HC Deb 20 March 2001 vol 365 cc48-55WH

1 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

May I preface my remarks by placing on the record my sincere thanks to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for his unfailing courtesy during all of our debates during this Parliament? He and I have never agreed on fisheries policy, but nevertheless, I appreciate the manner in which he has responded to my frequent speeches on the subject. This will be probably my last opportunity to say that, because I am standing down at the next election.

I am sad to have to point out the error of Ministers' ways once again. I am sure that they are wrong not out of ignorance but out of an adherence to a profoundly mistaken and dangerous ideology. Fishing policy is determined by the political imperative of European integration; of that I have no doubt. The objective is to create an EU fishing fleet catching EU fish in EU waters under an EU permit system controlled by Brussels. That is the price that the British fishing industry must pay as its contribution towards the realisation of European political union, and nothing, not even the conservation of fish stocks, must be allowed to stand in the way of achieving the nirvana—nirvana being defined as the state of perfect bliss attained by the extinction of individuality. In the context of the fishing industry, we are talking about the extinction not of individuality but of fish stocks.

In previous fisheries debates, I have covered many other aspects of the [...]niquitous common fisheries policy, but today I want to concentrate exclusively on the question of feedstocks: the sand eel—which for the benefit of the Minister in another place I should point out lives on the bottom of the sea, not on the surface—the pout and the sprat. I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will follow me if I refer to those species as being at the base of the pyramid of life. At the top of the pyramid are the bigger fish species, such as cod and haddock, which are sought after for human consumption. The bigger fish are dependent on smaller fish for their food. It follows, therefore, that if the stocks of smaller fish are drastically reduced by the continuation of industrial fishing, cod, haddock and the like will starve. That is a self-evident fact, but what does the European Community do?

As I pointed out in a debate this time last year: the sand eel total allowable catch was increased from 1 million tonnes to 1,020,000 tonnes."—[0fficial Report, Westminster Hall, 9 February 2000; Vol. 344, c 80WH] During this year's round of quota setting, far from reducing the sand eel total allowable catch, the Council of Ministers agreed to set it at the same level. When there is real concern about the future viability of cod stocks, it is more than a little ironic that the hoovering up of feedstocks continues apace. It is a further irony that whole sea areas have been closed to cod fishing, but not to fishing for industrial purposes—in other words, fishing for feedstock continues, as if Ministers and their advisers were totally ignorant of the dependence of the larger species on the smaller ones that are regularly removed from the sea for land-based purposes, including feeding pigs and poultry. If quotas for sand eels and pout had been reduced to match matched reductions in the total allowable catches for cod, for example, they would now be at about 250,000 tonnes for sand eels instead of 1 million tonnes, and 30,000 tonnes for pout instead of 200,000 tonnes.

Ministers know those facts as well as I do, but what action do they take? They ignore the facts of life—the dependency of cod and other species on the availability of adequate feedstocks—and blame the shortage of mature fish on the idea that too many vessels are chasing too few fish. What a travesty of the truth. It is a sad reflection on Ministers of the Crown that they are prepared to be party to that monstrous and wicked deception. That is especially true of this Fisheries Minister, who professes such a commitment to animal welfare. When he answers on the day of judgment, as will we all in time, the saving of the lives of a few foxes or a handful of badgers will look small beer compared to the mass destruction of the marine resource over which he has presided.

For the past four years, the Minister has been responsible for implementing policies whose result has been that as many fish are thrown back dead into the sea as are landed. His policies are systematically destroying the basis of the marine pyramid of life. The same Minister has acquiesced in the abandonment of the minimum landing size for no fewer than 11 species. They are now legally caught before they have had the chance to spawn even once. He has at long last agreed technical measures but, perversely, they have been implemented in such a cack-handed way as to defeat the object of the exercise.

The pyramid of life has been t turned upside down. However charitable one might want to be to the Minister, there is no denying that this totally unacceptable and irresponsible state of affairs has been brought about by the conscious and deliberate action of Ministers, aided and abetted by others who should also know better. For example, I find it extraordinary that Professor Tony Hawkins, senior administrator of Fisheries Research Services at Aberdeen, should have stated last December that growth rates always tend to slow down when a big year class is recruited. If the current abundance of young haddock are not growing, that is not because of a big recruitment, but because the feedstock are being plundered. That plunder is the result of a deliberate political decision.

An increase in fish population requires an increase in food sources. The exemption of industrial fishing for sand eels and the like ensures that the opposite occurs. I must keep stressing the point to the Minister: it occurs because of a deliberate political decision taken in the Council of Ministers.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Paul Brady, the head of the Scottish fisheries group, stated that in the opinion of some of his scientists a cull of young haddock would not necessarily be a bad thing. That point of view is clearly not shared by the fishermen, who, in an unprecedented display of solidarity, kept their vessels in harbour in protest rather than go to sea to catch tonnes of immature haddock only to have to throw them back dead into the sea. The Minister will have seen that recent editions of Fishing News demonstrate the strength of feeling among fishermen on that issue.

Fishermen are often accused of irresponsibility towards the fish stocks on which their livelihoods depend. However, the events of the past fortnight demonstrate, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are very responsible, and are conscious of the effects of treating the fish stocks in an unsatisfactory way. That is why they are keeping their vessels in harbour rather than going into the fishing grounds that they are being driven into by the closure of certain areas of cod fishing.

Last week, when I asked the Minister in a question for written answer: what assessment he has made of the impact upon haddock stocks resulting from the closure of North Sea cod areas he repliedGiven the prevalence of juvenile haddock in the northern North Sea urgent consideration is being given to improve technical conservation measures."—[Official Report, 12 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 483W.] The answer to practically every fisheries problem is to talk about conservation, yet almost invariably, the action taken is to the detriment of conservation. The Minister repeated the mantra of sound conservation in his article in The Western Morning News of 12 March.

Conservation is simply the smokecreen behind which ruthless and ever more desperate measures are taken to ensure that by 1 January 2003, the real common fisheries policy—of equal access to the common resource—can be fully implemented. In pursuit of that political objective, not only are the fishermen expendable—that has been known for 30 years or more—but now the very fish themselves must be sacrificed on the high altar of European integration.

However, despite all the obstacles that have been put in their way, such has been the resilience of British fishermen that in the eyes of the EC there are still too many of them. Fanciful as this may seem, the decimation of their stock in trade is now the official policy by which the British fishermen are to be brought to heel.

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

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gill

The Minister shakes his head, but that is what the debate is all about, and that is the point that I have consistently put to him throughout this Parliament. On occasions, of course, he has said that I have been consistently wrong. I take the other view. I think that I have been consistently right, and that events have proved me so.

However, I understand that the Minister is bound by the collective responsibility of his Government—to deliver European integration. They will not let a few thousand fishermen stand in the way of that. The fishermen have, in effect, to be driven off the waters to make way for other fishermen from other EU countries as from the end of next year, when the real CFP begins.

One Scottish fisherman recently remarked: "If only you'd listened to Tom Hay 10 years ago, we wouldn't be in this situation today.However, we are in this situation, and in response to the Minister's challenge, published on 12 March in The Western Morning News, I will again tell the House what the alternative is. It is for the control of fisheries policy to be repatriated. There is no alternative to that, because it is a fact of life, human nature being what it is, that something that belongs to everybody belongs to nobody. If nobody has the sense of ownership of a thing, it is not treated in the responsible way in which our fish stocks need to be treated. Unfortunately, that does not suit the political aspirations of a Labour Government. least of all one so wholeheartedly in favour of European integration, as evidenced by their recent surrender of 39 out of 45 vetoes at the Nice summit.

My friends in the fishing industry and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the House surely recognise that the collectivisation of the British fishing industry is inimical both to their commercial interests and to their political instincts. Telling the fisherman what he may catch, where he may catch it and in what quantities, where he may land—and, with smaller ports, when he may land—is as close to communism as one can get. That the ultimate collectivisation of the fishing industry should lead to the destruction of the fish stocks is wicked beyond belief. If the Minister had a grain of conscience, he would resign rather than be party to a regime that professes conservation yet permits mesh sizes of less than 16 mm. To speak of too many vessels chasing too few fish, to speak of the need to conserve fish stocks, to say that fish know no boundaries, yet at the same time to protect the seal and allow industrial fishermen to hoover up the fish on which our stocks depend, is indefensible. All that is for the sake of a political ideology that is bound to fail in western Europe as surely as it failed in the former USSR.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on obtaining this debate. I am pleased that he did so, because it gives me the opportunity to deal with some aspects of industrial fishing, particularly those raised in a recent newspaper article by Mr. Christopher Booker, which was full of half truths and did not address the real problem.

The hon. Gentleman said some kind words about me—before starting the assassination job—and I shall miss him when he goes. Although he does not represent a fishing constituency, no one can doubt his sincere interest in fishing matters. Although some of his hon. Friends initially showed an interest in fishing, they soon disappeared from the scene, but the hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his attendance at fishery debates and his involvement in the arguments. I respect him for that even, though, as he stated, I do not agree with him.

The common fisheries policy is not without its faults. No one pretends otherwise. The Commission's Green Paper gives us a good opportunity to address some of those weaknesses and to try to improve matters. The CFP is not a great conspiracy designed to allow an integrated Europe in through the back door. The fishing policy is a European Union measure, but it allows a great element of national discretion. Its overwhelming priority is conservation. We can, of course, argue about how it should be applied, but the hon. Gentleman fails to recognise some basic facts.

The argument that the CFP is all about sweeping the seas clear of British fishermen to make way for other European fleets is nonsense. We have our national quota, which is now fixed on the principle of relative stability. I do not say, as the hon. Gentleman tries to claim I do, that this is a question of too many boats catching too few fish. He and others in the fishing industry point to convenient scapegoats such as industrial fishing, or seals, and say that they are responsible for the decline in fish stocks, but that is not supported by scientific evidence. During the past 10 years, the UK fleet has been reduced by about 30 per cent., but at the same time, landings have increased as a result of greater effort improved technology and better design. That is what is affecting fish stocks. The reason for the dramatic decline in fish stocks is pure and simple. It is over-fishing.

Mr. Gill

I remind the Parliamentary Secretary of the answer that he gave me a month ago in response to a written question. He pointed out that the total amount of cod and haddock landed had drastically fallen during our 30-year membership of the European Union. Catches of haddock of 176,000 tonnes in 1971 had been reduced to approximately 75,000 tonnes last year. That is a dramatic redaction in landings and a sad commentary on the efficacy of the common fisheries policy.

Mr. Morley

It is certainly true that there has been such a decline in cod and haddock stocks. Of course, fishermen have switched to catching other species and other fisheries have developed. That is all part of the new challenge for fisheries management. However, it is wrong to suggest that that is all the fault of the common fisheries policy. The hon. Gentleman could argue that the common fisheries policy had dealt inadequately with management issues, and I believe that such an argument can be made. However, on the subject of discards, I have thrown down the challenge many times by inquiring about the alternatives. I am keen to pursue alternatives because there is a problem with discards. It is not a new problem; it has been around for a long time. The bulk of discards—undersized and unmarketable fish—are a by-product of normal fishing. We should not lose sight of that fact.

No one has defined national control, except as withdrawing completely from the CFP, tearing up the treaty of Rome and withdrawing from the European Union. Some people argue, as is their democratic right, that we should do that—but they should argue from that viewpoint rather than trying to pretend that we can make fundamental changes to the treaty without those consequences. Even if we had complete national control, there would still be a need to control effort on fish stocks and to set a biological limit on what fishermen may catch and land. It would still be necessary to decide how to divide fish stocks within the industry.

Every other fishing state, including those outside the CFP, has a quota management regime. Every fishing state has the problem of discards. Some approach the problem in a different way, such as requiring vessels to land all discards. Indeed, I do not rule out that approach, although it has its problems. First, such a requirement is difficult to enforce. Secondly, landing all discards does not solve the problem, because we should be reducing the amount of fish discarded. Those are serious issues, which we intend to address. On minimum landing sizes—something that we have argued about before—there is a logic in what the Commission is saying. If fishermen are not prepared to increase mesh sizes, a great many fish will be killed. In that respect, there is a brutal logic in lowering the minimum landing size, although that is not the approach that we support in the United Kingdom, or the approach that I supported in the Council of Ministers, because it sends the wrong signals to the fishing industry. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I argued successfully for increasing the minimum landing size of plaice—a change that was supported by other member states, and which has now been established.

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that I have never supported industrial fishing. In fact, I have consistently argued against it. I have argued that human consumption of fish should always take precedence over industrial fisheries for non-human use. This is the first Government to have made progress in tackling the issue of industrial fishing. For example, I secured agreement at the Council of Ministers to a three-year total closure of the sand eel fisheries off the north-east coast of Britain, in the light of scientific advice that sand eel fishing was damaging the rate at which small seabirds, such as kittiwakes, were able to reproduce. In the case of kittiwakes, we can measure breeding success. In relation to that three-year closure, we are applying scientific principles and discussing with the Danes the impact on the ecosystem of catching sand eels for industrial fishing. That is a great step forward, and as achieved with the co-operation of the Danes, which I very much appreciate.

Mr. Gill

Surely the Minister recognises that if we were to repatriate control over our own fisheries, we would be able to determine the ground rules—for example, those relating to industrial fishing. At the moment, as he knows, he must go back to Brussels to consult the Council of Ministers, and it is always jam tomorrow. It is not possible to continue on that basis, because there is great danger of losing the feedstocks. If that happens, the mature fish will be lost. We do not need a scientific inquiry. We just need to talk to the trawler deck hands who gut the fish and find in their stomachs ever fewer of the sand eels on which the mature fish depend.

Mr. Morley

I shall come to those points in a moment, but that argument is flawed. The hon. Gentleman is right. If we had absolute national control we could, theoretically, ban industrial fishing in our waters—although I should point out that we have a small industrial fishery of our own. However, if industrial fishing is producing the dire consequences that the hon. Gentleman describes, and given that we could control only half the North sea-at the approach to the English Channel that amounts to a very small proportion of the sea—and as the industrial fishing would presumably continue unabated, or perhaps even more intensively, just over the boundary line, it is nonsense to pretend that there would be no effect on our stocks or our fishery.

An advantage of an EU-wide fisheries policy is that the United Kingdom is making progress with arguments for restrictions on industrial fishing across all EU waters and the entire EU fleet. At the previous Council, I reached agreement with the Danes on beginning official talks to establish whether the total allowable catch that the hon. Gentleman mentioned for sand eels was too high—as I think it is—and to consider what would be a more appropriate level. Those talks are getting under way. It is also agreed that UK scientists and discard experts should, at the invitation of the Danish Government, sail on Danish industrial vessels to see at I first hand the landing and by-catch sampling arrangements. Those visits have been agreed and will happen between now and June. No one else has managed to obtain such an agreement. Our scientists will be on board Danish vessels, working with Danish scientists, to study the issue of by-catch, to see what the fishery is taking and to consider its impact.

Our scientific advice on the sand eel fishery is that the by-catch is less than 2 per cent. of cod. We can examine that advice. There are disputes about it. I have spoken to our own skippers who say that a clean sand eel fishery is possible. Things are not the same with respect to the Norwegian pout fishery, which has a much higher level of by-catch. It is for that reason that it is not allowed in the closed areas. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that, according to our scientists, sand eels make up only a small part of the cod's diet—about 4 per cent. A scientific paper on that is due to be published shortly.

Mr. Gill

The Minister spoke about further talks and inquiries. What happened to the inquiry that was set up in 1996? Where is its result? We do not want to have to repeat inquiries endlessly. We want results.

Mr. Morley

I am not familiar with the 1996 inquiry, because I was not a Minister at the time and we were not in government. However, I do not think that any attempt has previously been made to deal with the matter in the depth that we are going into, or with the co-operation of the Danes. To be fair to them, if it is possible to demonstrate scientifically that there is a problem with the fishery in question, we shall take that seriously and approach the matter accordingly. We are working with the Danes to identify the relevant issues. We did not receive much support from other member states in doing that. It is the UK and the Danes who are proceeding with joint studies, because we take the issue seriously.

As for the haddock fishery in Scotland, there are ways of reducing haddock juvenile by-catch. We have already had quite a long debate about that in Westminster Hall. The Scottish Executive are introducing a range of amended technical measures, on matters such as reducing net extensions, the positioning of square mesh panels and the banning of lifting bags. The industry is also considering other matters, such as twine thickness.

I pay tribute to the industry's efforts to engage seriously with the issue. We are working with the industry, which has been involved to an unprecedented degree in decision making. However, I should comment on that part of the industry that was recently sitting in ports, involved in a campaign for tie-up grants that amounted to telling us, to put it crudely, "Give us the money, or the haddock get it." We need a more sophisticated approach to fisheries management. A common EU approach is the way forward. The UK has influence on this issue, and people listen to us. We are pursuing the matter for the future, in a way that will benefit fisheries conservation.

Mr. Gill

The Minister knows that the industry has suggested all sorts of technical improvements in the past, yet the situation remains as he described.

Mr. Morley

A long process must be delivered, and that is what we intend to do.

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair)

Order. We must now move on to the next debate.