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5.1 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): It looks as though I am the last to speak in this debate before the concluding speeches start. I commend the Minister for his approach to his new brief on his first outing at the Dispatch Box. It is also an enormous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), who has always been assiduous in his support for fishermen in his area. My constituency is not quite as widespread as that of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), although it extends some 80 miles from west to east and most of it is on the sea.

My first point is about the nature of the debate. In taking interventions, the Minister was apologising for the extent of his speech, but when we debate fisheries matters here, there is an argument for trying to find a different structure and perhaps for having a debate closer in style to that of a scrutiny Committee. This is a debating Chamber, not a speechifying Chamber, and I believe that it is the interchange between Members and the Minister that provides the greatest value. Frankly, I would not mind significantly curtailing my own speech—I will try to keep this one as brief as possible—in order to give the Minister even more time. I managed to intervene only twice on the Minister and I would have been happy to get in a few more times in order to encourage him to address the most important issues that need debating.

I want to cover some of the big picture stuff. The Minister mentioned the common fisheries policy reform for 2012, and I am keen to debate the issue in Government time, particularly when we have an opportunity to crack the inshore issues. We in the UK are always keen to ensure that we have the opportunity as a nation to
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manage our fisheries within the 12-mile limit. I understand that the French are putting forward proposals to do the same. I hope that we will have an opportunity to address inshore issues and the 12-mile limit.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the UK has the capability to manage its fisheries in a 200-mile limit?

Andrew George: That is a question for another debate. I want to keep this debate within the realms of reality, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. Let us stay on this planet for the moment.

My next point concerns regional management. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, there has been a strong push towards converting regional advice to regional management. I hope that the Minister agrees that cracking that and cracking the inshore issue are two important tasks that need to be addressed in the future negotiations.

I mentioned a few inshore issues earlier. The Minister responded by saying that hard decisions were needed on the management of the under-10-metre sector. I hope that those decisions will result from listening to what the sector has said during the consultation. Many representations have been made, and there are extreme and serious concerns about the way in which the Government may be implementing controls and regulations.

I also want to say something about the marine Bill. I intervened on the Minister earlier to ask about the proposals for the alteration of sea fisheries committees and for inshore fisheries conservation authorities. They are welcome in many respects, but I am anxious for him to take account of the importance of maintaining the geographical coverage and boundaries of the present sea fisheries committees. My constituency, unlike other parts of the country, contains two of those committees.

There was a good illustration of the importance of separate sea fisheries committees a few years ago, when the Isles of Scilly took action, through both fisheries management and a marine conservation measure, to control the extent to which scallop dredgers were scouring the sea bed in their area. I doubt that that important conservation measure would have been introduced if the matter had been considered on a wider basis, beyond the Isles of Scilly.

I hope that the Minister will not concern himself only with resources. Sea fisheries committees share professional capacity and resources and operate reciprocal measures in a sensible way. For instance, the Cornwall fisheries monitoring vessel is shared by Devon and the Isles of Scilly. I hope that he respects that arrangement.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): This point may have been raised earlier in the debate, but unfortunately I was unable to be present until now.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the unease among those who currently work for the Marine and Fisheries Agency but are to be moved to the marine management organisation. Anyone who has not yet picked that up ought to do so, because there is widespread unease. The Public and Commercial Services Union is campaigning on the issue, and the Government ought to take cognisance of it as well.

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Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman is right: the matter was raised earlier, by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). It is an important issue, and I am sure that the Minister was listening when it was raised.

I want to say something about the under-10 metre regulations, and in particular about the concern about the period between July 2006 and January 2008. For 12 consecutive months, a 300 kg limit has been used as the measure for each species. That is the measure against which it is decided whether a vessel is entitled to fish a particular species. It is a question of maintaining a quota rather than fishing within a 300 kg limit. What worries many in the under-10 metre sector is that, especially as the measure is retrospective, it could have a number of consequences, which might be unintended but would certainly be inequitable. Inevitably, a large number of fishermen during that period will have fished non-quota species, many of which have been mentioned: bass, crab, lobster and gurnard. The Minister must understand that a lot of those fishermen are catching as a by-catch many of the quota species as well. In Cadgwith in my constituency, there is a cove fishing community with eight boats and 12 men working all year round that is essential to the economic viability of that community and it could be seriously undermined by these proposals. Whole communities may be seriously affected. It may seem small beer in the whole scheme of things, but for that community it will be significant.

For the very low impact fisheries such as mackerel handliners, there are serious concerns as well. They have been told by the Department that the 300 kg limit would not apply to mackerel handliners but in fact the secretary of the South West Mackerel Handliners Association, David Muirhead, was told in a letter only last week that the limit will apply to mackerel handliners. If we wanted an example of a stone age, low impact fishery, the mackerel handliners would be the best case in point.

I hope the Minister will take into account that the proposals to control the leasing of quota, particularly in the under-10 metre sector, will not save any fish. Now, in that sector, fishermen are catching fish and then leasing quota to allow them to be landed. In future, they will still catch the fish but they will discard them. I hope that he will take some cognisance of that as well.

It was proposed from the south-east sector originally that the best way of eliminating latent effort is for the Government to buy up licences, not to decommission the vessels. The boats could then become pleasure boats or something else. I hope that the Minister will look at that as an alternative to the measure that is currently proposed. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are keen to establish a good fiscal stimulus in the economy. What could be a better fiscal stimulus than buying the licences of the under-10 metre sector?

I do not wish to detain the House, but in relation to the offshore sector in an area such as mine, the use of the blunt instrument of quotas needs to be looked at. I think that the Minister said that about 70 per cent. of fish are imported into this country. Let me tell him that the majority of the fish caught in Cornwall are exported to elsewhere in Europe—to France, Spain and elsewhere. We have a mixed fishery. The impact of the quota system on the mixed fishery, given the relative stability
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tenets that have affected the western waters, means that our fishermen are discarding a tremendous amount of fish. The proposals for the allocation of quotas for this year, particularly cod and other fish, will not save a single fish. Those fish are being caught anyway and will be discarded. I hope that the Minister looks carefully at that.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar — [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not be able to articulate many of the place names in my area, although we are fellow Celts. He mentioned spurdog and porbeagle sharks—they are also in my area—being given a 100 per cent. cut in TAC. That will not save a single spurdog or porbeagle shark. They are caught as a by-catch and are not a targeted fishery. It is quite insane to go ahead in the way that the Commission seems to be proposing.

Mr. MacNeil: The upshot of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that spurdog discard will be great, and anything that is caught will be discarded.

Andrew George: That is absolutely right.

I wish the Minister well in his future negotiations, and I hope that in the new year he will give the House an opportunity to debate in Government time the common fisheries policy and the inshore fisheries. If he is to make some hard decisions, we need to debate them in this House.

5.15 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies: That was a very good contribution to end on, and I personally would welcome the opportunity, through the usual channels, to talk in the new year about some of the issues in common fisheries policy reform that are fundamental to our long-term vision and the implementation of sustainable fisheries measures.

The breadth, scope and expertise of today’s contributions have shown that this has been a valuable debate. It has highlighted some of the immense challenges in the industry, such as those to do with the under-10 metre fleet, the larger fleet, longer-term reform, and global issues and our responsibility to international management of the seas. I am very grateful to all Members who have contributed; I shall try to deal with as many points as possible, and I apologise if I fall into my normal approach of going off like a machine gun to get through them. If I do not deal with every issue, I promise that I will continue a dialogue on them with Members. I must have taken a dozen or more interventions when I spoke earlier; I would have taken more, but I also wanted to hear Members’ full contributions.

Let me deal first with the contributions of other Front-Bench Members, and the interventions on them. Science has been a theme in our debate. There has been much comment on the different views on the state of the fish stocks between science and fishermen. I take on board the point that there should not be any difference. We are trying to get the most accurate interpretation so that when we go into the negotiations, we are not playing catch-up but are presenting the most authoritative science to the Commissioner in a well argued way. That is, in fact, why we have done well in the negotiations we have just had: he has been convinced not only by what we have been saying based on the findings of the
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International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and others, but by what our fishermen have been reporting. I am keen to improve understanding of the science, however, and my Department has now established and supports the continuation of the fisheries science partnership, which promotes joint working between scientists and the industry, and that is starting to feed in to ICES advice. I want that to continue.

Bill Wiggin: ICES is funded by DEFRA to some extent. Will the Minister look into how he can use that influence to improve the quality of the recommendations that come out of ICES?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will certainly continue to look at all the available science, including that from ICES. We should not denigrate the work that ICES does, because it provided a strong bargaining position as we went into the negotiations; it helped us in many ways. We always look to improve the science, however, and to work with the industry, and I hope that shows.

The issue of the multiplier across the industry was raised. We estimate that for every job directly in the fisheries there are at least 10 in wider onshore employment. Employment in the fish-catching sector stood at 12,700 at the end of 2007, the corresponding figure for the fish-processing sector is about 15,000 people, and almost 28,000 jobs are directly involved in the fishing industry. We estimate that there are a further 110,000 jobs in sectors that exist directly as a result of the fishing industry, such as shore services and gear manufacture. That is a substantial number of jobs, and it is why we are having this debate today. This is not only to do with conservation of the seas; small and larger communities inland depend on the fishing industry.

The debate has, by and large, been unpartisan, and I intend to keep it that way and to continue that spirit in my ongoing discussions. The Department was, however, accused of lacking ambition in a number of ways, not least on discards. However, I say to the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) that what we are doing on discards—what the Scottish fleet is doing on that—is what has helped us to get to our current position, driving forward in negotiations with Commissioner Borg and winning the argument about how to proceed in an intelligent way and achieve sustainable fisheries. We are not complacent and we do not lack ambition, and when we go into common fisheries reform we will drive forward again. We have come out of these negotiations with the big ask for the fisheries of a 25 per cent. mortality drop, but that is coupled with advances in the way we tackle discards, and I know the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that that is the way forward. The Government are not lacking ambition, and we will make progress with his support and that of other hon. Members.

The scale of the discards has been discussed by several hon. Members. In 2007, North sea fleets discarded 23,600 tonnes of cod. As I mentioned at the start of this debate, that is a disaster not only for people who hear those figures but for the fishermen, who do not want to discard. Some of our pilots, not least within the inshore fleet, have taken a more innovative approach to dealing with discards, based on landing what one catches and the close monitoring of those vessels. When I have met those involved, I have found the response to that encouraging. They see our approach as the way forward,
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and we will build on it. We have run two discard pilot projects in recent years, the first of which was on the north-east coast prawn fishery—a copy of the details of that project is in the House of Commons Library. The second was a joint project on the Irish sea involving the UK and Ireland, and we could talk more about that. We are seeing that our approaches are successful and that they are helping us.

A number of hon. Members rightly raised the issue of the displacement of effort. We need to examine it, as it no use putting in place measures that just move the problem along. A general reduction in effort, which we are examining under the revised cod recovery plan, should ensure that the displacement of effort for which there is scope does not occur. These restrictions limit an effort by these vessels whether or not they are catching cod, and that principle becomes interesting when we consider what we do with other fisheries.

I am dealing with some of the issues raised in interventions, so let me turn now to the eliminator trawl. That new trawl, which was developed in America, keeps cod out of the net but retains other white fish. It has been trialled effectively in the North sea, and some vessels continue to use it effectively. I know that Scottish colleagues are looking at variations of it that are better suited to hard ground. The eliminator may have some of the answers, and it is one part of the solution.

ICES’ advice on the Irish sea, North sea and west of Scotland nephrops is for cuts of 13 to 26 per cent. The initial Commission proposals are for 10 to 15 per cent. cuts, although, again, the full hand has not been revealed. I said at the outset where the Government intend to head on these negotiations with the Commission. The fundamentals must relate to balancing the needs of the stocks—not only next year, but in the long term—and the fisheries. I shall remind the Commission of the socio-economic impacts of blunt cuts.

I have discussed the timing of scientific advice, so I shall skip over that now. Fleet adaptation schemes were also mentioned in an intervention, so I should say that they are optional; they are not a requirement in order to access European fisheries fund money. However, we are working closely with the industry to examine how best to maximise the impact of the EFF money available for fleet adaptation. There is more to be done, but we are doing many of the right things on that.

I turn next to quota management and its reform, both now and in the long-term. Officials and Ministers are of the opinion that this is part of a longer view. The review of the common fisheries policy, and of quota management within it, is the beginning, not the end, of reform. The hon. Member for Leominster asked what happened to the quota management change programme. That programme commenced in May 2005, but the Scottish Executive formally withdrew from it in September 2007, bringing an end to that process. A lot of good work was done and that has not been lost; it will provide a crucial input into future decisions. This is not the end of the process and, as has been mentioned, we need to deal with both current and long-term issues of quota reform and quota management within CFP reform.

I wish to set out the background to this matter. In the “Net benefits” report of 2004, the Government published a set of 33 strategic recommendations for the UK
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fishing industry. They were worked up into 12 action points, of which six have been successfully implemented and six are ongoing, including key proposals on reforming the management of access to the common fisheries resource. That was being taken forward by the QMCP, in conjunction with the four UK Administrations. We are currently developing a project, as part of the CFP reform agenda, to consider how best to reform access to fisheries in the longer term. That is ongoing.

The issue of marine coastal zones was also raised. It is correct that, under the marine Bill as it stands, we could ban only UK vessels from fishing in marine coastal zones, but the point is that the European Union is requiring all member states to identify offshore special areas of conservation, or SACs. We will have leverage to seek reciprocal arrangements with other member states to respect each others’ protected areas. We will find a way through this problem. Being in Europe is sometimes complicated, but it gives us the right outcome eventually. We will work through it, with support from hon. Members.

I turn now to individual contributions. I thank the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and others for their welcome to me. It is good to receive their thanks today, as this is a challenging job, but with their support I will get through it. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the role of emergency services and talked about the back-up helicopter at Sumburgh airport. I can tell him that we have tried to obtain clarification of that issue. We understand that recently the back-up reserve S-92 helicopter based at Sumburgh has been redeployed to the Solent to provide night-time cover for the AW139 helicopters that have been undergoing modification. I am advised that the situation will be resolved tomorrow, and the AW139 helicopters will return to full night and day search and rescue duties. If I can help with any other aspect of that matter, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will get in touch and we can take it from there.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned fuel costs. I am glad that they have been returning to normal, and I have discussed that with my officials. Hon. Members have also mentioned fuel duty. The fishing industry is exempt from paying fuel duty, which places it in an advantageous position compared with other businesses and sectors, but it is not Government policy directly to subsidise fuel costs, including for commercial fishing vessels. Such subsidies can lead to over-capacity, distort business decisions and act against the long-term interests of the industry. Not least, they can be discriminatory and unsustainable. However, there is plenty of assistance available for the fleet, and I should mention that the European fisheries fund can grant aid to projects to improve fuel efficiency on board vessels. In addition, several initiatives are planned to help the industry to adapt, such as the fisheries science partnership and the challenge fund, and a capping and decommissioning scheme for the under-10 metre fleet, which has been mentioned already. That is an investment of £4.6 million in the industry by DEFRA, in addition to the £38 million EFF money for England.

Mr. MacNeil: When I brought up the issue of fuel, I was not looking for subsidised fuel but for fuel that would be duty-free at point of sale.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand and note what the hon. Gentleman says, but I cannot give a commitment on that.

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