Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): First, why is there a fish shortage? It is largely because of overfishing. Secondly, when cod goes, it does not always come back. What occurred off the coasts of Canada and Iceland shows that, once cod is overfished, it disappears for ever.

Mrs. Humble: In a way, that intervention makes my point for me. The Irish sea has been overfished for a long time, but that is not all; it is now being fished by vessels that were not working in the area 50 or 100 years ago. Giant beamers are scooping up everything from the sea bed, after which nothing is left. That is why I shall go on to speak about technical measures such as horsepower limitation.

I noted with interest the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) about the inshore fleet in Fleetwood. When last year's closures were announced, I spoke to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who agreed to meet a delegation representing the Fleetwood fishing industry. We raised several issues with him, including the effect on the inshore fleet of tying

25 Jan 2001 : Column 1136

up vessels. I also raised with him the matter of compensation, as I have since done in correspondence. I understand that none of the nations involved in the Irish sea cod recovery programme paid compensation to their vessels.

This afternoon, however, we heard the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire refuse to say whether a Conservative Government would pay compensation. That is not what some people in my constituency are saying, so I shall take that message back to them. When my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary received the Fleetwood delegation, he listened to its concerns and introduced changes to the Irish sea programme. I am very pleased that the eastern Irish sea has remained open in this year's programme and that Fleetwood's vessels have not been tied up.

One issue remains to be clarified: the scientific advice on which the Irish sea programme is based. As my hon. Friend said, he agreed to put scientists on some of the vessels to examine the effect of their activity on cod and some of the other stocks. He will know that there is a dispute between my local fishermen and scientists about some of the scientific data and about the impact on cod of the beamers' efforts in catching plaice and sole. My local fishermen certainly believe that sole and cod are being adversely affected by some of the fishing practices of the powerful beam trawlers from Belgium and the Netherlands. Such trawlers may catch female sole before they have reached breeding maturity, and also have a significant cod by-catch, which includes juvenile and breeding cod and so affects the fish stocks' ability to recover. I fully support the Fleetwood fish forum's proposal to increase mesh sizes above the current 80 mm level, as well as its request for more scientific trials to establish the impact on remaining stocks of fishing by the beamers.

As I understand it, last year's trial occurred in April. I am told that the cod had by that time been dispersed in the Irish sea. The main cod season in the area seems to be February and March. If that is the case, it is vital for an independent and properly supervised trial to occur at that time in order to assess the impact on cod and other stocks of plaice and sole beam trawling.

The fishing community is now much more willing to listen to scientific advice. In the past, the fishermen have often relied on their anecdotal accounts of where the fish are, where they are spawning and how many of them there are. Scientists have provided other accounts of fish stock levels, and the industry is now more willing to accept a scientific analysis of the basis of fish supply. It is important for us to continue to reassure fishermen in respect of the scientific advice on the basis of which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and his European Community colleagues make their decisions. I hope that he will consider conducting a trial that is seen to be independent and to be dealing the cod at the time when, according to fishermen, they are present.

The adverse impact of the closure on my fishing community prompts me to urge my hon. Friend to consider mesh sizes and horsepower reduction as more effective conservation measures. When my hon. Friend came to Fleetwood, we discussed with him the possibility of a horsepower restriction on a box inside the 12-mile limit. That would benefit the inshore fleet and be a good start in conveying the message to fishermen that such

25 Jan 2001 : Column 1137

measures need to be examined. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to consider the matter further and offer some reassurances.

Other hon. Members have referred to financing the fishing industry. Like them, I have read the WWF report that was published last year. It makes some interesting points, as does the more recent Select Committee report. We need to consider financial support not only for fishermen but for the onshore industry, which needs to examine modernising port infrastructure. Many facilities in the port in Fleetwood were designed for a time when we had a large distant-water fleet. That fleet no longer exists, and we need to consider the port infrastructure. However, the funding is not available to help us to do that. European Union structural funds are available through the financial instrument for fisheries guidance, but it is difficult to find the necessary matching funding to access it.

Paragraph 94 of the Select Committee report states that no further support should

That is all right for member states that have already accessed funds and modernised, but our vessels in Fleetwood are 25 to 30 years old. They need modernisation and support to enable them to compete when the recovery plan makes fish available for them to catch. I understand the problems of scrap-and-build, and of replacing low horsepower vessels with more powerful ones. I have already argued that I do not support the concept of having much more powerful vessels in the Irish sea. However, I urge the Minister to consider the sort of help that can be given to the ageing British fleet. My constituents believe that they are at a disadvantage when compared with other European countries. They would like to compete on a level playing field.

Paragraph 93 of the Select Committee report states:

How? The equity in many vessels that fish from Fleetwood has reduced as quotas and catches have reduced. Those vessels are no longer a viable proposition. Fishermen cannot go to a bank manager and say, "Please give me money", when that manager has seen from television reports that the fish are not there to catch. Where will those fishermen go? We must consider the efforts that we can make in the short and medium term to support our industry so that it can compete and fish for the stocks that we are trying to protect for the future.

Despite all the difficulties, there is still optimism in Fleetwood. People continue to work together; they want to do that, and they offer positive solutions. They do not throw up their hands in horror and say, "Oh dear, we're all going out of business. We won't accept scientific advice or new technical measures, and we won't work together." The opposite is true. They want to work together, consider technical measures and what they can do to help the industry to succeed. Hon. Members should encourage them to do that.

Last year's WWF report mentioned financial help. My hon. Friend the Minister said that MAFF has no money. I shall back his attempts to get money from any other source because that is important.

25 Jan 2001 : Column 1138

I shall sum up, because other hon. Members want to speak in this important debate. Total allowable catches and quotas do not protect breeding and spawning grounds; they do not help to redress the imbalance--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has run out of time.

4.15 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The Minister will not be surprised and is doubtless pleased to hear that I did not agree with all his comments. However, he began by rightly drawing attention to the fishermen who died this year. We always have such an exchange, and it is no empty or idle formula. Those of us who know something about the fishing industry appreciate that it is a desperately dangerous way of earning a living in this day and age. The Minister was right to draw attention to that at the outset.

It is inevitable in such debates that we consider the past and the future. We have heard many references to the history of the matters that we are discussing. That is necessary, because we can begin to work out our policy for the future only by understanding the past. Any fisherman who passed through London and decided to come to the House today to listen to the debate would ask two questions. First, he would ask, "How did we ever get into this position?" Secondly, he would ask, "What is to be done about it?"

My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) referred to an article in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 January by Christopher Booker. My right hon. Friend took strong exception to it, and I can understand his view. The same argument has been used by authors other than Mr. Booker, and my right hon. Friend has a remedy in law, if he wishes to take it. However, parts of the article should be considered because it did not consist only of argument. The implications of two quotations should be considered.

Mr. Booker used the 30-year rule to find several documents that are available to everyone. He discovered that Ministers and officials used an ominous phrase to describe what they were about to do to the British fishing industry. On attempting to defend it, they said that it was not worth wasting "limited negotiating capital" on it. If the implications of that are not sufficiently severe, the article quoted a memo from the Scottish Office on 9 November 1970. It stated:

the fishermen--

I am grateful to Mr. Booker, but it does not take access under the 30-year rule to reach that conclusion.

On the morning of 13 December 1971, the late Geoffrey Rippon gave away control of our national waters. In the afternoon, he made a statement to the House of Commons to say that he had achieved the opposite. The exchanges in Hansard are worth reading. After Geoffrey Rippon's opening address, which set out his great triumph in protecting British sovereignty, he was quizzed by several Labour and Conservative Members. The most searing comment was made by Lord Healey, who said:

25 Jan 2001 : Column 1139

Lord Healey said that within minutes of the announcement about the common fisheries policy.

In the same year, a White Paper was circulated to every house in the country. I was younger and more innocent then, and had not appreciated the role that irony plays in such matters. The White Paper stated:

No question at all--we had just lost it. I understand the way my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup feels about the brief but turbulent period of his premiership all those years ago. However, his judgment on those times is not universally shared in the House or the country. Many believe that the historical record shows that some people thought, perhaps entirely genuinely, that their actions were worth taking. Many years after he left the House, Geoffrey Rippon was asked why he did not explain in the afternoon what he had done in the morning. He said that it was because he would never have got it through the House of Commons. There were then, and there still are today, those who find "Ode to Joy" a more comfortable tune to march to than "Land of Hope and Glory". That may be difficult for a Conservative to say, but it is also necessary.

One of the things that Mr. Booker said--the Minister has said it too, and the Liberals will always say this sort of thing, because a tendency to do so will always out--was that the Tories were not entitled to criticise what has gone on in the past, and that they should not be allowed to do so because of the historical record. It is necessary, sometimes, for political parties to admit that they got it wrong. Until the Conservative party was able to admit that it had got the common fisheries policy wrong, it was in no position to make constructive proposals about how to rectify the matter. That is why it was necessary for the Conservative party to come to terms with what was done all those years ago in 1971.

It might seem that what was done in 1971 could exonerate the Labour party. In addition to the comments that I read out from Lord Healey, others were made on the issue by Lord Shore--Peter Shore, as he then was. Judged at that time, one might say that the Labour party was in a position to criticise. However, it has now adopted the same agenda. In saying that the common fisheries policy not only constitutes the problem but contains the seeds of a solution, it is adopting the big lie that was perpetrated all those years ago. We are therefore entitled--latterly--to brand the Labour party with that.

The Labour party now argues that the CFP in its present form has within it, in some peculiar way, the seeds of redemption for the fishing industry. It does not. The common fisheries policy is based on the proposition of discard, and the proposition that millions of fish may be thrown back into the sea, dead, every year. In 1998 alone, an estimated 45 million saithe were thrown back. That was not a mistake or a misapplication of the common fisheries policy, but specifically because of it.

Other abominations happen within the common fisheries policy. The House often discusses under-age fish being caught under the terms of the CFP. People who do

25 Jan 2001 : Column 1140

not know the history of the policy believe that we should be able to introduce technical measures to deal with that. However, the reason that certain species of fish are caught under-age is because it is written into the CFP arrangements that that can be done. The Spaniards like eating under-sized fish.

The rape of the fishing grounds by industrial fishing has not happened by accident. It is all about the common fisheries policy. It is the inevitable consequence when a country that owned four fifths of the waters of what is now the European Union gives them away under equal access provisions, and receives in return two fifths by volume, or one sixth by value. That is what we get when countries with no interest in fishing--indeed, they need not even have a coastline--are entitled to invoke the principle of equal access. That is the business that we are in.

The one date that the Minister did not dare to mention was 2003. I can well understand that, because many people think that we are dealing with the full effects of the common fisheries policy now, as bad as it is. However, that is not the case. Those of us who have examined this issue know that we are operating under exceptions to the CFP, and the consequences of that will come home to roost in 2003. If that happens, there will be total equal access to our waters. I do not know what shabby deal the Minister has already struck to ensure that he will not have to admit to the House that such total equal access is in place. However, the price demanded will be very high.

If we examine the history of this matter, the reasons behind it, and the agenda of setting up a Greater Europe, and consider what has happened to our fisheries since then, we cannot say that the common fisheries policy can possibly come to the aid of our fishermen. There is only one solution to this problem, which the Conservative party has, to its credit, finally grasped. That is the concept of national control.

The Minister and his royal satraps, the Liberal Democrats, may chortle away about some Conservative MEP. I do not know how these things are done in the Labour party--nothing at all is done in the Liberal party--[Interruption.] I will say this to the Minister, because I would rather deal with the organ grinder. It is not MEPs who establish party policy in the Conservative party. That is done by the leadership of the party. I understand why Ministers scratch around trying to attack a policy that they know is the right one, resulting in their coming up with the names of obscure Conservative MEPs. However, if that is the best that the Minister can do, it is not good enough.

Next Section

IndexHome Page