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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): That may all be true, but the current rules of the House allow only one and a half hours for the next debate. Those are the rules under which the House operates.

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Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning)

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): I must inform the House that Madam Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on all Back Benchers' speeches for the duration of this debate.

5.56 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry): I beg to move,

I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak in this debate, and I shall try to keep my comments as brief as possible. I hope that hon. Members will show some forbearance with interventions as I expect to cover most concerns in what I shall say.

I suspect that it will be helpful to the House if I put this order in context with what the European Commission said last week about decommissioning. Last Wednesday, the European Commissioner with responsibility for fisheries, Mrs. Bonino, held a press conference--of which we were given no notice--to outline her proposals for the next round of decommissioning, which is intended to take the European Community from now until the year 2002.

It is difficult for me to help the House in any detail on those proposals as they have not yet been tabled by the Commission, but judging from the reports of the press conference, the impact of Mrs. Bonino's proposals, if adopted, would be cuts of up to 40 per cent. in parts of the United Kingdom fishing fleet. That is wholly unacceptable.

Mrs. Bonino went on to describe the UK fishing industry as being among the "bad boys" in Europe for not having met existing decommissioning targets. Such a description is somewhat galling for the UK fishing industry, particularly as Mrs. Bonino described countries such as Spain as being among the good guys. What she failed to connect, of course, was the ability of Spanish fishing interest to move into the UK fleet. It is easier for Spain to meet her decommissioning targets when a significant number of Spanish-skippered, Spanish-owned and Spanish-crewed vessels are masquerading as UK boats and catching fish against the UK national quota. That is a crazy situation which cannot be allowed to continue. The European Commission cannot be surprised that the UK fishing industry is not and will not be prepared to contemplate any further substantial reductions in the UK fishing fleet until the Commission tackles and deals with the whole issue of quota hoppers.

When Mrs. Bonino was in the UK recently, she gave the impression that there might be some simple way within the existing rules which, if only the UK Government were to take it, would enable us to eliminate quota hoppers within a short time. No one is keener than I am to see the quota hoppers dealt with without delay and for UK fish to be available for UK fishermen. I therefore immediately instructed officials to explore in detail with Commission officials what it was that Mrs. Bonino was suggesting that we might do to tackle quota hoppers.

I am bound to tell the House that, on further detailed investigation, it became clear that there was no immediate solution that the Commission could offer. I am sorry that

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responsible newspapers such as The Independent, presumably on the basis of Commission briefing, have suggested that there is such a remedy available. There is not, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that we shall be seeking to deal with the whole problem of quota hoppers at the intergovernmental conference.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Baldry: I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow).

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): Given the nonsense coming out of Brussels and especially that uttered by Mrs. Bonino, given the nonsense of the common fisheries policy and especially the discard policy, and given that the Government are raising the issue of quota hoppers at the IGC, may I suggest that we go one stage further and seek a fundamental renegotiation of the common fisheries policy, not least so that we could control our own waters, no doubt with the same pattern--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate is about decommissioning only.

Mr. Baldry: We should at all times show leadership in the European Union and in the fundamental reforms of the common fisheries policy that we seek.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Baldry: I must make progress; this is only a short debate.

The straightforward fact is that upwards of 150 UK-registered vessels are now owned, or part owned, by foreign interests, mainly from Spain and the Netherlands. They represent some 20 per cent. of our offshore fleet and take a significant proportion of UK quotas of fish such as hake, plaice, megrim, sole and monkfish. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue. The Commission and the European Community must take action to deal with quota hoppers.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) rose--

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough) rose--

Mr. Baldry: I give way first to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) .

Mr. Tyler: Does the Minister recall that the issue of decommissioning and quota hopping was mentioned when I brought a delegation to see him on 27 November? He told us that it was not possible to deal with the matter in the context of the IGC. Will he consider specifically quota-hopping flag boats which have not, as I understand it, been involved in the decommissioning scheme at all, except for perhaps one boat? If the scheme continues as it is, 50 per cent. of certain species, notably hake and plaice, could be taken from our quota by quota-hopping, flag of convenience foreign boats.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is a very short debate. Many hon. Members have put their names down to speak, but the hon. Gentleman was not one of them. Long interventions are not helpful.

Mr. Baldry: Let me make it absolutely clear that, as I have just said, at the IGC we intend to deal fully with the issue of quota hoppers. The Community has to take action to deal with quota hoppers. The current crazy situation cannot continue.

I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough, but I think that this must be the last intervention that I accept.

Mr. Sykes: I represent Scarborough and Whitby. Is the Minister aware of the tidal wave of anger and frustration that has swept my constituency over the question of decommissioning? Is it not time that this country decided for itself what constitutes its own waters? Should not Britannia show Mrs. Bonino the way and declare a 200-mile limit around our shores?

Mr. Baldry: I regularly meet representatives of the fishing industry. I met representatives of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation the day before yesterday, and I am glad that they very much support the line that I am taking. I work very closely with the UK fishing industry. Indeed, I see my role as doing what is in its best interests. If there is to be fishing in the European Union against national quotas, it makes sense that the quotas benefit the fishing communities of individual nations rather than the vessels of other European Union member states which rarely, if ever, visit the countries concerned--let alone bring any economic benefit--but simply catch their fish against those countries' fishing quotas.

We have told the IGC, the Commission and other member states that we shall be tabling changes to the treaty which should enable individual member states to adopt appropriate measures to ensure that their fishing communities and related industries are able to benefit fully from the national quotas allocated under Community fishing policy.

There will be an initial discussion, but no decision, on the Commission's latest proposals on fleet structure and fishing effort at the Fisheries Council in Luxembourg next week. In any event, the full proposals have not yet been issued. I shall be making it clear that, until real and substantial progress is made on tackling quota hoppers, the Commission cannot be surprised that we shall not be ready to agree how to reduce further the UK fishing fleet. I shall, however, be making a number of other points.

I do not want there to be any scintilla of a suggestion that, when progress is made on quota hoppers, we shall simply accept any restructuring or decommissioning targets that the Commission wishes to set--far from it. First, the Commission's proposals for the next round are apparently based on a report by scientists known as the Lassen report, which makes recommendations as to where fishing effort should be reduced in Community waters but, bizarrely, makes no recommendation for reducing industrial fishing. It appears that the proposals, which currently look as though they might reduce UK fishing effort by up to 40 per cent., would have absolutely no impact on industrial fishing--a form of fishing which is

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carried out on a huge scale and has implications for much of the marine ecosystem. It is very difficult to agree fisheries conservation measures which seek to cut pretty well every other aspect of the fishing fleet if they leave industrial fishing untouched. It is quite bizarre.

We are all aware, and the UK fishing industry recognises, that fishing is a hunting activity and that it is important that there are sustainable levels of fish left in the sea. As the recent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology made clear, the world's fish stocks are in a state of crisis. That report concluded by saying:

if we are to prevent a repeat of episodes like the collapse of the Grand Bank stocks. Indeed, the scientists tell us that almost 60 per cent. of the main stocks in the waters that we fish have now been reduced to a level where there is a real risk of biological collapse. Even allowing for all the uncertainties and variables which characterise fisheries management, the stark warning in such messages is clear.

With improved technology, modern vessels are simply more efficient machines for killing fish, and fishing effort has to be matched to what the stocks will bear. Clearly there is a need to reduce fish mortality, but the Commission's proposals on decommissioning simply translate killing capacity into tonnage. Fishing vessels vary enormously, however, and it is again somewhat strange to believe that 1 tonne of an older fishing trawler has the same killing capacity as 1 tonne of a modern, large, well-equipped fishing vessel, with radar and other technology which is able with a good degree of accuracy to target, catch and kill large quantities of fish.

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