Fishing vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2001

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Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): The Committee will be pleased to learn that I shall be extremely brief. Paragraph 11, on page 7 of the scheme, states:

    ``The amount of grant which applicants who are eligible for payment of grant shall be paid shall be the amount of the bid made by such applicants in their applications.''

To me, that sounds like a licence to print money. It seems to say, ``Get your hands in this bucket, lads, and grab as much as you can for yourselves.'' Although I am sure that it is not an open cheque book, it certainly sounds like one.

As we have seen, when it comes to claiming Government and EU grants there are a small number of farmers who are quite handy at creative accounting. The EU has had to use satellites to make sure that farmers are actually growing what they are claiming for, and not claiming for set-aside. Perhaps decommissioned ships will have a big white cross painted on them so that satellites can tell that they have been decommissioned. Paragraph 11 beggars belief. Can the Minister reassure me that there will be proper accountability for spending taxpayers' money?

5.26 pm

Mr. Morley: I shall try to deal with all the points raised, which were certainly constructive. It is true that the industry supports a decommissioning scheme such as this. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and the hon. Member for St. Ives are well aware of the industry's views on the matter, and their comments on the long-term strategies and the problems were absolutely right. I take those points seriously and I shall come back to them.

On MAGP IV and the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, the situation remains unchanged, in that we are broadly within our MAGP guidelines. The decommissioning round is concerned with the pressing problems faced by our fleet in light of major quota cuts and, in particular, the very poor state of cod and hake. However, the stock situation is in fact somewhat mixed, in that there is more encouraging news on haddock and one or two other species. The North sea has a mixed fishery, which creates a big problem. If the haddock and whiting quota is increased, cod will be caught as well.

I recognise that balancing such issues makes fisheries management difficult, but the money that we are spending and the capacity resulting from the scheme will count towards any future MAGP V scheme. In some ways, therefore, the scheme is an investment that will remove from our industry some of the pressure that other countries might experience, given their record on MAGP IV and III. As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, those targets will have to be met.

I turn to the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney and for Great Grimsby. I have read the Hansard report of the Westminster Hall debate, and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk is right: it had little to do with this debate or with the management of fish stocks. However, I appreciate that there is a link in terms of the pressures on fishing communities, and I sympathise with the arguments that were made. I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby that where a fishing community or port experiences change, social issues arise that need to be dealt with through structural funds, as well as through money going directly to the industry. That is what the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is trying to bring about. I am sure that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), listened carefully to the points that were made during the Westminster Hall debate; nevertheless, I shall ask her whether they are being addressed.

I accept that hon. Members will want to discuss the 2002 proposals, and I am confident that they will be able to do so before we enter serious negotiations. I hope that the Government's response will command wide support because it is based on views that hon. Members and the fishing industry have expressed many times.

I also accept the need to formulate a national strategy, which the Agriculture Committee recommended in a very helpful report that tried to look ahead. We accepted that. I had hoped to make more progress on that, but I am sure that hon. Members understand that MAFF and, now, DEFRA have been somewhat distracted by the fight against foot and mouth disease. I hope that the next high-level meeting with the industry will, for the first time, take the format of a conference or seminar in which we can focus on the national strategy and the issues that the industry wants to raise. Work is being done by the Sea Fish Industry Authority, for example, on what should be included in a national strategy. That will be useful and it is an appropriate time to discuss it.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to the Fisheries Council as a political game. It is fair to say that there is a long history of that in the Council of Ministers, but it has changed dramatically in recent years. There is now more realism in the Council and more of an inclination to follow the science and not to talk up quotas. Ultimately, it does no good to anyone, including the industry, to talk up quotas. We might gain a few brownie points if we come back and say that we have increased the quota, but if it is not based on sustainability, we merely build up problems for the fishing industry here and in Europe. In the previous Fisheries Council the Commission recommended cuts in quota that went beyond science and I argued against that because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby acknowledged, we cannot ignore the socio-economic effects of reductions in quota. However, there is a dilemma because we cannot make fish appear where there are no fish. We must be realistic and I have tried to be so.

I assure the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk that it was difficult to bring about the changes. The Commission was adamant that it was going beyond the science because of the effects on pressurised stocks of by-catch in certain fisheries. It was most reluctant to move beyond that and we had to make a very strong scientific case to obtain the changes. We are prepared to make the scientific case when we believe that there is no justification for cuts in quota, but when we believe that there is justification for recovery plans or a precautionary approach to stock reduction, we must take the advice seriously. I made that clear to the industry during our talks.

On payment for the last scheme, we are not robbing the industry. An independent report by Nautilus was commissioned for the last scheme which demonstrated that the Government's scheme was not only reasonable value, but a form of restructuring for the industry. A lot of the money that went into the industry through decommissioning was reinvested in fishing, so although it caused problems with increasing effort in other parts of the industry, it was of general benefit to everyone.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby referred to extending the deadline. I understand the points that were made and we are meeting the industry to discuss the problems and their scale. We have some, albeit limited, room for manoeuvre on the deadline so we shall discuss the matter with the industry and if we can identify the problems, we will try to respond to them.

Whatever money is made available, there is never enough, and sometimes a good case can be made for more. Over the next three years, £85 million will be made available and that includes the decommissioning money for the industry as part of the FIFG funds. That is a lot of money, and we need to think about how it will be used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby referred to the selling of vessels abroad. I have some sympathy with what he said. In fact, I have explored seriously whether there is an option to sell fishing vessels to developing countries, perhaps as an aid package, and I have contacted colleagues in the Department for International Development about it. However, many of our fishing vessels are not suitable for operation in other climates and fisheries. There are practical problems concerning maintenance and upkeep in developing countries. Furthermore, we must bear in mind sustainability. We must think carefully about disturbing the balance of locally based fishing industries by increasing the fishing effort dramatically with modern, powerful fishing vessels. Although I sympathise with my hon. Friend's argument, such matters must be weighed up; it is not a simple issue.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: It is worth pursuing the point that such vessels are very good, although they might be older. They would be useful in developing countries. Providing them through the aid budget should be considered. It would be a viable, practical and useful form of support. As the saying goes, ``Give a man a fish and it will support him for a day, but teach him how to fish and that will support him for life'', and that is applicable to such vessels.

It would be possible to get round the problems arising from the Cato case if changing the use of a vessel, such as turning it into a houseboat, was done in this country so that the Government knew that such a change had occurred before the vessel was transferred to another country.

Mr. Morley: That is an interesting idea. However, as my hon. Friend said, the Cato case is an example of why the Commission and the Department are wary about the disposal of fishing vessels. They can reappear within the EU fishing fleet. The point of the scheme is to take vessels out of the fleet to reduce capacity and the pressure on fish stocks. That is why the preferred method is to scrap the fishing vessel. I shall give more thought to my hon. Friend's proposal to see whether it can be put into practice. I do not believe that there is scope for it in this round of agreements, because the action has already started, but we should not close our minds to future options.

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