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Fishing Communities

Regeneration Initiative

1.30 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): The cumulative effects of reduced fishing quotas, limits on days at sea, the closure of fishing grounds and high fuel prices, even though there is no tax on marine diesel, have all been crippling for this country's fishing industry over many years. That has serious consequences for fishing communities around our coasts, and has been graphically documented in a new report from the World Wide Fund for Nature, which states:

That does not take account of many more onshore jobs in fishing communities that depend on the catching and have also disappeared.

We know that the Government cannot suddenly conjure up more fish in the sea, but people expect help in coping with these problems, and they also expect the Government to have a clear plan for the future of fishing. I do not think that the Government have such a plan. In the same circumstances, fishing industries in nearly all other European Union countries are in a much stronger position than ours, especially those in Holland and Spain. The WWF report shows that financial assistance for fishing in this country is the lowest in the European Union.

The report also asked whether the funds that are available are being used wisely, and I want to focus on that question in this debate. The view of fishermen is clear: they feel that they were the forgotten part of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, when billions were heaped on farmers but little came to them. Matters came to a head earlier this year when the Scottish Executive announced £25 million of new money for fishing. That embarrassed our Government. The response was £6 million from MAFF for decommissioning, and £5.5 million from the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to be delivered through the regional development agencies, recognising their role and responsibility for regional economies.

I want to focus on that £5.5 million today. It was heralded on 2 April in a Government news release:

including £5.5 million for

What is happening to that money, and how wisely is it being spent in relation to the reason for which it was made available—problems in the fishing industry, and the effects on the people caught up in it? Immediately, I was mindful of a previous scheme run by the European Union called PESCA, which spent millions of pounds, sometimes on cobbles and Victorian lampposts, but did not relate at all to the problems caused by fisheries decline. It was entirely accidental if anyone in fishing, or displaced from it, benefited at all. I was determined to ensure, at least in my area, that that did not happen again.

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I spent the summer pursuing the matter. I found a travesty of mismanagement, confusion and rushed bids. I am sorry to say that the target is being missed again, because this is anything but wise spending. There should be two key principles behind the initiative. First, the £5.5 million must be shared out fairly between the regions in proportion to the size of the fishing industry in each one. The bigger the industry in a community, the bigger the dent in the local economy. Secondly, the money should help the right people. Community is not an abstract term: it is about people. The guidance given to the RDAs on this matter by the DETR said that the

I have the official MAFF figures, and there is no correlation between the figures for size or value of catch and the shareout of the £5.5 million. The Yorkshire region accounts for 46 per cent. of the catch by weight, and 33 per cent. of the catch by value, but it is receiving only 24 per cent. of the £5.5 million.

I represent the port of Lowestoft: it accounts for 9.5 per cent. of the fish by weight and value, and yet the entire eastern region is receiving merely 7 per cent. of the £5.5 million. The south-east provides the worst example: that region accounts for only 2.5 per cent. by weight, and 3.6 per cent. by value, but it is receiving 22 per cent. of the total pot.

I asked a parliamentary question to determine the methodology that was employed. I was told that the regional development agencies were awarded £120,000 for each port that is located in their region, and that that accounted for 70 per cent. of the total, with the rest to be distributed in proportion to the weight of the catch. However, that methodology is fundamentally flawed and unfair, because the resources are not being sufficiently allocated to the places where the fishing industry is largest. I learned from another parliamentary question that that allocation was based on a list of 32 ports. I want to know where that list came from, because I have all the MAFF figures for demersal landings and I can find only the 21 MAFF-designated ports.

That matter raises another question: what is a fishing port? How can ports such as Lowestoft, Grimsby, Newlyn, Scarborough or Whitby, which have trawler industries that account for a significant part of the local economy, be compared with some of the other ports on the list, which merely have a small harbour with a small fleet of fishing boats, most of which are operated only part-time? Such smaller ports make an insignificant contribution to their local economies, yet their RDAs are receiving £120,000 for them. Some of those smaller ports, such as Southwold, which is located on the Suffolk coast a few miles south of my constituency, are not poor communities. Southwold is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, yet its regional development agency is receiving £120,000.

Worse still, I believe that the lists were not communicated to the regional development agencies. I visited the East of England Development Agency, which covers my region. Its staff had no idea about which fishing ports it was supposed to help, or the relative sizes of the ports within the region. It had picked six coastal towns, and it planned to divide evenly between them the eastern region's £390,000. It appears to have done that. However, five of the six ports that it chose are not on the

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list of 32 ports, and I cannot find any records of landings; moreover, one of the two ports in the eastern region that are on that list is not on the list that the East of England Development Agency was using.

As a result, Lowestoft, which is in my constituency, and which is the third largest fishing community in England in terms of weight of catch—its catch amounts to nearly 10 per cent. of the national catch—has been offered merely £65,000 out of a total of £5.5 million. That cannot be right.

The Minister informed me in a letter that I received in September 2001 that Southwold was on the list of 32 ports. I think that that piece of information was supposed to make me feel better, but Southwold is not in my constituency—although it is in the Waveney district council area. As Lowestoft and Southwold are the only two ports on the list that are located in the eastern region, they should, logically, get all of the £390,000, even taking into account the way in which the Department has made its calculations.

I have established that the money has been wrongly divided up, but is it being spent on the right things? To repeat a point that I made earlier, the initiative under discussion was introduced because of the problems associated with the decline of the fishing industry, which is causing dents in many local economies.

A fishing community is a collection of people, and we must ensure that we help the right people. Help must be provided for the people who have already been displaced from fishing, and for those who are still either voluntarily of compulsorily losing their jobs in the industry. There are many unemployed fishermen in the area that I represent, or former fishermen who are unhappy with the job that they have had to take up, or who want to be retrained or to change their qualifications so that they can work on ships that they are not currently entitled to work on. The people who are struggling to survive in the fishing industry must also be helped. The Government are having to take draconian measures to try to conserve and, we hope, rebuild stocks, but it is important to ensure that, when that job is completed, there is still an industry to catch the fish—otherwise the fish will be caught by fishermen from other nations.

If we do not deal with those who are trying to struggle on in fishing, the inference is that we envisage no future for fishing and are just letting it fall to pieces and using the money to pick up those pieces, which, as the WWF says, is more expensive in the long term. Restructuring is the best and fairest way to help people affected in fishing communities.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a point on behalf of the fishing communities in Scarborough and Whitby. Does my hon. Friend recognise that many key fishing communities in England are on their knees in terms of economic decline? The port of Whitby and many of the wards in Scarborough are some of the worst affected areas in terms of economic decline, with objective 2 status. That is another criterion that should have been taken into account when, as my hon. Friend puts it, the money was divvied up. It is an outrage that certain

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wealthy communities in the south of England seem to have benefited from a scheme that was designed to help my constituents and his.

Mr. Blizzard : My hon. Friend is right. It is a pity that the people who drew up the scheme did not take note of those points.

I was heartened to read in guidance note 6, which was given to RDAs, that

That encouraged me, but I have a sad tale to tell about my constituency. When I returned from holiday towards the end of September, I found that my council had submitted a bid that had already been agreed with EEDA to spend the £65,000 on free child care places for people in two wards in central Lowestoft, and a community development officer. The council's report told me that the development followed detailed discussions with EEDA about the nature of potential bids. Sadly, no discussions were held with the fishing industry or anyone else. That is unacceptable.

The council tells me that the criteria of the scheme direct what can and cannot be submitted and that the rules feel prohibitive, especially to small authorities. The question is where do the rules come from if Ministers do not want the scheme to be prescriptive? What started out as millions of pounds of aid for the English fishing industry ends up with the country's third largest fishing port receiving £65,000 for child care and a community development officer. That is a travesty.

To be fair, following intervention by the council leader, another bid has now been made in consultation with the fishing industry. I hope that it will succeed, but if it does not I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister to investigate why.

Where is the accountability? I pursued the matter all summer, and various Departments seemed to be in disarray. On 19 July, the Leader of the House told me that the Department of Trade and Industry was responsible for the matter. Indeed, a DTI Minister answered my first parliamentary question. In midsummer, I was told that the matter fell within the remit of DTLR. Eventually, on 5 September, I received a letter from the Minister's colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), and on 6 September an identical letter from the Minister telling me that there was no case for reviewing the allocation.

I hope that the Minister now appreciates that there is a case for reviewing the allocation. I invite her to sit down with me and other hon. Members present to go through it in detail and unpick the tangled mess. The money is not yet spent; there is still time. Sadly, if it is not possible to do that, the only other course open to me in order properly to represent my constituents is to refer the matter to the National Audit Office to find out whether it is satisfied that the money that was made available is being properly shared out and spent in the right way.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's peroration. He has done an enormous service to the industry, and to Members of

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Parliament who represent fishing constituencies, in highlighting the problem and showing what has happened. Does he agree that the real problem now facing fishing is how to prise more money from the Treasury so that we can invest in fishing as an industry to help, as the WWF suggests, to bridge it from its present decline to the sustainable catches that lie ahead, ensuring proper conservation?

Mr. Blizzard : My hon. Friend is right. It is clear that the country and the Government need a plan for the future of fishing, which we can ask the Treasury to fund.

I have presented a picture of how the delivery process simply did not work and how policy objectives set in Westminster went amiss. We are left with a fishing industry that feels neglected and unwanted yet again. Worst of all, the £5.5 million which the Government made available because of the crisis in fisheries and which was welcomed by all hon. Members representing fishing areas, is in danger of being dissipated in ways unrelated to fishing.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on obtaining this debate on the Government's fishing initiative. I should make the point that that initiative is a specific part of the package of help for the fishing industry and does not represent the whole story.

My hon. Friend dealt with two main points: the make-up of the package and the accountability and monitoring of the programme. However, I start by dealing with his suggestion that we should sit down and have a meeting. My letter to him, dated 6 September, states clearly:

Since that date, he has not approached me for a meeting. I think that it would have helped and that he should have taken up the offer and tried to find a constructive way forward.

Mr. Blizzard : My hon. Friend has already said that she saw no case for review. I am afraid that I took that as a rebuff. I went on holiday, and since then things have moved on. It is too late now.

Ms Keeble : My hon. Friend may have gone on holiday, but the offer was there. It was clearly set out and could and should have been taken up. If he wants to have a meeting, I am still more than willing to do so.

The sea fishing industry has been a traditional and important sector of the United Kingdom's economy, especially in my hon. Friend's constituency, where many people's livelihood depends on the industry's success. However, as he rightly says, like some other of our traditional industries, fishing has been in decline. Colleagues here would no doubt agree that the Government have a duty to consider what extra help they should offer beyond what is already available to the industry and the affected communities.

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As I am sure my hon. Friend would acknowledge, the Government's response has been positive. We share with the fish catching and processing organisations the goal of a sustainable, viable future for the industry and are taking firm action to address long-term needs. At the same time, we must address the future direction for priorities. We all seek a sustainable industry that is economically profitable and uses environmentally sustainable practices.

On 2 April, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), then a MAFF Minister, announced various measures to address a range of problems faced by the industry, including the launch of the European Union fisheries structural fund grants scheme for England, with the aim of helping the industry's adjustment. That package relates specifically to the industry and includes £11 million in grants over the next three years. The scheme seeks to improve the quality and value of fish caught and to promote the use of environmentally friendly equipment. My hon. Friend also made available £6 million for extra support in England to assist restructuring in the fishing industry by decommissioning fishing vessels.

The Government recognised that there was a strong case for helping coastal communities that might be affected by the restructuring of the industry. I would argue that that represents a wider remit, which comes under my Department. On 4 April, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), then a DETR Minister, announced a £5.5 million fishing communities regeneration initiative. That is being made available through the regional development agencies during the current year, to provide help for communities in regions with fishing ports, including working up local regeneration strategies and getting help from existing regeneration programmes more easily. That is clearly a wider remit, relating to helping and regenerating communities, as opposed to concentrating on the industry.

My hon. Friend might want to consider whether arguments about the north-south divide are unjust: if a particular industry is in decline, there is likely to be an impact on a particular community, or a pocket of a town. There are pockets of disadvantage even in some of the more affluent areas of the south-east.

Mr. Mitchell : I want to point out that, first, the £11 million was not new money, but was being recycled, and secondly the package was provided because European Governments were giving far greater aid—as was the Scottish Executive—directly to their industries. As it was being put through the regional development agencies, which is a policy that I support, it was surely incumbent on my hon. Friend's Department to impress on the agencies the importance of fishing to the local economy and the fishing communities. The extent to which agencies have realised that—and brought aid, development and support to the fishing industry in their areas—has been variable.

Ms Keeble : The £11 million mentioned by my hon. Friend was announced by MAFF. I have been talking about the £5.5 million that is going through the regional development agencies, and which is relevant to the issues of the wider community. It is a specific scheme for which my Department is responsible and about which we have been in correspondence.

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The North East, North West, Yorkshire and Humber, East of England, South East and South West regional development agencies each received an allocation to take into account two factors. The allocation was to provide £120,000 for each port with the largest demersal fishing catches recorded in the then most recent MAFF table. That accounted for £3.84 million of the £5.5 million. The rest was distributed in proportion to the weight of the catches at the relevant ports.

The exact list of the ports included has been a matter of some dispute, because when the scheme was announced and proposals began to be made—in consultation with the local authorities—the most recent MAFF figures were from 1999. The list that has been constantly quoted in this debate is the 2000 list.

Lawrie Quinn : The Minister mentions the allocation that was made for ports, but does she recognise that there are nine to 12 shore-based jobs based on the fishing activity out of ports like Whitby and Scarborough? That is not true of some of the other ports. On my reckoning, the Yorkshire and Humber regional development agency should, on the basis of catch alone, have been provided with about £2 million to allocate. In fact it received about £1 million. It is incumbent on my hon. Friend to take account of such matters. Perhaps my community feels, quite rightly, that it has been significantly shortchanged by the allocations calculated by her Department.

Ms Keeble : The allocation of money between different areas was always going to be the subject of great dispute. What was perfectly fair about the decisions that were taken was the recognition that when a sector of industry is affected in a community, the community or area will encounter a problem, great or small. A certain allocation was made with reference to the town, and a proportion was added to reflect the size of the catch. That approach tries to achieve a fair weighting by taking into account a number of issues.

In addition, to ensure that the allocation of the money reflects the needs, priorities and pressures in the different communities, it was made clear to the RDAs that they will have substantial flexibility in spending the money. The weighting tries fairly to reflect the fact that there are several different communities, and there are also different weightings for different catches. There is also a high level of flexibility. To those who think that there is not enough accountability, I should say that the schemes have been worked out with the various partners and that local councils have had an input into the design of the plans and the priorities that have been put to the RDAs.

Mr. Blizzard : The figures that I used were the 1999 figures from the Minister's Department.

Ms Keeble : Fine. My hon. Friend will accept that much of his argument was about the towns and ports

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that should be included and about the amounts involved. It is important to put on record that the figures were from 1999.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): The Minister cannot deny that Hull, Whitby, Scarborough, Bridlington and Grimsby are some of the top ports in the UK and account for about £25 million worth of the UK catch. Ports such as Poole, Shoreham and Portsmouth account for only £2 million, but the percentage split in the funding to support those communities is 23 per cent. for ports such as Grimsby, Hull, Bridlington and Scarborough and 21 per cent. for ports in the south. That is simply unfair, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) tried to demonstrate. Hon. Members present who represent ports feel that the Minister has not dealt with the issue.

Ms Keeble : We must make an allocation that recognises the fact that there are several different areas. One might say—although this would depend on a detailed knowledge of the industry—that large ports could modernise their industry and retain more of it. However, the important point is that the allocation weights for two issues and gives the RDAs discretion. It is also strictly time limited because it is a one-year fund, although I am concerned that we shall spend three quarters of the year arguing about the allocation of the money rather than discussing how it will be spent.

Management of the initiative will follow the same arrangements as the successor schemes to the single regeneration budget during 2001 and 2002. The RDAs will monitor how the money is spent in accordance with existing SRB programme requirements.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) probably knows, two of the five schemes that the East of England RDA is considering come from Waveney. I am not sure whether he is aware of the details of the bids that have been made for his area, but if he is not, I will be happy to write to him. The same goes for my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn). I have some details, although they might not be complete.

Lawrie Quinn : I am aware of them.

Ms Keeble : Good. I am happy to deal with the issue in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney asked about the types of scheme. They have been introduced in consultation with local agencies and, in particular, local councils. Retraining needs will go wider than the immediate needs of the industry.

My hon. Friends clearly have concerns, and I am more than happy to go through the finer details with them. However, I urge them also to deal with the councils and the RDAs to ensure that progress is made on the scheme, which is intended to help not only hard-pressed industries but hard-pressed communities to recover from some of the damage that has been inflicted on them as a result of structural difficulties in the fishing industries.

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