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25 Jan 2001 : Column 1094


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Touhig.]

1.22 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is traditional to open the annual fisheries debate by reflecting on the dangers faced by our fishermen at sea. I am afraid to say that last year was particularly bad for accidents that involved fishing vessels. Some 39 vessels were lost and provisional figures show that 33 fishermen lost their lives in 2000. Those are very bad figures, and I am sure that the House will join me in extending our deep sympathy to the relatives and friends of all those who have been lost. Safety is clearly an important issue, and I intend to say a few words about the Government's response to it.

Hon. Members will know that it is customary to hold the fisheries debate before the December Council, which decides the total allowable catches and quotas for the following year. They will also know that it was not possible to hold the annual debate in December last year for two reasons: first, because the Commission was delayed in producing the proposals; and, secondly, because of the timing of prorogation. The Scrutiny Committee had to react in record time to clear the Commission's proposal, and I appreciate its efficiency.

I am glad that a full debate took place in Standing Committee in December. It provided an opportunity to focus on TACs and quotas for 2001. The Committee expressed interest in holding the traditional annual debate early in the new year, to cover a full range of issues. I made it clear that I recognised that the annual fisheries debate is important to hon. Members who represent fisheries constituencies, as well as those with a more general interest in the subject. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has arranged a full day's debate, which follows on from a two and a half hour debate in Committee. Fisheries issues have been well served by this year's arrangements. Given the serious issues that the fishing industry faces, that is right and proper.

Hon. Members will want to focus on TACs and quotas, but we also have an opportunity to review other developments in fisheries policy over the past year, particularly the serious status of depleted fish stocks, especially cod, and our measures to deal with that. It is also important to look ahead and see where our fisheries policy is going.

Hon. Members will know that cod stocks are in a bad shape this year. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that we are at the bottom of the cod cycle and the temperature of the North sea is rising. The principal reason, however, for the decline in fish stocks is

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overfishing. We cannot ignore that fact or the fact that there have been constant improvements in catching efficiency and, indeed, in the management of stocks.

In the past, there was a reluctance to take tough decisions. On the issue of poor enforcement, the European Commission is taking action against the United Kingdom for the over-fishing that took place between 1985 and 1988, and from 1990 to 1996. Indeed, only two of the 11 years in that period were managed to quota by this country. We have to take account of such issues, along with the serious problem of black fish landings before 1997. I am sorry to say that the United Kingdom faces reference to the European Court of Justice because of the failure to keep to quotas in those years. However, it is unfair that this Administration, who have not exceeded our quotas since 1997, should have to face the criticisms in the court. We shall, of course, defend our position robustly.

As usual, we faced a very tight timetable. Commission proposals for TACs and quotas for 2001 were issued late and the December Council was held a week earlier than usual. That created extra pressure to react to the very stringent package of proposals. The poor state of many of the main stocks and the scale of the quota cuts recommended meant that we had to consider even more carefully than usual how to react. Indeed, I set up several special meetings with the industry to talk through the proposals and to listen to its views.

I recognise that the process of setting TACs and quotas for all EU stocks at the December Council each year is not ideal. The late delivery of the Commission's proposal makes it hard for national Parliaments to scrutinise them as they should, and this year was no better than previous years. The process also causes enormous uncertainty for the industry, particularly when steep cuts in TACs and quotas are being decided. I have great sympathy for the industry in these unsatisfactory circumstances, which occur year after year. We must find a better way of doing things, and we are raising that point with the Commission.

One possibility is to set TACs and quotas under a multi-annual management strategy for each stock. That already applies to most of the stocks that the EU jointly manages with Norway. The Commission has produced a paper setting out how that might be achieved and outlining the preparations that would be needed. Further discussions on this option will take place this year under the Swedish presidency and the UK will be at the forefront of seeking improvements to the system.

Last year, we pressed the Commission to urge the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea--ICES--to accelerate its advice. Earlier receipt of advice would make a major contribution towards avoiding the present end-year logjam, and we shall continue to urge ICES to take that step. Although it was not able to respond last year, this year it hopes to finalise its advice two or three months earlier. I am sure that that will be welcomed by the fishing industry, which will have time to consider the advice in detail.

Last year, the industry faced the harshest scientific advice and cuts in quotas ever. This year, the situation was yet more difficult. First, the ICES advice was the most severe ever, recommending stringent cuts in TACs for a large number of stocks. In a number of cases, it recommended setting TACs as low as possible--for example, for cod in the North sea, Irish sea and west of Scotland and for Irish sea whiting and northern hake.

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Secondly, the Commission went beyond the scientific advice, proposing even more stringent cuts than those recommended by ICES for stocks that are caught with cod and hake. For nephrops and flatfish, it recommended a 20 per cent. cut in fishing. Such a cut was not recommended by ICES.

The UK has always followed a science-based policy and has taken positive action to preserve stocks when necessary--for example, putting in place last year's Irish sea cod recovery programme. We continue to take scientific advice seriously, but we are not willing to go beyond it as the Commission tried to do in its proposals. I made it very clear to the industry that we would follow the scientific advice even when that meant making difficult decisions. It is hard to justify going beyond such advice, even if it is linked to a mixed-stock industry. We raised that point in the Council.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): The Minister mentioned the Irish sea cod recovery programme. If area 7 in the Irish sector is to be closed, should there not be a concurrent closure of area 6 in the west of Scotland around the Firth of Clyde? If that area is not closed, boats will presumably come from elsewhere to fish there.

Mr. Morley: I accept the hon. Lady's point. Displacement is an issue if areas are closed. As she will appreciate, it is a year-on-year recovery programme. Therefore, we consider the details each year, and we can adapt or change them. We also consult the industry and consider the consequences of our actions. I shall certainly take that point into account when we start to look at year 3 of the recovery programme.

I recognise that the Commission's justification for going further than the scientific advice was to protect cod when it is taken as a by-catch in many fisheries. Cod stocks in the North sea and the west of Scotland are at risk of collapse, as hon. Members are well aware. Hake stocks are also in a poor state. Many other stocks are now also assessed as being either outside safe biological limits or fished at excessively high levels.

Taking measures to enable cod stocks to recover is a key priority, but that should be done through carefully targeted measures to reduce fishing effort, protect spawning cod and juveniles and improve the selectivity of fishing gear. Those are all proposals that the industry itself strongly supports.

Although tough decisions had to be taken and negotiations were difficult and protracted, the outcome of the Fisheries Council was balanced. It is true that the cuts in TACs and quotas will hit the industry hard, particularly after the cuts that were applied last year. We cannot ignore the science, but where there was scope for pulling something back, we did so.

The UK successfully argued that the proposed cuts in some cases went beyond the science, and we achieved smaller cuts than the Commission had proposed, while still respecting the scientific advice, particularly for flatfish and nephrops.

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