HC Deb 27 March 1996 vol 274 cc987-93 12.29 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I am certainly no fisherman. I do not have the stomach for sea fishing, and I certainly do not have the patience for fresh water fishing. But I certainly enjoy eating fish, and I recently enjoyed some wonderful skate at the Peter Boat in Leigh-on-Sea.

I think that it is fair to say that the finest fish products in the world are to be found in Essex, and especially in Leigh-on-Sea. This is an important debate for many Essex constituents, and I am delighted to see in his place my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) was here earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) wanted to be here, but unfortunately he was called away on urgent business. Many Essex colleagues will want to read the record of the debate.

Fish are fascinating, and over the years I have kept all types. At the moment, my wife is restricting me to keeping and breeding tropical fish, which, I am happy to report to the House, we are doing very successfully.

I should like to concentrate on the catching of sea fish and the plight of the Essex fishermen whose livelihood depends on it. I certainly do not hold my hon. Friend the Minister in any way responsible for the problems. He and I became Members of Parliament at the same time in 1983, and much of what I have to say goes back to well beyond the time when he and I came here. I entirely accept that he is doing his best to try to come to some agreement with our European partners.

The fundamental issue is that small is beautiful. We have only to look at shopping centres to see the way that some of our multiples have destroyed the livelihoods of little shopkeepers. In fishing, many of the larger vessels have destroyed the livelihoods of people who use small boats. All Essex Members have constituents in the industry, but Leigh-on-Sea is the nearest centre for most of us.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West will freely acknowledge, old Leigh is a fascinating place, with a great fishing tradition. Its efforts in the war are of particular note. Its fishing tradition was mentioned in the Domesday book, and most of its ships went to Dunkirk. There is a memorial there to the men who were lost at Dunkirk in the Renown. Cutlasses are sharpened on the stone in the magnificent St. Clement's church, whose clock is positioned so that it can be seen by seafarers all along the Thames.

Under present arrangements, British fishermen, and in particular Essex fishermen, are not being allowed to catch enough fish: 250 kg a month of Dover sole is not enough, and does not make fishing economically viable. Dredging for aggregates is a problem off the Essex coast, and I understand that that is the responsibility of the Crown Estates.

The most recent annual report of the Kent and Essex sea fishery committee is an excellent document. I shall concentrate on the section that deals with Leigh-on-Sea and includes Holehaven. The report states: Catches of sole were maintained at a low level throughout the Winter period by vessels working the central and outer sections of the estuary. These soles, together with light catches of cod. whiting and roker, supported continued fishing effort. Vessels operating twin beam, single, double and triple otter trawls pursued the sole fishery. Catches were initially good, gradually declining as the Summer period progressed. Some trawlers moved to working from Harwich during June, July and August where reduced quantities of week and slightly improved catches were made when weather actually permitted. Catch rates declined as Autumn progressed. By-catches of roker and plaice were gradually replaced by small quantities of cod and whiting.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

My hon. Friend rightly stresses the importance of sole and other such fish. I hope that he will refer the Minister to the problems facing the cockling industry, especially the threat from Holland. That is of special concern to some of the fishermen in Leigh-on-Sea to whom my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Amess

My right hon. Friend is right to draw my attention to the cockle industry in Leigh-on-Sea, whose products are famous throughout the east end of London. The report from which I am quoting makes it clear that they have also been affected during the past year. The report continues: Catches were generally good, although quota restrictions limited landings to a much reduced level. I shall put the matter into perspective, because some colleagues might ask, "How big is the fishing industry in Essex?" The answer to that is that it is very big and of great importance to all Essex Members. Some 44 vessels are manned by 68 full-time fishermen. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, who has represented that constituency for nearly four decades, could tell the House how important it is to so many families in the town.

There are also 24 vessels with 30 part-time seasonal fishermen, and they are also pursuing the matters that I have mentioned. The general secretary of the committee that produced the report states: This has been a particularly difficult year for the majority of fishermen operating within the district. The Thames estuary has traditionally supported a large fleet of inshore trawlers. These are now being denied their major source of income as a result of a reduced share of sole quota. Diversification to other fisheries has not provided sufficient alternative income. The Winter cod fishery has not proved viable due to reduced stocks. Sprats have not been present in sufficient quantities also to provide an alternative income. Smaller sections of the local fishing industry have seen a better year. Fishermen have continued to explore new opportunities with particular interest in shellfish. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West is particularly interested in that.

The report continues: Fishermen have increased effort or assessed the viability of fisheries for whelks, oysters, mussels, shrimps and, of course, cockles. The now established Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order and ongoing bye-law controls give enhanced protection for the future of the cockle fishery. We thank the Minister for that.

Here is the rub on fish quotas: Quota restrictions have again continued to impose heavily upon the local fishing industry. The traditional sole fishery, supporting the majority of vessels within this district, has suffered severe restrictions. I know that that is also a very important issue for my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe).

The report continues: This has been as a result of loss of quota allocations. Prospects for 1996 look even worse with an overall reduction of 23 per cent. in sole quotas compared with the 1995 quotas. During 1995, over 10 metre vessels saw their sole quota reduced to an uneconomic level starting at 300 kg per vessel per month for the main period of fishing, increasing to a still low maximum of 500 kg per month during mid Summer, followed by a further decline to 350 kg per month. Under 10 metre vessels were able to continue fishing throughout. however this was under continued threat of an early closure. Restriction on quotas for 1996 has resulted in a total closure of the sole fishery for under 10 metre vessels until the 31st March. Sadly: In December two West Mersea fishermen were taken to court by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for sole quota offences. They were fined and ordered to pay a total of £11,500. I have been informed that, only last night, action was taken against another six fishermen.

I am indebted to the Leigh and Southend Fishermen's Association. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has had a long and happy association with the members of that organisation. I am grateful for the help of the chairman, Mr. Knapp, the vice-chairman, Mr. Paul Gilson, and one of the committee members, Mr. Daryl Gobbold.

I should like to refer the House to three documents. The first is the consultation paper on the 1996 fishing vessel decommissioning scheme, paragraph 17 of which is of particular concern to Essex fishermen. It says: Since the majority of UK track record is held by POs. they are the principal beneficiaries under the current arrangements when the track record of a vessel is lost through decommissioning. If the change described above were introduced it is likely that POs would still chiefly benefit as only they or their members would be likely to wish to acquire the track records of decommissioned vessels. Under present quota management arrangements, vessels remaining in the non-sector would have no individual interest in securing track record and so the proportion of track record in the non-sector would tend to decline. If the necessary balance between the sector and the non-sector was to be maintained, it would be necessary to protect the non-sector's track record from erosion. To avoid over-complicated arrangements it is proposed that a notional amount of the track record from decommissioned vessels would be attributed to the non-sector, based on the latter's percentage of UK quotas. Leigh and Southend fishermen truly believe that there is discrimination against the non-sector, as is highlighted in that paragraph. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, if he cannot reply to that concern at the end of this very short debate, to write to me on the matter. The position has to be clarified, so that non-sector vessels are put on an equal footing on quotas and track records with producer organisation vessels.

Leigh and Southend fishermen also believe that there has been some mismanagement by quota teams between 1990 and 1991. In 1994, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West asked a question of the then Minister that clearly highlights how things went wrong between 1990 and 1991. There was an excessive uptake by the larger vessels, which was detrimental to under-17 m vessels. Those amounts were used to build the track record accords of the over-17 m vessels.

I should like to mention something for which neither the Minister nor myself can be blamed: the European Economic Community's 1970 treaty of accession, and the Command Paper of 20 October 1970. I draw the House's attention in particular to the paragraph that states: subject to certain specific conditions concerning the flag or the registration of their ships, Community fishermen must have equal access to and use of fishing grounds in maritime waters coming under the sovereignty or within the jurisdiction of Member States; whereas, however, exception to this rule may be permitted transitionally for certain types of fishing carried on by local populations whose livelihood depends principally on inshore fishing". This issue and today's debate are of enormous interest and importance, not only to my constituents in Basildon but to people in all the other Essex constituencies, and particularly to the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West.

I should like to invite my hon. Friend the Minister, if he wants further evidence of how important this matter is for Leigh and its traditions, to consult the wonderful president of the local heritage organisation, Miss Sheila Pitt-Stanley, who can tell him about the town's history. I hope that he will agree to visit Southend, West, and in particular to meet the fishermen of Leigh and Southend in the heritage centre.

I also ask the Minister to reflect on the representations that I have made, supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, about how we believe that we are being discriminated against. I certainly intend to go to Brussels, with some of the fishermen, to make representations there.

At a time when socialists are controlling Europe, I want to know what the Member of the European Parliament for Essex, in particular, is doing about this issue, because it is no good blaming Her Majesty's Government for everything. Essex county council is controlled by the socialists, as is Southend district council and Basildon district council. Europe, in particular, is controlled by the socialists. The people who represent those councils and who represent Europe have been elected, and they should be assisting me in the representations that I have drawn to the Minister's attention in this debate.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on using this debate to draw attention to the concerns of fishermen from Essex, from the Thames estuary and from adjoining areas. As he said, the issues he has raised are a matter of concern to many hon. Members, including not only my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) but our many colleagues who represent constituencies around the Thames estuary.

If it is agreeable to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, I should be delighted to visit Leigh-on-Sea. Since becoming the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in July, I have visited many ports and harbours around the country, and I should be very happy to go to Leigh and to meet the non-sector fishermen there. If I do not cover all the points raised by my hon. Friend in the time available to me, I will write to him to provide greater detail.

When we speak about the fishing industry, there is a tendency to think in terms of the south-west—Cornwall and Devon—Humberside, Hull, Grimsby and the north-east; but there is, and always has been, an active industry in the south-east around the Thames, exploiting the resources available from the Thames estuary. Many people have been involved in such fishing for several generations, and typify the independent and resolute nature of the British character.

As my hon. Friend has said, much of the fishing activity is recorded as far back as the Domesday Book. Fishing has continued to be important in this century. My hon. Friend also quite rightly referred to the contribution that the fishing industry of the Thames estuary made at Dunkirk and elsewhere during the second world war. Those fishermen and their industry are very much an integral part of our highly complex and diverse fishing industry. To me they are as important as any other part of that industry.

In the latter part of his speech, my hon. Friend spoke about the treaty of Rome's reference to common access to an equal resource. There never has been common access to an equal resource under the common fisheries policy, and I do not envisage that there ever will be.

As the House will be aware, the common fisheries policy imposes a six-mile limit from our shore within which only United Kingdom vessels can fish. That includes most of the inshore fishing industry, and much of the Thames estuary fishing industry. A further limit of between six and 12 miles prohibits access to all boats except United Kingdom ones and those that have historical rights of access. We have historical rights of access into the 12-mile limits of certain other member states.

To be honest, I do not envisage any circumstances in which we would be prepared to surrender our six or 12-mile limits. That is probably the view of other member states, because I cannot envisage any circumstances in which they would wish to give up their respective limits. Those limits are important to the inshore fishing industry.

Reference has understandably been made to the UK's quota management arrangements and to the particular problems which local fishermen have encountered through belonging to what is known as the non-sector—that group of fishermen who do not belong to producer organisations. It may be helpful to explain what our quota management arrangements are and how they affect the non-sector.

As the House knows, the amount of fish which can be taken from the North sea is fixed annually by the Fisheries Council, when 15 Ministers from the member states meet in December. That council takes account of scientific advice and the results of bilateral negotiations with Norway.

Once the total allowable catches have been decided for the principal stocks—cod, whiting, haddock, saithe, plaice, sole, hake, nephrops, mackerel and herring—they are allocated among member states according to fixed percentage shares reflecting the level of fishing activity that took place in the 1970s, prior to the finalisation of the common fisheries policy. It thus follows that different stocks are allocated a different percentage.

In the North sea, for example, we do rather well on plaice, because we have been allocated 56 per cent. of the North sea quota. We do lamentably poorly on sole, however, having been allocated 4 per cent. of the quota. That is one of the reasons why that stock is under such pressure.

From time to time, representatives of the industry consider whether we would be wise to revisit the issue of stability and the way in which the percentages are allocated. It is fair to say that the United Kingdom fishing industry has expressed to me the opinion that it did pretty well out of the relative stability regime and the consequent divisions of quotas. Our quotas were good for Scotland and much of the north coast. Concern has been expressed that, if we were to revisit those quotas, we would not do so well. I recognise that that means, of course, that, in certain areas, we have been allocated lamentably small quotas.

Once the quotas have been fixed, it becomes the responsibility of each member state to manage its own quota allocation and to ensure that they are not overfished.

Within the UK we have sought to devise arrangements that are fair and equitable, and to encourage fishermen, through producer organisations where appropriate, to take on day-to-day responsibility for the management of quota allocations. Each year, we divide the UK's quotas among three groups of fishermen—the producer organisations, the non-sector, representing vessels whose owners are not members of producer organisations—within that group comes many of the fishermen to whom my hon. Friend referred—and the under-10 m fleet. Those quotas are allocated in proportion to the aggregated catch that each group makes over the three previous years.

Where allocations are made to a producer organisation, it is then responsible for sharing quota between its members and to ensure that they do not overfish the producer organisation's collective entitlement. The quotas for the non-sector are managed by the Fisheries Departments in close consultation with the industry. That involves setting monthly catch limits that take account of seasonal variations in fishing activity. Those limits are set at levels that ensure that fisheries remain open throughout the year, so that fishermen have the opportunity to fish them. Monthly catch limits are not set for the under-10 m fleet, and once the quota allocation for any stock is taken, further landings are prohibited.

Those management arrangements are reviewed annually with representatives of all sides of the industry. It is fair to say that, in the past eight years, many fishermen, notably the more active, have opted to join or form producer organisations. Today, those organisations account for more than 90 per cent. of the uptake of UK quota.

At the same time, the quotas available to fishermen remaining in the non-sector have inevitably contracted. That, along with declining stocks and increasing fishing effort, has led to a general tightening of monthly catch limits. I am conscious of that, and I have made it clear to hon. Friends that one of my great concerns is to work out means within the existing parameters of the common fisheries policy to give more help to the non-producer organisation sector.

My hon. Friend spoke about what happens to the track records of boats when they are decommissioned. That is one of the issues that I am considering. I would, however, point out that a number of important steps have already been taken to safeguard the position of fishermen who do not belong to producer organisations.

The quota allocations for fishermen with vessels under 10 m have been underpinned since 1994. That means that those fishermen now receive a guaranteed minimum share of the UK's quota irrespective of whether they have been able to catch their full entitlement because, for example, of bad weather or fish stocks failing to turn up on inshore grounds. That underpinning has been extended to the non-sector allocations for North sea cod and sole, two of the stocks of major interest to fishermen in the Thames estuary. We have also insisted that all producer organisations wishing to manage quota allocations must do so for all stocks.

I am conscious of the importance of the sole fishery and the concerns that monthly catch limits are not sufficient to maintain the viability of fishermen within the Thames estuary. I appreciate those concerns, but they must be put into perspective.

As I have said, the UK share of the TAC sole quota is, and has always been, low. It is doubtful that we shall ever secure sufficient quota to satisfy the aspirations of our fishermen. Secondly, despite the claims that are made, our records show that, in the past, few fisherman caught significantly more sole than they do now. Thirdly, sole account for less than one quarter of the value of the total fish catch landed into Essex ports. For example, in 1994, cod, bass, plaice, sprat, skate and rays also made important contributions to the earnings of Essex fishermen.

I am aware that exceptionally good catches of sole have been reported this year. According to the advice I have received from scientists, that is not indicative of exceptionally large stocks of North sea sole: it is due to the unusually low temperatures throughout February, which drove the sole into warmer deep water pockets, where their concentrated numbers and near-moribund state made them easy to catch.

I also appreciate that fishermen around the Essex coast have other concerns—for example, the effects of aggregate dredging. One must recognise that marine aggregates make a crucial contribution to overall supply, particularly to the south-east, including Essex, where alternative materials are not readily available. They are particularly important for soft sea defences. I share, however, fishermen's concerns about the large number of applications for new dredging areas and I will not give a positive view under the Government's new procedure on any application unless I am satisfied that the marine environment and commercial fishing operations in the area can be adequately safeguarded. I would usually expect organisations to surrender licences for new licences that they take up.

I am conscious that, in the time available to me, I have not been able to cover in detail all the points that my hon. Friend has raised—in relation to the cockle fishery and prosecutions, among others. I shall gladly write to him and to other hon. Friends who have attended the debate to deal with those points in greater detail.