Fishing vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2001

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Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I welcome the decommissioning scheme as does the industry. It is a Government measure and as a loyal supporter of the Government, I welcome it with bubbling, gibbering gratitude. However, now that I know that it has the support of Conservative Members, I wonder whether I should be so effusive in my welcome.

It is important to ask whether the measure is a first step because, in itself, it is not enough. My hon. Friend the Minister, whose calculations I respect, referred to a package of £22.5 million. However, the Westminster Hall debate that was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) showed that £5.5 million of that sum was based on rather dubious accounting, involving matters such as child support measures in Lowestoft, which can hardly be viewed as being of benefit to the fishing industry. The money must be targeted on fishing. My central question is whether such a sum is enough. Neither the industry nor I believe that it is.

I agree that the deadline for scrapping is far too tight, and I hope that the Minister will consider extending it. I think that the Scottish decommissioning measure has a longer deadline. Perhaps my hon. Friend can confirm that. The collapse of scrap metal prices will have a disastrous outcome. I hope that boats will not be sent to India to be cut up in the same way as ocean liners are. Scrap metal dealers will not be able to pay very much at all, and an extension of the deadline would benefit the industry. The scheme should be modified to allow disposal in third countries. Such action is allowed under the Scottish measure and that is an important precedent.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had problems with the previous measure. Jimmy Cato from Fleetwood legitimately sold his fishing boat to Ireland for use as a houseboat. Ireland, perhaps because of its Celtic tradition, is a more mysterious country than England, and the boat mysteriously appeared back on the fishing register. That was not Mr. Cato's fault—it is clearly difficult for the owner to have control over what happens—but the court case went against him, which has perhaps influenced the Department in its decision not to allow disposal to third parties. I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of the bright, legal brains in the Department to devise a system of controls that allows disposal across a wider market and does not use such tight deadlines. I urge the Government to introduce greater flexibility in disposals and to extend the deadline.

It is worth mentioning the legal position of English vessels as opposed to that of Scottish vessels. I welcome the fact that Scotland has introduced a generous decommissioning scheme. The sum of £25 million is far more generous than the measures for the English industry, and that is appropriate because it was the English industry that took the burden of the past five decommissioning schemes, under which between 60 and 70 per cent. of the vessels that were decommissioned were English. It is important to keep a viable, active English industry, and it is fair to hope that the more generous Scottish system will ensure that the two industries achieve a better balance.

Decommissioning compensation in Scotland will be paid to Scottish-registered vessels that are based in Scotland. However, Scottish technical conservation measures apply to all Scottish-registered vessels wherever they are based, even if they are based in England, as many are, under English ownership. There seems to be a gap between the two systems, which will make the legal position extremely dodgy. If someone from England who is not subject to decommissioning under the scheme with a Scottish-registered vessel decides to challenge in court the terms of the Scottish scheme, that may cause difficulties. I realise that the Minister will not say, ``Fair cop, guv. That brilliant legalistic brain Mitchell has got us bang to rights'', but there will be cause for concern about English vessels that do not qualify under the bid system for the scheme.

I wonder whether the measure could be better targeted. It follows the precedent of previous measures, which were on the whole successful. According to the Department, we have taken out 578 vessels at a cost of £36 million. The Government are getting a good bargain in their necessary decommissioning of the industry, but in following that precedent, we miss the opportunity to target decommissioning and effort at recovery stocks. The Scottish measure seems rather better targeted at cod and hake, which are the crucial stocks on which we should concentrate. Will targeting be involved, or will there be straightforward acceptance of applications? It would be to the industry's advantage to target the measure more effectively. The Minister said that vessels had to be more than 10 years old and that selection would take place by ballot. That does not allow much scope for targeting. Will weighting be introduced? Should it be?

The Minister also said that FQAs will not be surrendered, which is wise and sensible. This is a one-off measure, essentially produced as a result of pressure in the industry and the recovery stock situation in the North sea. However, it raises the questions of what contribution it makes to our multi-annual guidance programme targets, whether it will be counted and at what point the deadline for counting begins. What is the base for counting? Will this measure of decommissioning be included?

I shall conclude as I began, by saying that I hope that the measure is only the first step, because the fishing industry needs a package of support. It needs what the Agriculture Committee—on which the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) was active—supported in its epoch-making report on the future of fishing. The industry is asking for a national plan for fishing, as is, sensibly, the Worldwide Fund for Nature. The documents issued two weeks ago make a strong case for investment.

My hon. Friend has been, and indeed is—I should not put it in the past tense—an excellent Minister who knows the needs of fishing. He has taken more trouble to stay in touch with the industry and keep listening to it than any previous Minister with responsibility for fishing whom I can think of in my long experience of the subject. He knows the situation. The problem lies in the strength of the fishing case in the Department, which now omits fishing from its title. Including it at least raised the industry's profile. Can the needs of fishing be fulfilled when the stony heart of the Treasury, a Department that is focused on short-term thinking, is involved? Fishing needs long-term thinking.

Long-term thinking concentrates on getting the industry from point A, which is where we are now, facing a drastic recovery and conservation situation and the failure of stocks—especially cod and hake, although the problem is more widespread than that—with a shrinking industry that is, rightly, being further shrunk by decommissioning, to point B, at which the sustainable fishing opportunities that the Commission and the Department want are available. To achieve that, investment, rather than subsidy, will be needed. The measure will work only if it is part of a wider investment package that will enable the industry to bridge the transitional period, which will last from three to five years, between the present situation and the creation of sustainable fishing opportunities.

It is indicative of the change in attitudes that the European Commission, of which I find it difficult to speak ill, has modified its position. Previously, its decisions always took account of political, economic and social considerations. Scientists would make recommendations—for a 50 per cent. cut in catches, for example—and the Commission would, rightly, modify that proposal to take account of factors such as the economic pressures on the industry or on fishing communities. Such considerations must be taken into account if a viable industry is to survive.

However, the Commission is now, in effect, backing the science; it states that its aim is to achieve biologically optimal solutions. That means that there will be greater pressure for cuts, and, consequently, there will also be greater pressure for the support and investment proposed by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the industry, who are united. It is amazing that they speaking with one voice, and it shows how concerned everybody is about the present situation.

The Government are flatly opposed to subsidies to keep vessels fishing at sea, although other European Governments have used them, and they are helping to keep their industries alive and viable. However, the Government's opposition to subsidies does not preclude it making the investment necessary to carry out conservation measures such as increasing mesh sizes, introducing square mesh panels or closing areas of ocean at specific times or seasons to allow stocks to increase. The industry will require investment to help it to introduce such measures and to re-equip, as it must to achieve greater selectivity in the catch. That investment must be made by the Government, because only then can a viable British fishing industry—and Grimsby fishing industry—survive to take up the opportunities that successful conservation and preservation plans will provide.

I am sure that those plans will work, but I do not want British licences and catch quotas to be sold to better-financed European competitors who have been kept going through the difficult times by their Governments, and who are, therefore, able to buy up fishing rights in the United Kingdom. The loss of those rights would prevent us from maintaining a viable, competitive, conservation-conscious and effective British industry that can take advantage of the new opportunities. The aim must be to sustain a viable British industry, and that can only be achieved by making the scheme the starting point for the provision of a broader, and more considered and effective, investment in the fishing industry.

5.3 pm

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Prepared 5 November 2001