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3.43 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is far and away the best Fisheries Minister that the Government never had. Perhaps there is still a chance for him. I think that he would do an excellent job. He is very knowledgeable, and it is always a pleasure to listen to what he has to say.

I want to say a few words about the Wash and north Norfolk inshore shell fishery, and then a few words about the wider national fishing situation. The Fisher fleet at King’s Lynn is extremely important. There are smaller fleets at Brancaster and Wells, and to the north-west there is the Boston fleet. The Wash and north Norfolk fishery is one of the world’s premier shellfisheries, and is renowned for brown shrimps, cockles, mussels, whelks, crabs and of course lobsters. There is a significant number of jobs. Over 70 boats operate out of these ports. The Minister can tell us the figure when he winds up, but I estimate the multiplier to be between 10 and 15. For every job offshore, there are 10 to 15 jobs onshore in processing, packing, servicing, engineering and ship repairing. There is the one shipyard in my constituency for every job offshore.

Huw Irranca-Davies: May I make a very quick intervention? Filled as I am with inspiration since the hon. Gentleman’s earlier intervention, I can say that the figure is roughly 1:10. For every job in actually catching fish, there are probably another 10 created on land.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister. I said between 10 and 15, so I was not too far out.

At a time of severe economic downturn, when every job is extremely valuable, these jobs in my constituency are extremely precious and we must cherish them. This is an historic fishery, iconic in many ways. It is symbolic of King’s Lynn’s status as a maritime and former Hanseatic League port.

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Many challenges face this fishery—more now than I have known for many years. The Minister talked about how well the shell fisheries were doing, but he was referring to 2007 figures. Brown shrimps, for example, are now selling for £1.50 a kilo; last year they were selling for £10 a kilo. The cockle season for 2008 has been a disaster, down 40 per cent. Mussels are now selling for €450 per tonne; last year they were selling for €700 a tonne, with transport costs included. Many of the variable costs have gone up. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) mentioned red diesel, which went up as high as 70p a litre, making it quite prohibitive.

I want to talk briefly about wind farms. Centrica now has Lynn and Inner Dowsing wind farms under way; they became operational earlier this year. It now has consent for the 250 MW Lincolnshire farm. Before too long in excess of 500 wind turbines will be operating in the Wash and along the Norfolk coast. As someone who is a vehement opponent of onshore wind farms—I have always said that the place to put them is offshore, where one can secure a degree of critical mass and economies of scale—I should say that there are important ramifications for fisheries.

The latest planning proposal from Centrica will involve two buried sub-sea cables through the Wash, which will connect up to the national grid. I am pleased to say that Centrica has agreed that 11 km of onshore cables will be buried. As far as fish are concerned, the jury is out. There will be some conservation advantages, as the area around the turbines will be an exclusion zone that will not be able to be fished; indeed there will be an opportunity for some of the shellfish to breed and regenerate with no fishing taking place.

There are many concerns about the main cable and the lack of access to mussel beds during the cable laying. There will also be an area of the Wash and the offshore Norfolk shell fishery that will be out of bounds for the foreseeable future, certainly for the life of these turbines. It is important that we are able to find out the exact size of the area affected.

I also think that proper compensation should be paid to the fishermen in my constituency. I have every faith in Sam Laidlaw, the relatively new chief executive of Centrica, and his renewables team, who have made it clear that there will be compensation for fishermen who lose out as a result of these renewable power developments. Obviously, to have a commitment to pay compensation is important, but we need the talks to continue and for a conclusion to be reached so that the fishermen in my constituency know exactly where they stand.

I wish to touch briefly on a technical matter, which the Minister may be well briefed on—in fact, I am sure that he has heard of the ross worm, or Sabellaria spinulosa, reefs. The ross worm is a marine worm that builds tubes from sand and shell fragments, and the reefs are made of large dense conglomerations of Sabellaria tubes. They are important because Sabellaria reef is on the list of habitats requiring protection under the EU habitats directive. That directive led to the creation of the Wash and north Norfolk coastal special area of conservation, and further protection was granted by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster will know because he was interested in that legislation’s passage through this place. The Wash is, of course, also a site of special scientific interest.

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These reefs are important for their high biodiversity value; they support a large number of different species. The reefs are under threat and have declined in number, however. The fishermen concede that they have been damaged by demersal fishing operations. Natural England has concluded that the Wash reefs are an outstanding example of the habitats and it is determined to offer more protection. It is keen to prohibit the use of tow-fishing gear in certain areas.

There is widespread local agreement that that important type of habitat should be protected, which is why the Eastern Sea Fisheries Joint Committee has outlined four possible closure areas, and a byelaw would close those areas to demersal trawling and dredging. The total area will be 2,765 hectares, and the largest areas are the Lynn knock and the Lynn deeps. Some of these areas are hardly fished at all, but others are heavily fished, and although there is widespread support for the conservation measures, I have concerns. Where there is fishing within important SSSIs such as the Wash, it is necessary to strike a balance between commercial activity and maintaining conservation and habitats and other associated challenges. I am concerned that there is no compensation, and I wonder whether the Minister might look at that. I am also concerned that the review framework will be on only a five-year basis.

There is a possible way forward, however. I am concerned that we might rush into having a byelaw that could lead to a very damaging impact on the local fishing fleet. Under the proposed marine Bill, there will be no-take areas, so why not put the byelaw proposals for the Sabellaria reefs on hold until the new Bill has been enacted? The new and more powerful inshore fisheries and conservation authorities have been mentioned, and they will have substantial influence and more power than the existing sea fishery committees. It would make sense to wait until those bodies have been established, and then take a long, hard look at the reef problem. I know that this is a technical area, and I can see that the eyes of some Members in all parts of the House are glazing over, but this is important to my constituents. [Interruption.] I am glad that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster, is nodding in approval.

I have looked at the marine Bill, and I share my party’s general stance of welcoming the proposals and looking forward to their being enacted, but I do have some concerns. Sustainable fisheries management is the Government’s overriding policy objective, of course, but that requires high-quality fisheries management and top-class law enforcement procedures. That is currently the role of the Marine and Fisheries Agency, which has a good record. There is high morale, as shown by the Eastern Sea Fisheries Joint Committee in my constituency, and the staff are motivated and committed. However, although the MFA has been going for only two and a half years, it is now due to be replaced by the new marine management organisation. I am concerned that hard-working fisheries officers who cover fisheries in my constituency could lose their civil service status. They could lose their immunity and privileges as Crown servants, and so be exposed to litigation, lawsuits and damage claims.

We are also facing significant transition costs. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents some of my constituents, estimated those costs to be
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between £22 million and £26 million. Considerable disruption will be caused and morale might be damaged, and I would have thought that this was the worst time to undermine the effectiveness of fisheries officers, given that there are so many other challenges to meet.

Without trying to depart too far from the bipartisan nature of this debate, may I say that this Government’s record on delivering transition and the transfer of functions to new bodies is appalling? One need only consider the different bodies that they have created over the years to realise that. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is one such example. One would have thought that the individual parts going into it would have resulted in substantial savings, but the reverse has happened—the new body is bloated and extremely bureaucratic, and it is costing far more.

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster, when he scrutinises the Bill from the Front Bench, to take great care on the new structures being put in place, to try to control those costs and to examine the points that I made about the status of the officers in question, who do such excellent work in promoting the Government’s agenda on sustainable fisheries. Above all, I ask him to ensure that we have fair and consistent law enforcement.

The common fisheries policy worked tolerably well when we had a Common Market of nine countries, but I do not see how it can go on working in its current form in an EU of 27 countries. The policy is bureaucratic, ineffective and not fit for purpose. A number of hon. Members have pointed out the scandal of the discard of healthy, edible fish. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby and my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster graphically illustrated that it is unsustainable and immoral. We want great changes to the EU fisheries policies, because the CFP has been a disaster, environmentally and economically. Radical reform will be needed, which is why I support my hon. Friend when he says that he is determined to push for such an agenda.

The Minister also talks of reform—long-term management, better regional management and a consistent approach across the EU—but we have heard that all before. I was in the House in the 1980s and 1990s, so I heard successive Conservative Fisheries Ministers say exactly the same thing—they still carry the bruises of trying to tackle the issue of reform. Over the past 11 years, Labour Ministers have gone into bat in exactly the same way. They have achieved a certain amount, but nothing like enough. I welcome the Minister’s personal commitment, but because of what has happened I am a sceptic and I fear that he will fail, as his predecessors failed, unless he opts for something far more radical.

We need significant reform, so why not start with repatriating control of the six to 12-mile zone? That would send a strong signal that we mean business in terms of supporting our fishermen. We need a completely new and fresh approach, and I do not feel that this Government are able to deliver it. That is why I support the approach outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster, and why I wish him well. This radical reform can be delivered only by the official Opposition when they come into government.

3.58 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): All colleagues have probably had that sinking feeling when a constituent comes in on a Friday afternoon and says,
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“You’re my last chance.” In a sense, I am that constituent today, saying it to the Minister on behalf of the fishermen of Hastings and Rye. Year after year, we have the same debate—I suppose the good thing is that we have a new Minister every year to whom we can express our views. I hope that the enthusiasm that the current Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), has brought to this task and the expertise that he is already displaying will ensure that he attends this debate next year, when I hope he will receive our congratulations on the results that he has achieved, particularly for the under-10 metre fleet in areas such as mine.

I am unashamedly parochial. The fishing industry is very important, but more important still is the fishing industry in Hastings and Rye. For historical reasons— and like other ports around the country—Hastings and Rye depend on their fishing fleets, not only for what they bring in economic terms but for what they bring to the history of the towns. I do not want to overstate the point, but my constituents are at their wits’ end about what to say to make the difference and encourage and embolden my hon. Friend to make the changes that will allow the industry to continue.

It is not putting it too strongly to say that the under-10 metre fleet is now in a critical state—on the edge of the precipice. If nothing is done, the industry will fall below the critical mass necessary to sustain itself, with all the consequences that will have. I do not want to repeat everything that I have said in previous years, as I am sure the Minister is well enough briefed to know the arguments that we make every year, often repeated from the year before. Suffice it to say that that the fishermen of Hastings and Rye are part of a tradition that stretches back at least half a millennium. Some of the families who are still holding on can trace their ancestry back to the 18th century and earlier. They are proud not only of their profession, but of their towns, and I am too. Ports such as Hastings and Rye would be diminished beyond recognition without the active participation of a fishing industry.

It is therefore mystifying—and I genuinely do not understand this—why the arguments that have been put forward on behalf of the under-10 metre fleet do not lead to changes. I admit that I am biased and not objective about this issue, but those arguments are so cogent and obvious that I do not understand the problem. I know that the Minister has not long been in post and, like his predecessors, is a courteous and thoughtful colleague, but warm words and understanding are not enough. This time we need decisions that will allow the fortunes of my constituents and others in the under-10 metre fleet to flourish.

It is no coincidence that although Hastings still provides the largest beach-launched fleet in Europe, that fleet now has just 27 active participants, down from 44 just a few years ago. The young men have left the industry. I heard just yesterday of three grandfathers who have decided to pool their efforts in a single boat—each previously traded on their own—because that way they can make just about sufficient to supplement their pensions. That is not the way to run a profession or secure its future. There are wives and children to feed and mortgages to pay, and the paucity of provision that has been offered to the under-10 metre fleet in terms of quota is insufficient to maintain viable businesses.

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Things have to change and perhaps I can explain a little more about some of the issues that so frustrate and anger my constituents who are so ill-treated by the system. The Minister will be aware that some 50 per cent. of the employment in the UK fishing industry is in the over-10 metre sector and the other 50 per cent. are employed in the under-10 metre sector. He also knows—although I will repeat it so that it cannot be misunderstood—that 97 per cent. of the quota is committed to the over-10 metre sector with less than 3 per cent. to the under-10 metre sector. I understand that within the channel and nearer to home the percentages are greater, but those are the bald figures. It is disappointing that so far our Government have not been able to change those figures, and it has become clear this afternoon that the Opposition would not make that change either. Somebody has to step in and do something. Direct action may be the next step, but let us leave that point for another day.

Until recent years, our conservation-minded small boat fishermen could eke a living as the quotas were not so strictly enforced. Estimates were made but that was it. Then came the buyers and sellers regulations, which mean that every fish is now measured. Of course, previously people were probably taking more than their strict permissions allowed, but they were getting by. Now that is no longer possible. In consequence, the quotas in the under-10 metre sector as converted to licence conditions are wholly insufficient, as has been the case for the past several years.

Essentially, the campaign is to ask the Minister to transfer some small part of the quota that is enjoyed by the larger producer organisations to the under-10 metre sector. I do not buy the idea that such property is incapable of transfer. The quotas are nationally owned assets, and they can be distributed by the Government in any way necessary. I understand that people who have borrowed money on their boats and the like in anticipation of future quotas must be taken into account—we must be sympathetic—but when one sector has 97 per cent. and the other 3 per cent., it is not a valid argument. Perhaps only a 2 per cent. transfer would save the under-10 metre sector and make very little difference to the larger boats—the difference would not be of sufficient importance to affect their viability.

I repeat: I simply do not understand why the Minister receives advice that such a provision is impracticable. Every Minister receives that advice, so there is a common trend and the outcome is always the same. The problem is that the advice will lead inevitably to legal action by the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, a newly formed representative group. Although such action will be taken with great reluctance, the organisation simply does not have an alternative. That is the position.

I appreciate that the Minister is worried that simply transferring quota to the under-10 metre sector would encourage the owners of latent licences to take to sea, and thus have no real beneficial effect on the full-time professionals to whom I referred. In the over-10 metre sector, the Department has removed capacity by decommissioning, so my plea is for the same thing to happen in the under-10 metre sector. The capacity has been reduced in the over-10 metre sector, but the quota has remained, thus aiding it. I have been told that just £5 million would be sufficient—let us remember that we spent £160 million in the over-10 m sector—to purchase the licences of a significant number of the latent boat
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owners and still leave the quota behind in the under-10 metre pool. I can tell the Minister how to do it: simply, he goes to, where he will find that the totality of the licences on offer would cost less than £5 million. Consequently, a significant number of latent licences could be taken out of capacity.

I am not entirely convinced that an increase in quota would revive the interest of existing dormant licence holders. Why would it? There would have to be a significant increase in the number of fish available to bring back most of the boats that are out of service. Already, the under-10 metre sector licences have gone down from 7,000 to 3,000 by aggregate penalties, meaning the 10 or 20 per cent. reduction in catch potential when boat licences are aggregated. That is a natural process. Be that as it may, if there is a belief that reducing capacity is important, using could be a cheap answer.

At one time, there was the additional problem of owners of 10-metre boats who decommissioned moving to the under-10 metre sector. I am pleased to tell the Minister that the experience of my constituents is that that no longer happens. That is not surprising, because even those people could not make a living.

The fishermen in my constituency are upset that the Government seem unable to hear their pleas because, I am reliably informed, their French counterparts—the inshore fishing fleet of France—receive not 3 but 40 per cent. of a bigger cake. How can it be fair that in France the inshore fleet receives 40 per cent. when ours gets 3 per cent.? True, the French measurement is not strictly the same as ours, because its inshore fleet is not limited to under-10 metre boats, but the starkness of the comparison needs to be considered.

What is more, the French are simply not keeping to the rules. The port of Boulogne sends out fish price lists, and I have a copy here from August; the evidence is available. In it, the various fish available to the British market from the port of Boulogne are listed and priced. Under the heading “Cod: Gutted”, there are no prices. There are simply the words “Plenty on black market!”. The audacity of the French to note the availability of illegal, black market cod in that way without receiving any sort of reproach is a matter that I want the Minister specifically to take up. It is indicative of what our fishermen say is happening. Obviously, most of the evidence is empirical, but the fact remains that the small fishermen of France are surviving well and the small fishermen of the UK are not. There must be a correlation there. It might well be that the French and others are simply failing to enforce the rules that Brussels suggests.

The issue of cod has already been debated. I welcome the announcement by my colleague the Minister that certain technical measures may well be the answer, and I hope that they will lead to a quota increase, which is what fishermen in Hastings and I have been calling for. For now, however, there is no cod left to collect this year. That means that, this week, 90 per cent. of my constituents’ catch was thrown back. That is an even higher figure than those we have already heard. The science makes it clear that the cod is there, particularly in area 7D, but, because it cannot be landed, it is being wilfully destroyed under the discard rule. There is no other word for that but “wicked”. It is wicked to destroy fish in that way.

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