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21 Nov 2002 : Column 825—continued

Mr. Hayes: I am delighted to hear that. As I said earlier, my hon. Friend is known as a doughty champion of the fishermen of Boston—they are largely cockle fishermen—and he will know that, in particular, they face environmental problems in the Wash and that those stocks have been affected by toxins and climatic change. He has taken up those matters with the vigour for which he has already become renowned since being elected.

We should follow the example of those countries that have had the courage to take control of their own fisheries policies. Although I acknowledge the fact that the Liberal Democrat amendment has merit, especially in its analysis of the problem and in emphasising many of the current problems that we face, I have to say that I do not buy the solution. The hon. Member for St. Ives has a deep knowledge of and a real commitment to fishing, but I suspect that the Liberal Democrats' fisheries policy is driven more by their overall policy on European federalism than by the interests of the fishermen.

In my judgment, as the debate becomes louder and more widely heard in the next few weeks and months, fishermen will conclude that the only way that we can really offer them a glimmer of hope is by having the courage to take control, rather than having to get involved in these rather grubby deals that are done behind the scenes in smoke-filled rooms without the fishermen being present, as we have already heard. [Interruption.]

Let me just deal with this point once and for all. If the Prime Minister was really concerned and fishing were a high priority for the Government and a dominant issue

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in European discussions, the Liberal Democrats' argument might hold some water, because the Prime Minister could then negotiate the sort of zone or regional system that they favour, but the truth is that none of that is so. Fishing will be abandoned; it will be traded off and given away as part of some bigger deal in the negotiations. That is the truth of the matter, and no one can dutifully and honestly advocate the reform of the common fisheries policy because it will not be made a priority or made to fit the needs of the British industry, nor those of several other European industries.

Mr. Savidge: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I must make more progress. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will concede that I have been generous in giving way.

Of course the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is a doughty champion of fishing interests in Scotland, but unlike the Liberal Democrats, who at least recommend some solutions to the problems of regional control, he identified the problems very cogently in his amendment but offers no solution. I hope that he will support me in saying that the United Kingdom should take control of such matters, but I rather doubt it.

I want to say a word about relative stability. The Government argue in their motion for the continuation of relative stability, which is at the heart of their approach. The Minister has previously argued many times that we are protected by that principle, but how can we share out EU resources among EU people and maintain the same size of United Kingdom fishing fleet? Of course the answer is that that cannot be done. Britain's share can only decrease, so we may say that too many British fishermen catching the for ever shrinking share of resources is the result of relative stability. The proposed solution will eliminate British fishermen, so fishermen ask: why just ban catching cod, haddock and whiting, which happen to be the fish that we catch? Is it solely because of the conservation issues? Fishermen are understandably sceptical—I say no more than that—about that kind of policy.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Is it not the case that, in the past 20 years, there has been no serious effort to conserve fish stocks and that the Commission's only solution has been to reduce quotas and accelerate decommissioning, with the result that there has been the increase in discards, as he and the House know?

Industrial fishing has destroyed the food chain, so why has that been allowed to continue for so long? It is a scandal that our countrymen will be stopped from fishing with the large-mesh nets that I have mentioned, while allowing industrial fishing to continue to use 16 mm and smaller nets.

Will the Minister protect access to the deep-sea fisheries westward of the British Isles—an important new area for many Scots fishermen, where they have made significant inroads? I am afraid that they will suffer drastically under the new proposals, and we should have a commitment from the Minister on those matters.

Is it not true that the EU policy, which has destroyed the food source and causes adult fish to be dumped and baby fish to be sold, does not give nature much of a

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helping hand? Can we have a guarantee that enforcement—the issue raised by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby—will not be a uniquely British phenomenon, and that compliance and serious commitment will be evident across the European Union?

In all of this, I am afraid that I have little faith in the Prime Minister. I read in The Times today that whereas most of us have pictures on our desk of our wife, our baby, our father or the Duke of Wellington, he has a picture of President Chirac! That is why I have little faith in the Prime Minister—he is not committed to British fishing and the British interest. He is not committed to the nation in this respect: he will sell us out in Europe, as was illustrated by his dismissive answer to a perfectly fair question that was put to him yesterday. He is preparing the industry for its demise. That is the truth of the matter.

We must not allow our fishing industry to be traded off in some disreputable EU deal. The Prime Minister could have said yesterday that aid, assistance and financial support for the communities of Britain that rely on fishing must be at least equivalent to those enjoyed by other countries. He could have said that, during any tie-up, all foreign boats must be made to honour any restrictions. He could have said that industrial fishing, which causes immense damage to the food chain and therefore to the level of food stocks for white fish, must be stopped. He could have said that conservation measures should be developed in partnership with the industry. He could have said that third country agreements must be urgently reviewed with the aim of a dramatic reduction in cost and in the damage that they do to the other countries. He could have said that we will defend our industry openly, honestly and purposefully—but I fear that I expect too much from him.

The cynical and contrived nature of EU politics means that many in the heart of Europe view the painful crisis faced by our fishermen and others as Xbeneficial". It is not beneficial to those hardworking, decent men, their wives and their babies, whom I have met in the past several weeks. It is not beneficial to their communities, to our land or to our nation. Let me tell the Minister, the House and our fishermen that the Conservatives do not share the Prime Minister's complacent acquiescence. We will champion the British fishing industry, and we will work with other parties who are prepared to share that campaign with the industry and with us. We will fight to secure the fishermen's future, because their battle is our battle, and it is emblematic of the battle for our nation, for our right to decide on policies that affect our communities. We will fight for our right to govern ourselves.

2.53 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central): It is always interesting to hear the views of the Conservatives. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) took comfort from the fact that his predecessor in post, the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)—her constituency is that well known fishing port—is sitting directly behind him.

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The hon. Gentleman was pulled up a little by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on history. Perhaps if he had concentrated a little on history before making some of the points in his speech, he might have done a little better, especially in relation to his plaintive cries that the Prime Minister should pay more attention to the fishing industry. I remind him that the last time a Prime Minister put fishing at the top of the agenda, he gave the industry away, walked into the common fisheries policy, and created almost 30 years of turmoil in the Conservative party. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding at that, and I am grateful for an acknowledgement. The matter is being dealt with properly, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is joined in the Chamber by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, to acknowledge the importance of the industry not just in the UK but particularly in Scotland.

Clearly, this is a difficult time for the industry. In all the years I have been attending fisheries debates, there always seems to be an air of crisis at this time of year. On this occasion, the crisis seems a little more real than on previous ones. That is no wonder, given the bombshells of the scientific evidence and the response from the Commission, especially the threat of a complete ban on cod fishing and severe restriction on other quotas—particularly white fish quotas—not just because of the state of those stocks, but because of the cod by-catch. That has caused real fears in the fishing industry.

There are many reasons why we are here today, some of which we understand, some of which we are still trying to learn about. There are some very important points to make, and I acknowledge the robust stance taken by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on the position that the Government will take in the Council negotiations next month. It is important that that be maintained to the bitter end.

My first point is that we are seeing a significant sea change in the way in which we look at the issue of conservation. In the past, with the odd exception of some effort control, the main tool has been limitation of catching. We have controlled it by quota, by technical measures and by gear changes, and it is clear that that has failed over the years. When one speaks to people in the industry, one finds that there is a great deal of cynicism about the effectiveness of controls on the catch. One prominent member of the industry recently said to me that catching controls would only have worked if we had had a policeman or inspector on every boat. Clearly, that would be ludicrous.

As the Under-Secretary pointed out, however, the industry has a history of black fish—and, sometimes, illegal fishing—of very high and often unnecessary discard rates, of wrong reporting, and sometimes of elaborate methods to circumvent the technology. I know from my experience in north-east Scotland that although the industry body, the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, makes tremendous efforts and takes a lead in introducing and encouraging new technological measures to limit catching in the North sea, not all members of the federation follow that lead. It is important that that be understood. If we accept that we are currently in a crisis, we must be realistic and honest, and the Under-Secretary was certainly honest.

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The realities in the North Sea and other fishing grounds are such that there is enormous pressure on our fishermen, which is another part of the reality. It is part of the culture to catch fish while they are there—by the next visit, the fish will have moved on or someone else will have caught them. I understand that pressure. The most important thing about catching controls, however, was that they were an attempt to use biology as part of the process of making the scientific evidence relevant. The contribution of scientists to the debate, in using biological measures as the basis for establishing quotas, is entirely justified. That also enabled scientists to avoid any responsibility for the social and economic consequences of their advice.

What the Commission proposes is different. We have had attempts at effort limitation previously—in the early 1990s, when we had tie-ups and days at sea—but they have not lasted. However, that seems to be the direction in which we are heading, as the Commission proposes to impose effort control and limits on fishing capacity. If the result of scientific evidence is that our fishing boats are tied up in harbour, and fishermen cannot go out to earn their living to feed their families—or, in most cases, to service their substantial bank loans—the scientists are moving themselves right into the centre of the debate in terms of the socio-economic consequences of their decisions. There is a big difference between imposing a quota on a man who goes out to do his daily work of catching fish—which may or may not be there—and saying that he cannot do that. That marks a significant shift in the Commission's policy and the way in which it should be viewed. When the Under-Secretary attends the Council next month, I hope that that point will be borne heavily in mind. I know that he has heard, and will hear from, my colleagues from the north of Scotland in particular—they sit on the Opposition Benches—about how devastating the consequences of the Commission's proposals are. It is extremely important that all of that be borne in mind.

Because there are dire socio-economic consequences for the catching side, for the communities that rely on their efforts, and for the processing side, which still relies heavily on locally caught fish, there is no doubt that we face serious restrictions and that we need to implement strong conservation measures. The policy should lead to a sustainable fishing industry, and it is important to put it on the record that both sides of the industry have been working hard to develop policies for sustainability.

I recently received a report from the Fish Industry Forum entitled XSustainable Seafood—Working Together". It has been submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and the objectives in the report are important. It wants

Most important, the forum says:

We have waited years to hear that sort of language and it is a bit of a tragedy that it comes through only at a time of crisis in the industry.

The industry needs time and support to adjust. That is why I am particularly worried by the way in which the Commission approaches its responsibilities. It seems to

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be suggesting an abrupt, almost overnight, move from catching controls to very severe effort limitation, with no time for the industry to adjust and for the Government to introduce the necessary support measures.

It has always been a mystery to me why anyone should tolerate decisions on how the industry should operate from 1 January being taken in virtually the last days of December. That is one of the hazards that the industry faces. It is impossible to plan and for anyone to develop a proper operation for their business. I know that we are moving to multi-annual quotas, and they are to be welcomed, but it has taken a heck of a long time to get there. However, and more important, rapid change and abrupt turns need time to be implemented, and the Commission's proposals are not the best way to do that. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that point in mind.

I refer to a recurrent theme at this time of year. I am concerned about the agenda for the Council meeting in December. The future of the CFP is being shoved on to the same agenda as all the other important issues that are traditionally debated at this time of year. I have spoken of crisis, but we in the House must work hard to be responsible and not talk up a crisis. It is easy for an Opposition to do that. I have been in opposition, and I know how often we did it. However, it is important not to talk up a crisis, because people's livelihoods are at stake. They are worried. Their bank manager is phoning up to tell them that he has been reading the local newspaper and about the crisis in the industry and asking whether they will be able to pay their loans next year. The pressure is on us now and not next year, when the measures may or may not bite.

I am deeply concerned about what has been the almost traditional approach of the Commission. It has introduced what appear to be draconian measures and puts them on the table on the basis that they will be discussed. However, that is done in the full knowledge that negotiation and settlement will take place much further down the chain. That is extremely worrying. However, I am even more worried this time, because there appears to be an attempt to trade off the annual negotiations against the longer-term review of the CFP. I am worried by the Commission's approach. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the issues must be separated. The CFP must stand in isolation, and we must not be bullied by the Commission's threat of draconian measures into accepting measures that we would not otherwise accept.

My main concern is with the fish processing side of the industry. In modern times at least, there has been the assumption that, whatever happens in the North sea, the processing industry will be okay because it can survive on imports. It is true that a large proportion of the cod that is processed in Aberdeen, Peterhead and Fraserburgh is imported. It comes from Iceland, the Barents sea and some from as far afield as China. However, the industry makes it clear that it still relies heavily—the figure is about 60 per cent.—on the white fish caught in the North sea.

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