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1 Dec 2009 : Column 1057

The implementation of European special protected areas is causing concern. The other day I was in Weymouth, where fishermen had been shown lines on maps of fishing areas in which they have had crab pots for many years. However, such plans should be explained to them at an early stage. There may be a thoroughly justified reason why those areas have been protected, but the fact that fishermen have not been consulted is a problem.

A further challenge arising from the 2009 Act is the transition of the Marine and Fisheries Agency to the new Marine Management Organisation. I hope that the Minister's optimism is justified. I welcome the creation of this important new Government agency, which I hope will breathe new life into the approach to fisheries management, but I am concerned lest the transition from the MFA should result in the loss of specialist expertise. I learned from the written answer to a recent parliamentary question that some 67 MFA staff have refused to relocate to the new MMO in Tyneside. For many months, inside the organisation, reference was made to the Tyneside 10.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you provide guidance as to whether there will be time for any Back-Bench contributions to the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Yes, indeed there will be, and points of order like that one just take up even more time.

Mr. Benyon: I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but it is important that the Minister understands the concern within the organisation about the MMO. The Government are not good at machinery of government changes or at managing people and organisations. There may be very good reasons why Tyneside was chosen for the relocation, and I have nothing against the area, but the Minister should have consulted the MFA employees much earlier to encourage more of them to go to the new MMO, because it is important that it works. We will all support it when it comes into operation in April, but it has not had a good start.

I approach my role with no sense of a one-size-fits-all solution, and I intend to work with anyone who wants a meaningful discussion about how to approach the future of our seas. However, if my party comes to power, the health of our seas, the viability of fishing as a business and the plight of our coastal communities will be real challenges for a new Government, and they will be a priority for my party in the months and years ahead.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply from now on.

8.44 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): May I express my resentment that this major fishing debate, which is important to all of us and brings together the best and the brightest Members of Parliament-that is to say, the fishermen of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, plus a line fisherman from Reading-super-Mare-to discuss the issues of fishing has been allowed
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only two and a quarter hours, of which the first hour has been taken up by the Front-Bench speakers? It is appalling that we are forced to cram our remarks on the forthcoming talks into that time, particularly as these talks will be some of the most difficult that we have had to face.

Today's Norway talks will be complicated by the unilateral mackerel quotas grabbed by Iceland, the Faroes and Norway. We face a difficult settlement in the December Council meeting because of the problem of cod in the Irish sea. We face a situation in which co-decision is to be extended to the European Parliament, which will bring many more political considerations into a common fisheries policy that should not be dominated by politics, and will increase the leverage of the conservation and environmental fanatics, who regard commercial fishing as the enemy rather than the agent of conservation and sustainable fishing, which is how I see it. They will pay more attention to the cuddly seals than to the fish that the seals eat.

The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), said that the reform of the common fisheries policy for which he so much hoped was pushing at an open door. I have to say that some horrible things have emerged behind that door so far, with the first grab of power by the European Commission when it introduced the technical rules, which have been abominated by fishermen and the fishing organisations. The rules were rushed in with no consultation and were top-down measures of the type that we do not want. Fortunately they were postponed, but the Commission has now insisted on an EU control regulation which will provide for only a 10 per cent. margin of tolerance between the logbook estimates and the landing declarations.

That will lead to prosecutions all over Europe, particularly in this country, where our authorities are more assiduous than most, as soon as we get electronic logbooks. It is very difficult to estimate the size of the small amounts of by-catch, and any error of more than 10 per cent. will lead to prosecution. That will lead to an insane situation, with prosecutions all over Europe and all over England. In Grimsby recently a skipper was found to have a discrepancy of only 8 per cent. between his logbook estimate and his landing declaration on plaice, for which he was prosecuted, although there were no quota restrictions on his producer organisation for that species.

If that is an augury of things to come, it is an augury of disaster. If it is an augury of the kind of thing that the reform of the common fisheries policy will throw up, then that is even worse. We should oppose such reforms. Reform should pass power down from the centre-the point made by hon. Gentleman-from the command and control economy and management system operated by the Commission to the regional advisory councils and to a self-regulating industry. "Trust the fishermen" should be the slogan. The de facto decision making should be devolved and responsibility should be delegated.

We need sustainable fishing plans managed by producer organisations that will document the vessels' activities and performance and will audit the situation-a bottom-up rather than a top-down system, such as the one that
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operates in Australia. We need to combine that with long-term management plans, and I hope the Government will support that.

In the December Council, the probable 25 per cent. reduction in fishing mortality under the cod recovery plan in the Irish sea and Scottish westerly waters will divert effort from those waters into the North sea and damage the industry there. The cod recovery plan is not working effectively in the North sea, either, so the time has come to review the plan and ask whether we cannot sustain and rebuild the stocks by other means. Something has to be done about a plan that is manifestly not working. We must note that any reduction in the days-at-sea allowances will lead to "Olympic" fishing, whereby people go out and catch all that they can. They will catch more cod as by-catch, and that will encourage more discards. The same situation will apply to nephrops, because of the failure of the catches on the Porcupine bank off Ireland, which will have a knock-on effect on the whole area. Why can we not combine haddock and whiting quotas to reduce whiting discards? Fishermen could make a return and land their stock, and we could avoid the problem of such large discards.

It is appropriate that I give only a short speech, but I want the Minister to make such proposals at the December Council. The industry will support them. He has done a very good and helpful job so far, but the crunch time is now, and it is important to resist the Commission's proposals.

8.51 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell): we need protected time in which to undertake this debate in future, so that we do not lose time because of other business. Many hon. Members wish to take part, and I shall do my utmost to make my remarks as quickly as possible so that we allow as many hon. Members to speak as we can.

We use this debate as an opportunity both to demonstrate our appreciation of those in the industry, especially the catching sector, who are engaged in the most hazardous profession, and to convey our sympathies to the families and colleagues of those men who engage in this important industry to put fish on our tables and who are lost at sea.

I pay tribute to the Minister and agree with about 90 per cent. of what he said. I shall try to concentrate on the areas where we disagree, rather than on those where we agree. In that respect, I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), because, having heard a decade of fantasy from the Conservatives, I think it useful and helpful to hear that the party has turned around and is now engaged in constructive dialogue about the future of the fishing industry in relation to its international objectives with the rest of Europe.

The negotiations are very difficult. The Minister will be aware that the main, very important fishing port of Newlyn in my constituency, which I hope he will visit soon, had a troubled year. It is now, however, looking positively to the future. However, many challenges affect my constituency and others. They include the challenges from the change to the regulation on under-10 metre
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vessels. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) will mention recreational sea anglers and the regulations affecting them. In an intervention on the Minister, I also mentioned that two of the five special areas of conservation-the special protection areas-are within my constituency. Their likely impact should be a good opportunity for the Government and Natural England to show that, in fact, conservation and a sustainable fishing industry can work together. We will watch that one closely. Further challenges include the roll-out of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the implementation of the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities, and I congratulate the Minister on his decision to retain the integrity of the current boundaries of the sea fisheries committees.

I shall emphasise a theme in my contribution. On the future of this industry, we do not envisage the "them and us" culture of the past, with the fishing industry working against those enforcing the regulations and the scientists, or vice versa. Instead, we envisage everyone working together, with the shared objectives of a sustainable industry-scientists and regulators working with the industry, and the industry often leading the debate on constructive proposals for its future.

I want to deal with the annual Fisheries Council, common fisheries policy reform, and the Green Paper, and to look at constructive ways forward. The Minister will be aware, as he has been through this already, that we will no doubt again have the absurdity of the 11th-hour brinkmanship of overnight negotiations as the fishing nations come together to resolve the remaining issues of debate and disagreement. I wish him well in those discussions. Of course, we agree that decisions should be based on sound science, but what do we do if the science is not there or if there has been insufficient recent scientific assessment? That has bedevilled much of our debate in years gone by. Throughout area 7, many of the scientific assessments are based on last year's, not this year's, assessments. What are we to do in those circumstances? I hope that the Minister will say that he is working towards remedying that situation early in 2010. Scientists, the industry, DEFRA, the regional advisory councils and the European Commission need to work together to address it.

Another theme that runs through those negotiations, which possibly affects areas 6 and 7 more than others, is the "use or lose it" method, which results in perverse outcomes-for example, the Cornish fishermen lose out if the French do not catch their quota. If quotas are not rolled over, there is also the perverse incentive whereby fishermen are encouraged to catch rather than to preserve their stock. I hope that the Minister will take that into account in his negotiations in the Fisheries Council.

The practice of quota swapping increasingly happens between nations. As a result of the establishment of the RACs, Cornish fishermen are working well with French fishermen, and that is happening elsewhere, too. Surely that is a beneficial outcome. It is better to develop international relations by joint working within the RACs. I understand that that is not yet sanctioned or supported by the Minister and his Department, so I hope that he will take that point on board.

The Minister mentioned the need to preserve spurdogs, porbeagle sharks, skates and rays. Those are non-target species, and rightly so, but they are an unavoidable
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by-catch in many of the sectors that we are talking about. I hope that he will work with the industry to try to ensure that we reduce that by-catch, as the measures proposed in the settlement for the Fisheries Council will not save a single spurdog, porbeagle shark, skate or ray. He has received a letter from the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, dated 27 November, which contains some significant proposals that I hope he will take into account.

I think that we are all reading from the same page in the debate on common fisheries policy reform. We want it to be more devolved on the basis of better science, better monitoring and better, more even enforcement across Europe, with more buy-in, based on a constructive dialogue, from an industry incentivised to promote long-term objectives and sustainability. However, the remaining issue, which we often come back to, is the role of total allowable catches and quotas in the future of the CFP. I think we can also all agree, as we have tended to do so in all the debates that I have engaged in, that quotas are a blunt instrument. They create the obscenity of discarding fish, they create a barrier to new entrants, they are almost useless in protecting stock in mixed fisheries, particularly ultra-mixed fisheries such as those in my area, and they are perceived as often being based on arbitrary assessments and threadbare evidence.

There are many other criticisms of TACs and quotas. However, the problem is that as soon as one starts to think of getting rid of them, the industry says that the problem is that the most highly valued stock-in my area, Dover sole and turbot, for example-would be the first to be plundered and would therefore slip down the value chain. Moreover, that approach would hit the areas that are as close as possible to port, particularly when fuel prices are high. It would not work. I have noticed that the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations is very clear about wanting a system strongly based on quotas.

The problem with discards is how to distinguish intended and unintended over-quota by-catches. That has been a conundrum for the regulators and will continue to be. If we got rid of quotas altogether, those who had invested properly would not be properly rewarded for it in future quotas and licences.

The hon. Member for Newbury referred to the NFFO's proposed sustainable fishing plans, which are clearly the way forward. It has stated that a future CFP should be:

I would add that that should probably include their appreciation of a healthy and diverse marine environment. The culture has changed for the better over the past decade, and there is a strong and constructive dialogue. The industry is working constructively with marine scientists, and there are two good examples of that. The first is the Cornish Trevose ground closure, which has now been in operation for four years. It was designed for cod recovery, and anecdotally it is working. We have not yet had a review of the impact that it is having, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that there is one. Has it displaced effort elsewhere, and what contribution has it made to the spawning stock biomass, sustainable yields and the recovery of cod and other species? Knowing that would be particularly helpful.

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The second example, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is an excellent initiative largely driven by the industry in Scotland-the Scottish conservation credits scheme, which was introduced last February. They are Celts, but they are rather laggardly Celts, because they are slightly behind the Cornish, but never mind. We will forgive them for that-at least they are ahead of the Anglo-Saxons. The scheme is based on voluntarily closed areas, changes in gear, the management of effort and the maintenance of days at sea.

The industry has come up not only with those two excellent initiatives, which are already working, but with something of which I hope the Minister will take account-the sustainable fishing plans. The hon. Member for Newbury has already described them, so I do not need to. I hope that the Minister will take into account what hon. Members have said and ensure that the plans become the basis on which we can build an agenda for the future in which the industry is keyed in and working constructively with scientists, marine conservationists and law enforcers. There must be greater teamwork, with all of us working together, rather than the "them and us" culture of the past.

9.3 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I welcome the approach that the Minister has taken and the opportunity once again to discuss the fishing industry. Not a lot changes-in the 20 years or so that I have been attending these debates, Front-Bench speeches have always been too long and the debate has always been too short, and we are always compressed like this.

The Minister opened the debate by referring to the huge changes that we are seeing in the industry, a number of which have been mentioned by all three Front Benchers, but nothing much has changed for the industry, because this year it is once again facing a lot of uncertainty. That is partly about the Norway and EU discussions that are taking place today, and the level of uncertainty is much greater this year because of the mackerel stocks, which have been mentioned a number of times. It is clear that the industry faces a number of serious problems, and it will need to adjust to the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Probably most important are the changes in the CFP. There is a lot of optimism, and it is important that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet on such a fundamental issue.

The all-party fisheries group recently met representatives of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations. I have to say that I did not detect a huge amount of optimism from them about where they saw the EU going, despite the NFFO's very good report on the Commission's green paper. There is still a lot of uncertainty about whether the Fisheries Council or the European Commission would want to give up their power.

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