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Huw Irranca-Davies: That is an issue that we and the Commission engaged with during the negotiation. It ties into the longer-term reform as well. It is vital that in the annual negotiations, and when there is earlier presentation of the science—particularly when it is presented in May and we reach conclusions in December—we find a mechanism enabling us to feed in much more real-time analysis. Stocks can change even in six months.
There are two aspects to that issue. One is the time lag, and we need to work on the quick and dirty approach, which must be based on the more substantial science underpinned by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, as well as what is observed by people working on the sea. There will always be differences of opinion, but we need the optimum blend of opinion, and we need to argue for that with the European Commission.
Mr. Carmichael: Essentially, we are asking the Minister to square a circle, and I wish him good luck with that. Does he agree that the most effective way of doing it would be to involve fishermen, scientists, conservationists and other stakeholders in regional advisory councils, which, in the North sea in particular, have been very effective? Does he agree that as we move towards the next revision of the common fisheries policy, in 2012, we should be doing more to strengthen the powers of the regional advisory councils, and lessen the influence being exerted by the Commission in Brussels?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I could not agree more strongly with the hon. Gentleman; I am pleased that we are perhaps lining up in a cross-party approach to the issue. He is right that one of the most successful models among the regional consortiums is the North sea RAC. It is doing excellent work. It brings together conservationists, sea anglers, sea fisheries, people who make their living from processing seafood, and the whole of the North sea area, so that member states are represented as well.
That must be the way forward, so that our decisions will be based on good local and regional knowledge, rather than being made purely from the top down, although that approach has a role—I do not advocate, as some do, walking away from the CFP. We fish in shared waters, and we must approach that activity, and our regulation of it, jointly. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for RACs, because when we come, imminently, to CFP reform we shall have to push them hard with the Commissioner.
Mr. Benyon: We have discussed the science a lot, which is good, because that is the key to resolving the problem of fish stocks, but can the Minister clarify the funding situation for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science? In fisheries debates in 2007-08, both the Minister and his predecessor, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), referred to a 10-year funding agreement; however, when my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) asked them for further details, following the disclosure that there was a funding reduction plan for forthcoming years, the ministerial response was:
“Subsequent years are still subject to approval.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2715W.]
What has happened to the 10-year funding arrangement?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s probing of the point. He is right that there was, and is, a 10-year agreement. However, it behoves me as a Minister to discharge my cross-portfolio responsibilities adequately, particularly in the current economic climate. The 10-year agreement exists, but I cannot predict exactly what it will be three or five years hence. I can assure him that at the moment, no screams are coming from CEFAS that it cannot do its job or that it anticipates not being able to do it. CEFAS is in a strong position. As well as CEFAS, we have a great interaction with colleagues north of the border in the Scottish Executive and their agencies, which also have an interplay with science. We see them as underpinning our scientific strength, and I will not let that wither.
Mr. Benyon: The number of the most important stocks to UK fishermen that are within safe biological limits has fallen from 12 to eight out of 47 since 2006. What action does the Minister feel must be taken to rectify that, and does he see it as a key marker of the success of the policy?
Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about how to achieve sustainability of our marine environment, of fisheries and of the people and communities who rely on fisheries for their livelihood, not least in the west of Scotland, as I mentioned earlier. West of Scotland science is probably among the most fragile in the whole UK, but if we had accepted the straightforward approach advocated by the Commission only two months ago, the fisheries in the west of Scotland would have closed completely. That might have been effective for a long-term straightforward boost of the marine environment and stocks, but in 12 months or two years, there would have been no fishermen to come back and fish those seas.
It is important that I as a Minister, along with my colleagues, take on board the socio-economics while working towards sustainability, including the maximum yield sustainability that we have agreed to achieve by 2012. I acknowledge that that requires a balancing act between considering different areas of the coast and different stocks, and trying to provide people with a living wage to bring home.
Mr. Kemp: In his opening statement, the Minister mentioned discard policy. Will he expand on that? Although it strikes me as a way of keeping the catch down, throwing essentially dead fish back into the sea does not do anything to conserve stock. Will he give us a bit more information on discard policy?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for that remark. In simple terms, what we tried to achieve—and did achieve—at the November Council in particular was an approach based on landing more and killing less. It is a complete anathema to the man or woman shopping in the supermarket to think that for every fish that they put in their basket, one has been thrown back. Some vessels—this was said to me openly when we went out on a trawl—throw back 70 or 80 per cent. Something is wrong with that approach.
This issue ties in to the longer-term CFP reform, but it also ties into the very good examples that we advocated to the commissioner, which were based on the approach pioneered—not least north of the border—through the conservation credit scheme. The scheme applied more intelligent ways to avoid the fishing of vulnerable young year-group stocks of cod by using selective gear and mesh and avoiding spawning grounds. That is the argument that we took to the commissioner, saying, “Look, it actually works. We’ve got a clever way to go forward on this to avoid discards and reassure fishermen, housewives and house-husbands that they can feel good about what they put into their supermarket trolley, or that they can go out and buy cod at the chip shop without worrying about it.” It is vital. We need to move farther down that path in terms of common fishery reform.
Mr. Carmichael: Perhaps we will come to the question of discards later. I merely observe that few people are more appalled by the position on discards than fishermen themselves.
May I draw the Minister’s and the Committee’s attention to the impact assessment that starts on page 112 of the bundle? I offer an observation and a question. This document will not win many plaudits from the Plain English Campaign. References to a “sub-optimal allocation of resources”, to externalities and to
“key non-monetised costs by ‘main affected groups’”
are just a few examples that I can pull out from the first couple of pages.
In the first box in the impact assessment, on page 112, the last two sentences state:
“The 2004 plan”—
the cod recovery plan—
“introduced a number of measures aimed at correcting these market failures. This has not been effective in restoring cod stocks and the recommended option aims to learn from this experience and introduce a range of measures to allow cod stocks to recover and be fished sustainably into the future.”
That is a rather bald statement. Can the Minister give me an assurance that it does not accurately reflect his Department’s policy?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am trying to find the section to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
Mr. Carmichael: Let me assist the Minister. If he has regard to page 112, he will see that the assessment is broken into boxes. I was referring to the last couple of sentences:
“The 2004 plan introduced a number of measures...This has not been effective in restoring cod stocks”.
The thinking behind my observation and question is that, in fact, there has been substantial improvement in cod stocks in the North sea. For that reason, I think that it is a rather bald statement.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand and I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the point. The statement is quite bald and quite bold. It recognises that although we argued strongly with the Commission that we were observing, and the science was observing, a recovery in cod, and although there can be the assurances that I was talking about, there is also fragility in it. We are not clear at the moment on whether it refers only to a couple of years’ stocks. To get back to the situation in which large female cod are being landed, bigger and bigger, we have to do more, so the statement is accurate in the sense that at the moment, we cannot honestly say that the cod stock is recovering. Fishermen will say this to me. Let us keep an eye on the science as well, and when we have that, we can go back to the Commission and say, “We did it. We delivered.”
Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. This is not merely a semantic point; it is a point of some political significance, which I hope he will bear in mind, and there is a history to this. Unlike the hon. Member for Newbury, whom I welcome to his new job, and the Minister, who is also fairly new, I have been knocking around this debate for a few years. We were told in 2005, 2004 and even earlier that the efforts that we were making with the cod recovery programme were doomed to failure, that the only thing that could be done was total closure and that if we did not go down the road towards total closure, we would see the total extinction of cod from the North sea. We ignored that advice and took a more reasoned approach. The same arguments are now being deployed in the west of Scotland, and it is for that reason that I think it important for the Government to acknowledge fully the progress that has been made with regard to the North sea.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I have no difficulty in acknowledging the progress that has undoubtedly been made. This is the way forward. We need to avoid the history of the Newfoundland cod. Not only was it fished out; species below it were fished out, and so on. It has never recovered, and that happened 20 or 30 years ago. However, what we are doing, as the hon. Gentleman is right to point out, is using the right approaches, under which we are seeing some early recovery in the cod stock. I am hopeful that if we keep going in that direction, we will, with the help of our fishermen and our scientists, see a full-blown recovery in years to come, but it is early days.
The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that we are in question time at the moment. There will be an opportunity for a more general debate later.
Mr. Benyon: I will be as brief as I can. Following the agreement on TAC and quota, what is the Minister’s assessment of the opportunities available for quota swaps to take place to benefit the 10 m-and-under fleet?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to quota swaps between the under and over-10 m fleets.
Mr. Benyon indicated assent.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Unusually, we were able to secure a counter-invocation during the December negotiations. The Irish Minister invoked the Hague preference to draw down additional stocks in the Irish sea, in response to which I counter-invoked on our stocks in the Irish sea. Had I not, we would have been significantly worse off. I also invoked on some stocks in the North sea, including 600 tonnes of additional stocks, of which half went to the under-10 m fleet. Using the Hague preference, therefore, I was able to redistribute some to the under-10 m fleet.
The hon. Gentleman might have been referring to the longer-term matter of pulling back quotas from the over-10 m fleet to the under-10 m fleet, which is much more problematic and potentially controversial. The under-10 m fleet has argued for many years that it was done down by the original deal. However, the deal was based on the best available information at that time, and the over-10 m fleet, and probably the producer organisations, would have something to say about pulling back on any of its quotas. However, if he wants to explore that controversial issue further, he may do so.
Mr. Benyon: I am fully seized of the controversy that could surround me if I seek to favour one fleet over another. I was trying to tease out from the Minister whether the masters of individual vessels would have greater opportunity to seek such a swap. However, I think that we have cracked that one, so I shall move on to another question. Does the Minister believe that the credibility of the European Commission’s aims is enhanced by the proposals to include recreational catches within the national quota?
Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman refers to something coming down to us from the Commission about control measures. There is talk of recreational sea angling fitting within the quota. It is early days, however, and we must consult properly on it and discuss how we proceed. In some countries—not overly in the UK—recreational sea angling can be a significant contributor towards quotas. However, in other countries, that contribution is minimal—it is purely what we would understand as recreational sea angling with someone going out on a boat. If we are looking to sustainability of the seas, we need to discuss that properly and consult on how to do it. However, we do not want to run down the road of placing undue burdens on recreational anglers just for the sake of it. I would welcome his thoughts over the next few months as control measures are debated in the European Parliament.
Mr. Benyon: No doubt I shall have the opportunity to discuss those matters with the Minister on other occasions. However, I am concerned about the credibility of the proposals. The impact on conservation of such a measure will be negligible. I hope he bears that in mind during his negotiations on this important matter.
Does the Minister think that quota separation for Scotland will have its benefits? Will he update us on how those plans are developing? What discussions has he had with his Opposition number in the Scottish Government to ensure that all British waters are being conserved in the right way?
Huw Irranca-Davies: The issue of quota separation is a moot one at the moment. The UK Government have just come out of a very successful round of negotiations—at the fisheries council in October, November and December—based on very effective relationships between officials and Ministers. The quota that we negotiated was UK-wide, as too were the licences. Under the devolved arrangements there are powers for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to do certain things.
Since last May there has in effect been a unilaterally declared quota moratorium north of the border. As a UK Minister I want to say that we are where we are on licences and quotas, by which I mean that nothing has changed. A unilateral declaration is a unilateral declaration. However, there is an opportunity to look at quota reform, and that opportunity will come through the CFP reform that is right in front of us.
As part of that, and bearing in mind some aspects of the matter on which we shall focus, including regionalisation and how we input that, quota reform is relevant. How do we deal with that most effectively? Certainly, I think that Welsh officials and Ministers, officials in Northern Ireland and England, and the relevant fleets would want to be part of that engagement, in preference to a unilateral approach for any individual area of the UK.
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