HC Deb 22 November 1995 vol 267 cc571-93

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.][Mr. Conway.]

9.34 am
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I must confess, Madam Speaker, that I was not keen on our new arrangements until you generously allowed me the opportunity to raise this morning a subject of the utmost importance to our country—the common fisheries policy. At the heart of our national discontent lies a feeling of impotence, in that an elected British Government can no longer decide our country's destiny in a sense that accords fully with our people's desires, or even with their interests.

In few areas of public policy is that frustration more manifest than over fishing. As in much else, it is the apparent supremacy of the cause of the European Union, alias the "process of European construction", over the welfare of the British people that is to blame. It lies at the root of our beleaguered fishing communities' feeling of alienation and of the wider sense of popular disbelief that any Government of the United Kingdom can any longer protect our natural inheritance of rich fishing resources against the depredations of foreign trawlers, officially sanctioned by what many people regard as an alien power beyond their effective control—the European Union.

If the common fisheries policy were working, I should have no reason to complain. Like many hon. Members, I have a personal interest in its doing so. After all, I voted for our accession to the Common Market in 1971, campaigned in favour of our continuing membership of the European Economic Community in the referendum of 1975, and voted for the Single European Act in 1985.

We all like to think that our past parliamentary behaviour and political attitudes can be justified by events, but if that natural human desire does not accord with subsequent realities, pride must give place to honest acceptance of the facts, and intellectual integrity should be our rigorous guide. I do not believe that in the case of fishing we were right to bind successive Parliaments by assigning in perpetuity our unique insular maritime inheritance, our incomparable wealth and diversity of fisheries, as a common resource to what became the European Union.

It is true that in coastal waters for up to six miles British fishermen alone may fish, that between six miles and 12 miles out, only the boats of European nations with historic rights may compete with our vessels, and that even beyond 12 miles a joint EU regime does not prevent United Kingdom fishing boats from fishing their traditional waters.

Nevertheless, the common fisheries policy flies in the face of intrinsic logic and of the pattern of fish stock management in north Atlantic waters adopted by northern maritime nations akin to our own. It was lack of public confidence in the conservation measures and fishing control capability of the European Community that contributed to the Norwegian people's rejection in two referendums of their country's proposed accession.

Likewise, the Icelanders, the Canadians and the Greenlanders have found the imposition of a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone to be fundamental to the husbandry of their precious national fishing resources, and to their Governments' efforts to preserve the livelihoods of isolated coastal communities where little alternative employment to fishing exists. I am not naive, and the Canadian experience shows that Canada's policy is no panacea. Job losses in the Canadian industry have been huge. Fishing bans and even unilateral action beyond the 200-mile limit—as with the arrest of the Spanish trawler Estai—have demonstrated the dire consequences of overfishing.

Nevertheless, when the Estai crisis broke, there was no doubt where the sympathies of the British people lay. Their hearts were not with European Commissioner Bonino's efforts to uphold the letter of the international law of the sea on the EU's behalf, but with the enviously regarded, spirited and decisive action of the Canadians in defence of their interests. British fishermen sailed for weeks with the Canadian maple leaf proudly at their mastheads in salute to a friendly national Government who had the courage to see off what they regarded as a common threat—European Union-supported Spanish fishermen operating far from home in waters where historically they have no place.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill)—quoting Cicero—put it so admirably in a letter to my hon. Friend the Fisheries Minister on 23 October, Salus populi suprema est lex", or, the people's welfare is the supreme law. That is a classic concept to which electorates rightly expect Governments to aspire, and it should be the guiding principle both of our country's attitude to the common fisheries policy and to the evolution of the EU itself.

Let us examine some basic facts about the common fisheries policy. First, the treaty basis for it is fundamentally flawed, and rests on an assertion in article 39 of the treaty of Rome that the Common Market's agriculture measures shall extend to fisheries. There is no rationale for this, except—as we all know—that the application of the common fisheries policy to the United Kingdom was the quid pro quo exacted by the original six members of the Common Market as Britain's entrance fee to the Community. This historical aberration does not justify the UK's continued participation in the common fisheries policy, especially as decision-making under the policy is by qualified majority voting. That allows even landlocked countries such as Austria and Luxembourg a say, and policy can be potentially decided by horse-trading on extraneous matters rather than on specifically fishing issues which are crucial to the prosperity of British coastal communities and to the interests of the UK economy.

If further enlargement of the EU occurs—to which the British Government are rightly committed—and unless we have first withdrawn from the common fisheries policy, Polish, Bulgarian and other east European vessels will be allowed access to the so-called common resource of fish stocks. Those stocks have been sorely depleted already within what should be Britain's exclusive maritime economic zone to the detriment of United Kingdom fishermen, who have seen their way of life threatened by Spanish and Portuguese fishing boats, following the accession of those countries to the EU.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Spanish boats, mainly.

Mr. Wilkinson

I take my hon. Friend's point. Lest anyone should still allege that horse-trading is a misnomer for the European decision-making process, I remind the House that when the Spaniards threatened to block the entry of Austria, Finland, Sweden and—at that time—Norway to the EU at the Edinburgh summit in 1992 unless Spain and Portugal's full participation in the common fisheries policy was brought forward from 2002 to 1996, the UK capitulated.

Before I make my final recommendations, I must demonstrate how seriously the common fisheries policy is failing. In so doing, I will refer to the House of Lords European Communities Committee report of 1992–93. On the decline in catches, paragraph 2.5 of page 42 of the report states: The substantial decline in catches over the period of operation of the Common Fisheries Policy reflects the deterioration in the stocks of white fish on which the United Kingdom relies, leading to reductions in Total Allowable Catches and Quotas. In the case of the 11 species listed—made up of various types of cod, haddock, saithe, whiting and plaice—the total allowable catch in 1982 was 868,010 tonnes, which had fallen by 1992 to 495,750 tonnes. The United Kingdom's quota in 1982 was 426,570 tonnes, which had fallen to 207,825 tonnes in 1992. The report commented: The volume of these species available to the Community fleet in 1992 is 372,260 tonnes less than in 1982—a drop of 42.9 per cent. The volume available to the United Kingdom fleet has declined by 218,745 tonnes—a drop of 51.3 per cent. I move on to the question of landings. Page 41 of the report states that the figure for demersal landings in 1982 was 448,000 tonnes, but that the figure had fallen 266,500 by 1990. In the case of pelagic landings, the drop was less marked, but the figure did fall from 301,300 in 1987 to 256,900 in 1990. There is clear evidence of a serious decline of stocks, and the nature conservation committee established by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 made some very interesting comments on this matter to the House of Lords Committee.

The nature conservation committee said that the common fisheries policy which is the basis for regulating fisheries in EC waters, appears to have no clearly stated objectives, depending instead on those of the Common Agriculture Policy which since they address cultivation are not particularly relevant to hunting of fish. This lack of specifically directed objectives appears to result in a political rather than a scientific emphasis on the management of fish stocks. The CFP appears to have failed to maintain many important commercial fish stocks in the EC's waters. The size of the stocks of the primary commercial species, such as those of cod and haddock, are at an historical low … 'Total Allowable Catches' as applied in the EC appear to have proved unsatisfactory and relatively ineffective for several reasons. The nature conservation committee's remarks continue by stating that one of the reasons why the policy is not working is the pernicious practice of discards, whereby species in excess of the quota are thrown back into the sea dead, and the House of Lords Committee had much to say about that practice on page 27 of its report. The conservation regime is being circumvented by the procedure of quota-hopping, whereby the European Court, no less, has—as usual—proved to be the nigger in the woodpile. The Factortame judgment overturned British law and enabled Spanish interests to buy into British operating concerns, as my hon. Friends who represent Cornwall constituencies will no doubt testify.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

That is an important point. It is a matter of concern. The hon. Gentleman says that Spanish skippers and vessels have been buying into United Kingdom stocks. Does he agree that every buyer must have a willing seller, and that the stocks must come from British fishermen? Does he understand why in France, for instance, the same kind. of transactions have not taken place?

Mr. Wilkinson

I agree. British fishermen believe that they had better get out while the going is good. They recognise that the common fisheries policy allows no long-term future for them in the industry and that they had better realise their assets, even if it means selling them to Spanish interests, as soon as possible. As to what happens in France, I have no specific information.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

If that is the case, what is in it for the Spanish? We are all in the common fisheries policy, so why should they be buying up those vessels?

Mr. Wilkinson

I imagine that the Spanish fishermen want to maximise their catch on a short-term basis, which is their traditional manner of operation, before they move on to what they regard as more profitable fishing grounds elsewhere

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Further to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), I wonder whether the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) would be interested in the contents of a letter from someone in Portugal whom I have consulted about fisheries there. He says: As far as the fishing sector is concerned it is one of the worst hit sectors of our economy … The situation is becoming explosive. Fishermen are being paid to stop fishing because the Spanish fishing fleet has more competitive production costs. Is that not the answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and possibly that of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace)?

Mr. Wilkinson

That is indeed the answer. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, who speaks wisely and with great experience in these matters.

I hope that the House will agree with me that the common fisheries policy is fatally flawed and that it offers no hope of preserving essential fish stocks or of securing sustainable employment for the fishing communities around our coasts. The principal fishing communities are, of course, in the most remote parts of the kingdom, and decommissioning grants from the European Union merely exacerbate an injury which EU-sponsored policies themselves have already inflicted. The cruel irony is that British taxpayers' money is necessarily involved in the process.

Instead of showing a continued dispiriting acquiesence to the acquis communautaire on the common fisheries policy, Her Majesty's Government should use the forthcoming intergovernmental conference to issue a declaration of intent to our European Union partners that the United Kingdom proposes to withdraw from the common fisheries policy and declare a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone around its coasts. Where propinquity to neighbouring countries precludes that, the median line will constitute our national fishing limit. Naturally the United Kingdom would consider carefully any applications for bilateral fishing agreements on an equitable basis with other countries, be they EU members or otherwise.

Those proposals should be put to the British people for their endorsement in the Conservative party's manifesto for the forthcoming general election as the first stage of a carefully considered Conservative process of recuperation of powers and competences from the institutions of the European Union to the British judiciary, Government and Parliament to help create a European Community of sovereign states in which the national interests of the participating countries are fully safeguarded. I believe that the British people would regard those proposals as courageous and fair, and they would be relieved that at last they had a Government who shared their common aspiration that the United Kingdom should remain proud, independent and free. Our brave fishermen would also have found an effective champion at last.

9.54 am
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on securing this debate and on the strength and vigour with which he has put an argument which is extremely strong and very difficult for Ministers to rebut. I have no doubt that they will try to do so, but it is an argument that is impossible to rebut because the common fisheries policy has been a disaster for Britain and it was always intended to be such.

The principle of equal access to a common resource is the basis of the common fisheries policy. The policy was stitched together a matter of months before the British application for membership. It was deliberately designed to obtain access for European fleets which had outfished their waters to the rich fishing waters around the British coast. The principle was misguidedly accepted by the then Prime Minister in his impetuous rush to get into Europe. He was perfectly prepared to sacrifice the interests of a small and, to him, unimportant industry to get at the major point, which was membership of Europe.

Half of the fishing industry protested loudly. The inshore fishing industry saw what was coming and saw that the intense competition would drive it out of business. The big boys—the distant-water fishing fleet—were preoccupied with Iceland. They thought that they would be able to continue catching enormous quantities of fish in Iceland. So they thought that European waters were of no importance to them. Therefore, they made no particular protest.

So the industry was effectively not consulted. The national interest was not consulted. We were pushed into a situation in which we contributed more than 75 per cent.—let us say three quarters for convenience—of the major stocks of the so-called common market pool. That three quarters was in British waters. We were given a small catch, perhaps a quarter of the total catch—less by value—in return for our enormous contribution. That was a massively unfair principle. It produced the consequence that it was impossible to do what was logical in the 1970s when Iceland took its 200-mile limit and started the trend to 200-mile limits. It was impossible to follow suit by taking our territorial limit to 200 miles or the median line and redeveloping and rebuilding our fishing industry in our own waters. That was the logical thing to do. That was what everyone else did.

Although it is true that other countries now suffer problems of overcatching, it is also true that only the nation state has an interest in building up and conserving its stocks because only the nation state has an interest in handing them on to future generations of its fishermen. That is in no one else's interest. Other countries want to fish them out as a disposable resource and keep over-large industries going.

Mr. Mans

Let us get the record straight. Is it not right to say that when the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was responsible for fishing matters in the 1970s, he was offered 64,000 tonnes of fish by the Icelandic Government, but turned it down because he wanted more? As a result we got nothing. That is one of the main reasons why our deep-water fleet has ceased to exist in international terms.

Mr. Mitchell

It may be convenient for the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) to blame the demise of his distant water fleet on my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook, (Mr. Hattersley), but the facts are different. If the hon. Gentleman wants to read about the matter, he will find in next week's issue of The House magazine an article—if I can give it a plug—written by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby which details what happened in those negotiations. The offer of 68,000 tonnes for a limited period was turned down at the insistence of the industry. Not the Government but the industry insisted that it wanted more. It wanted more than it had the capacity to catch. That was a foolish negotiating move by the industry. That was the reality. Therefore, it is unrealistic to blame the Labour Government. I do not want to go into the history.

The abdication of British rights to control British waters by the Government of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) was the crucial factor in preventing us from following up our loss by building up our own fishing industry in our own waters, which are the richest in the world. That was the crucial failure. We would do better to do what is obviously in our interests, which is to catch our own fish and land them here, rather than doing what we are doing, which is to allow other people to catch our fish and sell it back to us, getting the jobs and profits.

The argument that is usually put forward, that fish migrate, is fallacious. Most of the stock breed, live and are caught in our waters. Only a minority of species move about. It is stupid to suggest that European countries might catch those while they are young and immature just for the sake of spiting a British Government who take control of their own waters. It might apply to the Spanish, but not to anyone else.

The fact is that we should come out. It is in our interests to do so. It is in the interests of the British fishing industry and it is straightforward. All that we have to do is to provide that the European Communities Act 1972 does not apply to the Fishery Limits Act 1976 and revoke the licences given to vessels from specified European countries to fish in our waters under that legislation. Parliament cannot bind itself and a present Parliament can easily provide that the legislation shall not apply. The mechanics of doing so are very straightforward, even simple.

The question is whether we have the will to do so. Have Ministers got the will and the determination to do it and to face up to the confrontation that will inevitably result? That is the real area of doubt. I do not think that Ministers have that will. Even in the present situation, they are always overruled when it comes to European negotiations. The interests of the fishing industry are always sacrificed to gain some so-called higher good for the Government. That is what happens and it has happened repeatedly. The present Minister is heir to that long legacy of betrayal of the interests of fishing because something else is more important to the Government.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood gave the classic instance—the desire to get Norway and the other states in, which led the British Government to overrule fisheries Ministers and give the Spanish access to the common fisheries policy six years early. It was a fallacious desire in the case of Norway and we gave the Spanish full status early.

That is a constant pattern. It is only the most flagrant example of what has been going on for years. Frankly, rather than defending and justifying the common fisheries policy and pretending that we derive benefits from something that manifestly does damage, it would be more intellectually honest and convincing to the House if Ministers gave us an honest picture of the position and said that the advantages lie with coming out, but that they have not got the will to do it.

We certainly do not gain anything from this common fisheries policy. Ministers' usual argument is that we have access to markets for our fish, as if it will be turned away from European markets. The world is desperate for fish and it is inconceivable that the Community would block British fish going to Europe if we did the logical thing and caught our fish with our vessels, landed the catch here and sold it on European markets. Access would certainly not be refused; it could not be.

So, that is a stupid argument and it shows a grovelling intellectual attitude towards Europe. We always abdicate our case. We do not recognise the realities and we always start negotiations from a very weak position. We are negotiating on our knees, saying, "Yes, yes. The common fisheries policy is wonderful," and asking what little change or benefit can be given to us by moving the goalposts in a common fisheries policy that, frankly, is disastrous for this country.

We should recognise realities because the crunch is coming. There will have to be a massive reduction in the British fishing effort because we are well over our multi-annual guidance programme targets—further over than anyone else. That will force Ministers to enforce a massive reduction on the British fishing industry. Yet, we are the nation with the stocks and the waters—the nation that contributes everything to that policy, to make room for Spanish vessels.

That reduction will be forced on us by European overfishing and by the principle of equal access to a common resource, which has decimated our stocks. Because of that decimation, Ministers will have to close large sections of the British fishing industry and that is a monstrous thing to do to this country.

The second crunch that is coming is the same one as applied with Spain—the principle of nations coming into the Community with huge fishing fleets, but no waters to contribute to the common fisheries policy, whose demands are satisfied at our expense, in our waters. That has already happened with Spain. Ministers have supinely given way to that monstrous principle.

This country is now anxious to turn the European Union into some sort of continuous rolling row and to weaken and dilute it by bringing in a confused babble of other states. We are now pressing the cases of eastern European states, many of which have huge fleets but no waters in which to catch the fish. On the principle of equal access, they will have a claim to fish in British waters. How are we going to resist them? We could not resist that claim in Spain's case. When Bulgaria, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania come in with their fishing fleets, what will be our answer? That will break the common fisheries policy.

It would be intellectually honest and much more acceptable to the House if Ministers said this: although a disaster is looming, we have certain strengths in that we contribute waters and that we are prepared to take a tough stand for Britain; we will do that and, if it risks putting us in an exposed position, we will come out. That is the only ultimate safeguard for our fishing industry and that is the intellectual position that I want Ministers to take.

10.6 am

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I am sincerely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for initiating this debate. Some hon. Members may think it odd that some of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies many miles from our coastline are here for the debate. I see my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for Boston—

Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston)


Mr. Harris

I am sorry.

Sir Richard Body

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that we still have 40 boats left, although we used to have many more. We also used to have a fish processing industry, which has now gone to the Netherlands because the Dutch Government are more vigilant on behalf of the fishing industry than are our Government.

Mr. Harris

I apologise profusely to my hon. Friend, if he will now contain himself. I made the crucial error of lumping him in the same category as other hon. Members who perhaps look at such matters from a different perspective from those of us who represent constituencies along the coast. I recognise their genuine concern about the common fisheries policy and very much welcome their interest in the subject because it is part of a process that has brought to the fore the crisis in the fishing industry.

I welcome support from all sources in the process of making the House, the Government and the European Union face up to the crisis that our fishermen face. I was absolutely delighted, as were my constituents, when, yesterday, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall visited Newlyn in my constituency and spent the morning considering the problems of the fishing industry and talking at length with the people who really matter—those who work in the industry, such as fishermen, fish merchants and harbour commissioners. That is a part of the one good thing that has come out of this crisis during the past few years, which is heightened interest in it. People are at last paying attention to the problems of the fishing industry, and that is good.

I must say a few words on the speeches of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who initiated the debate. We are all a little in danger, if not of rewriting history—although I agree with much that my hon. Friend said—then of forgetting how certain aspects of the problem, such as the common fisheries policy, came about.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is right: the fishing industry was a pawn in our negotiations to enter the European Community or, as it was then, the Common Market. I recognise that, and I speak as somebody who would like to regard himself as pragmatic, down-to-earth European.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to the deep-sea fishing industry. It is nowadays overlooked completely—perhaps it is forgotten—that, when we were going into Europe, the deep-sea fishing industry pressed the principle of open access and, with respect, it was not for the reason that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave. It was because, having lost its rich fishing fields around Iceland because of the 200-mile limit, the industry thought that it would be able to gain access to what are now Norwegian waters.

Mr. Austin Mitchell


Mr. Harris

I shall not give way because we are all pressed for time. We can discuss it afterwards. I could give the hon. Gentleman chapter and verse from a book on the history of the common fisheries policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood was right to say that exclusive control over what we like to call our waters would not in itself solve the problem. He mentioned Canada, which has had 200-mile limits. Canada fished out a lot of its shoals although it had exclusive control over those waters.

I had the good fortune, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to go to New Zealand. I took a little time off from foreign affairs matters to go to the Ministry of Fisheries to see how it managed its 200-mile zone and its system of individual transferable quotas. They have problems and disputes in New Zealand. Indeed, when I was with my colleagues in the Parliament in Wellington, an almighty dispute broke out which involved representatives of fishermen from Chatham island complaining about other boats coming into their waters. They happened to be New Zealand boats. There have always been disputes between fishermen and there always will be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood also mentioned Iceland. I had the pleasure, I think with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, to give lunch to the deputy director of research for maritime resources in Iceland. He told us that although Iceland started the process of claiming 200 miles, it still had huge problems of overfishing inside its waters and that there is now a considerable movement in Iceland to extend the 200-mile limit. Please, please let no one think that even if we could regain control of our waters, it would solve all our problems. The hard fact is that practically every nation in the world is overfishing because of new technology—new means of locating fish, new sorts of gear and the power of engines.

We can argue about the common fisheries policy, of which I am no friend. As has been said, the way that it was forced upon us was deplorable. I regret bitterly many aspects of the common fisheries policy, but if it was scrapped tomorrow, there would still be problems in the fishing industry and the resolution of those problems would involve huge pain and difficulties for our fishermen.

I shall now deal with the simple case that we can withdraw from the common fisheries policy as easy as anything. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that the mechanics are simple and straightforward. I agree with him about that in respect of withdrawal, but the repercussions of unilateral withdrawal would be immense. I wish the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and others who advocate unilateral withdrawal would be honest and open and say what they really believes: that we should withdraw and that if we do not get our way, we should withdraw from the European Union. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is not what we are saying."] That was not what was said, but it would be the consequence.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Harris

I will not give way because we are pressed for time and other hon. Members want to speak.

I shall tell the House what would happen, as night follows day, if we tried to withdraw unilaterally from the common fisheries policy. Despite what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, there would be an immediate backlash and the 90 per cent. or so of the fish that are exported from Newlyn to France and Spain—certainly the element that goes to Spain—would be stopped by blockades overnight.

Sir Richard Body


Mr. Harris

My hon. Friend can shout, "Rubbish" but that is what the immediate consequence would be. I do not say that a blockade would continue for ever and a day; I doubt that it would. In the long term, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby may be right. I know the Spanish fishermen pretty well.

Mr. Gill

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Harris

No, I shall not. I know Spanish fishermen pretty well and, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby also knows, there would be immediate retaliation, at least in the short term.

Further, if we stayed in the European Union, we would be taken to the European Court. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred to the perverse or diabolical judgment of the European Court in the Factortame case, over which the House was overruled. That was something for which I had been fighting long before many in this House showed any interest in fishing—doing something about the curse of the flag of convenience vessels.

One does not have to be an international lawyer to know what would happen if we withdrew unilaterally from a treaty with which we have at least gone along. It is one thing to negotiate an opt-out from a future European policy, but what is being proposed today is that we should withdraw unilaterally from a policy to which we have been party for many years. We would be challenged in the European Court and there is not the slightest doubt that we would lose. Hon. Members who advocate such a course should argue that we should stand up on the issue and then, if necessary, withdraw from the European Union. That at least is a tenable position. I disagree with it, but it at least has some sense and one could argue it. The suggestion that we can, without consequence, withdraw unilaterally from the common fisheries policy is absolute nonsense and does great damage to the fishing industry because many people buy that line without realising the consequences.

What should we do? There is a problem of great importance to constituencies such as mine. If I may refer again to the visit of His Royal Highness yesterday, the message of the fishermen of Newlyn was that they cannot see a future for the industry given the way things are going and with the pressure for reductions of our quotas. There is the cursed business of the Spanish. Indeed, on 1 January, Spanish boats will come into waters from which they were previously excluded—some of the waters of the so-called Irish box. What should we do about the consequences that will flow from that?

When the decision was taken on 22 or 23 December last year to allow the Spanish into those waters, I learnt a severe lesson. On that day, in the face of every conservation argument, the decision was taken to allow extra boats into those waters—rich fishing grounds for our boats—from January 1 next year. That was done because of the system of qualified majority voting. We were outvoted. Indeed, our Minister made a grievous mistake, in my estimation, when he only abstained. That would not have made any difference in the end, however, because all the other member states voted for the deal that emerged and we were left isolated. That must not happen again when we renegotiate the common fisheries policy in 2002. That is the big danger which has not been mentioned in the debate today.

Mr. Gill

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Harris

No, because I am pressed for time. I am sorry. I hope that my hon. Friend will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The danger is that, with the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy, which has to be done by 2002, we might have to face true open access and the abolition of all the fishing rights that we now have. That would mean the end of the fishing industry as we know it.

The first thing to do—I have been pleading with Ministers about this behind the scenes for a long time—is, as part of the intergovernmental conference, to make a determined attempt to restore the national veto. I know that the Liberal Democrats want to abolish the national veto. We must make a serious and determined attempt and we must make it a sticking point that we restore the national veto on the final outcome of the renegotiations of the common fisheries policy in 2002. That is the most practical and urgent task we can set ourselves. It is also the most important. There are many other things that we could do, but I do not have time to go into them now.

I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, as I have pleaded, dare I say it, from the top of the Government down, that that task should be our objective. If we do not succeed in that objective and if we end up with a common fisheries policy that allows open access, our fishing industry will never forgive the House.

10.21 am
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I endorse the congratulations to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who has done the House a great service by introducing this debate. It adds to the number of fisheries debates that we have in the year and it addresses an issue that raises considerable interest. Those of us who, over the years, have regularly attended fisheries debates welcome the interest that is now being taken by hon. Members who represent non-fishing constituencies in the common fisheries policy.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood conceded that he supported the terms of accession in 1971. I suspect that he did not then speak up for the fishing industry, which was making representations that it did not believe that the arrangements were fair. The renegotiations by Harold Wilson's Government did not take the fishing industry's interest into account either. We have suffered from the fact that, by its nature, the fishing industry is scattered around the coastal areas of the United Kingdom. It has not had the collective clout to put fishing issues to the top of the agenda. That is a historical matter. If we had a Scottish Parliament and regional assemblies in England, fisheries would loom far larger in the economies of those areas and would be an issue that Governments could not ignore as readily as they have.

I cannot accept that the simple solution proposed by the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)—that with one bound we are free from the common fisheries policy—is tenable, for many of the reasons advanced by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). We can leave the common fisheries policy either by agreement or by a unilateral measure. I do not see for the life of me how by leaving the CFP we could get a better deal than by staying in it and seeking reform. A unilateral decision would have industrial consequences, which the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned, legal consequences and political consequences. If nations in the European Union that have entered into treaty agreements start picking and choosing the ones with which they will continue and those which they will abrogate, it will be the start of the collapse of the European Union as we know it. If the Conservative Members who argue for that were open enough to say that that is what they want, the intellectual credibility of their argument would be greatly enhanced.

Some say that we should move towards the abandonment of the common fisheries policy. I do not believe that that is a solution either. It has already been said the fishing industries of countries with 200-mile limits have not prospered—one needs only to read the large section in this month's National Geographic on the perilous state of fish stocks in many parts of the world or Newsweek of 25 April 1994 to realise that. The article says that with the increase in territorial seas from 12 miles to 200 miles, The hope was that coastal states, angry at overfishing by foreign factory ships, would take a protective interest in the fishing grounds under their vastly expanded domain. Instead, they rushed to plunder the saltwater bounty, offering generous subsidies and tax breaks for new fishing vessels. The article then points out: In Atlantic Canada, the collapse of cod now threatens the survival of hundreds of fishing villages … More than 500 small villages on Russia's Pacific coast are similarly threatened by overfishing of pollock. Earlier, the article states that even where there are 200-mile limits every valuable fish that straddles or migrates across this border has been hit hard by foreign fleets".

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wallace

No; I shall allow more hon. Members to speak if I restrict my remarks.

Increasing national limits is not a guarantee of success in containing overfishing.

If we abandoned the CFP, fisheries policies would be in the hands of the United Kingdom Government. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) made an interesting intervention in which he pointed out to the hon. Member for St. Ives that the fish processing industry in his area had disappeared and had gone to the Netherlands because the Dutch Government were more vigilant in looking after their interests than were the United Kingdom Government. The Netherlands is, of course, within the common fisheries policy and is subject to the same rules. That suggests to me that we should make a clear distinction between what, at times, are problems of the common fisheries policy and what, at other times, are problems caused by a lack of vigilance and a lack of proper attention to fisheries over many years by our Government.

The fishing industry was not very happy with the days at sea legislation proposed by our Government. Sir George Younger, who was Secretary of State for Scotland when the CFP was being negotiated in 1983, advised fishermen in my constituency that, in addition to the Shetland box, special regard would be given to the representations made by the Shetland Fishermen's Association and the Orkney Fishermen's Association when framing inshore fisheries legislation. The legislation, however, proposed a limit of six miles, to which the inshore fisheries legislation applies and which is purely in the hands of the United Kingdom Government. The recommendations from my local fishermen's associations were ignored. There is no guarantee that repatriation will deliver any better a deal for fishermen than we have seen in recent times.

We must adopt a much more vigorous approach on behalf of the fishing industry. To be fair, the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), took a greater interest in fisheries than any of his predecessors, and the present Minister seems to take such an interest as well. Fisheries are an important issue on the agenda of the House and on the agenda for negotiations in Europe.

I suggest that we look forward to fundamental reform within the European Union. We should appreciate and accept that the negotiated deal on relative stability was, in many respects, good for the United Kingdom. It has been undermined by the flagging out of vessels and we have not fully understood how many other countries have managed to avoid the same loss of fishing vessels. We have fishing vessels that fly the British flag, but which, de facto, belong to other nations. It is always difficult to say that one is right after the event, but if the advice of those of us who advocated a regional system of licensing to try to ensure that licences remained with communities dependent on the fishing industry had been heeded when licensing was introduced in 1984 or 1985, some of the problems might not have arisen.

Some of the present arrangements are almost contrary to the principle of relative stability. In many respects, the hon. Member for St. Ives used the right word. The Factortame judgment was perverse and it does not sit alongside the principle of relative stability.

In any reform, we want to ensure that those principles of relative stability are retained. We also want some clear assurances that the derogation from equal access will be extended. With my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), I visited the Commission in Brussels last week. We had discussions with Mr. Alain Laurec and others. Our impression was that no country has actually pushed for or raised the idea of abandoning that derogation. If Ministers could give an early confirmation of that, the industry would be greatly reassured.

Perhaps we should take a more regional approach to fisheries. The example has been given of the Clyde herring fishery, which is 100 per cent.—or at least 98 per cent.—operated by British vessels. In many respects, there is no reason why decisions affecting that fishery should go to Brussels for approval when they affect only United Kingdom fishermen. We should examine the possibility of decisions on Mediterranean fisheries being made by member states with Mediterranean interests, and the same for the Baltic and the North sea.

A more regional dimension to the common fisheries policy would mean that management decisions affecting an area of 12 to 200 miles would involve the fishermen and member states of those fishing vessels that have historic fishing rights in those areas. Land-locked Austria would not then make decisions on such detailed matters.

We must face the fact that as we move to the next round of multi-annual guidance programmes, Britain will still not have reached the targets set by the present one. In such a short debate we cannot go over the history of why decommissioning was not introduced earlier, and with more money. At this point, we would like to know what the Government's attitude is to the fact that the European Union is providing very little funding to build new vessels. I understand that from the European Union's perspective, as we have not reached our present target, the allocation of more money would be difficult to justify, but the aggregation of licences might allow for new vessels on a scrap-and-build basis so that our fleet does not grow older and less efficient.

Technical conservation measures must have a place. Square mesh panels, which have been the subject matter of many debates in the House, seem to have taken a back seat in discussions on conservation.

I welcome the announcement that the Minister made last week on the involvement of fishermen in the discussions that will lead to the setting of TACs for next year. In last year's European elections, I put forward a policy paper that suggested that fishermen, scientists and Government officials should be involved. Any system that involves fishermen in setting TACs is more likely to command consent and respect.

The common fisheries policy should comprise a host of other detailed matters. I welcome the review group and look forward with interest to the outcome. The year 2002 will come upon us sooner than we think, and we must begin to put in place the measures that we want to see by then.

The IGC has been mentioned, and my colleague the Member of the European Parliament for Cornwall and Plymouth West has argued for the common fisheries policy to be on the agenda. He has not had much support from Conservative or Labour Members of the European Parliament. The key issues that are worrying many countries must be tackled in the next seven or eight years and should be highlighted as early as possible.

Those of us who represent fishing communities recognise that, in some parts of the world, fishing is one of the few opportunities for economic activity. The common fisheries policy should be much more oriented towards sustaining fishing communities, which provide important employment; not just offshore in the catching fleet, but onshore in processing and, ultimately, in marketing.

Proposals to abandon the common fisheries policy are politically dangerous and naive, but much more needs to be done to reform it substantially. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Great Grimsby may laugh, but there is a fundamental difference between abandonment and reform. We can go forward with confidence only within the European Union, because fish do not recognise international boundaries.

10.35 am
Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on securing this debate. He and I attended the same fringe meeting at Blackpool last month, which was attended by 400 people. Apart from the meetings addressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), that meeting had the biggest attendance of any fringe meeting.

It does not take a genius to realise that the common fisheries policy has failed to conserve fish stocks. If fishermen catch anything outside their quota, they have to discard it and throw it overboard dead. How does that help conservation? A Shetland skipper recently described how a young lad, on his first trip, wept as 10 tonnes of prime fish were dumped dead back into the sea, simply because that vessel had no licence for the particular species.

I have always likened the common fisheries policy to a raft that does not float properly. Each year, a new piece of bureaucratic nonsense is bolted on to try to keep it afloat. Eventually, the raft will sink and take most of British fishing with it. It would be better to get off now.

The official line is often that in a mixed fishery nothing can be done. That is not true. Successful selective gear is being developed in other countries, and their method of management has changed to stop immoral practices. The rape and pillage of the seas takes place even in the third world, where the European Union buys fishing rights at vast expense. In some areas, European Union vessels have been thrown out of fisheries because of the damage that they have caused. Local fisheries have then reverted to local country control and marine resources have recovered significantly.

Brian Tobin, the Canadian Fisheries Minister who visited the United Kingdom this summer, said: Conservation is now the watchword of people everywhere. The recent United Nations conference on fishing highlighted two points: the importance of fishing to coastal communities around the world and the need to work together to maintain the tremendous resources of the oceans. However, the common fisheries policy of the European Union, as implemented in this country, has become so rigid that it is scarcely possible to make a living legally, much less co-operate to conserve fish stocks.

The common fisheries policy encourages law breaking. Our industry has proposed many ideas for sensible management in the past few years. Not all of those ideas have yet been considered by the Government. Fishermen who want to conserve can reap no benefit under the CFP. If they stop killing the small fry and stop dumping mature fish into a stinking, rotten mass on the sea bed, the preserved stocks just go back into the great European pool.

The driving force in the market is the southern states, whose traditional cooking and eating habits require small juvenile fish. Therefore, as those fleets come through our back door with their armadas, they scoop up the juvenile stocks that British fishermen are trying to preserve. The common fisheries policy is therefore a disincentive to conservation. Potentially, if left to run, it will destroy a renewable food supply that is more valuable over the years than even our gas or oil reserves, and will have devastating consequences for the social fabric of our coastal communities. That is criminal.

A Conservative Member of the European Parliament who lost his seat at the last Euro-election told me many years ago that if we did not have the common fisheries policy, we would have to invent it. Surely, if we were starting again, we would not start with the premise that the seas are a common resource open to all, unless we were Euro-fanatics or my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), or both. We would start from the premise that British fishermen have a historical, economic and cultural right to fish British waters and then do bilateral deals, as appropriate, with our neighbours. We would not, as the Government did in Lowestoft this year, swap North sea plaice with the Dutch in exchange for soles that were then given to the south-west—a quota that those fishermen cannot probably take up in full. That meant that £1 million worth of plaice went out of Lowestoft this year. Following scientific evidence, the likely TACs for next year will mean a 47 per cent. cut in North sea plaice.

As recently as yesterday, I had a very constructive meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister of State and some fishermen from Lowestoft. I understand my hon. Friend's dilemma: does he set the quota high enough to allow fishing to continue and risk there being no fish in two years' time, or does he ignore scientific advice and listen to what fishermen are saying?

The Commission has determined a target size for the European fleet and Britain has accepted the British share of that fleet reduction. Thousands of fishermen have lost their jobs, and more will follow; that is European Union policy.

Quotas, fuel and tux, salaries, bureaucratic procedures and unfair competition from our partners make our fishermen bankrupt, and they are then told that some of them can apply for money to retrain. What do they retrain for in parts of the country where unemployment is already high? They can move away, but where do they move? It is madness.

Fishermen following lines of generations born and bred into the job, simply want to fish. In any local family in Lowestoft, one can find that, dating from one, two or three generations previously, there is fishing in the blood. Those people are not being allowed to fish a manageable and renewable resource because of a wider, sinister European agenda. It is a national disgrace, and the sooner we get out of it, the better.

10.40 am
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on initiating this important debate. Obviously, many issues relating to the common fisheries policy need to be considered and acted on by all parties, especially the Government.

Obviously, people approach that issue from several different directions and there are many different agendas in the debate. Although there is a very significant issue relating to the CFP which must be considered, the CFP should not be used as a vehicle for those people who wish to attack the principle of the European Union without recognising the CFP's role.

I was one of the people who voted against membership of the European Union and campaigned accordingly, but I do not believe that any Member of the House seriously believes that we intend to withdraw from the European Union. It will not be on the agenda.

My opinion, and that of the Labour party, is that we must work in the European Union for the best interests of our country and our communities. That can be done by taking a positive and constructive approach, which means that on occasions there will be disagreements with other member states; it cannot be done by taking a negative and isolationist approach, which I am afraid has been all too common in sections of the Conservative Government.

The demand for a 200-mile exclusive fishing limit is attractive. In an ideal world, if we could achieve that, no one would disagree with the object. However, I do not believe, with the greatest respect to those people who have been leading such a campaign, that it is a credible or achievable object, for reasons that have been outlined in the debate. There would be great problems with that.

Even if we adopted that position, we would be negotiating with other North sea states with traditional historic fishing rights in the North sea, and those 239912 K negotiations would be extremely difficult. Trade-offs would be inevitable. I do not deny that trade-offs took place in the negotiation for the original CFP, or that some of the principles behind that have been to the advantage of the fishing industry.

Nevertheless, the CFP has certain advantages. I also draw attention to the fact that the 1980s was a time of great prosperity for the United Kingdom fishing fleet and no complaints were made about the CFP at that time, when the fleet was expanding and grants were given to expand the fleet.

The argument has been well made in the debate that, even without a CFP, there would be problems in our fisheries management. The UK fleet has problems now, such as black fish, which has a devastating impact on fish stocks and prices.

It is not fair to consider the role of other member states negatively. In recent discussions about the western controls, the Spanish presidency helped us to reach a workable compromise that was acceptable to the fishing industry.

The principle of relative stability protects the interests of our country, and has protected the interests of our country in such things as preventing access to the North sea by the Spanish. It does not necessarily follow that an extension of the European Union would mean that other member states' fishing vessels would have access to our fishing stocks.

I acknowledge the frustration of many sections of the fishing industry. I have visited many fishing ports and spoken to fishermen. I understand how they feel; I understand the fear for their jobs and their future. I understand their worries, with an aging fishing fleet and little chance of a scrap-and-build policy while we are so far adrift from our multi-annual guidance programme targets. In that respect, it is not fair to blame the current problems of the fishing industry entirely on the CFP. The Conservative Government must take some responsibility.

For years, the Government refused to introduce an effective decommissioning scheme although European Union funds were available. Part of the problem that we have now, with the lack of modernisation, stems from that. I question whether, on occasions, our Government took a tough stand in representing the interests of our fishing industry, because of the number of other conflicting interests that were of concern to the Government.

I return to the involvement and responsibility of the country's fishing industry. The industry has been constructive and helpful in suggesting good ideas for fisheries management and fisheries conservation. Some of those ideas should be taken more seriously—such as a ban on twin prawn trawls and the introduction of square mesh panels. There are ways in which that might be done in the CFP, as I shall explain later.

We cannot ignore the fact that our fleet has undertaken illegal activities. There has been increased pressure as a result of increased catching ability, more powerful vessels and increased use of technology. We cannot ignore those issues. We cannot ignore the fact that gear conflict, which sometimes occurs between our vessels and French and Spanish vessels, goes on regularly along our south coast among our own vessels, between the mobile fleet and the static fleet. Co-operation is therefore needed within the industry, and we need a united fishing industry.

The campaign for a 200-mile limit and withdrawal from the CFP has proved extremely divisive in the fishing industry. That is not helpful.

Mr. Gill

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Morley

If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I have little time. I do not want to take time from the Minister, who wishes to respond to the debate.

I want to mention a few aspects of the way in which members of the Labour party regard the CFP and ways in which we believe that it can be reformed and made more workable in the present structure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) recognised and analysed succinctly some of the problems in the CFP and the way in which it has affected the industry. The hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) made some good arguments about the need to take a practical approach to the CFP.

It is important to tackle certain things, such as industrial fishing, which is primarily pursued by the Danes. We cannot tackle the problem of industrial fishing, which I believe should be prevented in the North sea, unless we do so by negotiation through an organisation such as that surrounding the CFP. There is no other way of doing it.

The CFP has certain advantages in ensuring proper management of our fish stocks. We need to protect our six and 12-mile limits and it would be desirable to negotiate, if possible, a small extension to give greater protection to local fleets on a regional basis.

The key to CFP reform is for member states to have greater autonomy in applying their own management. There is no reason why that cannot be done in the CFP. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's opinion on that. As long as it is applied on the basis of non-discrimination, there is no reason why we, as a member state, should not argue for such things as compulsory square mesh panels and certain closed areas at times of spawning in our own waters, which would apply to all vessels fishing in UK waters. We can have that autonomy in the structure of the CFP on a non-discriminatory basis.

We should review the way in which the quota management system works because of the problem of discards, but that problem is not unique to the CFP quota management system. There is a serious problem with discards in, for example, the northern mixed fishery method, which we need to tackle.

We cannot argue that we in this country have an absolutely clean record on fisheries enforcement. There have been problems in the United Kingdom which we need to tackle. With good will and with some commitment from the Government, we can enjoy the advantages of national control within a European and international fisheries management scheme, based on a reformed CFP. The overriding priority for the future of our fishing fleet and the environment of our seas must be a sustainable and properly managed fishing industry. That aim can be achieved within the present structure and we should not argue for an untenable position.

10.50 am
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry)

It is customary in such Adjournment debates for the Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and congratulate the hon. Member involved on succeeding in obtaining the debate. I do so today and, moreover, I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for initiating today's debate as it provides me with a welcome opportunity to place on record my approach to the CFP. It also provides a welcome opportunity to clear up, once and for all, a number of misconceptions about the CFP that appear to have arisen recently. I also welcome the support on the Front Bench of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), who is the Scottish Fisheries Minister.

As the United Kingdom's Fisheries Minister, I have only one purpose and aim: to represent and promote the best interests of the UK fishing industry and of UK fishermen. I hold no brief for the European Union and I certainly hold no brief for the European Commission or the European Parliament. My concerns are solely for the well-being of the UK fishing industry.

Since moving to the job in July, I have spent much time visiting fishing ports up and down the country and I have had the opportunity to listen at first hand to the concerns of the industry, both locally and nationally. There is no doubt that the fishing industry feels itself to be vulnerable, threatened and under pressure, and finds it difficult to see where its future lies. But the threat to the UK fishing industry does not come from foreigners; the real threat to it, as to fishing industries throughout the world, comes from dwindling and depleted stocks of fish around our shores, as was made clear in the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). The biggest recent blow to the UK's fishing fleet came not when we joined the Common Market but when, in the 1970s, we lost access to the distant waters and fishing off Iceland and elsewhere.

I want the UK fishing industry to be stable and sustainable so that those involved in it have the confidence to make investment decisions for the future. I want an industry that has a clear purpose and direction as we approach and enter the 21st century. I am sure that the industry recognises, as do most sensible commentators, that to have a sustainable fishing industry it is necessary to match fishing effort—the effort taken to catch fish—more closely with the fish available in our seas. That requirement will result in a slimmer fleet, but I hope that it will be a more sustainable fleet that is able to invest for the future.

Some people suggest that any problems caused to the fishing industry occurred as a result of our membership of the European Union—particularly, our participation in the common fisheries policy—and that it would be in the best interests of the UK fishing industry for Britain unilaterally to seek to exit from the CFP. There are undoubtedly concerns about the workings of the existing CFP, which is why Ministers have set up a CFP review group with a view to examining in detail the present workings of the CFP and recommending how it can be improved to benefit our industry. That group has been working hard during the year and has received many submissions. It is drafting a report and I hope that it will be in a position to publish its report and its findings early next year.

The UK has been a member of the European Union for nearly a quarter of a century. It is clear from reading the debates of the time that, when in 1971 the House debated the possibility of Britain's membership, hon. Members were perfectly well aware that if the UK joined the Common Market it would join not only a common agricultural policy but a common fisheries policy. That fact was made perfectly clear in the debates at the time and in article 38 of the treaty. In the event, the House decided, by a majority of 112 votes, that Britain should join the European Community.

In 1974, an incoming Labour Government—for the internal political necessity of the Labour party—promised to renegotiate our terms of entry and to have a subsequent referendum. During those renegotiations, not a word was mentioned about fishing policy. A referendum was held, during which time those concerned about the impact of our membership on UK fisheries undoubtedly put forward their views. But the country decided, by a clear and convincing majority, that it wanted to say yes to Europe.

For Britain to exit from the common fisheries policy would require the unanimous agreement of all our Community colleagues to the necessary treaty changes—and they would have to be complex changes. Simply disapplying the fisheries provisions of the treaty would not be sufficient to exclude the UK fishing industry from the impact of general provisions of the treaty such as the requirements of non-discrimination and free movement—the sort of requirements that caught us in the Factortame judgment. The complex range of changes that would be necessary would all require unanimous agreement.

We obtained a pretty good deal when quota shares and restrictions on access to areas such as the Shetland box and coastal waters were decided. It is politically unrealistic to imagine that a new deal can be done that will result in other countries in the European Union giving away fishing opportunities to the United Kingdom. It is disingenuous for any of us seriously to suggest that this or any other United Kingdom Government would unilaterally seek to exit from a key policy of the European Union.

Even if we sought and secured such agreement, what would have been achieved? I or any future Fisheries Minister would have to spend almost an entire Parliament negotiating new arrangements with the European Union to meet not just our needs but the historic interests of our neighbours such as Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands on subjects such as access and enforcement. We would still have to agree internationally to total allowable catches for fish stocks that straddle the areas within different fishery limits and we would still have to have a system of matching UK effort to available stocks.

In my attempts to be the best advocate for the fishing industry I have a duty to listen carefully to what the industry has to say. Like any good advocate, I also have a duty to tell the industry the facts as I see them. Suggestions that we could unilaterally abandon the CFP are not within the politics of the possible; they are a distraction.

Sir Richard Body

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Baldry

I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.

Moreover, such suggestions do not tackle the key problems facing the industry—balancing the need to maximise today's catch and the need to ensure sustainable levels of fish stocks to guarantee healthy catches next year and in subsequent years. We have to face up to not fear of foreigners but the straightforward fact that far too many fish stocks around the United Kingdom are seriously depleted or at a critical level. Of the main stocks in the waters that we fish, just over 40 per cent. are considered secure; the remainder are at risk of biological collapse, which means that they could not be fished economically—which is what happened to the cod of Canada. Nearer to home, that is what happened in the 1970s to herring and mackerel in the North sea.

It is important to pause to reflect carefully on why fish stocks are under such pressure. It is always tempting to try to blame someone, but the reality is more complex. If we do not make the effort to understand the reality, we will make an oversimplified diagnosis and seek the wrong solutions.

It is important to understand the role of fisheries science. It is a biological fact that the success rate of each year's spawning can vary massively. A mature female cod may yield 10 million eggs—their survival rate is tiny, as many are preyed on by other or the same species before they mature. Many factors influence the survival rate, including salinity, sea temperature and weather. As a result, in some years the survival rate can be much higher than the average. The peak years, when the so-called recruitment is good, constitute one reason why the scientists may advise that catches can be increased even against a background of poor stocks. That is why, against a general trend, the scientific advice is that we could catch more North sea cod next year. There has been one year of exceptional recruitment in that stock.

A salutary example of fishery science is provided by the Canadian experience. It is now generally accepted that one of the mistakes made in cod fisheries management was in placing too much reliance on the evidence of successful commercial fishermen. The scientific evidence showed that catching rates of research vessels were declining, but at the same time commercial catching rates were sustained at a reasonable level. Fishing was allowed to continue at too high a level and, ultimately, the stocks collapsed and the fishery was closed. With the benefit of hindsight, the commercial fishermen seem to have been successful because they were tracking down the limited numbers of remaining stocks.

The lesson is that fisheries management is difficult and is not an exact science. There is no answer that we can be sure is correct at any one time, but if we want to avoid disasters we must be ready to implement sensible and balanced precautions that may sometimes mean that fishermen are able to say after the event that we were too cautious. It is certainly misleading to pretend that the problems have nothing to do with our fishermen's activities, or that they are the fault of the Spanish when they have no access to fish stocks in the North sea or the Irish sea.

In the short time available to me, I hope that I have explained why I believe that it is disingenuous to suggest that departure from the CFP is the solution to all our problems. In subsequent debates between now and Christmas, I hope to respond to the House on the other points that were raised today—not least on how I believe that we may reform the CFP in the best interests of the United Kingdom fishing industry.

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