In a Westminster Hall debate yesterday, I spoke about the crisis facing our bass stocks and what the Government needs to do to address this. The full debate can be found here and my contribution is below.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, in which he outlined his case.
I do not intend to repeat the detail of much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I see my role, as a former fisheries Minister, to stiffen the Minister’s resolve when he negotiates in Brussels in a couple of weeks’ time and with the self-appointed representatives of the commercial fishing sector. I warn him from my experience that if he and the Council do not make tough decisions now, he or his poor successor—perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)—will have to make much worse decisions in a year or two’s time, as the hon. Member for Meon Valley outlined. It is far better to make tough decisions now. If the Minister caves in to the self-appointed representatives of the commercial sector, our bass fishery will be doomed. I therefore urge him to go to Brussels and negotiate hard on behalf of the fish stocks. In the end, it is the fish that matter for everyone, including the commercial sector if it is to have a future.
I also want the Minister to be aware that in the view, probably of most people in Westminster Hall today, and certainly of most people in the country who have an interest and knowledge in this area, the current proposals by the Commission are not only wholly inadequate but totally imbalanced in favour of the commercial sector and against the recreational sector. One of his first tasks, apart from ensuring that we get much more meaningful and drastic action, is to rebalance those proposals in the other direction.
The Minister will know the value of the recreational sea-angling sector, and not only because his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Meon Valley, reminded him of it, but because his own Department conducted research into it in 2012; I think I can recall earlier pieces of research into it, too. The Department’s research in 2012 found that the sector’s income for the country was £2.1 billion, it sustains 23,000 jobs, and as I think the hon. Member for Meon Valley said, the VAT receipts alone from the wealth and activity generated by sea angling dwarf the income from the commercial fishing sector. As I said, the Minister’s first task is to rebalance this inadequate plan from the Commission.
The Minister’s second task is to grasp the nettle on minimum landing size. I commend to him an Adjournment debate that was held in the main Chamber in 2007, between the then hon. Member for Reading West—Martin Salter, who was a great champion of sustainable fisheries and the sea-angling community—and my successor as Fisheries Minister, Jonathan Shaw. In that debate, all the arguments about minimum landing size were rehearsed. As the hon. Member for Meon Valley has reminded us, when I was the Minister I took the decision to increase the minimum landing size, to 40 cm as a first step, then to 45 cm after a period of review. Tragically, however, that decision was reversed by my successor who, as is often is the case, came under pressure from the very powerful self-appointed commercial fisheries spokespeople.
That was a disastrous decision. If people look at that debate, they will see that the reasons given by my successor as Minister for not proceeding with the increase was that the bass stocks were in decent shape. Well, look at them now. All I can say to the current Minister is, “Please learn the lessons of that mistake and go for an increase in the minimum landing size.” It is absolutely insane that we allow people to catch the vast majority of bass before they even reach spawning size: that is my second message to the Minister.
My third message is to have a look at what I still consider to be the best Government strategy on fisheries published in the past 20 years—a document called “Net Benefits” that was published in 2004. It was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 2002, because of the disaster facing the North sea cod industry and the repercussions, not only on cod stocks but on fishing communities around the North sea. It took two years to develop what I believe still stands as the best long-term fisheries strategy for this country. I commend that document to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, the Opposition spokesperson, if she has not read it already; I hope that she reads it before she gets the job of Fisheries Minister, because it is the best policy document that I can remember.
In that document, the Government at the time said:
“We should review the evidence supporting arguments for the designating of commercial caught species for wholly recreational sea angling, beginning with bass by the end of 2004.”
That document was published in 2004, 10 years ago. Here we are now, with the bass stocks at risk of collapse, and far too little has been done in the meantime.
Consequently, the third thing that the Minister can go away and do is a longer-term thing, which is to have another look at designating the bass fishery as solely recreational. That was a Labour policy 10 years ago; it has got nowhere, and we are now paying a very high price as a result. Incidentally, the “Net Benefits” report was endorsed shortly after its publication by the then Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which also supported re-designating bass fishing as a recreational fishery.
Those are my very short political messages to the Minister. The hon. Member for Meon Valley has done a great job in laying out the detailed case for change, and the challenge that we face. However, my simple message to the Minister is for him to go away, fight for bass and take some radical action, because if he does not do so, he—if he is still in the job—or his successor will have a much tougher job further down the line.