a lot more to say, and he took more interventions.

I also congratulate the Minister on the commitment that he has already shown to the industry, and in particular on the fact that, although he is in his early days in the post, he is grasping the nettle and recognising the need for a sustainable industry. That lesson has been hard to learn for many of the people involved in the industry, but we are now making substantial progress, and I wish my hon. Friend well in the December Council meeting and in the meetings with Norway over the next week.

What the Minister said about his objectives for the December Council meeting highlights the need for the fundamental changes to the common fisheries policy that we all want to see. I and other colleagues have attended these debates for many years, but the pork barrel discussions that we used to have are old hat and unacceptable in the modern day, particularly in the light of the importance of the industry not only to the economy but to the well-being of our people. Fish is a fundamental and valuable food product.

The Minister mentioned the cod recovery plan, and we welcome the progress that has been made on that this week. The hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. MacNeil)—I cannot say the constituency name in Gaelic—mentioned the meeting that the all-party fisheries group had yesterday with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen’s
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Organisations, from England and Wales. It was clear that the leaders in the industry wanted the Government to succeed in their negotiations, and it is important that they should do so. Everyone recognises that we need flexibility, and many colleagues have raised the issue of the science, and the time lag involved in the application of the science to the discussions.

It must be recorded strongly by those of us with Scottish constituencies that the Scottish industry has made a remarkable amount of progress in the past few years. There have been fundamental changes from the days when fishermen were regarded by all of us as the last hunter-gatherer species on these islands. Now, we see them as pragmatic, able professionals who regard the sustainability of the industry into the long term as much more important than today’s catch. That represents a huge culture change, and it is one that must be recognised.

Many changes have been introduced and accepted—and pioneered, in many cases—by the industry. They include changes in the way the industry operates, especially relating to the real-time closures of fishing grounds, and to the reporting processes that have been introduced and accepted throughout the industry, which I hope will now be rolled out to the rest of the fishing industry in Europe beyond the UK. The industry has also been prepared to accept technical and gear changes, and it has been experimenting with all kinds of different ways of catching fish, and with new methods of allowing the fish that we do not want to catch to escape from the nets. The industry must be commended for all that.

As colleagues have said, it is important to recognise the importance of local management. Unless the people who work in the fishing industry feel that they have a real stake in the process, we shall not make the progress that we need to make, and we shall not make it fast enough. One of the handicaps of the way in which the common fisheries policy has operated over the years is illustrated by its bureaucratic, centralised approach. This has alienated people and led to many of the problems experienced by the industry. Thankfully, we do not see so much black fish now, for example. That was a particular by-product of the lack of local control. If everyone has a stake in the industry, we can make genuine progress.

These debates on fisheries are usually a lot shorter than this one, and many people try to get their interventions in, just in case there is not enough time for them to make a speech. That has happened many times in the past, but today we have a decent amount of time, which is important.

The issue of discards has been raised already. In our discussions with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, we heard some fairly shocking figures. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but the representative from the SFF said that he had spoken to the skipper of one boat who had thrown overboard 300 boxes of perfectly marketable cod. That is disgraceful and unacceptable. I am a little disappointed at what I understand to be the Government’s position on this. They are prepared to look at ways of minimising discards, but they are not going to change their policy on discards—or, at least, on the landing of non-quota fish. That seems to work well in Norwegian waters, and I urge the Minister not to exclude any option while we are looking for a solution to the problem.

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