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It is important to take into account the fundamental issues that have been raised in the debate, not only in terms of the Government's response but, perhaps most crucially, the forthcoming Green Paper, to ensure that they are heard at European level. There has been a good deal of debate about the importance of political will. We are dealing with a common fisheries policy--we shall talk later about its appropriateness--where political will is required across the Union, including the United Kingdom.
The forthcoming review of the common fisheries policy provides a mechanism to deal with the real and increasing problem of managing our fisheries internationally. Even though it has fallen short of earlier hopes and expectations in many areas, as eloquently described tonight, that mechanism is there and the forthcoming review in 2002 provides us with an opportunity to make the necessary changes.
It is absolutely clear, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said in introducing the debate, that the common fisheries policy must have at its heart the notion of sustainable development. The committee's report proposes that,
The Council of Ministers has already begun to consider the future of the structural policy, and the Government have pressed the council to take more effective measures. We argue for a reversal of the current EU policy because we believe it is wrong to allow subsidies which tend to add to the problems that already exist. In particular, we oppose grant aid for the building of new fishing vessels. The UK does not give such grants and regrets that other member states do.
However, it will not be easy to strengthen EU policy in this area. In the past the council has been reluctant to accept sufficiently tough fleet reduction targets. We look forward to effective proposals in the Green Paper, but it is wrong to suggest anything other than difficult negotiations ahead in this area. In that respect, my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside asked about our own national compliance with
Several noble Lords have put the case for giving financial aid to the fishing fleet. The Government appreciate the impact that successive quota restrictions have placed on the fleet, together with the impact of the new recovery plans for cod and hake. Ministers are urgently discussing with the industry the implications of these measures. One possibility is decommissioning to remove surface capacity from the fleet. There are other possibilities of structural measures of various kinds. These issues are being looked at in relation to various parts of the United Kingdom. We are in close contact with the devolved administrations on this issue. The need to have a coherent approach to policy is well appreciated in the light of the points made by the fishing industry.
Several noble Lords emphasised the case for socio-economic restructuring programmes to provide alternative employment opportunities for those leaving the fish industry. The Government agree that there is an important role for such funding, but a substantial programme of grants is already available. There are the DfEE employment and reskilling initiatives. The main EU structural funds include the European Social Fund. Most fisheries-dependent areas in England are within the Objective 2 regions and are thus eligible for European Regional Development Fund support. Regional selective assistance and enterprise grants are also available to help local communities readjust.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and others spoke of the need to focus on the protection of the marine environment. It is clearly the case that there needs to be an improvement in environmental integration within the CFP. That is a Commission priority for the forthcoming review. It is one that we have advocated and MAFF is funding research.
The Swedish presidency is moving the process forward and has produced a paper outlining possible presidency conclusions on the topic. That forms part of the Cardiff process and is due to be submitted to the Gothenburg European Council in June. We will do our utmost to assist the presidency in this area. We have noted the various suggestions that a great deal more should be done environmentally. Progress has been made and we shall certainly be looking to create a much stronger environmental framework for fisheries. We envisage provision to promote environmentally-friendly fishing as part of the structural policy. There are parallels elsewhere of the importance of integrating those two areas of policy.
One cannot talk of environmental issues without also mentioning the problem of discards. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lords, Lord Moran and Lord Palmer, raised that issue. The report of the committee noted
The updated technical conservation rules which came into force on 1st January 2000 have attempted to address part of the problem of discards by focusing on the selectivity of fishing gear. The need to do even more has been recognised in the new arrangements for Irish Sea cod which apply from 1st January 2001 and in the North Sea/West of Scotland cod and northern hake recovery plans. Both of these plans include larger minimum mesh sizes and restrictions on twine thickness; measures that improve real selectivity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, suggested a number of technical issues in this area. We have noted the reference to the range of issues that could reduce the levels of discard and environmental impact. All of them are relevant and form part of our approach to conservation.
The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, specifically raised the question of the provision for the sand eel fishery to continue under the North Sea cod recovery plan. The noble Earl very courteously gave me notice that he would raise the point. My understanding is that it arose because Denmark was keen to provide continued fishing opportunities for its vessels in the light of agreeing to the closure of a significant part of the eastern North Sea. Denmark argued that because the sand eel fishery takes place near the surface, the cod by-catch was very low, at around 2 per cent. The Commission accepted that and the fishery was therefore excluded from the prohibition. The size of the total allowable catch for sand eels in 2001 was set, like all other TACs, at the December Fisheries Council. It remains unchanged at 1 million tonnes, in line with scientific advice. No special deals were cut with the Danes. Moreover, the Danes are open to the possibility of reducing the sand eel TAC and limiting the by-catch provision for white fish. We have agreed that we will discuss this with them and the talks are scheduled to start shortly.
The noble Earl quoted figures for the impact of sand eel fisheries. I am informed that they were interesting but very speculative. The reality is that Denmark catches a great deal less than the total quota. It is also the case that the by-catch of white fish is only a much smaller percentage than the figure implied in the regulations. That is why Denmark has readily agreed to discussions with the UK on changes to the regime.
I turn from the technical to the very general. There were references in the debate to the possibility of our withdrawal from the common fisheries policy and indeed clarion calls for it from the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke, Lord Moran and Lord Pearson of Rannoch. We have to understand that proposition in the context of the undeniable need to co-operate fully with our neighbours on fisheries management, especially when fish stocks are low. The committee itself advised that a common policy of some kind is essential. It is the Government's view that calls for withdrawal from the CFP are not only unrealistic but could also be highly damaging. How would it promote
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