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Let me discuss the issue that has brought us here today, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, is the allocations, not least of 7D cod within the Hastings area. First, I shall outline some background. I know he
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will be familiar with this because we have had discussions about it, but it is helpful to outline it. Before 2009, there had been one total allowable catch for area 7B-K cod. The commission agreed to split that TAC, giving a separate allowance for 7D cod in recognition of the different scientific assessment of the stock. This is one TAC, which has been split into two, and it therefore—this is the important thing—does not constitute a new fishery, a blank sheet and a clean start.

However, let me elaborate on that a little. A 30 per cent. increase in the total allocation of cod for area 7D was negotiated at the EU December Council—we were glad to do that—and it was also secured for North sea cod. On that basis, the Marine and Fisheries Agency consulted the industry on the best way to allocate the new and split quotas in the UK, and my hon. Friend rightly says that it issued a proposal to use the track record of catch for 7D cod. I was pleased to see that proposal, which he rightly says was put forward to signal an opportunity. If it had been accepted, it would have meant that approximately 70 per cent. of the quota would go to the inshore fleet. I am not dancing on words, but let me say that this is probably where some of the misunderstanding has come from and where I went from hero to zero overnight. That was a deliberate proposal and I understand that the inshore fleet had an expectation that it could secure additional cod through it. However, good practice means that we then, on the basis of the proposal, go out to consult the industry—the wide industry. He is right to say that that should include the producer organisations—the big boys. Across that wide range of participants, the proposal was emphatically rejected by the industry at a meeting on 2 March, where the sector raised serious concerns about any move away from fixed quota allocations.

Michael Jabez Foster: Does my hon. Friend agree that the principle of one person, one vote might be a better way of determining this? Producer organisations represent only 50 per cent. of the industry, but they seem to have about 90 per cent. of the vote. Should we not consider electoral reform?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes a good point that goes to the heart of the issue, but I do not think we need to look at electoral reform in terms of how those meetings are run. I hear the powerful voice of the under-10s on this matter. Indeed, that voice has become louder since that meeting and since we responded by returning to FQAs. I am very cognisant of that, not least because of the representations that my hon. Friend has made, and I shall point out how we can act on that. However, that does not mean that I will revisit that decision. There is an issue that we have to deal with promptly and in a considered way, because it is not only an issue for the Hastings fleet. Many in the under 10-metre fleet would regard it as a historical anomaly and there are arguments for and against that, but they see it as a genuine issue of justice. There is a way forward, and perhaps assurances could be given to that effect, including clear mechanisms and a timescale for achieving it. As a Fisheries Minister I have to represent everybody, but I appreciate the problem which the particular issue of the 7D cod has brought to the fore.

The cod fishery is no doubt important to the fishermen of Hastings and the area, but it is the sole fishery that contributes a significantly higher proportion of inshore
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fisheries income in the Hastings area. It is anticipated that the sole fishery will be maintained for 2009 and the MFA—to its credit—has worked hard to source sole, given the huge importance of that stock to the Hastings fleet. My instructions to the MFA are to continue to do all it can to maximise the quota available to the inshore fleet.

One important issue is how we can use the current system to deliver benefits to the under 10-metre fleet around the UK, and its relationship with the producer organisations and the larger fleet. Only recently—within the last few weeks—I signed off on an agreed transfer of quota to fishermen in the north-west of significant benefit to the under 10-metre fleet. That was done through the MFA in agreement with the over-10s and the producer organisations. We have done the same recently in my hon. Friend’s area and we will continue to look for every opportunity we can.

When I walked out of the December fisheries negotiations, we were able to deliver a unique package under the Hague preference. I apologise to my hon. Friend because it did not benefit his fishermen, but it had a huge impact on the under 10-metre fleet in the north-east, which walked away with an additional 300 tonnes. It was the first time that an agreement had been reached with the over-10s to split the quota—on a one-off basis—that was invoked under the Hague preference at the December Council. It was split upfront, with half going to the under-10s, and that had a huge impact proportionally. We will continue to look for such deals.

We think it important under the current system to maintain the ability to engage with the producer organisations and the over-10s to maximise opportunities at this moment. It would not be to the benefit of the fleet to walk away from that at the moment.

Let me turn now to how I think that we can take things forward.

Michael Jabez Foster: With regard to the implication of the Hague preference, which my hon. Friend has used in the north-east, as he said, it is obviously easier to get agreement if there is an extra cake to split up. Otherwise, there is no cake for anyone. Should he not be considering doing the same for the coastal strip in the south? Is it not the case that the catch is so low at the moment that the Hague preference would have a part to play in making a special case for them, too?

Huw Irranca-Davies: We tend to counter-invoke in response to an invocation of the Hague preference by our ministerial colleagues in Ireland, if they choose to do so. The preference can be invoked only on certain species and certain areas. We tend to counter-invoke in response and try to maximise the opportunities that are available. That opportunity simply was not there. If there was a way to do that, we would certainly consider it. If the opportunity came up in the future, we would not rule it out. I would want my hon. Friend to say that to the fishermen he represents, too.

Let me say something about the way forward. DEFRA, under my instruction, has now established the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project—or SAIF. I have made that commitment previously and I am pleased to announce that it is now under way. Hon. Members will come to know more of the project, because it will be a pivotal way forward for the under 10-metre fleet.

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SAIF will promote DEFRA’s continuing involvement with key stakeholders in fisheries management, with the fishing industry, with communities where fisheries play a key role in the local economy and culture, and, of course, with fishermen. We have set up an advisory group to steer and support the work of the project, and I am delighted to announce the appointment of Alan Riddell as chair of the group. He brings significant experience of community regeneration, which is not a million miles away from what we are trying to do with this project. Sometimes—I know my hon. Friend will agree—fishermen are seen in isolation from the rest of what is going on, whereas they are actually integral to their communities.

Alan Riddell has experience of community regeneration through his former positions as director for local development and renewal for the Department for Communities and Local Government and, prior to that, setting up the East of England Development Agency. At some point, I shall reveal the membership of the advisory group, which reflects the sort of interests that we would want on such a group. That is a good stewardship position.

The advisory group will bring together expertise from both within and outside the fishing industry to develop new and innovative ideas—I want to be bold and quite radical—for achieving a genuinely sustainable inshore fishing industry. I look forward to working closely with Alan and the advisory group, receiving input from fellow Members of the House, on what I am convinced will be a worthwhile and rewarding project that will have a lasting impact on the English inshore fishing industry.

We have also taken the first steps to reforming the fleet and putting it on a sustainable footing, controversial as that process has been, through the package of measures including decommissioning and capping fishing effort announced in December. I shall not deal with the detail of that, as I am sure there will be many other opportunities to do so. That process has been successful, as shown by the number of applications. Many of those who felt they were hard done by and appealed have been brought in on appeal. Those moves have been well received, even though they were controversial, and we see them as a building block rather than the end. I have consistently made that clear.

It is now time to build on that firm foundation. As part of the SAIF project and other work that we have going on, we need to bolster our evidence on the environmental, economic and social impacts of the under 10-metre fleet, specifically focusing on that fleet, and to bring fresh thinking to these challenging issues. As part of that fresh thinking, we should map the way forward for quotas in a careful, considered and timely way. We must engage with the producer organisations and also recognise the widely held view among the under 10-metre fleet that there remains unfinished business. I have used that phrase before, but our work must achieve the agreement of all fishermen, and not be carried out in opposition to the views of some groups. Under the current system, members of the over 10-metre fleet have been willing to engage in quota swaps and so on, but the work that I have set out is the way forward.

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The project that I have described will be critical to reform of the common fisheries policy, and integral to our approach to managing the marine environment. It will be most important, however, to fishermen and the communities in which they work, as they share our desire for a healthy and viable inshore fishing industry. Moreover, they want an industry that will last beyond the 12 months needed for the annual quota negotiations and instead continue for many years to come.

We are faced with a choice. We can go ahead with considered, strategic and timely work to reform the inshore fleet that will include the SAIF project. The work on quota reform will be taken forward through the quadrilateral ministerial group that I and my counterparts from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—that is, Richard Lochhead, Elin Jones and Michelle Gildernew—announced yesterday. The group will look at quota reform and licensing throughout the UK, and one of our terms of reference is to look at vulnerable communities. Richard Lochhead has problems with his communities, as do I with mine, not least in respect of the under 10-metre fleet.

We have not announced a timetable for our work, but we need to be realistic. We will have to come to a position on CFP reform to inform our discussions, so we are probably looking at taking 12, 13 or 14 months. However, we will discuss that so that we can set up an out-date or a milestone towards which we can work. I know that my fellow Ministers are as committed to that as I am.

We announced the establishment of the ministerial group yesterday, and today we announced the chairmanship of the SAIF group. On top of all that, there is the environmentally responsible fishing scheme, which I believe will prove to be a notable success. It is already gearing up to play a constructive role in CFP reform.

The scheme will run in under 10-metre fleets in six pilot areas in mixed fisheries around the coast. Instead of discarding fish, fishermen will land everything that they catch and sell it. We are examining the sustainability of that approach, and we will take the lessons that we learn to the European Commission because we believe that the scheme could offer a sensible way forward. It has already improved the economic viability of the fishermen taking part, and the early indications are that it is being done in a way that is extremely sustainable for the local fisheries environment.

Michael Jabez Foster: I am glad that my hon. Friend understands the wickedness of discards, but will he say what the timetable for the scheme is? What prospect is there that it can be adopted more widely across the UK, and when could that happen?

Huw Irranca-Davies: We have not come to a firm conclusion about that yet, as we have not seen the results of the first trials, but I have begun discussing with my officials the possibility of expanding or extending the existing scheme. However, I ask my hon. Friend to bear it in mind that the aim of the pilot scheme being carried out with the agreement of the European Commission is to see whether the approach can work. As a result, there will not be a complete roll-out on the basis of the pilots, however we assess them, because they will not provide enough evidence. We have yet to come to a firm decision and we will need to do more,
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but the pilot schemes do offer the possibility of a new approach. It is one that I am inclined to take further, once we have looked at all the evidence.

In conclusion, there is an issue to address. I understand the position of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, and its frustration, but I say to it clearly that we have a choice. We could spend our precious time and valuable resources on entering into litigation, without bringing about the long-term change that we want. That might, at least temporarily, stymie our shared aspiration for a strong and stable future for the under 10-metre fleet. However, my hon. Friend rightly laid down a challenge to step up to the big boys. By the way, there are big boys in the under 10-metre fleet, as well as in the over 10-metre fleet; there are big, powerful voices. I want to sit down with those people, not throw bricks at them. I think I have already shown, in my time as a Minister, that I am not afraid of taking tough decisions to achieve the right end. I am very willing to come down to Hastings promptly to meet fishermen there, together with my hon. Friend, to discuss the real challenges and the real ways forward. That is a genuine offer that I urge my hon. Friend to pass on to his constituents.

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I know that my hon. Friend will want to play a real, continuing leadership role on the issue on behalf of his constituents and the under 10-metre fleet in his area and across the UK. So do I. We share the ambition of ensuring the long-term viability of our fleets, large and small, in all parts of the UK. This has been a good, timely debate. I believe there is a way forward, but we need to confront the issues head-on. We need to get people to sit down together and take on the issues, and then try to find a way forward that gives the under 10-metre fleet certainty that we are serious about the issue. We should not simply harangue—I am not accusing my hon. Friend of doing this—the very stakeholders to whom we need to say, “You will be part of the solution.” We need to move forward on the issue; I recognise that. I am committed to doing so, and I hope that he will take those messages back to his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

5.11 pm

House adjourned.

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