HC Deb 14 January 1999 vol 323 cc529-46

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

6.21 pm
Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House on a serious issue which I hope will interest the House—the sustainability of fisheries.

Few hon. Members will be aware of a significant conference that was held in London last Monday. It was essentially a workshop to consider the crisis facing the world's oceans, in preparation for the April United Nations meeting, in America, on sustainable development. The conference was sufficiently important for the Deputy Prime Minister to agree to give the keynote address, in which he identified some of the concerns which he felt were becoming increasingly prominent not only among the scientific community but among the world's responsible fishing communities. However, the need to act swiftly was urged not on the British Government but on others. I believe that the British Government could be doing much more to take a lead in protecting both our own and other countries' fishing stocks.

If we are to discuss and make proposals on managing the world's oceans, it is critical that we should understand the over-fishing crisis. My belief—which has been formed by consulting with scientists and responsible bodies working on the issue; there are no party political points to be made on the issue—is that the policy currently being pursued by the British and other Governments, by continuing to set quotas that are incompatible with sustainable fisheries, is presenting huge risks. The fact is that more than half the stocks exploited by United Kingdom fishermen are below safe limits or are in danger of falling below those limits.

Sustainability is far from being treated as a crucial, central issue in debates on the future of the common fisheries policy. I acknowledge that sustainability plays its role in debates, and that lip service is paid to it, but, when it comes to the crunch, it is not at the heart of the way in which common fisheries policy is formulated. Current fishing practices have been based on inaccurate data, sometimes on a wilful disregard of scientific evidence and on a failure to consider the long-term consequences of current policies.

In some ways, the arguments about sustainable fisheries, and the way in which those arguments are reported, resemble the debate, a decade ago, on fears about global warming. A decade ago, that evidence was ignored, and the scientists dealing with it were dismissed as eccentric or as scaremongers. Today, we are facing the consequences of ignoring their advice, of failing to understand that they were not eccentric and of undermining what they were telling us. Global warming is now a crisis, and the world must face a more serious problem than it would have had to face had we been more responsible and appreciated the demands of a sustainable environment and of sustainable environmental policy.

At least some of the Deputy Prime Minister's arguments about oceans reflected a growing body of opinion in this country. Those opinions come from organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is interested in oceans because of its concern about the conservation of sea birds, as well as newer bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council, in which I declare an interest as an unpaid director.

The Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the crisis facing fisheries. It is well known that 60 per cent. of the world's fish resources are in danger of being over-exploited. He spoke of the need for effective regional agreements to encourage responsible fisheries and sustainable harvests. He assured the conference that the Government take the issue seriously, but that demands much more than they are currently delivering—not rhetoric, but action now.

In summing up, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the thrust of his remarks was to improve public understanding of what is happening to the seas. He spoke of the need for a barometer that people understand. The real need now is not for greater public understanding—the public are beginning to understand ever more about the problem—but for more Government action and help to create a climate in which we can move significantly towards a more responsible and sustainable fisheries policy.

Tonight's debate goes to the heart of the subject of the oceans workshop and concerns about the future of our seas. It is significant that it is to be answered not by a Minister from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but by one from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is not a surprise, because that is how we have always done business, but as we have learnt ever more about sustainable fisheries, we have come to understand the need for close integration of environmental policy with fisheries policy. That division is one of the Government's problems in addressing the issue. The Minister replying to this debate speaks from one Department, but the Deputy Prime Minister speaks from another. Would the speech that the Minister will make tonight be the same if he had the environmental brief as well?

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the difficulty with fisheries, particularly in the European Union—although this is also true elsewhere—is that fisheries Ministers could more correctly be referred to as fishermen's Ministers? They are fighting for their fishermen's share of the fish rather than ensuring that fish will be there for the fishermen of the future.

Mr. Woodward

My right hon. Friend makes a crucial and telling point, which I would like to develop. The fact that the debate is dealt with by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, not the Deputy Prime Minister is a symptom of the problem, not just for fish stocks, but for those employed in the fishing industry. Up to 200 million people across the world are employed in fishing and related industries. There has been an increase in the number of fishermen in the UK in the past year. A future fisheries policy must be more environmentally sensitive if fishing stocks are to be preserved and are to continue to provide jobs for people. The Government need to say more and to act more clearly to demonstrate that they understand that sustainable exploitation of natural resources on land, in the sea or in the air that we breathe must be considered in the round. That will require more restraint, tougher quotas set by the Government and more difficult trade-offs with the industry.

There is no better example of the failure to grasp the need for sustainability than the devastation caused to fishing stocks and fishermen's livelihoods after the collapse of the Canadian grand banks in 1992. Until then the area was considered one of the world's richest sources of cod. Of course there had been the scaremongers—the scientists who had warned about over-fishing—but their warnings were regarded as simply eccentric. In 1992 one of the world's richest sources of cod collapsed overnight as a result of chronic over-fishing. The consequence was not only the devastation of the fish stocks and the appalling collapse of the cod stocks, but the loss of 40,000 jobs—nearly twice the number employed as fishermen in the United Kingdom today.

The fishery remains closed and there has been no significant recovery of the fish stocks. The ecosystem has undergone irreversible change. It is no longer a matter for the Canadian equivalent of MAFF because there are now no fishing interests to protect in the area. It is no longer a concern to the environmental interests in Canada because the fishing stock has been wiped out. We need to take note of the failure of the two Departments there to work hand in hand.

It would be interesting to hear from the Minister this evening what steps he believes need to be taken by his Department to achieve greater co-operation in terms of the action plans that need to be made by his Department and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

There have been many arguments for a precautionary approach. I welcome the steps taken by the European Union and I pay tribute to the role which I am sure the Minister played in the direction taken in the Council in December 1998—to apply a precautionary approach to catch limits.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

It was not uncontroversial.

Mr. Woodward

Indeed. No environmental policy is likely to be uncontroversial. I recognise that problem and that is why this is not a party political issue and an opportunity for the Opposition to take potshots at the Government. It will require consensus, but that needs to be built. The British Government can play a significant role in achieving that consensus.

Before one makes too much of the precautionary approach that was achieved at the Council in December 1998, it has to be recognised that it is no more and no less than what EU Ministers signed up to at the 1995 North Sea conference when they pledged to apply the precautionary principle to managing our fish stocks. There were three years between those two meetings, and that crucial loss of time will make a difference. We cannot say that we shall have another agreement now and in three years' time we may achieve another implementation and perhaps everything will be all right. We are being warned—just as we were warned about global warming 10 years ago—that action needs to be taken now, and not in three years' time.

It is interesting to refer back to the North Sea conference in 1995. The follow-up intermediate ministerial meeting conference in Bergen in 1997 pledged to draw up recovery plans for the most depleted stocks, giving priority to cod. In 1997 the EC conceded in its progress report on the IMM: Up till now it has not been possible to establish a specific recovery plan for cod. It is a disaster. Not months but years have elapsed, yet there is no specific recovery plan for cod. The establishment of a coherent recovery plan for cod remains a priority for EU member states. The problem is that the elements of such a recovery plan require much more robust protection of the seedcorn of the year-class. That requires agreements on no take zones to protect key stock concentrations. The British Government must punch above their weight to bring about far better responsible good practice by the fishing industry. The Government must begin to think about what they are going to do to reward those who do well and to discourage and punish those who are irresponsible.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, to whom I gave notice of my wish to intervene. I should like the Minister to clarify the position on conservation gone too far. I have a number of wreck fishing vessels for hire in my constituency, and owners are concerned that they will be restricted to three finned fish per boat. Those boats take 12 or more people out to sea, and they cannot share out three fish among 12 people. Anglers simply will not hire those vessels, and a very important industry—which is fishing-related, but not fundamentally about fish stocks—will be in trouble as a consequence of over-conservation. That aspect of the debate must be addressed by the Minister.

Mr. Woodward

It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about that. However, it would be breathtaking to hear from the Minister this evening that he thought for one moment that in anything related to fishing policies we were in a state of over-conservation. The reality is far from that: the situation is desperate.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) should look at what has been said by organisations such as the RSPB. The society said that, with hindsight, the 40,000 Newfoundland fishermen who have been out of work since 1992 because of the grand banks cod collapse would have preferred a tough precautionary approach to the endless compromise, and what the hon. Gentleman described as "over-conservation". If we had had at that time a tough precautionary approach—which might have made it very difficult for the fishermen—there still would have been a fishing industry today, supplying jobs for those people.

The failure to look ahead and the preoccupation with the here and now in the face of the evidence means that we not only face a crisis but are marching knowingly and irresponsibly towards a position in which we will exhaust our fishing stocks around the world.

Mr. Sanders

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am referring to pleasure boats which have a restriction of one fish per angler, or 12 fish in a 12-person boat. Allegedly, that is being reduced to three finned fish per boat. This is, to coin a phrase, a drop in the ocean in comparison with the problem that the hon. Gentleman is raising.

Mr. Woodward

I should not spend too much time in this debate being preoccupied with drops in the ocean. Nobody wants to see anglers disturbed; as is the case with many other aspects of wildlife conservation, those engaged in a sport are often the best stewards for the continuation of an industry. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister supports that view beyond fisheries and into other areas.

In the debate on the common fisheries policy a month ago, the Minister was at pains to speak of balance. The balance of which he speaks—albeit a politically understandable balance which he must produce in his Department—is, in fact, not a balance at all; it is a business of trading off the demands of the fishing industry with the growing sense of the crisis of the fishing stocks.

For the reasons outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) this evening, I believe that the difficulties that the Minister faces within the Department are historical. However, surely we should now break out of those historical chains, and recognise that they are doing enormous damage to the prospects of creating a sustainable fisheries policy.

The scale according to which the Government judge the balance is based on a critical assumption: what is the most that the catching sector can get away with? What is the largest amount of fish that can be extracted?

On the basis of the data and evidence that we now have, it appears that the position is, at best, a lottery. Given increasing scientific evidence about the way in which fishing stocks are being exhausted, it is hugely irresponsible to continue with some of our fishing policies, which will simply cause more and more devastation.

Let us take the example of Canada's grand banks. Getting it wrong will not only destroy fishing stocks, but throw thousands of people on to the dole. That will be the new deal for Britain's fishermen if the Government are not brave enough in the months ahead to come up with some tough and different policies on fisheries for the future.

The current safety thresholds for fishing stocks of European fish are based on defining the greatest number of fish that can be extracted—not safely extracted, just extracted. The calculation then becomes a target: the target is to leave the minimum number of fish in the sea. The Government are presiding over a policy that ignores the warnings that we are being given. We are gambling with very high stakes. Surely the time has come for the Government to ask not what is the most that can be extracted, but what is the most that we can responsibly extract. We should not think in terms of quotas for the most than can be extracted, per se.

At present, given the data that we have, the margins for error are all over the shop. If the wrong calculation is made, the results will be catastrophic. It is clear from the evidence that our current fishing policy is tantamount to a culture of chronic crisis.

The RSPB says: The sustainability of these stocks has, for the past few years, been dependent on the unpredictable incidence of the occasional year of above-average recruitment. This is a lottery and it is no substitute for rational management in the face of the information that we now have. The Government need to end the lottery and to preside over a process of rational management.

In some ways, the Deputy Prime Minister recognised that at the oceans workshop. We have learnt a little from the problems that were caused when the scientists' warnings about global warming were ignored a decade or so ago. Rhetoric, however, is not the same as action. We know that 60 per cent. of the world's most commercially important fish stocks are fully fished, over-fished or severely depleted, and Britain is not exempt from the crisis.

Can the Minister tell us this evening that the information on which he has based his quotas for this year is so reliable and comprehensive that the current fishing of the North sea definitely will not lead to a position like that of the grand banks in Canada? In fairness to him, I must say that he cannot tell us that. He should read the evidence provided by his own Ministry's 1988 report. On page 134, it states: In 1997–s Agency, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science…monitored the level of 31 stocks of fish and contributed detailed advice on their size composition to ICES. A measure of the state of the stocks is the proportion fished by the UK and other EU fleets considered to be above the level (known as the minimum biological acceptable level) necessary to avoid an increasing risk that they will fail to reproduce themselves". That figure might have been expected to decline if we were operating a responsible, sustainable fisheries policy; but in 1994 it was already 42 per cent. above the desired level. In 1995 it rose to 43 per cent. above the level, and in 1996, the last year for which the Ministry has published data, it rose to a massive 51 per cent. above it. The risk has increased every year; it has not gone down. The jump from 1995–96 should alarm everyone—and it should alarm the Minister most of all.

As the Deputy Prime Minister said, we do not simply need the general public to understand more; we need them to be reassured that the Government understand the figures and will not just speak about the problem, but take action on it.

The deputy director of CEFAS—the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—warned in 1995 that we have never been here before and we don't know how long we can sustain viable fishing stocks…or whether the marine ecosystem will allow stocks ever to recover to previous levels. Those are not my words, but those of the deputy director of CEFAS. Surely, that is at the heart of the issue that we need to discuss. There is no question of over-conservation when we have a warning of that nature.

The former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), showed again that he understood the danger in a letter of August last year, where he cited concern about the state of North sea cod stocks: It is certainly the case that North Sea cod stocks are now at 'uncharted low levels' and all fisheries managers are aware of the poor state of those stocks. However, the problem is that, instead of taking heed of that warning and doing something about it, he immediately drew comfort: Even at these low levels there are still some 400 million individual cod in the North Sea of one year of age or more and I understand that the latest scientific information is that there has been a good recruitment of juvenile cod to the fishery. Hooray—there has been a good recruitment of juvenile cod to the fishery, but the problem is that that demonstrates all too sadly that there is only partial understanding. UK waters may be awash with juvenile fish, but that is exactly all that there is. The recruitment may be there because that is all there is left; we have exhausted the older, mature fish.

The crucial question for the Minister is not how many individual cod of one year of age or more may be in the North sea, but how many individual cod of four years of age or more are in the North sea, because it is only at the age of four years or more that those fish will begin to breed. Again, it would be interesting to know whether the Minister could tell us that figure. I suspect that he cannot because, in all fairness, we have not understood, until now, the crucial nature of having such information.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. Is he suggesting that there should be a total closure of North sea cod fisheries, or that there should be an alternative mechanism for catching cod that would involve the extension of the net mesh? I am interested to hear what he puts forward as alternative suggestions.

Mr. Woodward

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come specifically to that point.

I know that, like his predecessor, the Minister has been concerned with the problem of discarding; I know that he cares about the issue. The scale of juvenile undersize fish has undoubtedly been a root cause of the tragic rise of discard rates in recent years. If one thinks that through, one is saying that a high proportion of the fish that are caught have to be discarded because they are below the legal minimum landing size.

If that problem is not dealt with adequately, it will simply compound itself. The tragedy in the North sea for cod can be seen all too clearly from the fact that half, by number, of all the cod and haddock that are caught in the North sea are thrown back dead into the sea because they are too small. Those figures are alarming in themselves. We know that the North sea cod fishery is also riding its luck. It would be foolish in the extreme to suggest that an exceptionally good recruitment year in 1996 demonstrates that fish stocks have recovered completely. Far from it: one good year of recovery is cause neither for celebration nor complacency.

As we discussed earlier, Ministers promised in 1997 to prioritise a cod recovery plan. The 1996 juveniles are now the three-year-old mainstay of the fishery, but only if they have not been caught or were not part of the half by number thrown back dead into the sea. The Minister will know that the scientific evidence worries bodies such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which has stated that it remains pessimistic about the likelihood of noteworthy improvement of the cod stock in the medium term. That is surely very worrying.

Tonight, the Minister has an opportunity to say whether he believes in the quotas in whose agreement he played a part, and whether they go far enough. He will know that scientists recommended a cut of 11 per cent. in the 1999 cod quota. That was moderated by the European Commission—not up, but down to just 5 per cent. Will the Minister say whether the Government will be party to any further dilution of the advice designed to restore North sea cod stocks? I hope that he will confirm that they will not.

I accept that the fishing industry would be very angry at such a response. However, that is the difficulty facing a Minister who must recognise the importance of the environmental factors involved. If those factors are not taken into account, there will be no fishing interests to preside over in the future, because neither the fish stocks nor the jobs will exist.

The German presidency has launched an initiative to protect young cod from over-fishing and to give them a chance to mature. Will the Minister take this opportunity to align the Government behind that initiative, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has asked already, to create an area in the German bight that would be closed to cod fishing in 1999?

The acid question is not "Where are we now?", but "Where will sustainable fisheries, fish stocks and the fishing industry be in five years' time?" Unilever, which makes Bird's Eye fish fingers—and I could cite other corporations—has begun to face the problem square on. It has realised that there will be no cod for fish fingers in five or 10 years' time unless sustainable fisheries are adopted as the way forward. At present, the fishing industry presides over dwindling fish stocks that depend on the lottery of rare years of good recruitment. Should not the Minister be saying more to bring together the interests of the industry and of the environment, and to produce a concerted effort to restore stocks to a level that will provide long-term and sustainable catches, with high proportions of mature fish? That would guarantee that the 200 million people in the world whose livelihoods depend on such factors will continue to have jobs.

Although it will be difficult, Britain has an opportunity to set an example, to take a lead in the matter and to punch above its weight—not only in the radical reform of the EU's common fisheries policy but also in the world as a whole.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I sense that my hon. Friend is approaching the end of his remarks, but will he say whether he intends to refer to the huge tonnage of mature, saleable fish that is dumped back, dead, into the sea? I listened carefully to his description of the huge number of fish thrown back dead because they are considered to be too small. Is he worried that the European Commission's recent reduction in the minimum landing size for certain species will make the problem even worse? It will not have escaped my hon. Friend's attention that, under the new quotas for this year, the quotas for sand eels will be maintained at their previous rate. Many people regard that species as an essential food for future fish stocks in general.

Mr. Woodward

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and I hope that he will understand from what I am about to say that I have recognised that problem. However, in a relatively short Adjournment debate it is impossible to explore all aspects of the matter. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members rehearsed many of the arguments in the debate shortly before the House rose for Christmas. I am concentrating on this aspect this evening, because I want to tease out from the Minister whether we can move on from simply recognising that this is yet another problem and can arrive at a situation where we see all the problems and begin to recognise the need to do more before there is nothing left to be done.

I and certain organisations believe that a full study of all the United Kingdom fish stocks needs to be carried out over a number years with directly comparable figures. As the Minister will readily recognise, no full study has been carried out with comparable data and so we have constant difficulty in producing meaningful information. Without the information it is difficult to produce constructive policies with which we can proceed sensibly. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether the Government will agree to make additional funding available for that sort of exhaustive study of UK fish stocks to produce the comparable data.

In addition, certification schemes are beginning to emerge. Can the Minister tell us tonight to what extent he believes that voluntary certification is the way forward for the fishing industry? I make no apology for pushing that matter. As a director of the Marine Stewardship Council, I know that it has been at the centrepiece of the work that that organisation has been doing since it was set up by an initial grant from Unilever and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The MSC wants certification to be at the heart of future fisheries policies and wants consumers to be made aware of the labelling that would go with certification so that they are encouraged to choose those products over non-certified fish.

So far, the response from retailers and the industry in the United Kingdom has been constructive and there have been constructive approaches from those within the fishing industry, who recognise that the long-term policies that we are pursuing will probably leave us with no fishing stocks to fish.

At the oceans conference, the Deputy Prime Minister talked of the need for a whole series of actions where international agreement and support is needed to respond to the threats from human activities to the seas. The certification programme would offer just that.

The Deputy Prime Minister has said that we need to find such a solution. The truth is that we have found it. The industry, retailers and consumers believe that certification can work—they have demonstrated it in other areas of environmental policy. Tonight, the Minister has an opportunity to tell the House his views on the policies of the MSC—if he is not fully aware of them, I am sure that the council will willingly brief him, or, if he has had one briefing, give him another. The British Government have the opportunity to join other signatories and bodies from around the world that are queuing up to come behind that policy. Other countries are beginning to recognise that sustainable fisheries can be produced only through international co-operation, which has to be based on market solutions. Those will best come about speedily through a voluntary certification programme.

Perhaps the Minister will tell the House his views of the certification programme this evening. The crucial thing is that the Minister is stuck in a Department that has historically been concerned with the fishing industry.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Woodward

It is vital that the Minister recognise the demands of the fishing industry and the fishermen. No one would suggest that that cannot be done, but the long-term interests of fishermen in Britain, the European Union and around the world will be protected only if we fundamentally shift fisheries policies away from the current minimum target quota system to a responsible, sustainable, environmentally friendly policy that, in the long term, will continue to provide jobs for people in Britain and throughout the world.

7 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I declare an interest as the unpaid chairman of the Marine Stewardship Council and as the Member for a constituency with 74 miles of coastline and many small fishermen. I welcome the opportunity that the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) creates to consider sustainable fishing.

I congratulate the Minister on the tough stance that he has taken several times in fighting for the sustainability of our fish stocks. I recognise that his job—I did it longer than anyone—is not easy because the fishing industry is self-destructive in that every section finds reasons to defend its practices against those of other nations or other parts of the nation.

I well remember fishermen on the west of Scotland telling me that if only those on the east of Scotland behaved as they did, everything would be all right. Fishermen in the south-west explained that if only the Scots behaved like them, it would all be all right. The British said that if only the rest of Europe behaved like us, it would all be all right. Exactly the same is said in Holland, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal; it is always someone else who is at fault.

The House has a responsibility, as far as possible, to support measures, albeit unpopular ones, that a Government of any sort seek to take to protect the future of our fishing industry. Having congratulated them, we must press the Government to move further. I have some practical suggestions that the Minister might like to accept.

First, the Minister is right to realise that the answers cannot be found nationally. Fish do not carry any flag on their fins; they swim where they wish. There is no such thing as a Scottish, English, French or German fish. We have always shared fishing grounds and argued about them. There is nothing wrong with a common fisheries policy. It is the policy, not the commonness, that is wrong. We must find a common answer for a common stock in a common resource. That has always been true.

The Minister must find the answers within the common fisheries policy, which has given the UK defence of an amount of fish in line with our historic position. If one looks back over the matter, it has been rather more generous than many would have thought. I have looked back very carefully because of the sort of criticisms that are made. He is right to work within the Community, but I hope that he will take a series of clear stands. I hope that all hon. Members will support him if he does.

Mr. Gill

I know that my right hon. Friend is a staunch defender of the common fisheries policy. Does he recognise that that which everyone owns, no one owns? There is no incentive for fishermen to protect or conserve stocks when they know that what they conserve benefits someone else. "Someone else" in the context of the European Union is another member state. When my right hon. Friend gave examples of countries that were dissatisfied with the present arrangements, he listed only members of the EU. Has it not occurred to him that some countries are satisfied with their fisheries regime? Some feel that conservation activities are conducted in a much more satisfactory way under the present arrangements and that they have satisfactory fisheries. I instance Norway, Iceland, the Falkland Islands and even Namibia.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is exceeding his licence.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is fiercely opposed to the EU, and I understand that, but fisheries are a common resource because we all own them. The only way in which the Icelanders could introduce their system was by stealing a resource that they previously shared. They decided that what was previously a shared resource was theirs. If my hon. Friend thinks that we are going to say to the French, "That which we have shared with you for ever we are going to take into our control", he is talking nonsense. There is no possibility of managing our fisheries except together.

It is a terribly sad view of the world to suggest that we cannot co-operate with our neighbours; that we can deal only with stuff that we own in a narrow, partisan way. That is not the way forward for the future. That is not what is happening throughout the EU. It is not what is happening in the rest of the world. It is not what the Canadians have discovered in dealing with the Americans over Atlantic salmon. That is not what any country is discovering. The only way in which we can manage our fisheries other than according to present arrangements is to return to the old practice of bashing the fishermen over the head with a marlin spike because people took what they said was theirs.

That practice was all right when we had so much fish that we could all fish it, but now that we have so little and we have equipment that enables us to find fish so easily, we must operate in common. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) has the advantage of representing a landlocked constituency. Unlike me, he is not subject to the daily influence of fishermen. He does the fishing industry a grave disservice by suggesting that there is an alternative way forward. We must make the system work. I want to suggest some tough measures to the Minister to make it work.

Mr. Gill

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer

I really must not. I have been asked to finish in time for the Minister to answer.

Will the Minister return to a policy that I reached and continued to pursue for the last three years of my time as fisheries Minister? Will he maintain the United Kingdom's opposition in principle to any kind of industrial fishing? Will he support the European Union in its desire to ensure that fish-meal is no longer used in a range of products for which it is clearly unsuitable when the requirements for fish rejuvenation are borne in mind?

Will the Minister recognise that, however tough the quotas and the total allowable catches may be, if they are all that the fish stocks can sustain, he needs to appeal to men and women of good will to support him in holding out for them? It is no longer any good saying, "We want a bit more ourselves, so we will give them a bit more." If that happens, in the end the figures just do not stand up.

Will the Minister press the EU to say in negotiations with countries beyond the Union, especially African countries, that no agreements to fish in their waters will be entertained without the EU paying for and running proper policing mechanisms? That will show that what we have promised to do, we will do and that what we have promised that we will not take, we will not take. It is no good asking Namibia, Togo or Senegal to police those fisheries. If we want to fish in their waters and zones, we must provide proper restrictions on our own fishermen and pay that cost; otherwise, we shall contribute to the unsustainability of their waters, as we already have to our own.

Mr. Gill

Will my right hon. Friend explain why, in answer to my previous question, he referred to the waters of Iceland and the British Isles as a common resource, whereas he is now talking about African countries having their own waters? He is getting his argument terribly confused.

Mr. Gummer

The fact is that we are part of the European Union and we have signed up to sharing the waters that we happen to have shared, in different ways, for many centuries. That is not true of Senegal, which does not have shared waters. Its geography means that it is a long way across the Atlantic before any other country is reached with which its waters could be shared. In addition, Senegal cannot exploit its waters within its sustainable commitments, so it properly makes use of its waters by doing deals with others who want to exploit them. Under those deals, others agree to certain restrictions and my point is that, although those restrictions cannot be properly policed by Senegal, they can be policed by the countries with which Senegal does those deals, and I want us, within the European Union, to set an example of doing so. I am sure my hon. Friend recognises the clear distinction between those two cases.

Next, I want the Minister to recognise that, in the end, we shall have to change the methods of control, away from those that encourage the discarding of fish, both juvenile and larger fish. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow was right to say that the problem is not only one of juvenile fish being discarded.

We in Britain suffer significantly because we failed to carry through the days-at-sea measures that we should have taken. I have hard words for the Scottish nationalists, who are generally in favour of conservation, but who always vote against any particular conservation measure that they think might be electorally unpopular. Should the Scottish nationalists acquire more power—I understand that such an eventuality might arise in Scotland—I hope that they will act with greater responsibility. Scottish nationalism has done more than any other factor to stop the sort of conservation measures that we need. The nationalists constantly deploy in Scottish constituencies the argument that one can have conservation without any restriction on the activity of fishermen, but that is not possible.

I hope that the Minister accepts that we need a days-at-sea system. We have to introduce really tough measures and to insist that others carry those measures through when common stock is involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow is right: my fishermen in Suffolk will not accept restrictions on their activities if the men of Lowestoft are not similarly restricted; likewise, the men of Lowestoft will not accept restrictions if the men of Holland, Scotland, Germany or any other place within the UK or the EU are not subject to the same restrictions and to the same policing.

In the past, the Minister has asked for practical measures. I want him to be prepared to go to the European Union to beef up the EU's inspection methods—to increase the powers and the number of the inspectors—and to insist that that is a matter of utmost importance. The previous Government agreed that we needed a common inspection system for a common resource. I believe that we need a stronger inspection system, one in which inspections can be made without notice being given, because it is no good telling people that inspectors are coming in three months' or two weeks' time to check that they are keeping the books properly.

If we are going to employ a days-at-sea system and other restrictions, those measures must be properly enforced throughout the European Union. I hope that the Minister will find the resources and the will to ensure that the EU is better able to police both its own resources and those of others which it agrees to take over.

7.14 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) on his thoughtful and sensible speech-I confess that, when I saw the title of the debate, although the subject is a laudable one, my feelings were somewhat jaundiced by my previous experience of some of his colleagues on the Opposition Benches and my fear that some of them would attempt to use fisheries as a stick with which to beat the European Union. I am delighted that the debate has focused on the real and important issue of sustainability. I hope to address the hon. Gentleman's points and also those raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who, as he said, was a fisheries Minister. He knows that that is one of the most difficult briefs in Government and he is aware of the problems that go with the post. He has drawn on his knowledge to make several pertinent points, which I shall try to address in my response.

I accept absolutely that sustainability is the key to fisheries management not only in this country but in Europe and internationally. The hon. Gentleman referred to my relationship as a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Minister with my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. He asked whether I would say different things if I were an Environment Minister. I assure him that I would say nothing different, as I believe that there is no contradiction involved in adopting an environmental position and caring about the entire marine ecology as part of a fisheries programme. If we do not have healthy seas, we will not have a sustainable fishing industry. Those two elements go together.

I work closely with my colleagues in the DETR and with those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in relation to international sustainability. Only this week, I have discussed the problems of the over-exploitation of the Patagonian tooth fish and the threat to the wandering albatross caused by fishing methods and potentially unregulated international fishing. I take an interest in the international dimension and discuss such matters thoroughly. Important international forums include the intermediate ministerial conference—to which the hon. Gentleman referred—which comprises Environment Ministers. The United Nations agreement on straddling stocks involves the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Government strongly support its implementation internationally.

We are responsible for the sustainable management of our fish stocks, which we achieve through the common fisheries policy. Criticisms of that policy are well known to me, and I concede that it has great scope for improvement. As I have said before, we are seeking ways of securing that improvement. I accept also that several fish stocks in the North sea—indeed, in all our seas—are under threat and that some are seriously threatened. That is why, during the recent round of discussions on total allowable catches and quotas, we accepted that some quotas must be reduced because of the pressures on stocks. I shall return to that point in a moment.

The Government view the science issue seriously. The hon. Gentleman sought an assurance that the Government will support proper science and research in relation to fisheries. protection. Last year, we committed £36.8 million to fisheries science in the areas of research and development and in monitoring and researching fish stocks. We are making considerable financial commitments to the industry.

As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal kindly noted, I accepted the precautionary principle during this year's discussions at the Council of Ministers. The matter was raised in the intermediate ministerial meeting and, for the first time, the precautionary principle was taken to the Council of Ministers and the Fisheries Council and applied to the setting of TACs and quotas. I made it clear that I accepted the principle, which is not uncontroversial in the eyes of the industry. I also said that, although I believed that there was scope for discussion regarding the impact on the industry of cuts in fish stocks, I would take decisions on the basis of scientific advice. That is how we approached the negotiations in this year's round of discussions.

It is true that we mitigated the impact of the proposed cuts compared with the original proposals. That mitigation was based on advice that we received from our scientists through the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and what we believed that we could accept without endangering the stocks. Where we accepted that there were severe problems, we agreed to substantial cuts in catches, which will be difficult for the industry. For example, as the hon. Member for Witney said, cod in the North sea will be reduced by 5 per cent. However, haddock will be reduced by 23 per cent. and whiting by 27 per cent. Those are significant cuts.

When I took over this brief in 1997, I made it clear to the industry that I was prepared to make and implement tough decisions that had been outstanding for some time, including decisions on enforcement, the problem of black fish and the overcapacity of our fishing fleet. Those were not easy decisions, and I cannot ignore their impact on our fishing fleet and our fishing communities. I have to take into account the consequences of those decisions, and I know that the hon. Member for Witney accepted that.

I emphasise that we came away from this year's negotiations with a balanced agreement. The balance was that we accepted the precautionary principle and the scientific claims that some stocks were over-exploited and under threat, and we took the necessary action. However, we also took into account the views of the fishing industry and examined the ways in which we could mitigate the effects of those cuts, for example, by finding alternative species that were available for the industry and ways of reducing the cuts. The industry understood that we achieved that balance.

We are taking a range of practical measures. First, if there are regulations, there must be enforcement. We have stepped up enforcement with, I believe, some success, particularly on black fish. We are making progress on that. The industry recognised that illegal landings and depressed prices do it no good. We have introduced designated ports and agreed to the satellite monitoring of larger vessels. Again, I cannot ignore the impact of those measures on the industry.

Mr. Gill

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in an earlier debate, he agreed that the measures to which he has just referred, particularly the designated ports, will result in more dead, adult, saleable fish being dumped into the sea than before. We are tonight talking about conservation and we must come up with a better answer to those problems than more regulation, which is becoming an intolerable burden on an industry that is already over-regulated.

Mr. Morley

I do not recall saying exactly that. I shall deal with discards in a moment.

We have made progress with the multi-annual guidance programme. We have managed to match the capacity of most of the demersal fleet to the availability of fish stocks in line with our obligations under the MAGP. In areas where there is still overcapacity in relation to efforts in the pelagic and beam-trawl sectors, we have reached agreement with the industry about measures to reduce effort based on days at sea.

The difference between that measure and the scheme that was opposed by the previous Administration is that we gave the industry a choice in how it administered effort reduction. We wanted the industry to be involved in the management and implementation of effort reduction, which it has done in the pelagic and beam-trawl sectors. We made it clear that if the industry did not want to do that, the Ministry would have taken on the task. We preferred the industry to take on the measure, and we are glad that it is implementing it.

The hon. Member for Witney asked me for my views on marketing. I believe that there is a role for marketing and certification of the kind that the Marine Stewardship Council has proposed. That applies not only to fish, but to forestry products and even food products. Consumers are increasingly interested in such certification, and I view the MSC's actions with considerable interest and closely follow its actions. MAFF has a role in some trial areas such as black-water herring, where we have a particular interest in what the MSC is doing.

I have consistently stressed marketing and traceability to the industry, and said that sometimes it is necessary to concentrate not so much on quantity as on quality—fewer but better-quality fish can improve prices. Although the industry might land less fish, it would not necessarily lose out financially. In some cases, even when quotas are cut and fewer fish are landed, fishermen are compensated by the increased prices. Incidentally, we saw that happening last year and, indeed, running into 1999.

As for technical measures, we have supported the industry on things such as square-mesh panels, and we are looking at ways to manage the quota for the inshore fleet. We have underpinned the quota for sectors such as the mackerel handliners, which are low impact, in order to create a more sustainable fishery. We have banned such things as automatic grading machines, which waste fish at sea, and we have supported the V-notching of lobsters so that female lobsters in berry can be released and allowed to breed.

I have consistently made it clear that industrial fishing can have very undesirable consequences. In many cases, it is a waste of a very good resource; it can have an impact on commercial fish stocks by removing a food source; and, of course, it can affect marine mammals and sea birds, and, indeed, the whole ecology of the sea. That is why we have proposed seasonal closed areas running from the Orkney to the Humber, areas of the North sea in which industrial fishing will not take place. That will protect sea birds in particular, but has consequences for migrating salmon and sea trout. Spring-running salmon are under considerable threat. We intend to take this issue forward at the next Fisheries Council. We have also supported closed areas for bass stocks and the phasing out of drift nets because of their impact on not only marine mammals but a range of non-target species, including sharks.

I certainly do not agree that we are in danger of instituting over-conservation, but I can reassure the House about angling boats. MAFF has no proposals to limit the number of fish landed by angling boats. We are of course anxious to make sure that angling boats supposed to be for sport and recreation are used for sport and recreation, and are not landing fish for the commercial market. If we have evidence that that is not the case, we shall enforce sanctions rigorously. Fishermen and sea fish committees are anxious that we do that. However, we cannot ignore the impact of sports fishing. It is a large and important sector, and when we unfortunately have to close the channel cod fishery, as we did last year, we cannot exempt it. We are looking for measures to help the inshore fleet that will benefit the sports angling sector too.

I accept that fisheries science is not precise, but I must point out that, last year, the fishing industry agreed not to take the full recommended allocation of cod. It was a good year for cod, but the industry wanted to leave some cod to mature and thus allow stocks to increase for future years. I do not think that that has been done before, and it is to be welcomed that the fishing industry itself is taking conservation and sustainability seriously and is working with us in the Ministry and with other groups to deal with it.

We have also put more species on quota because quotas are important to conserve stocks. Dogfish is the most recent species to have been agreed.

I want to make it clear, especially to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), that a recent study of North sea cod fishery showed that 90 per cent. of discards were under-sized fish, not marketable fish. Although it is certainly true that some marketable fish are caught, which no one wants to happen, the majority of discards are under-sized fish. The answer lies in technical measures, in matching the capacity to fish stocks and in long-term sustainability. The proper way to reduce discards is proper management, proper enforcement and—I fully agree with the hon. Member for Witney—putting sustainability at the heart of all our fisheries policies.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock.