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Tuesday 23 April 2002
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches
and Quotas 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I start by saying that it is nice to see you in the Chair, Miss Begg.
We have had a good run-through on the issue of total allowable catches and quotas. I remind the Committee that we managed to secure a full-day debate in December before the December Council. We also had the opportunity, thanks to the Scrutiny Committee, to debate the Green Paper on the common fisheries policy review, which is of interest to all hon. Members. I welcome the opportunity to scrutinise total allowable catches and quotas.
Many hon. Members may have thought that they would be able to discuss details of the European Commission's proposals on the common fisheries policy, because we expected those proposals to be ready last Wednesday. We heard that they were delayed and might appear tomorrow, but they will not appear tomorrow and may not be made public until May. However, they will be available for debate for the June Council, and hon. Members should have the opportunity to see them before that occasion.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I rise—
The Chairman: Order. No interventions. There will be an opportunity to ask questions after the Minister's speech.
Mr. Morley: You are right, Miss Begg. It is my natural courtesy that led me to respond. I assure the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), however, that I intend to keep my remarks brief, which will allow hon. Members to ask questions in the time allocated.
There is not a great deal for me to add to the points that I have raised, because hon. Members are aware of the outcome of the December Council and of the proposals for total allowable catches and quotas. The outcome of the December Council was a good and fair one. Although we had disagreements with the Commission, which pursued cuts in quota that went beyond the recommendations of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and the scientific advice, when the Commission followed the scientific advice, we accepted it.
There has been an unfortunate history of people arguing above the scientific advice in an attempt to obtain extra quota. That is a dangerous position to take and one that has led to problems, because it creates a slippery slope in relation to sustainability. Even when recommendations are difficult, we must support them, as the industry accepts.
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We involved the industry in setting the total allowable catches and quotas. The industry put reasonable and well argued points of view and we put its arguments strongly to the Council. One such argument related to the quota on nephrops, which is important in relation to the North sea and the Irish sea. Many hon. Members here today raised that issue with me on behalf of their local fishing fleets and were pleased with the overall outcome, which recognised the pressure on stocks but recognised too that we had put the case for the industry when there was a case to argue on a recommendation that the Commission did not have the science to support.
Overall, the Commission's proposals were right even when they went beyond the science. I understand the Commission's thinking about stocks caught as a by-catch within the main stocks under pressure, especially cod and hake. However, it is necessary to recognise the effects on the industry. We have to take the industry with us, and approach those issues in a proportionate way, based on science and sometimes also on the precautionary principle. That was the general approach that we took at the December Council, and the outcome was good for the fishing industry, bearing in mind that a lot of fish stocks are under severe pressure. Indeed, many fish stocks are below their safe biological limits. That is why the next stage is to work with the industry on the recovery programmes, particularly for cod and hake, to try to get those stocks into better shape.
To take the debate further, we could talk about the idea of multi-annual quotas in order to bring some stability by setting quotas over a number of years. Those debates are yet to come. The common fisheries policy proposals are important, and will guide those debates. The detail of the recovery programmes is also important. We have gone to great pains to involve the fishing industry in the negotiations and in the decision-making process, and we have given it access to the Department at all times. We value the industry's input and the contact that we have had with it, and we look forward to hearing the Commission's proposals.
I am hopeful that the Commission has listened carefully to the excellent case that our industry has made on such things as introducing a more regional dimension to the common fisheries policy, and also to the Government's case for more decentralisation and flexibility. Hon. Members will have the opportunity to discuss the details in due course. I look forward to that and to the ongoing debate, which should result in a reformed, more flexible, realistic and effective common fisheries policy.
The Chairman: We have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.
Mrs. Ann Winterton: Has the Minister been able to compare the draft Council regulation establishing the specific access requirements and associated conditions applicable to fishing for deep sea stocks, and the equivalent draft Council regulation establishing a recovery programme for cod and hake that he has just mentioned? Does he acknowledge the similarities
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between the two as management tools, and does he agree that that could point the way and that it might show the future shape of management under the common fisheries policy after 2002?
Mr. Morley: The answer to the final question is not necessarily. We have to look at different stocks and consider the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Deep sea stocks are under enormous pressure, and the subject will be mentioned at the June Council. We believe that the traditional methods of stock conservation—quotas and TACs—are not necessarily right for deep sea stock. Our concern is that they will not reduce pressure, nor will they reduce the by-catch on deep water stocks. We would much prefer a more effort-control oriented approach to deep sea stock management than TACs and quotas, although they do have a role to play.
As for the recovery programmes, there is still a debate to be had. We have agreed an increase in mesh sizes, but we did not move right away to the 120 mm mesh size that the Commission argued for in the North sea because we need to give the industry time to adjust. I know that my hon. Friends who represent east coast constituencies feel strongly on that point on behalf of the industry, and we acknowledged that in our negotiations. A move towards a bigger mesh size is the right way forward because there is a real problem with by-catch of small and unmarketable fish, particularly in the North sea. We need to reduce that, and more selective gear and a larger mesh will help, and the result will be bigger fish—and, incidentally, better quality fish—and the possibility of better prices.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I add my congratulations to you, Miss Begg, in your new role and wish you every success in future. You are no stranger to fishing debates and I am sure that you appreciate the different perspectives. Given the Minister's acknowledgment of the significance of the North sea to the UK industry, will he explain where we have got to in our ongoing, virtually perpetual discussions with the Norwegians?
Mr. Morley: In relation to a range of joint-management stocks, including herring, we have reached a conclusion with the EU-Norwegian agreement. We still have some disagreement with the Norwegians and with Iceland and the Faroes over the allocation of deep water species and the quota that should be set for that. The EU has set a precautionary quota within EU waters, and it is right to do that, but there is still a problem with the quota in international waters. I am surprised at the level of quota for which Norway, Iceland and the Faroes are arguing. It is not sustainable and is way above the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommendations. We will have to debate those issues not only bilaterally with Norway but within the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission. The present situation is not satisfactory and we have more work to do.
Andrew George (St. Ives): I add my congratulations on your new position as Chair, Miss Begg. It is a pleasure to serve under you, particularly as it is the first time that such a debate has been chaired by
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someone who knows as much as the rest of us about this important matter.
My question relates to the Minister's opening remark about the framework in which TACs are set—the common fisheries policy. There has been a very unwelcome delay in the publication of the road map for future discussion before the end of the year and in the resolution of the important discussions that are needed. Can he shed any light on information that I have received on very good authority that that is a result of high level representations made by the Prime Minister of Spain, Mr. Aznar, to Romano Prodi? Spain and other countries object to proposals in the draft common fisheries policy to withdraw modernisation grants and for related matters. Six countries have formed the group Friends of Fish and are actively working against the general direction of the common fisheries policy, to which I understood that all other countries had agreed.
Mr. Morley: As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the progress or time scale of the negotiations is a matter for the Commission. I cannot say what has caused the delay or tell him the details of representations received by the Commission. However, I can tell him that in the Green Paper there was a strong recommendation from the Commission to end public subsidy for the building of fishing boats. It is no secret that that is opposed by countries such as Spain and France and other countries that have signed up to Friends of Fish.
Given the acknowledged problems of pressure on fish stocks and the overcapacity of the EU fleet, I would question the rationale and the sense behind subsidising the building of new fishing vessels, which inevitably increases catching power and pressure on fish stocks, at a time such as this. It does not make sense and the UK strongly supports the Commission on the issue. There are those who argue that public subsidy of increased effort is the way forward and call themselves the Friends of Fish. With friends like that, fish do not need enemies.