Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 23-39)




  23. Minister, thank you for appearing before what is the last meeting of this Select Committee of this Parliament. None of us knows what shape we will all be in when Parliament comes or what shape the Committees will be in, although I hope that they are re-constituted very rapidly because there is obviously a great deal of ongoing business, at least in the fields we are interested in, which will need to be discussed. You are here to deal with fishes. The loaves and the fishes are being dealt with in Committee room 14, I was told, where the Prime Minister is addressing the parliamentary party in about 20 minutes' time. When you look at the value of the catch landed and the amount of government money which supports the industry in the shape of research (you have just commissioned a new vessel), inspection, control, it must be about the most heavily subsidised industry in Britain, must it not?

  (Mr Morley) You can put that interpretation on it in terms of the overall expenditure of the budget because, as you quite rightly say, a lot of the budget is on regulation of the industry which does need to be regulated, not just our own vessels as you know, but vessels fishing in our waters. And indeed there is a considerable R&D function which has always been accepted as a responsibility of the state. I think perhaps it is more justified if you look at it in its broadest sense which is the link with the catching side, with the processing side on-shore and the fact that it is interlinked with the marketing of fish, the processing of fish, where there are many more jobs of course in shore-based industries.

  24. When you discovered the amount of aid that the Scottish Executive was going to give to its industry, did you say to yourself, "Good luck"? Did you say, "We need to look at the Barnett formula pretty urgently"? Or did you say, "They must be out of their tiny minds"?
  (Mr Morley) Those are very provocative questions, Chairman.

  25. The fact that you have not repudiated any of them is very interesting.
  (Mr Morley) The fact is of course that we are now in a devolved situation and the logic of devolution of course means that on occasions the devolved administrations will take different decisions from the United Kingdom Parliament's. I have always argued, and I think there is common ground amongst all of us as ministers from myself and in the devolved administrations, that it is better to go forward on a broadly United Kingdom basis so that whatever we provide in relation to our particular regions for the fishing industry it is broadly similar. It does not have to be exactly the same because, as you know, Chairman, there is enormous regional difference in the fisheries in this country. The fisheries in the North Sea are very different from those in the Western Approaches and the south west. There are those differences and so therefore recognising the differences within different fisheries there is of course going to be a different emphasis and different needs and therefore different policy approaches. I think that the decision in relation to the allocation of funds from the Scottish Executive is clearly one for them, but I have always said to the English-based industry that I would not want to see them disadvantaged and therefore the opportunities available to the fishing industry on a United Kingdom basis should be broadly similar, and they are broadly similar.

  26. The concordats which were signed with the Scottish Executive, do they not cover this sort of territory? Is there nothing in there which might enable you to talk about the level playing field within the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Morley) I think the concordats do allow this level of regional discretion and the difference in terms of emphasis in the administration of what is the administration of FIFG funds which are regional funds. I think it is fair to say, Chairman, as you will know from the past, that there was always a regional difference in the administration of regional funds and the Highlands and Islands Development Board, for example, always had funds available to the Scottish fishing industry even pre-devolution, so there has always been a difference in the regional approach in different parts of the country.

  27. Do you feel that there could come a time when the fishing industry in Britain in practice becomes almost entirely a Scottish industry? The bigger part is in Scotland now as we know, and probably the more modern part as well, partly because of its pelagic interests. Could that happen and would it make you feel uncomfortable if it did, or would it not matter?
  (Mr Morley) I suspect that would not happen. The bulk of the in-shore fleet for example is in England and that, in terms of the shellfish sector, has been a reasonably successful fleet. Of course there are other sectors of the fleet, the beam fleet, for example, which is very much English-based. While of course different sections of it have their own strengths and weaknesses and they have their own problems at the present time, I really doubt that we would have a completely Scottish-dominated fishing industry. I do not really think that would happen. It is true there is a lot of money in that industry and the pelagic industry, which is predominantly Scottish-based, has been an extremely successful industry and a lot of investment has gone into some very modern boats in that sector.

Mr Öpik

  28. Those are interesting insights, Minister, into your expectations of where we are heading. What is the Government's proactive vision for fishing?
  (Mr Morley) What we want is a healthy and sustainable fishing industry with good returns to those people who are operating within it, generating enough money to provide their own investment and therefore as a stand-alone business, as indeed it should be, and also linking in with the on-shore side, the processing side. In some parts of the country like the south west there is a link between tourism and active, viable fishing ports. People like to see fishing ports operating and active and we should not forget that side of it. It is hard to quantify and it is on the peripheral side but it is still a consideration. I think we have a lot of work to do on the sustainability side because with the growth of technology, the efficiency of the fleet, there is no doubt that stocks on a European basis have taken a hammering. There are no two ways about that. That is what we are trying to address currently with the recovery programmes and they are quite difficult and painful for the industry but they have to be done and they recognise that in the same way that we do.

  29. Do you have a geographical picture in your mind—you have touched on this already—for how the fishing industry in the future would be spread across the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Morley) I do not think it is for the Government to take an interventionist role in terms of saying, "You must have a certain section of the fleet in this part of the country", and "You can only have a certain section of the fleet in that part of the country". I think that is bad for the industry and if we want the industry to be viable there are always going to be some movements within the industry in relation to the way they think the best business opportunities are and where the best fishing opportunities are. It is very difficult for us to interfere with that and I think it would be dangerous for us to interfere with that. Obviously I want to see the geographical spread of the industry remain where it is today. I do not want to see fishing ports run down, wherever they are, and indeed we have been trying to take steps to try and support fishing ports around the country. However, I think it is fair to say that there are some fishing ports who are having a harder time than others.

  30. Are you drawing up a strategy which would outline the kinds of things that you are describing now?
  (Mr Morley) Yes. From your previous report you did call upon the Government to produce a strategy for fishing. The Sea Fish Industry Authority did act as a convenor to bring together a strategy document and that was published a few months ago. That was a useful document but I think that that needs flesh putting on the bones. I think we need some more thought about a longer term strategy for the industry, particularly in relation to different methods of fishing. I know we have had these discussions before about low impact fishing, for example. It might be low impact in-shore based, but it might support quite a few jobs and I am not unsympathetic to giving those kinds of fisheries some particular thought. Whether or not we should have restrictions on the size of the industry in relation to the horse power, for example, or whether there should be unrestrained development and simply let the market dictate which way the industry goes, I am not sure. There are quite difficult issues because the issue that we have to consider is how interventionist we are as a government in what in the end is a range of private businesses. I think our principal role is to try and work with the industry and the support we should be providing is on the added value side, the marketing side, the processing side, to encourage the industry itself to have more control over its own business, its own management to a very large extent, the use of the producer organisations which can be very successful in terms of managing the business, and also pooling such things as quota and sharing quota out and well run POs are a very good model, but of course POs themselves do vary in relation to their professionalism.

  31. Presumably that document you are describing will include the kinds of objectives that you agreed with on our Committee submission?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  32. Do you have a timetable for when we can expect the finished document to be ready?
  (Mr Morley) No, because the Sea Fish Authority were producing that document. That is done; that has been produced and has been made public. If I can be frank with the Committee, one of the problems with it is that Sea Fish were acting as a convenor and a lot of it is wish lists which are quite familiar from various industry sectors, which are sometimes not compatible in terms of different sectors who have different wish lists in the long term future of the industry. What we have to do as a government is to try and pull that together and we do have to give that some thought.

  33. The Government, as you rightly say, could pull that together by exercising leadership to achieve a result. Can I suggest that it would be helpful if you were to establish a timetable by which everybody who wants to contribute to this could contribute and by which time the public or this Committee could then focus on making plans for the major debate when we come to focus on the issue?
  (Mr Morley) That is not an unreasonable suggestion, Chairman. What we have done as a government is set up high level meetings with the fishing industry, which actually include the whole of the industry. It brings together all sectors and there are not many forums where you have everyone in from the processing side to the catching side. Obviously the election is an interruption in the process but there would have been a meeting scheduled for May. I think the next meeting of the high level meetings of the industry is one to address these points and to think about a timetable, discuss the Sea Fish document, which is a good basis for taking this forward, and to try and agree with the industry because you need involvement with the industry in terms of developing this strategy.

  34. Would you consider postponing the election so that we can get that document ready?
  (Mr Morley) I do not think that is one for me to make.

  35. The last serious question—that was not. Can you make any comment about where you envisage levels of financial intervention settling down in the long term?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, I did touch upon that, I think. Where it is legitimate for the state to provide financial intervention is obviously on the enforcement and restriction of development; that is perfectly legitimate, and also on the infrastructure side, marketing side, processing side, adding value side, so that we could provide elements of grant aid to the industry itself. This would be on a matched funding basis. We are not talking about completely paying for these things. It is legitimate, as we always have done, through structural funds to give support for the infrastructure development to increase profitability and to help the industry in relation to its returns. I think it is also legitimate as part of the R&D side to give some financial support to more selective gear, more environmentally friendly fishing methods. We have included those within our objectives under the new round of FIFG. Those are the areas where I think it is quite justified to have an element of public funds.

Mr Todd

  36. One of the key components of the compiling of the strategy for fishing has to be our approach to the common fisheries policy and its reform. You set out your priorities for that and consulted on those priorities. What feedback have you had as to whether the goals the Government has set are the ones that the industry would share?
  (Mr Morley) This is on the Green Paper?

  37. Yes?
  (Mr Morley) We were very pleased with the draft of the Green Paper because it has certainly picked up a lot of issues which we think are priorities in terms of CFP reform and the structure of the CFP. I think in all fairness the UK industry should be pleased because their arguments on such things as a regional approach have also been picked up. One of the things I should perhaps have said in relation to what Lembit was saying in terms of a long term strategy for the industry is I think the Green Paper is part of that long term strategy. I think that the discussion that we are going to have on the Green Paper is also a way of looking ahead for the longer term and the structure of the CFP and the future structure of the industry, of which important elements are that regional approach and the need for the CFP to be more flexible. Part of its problem is it is very monolithic, it is very slow to react and to adapt and it needs to be more flexible. It needs to take into account the regional differences in fishing.

  38. Would you not agree that one of the great weaknesses of both the CFP and, to be honest, the perception of the UK Government policy is the divorce between the industry and its perception of its own interests and the regulatory authority and its perception of its role in conservation? It should be possible for those two functions to work in partnership for the long term health of the sector. We have not devised mechanisms to ensure that there is that common belief.
  (Mr Morley) I understand the point and it is a very fair one. I think we have made some progress on this. The fishing industry has had probably unprecedented involvement in the recent discussions on the cod recovery programme, the hake recovery programme, Irish Sea recovery programme, North Sea recovery programme. They have played a very important role in that and a very serious, thoughtful role. I think that bodes very well for the future. There is always going to be, well, there should not be, the point that you are making, but I think there is always going to be a little bit of tension between the enforcement role of the Government and the role of the fishing industry. They want to catch as much fish as possible. They want as few regulations and restraints as possible while, of course, in relation to the Government we have an obligation in terms of fisheries management that does involve enforcement, does involve restrictions at times and, of course, restrictions have economic consequences and that is why you sometimes get the conflict with the industry.

  39. There must be some inevitable tension but if one makes the assumption that entrepreneurs have a wish to have a sector in which they can be active for some reasonable foreseeable future then there ought to be some basis of common agreement.
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

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