Although our industry still supports a huge number of jobs in our coastal communities, those opportunities risk becoming unsustainable as long as small vessels have disproportionately restricted access to the UK’s quota. Many Members have raised that issue in the debate, including my north-east neighbours, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell)

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and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). I look forward to hearing the Minister address Members’ challenging and serious questions on that issue.

I know that Greenpeace is not the flavour of the month for some Members here, but it calculates that small-scale vessels represent more than three quarters of the total UK fleet but have access to just 4% of the UK quota. The remaining 96% is held by larger-scale interests. I am sure the Minister knows that the right decisions at the Council are required to support our coastal fishermen and the communities and jobs that they sustain, but I hope to hear also that he will use the power in his gift to give a fairer deal to smaller boats and open up wider access to the UK’s fishing quota.

4.6 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. In particular, I congratulate the members of the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries on securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee. I note that the House has adjourned, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out. I hope that in future years, we can hold this debate where it belongs: on the Floor of the House.

I begin by recognising those who, sadly, paid the ultimate price and lost their lives while fishing this year. It is an incredibly dangerous occupation; this year, no fewer than 11 fishermen lost their lives in accidents at sea, a number slightly higher than in previous years. As many hon. Members have said, our thoughts are with the families of those killed. It is a dangerous occupation, and fishermen put their lives at risk to bring food to our table. In that regard, I acknowledge my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) who, as we all know, has personal experience of that, and so will feel particularly strongly for the families affected.

I will say a little bit about the reforms to the common fisheries policy. As I have said in similar debates, the reality is that no man-made system of administration will ever be perfect for the management of fisheries. The marine environment is incredibly complex—thousands of different species interact with one another in mixed fisheries—and no administrative legal regulation will ever be perfect, but the test that we should set ourselves is whether our changes and reforms are moving us significantly in the right direction. I contend that they are, and that the latest CFP reform—my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), took a leading role in the negotiations—is a step in the right direction.

We have achieved a number of things in the latest reform, which is now being implemented. The first is regional decision making. Nation states sit around a table to agree multilaterally how they should deal with the issue of discards and implement multi-annual plans. The role of the Commission, rather than dictating from the centre, is effectively to sign off and agree those management plans put together by member states. To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, that is because everybody has a stake in the fishery—those countries have a shared interest in responsible management—and it is the right thing to do.

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Secondly, we have introduced the discipline of a discard ban, which is important. Discarding is a shameful practice that has continued over many decades—a couple of years ago I was reading a book written by George Orwell in 1942, which talked about the scandal of fish being discarded back into the sea—so the discipline of a discard ban is important.

We will only make a discard ban work in practice as well as in theory if we have as many flexibilities as are necessary to make it work. Despite the concerns that fishermen have expressed, which I hear, there are many flexibilities in this policy. For instance, there is the ability to bank and borrow quota, so if someone does not use all their quota in one year they can roll it over to the next. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out that we cannot allow that flexibility to exhaust the following year’s quota, which is why there are limits of around 10%.

There is also the ability to have inter-species flexibility, so that if someone catches over their quota on one species but still has quota for another species, they could count one species against the other. We will probably need some sort of exchange system, so that we have the right values of fish; otherwise, there could be unintended consequences. Nevertheless, that is a second important flexibility. There is also a survivability exemption. With certain flatfish species that are caught by certain nets, if they are juvenile and undersize but would survive, it is not good to land them; it is good to put them back in the water and give them time to grow. If all else fails, there is a de minimis exemption. If someone has tried everything else in the book, and nothing can prevent some level of discarding, that de minimis exemption enables some discarding to continue, but in strictly limited circumstances.

With all these flexibilities, the discipline of fishing sustainably, and—as the shadow Minister pointed out—the aim and policy of getting to maximum sustainable yield this year where possible, and everywhere by 2020, we have started to make progress. For instance, as recently as 2009, only about five quota species were being fished sustainably. We are now up to 32 species being fished at maximum sustainable yield, which is up from 26 last year. Also, the stock trends in many areas are moving in the right direction, so there has been some good progress on MSY.

The advantage of fishing sustainably is that fishermen can then catch more fish. That is a very important point, which we must keep stressing. Pulling belts in and showing some restraint today, provided that we are not discarding those fish, means that tomorrow, next year and the year after we should have more fish. I think we are starting to see that come through in the advice from ICES.

Only a few hon. Members touched on the situation in the North sea, but I will highlight it, because it is very positive for most stocks. There is always a danger in these debates that we focus on things that are difficult and challenging, and fail to recognise success. However, with cod, for instance, there is a recommendation for a 15% increase in the total allowable catch. There are also recommendations for a 30% increase in the TAC for North sea haddock, a 16% increase for herring, a 15% increase for plaice and a 20% increase for monkfish in some areas. We are seeing some really positive results in the North sea, and that is partly a consequence of our fishing sustainably there in recent years.

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Mrs Sheryll Murray: I acknowledge the success in the North sea, but the UK share of the North sea TAC is considerably more than it is in area VII. Only 8% or 10% of the cod and haddock are in area VII to begin with, so any cut would have a disproportionate effect on fishermen in the south-west.

George Eustice: My hon. Friend highlights an important point. In the Celtic sea, depending on which area we look at, the French and the Irish have the majority of stock, particularly of haddock. She is right about that; I think that the figure I saw was more than 80%. However, to make a slightly different point, a cut there has a disproportionate effect on the French and Irish, because they have a larger starting base, and if it is a stock that we never had much of in the first place, a cut does not matter as much. Nevertheless, I understand her point, and we should probably have a fairer share of that stock.

I also recognise that the news is not universally good. Yet again, for the third year running that I have been Minister—and it was the case for some years before that, too—there is some very challenging science for the Irish sea in particular, which I will return to later. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) pointed out, dramatic cuts are being proposed for haddock; we will try to get the cuts to VIIa haddock reduced, and to get something that we regard as more proportionate. There is also very challenging advice on plaice.

In the Celtic sea, things are a little more mixed. Once again, we got challenging advice, as we expected, on cod and haddock, with cuts of 30% and 27% respectively being recommended. In previous years, we carried out what we call mixed fishery analysis on those stocks, to ensure that we were not disproportionately cutting something to the point that we end up having to discard it in a mixed fishery. Those figures are more closely aligned this year than last year, so the mixed fishery analysis is probably less likely to help us as an argument this time around. Nevertheless, we will make that analysis, and will work with the French and the Irish, who have a shared interest in that stock.

There are positives as well, not least VIId and VIIe plaice in the channel. The ICES recommendation, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out, is for a 125% increase. Western channel sole is recommended for a 15% increase, due to the management plan, which I will come back to. Also, the scientific advice on skates and rays, despite the fact that they are regarded as a data-limited stock, and despite the complications that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) highlighted, points towards a 40% increase in the quota.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), pointed out the importance of reliable science, and I absolutely agree with them. As I said at the start, no system will ever be perfect; the science will never be perfect. There will always be evidence gaps, and however much scientists try to model things to make the science as up-to-date as possible, there will always be instances in which the science is not quite right. Nevertheless, it is still right to take the science as our starting-point in negotiations.

We are improving the science that we have. Last year, we had enough science and enough evidence to carry out an MSY assessment on 46 stocks, and that number

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is now up to 62. We are getting better each year at moving stocks away from the data-limited category, and at getting reliable science, so that we can set accurate MSY assessments. Those assessments will be absolutely crucial if we are to get to MSY on all quota species by 2020.

May I pay tribute to the fantastic work that the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science does in Lowestoft? I should add that Lowestoft is the right place for CEFAS to be located. We have given a vote of confidence in CEFAS and its future by making available money to upgrade its laboratories. I visited CEFAS last year and I was incredibly impressed by the work that it does on Endeavour, the vessel there. I also pay tribute to the great work that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has done to lobby in the interests of CEFAS when it comes to investment.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), asked about port capacity and how we will deal with discards that are landed. I can confirm that we have a group of people working with industry on this issue. There is a ports group that deals with officials in my Department. I had a meeting with, and an update from, one such official at the beginning of this week, and we believe that we are making good progress in addressing people’s concerns.

I will make a few points about that. The first thing to note is that just as we are phasing in an approach to achieve MSY on stocks, so too we are phasing in the landing obligation on fish species. We are starting in quite a modest way with some of the larger species that define a fishery. This year, we are considering haddock in the North sea, and whiting, sole and nephrops in Ireland, but in the Celtic sea we are mainly looking at hake and Dover sole. In each area, we have typically picked only two or three species to which the discard ban applies this year, and our assessment so far is that the amount of additional fish that will be landed and that will not be sold into the human food chain is actually negligible. We do not believe that that is a challenge that will present itself this year, as some people do.

Longer term, a number of options are available. We will make available grants to those ports that want to have quayside facilities to manage undersized fish that is landed. We will make funding available to support fishermen in investing in even more selective fishing gear, so that they do not catch and land undersize fish in the first place. For those who do not want to invest in such quayside facilities, there are enterprising companies—one of them is based in Great Grimsby—that have surplus processing capacity. Already, they are running a network of lorries around the country, collecting offal from fish processing factories and turning it into fishmeal. We believe that in many instances—this is already being investigated—they will be able to expand their network to consider taking undersize fish to that processing capacity. Yes, there will be challenges, but I come back to what I said at the beginning: the policy will never be perfect and will always present challenges. The question is whether we are moving in the right direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall raised the issue of the Commission’s proposal for a 125% increase in channel plaice in areas VIId and VIIe. The Commission proposal is looking at something more around 63% as a recommendation. That is partly because,

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on the basis of strong science, we secured an in-year increase in 2015, and the Commission is starting to take that into account. Nevertheless, things are positive for plaice in the channel.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Dover sole. She is right that the management plan limits that to a 15% increase, despite the science advising a 44% increase. We will be looking closely to see whether we can improve that. As a general rule, we are a bit sceptical of management plans. In a reformed CFP, we believe that clear criteria are needed around the discard plan and quotas, with all the flexibilities that I described.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I remind the Minister that I was hoping for time for Mrs Ritchie to wind up.

George Eustice: Thank you, Mr Crausby. I will make sure that there is.

The right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) mentioned the Farne Deeps. I have a meeting with officials tomorrow to discuss the challenge there. He also mentioned salmon, and I attended the summit. I pay tribute to some of the work done by the fishermen with their nets, and the progress made, but the salmon stock is in a dire state. We need to protect all the salmon as they come into our waters, and that is why we are looking at catch-and-release schemes for anglers, improving fish passes and water quality, and removing net gear. We are also looking at options to buy out some licences to secure early closure.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned the EU-Norway deal, which is incredibly important to his constituents. We made good progress and managed to get the proposed TAC reduction there down to 15%; the original proposal had been much higher. It has been more challenging to get an agreement on blue whiting. Looking at zonal attachment, we believe that we have a strong case for a higher share of the quota, but it has been hard to get agreement. As the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) said, we were not able to get Iceland and Russia at the table for an agreement on that. We had issues with Iceland seeking access to our waters as the quid pro quo for coming on board, and we were not able to agree to that. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned skates and rays.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Minister, we finish at 4.30, so you are not giving Ms Ritchie very much time.

George Eustice: Thank you very much, Mr Crausby. I am afraid I have not managed to get to the other points, but I make one final point before wrapping up, relating to the under-10 metre quota. We are rebalancing the quota. We have made it clear that 25% of the uplift will go to the under-10s. We are doing that by giving the first 100 tonnes to the under-10s, and 10% thereafter. That will mean that next year, for instance, much of the inshore fleet will have a substantial increase in the amount of mackerel they have. There will probably be a trebling of the amount of mackerel, which they will then be able to trade as currency.

[Official Report, 14 December 2015, Vol. 603, c. 1-2MC.]

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Mrs Sheryll Murray: On a point of order, Mr Crausby. I was under the impression that Ms Ritchie was to be given adequate time to wind up the debate.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Well, you are taking up time, Mrs Murray. I am not empowered to sit the Minister down. It is in his hands, so can we let him conclude?

George Eustice: In view of your guidance, Mr Crausby, I will conclude my speech earlier than would be the norm. Normally, those winding up the debate get a couple of minutes, but I conclude very briefly by saying that at the next EU negotiation—some have said that we should seek to repatriate this matter—there is a case for looking at the whole issue of relative stability. It is too early to decide what our negotiating position would be, but I am open to suggestions from Members.

4.24 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I thank everyone who participated in the debate. Seventeen Members, including the Front Benchers, made contributions, representing the needs of their constituents. Front Benchers from the SNP, the Opposition and the Government responded to the debate. We all know that the fishing industry presents many risks and challenges to those directly employed in it, but there is no doubt that the offshore and inshore fishing industry contributes an enormous amount to all our local economies, whether in Britain or Northern Ireland.

In the next few weeks, the Minister will make direct representations as part of the negotiations in relation to total allowable catch. I hope that he will ensure that none of our industries in our fishing villages—I think of Ardglass and Kilkeel in my constituency—and none of the people involved in them will be imperilled by any downturn in any fish quota species, or by the discard ban, the landing obligation or any of those issues.

Other issues raised today by Members include crewing. We will discuss that directly with a Home Office Minister next week, but it is important that we obtain proper regulations to ensure that our fleets can operate, day to day. Many fleets would be tied up if we did not have the support of the Filipino fishermen. We in the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland have a unique position on that, because we have an impediment with the restricted inlets and fjords and the geography. That means that the 12-mile limit and all that has to be looked at. We have to adopt a common-sense approach.

The common fisheries policy has recently undergone several key reforms, including: a phased ban on discarding fish, effective for pelagic as of last year and demersal as of this coming January; a legally binding commitment to fishing at sustainable levels; and increasingly decentralised decision making. Political points were made about repatriating powers from the European Union in relation to that, but I do not agree with them. We would like the Minister to write back to us on the European Court of Justice decision this week on the cod plan. Those of us who represent fishing constituencies need that issue addressed. Running alongside that is the need, whether we represent constituencies in the devolved regions or in England and Wales, for the ongoing infrastructure investment to meet the requirements of the landing obligation and the discard ban. More investment will be required for that ongoing modernisation.

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We wish the Minister well in the negotiations in the next two weeks. We hope that he can achieve an upturn in the quota allocations for all the significant fish species. If I may be a little local, area VIIa needs an upturn in the quotas for haddock, nephrops and cod. My colleagues across the UK also need that, because fishing is central to the growth and productivity of all our local economies. The fishing industry, whether offshore or inshore, fuels both those interconnected factors. I think the Minister may have wanted to comment on cod.

George Eustice: I would like to deal with a couple of the points that the hon. Lady raised. I sadly did not get a chance to speak about nephrops in my speech, but the proposal is for an 18% reduction. In previous years, we have been successful in getting the proposal substantially down. Last year, we even got an increase in the TAC.

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On the institutional impasse and the ECJ decision this week, the judges have predictably come down on the side of the Commission and the Council, but it is one of those matters where we won on the substance, if not the technical legal issue. That was recognised by the Court, which made it clear that nothing will be done until at least 2017. That gives us a year to accommodate the viewpoint of the European Parliament, and to ensure that in future it has the correct viewpoint.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Minister for that information. Let us hope that we get a sensible outcome that brings benefit to all our fishing communities. Once again, I thank all who participated—

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order.

4.30 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).