HC Deb 23 March 1995 vol 257 cc472-4
5. Mr. Sheerman

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment his Department has made of the current health of the United Kingdom's fish stocks. [13878]

Mr. Jack

The state of the fish stocks around the United Kingdom is monitored continually by fisheries scientists, whose advice underpins the annual European Union decision on what can be safely fished. The state of many stocks continues to give cause for concern.

Mr. Sheerman

Is the Minister aware that the common fisheries policy is universally loathed in the industry? Is it not about time that the Government stood up for a change in that policy which would allow all member states to control unilaterally a rigorous conservation policy? Should he not do something about that in Brussels before there are no fish and no industry left?

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman should look to his own Front Bench who, as far as I am aware, are still on side as far as the common fisheries policy is concerned. At least on this side of the House we have had the courage to face the issues. At my right hon. Friend's insistence, a small group has been formed of experts from the industry who will examine ways of reforming the common fisheries policy and addressing some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. In advocating a world without the common fisheries policy, perhaps the hon. Gentleman dreams of returning to the halcyon days of the three-mile limit when fishermen could do whatever they wanted and there was no defence for our fishermen.

Mr. Harris

Does my hon. Friend appreciate the anger of fishermen—particularly following the unfortunate incident in Plymouth on Saturday when I think that he behaved very well indeed? What will Her Majesty's Government do to ensure that the Spanish begin at least to try to abide by the laws which are designed to protect fish stocks, because at the moment they are flouting them completely?

Mr. Jack

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words of sympathy. I am still dusting the flour off my shoulders after last week. Following my first encounter with certain fishermen in Plymouth, I had a very sensible and constructive meeting with representatives from the west country industry—some of whom came from my hon. Friend's part of the world. We discussed the central issue of enforcement.

I have made it absolutely clear to the new Fisheries Commissioner, Mrs. Bonino, that if we do not have proper enforcement and policing measures within the common fisheries policy I will understand why our fishermen have no confidence in it. In the context of the disagreements between Canada and Spain, I have taken the opportunity to reiterate at the highest level in the Commission the need for proper attention to be paid to that matter.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Given that fish stocks are under pressure and that there are likely to be fewer employment opportunities in the industry, will the Minister give his full support to the early retirement scheme for fishermen at the Fisheries Council meeting on 5 April? Does he agree that, if the scheme is to work properly, it must be mandatory throughout the European Union, it must be applied uniformly and more cash must be put on the table? It is a worthwhile start. Will the Minister come off the fence and give the scheme his absolute support now?

Mr. Jack

We shall have to wait and see the proposals when they are tabled at the Fisheries Council. We have, however, increased our resources to the fishing industry to enable it to restructure by having a budget of some £53 million for the decommissioning scheme. As for other matters, we are presently advancing the PESCA scheme which aids those parts of the fishing community affected by the decline of work at sea. We are spending additional sums of money on enforcement and research and development. There are, ultimately, limits on what we can spend on an industry that is valued at £500 million.