Agriculture and Rural Development
Monday 28 January 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Discussions with Minister:
2002 Cod Recovery Plan
Closure - Compensation
Ordered by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to be printed 28 January 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 01/02/E
Membership and Powers
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and has a role in the initiation of legislation. The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.
The Committee has power:
- to consider and advise on Departmental budgets and Annual Plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- to approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee Stage of relevant primary legislation;
- to call for persons and papers;
- to initiate enquiries and make reports;
- to consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:
Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr George Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr PJ Bradley
Mr John Dallat
Mr Boyd Douglas
Mr David Ford
Mr Gardiner Kane
Mr Gerry McHugh
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Monday 28 January 2002
Members present: Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paisley Jnr
Witnesses: Ms B Rodgers ) Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Ms E Cummins ) Assistant Secretary
Mr J Prentice ) Principal Officer
The Chairperson: I welcome the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and two officials, Ms Evelyn Cummins, the assistant secretary, and Mr Jim Prentice, the principal officer of the Department. We should like to hear from you, after which I have some questions.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): Thank you, Mr Chairperson. Good morning, everyone. I am sorry that I was unavailable last Friday, but I was chairing the North/ South Ministerial Council meeting and could not attend the Committee. I appreciate that the Committee is concerned about the possible impact on the local fishing fleet of the third successive closure of the white-fish stock in the Irish Sea. I have examined the economic impact of the previous closures, and that assessment is now complete.
Those familiar with the fishing industry will appreciate that it is difficult to attribute decline in fish stocks to any one factor, such as the closure of an area for conservation purposes. A number of factors, including the weather - which, as we see today, can be very inclement at this time of year - market prices and the abundance of the target species will affect landings. The fleet had alternatives during the closures, such as diverting to nephrops or fishing outside the closed area. Nevertheless, I examined five years' worth of data, and those indicate that there was a 40% average reduction in landings over the past two years compared with the previous three. Those statistics refer to the period of closure.
That equated to an average reduction of 27% by value and 40% by weight during the closure period. Despite that, by the end of the year the fleet had actually caught most and, in some cases, more than the total allowable catch (TAC). The quota was therefore reached over the year.
The scientific advice that many of the stocks fished by the local fleet are in serious difficulty is now generally accepted. I must emphasise that those closures must be regarded as a long-term investment in the future of the fishing industry intended to create the opportunity for increased spawning stock biomass and achieve greater availability of cod.
The data also indicate that, in the years in question, the fleet effectively caught all its quota of species affected by the closures. For example, the local industry caught 94% of its quota of Irish Sea cod in 2000 and 101% in 2001. The uptake of haddock in 2001 was 109% of the quota, meaning our fishermen exceeded it. There is nothing to suggest that the fleets will not reach their quota in 2002, and the Committee will be aware that I secured an increase on 2001's quota at the December Fisheries Council meeting.
There is also some concern that the previous closures resulted in excessive diversion of effort to the nephrops fishery, where there was effectively no closure. In the past two years, the fleet succeeded in catching an average of only 90% of its allotted quota, and its landings for those two years are still below its share of the 2002 TAC. On the basis of those figures, I cannot put a strong case for a tie-up scheme or compensation to the European authorities. Nevertheless, I shall keep the state of the industry under review.
I am happy now to take any questions.
The Chairperson: We were looking forward to hearing about the review; might it not have been better for you to come to us about that sooner, so that we could have dealt with the fishermen? The fishermen felt that, after the last vote in the Assembly, you would examine the matter immediately. It is too late to deal with that now. That was the main issue put to us by the fishermen; they feel that they should have known sooner. Of course, I accept your point that this is a matter of consultation and that there are pros and cons in Europe on the issue.
The issue that came up with the fishermen was that in 2001 we had a vote in the Assembly; a promise was made that you would examine the matter. Weeks have now passed, and that is the fishermen's main concern.
The other concern is that, while the fishing industry is currently having a reasonable period, fishermen must always look to the time when their employment and what they are geared up to do will come to a stop through a tie-up making it impossible for them to carry on. That is one of the main grievances put to us.
Ms Rodgers: First, I understand the fishermen's concerns, but I have only recently received 2001's figures. I undertook to examine the impact of the closure, and I could not do that until I had those figures.
If I had the money and decided to go for compensation on the basis of the impact of the closure, I should have to make a strong case to the European authorities. On the basis of the assessment of the closure's effect and the fact that more than the quota has been fished and reached in 2001, I do not have a case to put. That is the truth.
In 2001, the Assembly unanimously voted for a tie-up scheme. However, voting for a tie-up scheme is one thing and achieving it another. Mr Chairperson, owing to your experience in Europe, you will probably be more aware than most Committee members that EU state aid is not easily made available; you must make a strong economic case for it. Even if I had the money - and that is another issue - I do not have a case to make to the European authorities on the basis of the data before me. Those are the facts.
The Chairperson: We shall go round the table, for we know that your time is limited, and I understand somebody wishes to use this room in an hour, meaning we shall have to be out by 10.00 am.
Mr Savage: I should like to follow on from what you have been saying. What do you expect the fishermen to do during this tie-up time, and how do you expect them to survive?
Ms Rodgers: The first thing to realise about the tie-up scheme is that it is a short-term measure to ensure long-term benefit; it is an investment for the long-term future of the fishing industry. Fishermen can apply for social security benefits. The bureaucracy involved may put some off, but there was an attempt in 2001 by the Department for Social Development to alleviate that. I should certainly be prepared to have a word with Minister Dodds to see if the bureaucracy might be reduced, especially since it is for a short period. That is one thing fishermen can do.
They can also fish for nephrops, since, as I said, only 90% of 2001's nephrops quota was caught, meaning there is an opportunity for them. From data available to me, it appears that they have made up for the catch over the rest of the year.
Mr Savage: There seems to be an oversupply of nephrops in the market at the moment. Fishermen are not covering their costs, and there is a downward price trend. My information tells me that many of our fishermen will be unable to fish on the Clyde. If those outlets are closed to them, the only alternative is for your Department and that of Mr Dodds to simplify the system. It is all right for some people, but fishermen must have an income. If the bureaucracy and red tape were removed, it might make it much easier. It is not easy, but we must get started on the matter now, since the closure time is upon us.
Ms Rodgers: I take the point and am prepared to speak to Minister Dodds about trying to reduce bureaucracy, an important initiative for the fishermen. The Department made some moves on the question in 2001.
The market dictates the price of nephrops, and there is very little that anyone can do about it. Prices also go up and down in the agriculture industry; I have no influence over them.
Mr Kane: I echo comments about discriminatory measures made in correspondence from Mr Alan McCulla to Mr John Hume. Why do we appear to have a weaker bargaining position than our counterparts in neighbouring devolved institutions?
Ms Rodgers: I do not have that correspondence.
The Chairperson: Mr McCulla wrote to Mr Hume, who then copied it to the Committee.
Ms Rodgers: I have not seen it. Do you mean that, as a region, we have less bargaining power?
Mr Kane: I understand that to be the case.
Ms Rodgers: I assure Mr Kane that it is not so. At the Fisheries Council this year, some other Ministers told me that I seemed to have more clout than most, for I received a great deal of support from my counterpart in the South and managed to secure more quota swaps. I did exceptionally well this year in the negotiations, the quota increases and the arrangements we made with our colleagues in the South.
Mr Paisley Jnr: This year's closures are potentially much worse for fishermen, as there is no derogation for haddock, which offset 2001's problems. If the white- fish fleet has only nephrops to fall back on, will that bring more pressure on the markets? Further pressure on the markets puts fishermen in a catch-22 situation, since the nephrops market will be in an even worse state next year because of the tie-up.
Ms Rodgers: There was no evidence of that in 2001. Once again, I cannot possibly forecast what will happen in the market, nor can I have any effect on it. It happens in markets in all areas, including fisheries and agriculture.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Is that driven more by politics than by the needs of fishermen?
Ms Rodgers: I am not sure that I understand the question.
Mr Paisley Jnr: In November, you made a case that Northern Ireland fisheries have more in common with the Republic than with the UK. Is your policy driven by a need to make that a reality rather than by trying to get compensation for Northern Irish fishermen?
Ms Rodgers: As Minister of Agriculture I have one priority: to do what is best for Northern Ireland's fishermen at all times. Occasionally it has been very useful that the North/South Ministerial Council has met with my counterpart, Mr Frank Fahey, who has been extremely helpful, particularly last December, when he assisted us in the case we were making.
Fisheries should be listed as an area of co-operation in the same way as agriculture, something which has been beneficial to Northern Ireland. In answer to Mr Paisley's question, the only reason for my making any move in relation to fisheries, be it talks with the Commission, the South or Mr Elliot Morley, has been the interest of Northern Ireland's fishing fleet.
Mr Paisley Jnr: The local industry might take a different view. Mr Dick James of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers' Organisation is on record as saying that the Southern Irish want to get rid of the still successful Northern Ireland semi-pelagic white-fish fleet and that the South's policies on cod recovery are damaging the Northern Ireland industry. Have you asked if that is the case?
Ms Rodgers: I have no evidence of that. Of course, Mr James is entitled to his views. I shall meet with representatives from the industry today, and I am sure he will raise any concerns. It has been raised with me before, and I have successfully assured the industry that the only reason I do anything with regard to fisheries is the broader interest of the Northern Ireland industry.
Mr Dallat: The Minister will be relieved to know that on 15 January, in a letter to the Committee, Alan McCulla stated the following.
However, credit where credit is due, and Bríd Rodgers MLA deserves to be congratulated for the efforts she put in on behalf of the local fishing industry.
Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland's fleet is the only one in the United Kingdom that will be affected by closures this year and that it must therefore be seen as a unique case?
Ms Rodgers: It is the only fleet that will be particularly affected by the Irish Sea closure.
Mr Dallat: Does that make it unique?
Ms Rodgers: I suppose it does. There was a suggestion towards the end of 2001 that the Scottish Executive would close the North Channel in the mouth of the Clyde, which would have a serious impact on our fishermen. Elliot Morley wrote to say that he was considering the closure, and I replied that I could not agree. Ultimately I knew that I could not stop the Scottish Executive, but after further representations with Ross Finnie, he agreed to the same closure as in 2001.
The Chairperson: That was very important, because if that had happened - [Mobile phone interference] He told them that there were other things he could do if they did that.
Ms Rodgers: I gave him the same message.
Mr Ford: The Committee acknowledges your efforts, particularly with regard to the Fisheries Council. You say that state aid is not possible under the current circumstances. However, fishermen might apply anyway, since they would not get any aid otherwise. The Department - with the Committee's support - must show that every effort is being made and that we shall not back off if we feel there are difficulties. The impression people have of Commission decisions is not the same as that of other member states.
It appears that other people fight that last bit more effectively than any United Kingdom authority.
Ms Rodgers: I do not have an economic case to put. If I were foolish enough to go to the European authorities without an economic case, I should reduce my credibility with the Commission. I should have to go through the United Kingdom Government, which would require a case. I should have to admit that we not only achieved our quota in 2001 but overshot it: 109% in the case of haddock; and 101% in the case of cod. I should be asked whether I were suggesting that fishermen should get compensation because they have caught their entire quota and more, and that they should be allowed to exceed the quota by an even greater quantity. If the quota is reached, it means they have caught as much fish as the Commission allows, and it is not possible to argue that the closure has affected them.
Mr Ford: Minister, are you saying that an economic case can be made only on the basis of having caught less than the quota allows, even though we know - and the Department's scientific assessment suggests - that the quota has been set too low?
Ms Rodgers: The quota is the quota.
Mr Ford: Are you saying that the European authorities will not accept an economic case if the quota is fished?
Ms Rodgers: Yes. The economic case must be built on what is economically possible. If fishermen could not catch the amount economically possible because they had been closed down for six weeks and were therefore 10% to 20% short of the quota, there would be a case for compensation.
Mr Ford: I do not see that as -
Ms Rodgers: In 2002 we shall have an increase in the quota, so they will be allowed to catch more - if they can.
Mr Ford: However, since the Department is making the case that the quota should have been greater, why do you accept the Commission's view that there is no economic case because the quota has been reached?
Ms Rodgers: The Department's case was that the proposed cuts were not justified by the science, but Mr Ford will be aware that we argued for substantial increases, which are generally in line with the science. We were given those increases. However, we were certainly not in line with the science before.
The Chairperson: Minister, you said in your answer that you only recently received those figures for your review. How recent was that? You said that, before you got the figures, you could not make a decision.
Ms Rodgers: We got the latest figures on 17 January 2002. Irish Sea cod was 101%, Irish Sea haddock 109% and nephrops 89% and 91%. The fishermen did not reach the quota in nephrops, something which does not enhance the case for an increase in the quota.
The Chairperson: However, even if you had it in mind to follow that course, the delay getting those figures does not leave you very much time, does it?
Ms Rodgers: You can only record something at the end of the season. You cannot record it before the season is completed. That is the fact of the matter.
The Chairperson: Fishermen have been saying to us that they had an opportunity in 2001 which they do not have now. That is why the tie-up is so catastrophic to them. They have been pushed back into catching nephrops, and they will suffer greater financial loss than last time because of the haddock situation. That is the crux of the matter.
Ms Rodgers: I have given you the figures and the impact for 2001, on which I have to base a case, and there is none. However, as I said, I am prepared to keep it under review and keep monitoring the position in 2002. At the moment, I do not have a case that would stand up.
The Chairperson: If the application is not submitted on time, it will not be accepted. Keeping it under review would put it into 2003 rather than this year, would it not?
Ms Rodgers: Yes. However, I shall not have figures until the end of the season, and I must wait to see what the position is. I have done the assessment on the basis of the -
The Chairperson: That is an impossible situation, because your time is running out. It is a United Kingdom application and affects part of the United Kingdom. If you have to go, you will need time to do the deal before you even get there. Then you have to get there and put your case. Time is running out.
Ms Rodgers: You have put your finger on the serious difficulties I face in dealing with the European authorities. If I had a good case, I should make it. EU state aid would not be achieved in five or six weeks, something of which we are all aware. If I had a case, I should make it, and it would probably kick in next year. I can only go with the figures I have, and I can only get the figures when they are available. They will not be available before the end of the season.
The Chairperson: That is where our opinions differ. Some would say that there is a case to be made.
Ms Rodgers: If you explained the case to me, I should be pleased to take it up, Mr Chairperson.
The Chairperson: The case is that, in this instance, our fishermen are at a disadvantage compared to other fishermen in the United Kingdom. They must have a livelihood, and the pressures on them have been tremendous. No part of the fishing industry in the entire United Kingdom has suffered like ours. Owing to the employment position, it is vital that we should continue to hold what we have. As the fishermen will not have what they had in 2001 or alternative fishing, we should do something for them. That is the argument put to us. We have heard what you have to say, Minister, but this question will not go away. I hope that, if this happens again in 2003, we shall start much earlier and make some progress.
Ms Rodgers: If, over the year, they have exceeded their quota in cod and haddock, there is no case to make. If that happens again in 2003, we shall not have a case to make. If there is a case to make, I shall make it.
The Chairperson: That brings us back, Minister, to whether we accept the quota as something that cannot be altered and must be observed. We have consistently argued that it is unfair scientifically and to the fishermen.
Ms Rodgers: No. I did not accept the quota this year. As I have said, I achieved an increase on 2001's quota for cod and haddock. That is the point I am making.
The Chairperson: Thank you very much