HC Deb 09 December 2003 vol 415 cc983-1029

[Relevant document: European Commission Document COM (2003) 746 Final: Commission proposals for 2004 TA CS and Quotas.]

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

4.38 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I am pleased that it has proved possible to arrange this annual debate at the most appropriate time. The European Commission published its key proposals for the management of fisheries in 2004 late last week, on 4 December. The Council of Ministers is to meet from 17 to 19 December to reach its decisions on them, so today presents an opportunity, which I welcome, for us to debate the important issues that are to be addressed.

I hope that it will be helpful if I start by sketching out the state of our progress on the recovery of fish stocks, and then what the Commission proposes. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the hard decisions that the Council of Ministers had to take this time last year. The scientific advice on a number of key fish stocks had emphasised the need to act urgently to avert the risk of collapse, and for some stocks, the closure of fisheries was recommended. The scientists also stressed that setting total allowable catches—TACS?alone was not an adequate means of addressing the depletion of stocks in mixed fisheries. More direct measures to curtail fishing effort were essential as well.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Why cannot the EU understand that abolishing the discard policy and stopping industrial fishing would solve the problem in the North sea? Will the Minister put that case strongly, and win it for Britain?

Mr. Bradshaw

The right hon. Gentleman does not speak with great authority on these matters. There is a problem with discards, which the European Commission is addressing already. The right hon. Gentleman is clearly not aware of that. However, discards are only part of the problem. As the Norwegians have discovered to their cost, abolishing industrial fishing and banning discards will not solve the problems.

In response to that advice, the Council of Ministers in December 2002—

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, as the hon. Gentleman speaks with more knowledge on these matters.

Mr. Salmond

I have a specific and important question. Mr. John Rutherford is the chief executive of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. He was able to tell the all-party fisheries group a few hours ago that the results of the authority's survey in the North sea showed that cod by-catch in pursuit of the haddock stock was less than 3 per cent. Will the Minister take that vital information to next week's talks, and get for our fishermen the bumper stock of haddock to which they are entitled? That would be instead of the derisory quota that they are being offered by the European Commission.

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes. I shall be happy to take with me that extremely useful piece of information from the all-party fisheries group. The hon. Gentleman is right: we must do whatever we can to separate the measures that may have to be taken to protect cod stocks from opportunities to continue to fish varieties such as haddock, whose stock levels are healthy.

In response to the advice last year, the Council of Ministers set out to find the right balance between ensuring the recovery of depleted stocks and maximising the availability of continued fishing opportunities. The package agreed for 2003 included two basic elements. First, there was a one-year regime setting maximum permitted days fishing per month by vessels having an impact on cod in the North sea and the west of Scotland. Different monthly allowances of days were set according to gear type. This measure was designed to reduce the fishing effort on cod by 65 per cent.

Secondly, a set of TACs was established for commercially exploited species, specifically set—in the case of recovery stocks and the stocks associated with them—to equate to the 65 per cent. reduction in fishing effort.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I do not understand.

Mr. Bradshaw

The right hon. Gentleman does not understand because he knows little about fisheries.

Mr. Anthony Steen, (Totnes) (Con)

The Minister wants authoritative contributions, so would it not be helpful to UK fishermen—especially those in Brixham—if we got out of the common fisheries policy? That would mean that fewer boats would be chasing the available fish. We could then get rid of the discard policy and have a much happier industry. Why has not the Minister approached that matter in the constructive way adopted by authoritative people who have been saying the same things for 20 years?

Mr. Bradshaw

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the policy of those on the Opposition Front Bench. I suspect that he does not. but I am prepared to answer his question. The smiling contours of his face suggest that he does not agree with his Front-Bench colleagues, and that he agrees with other, sensible Conservative Members—that the Opposition policy of withdrawal from the CFP would be an absolute disaster, not least for the fishermen of Brixham. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I shall deal with that later in my speech.

For the UK, an absolutely key issue was that there be fairness in the number of days at sea per month that our fishermen would receive. The Commission's original proposal for the figures in what is now known as annexe XVII would have given our key whitefish trawl fleet a mere seven days per month. The outcome negotiated by my predecessor, who is now the Minister for the Environment, and his Scottish colleague, Ross Finnie, was 15 days.

To complete the background, I need to mention just a few subsequent developments during this past year. Aid amounting to £60 million has been made available by fisheries Departments in the UK. This was mainly for decommissioning, as an adjunct to the days-at-sea restrictions. In April, various adjustments were made to the days-at-sea rules to reflect practical points, many of them identified by UK fishermen in their discussions with us. In May, the Commission issued its proposals for a longer-term recovery plan for cod. This reflects the Commission's view that the current regime, which allocates days according to gear type, is essentially an interim measure.

The Commission's longer-term proposal would allocate a quantity of kilowatt days of fishing effort to each member state according to its fleet's historical fishing record and it would leave it to each member state to decide how to allocate these days among its fishing vessels. The recovery plan would also contain harvest control rules that would commit the Council to reacting in a prescribed way each year in response to the annual scientific advice on the state of the stock. The prescription's basic aim would be to increase the biomass by 30 per cent. each year until recovery was achieved. A parallel proposal from the Commission is on the table for a hake recovery plan.

That brings us to the latest developments, which are this year's scientific advice and the Commission's proposals that are based on it. The scientific advice reports some small improvements in the state of the cod stocks in the Irish sea and North sea. We can draw just a little encouragement from that, but we need to see greater signs of improvement sustained over a longer period before the scientists will be able to conclude that the recovery plans are working.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab)

Not only the scientists but the fishermen recognise that cod stocks in the Irish sea have improved and are improving. However, it is utterly bewildering to the fishermen of Fleetwood that, although they are seeing a small increase in the amount of cod that they can catch, they have been told that they will have to reduce substantially the amount of plaice that they can catch given that plaice is the only species in the Irish sea that is designated as being within its safe biomass.

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend may be putting her finger on one of the problems of setting TACs and quotas in a mixed fishery where cod, which is an endangered species, may be caught as a by-catch. I shall come to that point a little later in my remarks.

In any case. there is a high degree of uncertainty in the assessment because the catch data are not entirely reliable. The basic message drawn by the Commission from the advice is that we do not need to change our aim of achieving a 65 per cent. reduction in effort compared with 2002, but that, on the other hand, we need to make sure that we actually achieve that reduction.

Unfortunately, though, the scientific advice indicates that some further stocks are in need of recovery action. Plaice in the North sea and sole in the western channel are examples that are of direct concern to the United Kingdom. An important new feature of the advice this year is that it recommends a fishery-based approach to management on the grounds that single species management does not adequately reflect the complexity of mixed fisheries in which stocks are caught together. Therefore, the recommendations for each management zone now aim to take account of the need to reduce effort not only on the stocks that are outside safe biological limits, but on the associated stocks that involve a by-catch of the recovery stock concerned.

That brings me to the issues that will be before us next week at the December Council. The first is the TACs and quotas for 2004. They are the main features of the voluminous Commission proposal—document No. 15388/03—that was issued on 4 December. The Commission has, of course, aimed to reflect the scientific advice and the commitments made at the Council last year to reduce the effort that impacts on depleted stocks. It would be entirely absurd of me to try and convey to the House the full list of proposals, but I will note one or two key features.

For cod in the North sea, Irish sea and west of Scotland and stocks associated with it, the proposals are generally for roll-overs of last year's TACs, for minimal increases or for further reductions. There is also a proposal for a closed area west of Scotland. Around the fishing grounds of interest to the UK, there are proposals for TAC reductions for stocks newly shown to be in decline. There are, on the other hand, some more positive features—for example, an increase in the North sea nephrops TAC, an increase in the western anglerfish TAC, which confirms what we found and fought for successfully in 2003, and a higher TAC for North sea herring. We are currently studying these proposals carefully and will, of course, be discussing them with the industry.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)

My hon. Friend mentioned an increase in the TAC for herring. As he will know, there is now an abundance of herring in the North sea whereas a few decades ago we thought that the species had become extinct. That shows that stocks can recover. However, the difficulty inshore fishermen in my area face is that there is no market for herring. They could catch herring and make a good living from that if there were a market. Will he do what he can to stimulate such a market? Would that not also have a conservation benefit, given that I am told that, with demersal species depleted, an abundance of pelagic species can be an obstacle to the recovery of those demersal species?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, certainly. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would love there to be a much more buoyant market for herring in the United Kingdom and I would recommend herring to any Member present. Herring roe is probably the most delicious roe from any fish and I eat it regularly. There is a healthy export market for herring and herring products. Indeed, some of our pelagic boats, which fish herring successfully, export a great deal to central and eastern European countries that traditionally consume a lot more herring than we do.

My hon. Friend is also right in his point about the successful recovery plan and this is a good example in respect of stocks that were in serious jeopardy. All the pelagic stocks—not just herring, but mackerel and bass—are doing very well indeed. They present good fishing opportunities to our industry and he is right to draw attention to the fact that although we have faced serious difficulties in the white fish sector for many years with declining cod, other bits of the industry, such as pelagics, shellfish and prawns, have been doing extremely well.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)rose

Mr. A. J. Beith(Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)rose

Mr. Bradshaw

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), if I may.

Andrew George

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. How sound is the science on which the recommendations are being made by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and the quotas proposed? Last year, it was clear that the quota for angler fish—monkfish—in area VII was so unsound that fishermen discovered, and persuaded the scientists, that the stock was a great deal more healthy than previously indicated. No doubt that will be the same in the North sea. On what precautionary basis are the quotas proposed and the science based?

Mir. Bradshaw

It would be true to say that marine biologists who work in the field are naturally cautious. That is their job. They see it as their interest to preserve and conserve stocks and to ensure that stocks are not depleted to the extent that they become non-renewable, as it were. However. I do not think that there is any doubt about the state of cod stocks. The nature of fish stocks is that they fluctuate dramatically from one year to the next if there is a good recruitment year, as there was with haddock four years ago. One good recruitment year can completely transform the situation for haddock stocks, as it has. Fish move around, so there may have been a prediction on angler fish in the south-west made on good science, which changed quickly because of movement or because of a single good recruitment year.

We have come quite a long way in improving how the industry works with the science, although there are still some in the industry who do not accept it. I always say to those in the industry and to those in this place who make a habit of saying that they do not believe the science that they should go off and commission science of their own and have it peer reviewed. I would be interested to see it.

Mr. Beith

I thank the Minister for giving way. To return to the point about herring, which he discussed with the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), surely the key to the herring market is processing, whether it involves Craster kippers or smoked herring. What we have seen in the herring market could happen again with cod, because if the processing and marketing mechanisms collapse, as they nearly did during a period when fishing was restrained, and we are unable to ensure the processing industry's survival, when the fish return there will be no market for them.

Mr. Bradshaw

Forgive me for forgetting that kippers are another delicious way to consume herring. The right hon. Gentleman is right to a certain extent, but he should not necessarily equate the success of the processing industry with UK-caught fish. There are successful processing industries, not least in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona Mclsaac), that rely largely on imported white fish from areas of the world with healthier stocks. So, a successful processing industry, which we have—it is important to recognise that fact—does not necessarily depend on domestic stocks. However, that does not mean that we should not do what we can to protect and encourage the growth of those stocks.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he accept that what he says about processing is true for large-scale processors, but that there is a serious problem for small-scale processors who rely on locally caught fish? Many, such as those in my constituency, are suffering because they cannot get such fish.

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, I accept that, but the answer is to ensure that we have credible policies in force to protect the fish stocks and secure sustainable and profitable fisheries for the future. Taking risks with the stocks would put the processors as well as the fishermen out of business.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

The Minister has told the House that people who disagree with the scientists in Europe should get scientists of their own to examine the issue. Is he not aware that that has been done in Northern Ireland? The fishermen have consulted other scientists, who backed up those fishermen. A meeting was held in Brussels on 28 and 29 October, at which it was put to the Fisheries Committee that some scientists disagreed strongly with the recommendations from Europe.

Mr. Bradshaw

I am aware of dissident scientists and dissident science—[Interruption.] I recall people standing up in the House about 10 years ago proclaiming, on the basis of what dissident scientists said, that there was no such thing as AIDS in Africa. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that he and others who challenge the orthodox science should commission some research and have it peer reviewed. The simple fact is that it has never been done.

Mr. Salmond

I speak as a dissident MP and ask the Minister to reconsider his point about monkfish. The monkfish quota is not based on empirical evidence of the number of monkfish, but on landing data. Clearly, if the quota is reduced, so are the landings and the quota is then reduced for the next year. It is a circular argument. Given the Minister's experience of the monkfish quota elsewhere, will he now look with a more sceptical eye at the monkfish quota being set for the North sea?

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman is wrong because the scientists take landings as well as studies of biomass and ocean research into account. It is simply wrong to imply that they do not take any notice of landings. They do, and they even take into account the fact that actual landings are in some cases higher than they should be.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Bradshaw

I want to make some progress.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

Give way.

Mr. Bradshaw

I have been generous in giving way. Does the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) want to say something about fisheries?

Mr. Bacon

I was merely pointing out that, if the Minister gave way to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), he might learn something.

Mr. Bradshaw

I have already given way to him three times—[Interruption.] —all right, twice, but perhaps I will give him another go in a minute.

As I have already said in response to interventions, we shall be looking for ways of decoupling the associated stocks from cod, so that our fleet can take advantage of fishing opportunities that exist, but which are contraindicated because of a link with cod. That involves identifying more closely the extent of the association with cod, and finding ways—technical or geographical—to ensure that the associated species can be caught without undue damage to cod. More widely, I am aware that some of the total allowable catch reductions proposed will have serious effects on local communities, and we will be checking the scientific justification for all the proposals and arguing that any agreed to be excessive should be reined back. We will take close account of the industry's view in preparing our position.

The process of setting TACs on an annual basis has been criticised as too short-term an approach. One of the achievements of the reform of the common fisheries policy last year was that we now have a new tool for setting the policy for TAC levels over a longer period. We welcome that new mechanism, which can be useful as part of managing recovery plans for the most depleted species. The proposal that I mentioned earlier for a long-term recovery plan for cod is the second major item that will be before the Council next week. We support its approach for adjusting the cod TACs year by year in the light of scientific advice. It would provide greater assurance as to future TACs and would provide the industry with a clearer view of how policy on quota levels responds to changes in fish stocks.

We agree with the view that for some areas recovery plans based on TACs and technical conservation alone may not be sufficient to restore the most depleted stocks. It is important that fishing effort is not too high, and in some cases it can be necessary to tackle fishing effort directly, by limiting the amount of time that vessels can spend at sea. We therefore agree with the development of long-term recovery plans for cod and hake, and we will want to develop a suitable long-term mechanism for restraining fishing effort to restore the cod stocks.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

The Minister will be aware that the working document for annexe V—the proposal on days at sea that will replace annexe XVII—makes the interesting suggestion that it should be possible to allow 22 days a month to fishing boats that limit their effort on cod to less than 5 per cent., as opposed to the 15 days they currently have. The difficulty is that the proposal is not open to boats with a track record for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 of more than 5 per cent. on cod. Will the Minister consider removing that restriction, and does he agree that it would be the most significant incentive to minimising cod by-catch from an increased haddock quota?

Mr. Bradshaw

I shall certainly look at that. The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to do whatever we can to try to decouple cod from other healthy stocks and to encourage a reduction of the cod by-catch in the fisheries to which he referred.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

Is the Minister aware that the balance between vessel viability and control of fishing effort is delicate, especially for the inshore fleet, which is not responsible for the mass depletion of fishing stocks? Will he make an exception for small inshore fleets such as that at Leigh and Canvey Island, so that they can remain viable?

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the need to protect the interests of our inshore fleet, which was one of the successes of the reform that we achieved at last year's Fisheries Council. We did protect those interests, contrary to the predictions of several hon. Members, including some Conservative Members.

We also support the element of the proposal that would allocate a total amount of fishing time to each member state, enabling the member state itself to decide how to allocate that total among its fleet. That flexibility would enable us to allocate fishing time in the way most appropriate to our own national needs. It would, however, take some time to work out, in consultation with the fishing industry, how to apply those arrangements in this country. We agree with the Commission that it would not be practicable to introduce the scheme at the beginning of next year. If the Council can agree on how fishing effort should be controlled, we would look to introduce the scheme in perhaps a year's time.

We already have limits on fishing effort in the North sea and the west of Scotland, which should continue next year. The Commission has proposed an extension of the current scheme. The formal proposal for the extension is the fifth annexe to the TAC and quota regulation, so we would have to get used to remembering that the scheme that we currently call annexe XVII would from next year be called annexe V.

There need to be some changes to the form of the scheme. Annexe XVII was negotiated very quickly, and experience has shown that there is room for improvement. We want the scheme to be adjusted so that it can achieve the objectives that the Council set for it a year ago. Several aspects have made it difficult to operate as effectively as is necessary. I hope that we can make changes that will ensure that the limits on time at sea are fully observed. I hope, too, that we can minimise the amount of bureaucracy. We appreciate that the number of days permitted for vessels targeting cod is an important priority for the fishing industry, and we want to retain the current amount of fishing time for those boats next year.

Mr. Blizzard

Does my hon. Friend agree that the various schemes, such as TACs, stand any chance of succeeding only if they are adhered to? As he said earlier, there is a large discrepancy between what is supposed to be landed and what is landed. What is his estimate of the degree of misreporting and underreporting that exists in this country and throughout the European Union?

Mr. Bradshaw

The fact that it is unreported makes it difficult to put an exact figure on it, but it is serious. Otherwise, the European Commission would not have singled out the UK and Spain for strong criticism of our enforcement. My hon. Friend may await with expectation the report from the Prime Minister's strategy unit, which is expected in January and which has looked closely at enforcement. My hon. Friend is right, however: none of that will be any good unless we can be satisfied and confident that our enforcement procedures work, and I was just about to set out exactly what we propose to do about enforcement.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

Will the Minister clarify the Government's stance in the negotiations on the allocation of days at sea between countries? Will he press for the baseline to be the 2001 fleet, given that since then we have made considerable efforts to decommission our fleet while other countries have been using EU money to build up their fleets? A fairer allocation would be made using 2001.

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next sentence of my speech: I was about to say exactly that. The UK decommissioned substantial amounts of capacity in 2001 and this year, and we must ensure that we obtain full credit for that cut when the days permitted for fishing are calculated.

Mr. Weir

The Minister mentioned annexe V of the new regulations. Is he aware that it includes a two-net rule that would affect fishermen who fish for white fish and nephrops? They use a different-sized net for each species, and as the regulation proposes that they may change their nets only once every three months, it would effectively destroy that fishery, which is extremely important in many small ports in Scotland, such as Arbroath in my constituency. If the Minister is involved in negotiations on annexe V, will he ensure that the two-net rule is amended to allow individual nations to impose their own time limit for the swap-over period?

Mr. Bradshaw

I shall certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's comments in mind, but I hope that he will join me in welcoming the fact that there has been a slight increase in the recommendation for the TACs for prawns—nephrops—and that we must do as much as we can to exploit those opportunities without taking cod as a by-catch or in any other form.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD)

The Minister referred to the Commission's proposal for an increased nephrops quota, but he will be aware that it applies only to the North sea. There is no proposal from the Commission for an increase in TACs in the west of Scotland, where nephrops stocks are abundant. Given the abundance of the stocks and the fact that since the baseline precautionary TAC was introduced the area over which nephrops were fished has extended and the TAC has not been increased to take that into account, will the Minister go back to the Commission and try to negotiate a modest increase—say, 10 per cent.—in the TAC for nephrops in the west of Scotland?

Mr. Bradshaw

I am happy to examine the case made by the hon. Gentleman, but without considering the detail I cannot give him the commitment he seeks.

No debate on TACs and quotas and the conservation of fish stocks would be complete without reference to enforcement. This year, enforcement is of added significance because fisheries scientists have repeatedly referred to stock assessment work being compromised by the lack of reliable data on landings, while the industry has repeatedly claimed that stocks are in much better shape than official landing statistics. To manage fisheries successfully, it is essential to have reliable and accurate data on fishing activity and landings. It is the very lack of such data that has led the Commission—reluctantly, I believe—to begin legal proceedings against the United Kingdom for failing to take adequate steps to ensure that fishing activity and landings are properly monitored and recorded.

I recognise that the fishing industry has been badly affected by the impact of successive cuts in quota over the last three to four years and that there have been tensions as fishermen adjust to changing circumstances, but that is no excuse for dropping our guard. Effective and consistent standards of monitoring and control across the Community remain a key objective and we must be seen to be playing our part. Fisheries inspectors have a key role to play. They do a difficult job at the best of times, and I trust that all members of the industry will continue to co-operate fully with them in the performance of their duties.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

Has the Minister noted the 43rd report of the Public Accounts Committee, which states: The probability of a fishing vessel being subject to physical inspection at sea or on landing fish is low, being just 1 and 6% respectively on any day of fishing. In fact, if people infringe the quotas, the chance of their being found out is extremely low.

Mr. Bradshaw

I certainly welcome the PAC report, which has already informed some of the measures that we are taking to improve our enforcement record and will continue to do so. I do not think that it is fair to paint a completely bleak picture of our enforcement system. We have one of the highest spends on enforcement under the CFP in the whole EU; we impose some of the stiffest penalties on people who are caught and prosecuted, and our inspectors do an excellent job. However, I acknowledge that there is plenty of room for improvement, and the recommendations of the PAC report are welcome and helpful.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Has the Minister any plan to develop closer working relationships between scientists and fishermen, so that the scientific outcomes are more believable to fishermen?

Mr. Bradshaw

Not only do we have plans, but in the last financial year we spent £1 million of public money on collaborative projects between fishermen and scientists. We have put scientists on trawler boats for the first time at the request of fishermen from ports where for a long time they have said, "Oh, we know where the fish are. We can find plenty of them. There are plenty of cod out there. We'll show you if you put some scientists on our boats." We have also put fishermen on the scientific vessels. That exchange has contributed to a better atmosphere between scientists and the fishing industry than there was a year ago, and it is desperately important that we try to improve that in future. I should like a system whereby each region's fishing industry took responsibility for the management of its own industry, but in doing so would have to fund and accept the scientific research, as happens in some of the most successful fisheries in other parts of the world.

Mr. Carmichael

The Minister will be aware that all vessels over 18 m will need to be fitted with satellite tracking devices from 1 January. Does he accept that that represents a significant contribution to enforcement, particularly in relation to days-at-sea regulations? What assessment of that proposal's effectiveness has his Department made?

Mr. Bradshaw

Again, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: effective satellite monitoring will become increasingly important in future fisheries management. If he is patient, he will hear some good news a little later in my speech, which is about to come to an end.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend for being generous in giving way once more. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, referred to 1 and 6 per cent. in any day's fishing, so the chances of boats being inspected in any given year are surely not that bad. I am not saying that we do not need to do much more, but we are carrying out proper supervision.

Mr. Bradshaw

We could do better, but we are neither the worst nor the best on enforcement.

Mr. Steen

The Minister will be aware that one of the major problems in south Devon and the rest of the west country is the number of dolphins caught by way of by-catch. Scottish and French boats are to blame. Does that concern him? What will he do about it? It is most dreadful to see hundreds, if not thousands, of those dolphins washed up on the beaches of the west country.

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman raises the spectre of the old alliance. He is right to say that cetacean by-catch is a problem, but it is not restricted exclusively to pair trawling for bass off the south-west coast; it happens in all fisheries, unfortunately. At the most, only two or three pairs of Scottish boats are involved, compared with about 30 from the French side. While we take the problem extremely seriously and have been funding some very successful research involving the use of a separator grid in the nets, which almost reduced to zero the number of dolphins caught in that way, the French have so far not shown the same sense of urgency. There is not even the same awareness of it in France, but we are working very hard on that. My predecessor wrote to the French Fisheries Minister, and we are giving the evidence of our successful trials to the Commission and the French. We very much hope to make progress on that sad phenomenon.

I expect to set out our plans to enhance monitoring and control early in the new year, taking account of any additional commitments that arise from the decisions to be taken at next week's Council. The plans will involve a greater emphasis on weighing and inspecting fish in port, changes to our designated port arrangements, the installation of tamper-proof satellite position-reporting terminals on all vessels over 15 m and the registration of the sellers and buyers of first-sale fish. I can also advise the House that my Department will meet the full cost of fitting satellite terminals to all vessels for which it is the licensing authority.

I want to end on a more strategic note. The reason why we contemplated the measures now under discussion, with the pain that they have unquestionably brought, is to ensure a sustainable future for our fishing industry. It would be good for the decisions that we take to be reached within the framework of a long-term strategy aimed at that sustainable future. That was exactly why the Prime Minister, after last December's Council of Ministers, asked his strategy unit to set up a fisheries project to identify the options for ensuring a long-term sustainable future for the industry. The strategy unit has been doing an extremely thorough job of examining the issues and discussing ideas with all interested parties. Its report will be an important document, and we look forward to receiving it early in the new year.

5.15 pm
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

This is the first time I have spoken in this debate, but the issues under discussion are depressingly familiar. Once again, they revolve around a Fisheries Council at which the agenda will consist of further reductions in total allowable catches, leading to further cuts in quotas, squeezing still further an industry that is already in crisis. For fishermen, the outlook is one of unremitting gloom as each year they struggle harder to survive while yet more of their number give up the fight and leave the industry for good.

Fishing is not just another industry—it is one of the first ever pursued by the residents of these islands and it is also one of the most dangerous. The chief inspector of the marine accident investigation branch said in his annual report last year: Fishing remains the single most hazardous occupation in the United Kingdom. Last year, 18 fishing vessels were reported lost, and I would like to pay tribute to the eight crew members who lost their lives.

No one understands better than fishermen the need to conserve fish stocks. If there was evidence that the common fisheries policy was succeeding in building back up depleted stocks, they would be much more willing to support it. The CFP, however, has been a miserable failure. Each year, the estimates of stocks are reduced once again and the inevitable prescription is another cut in TACs.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to identify the common fisheries policy as being an unmitigated disaster. Will he take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of the Conservative party for signing the UK up to it in the first place?

Mr. Whittingdale

I suspect that all Governments need to take some of the blame, and I would point at the record of the previous Labour Government, who extended the limits to 200 miles and gave access to EU ships into all those British waters. I want to concentrate on the future, however, and on what the next Conservative Government will do.

It takes three years for a cod to mature, so fishermen point out rightly that if the policy were working, after three years, TACs should start improving. The revision, however, is always downward, and the pressure on the industry increases relentlessly.

Mrs. Humble

Will the hon. Gentleman recognise and acknowledge that in fact the Irish sea cod recovery programme is working, and it is doing so because of the commitment of Irish sea fishermen, including my constituents in Fleetwood? The cod stocks are going up, and this year the Commission is suggesting a small increase. The problem for Fleetwood fishermen is the associated species. The cod recovery programme, however, is paying dividends, and we are seeing mature cod—it is working.

Mr. Whittingdale

It is good to hear that in one small part one species is showing some signs of recovery. If the hon. Lady concludes from that that the common fisheries policy is a success, however, I suspect that her fishermen would not agree.

Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles) (Lab)

Actually, stocks of herring have increased over the past 20 years, stocks of mackerel have increased over the past 20 years, and stocks of shellfish are doing better than they have done over the past 20 years. How does that square with the hon. Gentleman's simplistic condemnation of the common fisheries policy?

Mr. Whittingdale

If Labour Members believe that the common fisheries policy has been such a wonderful success, why is it that every year more and more of our fishermen go out of business and we experience continuing reductions in quotas? Why is it that the Minister must again go to the Fisheries Council to argue against yet another savage cut in quotas that will lead to more of our fishermen losing their livelihoods? It is fiction to believe that the policy has been a success. It is hardly any wonder that fishermen conclude that the CFP has little to do with conserving fish stocks and rather more to do with accommodating the vast Spanish fishing fleet in our waters.

Before the advent of the common fisheries policy, the British fishing industry was a model of sustainability. Thirty years on, throughout which the CFP has been in operation supposedly to conserve stocks, large areas of the most fertile and productive fishing grounds in the world are threatened with closure.

Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman says that we had wonderful fisheries 30 years ago. Does he acknowledge that one of the greatest impacts on our fishing industry resulted from the cod war when Iceland introduced its own fishing limit? It is wrong to blame the EU for the decline in places such as Grimsby, because that was a result of the cod war.

Mr. Whittingdale

I do not share the hon. Lady's view that the problem was all Iceland's fault, and I doubt whether fishermen would agree with her either. In 1995—only eight years ago—there were 9,200 British fishing vessels that landed 912,000 tonnes of fish on these shores. In 2002, 7,003 vessels landed 686,000 tonnes—a 25 per cent. reduction in just eight years.

The decline in Scotland has been even more dramatic. There was a total of 1,782 boats of more than 10 m in length in 1975, but it is estimated from current decommissioning plans that there will be about 700 such boats next year. That will represent a 60 per cent. cut in the Scottish fishing fleet since we joined the CFP. Each of the sold or decommissioned boats would have grossed an average of £300,000 a year at current values from landing about 333 tonnes of fish. The annual loss of direct income to the catching sector is therefore more than £300 million. However, the knock-on effects of that are felt far more widely. Associated industries that are dependent on fishing, such as processing, marketing, netting and boat repair industries, have suffered. The recognised gross domestic product impact ratio for fisheries is 2.35 times the landed value, so the total annual loss to the Scottish economy as a result of the reduction to the Scottish fishing fleet has reached £785 million. If one adds to that the cost to public funds from unemployment benefit and other benefits, the figure is still higher.

The figures cannot reveal the personal tragedies experienced and the destruction of thriving communities that lie behind them. Major harbours such as Lossiemouth that used to be a focus of social and economic life throughout the year are now reduced to being marinas for a handful of yachts for a few weeks in summer. The story is repeated all around the coast of Britain. I was in Lowestoft yesterday, which was once the largest fishing port in England and only a few years ago would have been home to a couple of hundred boats, including 130 ft trawlers. I saw only a dozen boats in the harbour yesterday and only two were more than 10 m long. I went on to attend the morning fish auction in the purpose-built hall on the quayside. The hall is cavernous—it stretches perhaps five times the length of the Chamber—yet the fish available for auction on what I was told was a relatively good day took up only a few square metres of space. Additionally, a significant proportion of the fish, including the one large halibut that sold for £250, had not been caught by local boats but imported from Iceland.

The tragedy for our fishing industry is that there is no reason why it must be in decline. Other countries manage their fisheries extremely successfully by conserving stocks and supporting a viable industry. Norway operates a quota system that is agreed by a management advisory board on which fishermen are represented. Discards are banned, as is the fishing of undersized fish. Cheating is largely unknown.

In the Faroe islands, fishing is the principal source of income. The incentive to manage stocks in a sustainable way is even greater. Under their system, vessels are grouped according to size and gear type. Each group is allocated a set number of fishing days per year, which are divided among the vessels. That is combined with gear regulations designed to protect juvenile fish, as well as closures of extensive areas to active gear, such as trawls, to protect nurseries and spawning stocks.

By allocating fishing days rather than stock quotas, mixed fisheries are allowed, giving the entire catch an economic value. The system works extremely well in achieving its aim that not more than a third of each stock should be taken every year. It is well supported by the fishermen, who are closely involved in deciding the number of fishing days to be allotted each year. As one respected fishing journalist recently wrote: There are always some complaints, but the grass roots hatred and sheer loathing of the management system that is heard from fishermen in Iceland and most EU countries is entirely absent in the Faroes. Unbelievably, everyone in the Faroes appears happy with their system. Stocks are healthy and fishing is flourishing".

In the Falklands, strict controls are exercised within the 200-mile conservation zone. The main squid species caught has a lifespan of just a year, so the stock assessment needs to be updated constantly. To ensure that conservation targets are achieved, fishing effort is controlled by strictly limiting the number of vessels licensed to fish within the zone. The lesson of the Falklands and the Faroes is that because the fishermen trust the data, they are prepared to accept limitations on their activities based on it.

Mr. Redwood

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Does he understand why the Minister is so hostile to the idea of banning discards when last year 20,000 tonnes of fish, more than the combined quotas for cod and haddock, were dumped dead in the sea and not landed for human consumption? Is not that an outrage? Would not getting rid of that system make a lot of difference?

Mr. Whittingdale

It would clearly make a difference. Discarding dead fish into the sea is a disgrace and should be stopped. I agree with my right hon. Friend that that is an essential component of a sensible fisheries policy.

Mr. Bacon

My hon. Friend mentioned the Falkland islands, which I visited last year. I saw the fisheries department while I was there. As it controls the system, it can close the entire fishery earlier than planned if necessary. As it takes three years for a cod to mature, is it not the case, with 900,000 people unemployed, 14,000 of whom are fishermen, as a Minister of State told me the other day, that for the cost of just one failed Government computer system we could support the entire fishing industry in this country for three years, keep out all the foreign boats and have a sustainable industry again?

Mr. Whittingdale

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, in particular for telling us of his recent experience in the Falklands. He is, of course, absolutely right.

The essential point is that there are very successful examples of national fisheries management schemes which contrast with the complete failure of the CFP. The system of quotas for each species that is operated under the CFP means that a fish of a different species or a fish that is in excess of quota is discarded back into the sea, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wok ingham (Mr. Redwood) said. Each year as many, if not more, fish are discarded to pollute the seabed as are landed for human consumption. How can that possibly help the conservation effort? The alternative is that the fish are landed black and fishermen risk being turned into criminals for breaching quota regulations.

Mr. Blizzard

The hon. Gentleman gave examples of the way in which more remote islands manage their fish stocks. I agree that the CFP has, self-evidently, not conserved fish. In advocating national controls, however, how would he deal with the issue of the median line in the North sea? The fish would not respect the median line. Many species spawn in shallower water on the continental side and swim over. If we had the median line, the Dutch and others would catch all the fish before they got here.

Mr. Whittingdale

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the CFP has been a complete failure. That is at least an advance on some of his colleagues. Obviously, if there were national management—I shall say a little about how we believe it should operate—it would require negotiation and bilateral agreements with other fishing nations.

Mr. Bradshaw

That will be easy.

Mr. Whittingdale

I think that compared with the annual fight which he goes into and which is about to take place next week, where every nation scratches around to try to benefit its own fishing industry within the framework of an ever-reducing total allowable catch, it will be rather more simple. As I have said, the CFP has been a complete failure. Almost anything would be an improvement on the CFP.

Mr. Leigh

May I give a positive idea to my hon. Friend that might commend itself to Members on both sides of the House? It is an idea that was discussed in the report of the Public Accounts Committee. It relates to discarded fish. Many of these fish are dead or dying when they are thrown into the sea. We suggested that we should seek changes in European Union legislation to allow the landing of discards and over-quota catches, but with proceeds being used to fund research and greater enforcement activity, as is already the case in Iceland. Will my hon. Friend and perhaps the Minister consider this idea?

Mr. Whittingdale

The report of my hon. Friend's Committee is undoubtedly a valuable contribution. However, we believe that the problem is the system itself. A system based on quotas creates the incentive or the necessity either for the discard of dead fish which are over quota or the alternative, which is the illegal landing of fish. Many fishermen have little choice but to break the law, given that their allocation of legal quota is so pitiful that it is impossible for them to sustain a living. At the same time, the enforcement system has led to fishery inspectors, who were previously regarded as the friends of fishermen, being regarded with utter hatred throughout the industry.

As has been suggested in several interventions, fishermen are increasingly disbelieving of the figures on which TACs are based. Estimates of fish stock are based on two main types of data; those which are fishery dependent and those which are fishery independent. Fishery dependent data come from commercial vessels and comprise the quantities of fish landed into port and measures of the time spent fishing or searching for fish to catch. The quota allocations are so inadequate that inevitably fishermen cheat to make a living. They either do not declare landings or they make false declarations as to the locations in which fish are caught. As a result, the amount of fish is under-reported, leading to quotas being set even lower.

Even the European Commission has now acknowledged that the reliability of commercial fisheries information has declined. The Commission is therefore relying increasingly on data from research vessels, but those too are flawed. For instance, in the critical North sea cod fishery, test trawls are made by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-commissioned survey vessels. These are conducted in the spring and autumn when standardised gear is shot in specific locations at the same time each year, and trawling is carried out at a standard speed for half an hour. The catch is then measured and compared year on year to determine changes in stocks.

It has been said that the process is similar to flying in a hot air balloon high over a land completely covered in cloud, with the occupants seeking to determine what lives on the land, how many of each species there are and how their populations might change, all with a basket and a long rope. The surveyors are asked to scrape the basket along the ground for half an hour, haul it up and guesstimate the population, a process which they repeat at the same place at the same time the following year to determine trends.

Mr. Jim Portus, the chief executive of the South West Fish Producer Organisation, told my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) this morning that the scientists on research vessels often have inappropriate kit that is wrongly set. Those in the industry who have seen photographs were flabbergasted that the Commission should put such reliance on information gleaned from such badly set equipment. The solution, as the Select Committee recommended last year, is to have more independent scientific observers aboard fishing vessels.

Mr. Bradshaw

During his visit to Lowestoft yesterday, did the hon. Gentleman visit the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which conducts those trials, and did he put those questions to it?

Mr. Whittingdale

I did not go to CEFAS, but certainly intend to go back and talk to it. As the hon. Gentleman should know, because he was there a few months ago, there is a CEFAS laboratory in my constituency, so I talk to CEFAS quite regularly.

The conclusion that we must draw is that ever-reducing quotas are calculated from TACs that are based on questionable data. While the CFP may be limiting unnecessarily the fishing of mature fish, it is failing to prevent industrial fishing, which may be doing far more damage. Trawling for sand eels results in hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the basis of the marine food chain being scooped up every year, while landing at the same time masses of juvenile cod, haddock and whiting as by-catch. To produce fishmeal to feed farmed fish and Danish pigs and, it is even said, fish oil to run a power station, the basic foodstuff on which are fish stocks depend is being removed.

By any measure, the CFP has been a disaster for the British fishing industry, which is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition reaffirmed on Sunday that we are committed to a policy of withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy and restoring national control for our fishing industry". In the next few months, we will develop a new way of managing fish stocks based on controlling inputs by limiting fishing effort and banning industrial fishing in place of the discredited and damaging quota system of output controls. As I have said, other places such as the Faroes operate such management schemes extremely successfully. We therefore intend to sit down with the fishermen to work out the details of an alternative to the CFP.

Mr. Bradshaw

How is the hon. Gentleman going to ban industrial fishing if he takes national control, which he knows is impossible, in those bits of the North sea over which we have no control?

Mr. Whittingdale

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely how we will do so. It is not impossible to restore national control over our own waters—it is a question of political will. I shall explain to the hon. Gentleman how we will do so, as there is a genuine opportunity on the table right now to carry out a renegotiation of the CFP. In the draft constitution that is being considered by the intergovernmental conference, article 12 gives the European Union exclusive competence over the conservation of marine biological resources under the Common Fisheries Policy". The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who served on the Convention on the Future of Europe, said that this is basically a renegotiation of the basic Treaties". There is therefore no reason why the Government cannot introduce a proposal in the IGC to renegotiate the CFP and restore national control. That should be a red line issue for the Government, but instead they are meekly prepared to continue with a failed policy that is destroying our industry.

Mr. Blizzard

If that is the case, why did the Conservative representative on the Convention on the Future of Europe not make an issue of that in all the months in which he talked about it? He made one feeble reference to it, and did not turn it into a major issue. Why, when the Conservative party had the chance to put it on the agenda, did it fail to do so?

Mr. Whittingdale

I have the highest regard for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr.

Heathcoat-Amory), who represented my party on the convention, and I am told that he did move amendments to that effect. Nobody could be more robust in their defence of British industry and the British fishing industry than my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Bacon

My hon. Friend may like to know that our right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said in the Standing Committee on the Convention that he would often move amendments. He also protested about the fact that an amendment moved by someone opposed to a proposal would not even be recorded.

Mr. Whittingdale

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that that is the case. I am afraid that all too often during the process of that Convention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells was a lone voice of sanity.

Mr. Savidge

If the right hon. Member for Wells was a lone voice of sanity, what chance does the hon. Gentleman think he would have of conducting a successful negotiation?

Mr. Whittingdale

I will tell the hon. Gentleman precisely. I quote the example of his own Prime Minister, who said before the general election in 1997: We certainly have not ruled out holding up IGC business in order to get the right changes to fishing policy in the British interest". Now his Government are not even prepared to put it on the agenda.

The Government have said that they are prepared to fight to prevent the European Union having any say over our oil and gas reserves, as is proposed in the energy chapter of the European constitution.

Mr. Salmond

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that Professor Neil McCormick incessantly moved amendments on fisheries in the Convention? Perhaps a little more support from the Conservative representative would have been appreciated. The Conservatives did not raise the matter on 16 September 2003. The hon. Gentleman has alighted on a good policy. It would help his credibility if he admitted that it is also a very recent policy for the Conservative party.

Mr. Whittingdale

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support, but it was the policy of my party rather earlier than it was the policy of his party. The policy was advocated under the past three leaders of the Conservative party.

I return to the Government's determination to fight to prevent the EU having any say over our oil and gas reserves. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) tabled a good early-day motion on the subject which has been signed by almost 100 of his colleagues. It calls for the Government to veto any proposal to cede competence over licensing and other national control of the UK's oil and gas reserves to the European Union. Although the Government are prepared to stand up to protect our oil and gas reserves, they seem unwilling even to contemplate mounting a similar fight to re-establish national control of our fish reserves.

When France and Germany recently decided that the terms of the stability pact were operating against their national interest, what did they do? They simply ignored them. It is not true to say, therefore, that a policy to restore national control cannot be achieved. It is a matter of political will. It is time for the Government to start standing up for the interests of the British fishing industry. Unless they do so, there soon will not be an industry left.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. That applies from now on.

5.42 pm
Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles) (Lab)

I shall raise a matter that is of great importance for my constituency and for fishermen up and down the west coast of Scotland. It is a matter that has already been mentioned in the debate: the nephrops stocks on the west coast of Scotland.

In opening the debate, the Minister observed that nephrops stocks are perfectly healthy and viable. Indeed, my fishermen tell me that the catches are as good as they have been for 20 years, in terms of both the quantity of the landings and the quality of the prawns. The catch is exceptionally good, but stocks are affected by the linkage to the threatened cod stock.

The Minister suggested in his opening remarks that we should consider finding technical solutions to the problem. Instead of going down the road proposed by the European Commission this year and last year of reducing the prawn stock or other viable stocks in order to have a positive impact on cod, we should look at technical measures that would allow us to continue fishing for viable stocks without having an adverse impact on cod.

I should like to use my few minutes to flag up one proposal that has emerged recently from within the industry, which I urge the Minister to consider and to ask his officials to study with a view to pressing it at the Council later this month. The Commission, in its proposals for the west coast nephrops stocks, has once again advocated a reduction, this time of the somewhat puzzling figure of 40 tonnes, which set against an overall TAC of 11,300 tonnes would not seem to make much difference one way or the other, and one wonders how on earth it came up with that particular figure. The concern of my fishermen is not simply to avert that reduction but, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said earlier, to try to restore the previous 10 per cent. cut, and even to go beyond that and increase the TAC to a sustainable level that can provide a viable fishery.

The proposal that has emerged recently is to try to target conservation measures on the best spawning grounds for cod—to try a zonal approach to the problem of the west coast prawns and cod linkage. I am told that the consensus in the scientific community is that the best spawning ground for cod on the west coast is just north of my constituency, about 40 miles off the Butt of Lewis, and the proposal that has achieved a consensus in the industry is for a full closure of that area for prawn trawling at least during the spawning of the cod, which is typically from about February through to April. A complete three-month closure of prawn trawling could be targeted on that area to ensure that the spawning grounds are untouched, giving the cod a chance then to move on into the wider area.

In return for such a complete closure, affecting prawn trawling in that area, the industry wants not just a holding off of the proposed 40-tonne cut, but a restoration of the 10 per cent. cut that happened some years ago, and a fresh look at the case for a gradual restoration to the original TAC of several years ago, when it was in the order of 16,000 tonnes. As the Minister is already aware, the case for a restoration to that figure is considerable, because there is a strong argument that the current TACs are based on a misreading of the landing figures some years ago.

I should be grateful if the Minister would give an undertaking that he will look closely at that new proposal that has emerged to tackle the problem that has already been flagged up in the course of the opening speeches, and that he will look sympathetically at the case for a zonal closure in return for a restoration of the 10 per cent. cut on the west coast. It would be helpful if he could tell me later or in writing whether he is sympathetic in principle to such a zonal approach—so that the industry will know whether it should continue to investigate and research the matter—and give a commitment to look hard at the new proposals, and with urgency, so that they can be raised and, I hope, pushed at the summit later this month.

5.50 pm
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

May I welcome the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) to our annual fisheries debates? He was right to pay tribute to fishermen and fishing communities, and to reflect on the tragic loss of eight lives in the industry this year. Those of us who represent fishing constituencies fully understand the tragic circumstances in which the industry often has to operate, and we use this opportunity to reflect on them each year.

Once again, we are discussing in the annual fisheries debate rather panicked negotiations occurring at the eleventh hour about how we are to settle TACs and quotas for species that will be vital to the industry over the next 12 months. Although the revised common fisheries policy talked bravely of the need to establish a medium-term plan in respect of multi-annual quotas, which would at least inform the industry about the prospect of the indicative quotas for subsequent years on the basis of the best science available in making decisions for the next year, the fact is that no mention has so far been made of multi-annual quotas. One of a number of failures of the policy that have occurred since its reform at the beginning of this year is the failure to look for medium-term solutions to the very serious problems that are besetting the industry.

A complaint was rightly made in the previous debate on this matter about the fact that negotiations and discussions between fishermen and scientists were still not as productive and constructive as we would have hoped. In many other European countries, the relationship between scientists and fishermen is more productive, and greater confidence and respect operate both ways. When one speaks to fishermen in this country, it is clear that they still strongly feel a sense of disregard of the basis on which scientific advice is given. That is clearly an issue on which further work is needed.

Work is also needed on something that I detected at an early stage in the negotiations—the fact that the scientists are not bringing fishermen in early enough to discuss the science. In my view, the Minister has a role to play in encouraging better dialogue at a much earlier stage in the process. He knows from his own dealings in respect of monkfish in area VII, for example, about an indicative and precautionary quota that has been set on the best information that the scientists say is available to them, despite fishermen's claims that the stock is a great deal more healthy. When fishermen demonstrate what is happening during the year by referring to catch and landings, as well as to the speed of those landings, which is a clear indication of the health of the angler fish stock, it is important that scientists learn lessons from them, just as fisherman—to be fair, it is a balanced relationship—sometimes need to learn lessons from the scientists.

I think I heard the Minister, in response to an earlier question, make the telling remark that fishermen and scientists need to take responsibility for the management of the fishery. Indeed, one of the failings of the annual fisheries debate is the fact that we are here at all, debating the details about the relationship between nephrops and cod, and cod and haddock, and about what will happen in area VII and the North sea. Politicians, who merely dip into the subject from time to time, are not best placed to make decisions on those subjects.

The Minister must admit that when he goes to negotiations such as those in the Council of Ministers, which he is soon to attend, the Ministers, even with the benefit of their best experts' advice, are likely to come up with a political fix. That is what happens each year. All the evidence is pushing us towards recognising the need to give fishermen and scientists genuine responsibility for the management of their fisheries in devolved regions.

Mr. Blizzard

The hon. Gentleman is talking about fishermen and scientists. Does he also acknowledge the substantial contribution made to the local economy in his constituency and mine, and in the others all round our coasts, by recreational sea angling, which I believe is worth about £1 billion a year? Does he agree that as politicians we should give some thought to how we can manage the stocks immediately around our coast so that sea angling is encouraged, and can continue to make that important contribution?

Andrew George

Yes, but there are also other stakeholders who should be involved in the discussions and the production of management plans. Fishermen and scientists are the two groups that tend to lock horns most on the issue of what is best overall for fisheries management. Clearly they need to be there as two of the main stakeholders in any decision-making process, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that recreational sea anglers, too, need to be represented. Indeed, it was sea anglers who first drew attention to the problem of cetacean by-catch in western waters. They also pointed out that pair trawling was having a detrimental impact on bass stocks, which normally made a substantial contribution to the local economy of the coastal communities in the west, where many tourists are taken out to catch bass by line.

There are other stakeholders, too, such as processors and environmental bodies such as WWF, which is now engaged with the industry, including the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, in the establishment of the new project in the south-west. There are many bodies that could play a constructive and productive role in the future of the regional management bodies.

There was a policy within the revised common fisheries policy to establish regional advisory councils. We were all disappointed that those were to be purely advisory, and in discussions with Commissioner Fischler it was encouraging that he wanted to develop that idea into regional fisheries management councils, but as a written answer from the Department received yesterday shows, a year into the policy, little has happened.

Most of the development has resulted from the industry's desire to push the process along, which has not been helped by either the Commission or the Government. In that written answer, the Minister who is here today says: It will take time for effective RACs to develop, but fishermen and other interests active in international fisheries partnerships in the North sea, the Irish sea and the south west, the Baltic and the Mediterranean have already made good progress"— [Official Report, 8 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 224W.]

That is largely the result of their own initiative, and not because the European Commission has pushed them in that direction. Support is needed if that policy is to make progress. We need to step up the momentum in delivering that policy.

I do not want to rehearse the arguments already made to some extent in interventions. The Minister will be armed with industry responses to specific proposals, especially for cod, monkfish, herring, haddock, nephrops and hake. However, it is clear that the industry is justified in querying the science. For example, the absolute measure for North sea cod spawning stock biomass shows an increase of around 60 per cent. over the past two years. That meets the SSB regeneration target of 30 per cent. that has been predicted, and planned for. Similarly, the hake recovery programme has been shown to have worked well so far. The Minister must take account of the variety of views about the science.

The same is true for the inevitability of a very significant mixed-fishery by-catch. There has been a high cod by-catch in western waters, for example. A lot of the area VII fishery is mixed, and the Minister must find new methods for the proper management of such areas. We need a more sophisticated and localised method of fisheries management, as it cannot be denied that the CFP has been extremely damaging to fishing communities, fish stocks and fishermen. We must move away as quickly as possible from the centralised basis of the CFP.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore endorse the views of his colleague in Scotland, Mr. Tavish Scott, a member of the coalition Government in Scotland, who said: The CFP has failed fishermen, fishing communities and fish stocks and must end. That view has been endorsed by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Andrew George

Yes. The CFP has failed in exactly the way that has been described. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that we need to examine credible solutions that will deliver a better future for fishermen. However, the Conservatives were responsible for fisheries policy for 18 years, and never once in all that time did the apparently obvious—that they should unilaterally withdraw from the CFP—occur to them in a blinding flash. It was not muttered or mentioned even once, but that suddenly became party policy a few nanoseconds after the Conservatives lost power in 1997. The Conservative policy on fishing has no credibility.

Shona McIsaac

Did the hon. Gentleman notice that the anti-European brigade exited the Chamber a few nanoseconds after the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman sat down, and as soon as my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) rose to speak? Unlike Conservative Members, he knows an awful lot about this subject.

Andrew George

That is certainly true. Although many hon. Members are genuinely concerned about the future of a serious industry, it is tragic that many fishing communities and fishermen are used as convenient front-line troops in an anti-European war by many Members who represent land-locked constituencies. We need serious and credible solutions. If we can suspend disbelief and concede that the Conservatives have a policy that is legally and technically attainable, let us scrutinise it. I keep an open mind on all these issues, but I fundamentally believe that we should have a policy that is deliverable and that gives fishermen in the UK a better future than is currently projected for them. I am always prepared to consider alternative approaches.

I strongly endorse the views expressed by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, about industrial fishing. We need a more robust debate on that issue. We should take that bull by the horns, because such fishing has a detrimental effect on the stocks of sand eels and scad. As has been shown, a significant by-catch of white fish is also associated with industrial fishing.

I draw the Minister's attention to a deep concern in some coastal communities about the six and 12-mile zones. Fishermen in my constituency use inshore boats to fish to the six-mile limit, but they often find large French trawlers trawling across their fixed gear. That is happening with increasing frequency, and damage occurs to gear in many cases. That restricts many cove fishermen from the far west of Cornwall to within the six-mile limit, and it does not give them room for manoeuvre. Those fishermen already face tremendous problems, so they need our support.

A serious problem also relates to the future of small cove boats. Fishing from boats of less than 8 m—those that are dragged up the beaches in many coves in Cornwall and the south west—is often restricted by quotas. Such boats use sustainable methods to catch shellfish and other species, and it is argued that they should form a sub-group below the 10 m restrictions and have different regulations applied to them.

I also wish to caution the Minister about the shellfish licensing scheme, which will be implemented progressively from January to April next year. Many young people are now able to enter the inshore industry literally with a punt and go out to catch crab. They have traditionally been able to build their own businesses in that way. Even though the shellfish licensing scheme provides them with the freedom to catch five lobster and 25 crab, that would not provide them with sufficient opportunity to succeed. Such young people are the future lifeblood of the inshore industry in many coves, and I would like the Minister to consider ways of protecting quotas so that young entrants are not excluded from the industry. There is concern in some communities that the introduction of shellfish licensing will mean the end of cove fishing.

With those remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your forbearance.

6.9 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central) (Lab)

I want to make a short contribution about the processing side of the industry and to address other issues that have been raised. My primary constituency concern is processing, because Aberdeen lost its main fishing fleet many years ago. A number of issues are of concern to the industry. The major one is that it has become increasingly difficult to secure regular supplies of fish. I think that, if the Minister answered that point directly, he would tell me that the fish processing industry has had quite a good year this year. That is true, but a lot of it has come on the back of imported fish. Most primary processors depend on regular supplies of locally caught white fish. That remains a concern and I ask him to keep himself fully apprised of it.

The industry is constantly struggling against the difficulties of regulation. Every time I get to my feet in the Chamber to talk about it, new problems seem to have been raised. At the moment, two issues are causing concern: animal by-products legislation and the Pollution Prevention and Control Act 1999, which is having serious cost implications for the industry. I will write to the Minister about particular concerns on that. There is another major issue. Some sections of the industry went through a difficult period at exactly the same time as the catching side but have not had the same help. There is a sense that it is a two-tier industry. I simply put that point on the record.

I will not labour the points, but I want to use the rest of the time available to me to pick up on what was said by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). The points he raised are important. Although I do not want to say that I have swallowed them hook, line and sinker—he would not expect me to do that—the way in which the Conservatives and the Scottish National party are addressing the issue sends a warning to the Government. It is important that we do not indulge in the usual political rhetoric and try to brush them off, because there are difficulties.

Before making my points, I want to say that I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. He tried to persuade us all of the virtues of independence. The nationalists and the Tory party have always been close—we have known that in Scotland—and it was interesting to hear that being pointed out today. He picked a number of unfortunate examples that do not bear scrutiny, mentioning Norway, the Faroes and the Falklands.

The Norwegian industry is quite different from ours. Apart from its importance to a country the size of Norway, it has been heavily subsidised and modernised with the aid of oil money. The nationalists will say that we could do that in Scotland, but I am not going down that road. Those factors distinguish it from our industry. Its importance compared with that of the UK industry is different. The importance of the Faroese industry is similar, as fishing is the major industry there, as it is in Iceland. Apart from tourism and the possibility of oil, it is difficult to see what other major industry the Faroes might have. Therefore, we are talking about a completely different situation.

What amused me was the hon. Gentleman's reference to the Falklands. I have been there and seen its industry. There is virtually no indigenous fishing industry in the Falklands. There is no fishing fleet. The Falklanders sell their licences to foreign vessels, making £40 million to £50 million a year, which has transformed the Falklands economy. I think that there is an argument, although fish processors in my constituency do not want to hear it. for learning one lesson from the Falklands—I refer to the idea of selling licences each year. However, some fishermen have spent thousands of pounds in buying up licences for quota, so they would be greatly opposed to that idea.

On the basis of how the Scottish nationalists and the Conservatives are reacting and from what I know about my area, there are real problems with how the common fisheries policy is managed. It is important to see how the stakeholders are reacting to the management of the CFP. It suggests that we are at a fairly advanced stage in the breakdown of trust in the process. That means that we are in real difficulties. I do not need to go into the details, because the Minister has already heard the various interventions about those matters.

I always listen carefully to the fishermen in my constituency. I have been involved in these debates since I was first elected to this place in 1997. Throughout that period, mistrust in the Commission was never as strong as it is now. We have heard the word "contempt" used, but I believe that that is too strong because most people in the industry know that they depend on the Commission for their future. Nevertheless, serious concerns remain about the management of the CFP. Every year around December, there are a couple of months of panic as the scientists produce their report, the Commission produces its response and the various forces within the EU go into battle to deal with the issues.

Angus Robertson

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and that of hon. Members on both sides of the House, including members of the European Scrutiny Committee, that, with the entrenchment of the common fisheries policy and with fishing becoming an exclusive competence in the EU constitution, we are taking a dangerous step backwards? Will he urge his Front-Bench colleagues, in the few remaining weeks of the IGC, to turn that position around?

Mr. Doran

I am not going down that road. The hon. Gentleman knows that many issues, in which we have both been involved, remain open to negotiation. I hope that that is one of the issues that will be dealt with. The whole basis of the negotiations is of major concern. There is a major rift between the industry and the scientists. We all welcome the advice and we need hard facts. I looked, for example, at the briefing from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. It is a modest and serious briefing, throughout which there are constant challenges to the scientific evidence.

Mr. Carmichaelrose

Mr. Doran

I want to finish my points and I know that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

The industry has gone through two years of trauma, in which the Scottish fleet has been reduced by half. We heard this morning from the chief executive of the Sea Fish Industry Authority that the income of operators in the white fish catching side of the industry has decreased by another 30 per cent. this year. There are serious issues here. If the stakeholders are losing confidence in the process, the process will fail.

It is no accident that both the Conservatives and the nationalists have adopted withdrawal from the CFP as the main plank in their fisheries policy. I certainly do not support that policy, which is nonsense and populist and will be extremely damaging to our fishing industry. At the same time, however, the Government must pay attention to what is happening on the ground. Debates about the future of the industry have moved on immensely since the Government were elected in 1997. Everyone in the industry awaits the report from the strategy unit due in 2003, which will make an important contribution to the debate. Somehow or other, we must get the message across to the Commission that it must understand the growing problems created by the management of our industry.

6.19 pm
Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I wish to begin by genuinely wishing the Minister well in the forthcoming negotiations at the Council of Ministers. For him, it will be a baptism of fire, but it is essential for the actual survival of the industry that he is successful and salvages what he can for the UK fishing industry. It will not be a straightforward meeting at which the UK can make real progress, because the proposals come directly from the Commission and will already be cut and dried. It must also be recognised that the Council of Ministers cannot change the Commission's proposals other than by unanimity. The Commission is, after all, the guardian of the treaties and therefore works only within the confines of those treaties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) clearly and succinctly described to the House the policy espoused by the Conservative party, but I want to correct the impression that it is a recent policy. I remind the House that the former hon. Member for Teignbridge first introduced it, followed by myself—

Mr. Blizzard

He was sacked.

Ann Winterton

As was I. However, the policy will not be sacked, because it is right. The post was then held, with great distinction, by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who has not been sacked. Now we have my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, and I would put money on him not being sacked. He will stay and carry the policy through into government.

Mr. Blizzard

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Winterton

No. The hon. Gentleman has already intervened many times today. He should make his own speech, rather than trying to be reported in his local newspaper by intervening on other hon. Members.

Mr. Salmond

I would not dispute for a second the hon. Lady's consistency on this matter. When I referred to a recent policy, it was not the policy of withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, but the recent realisation that the European Convention provides the lever to bring about the fundamental renegotiation of fisheries policy. That is the recent conversion.

Ann Winterton

I was actually addressing the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman. I am pleased to support the Bill of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). He has been converted rather late on the road to Damascus, but he is welcome to join those of us who support the policy of national control.

During a recent Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) asked: Does the Minister agree that those who claim that we can unilaterally withdraw from the common fisheries policy are engaged in creating an irresponsible diversion and perpetrating a cruel hoax on desperate fishing communities? The cruel hoax is being perpetrated not by the growing number of hon. Members who support national controls, because they put forward the truth, unpalatable as it is to some; it is being perpetrated by their accusers. The hon. Gentleman continued: Does he therefore agree that the UK should now take the lead, grab the issue by the scruff of the neck, go back to the drawing board, and acknowledge that the centralised basis of the common fisheries policy should be scrapped and replaced with a robust. devolved, regional management structure— [Official Report, 20 November 2003; Vol. 162, c. 938.] The Minister agreed with him, and by so doing displayed the breathtaking lack of knowledge and understanding that the original question exhibited. Frankly, it does not bode well for the forthcoming negotiations when the Minister and the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, who represents a south-west constituency, are either ignorant of the structure of the European Union and the rules within which we have to work or just do not want to know. No wonder fishermen in the UK industry are in such a desperate state. That solution is not credible.

First, if we wanted to scrap the centralised basis of the CFP, as confirmed by the Foreign Secretary on 22 October at column 389 in reply to the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), we would have to scrap the terms of our accession to the EEC in 1973, which included the principle of equal access to a common resource without discrimination. In other words, we would have to withdraw from the CFP, which is exactly what the Conservative party have been saying for several years.

More often than not, the Liberal Democrats—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who sensibly consulted his constituents and now supports national control—say different things to different constituencies throughout the United Kingdom. An obvious example, which was mentioned earlier, was provided by the MSP for Shetland, one Tavish Scott, who supports national control while he is in Shetland but who, as a Minister in the Scottish Executive, supports the Liberal Democrat party line of regional management. Something about trying to have one's cake and eat it springs to mind.

Do the Minister, the hon. Member for St. Ives and other Liberal Democrat Members realise that, with the support of new Labour, they are trying to scrap the CFP? Perhaps the penny has not dropped. If, as they said on 20 November, they want the CFP to be replaced by a robust, devolved, proper regional management structure, perhaps they can tell us how that will be achieved. Commissioner Fischler has already made it clear in relation to Baltic cod that the principle of subsidiarity does not apply to fisheries, so can the Minister or the hon. Member for St. Ives tell us how they will obtain the treaty changes necessary for the type of regional management they support, instead of our being fobbed off with toothless regional councils?

Andrew George

It would of course be churlish of me to point out Tory inconsistencies, although I understand that, on a number of occasions, the Conservative MEP in Scotland has taken a different view of fisheries matters from that of his party. If we assume that the Conservatives have adopted their policy with the best of intentions and that it is neither naked populism nor opposition for opposition's sake, will the hon. Lady at least accept that there is a question of interpretation? Will she keep an open mind as to the possibility technically of delivering a decentralised system, just as I am prepared to keep an open mind about the legality of her claim?

Ann Winterton

All the Scottish MEPs are in favour of national control. In fact, the hon. Gentleman has some questions to answer. I am posing questions to the Liberal Democrats about their party's policy; it is about time they stopped trying to play it both ways. The hon. Gentleman should tell the House precisely—

Mr. MacDonald

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Winterton

No, I am responding to the hon. Member for St. Ives. I want him to tell the House precisely how the Liberal Democrats will achieve those vital treaty changes and I suggest that he stop trying to deceive fishermen.

Mr. MacDonald

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Winterton

I have only three minutes left for my speech, so I intend to continue.

During the same oral questions to which I referred earlier, the Minister accused me of annoying countries with which we would have to negotiate reciprocal arrangements in the event of national control. Let me assure him that Iceland, the Faroes and Norway have made it perfectly clear that they would not even contemplate EU membership unless national control of fisheries was in place. Furthermore, those countries would rather negotiate with the United Kingdom than with the whole European Union.

What is also staggering is that on 20 November at column 972 of Hansard, the Leader of the House described the other place as unelected and undemocratic, yet the UK fisheries Minister considers it best to relinquish responsibility for the British nation's marine resources and for them to be controlled by an unelected, undemocratic and corrupt Commission. The Government have no principle and no consistency, and they are all over the place.

I can only say, to the repeated hollow cry that establishing national control will mean leaving the European Union, "What arrant nonsense!" I did not notice France or Germany at the exit door as they broke their treaty obligations on the stability pact; in fact, they seem to be in the driving seat, with the British whimpering at the sidelines.

On 11 November, during my Adjournment debate on the demise of cod in the British sector, the Minister threw down the gauntlet—he has repeated this twice today-challenging me to produce alternative science. I responded to that challenge by writing to him on 20 November—I have not yet received an acknowledgement or a reply—inviting him to chair a meeting to be held in the House of Commons in the spring, at which scientists of my choice will debate and challenge the scientists who advise him. I very much hope that he will agree to attend, although the meeting will take place anyway. If neither the Minister nor the scientists whom he nominates is present, a clear indication will be given to the fishing industry that the Government's actions cannot be defended, and they will stand condemned in the eyes of fishermen as a result.

When the Prime Minister recently entertained the President of the United States of America in Sedgefield, they lunched, we are told, in a rather nice pub, on cod, chips and mushy peas. That delectable dish is the hallmark of Save Britain's Fish fringe meetings at Conservative party conference, which always attract maximum attendance, although haddock is served, rather than cod I am glad that haddock is so plentiful at the moment, and we very much hope that changes will be made so that more can be caught in the future. The cod eaten on that occasion at Sedgefield came from the constituency of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), and I hope there was nothing fishy about that.

The Prime Minister is on record as saying that he is very partial to fish and chips. What a pity his much-vaunted No. 10 strategy unit was not allowed to start examining fisheries policy with a clean sheet of paper, but was given specific orders: its remit was to stay within the bounds of the CFP. What a wasted opportunity and yet another piece of cruel deception and spin. The truth speaks louder than words, and it is not those who support national control who cruelly deceive but those who shine an imaginary light at the end of a very long tunnel of deception. United Kingdom fishermen will never prosper while policy remains in the CFP, and the fishing industry will suffer yet further emasculation. The only solution is national control based on—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has had her time.

6.32 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP)

It is with some trepidation that I go from the global problems to the parochial problems of those fishermen in the Irish sea who fish off the County Down coast. The three most important fishing ports in Northern Ireland are on the County Down coast, and two of those are in my constituency. We have an added problem—I had hoped that it would not be a problem this year—in that our devolved institutions are suspended, and we have no local Minister responsible for fisheries to attend the Brussels negotiations. We are dependent on a no doubt able person to represent third hand the concerns and views of the Northern Ireland fishing industry.

Fishermen's observations regarding the Irish sea are usually criticised as self-interested, but we have evidence from independent scientists that the fishermen's assessment, in fact, has justification. I was rather disappointed during the early part of the Minister's introduction, when he called such scientists dissidents, as opposed to people with dissenting opinions. Those two terms have different meanings in my vocabulary. A scientist's credibility should always be taken on board and he should not be castigated in any way simply because he has a different or opposing view.

Leaving that aside, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is much more positive for 2004 in respect of the Irish sea than it has been for many years. In fact, the chairman of the fishery science group stated at a recent meeting that the positive signs from the Irish sea had to be emphasised. We shall look to see how that emphasis on the positive aspects is reflected in the outcome of the negotiations.

Those positive signs include the fact that cod stocks in the Irish sea have increased by a multiple of three—three times what was there before. In the past year alone, the availability of Irish sea cod has increased by 40 per cent. Those are not the opinions of dissident scientists—the ICES scientists are advisers to the Commission. They go on to say that one of the most important species now, nephrops, remains robust.

Given that backcloth, the proposals coming out of Brussels indicate that that is not being taken on board. That is so desponding that it has driven the fishermen of Northern Ireland to the point where they, like many others, wish to withdraw from European fisheries policy. I am a committed European. In this instance, however, for serious, particular reasons, I would support a policy of withdrawal unless there is a meaningful, fair and alternative means of species preservation.

The Northern Ireland fishing fleet is very small. In the past 10 years, however, it has been halved. In the past three years, income right across the white fish industry has dropped by 76 per cent., and in relation to nephrops it has dropped by 40 per cent. The Northern Ireland fishing fleet has made a major contribution, suggested conservation measures, promoted them, participated in them and done a good deal more than its share. That should be taken on board.

When the measures in relation to closure of the Irish sea were introduced, the Northern Irish fishermen who had suffered since 2000 got no compensation. Yet when other UK fleet industries suffered the same fate, they received transitional aid.

Mrs. Humble

Does my hon. Friend recognise that Fleetwood fishermen, who were part of that Irish sea community, received no compensation either? They have been working closely with their colleagues in the Northern Ireland fishing communities to make sure that the cod recovery programme works, without receiving any compensation.

Mr. McGrady

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Like me, she is fighting her corner of the Irish sea. I agree that the restricted days-at-sea efforts should be subject to some transitional aid. None was given in Northern Ireland, and none was given to the Fleetwood fleet. We envy the Scottish fishing industry, which, I understand, received some transitional aid, but it has the benefit of devolution.

If the 10 days per month at sea proposal is brought into effect in respect of the north Irish fleet, it will spell the death knell of that fleet. There is no doubt about that whatever. I remember reading back in 1991–92 a very special report from the European Community on the Irish sea. The report acknowledged the Irish sea's unique biomass and—of particular interest to me—the fact that the fishing communities of the east Down coast to which I refer were so dependent and so vulnerable to the ups and downs of the fishing industry that they required special consideration. I do not think that that report, which was accepted, was ever really put into practice. The specialness of the Irish sea's biomass and the total dependency of communities on fishing was never taken into account to facilitate its findings.

I could cite the views of several scientists that are much more optimistic than those mentioned by the Minister and give a degree of confidence about how things might go forward. Does the Minister realise that against scientific advice, there is a proposed reduction of the total allowable catch for Irish sea haddock stocks from 1,500 tonnes to 1,075 tonnes? Again against scientific advice, it has been suggested that the TAC for plaice should be reduced from the scientists' recommendation of 1,700 tonnes to 896 tonnes. We have heard about a 14 per cent. increase in the TAC for nephrops in the North sea, but although nephrops are one of the basic species fished in the Irish sea, it is proposed to reduce the TAC for nephrops by a further 340 tonnes.

We must take account of all those factors and the history of competition from fishermen from the Republic of Ireland. My constituency has a water border with the Republic of Ireland—Carlinford Lough. The restrictions on fishermen in the north of Ireland are not the same as those that apply two miles out at sea across an imaginary water border. The co-operation of these isles is vital if justice is to be done, so I ask the Minister to take on board some of the facts that I have presented tonight—albeit poorly. As someone said, politicians simply have to dip into a difficult science. I do not pretend to be an expert; I simply try to represent the views of my local fishermen and the communities that they sustain.

A separate Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development will not represent our fishing industry at the talks this year, unlike the last year, so I ask the Minister to give special consideration to his ministerial colleague who will represent Northern Ireland, and remember that he has three huge Northern Ireland Departments to run—it is difficult enough to deal with only this issue. I ask—I almost beg—for special consideration to be given to the facts and for representatives from the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland to be given a fair hearing.

6.42 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

I used to think that there was a constancy to the personnel in fishing debates—indeed, I used to think that the only thing that changed from debate to debate was the Conservative fishing spokesperson. This year, however, not only the Conservative spokesperson, but the Minister with responsibility for fisheries and the Secretary of State for Scotland have changed. I do not present that to the new Fisheries Minister as a warning. I merely suggest that his performance at the Fisheries Council might be important for his future career prospects, especially as far as fisheries MPs are concerned.

The loss to fishing communities of the jobs on which they depend has been more important than the change of personnel to fisheries spokespersons. Some 50 per cent. —half—of our Scottish white fish fleet has disappeared and been decommissioned over the past three years. A few years ago, Ross Finnic, the Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Development, said that he would not preside over the destruction of the Scottish fishing industry, yet he and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), are presiding over the destruction of the Scottish white fish fleet. That is not a forecast; it is what has happened.

The Scottish White Fish Producers Association and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation gave evidence to the all-party group on fisheries earlier today. They pointed out graphically that we are now in a situation in which every fishing boat in the North sea has 1,000 square miles in which to fish, which shows how few boats we have in our specialist white fish sector. Indeed, Michael Park, the chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, explained that his boat, the Denebula, had to sail 190 miles to help another fishing boat in distress this week because he was closest to it. That is the extent to which our boats and white fish sector have been denuded over the past three years. The industry is the lifeblood of our communities. The companies that depend on that white fish fleet for their Orders—the engineers, ice factories, painters and carpenters—are under the most horrendous pressure and have been shamefully treated by the decommissioning scheme in Scotland.

If there were no fish in the sea, the situation would be regrettable, but perhaps nothing could be done. We are not in that situation, however. The sea is full of fish; it is just empty of fishermen. We heard that the herring and mackerel stocks are at high levels. Haddock stock is on a 32-year high in the North sea; indeed, we could walk to Norway on the haddock in that sea. Prawn stocks are in a robust condition. Cod stocks, although at a low level, are recovering. It might interest the Minister to know that monkfish in the North sea are assessed not on survey data, but purely on landing data. If the quota goes down, the landings go down and the quota is lowered again the following year. After the Minister's experience of monkfish stocks elsewhere, perhaps he will turn his attention to increasing the quota in the North sea, as any intelligent assessment would require and defend.

Mr. MacDonald

The hon. Gentleman's solution is unilateral withdrawal from the CFP, as set out in his private Member's Bill introduced at the end of the last Session. When I asked the House of Commons Library to evaluate his Bill, it said: If the Bill were passed, it would not result in the UK withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy. That policy has been established by various EC Council Regulations, and no single country can simply repudiate them. Surely his Bill and policy are a complete fraud and con on the fishing community.

Mr. Salmond

I relied heavily on two things in framing the Bill: the excellent Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and the advice of the House of Commons Clerks. The Bill was well founded. In a reply to a constituent of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) just a few months ago, the Government explained that the UK Parliament could withdraw from the European Act 1972 or any part of that Act. The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) should check with his colleagues and Government before he launches attacks on me.

Ann Winterton

May I back up the hon. Gentleman's point? In a written answer to me, the Minister for Europe said: The UK will honour its international treaty obligations until such time as Parliament decides to repeal the Acts that give effect to them." —[Official Report, 30 October 2003; Vol. 412, c. 360W.] It is this place that decides, not the House of Commons Library.

Mr. Salmond

As the hon. Lady and I discussed a few moments ago, the European Convention offers the Government a huge opportunity to force the issue, if they had the political will to do so.

I have three specific points to make on the negotiations. The first is that for all the badinage, they are vital. I told the Minister about the haddock quota and I think that I got a favourable reply on the information from Seafish about the cod by-catch and haddock fishing. If he cannot secure the bountiful quota that we should have in the North sea, he will have committed a cardinal failure.

I understand that the Prime Minister's strategy unit is complimentary about the Faroese fishing policy. If the Faroese were managing the North sea haddock fishery, this year's quota would be set at 150,000 tonnes as opposed to the 37,000 tonnes suggested by the European Commission. For marketing reasons, the fishing industry would not suggest that the quota should be set that high, but if it were doubled to 80,000 tonnes, that would be worth £40 million to the hard-pressed Scottish fishing industry. Haddock is not the only species that needs to be decoupled from cod, but that quota will be the benchmark on which we judge the success or otherwise of this Fisheries Minister.

My second point relates to days at sea. The Minister was asked—I think he took it on board—about the huge reduction in capacity absorbed by the Scottish fleet, and the English fleet to a lesser extent, over the past few years. It would be incredible if the Scottish fleet ended up with the same number of days at sea as the Irish or French fleets, which have increased in size. We must make sure, whether it comes out of annexe XVII or annexe V, that we do not end up, having decommissioned half our fleet, with no benefits accruing to the half that remains. The Minister should understand that the fishing entitlement of the decommissioned boats has not gone to the boats that remain. We are in the dreadful position that the people who are still in the industry are not getting the benefit from less fishing effort that has been applied in the North sea and elsewhere.

Thirdly—this is a point for the Government as well as for other interests—I am sick and tired of hearing arguments from celebrity chefs, environmental organisations, the Government and companies such as Birds Eye on which it is carelessly said that the North sea is denuded of fish, when that is not the case. That claim has been a significant factor, as Seafish told us today, in the reducing the demand for our excellent products over the past year.

Instead of arguing from that position, the Minister should be addressing the need for more money for Seafish to promote fish. He should be looking carefully at funding for the processing sector to enable it to move into higher value-added markets. He should be refuting, not encouraging, suggestions that there are no fish in the North sea and elsewhere.

I move on to the European Convention. I think that the Minister is missing the point, as all Fisheries Ministers on being relegated in importance within the Government are bound to miss, perhaps, that it offers a huge opportunity. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), the Labour representative on the Convention said today: The process in the convention was riddled with imperfections and moulded by a largely unaccountable political elite, set on a particular outcome from the…start…There are certain provisions in there which I think the British government would find unacceptable. Professor Neil MacCormick, MEP, head of constitutional law at Edinburgh university for 20 years and the SNP representative on the Convention said: At this time, public opinion leans strongly towards transferring substantial powers back to Member States or to Zonal Management Authorities involving regional groups of Member States. It is quite unacceptable to enact a new constitutional entrenchment that will make any change in practice harder to achieve". Putting into the Convention, as an exclusive competence, a failed policy such as the common fisheries policy is a step backwards, or a step further into the mire into which successive Governments have taken the industry.

The question that fishing communities ask is, I suppose, the same question that was asked after the revelations that 30 years ago they were considered in the European negotiations as "expendable" in the light of Britain's wider interests. That is not something that those in the fishing community have made up—civil service documents released under the 30-year rule stated that the Government of the day regarded Scottish fishermen as "expendable" in the light of Britain's wider interests. We suspect that in common with Lord Owen, Lady Thatcher and John Major's Government, the present Government still regard those fishermen as expendable in the light of other negotiations.

Why cannot fishing be a red line issue? Why cannot fishing be the priority in negotiations? Why cannot the unanimity that is required within the European Convention and the intergovernmental conference be used to extract concessions and the dismantling of the common fisheries policy, which has caused so much damage to our fishing communities?

I do not doubt the good intentions of the Fisheries Minister, I merely say to him as gently as I can that whereas he has been in office for 180 days, I have been representing the Banff and Buchan fishing community for 16 years in this place. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby has been representing his constituents since before recorded parliamentary history in this place. What has drawn us and others to the conclusion that the CFP is fundamentally flawed and needs to be dismantled? It is not party political banter. It is not talking about who said what and when. It is the effect that the policy has had on once thriving fishing communities. It is the damage that the policy is still inflicting on the industry that we have left. It is the lost opportunity of a magnificent crop of haddock not being accessible to fishing boats, to fish processors and to the fishing support industry, which require it at a time when any rational policy would set out that that should be done. In a private meeting with the Minister last week I quoted remarks made by David Griffith, the head of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, in a radio debate that we had in late October. He said that if ICES had the information, it would have made the same recommendation as we have about the haddock stock. Instead of telling me that I was quoting David Griffith out of context, which I was not, the Minister should make sure that fishing opportunities are realised and, just once, ensure that the fishing industry and our communities are a priority for Westminster Government.

6.55 pm
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab)

Like many Members in the Chamber, for the past few years I have talked about the depressing situation of our fishing industry and the European quotas. This year, paradoxically, the backdrop to our debate is, for the fishermen of Fleetwood in my constituency, a success story in the Irish sea, which makes the cuts that they now face all the more bewildering.

I should like to clarify a point that I made in an intervention on the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). I referred to the Irish sea cod recovery programme, which he interpreted as support for the common fisheries policy. However, I should like to point out that nobody in the Chamber thinks that the CFP is an unmitigated success. In my own constituency, the fishing fleet has deteriorated and declined over the past 10 years. However, I should like to emphasise the fact that the fishermen of Fleetwood and many of the fishing communities around the Irish sea accept that fish stocks need to be conserved if they are to have hope for the future. They want fairness from the CFP for all the different national vessels that fish the Irish sea, and have worked hard to make sure that the CFP works.

We are now in the fourth year of that policy, and the fishermen tell me that when they go out they see not just more cod but more mature cod. They are catching mature cod, not codlings. They are therefore seeing the success of their investment, but have been told that they cannot profit from it. That is the difficulty that they are experiencing, and that is the message that the Minister must take to his meetings in Europe. There has been a reduction in the British fishing effort, and spawning stock biomass has increased. Unfortunately, however, the Belgians and the southern Irish have not decommissioned any of their fleet, and their catch of cod and plaice has gone up, while ours has gone down.

The European Commission must accept that it will only secure support for its proposals if it manages to achieve a balance between stock recovery and vessel viability. Fleetwood fishermen need to earn a living, and whatever the Commission's decision, it must guarantee that. The Fleetwood fishermen have been working closely with other Irish sea communities, and have formed the Pan-Irish Sea Alliance, whose immediate priority is that the biological distinctiveness of the Irish Sea and adjacent fisheries be fully recognised and taken into account by the Commission and Council of Ministers. Many fishermen who target the Irish sea are concerned that proposals that may be appropriate for the North sea or Scottish waters are not appropriate for the Irish sea—we need our own special measures and recognition of what mixed fishery means in the Irish sea.

The objectives of the Pan-Irish Sea Alliance include the need for central involvement of the fishing industry in all management decisions. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, when considering reform of the CFP, to ensure that we get regional management for the fishing industry. PISA also calls for further involvement of fishermen in the collation and interpretation of scientific data of all stocks and setting of management objectives. I repeat the point that many other people have made about the need to listen to fishermen. They have a voice arid it is as important as the voice of the scientists.

Another key objective is building fish stocks to optimum harvesting levels, recognising the natural fluctuations in species' levels. Those alter from year to year, and we should not panic and bring in draconian measures if a species' numbers go down one year, just as we should not allow over-fishing if the stocks go up a little in one year.

In every annual debate I have argued that the voice of the fishermen must be listened to. That is why I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's comments that he is considering much closer working between fishermen and scientists. That will be vital. Such collaboration is set against huge reductions in quota over the past several years. In 1996 the cod quota from area VIIa was 288 tonnes. Next year it will be reduced by 75 per cent. In 1996 the sole quota was 83 tonnes. Next year it will be just 5 tonnes. That is a 94 per cent. reduction. The plaice quota will be down 85 per cent. since 1996 and the whiting quota will be down by 96 per cent.

There is serious concern, especially about the proposals for a substantial reduction in plaice quota. Over the past three or four years of the cod recovery programme, because Fleetwood fishermen could not target cod, they targeted plaice. Now they are being told that they can catch a little more cod, but at the cost of not being able to catch the fish that they have been catching successfully over the past three years. The irony is that Irish sea plaice is being fished within safe biological limits. The advice from the Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management in October was for a roll-over. Why is the advice now a 46 per cent. cut? What has happened between October and now?

Fleetwood fishermen need an answer to that, because without that plaice quota, they will be in serious difficulties. They are concerned that they seem to be taking a disproportionate share of the pain of managing the cod recovery programme. They see Belgian beamers increasing their cod by-catch by a large amount—it went up from 283 tonnes in 2001 to 318 tonnes in 2002. In three months Belgian beamers—I cite them not because I am anti-Belgian, but because it is a blatant example of what is happening—are taking three times as much cod as the Fleetwood fish producers organisation is allowed for a year. That is not seen as fair by the fishermen of Fleetwood.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned, the advice from ICES is that the spawning biomass of cod has tripled. The Irish sea cod recovery programme is working, so why does the European Commission not recognise that Fleetwood fishermen, who contributed to that, should be allowed to earn a livelihood? The Commission seems to be linking the catching of cod with the catching of plaice. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether that link exists. Fleetwood fishermen tell me that when they catch plaice, they are not catching cod. The plaice quota could be increased while protecting the improvement in cod stocks.

Tom Watson of the Fleetwood fish producers organisation is quoted in Fishing News of 5 December as saying: Fleetwood's fishing industry is not dead by a long way. There are people in it who are doing well, but it can't take any more knocks. We will fight tooth and nail to stop a cod ban or any quota cuts. So will I. I am standing up to defend the fishermen of my community, and I urge my hon. Friend to fulfil the promise that he made at the beginning of his address to us that he will defend fishing communities and, if there are cuts that are disproportionate and not justified by science, he will fight against them. I urge him in the strongest terms to do that at the Council of Ministers meeting.

7.4 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

I have been in this House longer than most Members sitting around me today—more than 30 years in the House and 25 years in Europe—and this is a matter of great seriousness; it is not a party political issue. It unites all the people who are associated with and know the needs of the fishing industry and what it faces.

No one would say that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and the hon. Member for North Antrim agree on the big issues in Northern Ireland, but we agree on this. I should like to put it on record that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he graciously hung up all over Northern Ireland a beautiful photograph of me and my son. It is not very often that the opposition puts out photographs of its opposition, and I am grateful, but it did not have the decency to send me a copy. I had to go round and get one when the election was over.

Mr. McGrady

I guarantee to send the hon. Gentleman an autographed photograph.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The photograph was auctioned for my election, and I obtained a massive sum—I will not say how much—but what money a photograph autographed by the hon. Gentleman could bring in. I thank him. I await the day.

The House should remember that when we joined the Common Market, as it was then, we controlled, owned and had sovereignty over a vast stretch of territorial waters. We were told by people who wanted us to join the Common Market that, as the voting was based on a weighted majority, we would always be able to protect our fishermen. But the fishing industry today is only a slight shadow of what it was. This jewel in the crown of industry has been taken away from us hit by bit. Those who control it are interested not in the well-being of fisherman in Britain, but in the well-being of fishermen in their own countries, and, unlike Britain, those countries do not police the regulations against fishermen—and they get away with it.

Our once prosperous fleet is tiny today. In 1993, 213 commercial fishing vessels were registered in the Northern Ireland fishing fleet. By the beginning of 2003, that had been reduced to 136, and with the continuing decommissioning schemes the number has now been reduced to around 110. Since 1999, the average profit, before depreciation, of a Northern Irish-based whitefish trawler has fallen by 76 per cent. to £10,400. The average profit of a nephrop trawler has fallen by 48 per cent. to £15,600. That is a reflection of the imposition of four years of temporary closures in the spring of the year, which have removed the whitefish fleet's main fishing season and led to an increased supply of nephrops undermining the market for all nephrop fishermen.

I speak for the fishermen who have asked me to take part in this debate tonight, and if this plan, or any semblance of it, goes through, it will sound the final death knell of the local fishing fleet, and I am sure that my friend across the way, the hon. Member for South Down, will agree with that, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) who represents the other large part of the fishing industry in South Down. This is a very serious matter.

I was saddened at the start of the debate when the Minister said that he felt that there was something wrong in respect of fishermen and scientists. I sat in a meeting at Brussels—I would like him to remember this—and we argued the matter out. The fishermen said, "All right, you say that the scientists want to hear our side," and they named a boat, appointed a day and gave a schedule so that the scientists could go out in the boat with them, allowing them to show the scientists what they saw when they were at sea. Not one of the scientists turned up. I must ask why. I am glad that the Minister has said that encouragement is being given, as there is a battle between certain scientists and the fishermen, who think that the truth is not being fully told.

The time has come when that obstacle must be overcome. The scientists must see that they can make mistakes and recognise that, while the fishermen are filled with zeal about keeping their fisheries, they are also the friend of the fish. If the fish are destroyed, their activity will be destroyed as well. Let us think of the fishermen. They do not want to put out of existence their own industry.

The Minister will face a difficult situation, as this decision will be taken not on the truth but on politics. Let no one in this House be mistaken about that. For all any of us know tonight, it is probably all fixed, fiddled and finished. If it is fixed, fiddled and finished, it will have dire consequences for our fishing industry and we will see the result in coming days. This is not a matter of being for or against the European Union or of what view we take of the constitution, but a matter of the well-being of our fishing industry. If the European Commission cannot look after our industry, let us look after it ourselves. What is wrong with that? Is there something immoral in a nation looking after its own fishing industry and in a person saying "We gave you the job and you failed; we do not have any waters or territorial claims, we have given everything that we could give and, at the end of the day, we have seen our fishing industry lost to society"?

In Northern Ireland, we cannot afford the loss of one job, let alone of this whole industry, as it feeds a number of fishing villages. In those villages, fishing provides employment. Once we close down the boats, we will close down the village and the future of the men and women, and boys and girls, in that village.

I know a little about Europe and I say to the Minister that I pity him. He faces a hard task. One does not know why a man leaves a meeting and comes in again having had a road to Damascus experience. He will have suddenly changed because something has been offered to him—a pay-off. Our fishermen should not accept a pay-off. They deserve what is right, and I trust that the Minister will succeed in getting what is right for them.

7.14 pm
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab)

Yet again, I have the sense of "Groundhog Day" that I get at this time of year. I hope to keep my remarks brief so that at least one other Opposition Member representing a fishing community might say their piece for that community.

This morning, I was looking at this year's census figures. It staggered me to find out that only 138 people declared themselves as working in the fishing industry in my constituency. Even that number, if we extend it using the conventional multiplier of eight, means that about 1,000 people in my constituency work in the fishing industry. That is still a significant number.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke of the road to Damascus. From the perspective of my constituents, I wish the Minister well on his road to Brussels, and I hope that he tries to achieve the best he can from those negotiations.

As is traditional in this debate, we have already been told that, sadly, people die in the fishing industry every year. I am passionate about health and safety at work; it is a policy area to which I have tried to commit a lot of time, and I hope that the Minister will have the fullest regard to the perils that people in my constituency face when they go to sea. When he is considering subjects such as days at sea, I hope that he will understand the pressures that people going out to sea face as they try to maximise their achievement in reclaiming the harvest that they feel is their own.

The Minister knows only too well that the current chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations in England is one of my constituents, Mr. Arnold Locker, and that one of his close colleagues is Mr. Fred Normandale, the master of the Alliance fishing organisation in Scarborough. He knows those two individuals very well. He talked at some length about his concerns about enforcement and the pressure that the Commission is bringing to bear on the British fishing industry, and I ask him to have due regard to the recent court case in which Mr. Locker, Mr. Normandale and seven other of my constituents faced charges for allegedly breaching the enforcement measures.

As the Minister knows, since the summer I have been trying to have a conversation with him, but, regrettably, for some reason his diary did not permit that conversation to take place. There is a need to bring not only the inspectors but everyone involved in enforcement, especially in the English industry, round the table to think about how they can try to manage that difficult area.

The Minister will know that the case was thrown out, at considerable cost to his Department, because the breach was alleged to have occurred a month before the notice and the regulation took effect. The fact that such a fundamental mistake could be made, wasting much time and money and causing great distress to my constituents, is a disgrace, and I urge the Minister to go back to his Department and try to encourage the more co-operative partnership approach that he described earlier.

Like many of my constituents, I regarded the Prime Minister's intervention earlier this year, and his commissioning of a strategic report on the fishing industry, as quite hopeful. The report is very timely, but there is also major scepticism about it, not least on the part of Mr. Fred Normandale, who was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that it was rather like trying to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. That conveys the sense of beleaguerment felt by many people who face the perils of the sea daily, when they consider the measure about which we hope we will hear conclusions in the near future.

Finally, I shall offer a little glimmer of hope and try to look beyond the difficult times that many people in my constituency and in the rest of the industry now face. In Whitby, there is a small success story. A sea fishing school has about a dozen apprentices learning their craft onshore before they go out to sea. I am pleased that youngsters wanting a career in the fishing industry come to Whitby from all over the UK, with the aim of learning how to ply their trade at sea.

I want my hon. Friend the Minister to take the message from Scarborough and Whitby to the difficult negotiations in Brussels. I want him to have regard for the youngsters who seek a future at sea. I notice that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), is sitting on the Front Bench next to the Minister. She knows only too well the difficulties faced by families who earn their living by going to sea in boats. Those people need skill and craft, but above all they need the hope that they have a sustainable future.

I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his attempts to secure the best outcome for this country.

7.20 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), who favoured us with a cogent and thoughtful analysis of the industry's problems. I endorse in particular his remarks about the problems of enforcement. I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

It bears saying that this debate is not about fish alone, but about people living in communities that depend on fish. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this issue to my constituency. As I did my tour of the outer isles of my constituency this summer, more than 100 people turned up to the Symbister hall in Whalsay to lobby me on the state of the fishing industry.

One of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do was to stand up in the Lerwick mission hall on 19 December last year, six days before Christmas, and face more than 100 skippers and crew members. I had to try to explain the bad, corrupt and downright deceitful deal foisted on them by people in Brussels. It was a vicious deal, and they were its victims. They were staring ruin in the face—that is the human cost of the decisions taken last year. I do not believe for one second that Franz Fischler could have been a party to that deal if he had had to stand where I had to stand on that day. That is why I say that the remoteness of Brussels in respect of fishing cannot be overstated.

We in Shetland have taken our share of the pain. Two years ago, we had a white fish fleet of 27 vessels fishing out of Lerwick, but today we have a fleet of 14. In the intervening period, the Zenith, the Harmony, the Donvale II, the Shannon, the Brighter Dawn, the Neptune, the Fear Not, the Madalia, the Langdale, the Andromeda, the Lomur, the Auriga, the Heatherbelle, and the Sarah Joan have either been decommissioned or sold. They have been lost to our community: 40 per cent. of the vessel capacity units have now been removed from the Shetland white fish fleet.

It is not just about the boats, but about the jobs that go with them. It is not just about the jobs on deck, either, but about the onshore jobs associated with them. I want to impress on the Minister the fact that we have suffered the pain, and are now looking for some of the gain. We are looking for a bit more stability in fisheries management. I want the Minister to accept the message, and to take it to Brussels with him, that there is now opportunity for growth in certain areas.

I turn first to the question of cod stocks. Figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea show that there has been a 59 per cent. increase in those stocks in the past two years. If that increase is repeated this year—and the extent of decommissioning over the past 12 months means that that may be a conservative estimate—it is reasonable to expect that the spawning stock biomass of cod in the North sea will be in the region of 69,000 tonnes next year. The ICES figures show that 70,000 tonnes is the minimum safe biological level. Therefore, the ICES proposal earlier this year for a total closure of cod was completely ill judged. At the same time, recruitment to the cod stocks has stabilised and, more important, the cod mortality fishing rate is now half what it was in 2000. In fact, it is at its lowest since 1979.

With a little imagination, there is an opportunity to explore the way in which spatial management might be used to decouple cod stocks from those of haddock. I have already made the point to the Minister about the opportunities that are provided by annexe V and the proposal to allow 22 days at sea for those boats that are able to take less than 5 per cent. of their catch from cod, However, that will be of little benefit to anyone if it excludes boats that, in previous years, have a track record of taking more than 5 per cent. That is one fight that must be winnable for our white fish fleet, and it would make a remarkable difference to the situation in which it finds itself.

I share the irritation of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) about the impression that, in some way or another, the North sea has been denuded of fish. I met an academic this morning who, at the end of our time together, told me that a fish van visited his village. He said that he liked to buy haddock from that van, but he was a bit concerned that buying haddock would affect the cod stocks. He knew that the level of cod stocks was critical. I told him that he was probably buying imported haddock so we perhaps should not go into that matter. However, I explained that if he was eating mature haddock, he would probably improve the recruitment to cod, so that his continuing to eat haddock might, in fact, do the cod a favour. If he really wants to help the stock of cod or that of any other species in the North sea, the one thing that he might do is stop eating Danish bacon. That is the ultimate destination of the sand eels and immature by-catch that industrial fishermen remove from the North sea.

As I have said to the Minister before, surely any proper application of the precautionary principle would mean that, instead of saying that the case that industrial fishing is damaging had not been proved, that point should be taken as self-evident. The burden of proof should be on the industrial fishermen to show that they are not damaging fish stocks by taking the amount that they do from the food chain.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan also mentioned monkfish. I emphasise the importance of monkfish to the fishermen in my constituency. My understanding is much the same as his. I believe that the stock levels that are prepared by ICES are made on the basis of landings and that there are no trawling data available specifically for monkfish. That is possibly because monkfish are inevitably a by-catch from other species; there is no targeted fishing of monkfish. Let us consider the figures. There was a 31 per cent. increase in the spawning stock biomass of monkfish this year, and there has been a 50 per cent. reduction in their fishing mortality over the past three years. The increased flexibility that the industry seeks for monkfish is crucial to the continued survival of a very fragile white fish fleet.

Sadly, nothing has been said about the pelagic sector, which is also of great importance to my constituency. It is healthy at present, but we must recognise that, like every other fishery sector, it will always remain vulnerable to bureaucratic micro-management from the centre. As others have said, we have an abundance of herring, but I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) to what is said in the briefing supplied by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. In relation to pelagic stocks and herring? it says: The proposed increase of 11 per cent.…in the southern component is less prudent. That is a very responsible attitude for the federation to take.

We have also seen a slight downturn in the numbers of mackerel, but I hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns in the pelagic sector that an 8 per cent. reduction in the mackerel TAC is excessive and unnecessary. It is an over-reaction.

At this time of year, we always wish the Minister well. Indeed, we could not wish him anything other. He has a massive task ahead of him. I very much hope that he is equal to it, because the survival of fishing communities in my constituency, as in so many other places in this country, depends on his success.

7.29 pm
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

It gives me pleasure to respond to the debate. The Opposition attach importance to the industry in Scotland, so it is a matter of some regret that the Secretary of State for Scotland has not managed to find time in his diary to be with us today, not least in view of the effect on the economy of the disaster affecting the fishing industry, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) demonstrated, represents in excess of £780 million. Scotland will judge the Secretary of State's absence.

In the short time available, I must point to the incredible situation in which not one Back-Bench contribution gave unqualified support for the common fisheries policy. It has been a striking attribute of the debate that not one person free of the Government's whipping stood up to defend that which is doubtless indefensible. Indeed, only the Government are out of step with public opinion in the communities and opinion in the House.

The hon. Memberfor Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly said that the debate is not about numbers or ships; it is about communities, people, families and family businesses. Yesterday and the day before, I was in Pittenweem, Peterhead and Fraserburgh. I learned there of the devastation of the industry. In Fraserburgh, 600 jobs have gone since 1997 and people cannot look with certainty towards a fishing industry course at the local college next year. That scale of devastation in the industry is truly one that we cannot contemplate, and I am pleased to reassure hon. Members that the Opposition will not countenance it for much longer. I was presented with a photograph that amply demonstrates the cost to the British taxpayer of tearing up Scottish fishing vessels, which we learn are being built elsewhere with that same UK taxpayers' money.

For the avoidance of doubt, the CFP has been an environmental, ecological, social, commercial and economic disaster that Her Majesty's Opposition will not tolerate for any longer than is necessary. The communities in Scotland and the UK as a whole that are affected will want to hear explicit confirmation of our plans. We will shortly commence work with industry representatives on our strategy for managing our fish resources once we return to national control. However, we must not equivocate. One of the first priorities for the next Conservative Government will be negotiating the return of national control of our fishing.

We do not underestimate the price that our fishing communities have paid, and unlike the Government and the Minister, we are not complacent about the price that will still be paid between now and the general election. Shortly after it, the political will required to remove us from the disaster of a CFP will be provided by Her Majesty's official Opposition when we return to government. The communities affected will not be disappointed by the priority that we give to this matter. For too long—for 30 years too long—our communities have paid a high price. They will not pay that price for much longer.

7.33 pm
Mr. Bradshaw

It may he helpful to tell hon. Members—it may save their knee joints—that I am not going to take any interventions as I have only three or four minutes in which to speak. I think I was pretty generous in taking interventions during my opening remarks.

We have had a wide-ranging and mainly constructive debate that understandably concentrated on those parts of the fishing industry that are under pressure and highlighted concerns in advance of next week's all-important annual Fisheries Council. Before turning to those concerns, let me thank those Members in the Chamber who reminded the House that the fishing industry is more than the commercial white fish fleet.

My hon. Friendthe Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) rightly emphasised the importance of recreational fishing, which is worth £3 billion to the UK economy every year. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) emphasised the importance of the fish processing industry, which is doing well in many parts of the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) stressed the health of the nephrops stocks off the west coast of Scotland. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), who leads on fisheries for the Liberal Democrats, reminded the House that the crab and lobster fisheries in the south-west of England are thriving. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona Mclsaac) spoke about the healthy state of the pelagic stocks, and, finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) made an important speech about the importance of safety in the fisheries industry. I associate myself entirely with his remarks about the sacrifice that fishermen make in a dangerous profession. He also rightly pointed to the importance of the forthcoming publication in the new year of the Prime Minister's strategy unit report on fisheries. I remind the House that this is the first time for 30 years that any Government of any political colour have had a proper long-term strategic look at the future of the fishing industry.

Let me turn to the matters that are at the forefront of most right hon. and hon. Members' minds: the forthcoming Council and the particular stocks that are under pressure. I am happy to give an assurance that I have listened to and will take into account the points made by individual Members in the debate this afternoon who admirably represented their own local industry interests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles asked about nephrops and a zonal approach off the west of Scotland. The special position of the Irish sea was highlighted by the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I reassure them that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), does an excellent job of representing Northern Ireland interests. I meet him regularly, just as I work closely with my colleague Ross Finnie and the Scottish Executive. We work in parallel, representing United Kingdom interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made a case on behalf of her fishermen in Fleetwood. Scottish and North sea Members want, as I do, to see maximum decoupling between cod and other species whose stocks are healthy.

Those were all sensible and constructive suggestions about how to fight for the best possible deal for our-fishing industry. We want to fight for fishing opportunities while ensuring that the stocks under threat are allowed to recover. Several hon. Members advocated a constructive working relationship with our EU partners and securing a better deal through a genuinely reformed common fisheries policy. I associate myself absolutely with the comments of the hon. Member for St. Ives about making faster progress with regional advisory councils.

Conservative Front Benchers are deluding themselves—and, I am afraid, the House—if they believe that all the problems of the UK fishing industry can be solved by a unilateral repatriation of fishing rights to the UK and a unilateral withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. Even if that were possible without leaving the EU as a whole—and anyone who knows anything about the matter knows that it is not— it would leave an isolated UK having to renegotiate with the whole of the rest of the European Union and the other nations to which they referred in the debate from a position of weakness and isolation. The idea that they could get a better deal for this country under those circumstances is, I am afraid, a cruel deception on the UK fishing industry.

I welcome the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) to his new position, but— It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Order [8 December].

Shona Mclsaac

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you explain why the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) was given 13 minutes to contribute to the debate? As far as I am aware, she does not represent a fishing community. I am such a representative, yet I was not called in the debate, so the voice of the fishing industry in Grimsby and Cleethorpes was not heard. What are the rules on time and constituency interest?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member For Congleton (Ann Winterton) was allotted the standard time allowed in debates. As to the other point mentioned by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona Mclsaac), the fact that Mr. Speaker imposed a time limit on the debate demonstrated his wish to try to get as many Members as possible to contribute to it.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to point out that many hon. Members did not have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, even though there is a crisis in the fishing industry. I ask those who organise Government affairs to take that into account for future debates.

Madam Deputy Speaker

We cannot go back to the debate now, but the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) has put his remarks on the record.

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