HC Deb 08 January 2004 vol 416 cc388-91
4. Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh & Berwickshire) (LD)

If she will make a statement on the outcome of last month's EU Fisheries Council and its consequences for the North sea fleet. [146371]

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

If she will make a statement on the recent European Fisheries Council. [146374]

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

As I have already said, the outcome was a good one for the UK. We agreed a long-term recovery plan for cod, the stock levels of which remain worryingly low, and we managed to maximise opportunities to catch those species that are plentiful, such as haddock and prawns.

Sir Archy Kirkwood

I particularly welcome the increase in the nephrops quota; it has certainly thrown a lifeline to the local boats that fish for prawns in my constituency. However, if the Commission is now persuaded of the important concepts of decoupling and spatial management, surely it should also accept that micro-management from Brussels does not make sense in the long term and is counterproductive for effective fishery management. If, as is rumoured in the press, the Downing street strategy unit will, in the next few weeks, come up with a recommendation radically and dramatically to improve the regional management powers available to committees in this country, will DEFRA Ministers, and the hon. Gentleman in particular, support such a concept?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, of course. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's constructive response to the outcome of the December Council, in stark contrast to that of the spokesman for the Scottish nationalists. It was a good deal and, as the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) said, we managed to persuade the Commission to accept the idea of spatial management—a concept that came from the Scottish industry. We also managed to persuade the Commission to accept the concept of decoupling. I hope that we can build on that, and I hope that when the strategy unit reports, we will be able to make faster progress towards regional management of our fishing industry.

Mr. Carmichael

Does the Minister share the concern of fishermen in my constituency that an unintended consequence of the deal that was struck in Brussels is that they will be forced out of the haddock grounds where they have always caught the biggest, best and most mature haddock, as those grounds are now in the restricted zones, so they will be forced inshore, where younger, smaller fish are found? Does he agree that that is not in the interests of either fish conservationists or fishermen, and what can he do between now and the finalisation of the regulation to ensure that it does not happen?

Mr. Bradshaw

I am happy to look at the technical matters raised by the hon. Gentleman. He may not be aware that the Commission's original map on spatial management around his constituency would have created severe difficulties, because it included inshore waters, meaning that the result would have been much worse. In return for the massive increase of 55 per cent. that we achieved in the haddock quota, we rightly took on board some of the industry's suggestions about spatial management, so that people will be able to catch that extra quota in geographical areas where there is not a lot of cod. The only way we could persuade the Commission to increase the haddock quota was to assure it that that would not mean catching a lot more cod.

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

I welcome the visit that the Minister will shortly make to my constituency, and I congratulate him on the fact that the cuts in the plaice quota for the Irish sea are not as drastic as feared. However, when he visits my constituency to talk to Fleetwood fishermen, will he take on board their serious concerns about cuts in the quota for plaice, a stock that is within safe biological limits, and of which they want to catch more to remain viable?

Mr. Bradshaw

I look forward very much indeed to visiting my hon. Friend's constituency on Monday. I welcome her remarks on the fact that we managed to avoid a much more substantial cut in the plaice quota. She may not understand the so-called Hague preference—I do not want to go into detail about it now, but I will discuss it with her and the industry on Monday during my visit. I should like to point out that there were massive increases in the Irish sea quota for haddock, which was trebled. I hope that that will help to mitigate the cuts in the plaice quota that my hon. Friend's local industry is worried about.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

When will Her Majesty's Government realise that the European Union's common fisheries policy has been an unmitigated disaster for the North sea fishing fleet and fishing communities throughout the United Kingdom? Instead of making these pathetic pilgrimages to Brussels to be told what to do by the European Fisheries Council, the Minister should visit Norway and Iceland, proud, independent maritime nations that manage their own fish stocks admirably.

Mr. Bradshaw

I think it is fallacious to try to compare the United Kingdom fishery, a mixed fishery in close proximity to other EU nations, with Norway, Iceland or the Faroes, as many Opposition Members constantly do. We are, however, always keen to learn from the way in which other countries manage their fishing industries. Indeed, over the past 12 months, the Prime Minister's strategy unit has taken a close look at that, and has visited and spoken to those countries and their industries to see whether there are any lessons that we can learn.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

There are serious concerns among people involved in the catching sector, as was articulated by my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), and I accept that those fishermen feel that they need extra financial assistance. However, what assessment has the Minister made of the industry's land-based operations in the processing and selling sectors following his discussions in Europe and his recent visit with me to the Grimsby fish auction?

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the UK fishing industry is more than just a catching industry. We have a highly successful fish processing industry, including operations in her constituency, which is going from strength to strength, creating wealth and providing employment. Many other sectors of the fishing industry are also forgotten, such as recreational angling, which, according to latest estimates, contributes about £3 million to the economy every year.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con)

The Minister attached great importance to fishermen's comments when he described the outcome of the council meeting. However, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations said that he was "bitterly disappointed" at that outcome. Alex Smith of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, whom the Minister cited, said that his "worst fears" had been realised and declared: We were sold down the river". The secretary of the Mallaig and North West Fishermen's Association said: If Ben Bradshaw thinks this is a 'negotiating triumph' he must be plain barking mad". Is it not the case that the outcome will perpetuate a policy that has failed to conserve fish stocks, that encourages the dumping of dead fish back in the sea, and that is slowly but surely destroying the British fishing industry?

Mr. Bradshaw

No. It is amazing that the spokesman for the official Opposition cannot recognise a good deal when it leaps up and bites him in the face. I am happy to carry on exchanging quotes from the industry, with whose members I had regular contacts all the way through the Council. They privately told me to my face that this was the best deal they had achieved for years, or ever under the Conservative Government. The president of the national federation, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, Mr. Sam Lambourn, said it was "a positive result".

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

The Commission having accepted in principle the spatial management approach of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, it is clear from the debates that took place in the Council that there will be additional enforcement measures. What progress has my hon. Friend made in that respect? Can he give us some details about how he intends to approach the matter?

Mr. Bradshaw

We are taking extra enforcement measures all the time. My hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that if we are to continue to convince the Commission and other European Union countries that we can continue to catch at the present rate, given the science, the system must be properly enforced. As he may be aware, we are under threat of infraction proceedings from the European Commission because of our enforcement. We are looking carefully at what more we can do. One measure is the introduction of satellite monitoring equipment, which will be tamper-proof, in all over-15m vessels. At the request of the industry, we have agreed to fund that fully, rather than expecting the industry to fund it.