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6.30 pm

Mr. Moss: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will reply to the debate.

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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) who, when he got down to the substance of his speech, made a telling contribution that I found interesting. He had some powerful arguments to make.

Most hon. Members have agreed that this has been a useful debate. The case was made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that holding the annual debate at this time of the year made much more sense than holding it in the run-up to the total allowable catch and quota negotiations, simply because at this time we are less frantic about arguing for our fair share and our quotas. We have had a more balanced debate tonight, and certainly one that was more far-reaching and important, given events elsewhere, than a simple debate about TACs and quotas.

There has been some disagreement about whether the industry is in crisis, terminal crisis or not in any crisis. Certainly, fishermen throughout the United Kingdom say that the industry is in the most difficult financial position that they can remember. That point was referred to by many hon. Members.

Most of the debate was about diminishing resources and fish stocks and, of course, the real socioeconomic problems faced by the fishing industry and its associated industries. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) spoke at some length about the fish processing industry in her city on which the measures that we have discussed will have an impact.

Given these most challenging times to the fishing industry, fishermen throughout the United Kingdom will be at first mildly astonished but later angry that, in this the major fisheries debate of the year, we have heard nothing from the Government about how the industry is to be sustained during the implementation of the conservation programme. Speech after speech made reference to the need for support during that period, and it behoves the Minister to respond positively.

It was interesting that the Liberal Democrats came out with a nice argument. It is the first time that I have heard it because the Fontainebleau arrangement is criticised by most other parties. The rebate that we have enjoyed for many years is now stored up in the Treasury coffers ready to be spent on sustaining and helping out the industry. It is a reasonable point to make. At any one time, rebate moneys will be available for the Treasury to dispose of as it sees fit.

Unfortunately, we have not heard much about the real causes of this sorry state of affairs. In the words of the House of Lords Select Committee, the blame lies fairly and squarely with the CFP, which has failed over 17 years to match effort to resource. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) said, the problem is not just over-fishing, although that has of course been a contributory factor. A policy of single species quotas has automatically led to discards of perfectly marketable fish. That has happened for the 17 years that the CFP has been in place.

There is no agreement on technical gear and mesh net sizes. We pay tribute to the introduction of square mesh by the Scottish fishermen. It is a courageous leap, but elsewhere such measures are not being adopted, and the CFP has failed to bring in sensible conservation measures of that type during the 17 years that it has been in place. While we are on the matter of under-sized fish, I pay

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tribute to the Minister because I know that he was appalled at last year's negotiations when the minimum landing sizes for a range of species were abandoned or reduced. That cannot be right if we wish to sustain the fishing resource.

The Commission's Green Paper on the future of the CFP is due very soon, but it is vital that the debate on the CFP's future begins sooner rather than later. However, we have heard nothing about the Government's views on that review. Are they wedded to the equal access principle? Are they determined to maintain the derogated six to 12-mile limits? Are they concerned about the impetus to equal access shown by the European Parliament vote earlier this week? Does the Minister not have a view on any of those matters? I hope that he will answer some of those questions in his response.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) that we have an obligation to fishermen to spell out the real position. No one is saying that we shall pull out of the EU. The hon. Members for Aberdeen, North and for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) suggested that that was our policy, but it is not, and those who say that it is are repeating a fallacy. However, it is important to suggest the probable outcome of the CFP review--it will involve lower quotas for United Kingdom fishermen and a diminished industry.

Zonal management has been discussed at length. We do not reject zonal management out of hand--[Interruption.] The NFFO and the SFF are to be commended for trying to find a more sensible way to manage resources within the CFP. They want to empower the zonal committees so that they can take the decisions on conservation measures that they think necessary and have been avoided in the CFP hitherto. However, if the concept is to be more than just a talking shop, treaty changes will be necessary, as the officials stated in their advice to the Minister.

Neither the Government nor the Liberal Democrats have said unequivocally that they will press for such treaty changes to give real meaning to their policy of devolving effective power to zones or regions. If treaty changes are not forthcoming, there is every chance that equal access will finally make the finishing tape, with the inevitable consequence of a reduction in United Kingdom fishing quota.

There was strong consensus in the debate on the banning of factory fishing. [Hon. Members: "Industrial fishing."] I mean industrial fishing by factory ships, which many of our inshore fishermen think is obscene. I recently returned from Cornwall, where local fishermen are banned from fishing in the mackerel box. However, Danish industrial ships are ploughing up and down and they must be catching huge numbers of mackerel as a by-catch, but no one does anything about it.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South spoke about a long-term sustainable resource for the United Kingdom, and we entirely agree with that. Drastic conservation measures are needed now precisely because the CFP has failed to introduce measures to prevent fish stocks from being depleted in the past. The House of Lords Select Committee report used the words, "Totally failed." They are its words, not mine. To answer the hon. Lady's question about conservation, the whole point of national control is to be responsible for proposing conservation measures, such as those that have been unilaterally

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introduced in Scotland. Those measures should be in place throughout the North sea because of the reasons that they have been introduced there. Those involved in the CFP cannot agree about that, although it has been discussed for 18 years.

Mr. Salmond: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss: No, I want to finish the point, and I did not give way to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South when she tried to intervene in my opening speech. After 17 years, something a little more drastic needs to happen if we want to introduce the much needed conservation measures that will yield the sustainable resource that the hon. Lady mentions. Under those measures, we would determine the conservation measures, the technical measures, the mesh size and the fishing effort. The people fishing in those waters would have to abide by those regulations. That is simple.

On our fleets fishing in other waters, our reciprocal arrangements with Norway work perfectly well, and there is no reason why they should not do so in future.

Mr. Salmond: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss: I am finishing now.

The Minister has been asked many questions about the support and subsidy given to the industry. He is indeed a good listener, but as many hon. Members have said, it is time for some answers.

6.39 pm

Mr. Morley: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I agree that we have had a good debate. I am pleased by the number of hon. Members who have participated. I understand why some of them like the format so much that they want to make it permanent. First, I was cross-examined for an hour by extremely well-informed Members; then we had a one-and-a-half-hour debate in Committee; and we have now had a seven-hour debate on the Floor of the House.

There have been many contributions. We heard from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), from the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), from my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) and for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg)--an impressive full hand from Aberdeen--and from the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George).

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) that I have received a letter from the Fleetwood Fish Forum and will follow up the sensible points that it raises. We also heard from the hon. Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who made a most detailed speech. He has obviously been spending a great deal of time with the fishermen in North Shields. From what he said, I suspect I know who they are.

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If the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) was indeed making his last contribution to a fisheries debate, I have to tell him that I shall miss hearing what he has to say. I do not always agree with him. [Hon. Members: "Always?"] Well, I never agree with him, but he has been a consistent attender who has put and argued his case. I acknowledge that and respect his view.

Contributions were also made by the hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn).

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) referred to fishermen in his constituency who have expressed an interest in monthly catch limits as a way to manage quota. There are problems with managing quota on the south coast. At the moment, it is managed by the Ministry as part of the non-sector and sometimes we close down the fisheries to hold quota back for the winter and summer fisheries. I shall be only too happy to consider any representation that those fishermen may want to make on monthly catch limits. I will have to consult other fishermen, but I am always willing to consider management ideas that come from the industry. My hon. Friend is welcome to make a submission.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is an old hand at fisheries debates: he has participated in many of them and represents a substantial fishing port.

It was interesting to hear the Conservatives' view. I think that I detected a slight hint of a U-turn towards the end of the debate. Perhaps their policy on fisheries is going the same way as their policy on cannabis and on the tax cut guarantee, which has quietly disappeared.

We need to address the way in which we manage the industry and consider the future of the common fisheries policy in 2002. The fishing industry is dynamic. It never stands still; it is always changing and adapting. Huge innovation takes place within the industry, but that makes it more difficult to manage. For example, within the past 10 years, the size of the fleet has decreased, but catches have increased. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned Brixham and the south-west ports, which are landing more now than they were before the common fisheries policy was introduced. That is all part of the problem of pressure on stocks, and issues of management are involved.

I listened carefully to what hon. Members said about Council negotiations. Ministers attend those meetings and argue for the best case for their fishing industries, which is understandable. If a Minister gets extra quota, it is also understandable that he will want to return to his country and mention it. He certainly will not want to come back and admit to having less quota than when the negotiations began.

However, the days of making gestures are over. It is not acceptable to try to force the Commission to change its policy because people think it has asked for unreasonable cuts. The last Council meeting was the toughest of the four that I have attended since I became the Minister with responsibility for fisheries. It was clear that the Commission was not keen on conceding anything and, in some cases, it was right to take that approach. I made it clear to the fishing industry in our pre-Council meetings that I was not going to argue for paper fish--fish that do not exist. I would not do that last year for cod, and I was criticised. However, I will not argue for paper fish or for quotas that are unsustainable.

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There has been a welcome change in the Council, which means that we will not achieve dramatic changes to its recommendations because they are increasingly based on scientific advice. The Commission is increasingly reluctant to depart from such advice and, by and large, Ministers in the Council--there is always the odd exception--are increasingly prepared to accept scientific advice and take a realistic view. That is right and proper. The House of Lords published a good report, but it did not acknowledge the change that has taken place in recent years which makes it more difficult to achieve changes at the Council because it is more realistic.

The argument about national control is partly one of definition. In my definition, we already have national control over enforcement measures that we can introduce in our own fleet; over the way in which we apply licensing restrictions; and over licensing aggregation to stop technical creep within the fishing fleet. We have enormous autonomy under the CFP at present. I support that, and I also support the regional approach to fisheries management. There is nothing contradictory in my position.

I recognise that achieving radical change--to the concept of national control spelt out by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire--would require a treaty change. The report from MAFF officials to which the hon. Gentleman referred was an analysis of the original concept of zonal management as produced by Hull university. That report did not relate to the proposal that came out of the NFFO and the SFF, which was different from the original recommendations made by Hull university. It was very different and much more realistic about what can be achieved.

In theory, one can change a treaty. Indeed, I have been involved, as a Minister, in getting a treaty changed. We were able to change the treaty of Rome, because the issue was relatively non-controversial. It changed the definition of farm animals from "animal products" to "sentient beings". That was a small and not particularly controversial change, but even that took a bit of arguing. However, that is very different from arguing for a change that would in effect lead to the repatriation of fishing limits and to the breaking up of the CFP, in the case of which one would have to obtain unanimous agreement.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire suggested that agreement could be reached by the mere fact of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) saying that we would get a change. I am sorry to disillusion the hon. Gentleman, but other member states are not as impressed as he is with the right hon. Gentleman's powers. Not only is the suggestion from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire not credible: it is wrong to give false hope to fishermen when one cannot deliver such policies.

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