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20 Nov 2008 : Column 436

I want to explain why this is being done wilfully on the part of the Department, and why something needs to be done about it, at least for area 7D. Back in 2006, area 7D—the part of the channel in which the fishermen of Hastings and Rye fish—had a cod quota for the under-10 metre fleet of 214 tonnes. In that same year, area 4C in the southern North sea—the next area along—had a quota of 204 tonnes. If area 7D had a larger quota then, surely it should have a larger quota now. Because of the recovery of stock in the North sea, however, the quota for area 4C in 2008 has increased almost twofold to 385 tonnes, while in area 7D, the under-10 metre fleet may now catch only 53 tonnes. So while the North sea quota has doubled, the area 7D quota has been reduced by 75 per cent. That is simply not on.

On inquiring, I learned that the reasoning behind that decision, apparently made without any science, was that area 7D was being treated as part of the Irish sea—anyone who has visited Hastings will know that it is nowhere near Ireland—rather than part of the North sea, which is just round the corner. How can officials get things that wrong? They only need a map to be able to tell where it is. Of course, the science also tells us that the stock in area 7D is North sea stock, not Irish sea stock. Will the Minister deal specifically with this point?

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. He asked how the officials could have got things so wrong. Whether they did or did not, will he acknowledge that, whatever they did, Ministers approved it? Is he not frustrated that his Ministers, who have been in power for the past 10 years, are going along with officials whom he thinks have got it wrong?

Michael Jabez Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention but, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said a moment ago, officialdom has been advising Ministers of both persuasions for many years, and it would seem to those of us who represent the fishing industry that they have all got it wrong. Perhaps that has been the only constant advice that has been coming through, although not from the current officials; they change, but I guess that the books remain.

Mr. Burns: The hon. Gentleman says that everyone has got it wrong, and by his definition that must mean both officials and Ministers. Why does he think that Ministers cannot see, as a result of his debating skills, that they have got it wrong and should do something about it?

Michael Jabez Foster: My ambition is that my hon. Friend the recently appointed Minister will get it right. That is why I am making this plea today, but the problem is that decisions have been made over the years that appear illogical. No answer has been given to me or to my fishermen constituents as to why that should be, so I cannot think that the situation that I have just described can be anything other than a cock-up. The idea that Hastings is in the Irish sea and not the North sea is clearly wrong.

I must try to watch my blood pressure, but I am not the only one who is angry. My fishermen friends are falling over cod, and it is not surprising that they are very angry. Those fish should be on our plates, not rotting at the bottom of the sea after being discarded.

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Someone said a moment ago that it was perhaps too much to suggest that one could walk on cod in the North sea. I do not know about the North sea, but there are shoals of cod in the English channel. I am told that they cannot be avoided because they are so plentiful, and that that is why 20 boxes have to be thrown away at a time.

I want the Minister to look right away at the problem that I have described so that the same mistake does not occur next year. We are in the North sea and not the Irish sea. The science is on my constituents’ side, and I simply do not understand why we should allow that error to continue.

Finally, I return to the issue of the share-out. In area 7D and along the channel, the under-10 metre fleet is entitled to just 31 per cent. of the cod catch, whereas the over-10 metre producer organisations receive 69 per cent. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for all these numbers, but he will have seen some of them in correspondence and I am sure that his officials will get the rest from Hansard.

An even more startling figure than the share-out proportions is that 93 per cent. of vessels in area 7D, and 86 per cent. of the work force, are in the under-10 metre sector. I repeat that they receive only 31 per cent. of the share-out, but members of the over-10 metre sector do not fish the 69 per cent. that they get: instead, they sell on the rights. They do not own those rights, which are simply the gift of the British Government, yet they sell them on, to the disadvantage of my constituents.

One of my constituents went out this week and said that he brought back seven sole and half a box of plaice but discarded 30 stone of cod. Another constituent discarded a quarter of a tonne of cod, and all those fish are dead at the bottom of the sea. If my hon. Friend the Minister wants to find a solution—and I think that he does—he must listen more to Paul Joy and his colleagues in NUTFA.

In fact, after I wrote my speech, the Minister met NUTFA and other representatives of the under-10 metre sector. I thank him very much for that, as I know that he is listening, but he must act as well. We must tell the European Commission that the French need to play to the same rules as we do, because the price list that I earlier called an incitement is a step too far.

Perhaps the best way of listening would be for the Minister to do what he suggested earlier and delegate to the industry responsibility for the division of quota as well as for the other technical matters to which he referred. Any industry body making those decisions should consist of the over-10 metre producer organisations, as well as representatives from NUTFA and the under-10 metre sector. Perhaps the industry would be better placed than anyone else to make those decisions.

I should like to think that I will have the opportunity to take part in this debate again next year. I hope that Hastings and Rye will still have a fishing fleet next year and so qualify me for that opportunity, but the abyss is coming ever closer. That is not scaremongering: we are at the end of the line, and this year we need answers, not comment or discussion.

I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his further discussions in Brussels. If he would like the rest of us to join him, we would be very happy to catch that Eurostar.

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4.19 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I shall be brief, because there are just four things that I want to say, and two of them follow from what the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) has said. The fishing community along the Northumberland coast, although much smaller than it used to be, remains a significant contributor to the economy of the area and, importantly, provides families with a livelihood, so we need to address its concerns.

The main problem that the local fleet has faced this year in Northumberland, as in so many other areas, is the enforced discarding of prime white fish because of lack of quota availability. This year is shaping up very much like last year, with prawn fishing giving very poor returns, but the grounds awash with whiting and cod. Even the smallest under-10 metre trawlers are having to dump about 150 kg of cod and 300 to 400 kg of whiting per day, regardless of what gear they use. For that, they get as little as 100 kg of prawns and 100 kg of haddock. The fish that the fishermen are out to catch are effectively swamped by the fish that they cannot land and have to discard. They regard discarding as an unethical practice, damaging to fishing stocks and to the housewife who could buy the fish. That is not what local fishermen, and their forefathers, went into the industry to do. However, that proves that there is a lot of cod and whiting there.

Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) pointed out, discards are a major issue in negotiations with Norway. It is a practice that Norway has consistently tried to avoid in its policies. It is a rather strong position to assert that future arrangements that are negotiated should not allow for large amounts of discard.

I referred to the second problem earlier in a brief intervention on the Under-Secretary—the issue of purchasing quota or licences when capping arrangements are under consideration. Skippers who have replacement vessels under construction are having great difficulty sourcing relevant licences within budget. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposes a two-tier system, allowing only those vessels with substantial track records to fish from the pool, so licence brokers have put up prices by as much as 60 per cent. The individuals concerned had made binding financial commitments to vessels before the consultation proposals came out. The effect of the consultation has been a serious increase in prices. The advice being given to the men is that they ought to go for only those grossly over-inflated licences at very high prices. That poses a difficulty for those who simply want to maintain a small, viable fishing fleet in the area.

The third point that I want to mention to the Minister concerns the consequences of the recent floods on the breakwater at Amble, which is part of the harbour on which local fishermen depend. We had most disastrous floods in Northumberland just a couple of months ago. In a debate that I introduced on 20 October, I drew attention to the state of Amble’s south breakwater, which was severely damaged in the floods in ways that will be extremely difficult to repair. The work below the surface has been severely gouged out by the floods.

I asked for at least a preliminary indication of understanding and sympathy from the Department. Clearly, it cannot approve projects until they are fully
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costed and put in front of it, but I wanted some understanding, and I have not yet heard from the Minister on that. I do not expect him to respond to that point in the debate today, but I hope that he or one of his colleagues will write to me quickly, indicating that the Department understands the problem and is prepared to give it sympathetic consideration. The issue is important both to the fishing industry and the leisure marina, which is the other contributor to the harbour. In days gone by, Amble was a coal port. That, of course, is all over, and it is the fishing industry and the leisure industry that depend on, and have to sustain, the harbour works that make it possible to operate from Amble.

My fourth and last point, which has been referred to by one or two other hon. Members, is on the changes to the structure of sea fisheries committees. Most of the changes are welcome, and what is proposed looks like a sensible way to proceed. However, it is quite clear that in Northumberland there is no appetite at all for a body covering a larger area than the 70 miles of coastline that the Northumberland sea fisheries committee currently covers. We are anxious for the Government to take account of that. Indeed, the Minister himself gave the most powerful of reasons why the Government should do so, when he said—I think that I am quoting him fairly accurately—that fisheries are best managed by people with local knowledge. That is the situation in Northumberland, and in the sea fisheries committee; it is a situation that we want to carry into new, stronger and better arrangements. I hope that the Minister will take that point seriously, and will consider those four matters, along with the many others raised in this important debate.

4.25 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Thank you for calling me to speak in our annual fisheries debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I welcome the Under-Secretary to the Front Bench. I am sure that he will hear a great deal from me and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), on fisheries.

Today, I do not want to focus on the normal fisheries issues. I note that the Minister paid tribute to those who were lost at sea when he opened this afternoon’s debate, as did the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I want to pay tribute to a stalwart campaigner on behalf of Britain’s fishermen and fishing industry, Dolly Hardie, who passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 88 in Diana, Princess of Wales hospital in Grimsby and whose funeral was held on Monday.

Dolly was of the sea. Her family were born into the fishing industry in Grimsby. Indeed, her father lost his life at sea during the second world war, when trawlers accompanied other vessels across the Atlantic. Dolly’s husband Bill was a skipper, and her son is also a skipper. She took up the fight on behalf of the fishermen of this country, particularly in relation to distant-water trawlermen. She campaigned to get those trawlermen compensation after they lost their livelihoods following the cod war. She never gave up and was a true fighter for the cause, and she recruited my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby to that cause. When I was a newly elected MP, she was one of the first people to come to see me, because she wanted to ensure that I was onside in that great campaign.

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Eventually, we got the Government to agree to compensate those who lost their livelihoods. It later transpired that there were problems with the scheme, and not everyone has received their full entitlement yet, but we hope to resolve those problems.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Dolly Hardie, who was a wonderful fighter for the fishermen of Grimsby. There will be a great gap in the new Minister’s life, because he will not receive letters from Dolly Hardie telling him how to run his Department, how to run the fishing industry and what to do about the fishermen.

Shona McIsaac: I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention. Considering that he worked alongside Dolly for far longer than me, it is vital that he has put that on the record. When Dolly received her MBE from the Queen, the Queen pointed out that it is most unusual to award a woman an MBE for her services to the fishing industry. Dolly would have had a little chuckle to herself to see that I am the only woman Member in the Chamber today speaking up on behalf of the fishing industry.

That got me thinking about the contribution that fishermen have made over the years to the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today. At the beginning of the debate, we paid tribute to those fishermen who lost their lives in the past year. A few weeks ago, I dare say that we all attended memorial services on Remembrance Sunday. An enormous number of men from areas such as Great Grimsby and Cleethorpes lost their lives at sea during the first and second world wars. We often think about the number of people lost in the trenches, but when a ship went down all hands were usually lost. Hundreds of names are inscribed on memorials and in churches in Grimsby, Cleethorpes, the surrounding villages and, no doubt, around the coastal areas of Britain.

The trawlers were an easy target, and many hundreds of people lost their lives. Even now, the profession is dangerous and carries a high death rate, so, today, I pay tribute to them for everything that they have given this country, and, as I said earlier, I pay tribute to Dolly Hardie, one of the best fighters for fishermen in this country. She was Hardie by name and hardy by nature, and we in our community will truly miss her.

4.30 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I, too, welcome the new Minister to his role. We seem to get through Ministers fairly quickly, perhaps because they get burned out by the frustrations of trying to negotiate using the sensible points that Members from all parts of the House make—points which it is sometimes hard to get through to the European Commission.

This debate is a depressing re-run of other debates that I have attended over the years. The same issues come forward again and again, and, again and again, the issues are not addressed when an agreement is made. We talked at length about discards, a measure that is supposed to conserve stocks, but actually results in their destruction. Fishermen from Whitby and Scarborough in my constituency tell me that the problem is not just that they discard fish that are under-sized or of the wrong species, but that, now, an increasing
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number of fish of a perfectly legal landing size are discarded so that larger fish with a better market value can be landed instead.

We heard how the industry has declined over the years. The Minister’s figures demonstrated that while the number of fish being landed had declined, their value had gone up, but that did not compensate for the massive increase in gas oil over the summer, which made it difficult for many skippers to decide whether to put out to sea. The situation has been made even worse by the big subsidies that the Spanish and other European Union competitors have received. The fact is that the common fisheries policy has failed: it has failed in recovering stocks, it has failed our fishermen and, in many ways, it has failed to preserve the marine environment. We should look to Iceland and Norway, although not, as the First Minister of Scotland suggests, as a model for financial services.

Mr. MacNeil: I should like to hear a word of criticism that the hon. Gentleman might have about financial services in Norway.

Mr. Goodwill: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I would not criticise Norway. When I was in Glenrothes, however, there were comments about how an independent Scotland had been compared to Iceland, with its successful financial services industry.

Iceland and Norway certainly lead the way in conserving fish stocks, and ideas such as landing everything, and technical measures such as long-lining or better nets all deserve consideration. Talking to a skipper in Scarborough yesterday, I was absolutely appalled to discover—the Minister may well wish to confirm this figure—that this year, 18,000 tonnes of cod have been discarded. Even worse, given that we in Yorkshire take money very seriously, that is valued at £5.4 million—income that could have gone to our fishermen.

Quota increases need to be understood in the context of many years of reductions. For example, a boat that originally had a quota of 100 tonnes is now down to about 18 tonnes, and a 15 per cent. increase would raise that amount only to 20 tonnes, so the situation is still very difficult. We have heard about how, in the opinion of some fishermen, it may be possible to walk across the North sea on the backs of the cod, but we also hear from some scientists that there is hardly a fish left in the sea, so the Minister has a very difficult job in trying to define a route through those two different points of view.

One of the problems is that the scientific vessels understandably use the same gear and go to the same part of the sea when they go out to do the research, and they do not catch any fish. In September, interesting work was done out of Whitby. One of the scientific ships, the Cefas Endeavour, went out for a semi-pelagic trawl—that is, a trawl just off the bottom—along with the Our Lass II, one of Mr. Arnold Locker’s vessels, which was using its own gear. When the vessels came back, it was discovered that the scientific vessel had caught only 8 per cent. of the number of fish caught by Mr. Locker’s vessel. Mr. Locker’s vessel had caught more than 10 times as many.

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