Sunday, March 13, 2005

Rank hypocrisy

Concluding our commentary on the Booker column – only three stories again a week – Booker picks up on our report of the European Sub-committee A debate last Tuesday on the EU quota allocations for member state fishing fleets.

Yet again, writes Booker, the House of Commons provided a startling picture of what is meant in practice by "scrutiny", explaining – for those who are less aware than our readers – that this is the process whereby MPs are meant to have the chance to examine EU legislation in advance, so that ministers can then go off to discuss it in Brussels with the full authority of Parliament.

As we reported, the handful of MPs attending the committee had been presented only hours before with 900 pages of documents, on which they were graciously permitted to question our fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw before voting.

Booker reports that Bradshaw seemed to have some difficulty in answering the questions put to him. But his Labour colleagues remained silent, until they could dutifully give this mountain of unread paper their approval. Probably few even realised that the regulations under discussion were approved in Brussels last December and have already been law for three months. Whatever Parliament thought about them, Booker concludes, was thus wholly irrelevant.

What is particularly unwholesome these proceedings, though, is the stance taken by our government, which has taken to using the committees as a means of endorsing its own policies, by tabling composite motions which asked the members to “take note” of the EU legislation and approve government action in respect of the issues covered by the law.

This debate was no different but what made this tactic especially disgusting was that the EU regulations covered not only the usual fishing controls but also provision for "certain deep sea stocks", then asking for support of "the Government's objective of achieving the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fishing resources in line with the precautionary principle while preserving a viable degree of activity for the industry."

Unbeknown to MPs, however, a group of fisheries researchers, funded by Norway, Ireland and the UK, had carried out a study of the deep water fisheries to the west of Ireland and Scotland, and a sorry tale they had to tell.

Entitled: "A preliminary Investigation on Shelf Edge and Deepwater Fixed Net Fisheries to the West and North of Great Britain, Ireland, around Rockall and Hatton Bank", this report is now on the internet , complete with gruesome photographs, one of which appeared on the front page of this week's Fishing News, which broke the story of the findings.

Headed: "Monks slaughter in deepwater fishery", FN conveyed the thrust of the report which retailed how up to 50 – mainly Spanish – flag vessels were working huge fleets of gill nets, doing enormous damage to stocks of monkfish and deepwater sharks in the continental shelf waters.

An average of 65 percent of monkfish were discarded from up to 5000 miles of nets being worked at any one time, with up to 150 miles of netting left unattended for up to ten days, leaving the fish caught to rot in the mesh. Furthermore, up to 20 miles of net per vessel per trip was routinely discarded, nets which continued fishing in a manner aptly known as "ghost fishing".

Some of the nets used were of the illegal monofilament type and among the more unsavoury habits of 15-16 Spanish trawlers landing into Milford on a regular basis was the practice of steaming up from Spain and shooting their nets en route before entering a UK port to make "compliance visits". Once certified as being "legal", they then steamed out again to retrieve their nets, returning to Spain to land their catch – where, of course, there would be no inspection by the Spanish authorities.

The researchers concluded in their report that it was evident that "there is little or no management of these fisheries and existing control and enforcement regulations have little or no impact. Essentially these fisheries remain totally unrestricted."

But, while MPs during their debate had no knowledge of this report, it can hardly be the case that the fisheries minister – or his department – was unaware of it. Yet Bradshaw still asked the committee to support the "Government’s objective of achieving the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fishing resources in line with the precautionary principle while preserving a viable degree of activity for the industry."

For rank hypocrisy, this is very hard to beat.

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