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6.6 pm

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I feel doubly fortunate in being able to speak in the debate. For one thing, I was absent--in a Committee--for most of it, and I apologise for that. My other piece of good fortune results from the fact that Conservatives have taken so little interest in the debate that there is time for others to speak, even this late in the day.

Mr. Steen: I wonder what the hon. Gentleman means by that. The Conservatives have used every slot that they were given; I am the last to speak. That is because the Scots occupied most of the debate, allowing no room for the Conservatives. That is why they are not here.

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that it is inappropriate to criticise Members who are not present.

Mr. Steen: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I mentioned the Scots, which includes everyone from Scotland. They cannot all be here.

Mr. Foster: I agree. I merely thought it important for my constituents to know how great an interest the Conservatives took in the debate. Certainly, when I popped in now and again there were virtually no Conservatives present. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman at least is here to hold the fort on behalf of his once great party.

I wish to speak briefly on behalf of the small boat fishing communities. I am thinking especially, of course, of Hastings and Rye, which has an inshore fishing fleet of about 70 small boats measuring less than 10 m--but about 1,000 jobs depend on that fleet, which works against all the odds. The Hastings fleet is still the largest beach-launched fleet in Europe. It is a tough job pulling those boats into the sea, but for centuries people have done it because they want to, and because it is their tradition. As for Rye, it has a tidal harbour providing a small window of opportunity, allowing the fleet to go out and come back once a day. Life is not easy for those inshore fishermen, but they do what they do because it is their tradition and, above all, their living.

There has been comment about my hon. Friend the Minister, but I pay tribute to him. He has devoted enormous attention to what is perhaps just a small corner of Britain. Certainly, Hastings and Rye has benefited from his intervention on a number of occasions. As was said at the outset, he has made efforts to ensure that above-size boats do not steal my constituents' quota. In Rye, his recent announcement of support for a £1.6 million fishing quay has further demonstrated that he and the Government are keen to act for the benefit of an industry which, although not significant in general terms, is significant to us despite constituting a minority within a minority in terms of numbers. On behalf of my constituents, I welcome the Government's support, which contrasts so markedly with the Conservative wailings which, over many years, achieved nothing at all.

It is important however to distinguish between the concerns of small inshore fleets such as that of Hastings and Rye and those of the rest of the industry. There are common concerns of course, which have been mentioned at length, but small inshore fishermen are a special case. As a minority within a minority, they have need of friends. Owing to the nature of their small under-10m craft, they are non-nomadic, which means that they have to catch their fish within 20 miles of port.

Hastings fish market, which is perhaps a good barometer of events over the past few years, says that in 1999 its fishermen unfortunately had the lowest catch on record. Last year was even worse. Increased fuel costs have caused the fishermen problems, but that has nothing to do with the Government--although those from another party have suggested otherwise, quite wrongly. The fuel cost problems, added to the collapse in landings, mean that the fishermen have real difficulties that need to be addressed.

A former Member for Hastings and Rye said that the constituency had only 1,000 fishermen, but there are now even fewer. However, the importance of fishermen to the

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Cinque port towns of Hastings and Rye cannot be measured by the number of people directly engaged in the industry. If it were not for the fishing village in the old town of Hastings, the net shops would fall into disrepair. I invite hon. Members to visit Hastings; it is wonderful to see the net shops in the old town, which has so delighted visitors over many years. I hope that it will do so for many years to come.

The fishing industry is the reason why the tourist industry is so vibrant. Likewise in Rye: if not for fishing, why would the harbour stay open? Furthermore, if it were not for fishing, pleasure craft would not be able to take advantage of the harbour. In both towns, the fishing industry and the fishing fleets are central to the prosperity of the tourist trade and their survival is important beyond the industry itself. Fishing is an integral part of the fragile economy of Hastings and Rye. The Government have done a great deal to regenerate areas such as Hastings and Rye, so it is all the more important that we do not lose such an important industry.

Let me make it clear that the fishermen of Hastings and Rye are true conservationists. The have fished the channel since time immemorial and know what they can take and what they should leave. The greed of the industrial sector has effectively stolen my constituents' birthrights. Be that as it may, they accept the need for total allowable catch and quota reductions, as long as they are fair and effective and as long as provision is made for their survival in the medium term. They are supported in that by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

This country's fishing industry has never looked for subsidy, and much has already been said about that. However, I believe that it is looking for investment, as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) said. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister could impress on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the fact that if just a little more cash could be made available, and if that investment were capital investment, the golden rule would not be broken. Making money available would represent investing in the true capital of our nation, because that is what the fishing industry is.

Perhaps the time has come for a manifesto for the inshore sector, as represented by my constituents in Hastings and Rye and fishermen elsewhere in the community. In recent weeks, I have been particularly encouraged by the decision of Paul Joy and his colleagues in the Hastings and Rye Fishermen's Protection Society to join other inshore interests, from Denmark and elsewhere in the Community, to seek common cause with similarly affected groups.

In December, a meeting was held in Denmark--it is nice to think that the fishing industry is prepared to look Europewide for solutions--and a 17-point plan drawn up. Although I do not have time to go through those points in detail, three specific demands were made: for larger mesh sizes, which have been discussed; for a significant reduction in industrial fishing; and for small boats to be included in any decommissioning scheme that may be introduced. With regard to mesh sizes, local fishermen tell me that they already use 100 mm nets rather than the permitted 90 mm. Despite their plight, they acknowledge

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the importance of that size, and there is a need for action in the CFP to incorporate that most important aid to conservation.

Secondly, the hoovering activities of the industrial sector in the central North sea are ambushing the cod that would otherwise reach the channel, including the juvenile fish that would be tomorrow's catch. These powerful industrial fishing interests must be curbed.

Thirdly, if decommissioning does have a part to play in effort reduction, the small boat sector should be included. Hundreds of licences are sold on, often to new entrants to the market or to entrants who in the past may have been decommissioned from another sector. The past failure to include small boats in decommissioning has caused an increase in the number and efficiency of the boats chasing ever-decreasing stock. Many of the licences are held by hobby fishermen. When the licences are sold on, the effect of not removing them from the market is to increase the number of professionals who, with their more powerful machines, often take more than is allowed.

I also want to make special pleadings for the fishing communities in Hastings and Rye. My understanding is that area 7(d), which covers the eastern channel, is allocated a quota for the whole calendar year. That works to the disadvantage of the fishermen in my constituency. Locally, cod may normally be caught only in January, and then again in November and December. After January, the cod move down channel. Because of the way the quotas work, my constituents fear that their quota could well be exhausted before they are able to attempt further catches in November and December. They want the quota in area 7(d) to be split up by a monthly ration, so that there will be something left to be caught at the end of the year; that might not be possible with reduced quotas.

My constituents understand the need for a Europewide solution to their concerns. I find it regrettable that Conservative Members should utter misconceptions that might mislead people in my constituency. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) visited my constituency last week. As a result, my fishermen believe that Conservative policy would be to withdraw from the CFP or to carry out fundamental renegotiation. I see that the hon. Gentleman nods, so clearly that understanding is justified.

Whom would those negotiations be with, however? Of course there is a need to renegotiate within reasonable parameters, but talk of "fundamental" renegotiation--given that not a single other Conservative party in Europe is prepared to embark on that--in fact means withdrawal from the EU. That much was admitted by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the former Conservative fisheries Minister, some time ago. As representatives of the NFFO have recognised, cod spawning grounds, for example, are located off Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. How would unilateral action by the UK help in terms of affecting the cod supply chain?

Many of my constituents would agree with the Opposition that they would like to leave the EU. Given the pressure on their livelihoods, at least in the short term, I can understand how that might seem a profitable suggestion. However, it would not be good for the nation or the fishing industry. I therefore hope that special account will be taken of the particular needs of the inshore fishing fleet in the negotiations that will soon follow.

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6.19 pm

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