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I want to say something about specific issues that the Council will face when it meets next month. The Minister spoke at length about west coast white fish. It is pretty clear that there are significant issues about some of the stocks on the west coast; that is accepted by the industry itself. I would, however, suggest that the blunt instruments to which the Minister referred—the draconian closures that are currently up for discussion—are no sort of solution. They will simply take a bad position and make it worse. If we are going to look to the recovery of
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threatened stocks to the west of Scotland, we must be prepared to take a longer-term perspective than has so far been suggested as appropriate. If we learn the lessons of the past seven years from the cod recovery programme, we must see that the situation will not improve overnight.

The Minister was absolutely right to say that there must be buy-in to any proposals that offer the eventual solution. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) referred to the scepticism about the Swedish grid, particularly among white fish and nephrops fishermen. I emphasise the importance of ensuring that those concerns are listened to and taken seriously so that we do not end up with a solution that is imposed merely because officials take it as the best view. Will the Minister also bear in mind the fact that if we have a closure programme of the sort that is suggested, it will affect fisheries in every area? These grounds are fished principally by the handful of white fish boats that remain in Orkney and by boats on the north-east coast around Banff, Macduff and Fraserburgh. They will not stop fishing just because of closures on the west of Scotland—they will take their effort elsewhere and the impact will be felt by others in different parts of the country.

People working in the Celtic sea area are particularly concerned about the application of a days-at-sea solution, and we can all understand why that is the case. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to resist that and to preserve the position, as far as is possible, in fisheries such as monkfish, megrim and hake. In respect of the Irish sea, we are, yet again, hearing this year about the urgent need for a review of the cod recovery measures. Until we have that review, those in the industry and scientists are fairly clear that what is needed is the preservation of the current level of cod total allowable catch and the days-at-sea regime.

In my parliamentary experience, it would not be a fishing debate if we did not say something about North sea cod. This is no longer quite the poisonous issue that it once was, but it remains a source of concern, not least because of its impact on discards. The current management plan for North sea cod suggests a 15 per cent. increase in the total allowable catch. Compared with the position of a few years ago, that is a remarkable achievement, and we should not underestimate its significance. However, there is scope for the UK to press for more. The more cod TAC that we can get, the less of a problem there will be with discards. The ICES advice, with all the caveats that we have applied to it, says that it would be possible to have an increase of up to 80 per cent. of the North sea cod TAC while maintaining the spawning stock biomass at the minimum safe size of 70,000 tonnes. I should place it on record, for the avoidance of doubt, that I am not calling for an 80 per cent. increase, but as an exercise in arithmetic I am trying to show the Minister that there is scope for significant flexibility in future.

I am delighted to hear the Minister speaking now, in 2008, about the next round of reform of the common fisheries policy. We last saw any significant reform in 2002, so this will take us to 2012 for the next round. The 2002 reforms were, in many ways, quite timid. The creation of regional advisory councils was welcome, and the North Sea RAC, in particular, has functioned very well. They have shown the potential for regional management. I hope that at the heart of the UK’s pressure on the issue will be a move for control of the
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fishing industry to shift from Brussels to the communities most closely affected. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) said, we would like to see a move from regional advisory councils to regional management councils.

We have to be mindful of the need to preserve elements of the common fisheries policy that are to our significant advantage, such as the concept of relative stability, The Hague preference and the six and 12-mile limits—and I make a special plea for the Shetland box. A lot of creative and imaginative thinking was being done in the fishing industry from 2000 in the lead-up to the December Council in 2002 that introduced the changes. I hope that the process we are starting will lead to a similar increase in creativity and fresh thinking on fisheries management. As long as that takes place, and that sustainability and the fishing industry are at its heart, it can only make these debates more profitable in years to come.

3.21 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), to his new post, in which I am sure he will be very successful. This debate is the annual celebration of the fishing MPs. We look forward to it all year—some of us do not speak in the House at other times, because we are saving our words of wisdom for this debate. It is more important to us than Christmas. In fact, once it is over, we can probably go home.

My hon. Friend follows a number of successful and effective Fisheries Ministers. Theirs is a proud tradition. I always say that as I welcome each one, with a note of jealousy in my voice because it is not me doing the job, which is the most important job in Government as far as we, the fishing MPs, are concerned. He will help to shape the future of our industry, and the best advice we Back Benchers can give him is to hug the industry close. The most successful Ministers are those who have kept in closest touch with the industry. It is interesting that the Fisheries Minister in the devolved Government in Scotland has been very effective because, in a smaller nation, he can be closer to a big industry than is possible in the more impersonal environment of British politics. I welcome our new Minister again, and say to him that his success is our success.

The Minister’s description at the start of the debate of a prosperous industry was a little deceptive. Takings are up because of inflation and because we have switched species. As white fish catches have gone down, they have been replaced by shellfish and nephrops, or langoustine as they call them in Scotland now—is that the Scottish dialect word for nephrops? Returns have therefore been kept up, but the value of landings has declined 24 per cent. in real terms since 1998, 30 per cent. of the jobs have been lost since 1996 and there has been a 43 per cent. decline in the number of registered fishing vessels since the early 1990s. It is a history of decline, which we need to remedy and reverse.

What has caused that decline? I am sorry that the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), did not give us his usual diatribe about the common fisheries policy, because it would have been
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apposite. The decline is almost entirely due to the common fisheries policy, which was imposed by Ted Heath. He used to sit in debate after debate trying to defend the betrayal of the British fishing industry that he carried through in 1972, which unfortunately tied our hands.

We must recognise that the common fisheries policy has been expensive for Britain. There is no use ignoring reality and pretending that it will go away. If we calculate the total EU catch to be 5.3 million tonnes of fish and its value to be £5.6 billion, with 70 per cent. of fish caught in British waters—what used to be exclusive British waters—and we deduct from 70 per cent. of £5.6 billion the £645 million that is the value of landings in this country, we are left with £3.3 billion. The fish are caught in our waters, though not by our vessels—thereby not providing employment in this country—and sold in Europe. That is the effect of the common fisheries policy. We have been swindled, and the policy was devised for that purpose.

I shall keep the flame of antagonism alive, even if it burns lower on the Conservative Benches— [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene—or throw the books that he is moving at me for treading on his ground. I shall keep the flame alive. I am glad that the Scottish National party is beginning to take up the torch that I have been carrying for several years. [Interruption.] Yes, I, too, read the article to which the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) is pointing. The cavalry is on the horizon, coming to my rescue.

The policy, which is supposed to be about conservation, has been deeply damaging to it. Instead of making things better, it has made them worse. It has become tighter, clumsier and messier. The position is straightforward. In Brussels, we have approximately 40 bureaucrats in what is now called DG MARE— I thought that the title referred to a new director general when I first heard it. The main acquaintance of those 40 bureaucrats with fish and fishing is acquired in Brussels fish restaurants, where they eat the best of the world’s fish. I am sure that the officials at the Commission believe that things are going well for fishing because they are served such delicious fish in Brussels restaurants. The best service that we can do this country is to close the Brussels restaurants so that the bureaucrats can no longer eat their fish. Perhaps then they will begin to think that there is something wrong with fishing. I even begin to think that it is all their fault.

Mr. MacNeil: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out the Scottish Government’s view of the common fisheries policy. He may also have seen in Fishing News one of the more robust fishermen’s organisations, Mallaig and North-West, echoing that scepticism. As the headline says, the CFP must be scrapped.

Mr. Mitchell: Feelings about the common fisheries policy ran high and hostile in the 1970s. They have attenuated somewhat since then, but the feeling is kept alive and fishermen know, if other people do not, the cause of the problem.

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It is impossible for a small group of bureaucrats in Brussels to legislate for and regulate fishing vessels over 45° of latitude or to legislate for vessels of all sizes, from small vessels of under-10 metres to huge, powerful fishing vessels. One code of regulation cannot cover everything. The problem is that, because legislation and regulation are done in a remote fashion from Brussels, the measures have to be broad brush. That is why control is preferred through total allowable catch and days-at-sea limitations. Effort can be reduced by cutting down the days at sea. Control is also exercised through decommissioning—cutting down the number of fishing vessels, thus limiting the fishing effort. The bureaucrats prefer broad, crude controls to the more sophisticated controls that are necessary to deal with a complex industry that covers many waters with different production and many species of fish. One policy, developed in Brussels, cannot cover everything.

Mr. Goodwill: Is it not also the case that a number of countries that participate in those negotiations do not have a fishing industry—or even a coastline, for that matter—and are perhaps therefore willing to negotiate away fishing interests for their agricultural interests, which are under consideration at the same time?

Mr. Mitchell: That is correct. That can also be the case for the Fisheries Commissioner, but fortunately Commissioner Borg comes from an island. He therefore has some knowledge of fishing and has been effective in that role, but that is not always the case.

The problem is that we need regulation that involves the industry instead of regulation that is imposed from the top down, as it is now. We should hand power down to the industry and let it regulate itself, determine its own catches and how to achieve them, and set its own objectives and define its own way of getting there. The more we hand power down to the industry, the more effective it will be.

Having come here when Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister, I have seen the changes to the fishing industry over a long period. When I came here, the fishing industry was big and fished mainly in Icelandic, Faroese and Greenlandic waters. The industry was involved in distant water fishing with big vessels and the owners were very powerful. Indeed, the industry was run like the mafia: the owners would come down to the House of Commons in a train of state and tell us fishing MPs what we should do and say. We were sent regular briefings and a newspaper, as well as offers of fish to keep us going through the long winter nights in the House.

That was succeeded by a period in which the big boys pulled out and the industry began to operate on a much smaller scale, although it was difficult to manage or organise and much of it was extremely angry. Today, the fishing industry has totally changed, at long last. The industry now wants to be involved. It does not want to be bureaucratised, but it wants an influence over its own fate. The industry wants a say and is prepared to accept regulations, provided that it is consulted during the formulation of those regulations on how to maintain the catches. The industry can be consulted through the RACs, which are an innovation that Brussels needs to listen to more—it listened very well in the first year, but it is listening less effectively these days—rather than simply imposing things.

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I must express my disappointment at the European Court of Auditors report on DG MARE, which the court clearly wanted to merge with the Environment Directorate-General, because the report is totally hostile towards DG MARE for the wrong reasons. The report says that the common fisheries policy has been a failure—we have been saying that in this place for a long time, so I am glad that the realisation is dawning in Brussels. However, the report also says that that is because the fishermen cheat and are irresponsible and disorganised and because nation states fiddle the results and do not police the policy adequately. That is exactly wrong. The policy fails because it is a centralised policy that cannot be imposed on a multifarious industry.

We have to recognise that the European Court of Auditors report has got the wrong end of the stick. That is best illustrated by the emphasis that we have placed this afternoon on discards. The scale of discards is worrying—the Opposition spokesman gave us some horrifying statistics about that. The issue receives enormous publicity, as well it might when valid, good-quality fish are discarded and when the cod that the fishermen cannot land is just chucked overboard—dead, useless—so that they cannot make a return on it. Fishing boats are expensive to run, but there the fishermen are, chucking saleable fish overboard.

The problem arises because the quotas fixed by the Commission and the stocks—presumably determined by the scientists, but often inaccurately so—are out of kilter. Until we adjust the two, there will be discards. However, applying rigid quotas in a mixed fishery, which is what we have, makes discards inevitable, so we need to develop a way of dealing with them. The more quotas are reduced, the greater discards will become. That is an inevitable law of fishing, but the Commission does not recognise it. The more we reduce cod quotas, the more discarded cod there will be.

The only way round the problem is to get flexible measures, which the industry has pioneered. It is amazing that after all these years in the centrally controlled common fisheries policy, it is left to the industry to develop new methods of management that are more effective in conservation terms, but are more difficult to implement because of the laggard nature of the CFP.

The sort of measures pioneered by the industry include cod avoidance plans. A Jubilee fishing vessel in Grimsby, for example, has adopted a cod avoidance plan—in other words, fish in areas where it is possible to avoid catching cod. That is one way of conserving cod, but some kind of reward is needed for fishing that way, and the reward has to be extra days at sea, to make sure the system works.

Another method is using different mesh sizes or new gear. There is some American gear called “the eliminator”—it is not named after Governor Schwarzenegger, who was the Terminator—and it looks very promising. It has been trialled by Arnold Lockyer in Scarborough and deserves to be trialled more extensively. It will allow people who have caught their cod quota to carry on fishing for haddock or whatever, using this selective gear. Conservation can also be managed by area closures.

Andrew George: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Mitchell: It is good to see what has happened in Scotland, where closures were approved by the authorities—another development that we should encourage.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman mentions area closures. Does he endorse the industry-led efforts to close the Trevose grounds—very important juvenile and spawning grounds—that have resulted in a noticeable increase in stock and a reduction in effort control? It is worth emphasising that it was an industry-led proposal. It is important, because in a mixed fishery, it is impossible not to catch some of the stock whose landing the European Commission is keen to prevent.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I did not give way at first as I expected to hear an interjection in a Scottish accent, so I was somewhat confused geographically. He is absolutely right that the industry has been conscientious in developing that sort of area measure, with which, I believe, the future lies.

We can promote conservation by having observers on fishing vessels—and if we cannot have an observer, we can have closed-circuit television. It is interesting that the industry is up for both of those developments and is making proposals to develop them, but acceptance by Brussels has been very laggardly. Today’s industry wants to conserve stocks and sees the importance of sustainability, which is obviously a way of keeping the industry going, yet it has been restricted by the common fisheries policy, which is supposed to be about conservation.

I shall not go into too much detail over what to look for in the negotiations, as other Members have done it better. The first prospects were gloomy—I read in Fishing News a headline saying, “EU wants big cuts in TACs for 2009”. It goes on week after week. I am glad that the ICES proposals were published in advance and that they are now open to debate and discussion, because the industry needs a say on the science as well. There is a long-standing misunderstanding between the fishing industry and the scientists, particularly about where the checks are done. The scientists seem to want to trawl in the same place with the same can of trawl gear that they trawled with last year, whereas, as far as I know, fish move around. The fishermen know where they are, but the scientists appear not to. That distorts the results. I think that the ICES figures were first published in June; they were gloomy.

We began with a prospect of gloom and cuts, but I think that that was rather misleading. We ought not to be inured to cuts, and I do not think we should accept the cuts that are being forecast. We should involve the industry in the science and in developing quotas through the RACs. The gloomy prospects have been alleviated by a sensible decision about the Celtic sea. The proposal for a cod recovery plan has been rejected—thank heavens, because it would have had a knock-on effect on catches of other species. However, we are still left with the proposal for a 25 per cent. effort cut, which I think is too abrupt. It is difficult for an industry, much of which is on the margins of profitability, to survive a further cut. As other Members have pointed out, the British fishing industry has already suffered massive cuts, and it is time to call a halt.

I want the North sea cod catch to be enlarged to the limits of the ICES proposals, because the smaller it is, the more discards there will be. I hope that, through the
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Government, we can encourage the use of cod avoidance plans. The Government have a responsibility to help and finance the industry’s search for new methods and new ways of planning, as well as its requirement for training and safety measures. They were laggardly in giving us de minimis finance to cover fuel costs. However, they can help the industry in lesser ways by financing more research and observers, and the development of a new fishing strategy, in the build-up to the 2012 review. Without going into all the arguments over species, I would argue for more and closer co-operation between Government and industry, and a delegation of power from Brussels to the industry, via the RACs.

The fishing industry is the main agent of conservation in the oceans. It ensures the preservation of natural balances and the sustainability of catches. It must, therefore, be included in the consultations on where marine conservation areas are to be. At present it feels excluded: it feels that decisions are being made without involving it sufficiently. If fishing is to be excluded from marine conservation areas, however, that must mean all fishing. We cannot allow British fishermen to be excluded from British marine conservation areas while European fishermen are allowed to assert their right to fish for quotas within British areas. There must be one law for all—it must be common, if we are to have a common fisheries policy at all.

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