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Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Bob Russell
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton, West) (Lab)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
MacNeil, Mr. Angus (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
Mullin, Mr. Chris (Sunderland, South) (Lab)
Slaughter, Mr. Andy (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Spellar, Mr. John (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Gosia McBride, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended (Standing Order No. 119(6)):
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)

European Committee A

Monday 2 November 2009

[Bob Russell in the Chair]

Common Fisheries Policy Reform
4.30 pm
The Chairman: Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to the Committee?
Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): It falls to me to explain why the European Scrutiny Committee referred the documents on the common fisheries policy to this Committee. I must admit that I was somewhat surprised to find myself here, because the normal practice on the European Scrutiny Committee is for members to volunteer to go on the European Committee and explain a particular document. As I look around the Committee, I see that none of the members who were vociferous in saying that the document should be debated has found time to come to the Committee this afternoon. So, it falls to me to explain why the document was referred to the Committee.
The conservation aspects of the common fisheries policy came into operation in 1983. They sought to maintain stock levels by limiting annual catches, through the so-called technical conservation provisions, such as those on mesh and minimum landing sizes, and through structural measures to bring catching capacity into line with fishing opportunities. Despite various changes, there is general agreement that the policy has not achieved its objectives, with many fish stocks being in a parlous state. The Commission therefore believes that a whole-scale and fundamental reform is now required and it has sought to stimulate a public debate through document 8977/09.
The Commission notes that reforms agreed in 2002 have not realised the aim of achieving sustainable fisheries, and that most of the European fleet is either running at a loss or returning low profits as a result of chronic overcapacity. That has resulted in strong political pressure to increase short-term fishing opportunities, in addition to which excess fishing capacity has been artificially maintained by heavy public financial support.
The Commission discusses five main structural issues: overcapacity, the stated policy objectives of the common fisheries policy, decisions on core long-term principles, encouraging greater industry responsibility for fisheries management, and developing a compliance culture. It then addresses a number of areas where it believes improvements might be made. They include small-scale coastal fisheries; achieving maximum yields; relative stability and access to coastal fisheries; trade and markets; integrating fisheries into broader maritime policy; research; structural policy and public financial support; the external dimension; and aquaculture.
The Chairman: As this room is experiencing global warming, if hon. Members wish to remove their jackets, they should feel free to do so. I call 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): Thank you for that dispensation, Mr. Russell—I have divested myself of my jacket already. I am sure that it will be a delight to serve under your stewardship, and to follow the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble.
We have debated the issue on several occasions on the Floor of the House—through oral questions, in the annual fisheries debate and on other opportunities. However, we welcome the opportunity to speak specifically on CFP reform because, as we all know, this is a vital period in fisheries management. We also welcome the opportunity to debate the changes that are required of EU fisheries management in the long term, as opposed to having discussions, constrained by the current management system, that are devoted to short-term issues.
It is interesting that we seem to have consensus on the matter. I echo my hon. Friend in giving credit where credit is due: the Commission has brought forward proposals for quite a radical review, which is very welcome. I am pleased to say that the UK Government have responded to that in kind by arguing strongly for a radical review—I will come to some of the details of that in a moment—and I know that that feeling is shared by the hon. Member for Newbury and many others. It is time to look radically and significantly at the matter, and to set a very different type of agenda. I congratulate the European Commission on taking the bold step of recognising the signal failures of the common fisheries policy, on attempting to make them clear, and on moving the debate away from a backward-facing analysis of what has gone wrong to a longer-term vision and the means by which to achieve it.
I welcome the timing of this debate. On 16 September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I launched a UK-wide debate on CFP reform. The consultation and dialogue are taking place in all quarters of the UK, and it is important that all parts of the fleet and the industry, and all stakeholders, are heard. In addition to those in the fishing industry, a wider range of stakeholders is involved. We want to ensure that we have a thriving fisheries industry and a thriving marine environment for the future. The debate must be inclusive, so we are seeking everyone’s views. At this stage, we are precluding no options from consideration. If there is to be proper dialogue, everything should be on the table. If we are serious about radical reform, let us talk about radical reform.
The vision to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble referred, which was presented in the European Commission’s green paper, paints a similar picture, but it stops short of making it clear that a healthy and resilient marine ecosystem should be fundamental objectives of the common fisheries policy. The UK is leading the way in Europe on integrating the management of all activities in the marine space. The recent Marine and Coastal Access Bill clearly signals our intent by bringing marine issues together coherently, and by recognising all users, the environmental impact, the economic potential and the social aspects.
I am crystal clear that CFP reform cannot remain isolated from other marine policies. It is not in the interests of our marine environment, of the delivery of the provisions in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill or—fundamentally, in terms of this debate—of the fishing industry for us to be isolated and alone in a silo, as we previously were. That is in no one’s interest.
We must secure a CFP with a clear commitment to deliver measures to support the achievement of our EU and international commitments to the environment. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill introduces powers to designate marine conservation zones, which will be vital in achieving our other commitments, such as the attainment of good environmental status under the marine strategy framework directive. Management of the marine environment is becoming ever more complex. Protecting our seas requires all interests to work together, to resolve differences openly and constructively. One set of policies cannot sit outside that process.
We know that three quarters of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or over-exploited. Most of those that are fully exploited are not profitable, and are in decline. We know that from the global evidence, and from talking to our fishing communities. We also know that 88 per cent. of fisheries for which there are sufficient data in the EU are being fished beyond maximum sustainable yields. The case for reforming the CFP is undeniable, but there have been signs of progress. The North sea cod stock is showing encouraging signs of recovery, and the fishing industry has worked closely alongside scientists, conservationists and Administrations, joining their work together to find solutions.
We must build on that progress. That is why the UK Government support a more regionalised approach to EU fisheries management—a core part of our argument on CFP reform—and an approach that allows those with the knowledge and experience of a fishery to identify the most effective means of delivering our shared objectives across the EU. That will require clear and prioritised objectives at EU level, but how those objectives are delivered—this is not a cop-out—should be a matter for others. As the UK Minister with responsibility for fisheries, I do not want to have endless deliberations on the relative merits of one type of square mesh panel as opposed to another, because I do not think that that is a job for a Minister. However, I do want to take a leading role across the EU in setting the common goals for our fisheries.
We cannot allow our fishing industry to be subject to constant change and uncertainty because of imprecise policy objectives set in a short-term management framework. Whether I am visiting Mallaig, Portavogie in Northern Ireland, Hartlepool or ports in the south-west, fishermen from all parts of the UK frequently tell me that they cannot speak with their bank managers with any certainty, because they cannot plan from one week to the next, let alone from month to month or for the coming year. They do not have certainty, and neither do we, in relation to the stocks. We need to get away from that and look to the long term.
We also need to devolve the technical aspects of fisheries management and allow the experts, the conservationists and others to work together to find a way to meet our objectives for the stocks that allows the fishing industry to make sound, long-term business decisions. That should include the best way to reduce and, wherever possible, eliminate the totally wasteful practice of discarding. We have been working hard to reduce discards in the UK under the current system. The conservation credit scheme operating in Scotland established the principle of rewarding environmentally responsible behaviour, and that is now being replicated across the UK. Under such a scheme, fishing vessels can access additional days at sea if they commit to a more selective fishing year or to avoiding juvenile stock, spawning fish or high concentrations of recovery stocks.
Building on that, last week I committed to trialling new ways of reducing discarding. Scottish and English fisheries will work with Danish and German fisheries to test a new system for recording all catches. They will reduce their catch but land more of it, and will document the scheme through the use of closed circuit television. The end result has to be fewer fish killed, fewer fish wasted and more fish landed, to the benefit of both the fishing industry and mother nature.
Of course, the best research vessels available to us are the fishing vessels themselves, and the CFP should recognise that. In devolving responsibility for certain decisions, it will be necessary for those closer to the fisheries to be able to commission scientific advice and provide appropriate evidence to suit local circumstances. That might require an entirely new way of approaching the evidence base for fisheries management, but we cannot continue to make decisions based on insufficient or uncertain data.
We must also consider the most effective way of managing the inshore fleet. The CFP must acknowledge the wider social and cultural benefits that are provided by the smaller-scale coastal fleet and the constraints under which that fleet, which is essentially made up of small businesses, operates. We are currently considering all views, and the advisory group supporting the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project—the SAIF project—is due to publish options before the end of the year. I am, of course, keen to hear Committee members’ views on that.
The green paper identifies overcapacity as the principal barrier to achieving sustainable fisheries, but we must be clear that it is the management system that has led to overcapacity, not overcapacity that has led to a failing management system. If public funding is to be considered as a tool to support fleet restructuring in some areas, any reductions must ensure genuine and permanent reductions in capacity. There is not much to be gained from throwing public money at fleet reductions if the same system that allowed that increase in capacity to develop remains in place. There must be effective change.
Finally, the message from the World Bank report, “The Sunken Billions”, should not be lost on any of us. It estimates that at least $50 billion of wealth is lost due to poor governance of the world’s fisheries. That does not include the wealth lost to illegal, unreported or unregulated fisheries. The message is clear: we must strive to improve the governance of fisheries, not only in our waters, but around the globe. This country relies heavily on imported seafood. If we are to protect our food security, consumers must be able to see that their fish come from well-managed stocks. Achieving that meaningful reform will not be easy. It is becoming clearer that the common goals of recovering fish stocks and maintaining them at abundant levels, and of protecting the marine environment, are consistent and compatible with a more profitable fishing industry and a brighter future for communities that are dependent on fishing. I am keen to hear the views of hon. Members.
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Prepared 3 November 2009