[back to previous text]

Ms Clark: The Minister will be aware that the Administration at Holyrood have had a great deal to say about their belief that they should have representation in the debates. Is it therefore a surprise that the hon. Member who should have been here today as a representative of that Administration does not seem to be present to put their point of view?
Huw Irranca-Davies: Mrs. Anderson, I am normally tempted to leap in with both feet on a point of that kind, but I shall hesitate. My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and she is right to make the point that one of the hallmarks of the negotiations has been the fact that we could have a UK-led delegation, which had good working relationships with its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland counterparts. That stood us in good stead, and it is certainly the way in which we should take the matter forward next year when we must return to show what we have or have not achieved. The fact that we spoke with a strong, joined-up and co-ordinated voice when we came to the table to meet the presidency and the Commission was well received by the UK fleet—by which I mean the Scottish, Northern Ireland, Welsh and English fleet. My hon. Friend is right; we negotiate as a coherent UK voice.
The Chairman: For Members’ information, the hon. Gentleman conveyed his apologies and explained that he could not be here.
Mr. Carmichael: That is all right then.
May I finally ask the Minister one question about that part of the report from the European Scrutiny Committee which, on page 3, sums things up rather well, under the heading, “Rules applicable where only poor data are available”, and specifies
“a reduction of 25 per cent...in the TAC if the scientific advice is that catches should be reduced to the lowest possible level, and a reduction of 15 per cent. in all other cases.”
Does the Minister think that both those figures are rather arbitrary? If the data are poor in the first place, how much reliance can we put on an assessment of a poor stock level?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand when I say that with the outcome of negotiations we must work from the point we have reached. Some of the science is conflicting, but some of the negotiating positions are widely disparate. When we considered where the cod TAC should be set, prior to the EU-Norway debate, there was variation from zero up to an 80 or 90 per cent. increase. We get to the figures through a tortuous process of negotiation, and tortuous wrestling over the underpinning science. Then we get on and work with them. The most important point now is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and colleagues in all parts of the UK should start work early to help the UK fleet face the challenge of the year ahead.
Mr. Carmichael: After 25 years of the CFP, does the Minister share my disappointment that data in some areas are still so poor that they cannot be relied on?
Huw Irranca-Davies: We need to fill those gaps, not only with respect to the time line that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but also with respect to science being much weaker in some areas. The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to keep working on this, not least as the Marine and Coastal Access Bill goes forward, because much of the detail of that Bill is predicated on having good data, not only for fisheries, but for dredging, energy and everything else.
The Chairman: If no more hon. Members wish to ask questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 15578/08 and Addenda 1 to 3, draft Council Regulation fixing for 2009 the fishing opportunities and associated conditions for certain fish stocks and groups of fish vessels, applicable in Community waters, and for Community vessels, in waters where catch limitations are required, and No. 7676/08 and Addenda 1 and 2, draft Council Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No. 423/2004 as regards the recovery of cod stocks and amending Regulation (EEC) No. 2847/93; supports the Government’s approach, which is in line with the principles enshrined in the Common Fisheries Policy, to seek adoption of measures to provide for sustainable exploitation of fishery resources based on sound scientific advice and on the precautionary approach; and accepts the Government’s overarching approach in seeking a balanced and fair settlement across all the negotiations which promote the long-term sustainable exploitation of fish stocks in European waters, the economic viability of the UK fishing industry and the protection of vulnerable species.—(Huw Irranca-Davies.)
5.10 pm
Mr. Benyon: It seems churlish to start with a negative point, but it is difficult to get to grips with the depth of information before us when we only get the documents late on Thursday night. I wonder whether the Minister will use his good offices to see whether we can get them earlier. It is easy for the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, because he has been dealing with these issues for 25 years, but some of us had to do a lot of reading in a short length of time.
The council has already set the quota for this year, and we have a welcome opportunity to discuss some important related issues. The motion refers to “sound scientific advice” and “the precautionary approach”, but I am not convinced that all decisions are being made in that vein. With increasing importance being placed on science in the understanding of fish stocks, we need to be sure that the quality of scientific information available is high and that it is up to date. It is therefore less than encouraging that the Commission and the council put forward proposals that increase quota and TAC at a higher rate than that recommended by ICES, the very body that they commission to carry out stock assessments. If the Commission and the council do not feel they can rely on their own assessments, we are far from a basis of sound science.
It is also somewhat discouraging that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is cutting the CEFAS budget and has not yet disclosed the funding details of the 10-year funding plan that we discussed with the Minister a moment ago. I would appreciate it if he took the opportunity to give us more information on that, if not today then as soon as possible. My point is that we surely must improve the science relating to fish stocks, if we are to get anywhere in recovering their dwindling numbers.
Much has been said this afternoon about discards. A key issue that we must tackle is the horrendous number of fish that are being thrown over the side. I relate it to my experience as a dairy farmer: for some bizarre reason, dairy farmers throughout the country were required to destroy male calves, more or less at birth, for a number of years. I remember, as a farmer at the time, saying to people I worked with that that was not why I had gone into farming. I did not go into farming to do such an act to such an animal. I am convinced that fishermen feel exactly the same, and that they are as horrified about the level of discards that they are required to carry out as customers are, as the Minister has said.
How can quota and TAC be effectively set while 40 to 60 per cent. of fish caught are being discarded? Large-scale discarding routinely distorts the scientific understanding of fish stocks and exacerbates the disagreement between scientists and fishermen on the state of fish stocks. That issue has to be tackled in order for finfish stocks to genuinely recover. The Conservative policy would effectively tackle discards and in turn greatly increase our understanding of current levels of fish stocks by requiring all fishermen to land all their catch. At present, not enough is being done to tackle the issue. The EU had planned to end discarding by 2006 but has not done so; the planned discard atlas has been delayed; and other countries, such as France and Spain, have a track record of not providing the Commission with discard information.
Mr. Carmichael: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on a land-everything policy. I am not unsympathetic to the policy, but there is one obvious challenge: what does the hon. Gentleman propose that we do with the over-quota fish that are landed?
Mr. Benyon: The over-quota of fish would be bought by the Government. Undersize and small fish would probably be made into fish meal. A proportion of it would be given back to fishermen as an encouragement to take part in the whole process of landing all their catch. That could be incentivised further for fishermen who use particularly conservation-type equipment, such as nets. The issue is much more complicated than that, but that is the brief outline, and I am happy to discuss it further either now or in the future.
Quotas and tax are being decided on distorted information, making the real picture of our fish stocks all the more elusive. Real progress is needed on the EU’s current proposals to end discarding, as well as the Government’s commitment to the cause. It would be pertinent, during our discussions today, to ask ourselves exactly why the cod recovery plan has failed to deliver thus far.
The UK fishing industry has made huge sacrifices through decommissioning to support the previous cod recovery plan, and it would welcome the Minister’s reassurance that these measures would not lead to further hardships, particularly for those who fish in the Celtic sea. Climate change and global warming have been cited as one of the reasons for the change in levels of fish stocks in certain areas, and I am interested to know what new measures are being applied to combat this and what scientific research is being undertaken to find out more information.
Finally, I want to discuss the role of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill in tackling dwindling fish stocks. As it is soon due to begin the Commons stage of its parliamentary life, it is worth considering the effectiveness of measures such as conservation zones to protect fish stocks. Conservation measures have proven to be effective in protecting fish stocks in Scotland, and the Marine and Coastal Access Bill presents a sound opportunity to act on that success. However, as it stands, our control over the adherence to conservation zones would stop at six miles—I discussed that with the Minister earlier—meaning that EU vessels could ignore the zones beyond that point, significantly reducing the effectiveness of the measure. It is therefore key that we pursue any opportunity to change that situation, so that EU and UK vessels alike would have to adhere to any conservation zones that may be put into place.
5.18 pm
Mr. Carmichael: May I formally welcome the hon. Member for Newbury to his place? He will find that there is a band of people in this place who regularly attend fishing debates, and I plead guilty to being one of them. By and large, it is generally a fairly civilised and well-reasoned debate—at least in the Chamber, although, as the Minister knows, it has its moments of tension.
The hon. Member for Newbury is absolutely right when he says that it is difficult for those of us who have somewhat limited resources to finish up with a wedge of documents like this on a Thursday evening—particularly when Burns night falls between the release of the documents and the holding of the Committee. I hope that the Minister and his Department will have some consideration for that in future years.
I pay tribute to the Minister, who has come up to speed remarkably quickly in a technically difficult and politically challenging brief. It is also appropriate to state my appreciation of the efforts of the current Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg. I had some experience dealing with his predecessor, or trying to deal with him, and while he had a rather wider portfolio than Mr. Borg, the openness and willingness of the current Fisheries Commissioner to engage with politicians and stakeholders from different member countries has been quite refreshing and has contributed significantly to a construction of a greater feeling of trust between the Commission and the industry in this country in particular.
The hon. Member for Newbury made the point about reliance on ICES figures. My observation on that matter is that the answers ICES gives us must be taken in their proper context, by which I mean that we must have regard to the questions asked. When ICES tells us that the only option is a total closure, it is answering a question about what can be done to achieve a total recovery within 12 months. We all know that that is a nonsense question, because a total recovery cannot be achieved within 12 months. Therefore, before we are too hard on ICES, we should be careful about the questions that we ask. If we ask stupid questions, then inevitably we will get stupid answers.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his thoughts about the possibility of a land-everything policy with regard to eliminating discounts. Such a policy would not be without its difficulties. The obvious one is that we are trying to encourage people to fish within the TAC and the quota that is given to them. In many ways, my concern about a land-all policy is that it would treat the symptom rather than the disease. The disease is that insufficient regard is taken of the views of those at the sharpest end of fishing—the fishermen themselves. As a consequence, there is a disjunction between the fish that are in the sea to be caught, the quota that is given to the fishermen and the variation of the different species within a mixed fishery in which the quotas are particularly problematic. Therefore, if we have accurate real-time science, and a proper regard for the views of all those who take an interest—stakeholders, fishermen, conservationists, scientists and whoever else—we should be able to come up with a TAC that reflects what is in the sea.
Unfortunately, we do not live in that ideal world, and it is very difficult to count fish. If there were an easy way to deal with the matter, somebody would have dealt with it long ago. I do not entirely share the Minister’s enthusiasm for the role of the EU Commission, because it has not always been a benign presence in the debate. The harsh truth of the matter is—this is as true of the Government when it was run by the Conservative party as it is of the Government now—we do not give a lot of political priority to fishing, which comes fairly low down the food chain, if I can use that expression. Often, we have been a victim of deals that have been done in other areas. Other EU countries give much more political importance to the fishing industry. As a consequence, we have not always fought our corner as vigorously as we should have done.
That, in turn, brings me to a few thoughts on the reform of the common fisheries policy taking us forward to 2012. I am glad that we have consensus on the general direction of reform, particularly with regard to the more regional form of management. Designing a common fisheries policy to apply to all 27 member states is very difficult. It was challenging enough when there were only 12 in the EU, but now that we have expanded to include more countries, many of which are landlocked, it becomes pretty meaningless. We also have a much wider range of nations involved. Originally, we were considering a common fisheries policy that would have dealt with the North sea, the English channel, the Irish sea and the sea off the west of Scotland. We now go far beyond that. Clearly, the only sensible way to go is to introduce a regional-based management system. For the North sea, the real challenge is that Norway is not part of the EU, which is why I question the appropriateness of using the EU as a fisheries market tool. Therefore, one of the single biggest players in the North sea is not going to be part of any regional management system that we set up within the EU. The fisheries management nirvana to which we might aspire would involve Norway and EU countries managing the North sea as a whole. As long as Norway remains outside the EU, that will be difficult to the point of impossibility. It reinforces the need for greater decentralisation, and I hope that the Minister will pursue that.
The hon. Member for Newbury raised a point about recreational anglers being brought within the ambit of quotas. He is absolutely right that in the context of the United Kingdom, that would be burdensome and wholly disproportionate to any benefit achieved. The Minister is also right that the recreational angling element is much more significant in some countries, which serves to illustrate the truth that centralised policies will always be ineffective. The further away from Brussels fisheries management is controlled, the better it will be. I welcome some aspects of the measures, particularly the move to using mortality rather than spawning stock biomass for quota allocation. If that term is consigned to the history of fishing debates, I, for one, will be more than delighted.
Finally, I return to the question of the language that we use, particularly with regard to the success or otherwise of the cod recovery programme. The programme has a chequered history. Many of the elements introduced, particularly those concerning closed areas in 2003-04, have been frankly bureaucratic and unworkable to the point of being nonsensical. They are the sort of proposals that have brought the whole notion of sustainable managed fisheries into disrepute, which is saying something. However, there are lessons to be learned. An approach that seeks to achieve a balance between the socio-economic needs of fishing communities and the conservation needs of stock levels is the right one. At the end of the day, no fishing community will be assisted by a collapse in the stock of any fish species, which is not in anybody’s interests. If we lose our fishing communities, what is the point of recovering the stocks?
5.28 pm
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 27 January 2009