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Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee A Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Janet Anderson
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Clark, Ms Katy (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells) (Con)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Jones, Lynne (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
MacNeil, Mr. Angus (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Committee A

Monday 26 January 2009

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Cod Stocks
4.30 pm
The Chairman: First, I call a member of the European Scrutiny Committee to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to this Committee.
Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I will be brief. On behalf of the Committee, I will explain why we suggested that this debate should take place. It is said that conservation has been at the heart of common fisheries policy since it was agreed in 1983. The documents before us—Documents Nos. 15578/08 and 7676/08— address a couple of important and linked aspects relating to conservation.
The first document, which sets out allowable catches for Community vessels in 2009 over a range of stocks, is a major annual event in the fisheries calendar. As the relevant scientific advice is not available until relatively late in the day, it traditionally involves a last-minute deal in the December fisheries council just before Christmas. The proposals are invariably controversial, as conflict is inevitable between the need to set catches at levels low enough to protect stocks and the need to set them high enough to meet the immediate socio-economic needs of fishermen, who are often located in remote areas with limited employment prospects.
This year’s proposals are no exception. When we first considered them on 10 December, we agreed this debate, recognising that we would need to wait until after Christmas for information on the council’s outcome. That information is set out in our report dated 21 January, which highlights the changes between the Commission proposal and the catch levels eventually agreed by the council, including those arising from negotiations with Norway, which were completed only shortly before the December council.
Document No. 7676/08 also addresses catch levels, specifically in relation to the recovery plan adopted for the Community’s cod stocks, which are of great interest to the UK and have been under considerable pressure of late. As we noted in our report on Document 15578/08, there is a read-across between the two documents before us in that the total allowable catches proposed and agreed reflect the provisions of the cod recovery plan. We therefore felt it logical that they should be debated together.
Finally, we felt it right to tag two other fisheries documents to this debate: Document No. 9342/08, which relates to the recovery plan for the west of Scotland heading, and Document No. 15416/08, which deals with the way in which serious infringements of the common fishery protection rules have been tackled within the Community.
The Chairman: It is rather warm in here. We have asked for the heating to be turned down, but if Members would like to remove their jackets, they may certainly do so. I call on the Minister to make an opening statement.
4.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): May I say what a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson? I thank my hon. Friend the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran for introducing this important debate. She touched on some important points, and I will expand on them in my remarks.
I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending this debate on the new cod recovery plan and the 2009 tax and quotas package. It gives me the opportunity to answer questions and provide clarification. That was, and is, not always possible before getting into the hurly-burly of final negotiations on the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which was described to me when I first came into this role as like doing white-water rafting blindfolded. I would not say that it is quite like that, but it does get very intense and frenetic. Hopefully, I will be able to explain in my opening remarks what we got out of the negotiations, why I think the package was the right one, and why we cannot always present the information in real time.
The new cod recovery plan was agreed in November. We anticipated that the associated negotiations would be difficult, and they did indeed prove so, as always. However, we were successful in delivering a number of key UK objectives, which were agreed with stakeholders in advance. One of the benefits of this year’s process was the ability to engage much more with stakeholders and devolved Ministers—I shall return to that later.
Those objectives included: the omission from the plan of the Celtic sea, which is a matter to which I shall happily return later; the achievement of an alternative reference period on which to base the first year of the new effort management regime, which is vitally important to our fishermen; the removal of a TAC restraint for the North sea cod stock in the first year of the plan’s operation; and the provision of a facility to award fishermen with additional effort for deploying discard reduction and more selective fishing measures. Many people nowadays are concerned about the issue of discards, and we have come up with a thoughtful and intelligent way forward.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab) rose—
The Chairman: Order. I cannot allow an intervention on the Minister’s opening statement. He will answer Members’ questions later.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I apologise, Mrs. Anderson, for sitting down so promptly. I always like to give way in the normal course of events, but it is not right to do so during this statement.
Today’s debate includes discussion of the annual exercise to agree TACs and quotas. I appreciate that often the process of negotiation does not allow sufficient time for the Committee to consider the dossier adequately before agreement in the Council. However, this year, we benefited from receiving the Commission’s overarching policy statement in May and advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea in June. The advantage of that was that it allowed us to prepare earlier and thus to engage more actively with relevant interests, including enforcement colleagues, devolved Administrations, scientists and stakeholders, in identify and agreeing, and preparing the ground for the achievement of, the UK’s key objectives. Our successes in December were testament to the effective co-operation between Ministers and officials from the various parts of the UK.
As always, the negotiations were incredibly intense, but we secured what was generally recognised as a balanced and fair deal for the UK. We secured most of our top priorities, including a viable—although challenging—set of conservation measures for the west of Scotland white fish fleet that avoided the closure of that vital UK fishery, which even made the headlines. We also resisted proposed substantial cuts to the important nephrops TACs, with a reduction of only 2 per cent. in area 7, which includes the Irish sea, as opposed to the 15 per cent. reduction proposed by the Commission, and of 5 per cent. in the North sea and west of Scotland as opposed to 9.7 and 15 per cent. cuts proposed respectively.
In relation to the “use it or lose it” stocks, we negotiated a roll-over of TACs for other key UK stocks, especially monkfish, for area 7, Irish sea herring and certain flat fish species in the North sea. We also achieved 30 per cent. increases in the North sea and eastern English channel cod TACs, reflecting the encouraging signs for those stocks. We should not go overboard, because the science still shows a fragile recovery. However, it also shows that we did the right thing in negotiating an increase in TACs, which will also allow us to avoid the impact of setting a lower TAC and throwing back more dead fish into the sea. Everybody, including fishermen, wants to avoid that.
In order to ensure, however, that that does not encourage more effort going into the fishery, a number of associated measures were agreed as part of the EU-Norway negotiations designed to keep down cod mortality. They focus on avoiding areas of high stock concentration through real-time and seasonal closures and deploying more selective fishing techniques. Officials are working hard with the industry, north and south of the border and elsewhere, on how the new regime should best be managed in the UK. The packages in both dossiers offer considerable potential to improve the operation of the common fisheries policy and to make it more effective in delivering what we all want, which is sustainable fish stocks for the future and sustainable communities relying on those fisheries, in ways that suit the UK. I therefore commend the measures to the House.
The Chairman: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that they should be brief. It is open to a Member, subject to my discretion, to ask related supplementary questions, but it would be helpful if they were related.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a delight to be under your watchful eye, Mrs. Anderson. What efforts are the Government making to improve the scientific understanding of fish stocks, and can the Minister give us an assessment of the Council’s and the Commission’s activities in that regard?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post—he has mentioned that it is a fast learning curve. That has been the case for me as well, but this fascinating area is crucial for the future of our fisheries communities, and I know that he will engage well on the issues. One of our innovations is a fisheries science partnership, which involves not only the scientists—the science is improving all the time—but people in the industry, the fishermen themselves, who can bring something to the table. We are keen to see that work progress, but we are also keen to see much more up-to-the-minute science—science that improves constantly. We have very good science in both England and Scotland and we work with ICES and the European Commission’s scientists to improve that all the time. There is always room for improvement, but we also need the input from the people who work in the industry.
Mr. Benyon: The Minister mentions the fisheries science partnership, but in some circumstances, as is well known—this is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time—there is a tension between the views of fishermen and of scientist on fish stocks. What steps is the Minister taking to resolve that tension, and are there plans to expand the fisheries science partnership?
Huw Irranca-Davies: We always keep that under review to see what more we can do with the existing mechanisms. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that as the most useful way forward. Understandably, there are always concerns about what fishermen are observing in real time off their boats and what they are bringing in in their nets, compared with what scientists say that they are observing in their pilot vessels and so on. The best way forward is to bring the two together. I have frequently been told that one can walk right across the North sea on the back of cod. We need to go where the science leads us, but inform it with the best science that is coming out of the industry, so working with the fisheries science partnership is the way forward.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I compliment the hon. Gentleman on having got up to speed very rapidly on this issue. He is right to say that the longer-term issue is the reform of the CFP. The UK Government intend to be, and have been, right at the forefront of pushing forward CFP reform on the issues of both sustainability and science, but also ensuring that that works in the best interests not only of our own fleet, but of the EU fleet. He is right to point out that in relation to the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, we will have to engage with other member nations and the European Commission to ensure that, beyond the 6-mile limit, we make those measures bite not only for our vessels and our fleet, but for others. I think that we are pushing at an open door with the Commission, because the measures that we are taking in the Bill on marine conservation and on our objective to deliver on what we have already said about other protected habitats, are matters on which our close European neighbours provide us with friends and allies.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Minister knows my views on those who think that they can walk across the North sea. It is something for which there is very limited precedent.
I want to take the Minister back to the question of tension between scientists and fishermen. Is not the substantial time lag between data gathering and the final resulting science at the heart of that tension? The Minister’s predecessor accepted that there might be some benefit to be had from a quick and dirty analysis, which would give us more real-time information. What progress has been made in that regard?
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Prepared 27 January 2009