HC Deb 04 June 2003 vol 406 cc177-9 1.39 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that the Fishery Limits Act 1976 shall have effect regardless of the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972; that Part II of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 shall have effect as though it had not been repealed by the Merchant Shipping (Registration etc) Act 1993; to confer upon the Secretary of State powers to license fishing vessels to fish within United Kingdom waters; to exclude vessels of specified nations or specified vessels from fishing United Kingdom waters; to negotiate common policies with other countries to preserve fish stocks; to invalidate any provisions of the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Community; and for connected purposes. This is a simple, sensible, even innocuous measure to provide that the European Communities Act 1972, which made European Union law superior to British law, shall not apply to the Fishery Limits Act 1976, by which Britain followed the worldwide trend that had been pioneered by Iceland, which placed fishery limits at 200 miles; in our case, the limits were at the median line. However, we were not able to benefit to the same extent as everyone else because European Union members were exempted from the Fishery Limits Act.

The world took that step to ensure proper conservation, to build stocks and to develop domestic fishing industries. The national waters of most of the world's fishing nations experienced benefits. After a certain amount of trial and error—there were errors in Canada with cod—nations placing 200-mile fishing limits were able to control foreign access, to rebuild or to replace stocks that were over-fished, to develop fishing sustainably and to build and to develop domestic fishing industries.

For all those purposes, control of national waters is surely essential. It is only the nation state that has an interest in building and handing on a flourishing, sustainable fishing industry with sustainable stocks for future generations of its fishermen. Alone among the great fishing nations, Britain was not able to do that because, in 1972, the then Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, in his desperate rush to get into what was then called the common market, accepted a common fisheries policy of equal access to a common resource. That policy was of doubtful legality. It was cobbled together just before the start of negotiations with Britain and Norway, two major fishing nations, deliberately to get access to our stocks. The policy kept Norway out then and has kept Norway out since.

We have attempted to live with the common fisheries policy for 30 years. We have attempted for 30 years to modify the policy, especially in the direction of greater national management powers. No one has attempted that more energetically than the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), but we failed.

The common fisheries policy itself has failed. Indeed, it was bound to fail because it is not a conservation policy. It is essentially a political policy to dole out shares of fish to European nations. Most of the fish—70 per cent. at least—that are being doled out are in British waters. Therefore, it has led inevitably to over- fishing; to illegality—any policy that means that fishermen are on the verge of bankruptcy drives them into illegality to survive; to deep damage to stocks, particularly cod, 'which in certain areas is near extinction, to a shrinking United Kingdom fleet; and to a damaging crisis where sacrifices have been required of this country. Industrial fishing, which has a massive by-catch of immature and edible species, goes on. Spanish vessels are admitted to our waters. They may be restricted in what they can catch but there are inevitably by-catches—fish we want to conserve.

My Bill gives powers to Government to say, as the industry is saying, "Enough is enough." They will decide when it is appropriate to use it. I do not conceal the fact that it will take will to use it, but it is about time that national will was exercised for the benefit of the fishing industry instead of fishing being continuously sacrificed to other purposes, whether it is the common agricultural policy, the rebate or whatever.

The Bill gives the Government power to stop over-fishing and, when they care to invoke and to use it, to control our waters. It gives them power to come to agreement with other fishing nations such as Iceland for reciprocal swap arrangements and for exchange of catches: our catches in their waters, their catches in ours. It allows anything like that to happen on a reciprocal basis.

The Bill gives the United Kingdom power to rebuild what have been described as the world's most perfect—they were certainly once among the world's best—fishing waters. It gives Her Majesty's Government power to keep out not only Spanish vessels but that long queue of other nations, the new entrants, many of which have big fishing fleets, which will inherit from membership the right of equal access to a common resource—again, I emphasise, our resource.

The Bill gives Ministers power to stop proposals that are currently in the draft European Union constitution to give the European Union exclusive competence—I think the only exclusive competence in the constitution; it is difficult to see why competence over fishing is in a constitution—over the marine products of the sea, whatever those may be, which could take that competence up to the beaches by eliminating the six and 12-mile limits. Just as important, the Bill gives Ministers a new weapon in those endless common fisheries policy negotiations, in which we always start at a disadvantage because we have the richest fishing grounds and everyone else wants sustained rights to those fishing grounds.

The Under-Secretary—it is marvellous to see him here today—is a big man. He has a big mission and he has a big problem, which is to save Britain's fish. I hope that, when the House tumultuously passes my humble Bill into law, my Bill will give him the one thing he needs to add to those characteristics: the big stick that he deserves.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Austin Mitchell, David Burnside, John Cryer, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Kelvin Hopkins, Lawrie Quinn, Mr. Alex Salmond, Sir Teddy Taylor, Ann Winterton and Mrs. Iris Robinson.