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26 Oct 2009 : Column 97

The purpose of amendment 23 is slightly different. A number of conservation bodies are concerned about the fisheries defence. I think that they have a justification for their concerns because, as the provision is drafted, the defence could be used by some in the fishing industry who are less reputable-the vast majority do not do this-and who might not go about their trade in an MCZ or around a feature that we are seeking to protect with the care that we would hope for.

The Minister and the Secretary of State, through Government amendment 5, are proposing that at some point-I think the Minister suggested quite soon after the Bill becomes an Act-the fisheries defence will simply be removed. I propose a tightening of the Bill. Clause 141 states:

Under the Bill, it is incumbent on the enforcement body to disprove the defence. I am proposing that a fisherman would need to demonstrate a three-pronged, higher hurdle of proof to be able to use the fisheries defence as effectively as the Minister is seeking to achieve.

The purpose of amendment 42, which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby clearly supports is, as it says, to achieve "equal treatment". The last thing we want to do as a result of the Bill-the Minister has perpetually reassured those of us who have raised the issue-is tie the hands of UK fishermen and allow fishermen from other nations, including EU nations, to be able simply to plunder the fish stocks in areas to which UK fishermen have effectively been told they cannot go and fish. If that is not achieved as a result of the Bill, it would undermine its authority and the support for it.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): May I put it this way to my hon. Friend? It would be irresponsible to designate an MCZ if it was known that it would be open to access to trawlers from other countries, when access to the UK fishing industry is denied. That result cannot ever be seen to be the intention of Parliament.

Andrew George: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Such a situation would not only undermine the authority of the UK agencies responsible for enforcing the Act, but it would not actually save any fish or the marine environment. All we would be doing is stopping UK vessels doing something that all other vessels would be able to do in any case. We would have achieved nothing at all. It would simply undermine the authority of the Act itself. I hope that the Minister reflects on that. If he does not accept amendment 42, I hope he will table a Government amendment that will achieve the same object.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that there were legal reasons why such an amendment could not be introduced, but I do not think that we are proposing to apply laws to EU vessels that are not lawful under European law. We are simply trying to achieve a situation in which we do not constrain UK vessels in a way that we cannot constrain their competitors around the UK coast.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on those amendments. Their purpose is to achieve a balance and to recognise that the assumption that there is ongoing conflict between
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fishermen and conservation bodies is simply not the case. Increasingly, over time, they are working together. I think we should be trying to achieve that through the Bill.

8.15 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I very much welcome the progress that has been made on issues such as the fisherman's defence since I spoke on Second Reading. I congratulate the Minister and Committee on the work that they have done. He has clearly listened to representations and there was clearly an effective debate, demonstrating all that is effective in the Committee system.

My proposals would deal with some of those problems and strengthen the Bill. I particularly wanted to speak about inshore limits and to seek clarification from the Minister, who has moved a considerable way on the matter. I accept many of the points made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), in that there should be no contradiction between the fishing industry and effective marine conservation, which have shared interests.

There are good examples of what the fishing industry has done in recent years to improve marine conservation. Certification schemes such as the marine stewardship scheme have grown, and a lot of the big retailers, including the Co-op and Marks & Spencer, take the issue of sustainable fisheries very seriously. Wholesalers such as Young's seafood group, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), have a good record on the issue. That has spread through to the fishing industry, which I think has recognised that it is in its interests to work with conservation groups and conservation policy. The Isle of Lundy, which has been mentioned, is a good example of that. Fishermen have benefited from, for example, larger shellfish and increased catches. There is no contradiction in the principle.

I was concerned, as were groups such as Wildlife and Countryside Link, that the fisherman's defence was far too widely drawn. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that one attractive thing about people in the fishing industry is that they are open and honest when they talk about things in detail-they will be quite open about some of the extremely damaging, and in many cases illegal practices, within the industry. They generally point to the other fishing point down the road and say that the fishermen there and not they are involved in such practices.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: Up the road.

Mr. Morley: Or up the road. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that if we are not careful, we will leave loopholes that will be exploited.

As has been said, this is an exciting Bill and I have been very keen on it for a long time. I know how difficult and complicated it has been to introduce-it has been a lot more complicated than many people understand. It is a great tribute to the Government and the Department that they have managed to make progress with the Bill and that it is heading towards the statute book with such widespread support. I very much welcome that.

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The issue is how we can ensure that there are no loopholes that can be exploited. We also need to ensure that British fishermen are not discriminated against. It is not acceptable to have measures in place that apply only to the UK fleet and not to other EU or non-EU fishing boats. As the Minister knows, we have absolute control within the inshore limit of 6 maritime miles. One could argue that the defence in clause 141(4) does not need to apply up to the 6-mile limit because there can be no discrimination within that area. The Minister will say that that point can be addressed through the new IFCAs, and indeed it can. We have an opportunity to establish some really good examples of sustainable fisheries management within the 6-mile limit, and the inshore fleet has led the way by, for example, using creels to catch prawns-which is much less damaging than trawling-and hand-lining, which is much more selective than many other forms of fishing. We have seen some tremendous examples of good conservation by the sea fisheries committees on shellfish, which were agreed by the inshore fleet. We have a real opportunity and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity to emphasise that this is something that the IFCAs could do.

Within the 6 to 12-mile limit, some non-UK vessels have historical rights in those waters. I am very concerned about the exploitation of loopholes, but I do not want to see our vessels in those areas being discriminated against by having to comply with measures that do not apply to non-UK vessels. For example, there are long-running tensions in the sole fisheries and conservation areas, and this Bill may provide opportunities to address those problems. Can the Minister explain how the Bill will work within the 6 to 12-mile limit, where we do not have exclusive competence? The Commission itself recognises that we need these measures, and we have heard from other hon. Members that other countries are introducing their own measures on marine conservation zones, and that is right.

As has been said several times, we need to achieve the right balance between protecting the marine ecosystem and recognising the existence of the fishing industry and the jobs and economic activity that accompany it. The Minister is moving towards finding the right balance, but if it is not right, people will exploit the situation through legal challenges or by making excuses for damaging activities. We must also be fair and even-handed so that our fishing industry is not unduly discriminated against. I think that we are going in the right direction and I seek further assurance this evening.

Mr. Walker: I listened to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) with great interest. I did not agree with everything that he said, but I did agree that our fishing industry has been extraordinarily badly served by this House and the common fisheries policy. Of course, the interests of commercial fishermen and of recreational fishermen should be convergent, but that is not always the case.

There is also a flaw in marine conservation zones, because they may create great strife and angst if UK fishermen have to sit on the sidelines watching EU vessels merrily trawling through them. That would be an absolute disaster and make a mockery of what we are trying to achieve here-

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Huw Irranca-Davies indicated assent.

Mr. Walker: I am sure that the Minister will provide us with great comfort on that point in the future.

Marine conservation zones are critical if we are to preserve and conserve fish stocks. Everyone here is a conservationist-we want to see healthy fish stocks and a flourishing commercial fishing industry. I want to see a flourishing recreational fishing sector as well-I declare my interest at this point-because it is an important contributor to the economy. I know that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) will address that issue later.

We must ensure that commercial fishermen understand that this is not yet another attack on them. However, a marine conservation zone that allows commercial fishing is not a conservation zone-it is just another fishing zone. So I am not entirely clear about the argument on that point. However, let me also reflect on the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox), who said that commercial fishermen have been responsible for very successful innovations to protect and safeguard fish stocks. He mentioned the case of Lundy, and that is an example of best practice. The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) mentioned innovative new methods of shrimping and catching scallops. Several commercial fishermen are trying different net meshes to ensure that non-target species can escape and do not end up as by-product, which too often is thrown back into the sea for seagulls-a crying shame.

I am worried about the fishing defence. I would have thought that all damage caused by commercial fishermen would be accidental. I cannot see commercial fishermen setting out to cause deliberate damage, but we know that there are certain trawling methods that cause significant damage to the sea bed. There are also forms of fishing that take a high number of non-target species. Yes, that is accidental damage, but it is damage, and that is what we are worried about. We need to find a sensible way forward that allows nursery areas to flourish and lets us restock our inshore waters with bass and other important fish. We also need to ensure that in the medium to long term our commercial sea fishermen see the benefit of the Bill.

I repeat that we have served them badly over the past 30 to 40 years. The CFP affects all fishermen in Europe, but our fishermen used to enjoy the richest fishing grounds and our industry used to employ many hundreds of thousands of people, not tens of thousands of people. Over the past 40 years, we have left far too many fishing families high and dry. I do not want to be a rabid anti-European, because it is not in my nature to be rabid about anything, but I hope that a future Government-whether Labour or an incoming Conservative Government -get to grips with the CFP so that it works in favour of our fishermen more than it does now.

Ms Angela C. Smith: You will not hear me demonising fishermen this evening, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for although I come from generations of steel and coal families on my mother's side, on my father's side I come from fishing families from the port of Great Grimsby. I therefore understand, perhaps more than most, how important fishing has been to the livelihoods of families down the generations, whether we are talking about
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fishing in the Arctic circle, which my father did in the late 1950s, or working in the fish processing factories that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned. Ross, Young's Seafood, Findus, Birds Eye-you name it, it has been in Grimsby.

For some time, the existence of towns such as Great Grimsby has depended on the fishing industry. The town of Great Grimsby was the world's premier fishing port and, it has to be said, it was bigger than Hull's fishing port.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: And better.

Ms Smith: Indeed, but now it is the ex-premier. Grimsby benefited in the 1950s and 1960s because of a no-take zone, which was established because of the second world war. Between 1939 and 1945, fishing operations were suspended in the North sea and the Arctic circle. The fishermen of Grimsby were employed in minesweeping and dangerous war operations that involved sailing small boats under German radar into Norway, and so on. They did that work only because the Royal Navy could not do it, being unable to take the sea conditions that it involved. That gives hon. Members an indication of how dangerous fishing is, especially in the conditions out in the Arctic, and why it is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world. Nobody knows better than I do about the realities of fishing and what it involves.

8.30 pm

However, in the '50s and '60s the healthy stock in the North sea was exploited to the nth degree. Indeed, the fishermen were also heavily exploited, thanks to the greed of those companies that were trying to make the most of the stocks available. I therefore disagree with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) that this House is entirely or perhaps even largely to blame for what happened to the fishing industry. To some extent we have to blame the conglomerates and the owners of the fishing industry, who took the fish out of the sea and drove those men to the extremes of their occupation in order to get as much fish as possible on the quayside in Grimsby and Hull in the '50s and '60s. We all know the consequences of those actions. In some cases those actions were piracy. Indeed, one of the skippers in Grimsby was arrested for piracy over in Iceland in the 1960s-he came to a sticky end, although not at the hands of the Icelanders. That shows the level of exploitation of the industry, and we live with the consequences even now.

More than anything else, the story of what happened to trawling in places such as Grimsby indicates why we have to take forward some of the measures in the Bill. We have to strike the right balance between marine conservation and sustainable fishing. That is the core of what we are trying to do. I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) said about an increasing understanding between the industry and the conservationists. In fact, their interests are completely compatible. They can work together to ensure that there is a future fishing industry and, equally, that the marine environment is not exploited as it has been in the past.

None of the amendments before us addresses the key issue, which is the incorporation into the Bill of the defence against damage to the marine environment. I understand entirely why that defence cannot be taken
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out, because of the 6 to 12-nautical mile limit, which involves the rights of European vessels to fish in our waters, and the rights of our fishermen within the nought to 6-nautical mile limit. I understand the Minister's argument that taking action on that limit runs the risk of damaging our domestic fishing industry while giving European vessels the right to run riot in our marine environment. I therefore understand the Minister's position on one level.

The way forward is reform of the common fisheries policy in the 2012 negotiations, as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) outlined from the Front Bench, to deal with the 6 to 12-mile limit. However, on the nought to 6-mile limit, I would appreciate some remarks from the Minister about the possibility of issuing guidance from the legislation on using existing byelaws to protect our precious marine environment not just from reckless damage but, where necessary and on a case-by-case basis, from accidental damage.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I represent a constituency where fishing is still an important part of the local economy. Fishermen support the Bill. They fully recognise the importance of conservation, and they support the Bill because it sets out a path for sustainable protection of the marine environment and a coherent management structure. However, fishing organisations have one or two concerns.

I start by referring to an 18th century Act to which reference has been made tonight-the White Herring Fisheries Act 1771. Fishermen and fishing organisations feel strongly about preserving the Act because it sets out basic rights that have existed for more than 200 years. I support amendment 17, tabled by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), and to which I am a signatory.

The Government's case is that the Act is obsolete. If it were, it would make sense to repeal it, but the problem is that it may come to light that it is not obsolete. It provides basic rights to fishermen, and they feel strongly about it. It gives fishermen throughout Great Britain rights that do not seem to be replicated in other statutes. It gives them the legal right to fish the British seas, subject to complying with subsequent regulations, such as the common fisheries policy and British licensing regulations. It also gives them the right to use all British ports and harbours, subject to payment of harbour dues. Without the Act, private interests could exclude our fishermen from their harbours.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Act is obsolete, keeping it on the statute book does no harm? If it is not obsolete, it is useful to have it. Why do the Government always tidy things up in this nannying way, which is most trying? Would it not be possible on this occasion for them to learn that a bit of untidiness does a lot of good?

Mr. Reid: I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I was coming to that. If the Act is obsolete, there is no point in repealing it. If it is not obsolete, it should be kept on the statute book.

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