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Wednesday 27 February 2002
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
Commission Green Paper
on the Future of
the Common Fisheries Policy
[Relevant documents: European Union Document No. 7260/01, the Commission Communication: elements of a strategy for the integration of environmental protection requirements into the Common Fisheries Policy; European Union Document No. 98 75/01, draft Council Decision and Regulation on Community structural assistance to the fishing industry; Unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 14 September 2001 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the Special Report No. 3/2001 by the Court of Auditors concerning the Commission's management of international fisheries agreements; European Union Document No. 12344/01, the Commission Report on the monitoring of the Common Fisheries Policy; European Union Document No. 12475/01, the Annual Report from the Commission on the results of the multi-annual guidance programmes for fisheries.]
The Chairman: I remind all members of the Committee that pagers and mobile phones should function silently or not at all.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): My opening statement will be brief. As hon. Members will know, we had an annual fisheries debate in December, and I was pleased that business managers managed to secure a full day for that. Last year, the Scrutiny Committee considered the relevant matter, in addition to its being dealt with in debate, and hon. Members said then that it was useful for them to have a second opportunity in the new year to talk through fisheries issues, including total allowable catches and quotas.
I understand that hon. Members will have a surfeit of opportunity this year. The Scrutiny Committee recommended this debate on the common fisheries policy review and a range of attached documents, which have been circulated to the Committee. Those are all important issues, on which I am sure hon. Members will have a view. The common fisheries policy review in particular is important, but there are others, such as the Court of Auditors report and third-country agreements, about which some hon. Members have expressed legitimate concern; issues arise for serious consideration by the Commission. I understand that a further Scrutiny Committee debate will take place on this year's TACs and quotas.
I am happy to take questions and appreciate the opportunity for more detailed debate. It will be a busy year for fisheries issues. The cod fisheries review is due this year and we expect a paper from the Commission.
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I believe that it aims to produce that by April—perhaps the end of April. It may miss the April Fisheries Council, but hon. Members will have an opportunity to see it. Also, we must finalise the cod recovery programmes. The debate about that matter will be very important. We have made great progress with respect to cod and hake, two species that are under particular threat, and I pay tribute to the fishing industry for its active involvement in that progress. The Government try to encourage involvement by the fishing industry at all levels in conservation and technical discussions, and in negotiations—the negotiations with the Commission as well as the European Union-Norway talks. We appreciate the industry's constructive engagement with that process.
A great deal remains to be done. A range of commercial stocks is still in difficulty and we cannot be complacent. We shall need to do an awful lot of work, and we shall engage in on-going debate about technical conservation measures, effort management, and the issue of structural funds and fleet structures in the European Union, which is dealt with in one of the documents before the Committee today. A problem of overcapacity in the total European Union fleet remains, and we shall have to turn our minds to that in the Council this year, particularly in dealing with such issues as how public funds should be used, and their use in construction and modernisation. That aspect of the use of public funds has not had a good history, given the increase of capacity and the use of more and more effort in relation to fish stocks.
I know that the Scrutiny Committee wanted an opportunity for debate on a range of issues, and I am happy to be here to answer questions today.
The Chairman: We have until about 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that those questions should be brief and asked one at a time. That will leave ample opportunity for hon. Members to raise several questions.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): The Minister referred to the cod and hake recovery programme. Will he confirm that vessels that have used their allocation of kilowatt days when fishing for cod or hake will be permitted to continue to fish for other species?
Mr. Morley: I am not clear on the hon. Lady's point about kilowatt days. I assume that she is referring to the beam trawl segment, where there is effort control in relation to days at sea. If my assumption is correct, I can tell her that producer organisations manage their days at sea with reference to the effort and quota available to them. I hope that I have understood her point. If not, I am happy to come back to it.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): The Minister mentioned the cod recovery plan in the North sea. Can he advise the Committee of the state of play in terms of the Norwegians and their net sizes? I have received representations from fishermen in communities in Whitby and Scarborough who are very concerned that the Norwegians do not seem to be sticking to their end of the bargain. What is the EU's position on that?
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Mr. Morley: I am concerned if my hon. Friend's constituents feel that the Norwegians are not sticking to their side of the bargain. They are generally very good at enforcing their agreements. The position is that anybody fishing for cod in the Norwegian zone must use a 120 mm net size. I met some of my hon. Friend's constituents yesterday. They came to talk about the interpretation of the agreement in relation to the EU-Norway talks on the North sea, and about the practice of carrying both 80 mm and 120 mm nets in relation to a directed cod fishery. It is quite legal for vessels to carry those two net sizes, but they are subject to limitations in relation to catch composition. That was the point that my hon. Friend's constituents wanted to clarify.
We have taken into account both our own and the Commission's legal interpretations. Our interpretation of the rules is exactly the same as that of SEERAD—the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department—in the Scottish sector and that of other member states. I know that it is not the interpretation that the industry would like, and I have expressed concern that the industry felt that the matter had been misunderstood in its negotiations on the regulations. I hope that we can rectify that in the future, so that the industry is aware of what is intended by these rules.
Andrew George (St. Ives): As the Minister knows, there was broad cross-party support for the bulk of the Commission's common fisheries policy reform Green Paper. Much of it was relatively uncontentious, concerning the maintenance of relative stability and—we hope—the six and 12-mile limits.
The paper also contained some welcome indicators—although they were rather generalised—that the Commission may be moving towards the establishment of regional management committees to deliver some of the enforcement and management of policy. Many people who are concerned about the future of the industry believe that to be a good idea. In the Minister's discussions with his counterparts in Europe and within his own Department, what progress has been made in putting flesh on the bones of that concept?
Mr. Morley: We are making some good progress on that matter. We believe that it would be in the interests of the fishing industry and of our fishermen to establish such committees. Incidentally, we also believe that it would be in the interests of other member states and their fishing industries. It would allow some flexibility within the operation of the CFP and engage the industry more closely, which is the right way forward. We welcome the Commission's inclusion of the matter in the Green Paper.
To be frank, some member states have been suspicious about exactly what it all means. They suspect that somehow it is an opportunity to exclude or restrict their rights. However, that is not the case; that is not what the Commission means, and nor is it what we mean on regional management. The common fisheries policy in its present form is an inflexible and monolithic structure. It needs a little more movement within it to reflect the differing nature of fisheries throughout the European Union and, indeed, around our own coast. The nature of fishing differs
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tremendously between the north of Scotland and the south of Cornwall, and the regional nature of fisheries should be reflected. We welcome the Commission's actions, and we intend to make progress with them. We have also made efforts to reassure member states that were uncertain about them.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): My question is about the enlargement of the European Union. What discussions have there been on the subject under debate with nations that are likely to join?
Mr. Morley: Discussions are under way. Fisheries agreements have been made with some of the accession states, in the normal way in which countries agree annually. The accession of the candidate countries should not pose a great problem in relation to the common fisheries policy. We are bound by the principle of relative stability. Countries such as Poland and the Baltic states have fishing interests, although not in the North sea. The principle of relative stability does not give them the right to the quota in the North sea that has been distributed as it stands in the common fisheries policy.
All those issues will have to be negotiated as part of accession. If the principle of relative stability holds, there should be no difficulties in relation to the accession states.