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7.10 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): In view of the advice that you gave the House a moment or two ago, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall resist the temptation to argue with the contentious remarks made by the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) about my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and, presumably, about myself and my other hon. Friends.

What we achieved by showing a particular interest in the fishing industry was to put that industry firmly on the political agenda where it had not been before. Had the hon. Gentleman been in the House at the beginning of the previous Parliament, he would have seen that there was a relatively low attendance at fishing debates, but, by the end of the Parliament, many right hon. and hon. Members showed a tremendously increased interest in fishing. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the action of the so-called rebels which put the fishing industry on the political agenda.

I agree with the hon. Member for Waveney about conservation. So much is said to justify the common fisheries policy in terms of what it does to conserve fish stocks, but, as the Minister will know, I have serious concerns about the proposals to reduce the minimum landing size of fish. I know that the fishing industry shares those concerns because fishermen are responsible people who want to look after the long-term interests of their industry. I believe that the British public would share those concerns if those aspects of the common fisheries policy, to which I shall refer in a moment, were more widely known.

It is a complete mystery to me why, when there are so many animal welfare lobbies showing interest in wildlife and animals, no public attention has been drawn to the fact that we are wasting a huge amount of resources by discarding perfectly saleable fish dead into the sea. The proposals that we are considering contain measures to reduce the minimum landing size of fish. That means that, quite legally, fishermen will be catching fish that will not have had an opportunity to breed; that is absolutely appalling.

I know that the Minister is constrained by the fact that we have to get agreement in Europe to any change. The hon. Member for Waveney should recognise that. The Minister talked about clamping down on black fish. That will lead to greater tonnages of discard and will add to the total loss of fish. It seems extraordinary that the fishing industry culls the young stock whereas in the case of animals, stock that have come to their end of their useful life, are old and have lost value are culled.

The Minister will not be surprised when I say that I wish to pursue the arguments raised in the fisheries debates on 9 and 23 July for, as he has conceded, I am nothing if not consistent. He might also recognise another trait--that of persistence. I should like him to know that I intend to persist in my endeavours to establish the truth. Indeed, if successive Ministers had told the truth over the past 25 years, it is questionable whether we would be in our current position.

The reason why the truth about fisheries is a truth that dare not speak its name is that had the British people been told the truth, they would never have voted to remain in the EEC in 1975. Had they been told that, as from 1 January 2003, fishing vessels of all member states of the EU would be able to fish right up to our beaches--or

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technically speaking, the base line--that there would be no such thing as a British fishing fleet, and that all the fish in the seas around the British Isles would belong to the EU, there would have been uproar.

For 25 years, the House and the people of Britain--not least the fishermen--have been fed a diet of half-truths, deceptions and downright lies. Article 38 of the treaty of Rome spoke only of a common market in agriculture and fisheries products, but, almost by sleight of hand, subsequent treaties have ensured that fisheries are now part of the acquis communautaire.

Which Minister drew the attention of the House to the clause in the Maastricht treaty which joined fisheries to agriculture and which Minister flagged up the inclusion of the EU fisheries permit system in the treaties of accession for Austria, Finland and Sweden? If the basic fisheries regulation continues indefinitely, as Ministers claim, why did they feel it necessary to include a permit system as a treaty obligation, given that article 4--which sets out the permit system--is already part of the basic regulation?

It is now clear that there will be no reform of the CFP. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) is paying attention. It was confirmed by Mr. John Farnell, director of Directorates-General XIV in his address to the Greenwich Forum on 16 October. In his reply to me in the House on 12 November, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that the Government now accept that reform is out of the question. All that will happen on that front, as the Minister himself admitted on 23 July, is that

It is committed not to a reform, but simply to a report. That is in accordance with article 14.2 of the basic regulation 3760/92/EEC which states:

    "the Commission must produce a report on Community fisheries by the end of 2002, dealing in particular with the economic and social situation of coastal regions, the state of the fisheries resources and their expected development, and the implementation of the basic Regulation."

So there we have it--the implementation of the basic regulation.

That is not what the Labour party was saying prior to the general election. Its election manifesto said:

Nor is it what Labour MEPs are saying. They have voted by an overwhelming majority to approve the Carmen Fraga Estevez report which states, among other things, that

    "the decisions adopted by the Council throughout the 1970s on the creation of a common fisheries policy asserted the principle of freedom of access to Community fishing grounds."

Secondly, it states that

    "in the absence of a decision by the Council, the principle of equal access will apply automatically as from 1 January 2003 . . . if a fresh derogation is considered necessary, it will have to comply with Article 235 of the Treaty which requires unanimity within the Council."

Thirdly, the report states quite correctly that

    "exemptions from the general principle will be repealed automatically as from the year 2002, when the current fisheries policy expires unless otherwise decided (in which case unanimity is required within the Council)."

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    For the benefit of the hon. Members for St. Ives and for Waveney, those are the facts, the realities and the constraints within which our Ministers have to operate. More to the point, the Carmen Fraga Estevez reports continues:

    "as we have repeatedly stressed throughout this introduction, the current common fisheries policy in fact constitutes a derogation from the principle of freedom of access, and this derogation will expire in 2002."

Will the Minister recognise that what I am saying, what the Commission is saying, what the Carmen Fraga Estevez report is saying, what his own Members of the European Parliament are saying and what Save Britain's Fish has been saying for a long time is the truth? Personally, quite apart from the fact that it seems improbable that all those people have reached the wrong conclusion, I have no argument with what they are saying. However, I take exception to the craven refusal of successive British Governments to tell the truth.

For example, the new Labour Government, although at last conceding that article 6 of regulation 3760/92 is a derogation, apparently refuse to accept that the regulation is itself a derogation. By dint of its being a derogation, it will not continue beyond 2002 without further agreement. Will the Minister tell the House whether he can produce any documentary evidence that regulation 3760/92 will continue beyond 2002? In the absence of such evidence, it is a matter of fact that the regulation, including article 6, will have to be renegotiated. The question then is what the British Government will give in exchange for Spain's acquiesence. I invite the Minister to assure the House that the bargaining counter will not be the rock of Gibraltar.

The Government deny that, post-2002, we shallhave, in effect, a single European fishing fleet, catching European fish in European waters. They do not understand that, as a result of the Maastricht treaty and the treaties of accession, the principle of equal access without discrimination is enshrined in Community law. It is not negotiable. Prior to those treaties, one could have argued that the CFP was open to renegotiation because its basis was in regulation. Now that it is firmly established as part of the acquis, that option no longer exists.

Which of the fisheries Front-Bench spokesmen participating in this debate will be the first to look British fishermen in the eye and admit the mistakes of the past? Will it be the fisheries Minister himself or will it be my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)? It may be of some assistance to them in determining their answer to bear in mind the old saying, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time". I accept that politicians do not like admitting mistakes and least of all having to apologise, but I assure the House that, on this issue, where a vital national interest is at stake, they will be hounded until they do.

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