I GREW up in Grimsby. I remember it as a bustling fishing port when I was a girl; moreover, it was the biggest in the world at that time.
I remember the numerous trawlers in the docks, and the sense of pride among workers who were doing something that they knew was incredibly important: providing the nation with one of its favourite foods.
However, I also remember the decline that followed the so-called final Cod War with Iceland. The devastation that it wreaked both economically and socially was vivid. I was a teenager at the time, but I remember areas, particularly around the docks – such as Freeman Street and East Marsh – suffering disastrous consequences.
Gone, too, are many of the food processing plants that lined Ladysmith Road. Findus has gone. Birds Eye has gone, no longer anchored by the town’s status as one of the greatest food towns in Europe.
It is my witness of this decline, and the fact that my father was, for a period, a deep-sea fisherman – fishing off the coast of Iceland, at Reykjavik – that gives me an understanding of why our coastal towns and fishing communities matter more than their contribution to our national GDP would suggest.
At this point, I want to pay tribute to all those who died serving the fishing industry. In Grimsby, every time a trawler went down or men were washed overboard – that was the commonest cause of death – the children in their primary schools would repeat the Fisherman’s Prayer and sing The Fisherman’s Hymn.
It was all too common, particularly in the 1950s, for those children to have to sing that hymn and say that prayer.
Let me now deal with the Fisheries Bill. I have a number of concerns about it. First, the Government’s stated aspiration is to develop “world-leading fisheries”. Clause 1 sets out how this would be developed, including objectives such as creating a sustainable industry. We would all support that, but, unfortunately, the light-touch duties placed on the authorities potentially undermine the delivery of those aspirations.
We have to ask whether the Government is really committed to restoring stocks, or whether it will put political pressures first, at the expense of the science and the data available. There is a history of those pressures leading to that kind of over-exploitation of our stocks, not just in our waters, but throughout the waters of the European Union.
Secondly, there are concerns in relation to our marine environmental regulations. The fisheries White Paper acknowledged concerns about a possible “governance gap” which could threaten accountability for the implementation of the regulations.
It also suggested that a new independent environmental regulator should have a role in relation to the marine environment. As things stand, this Bill is opaque about how the forthcoming Environment Bill will protect our marine environment, and how the “governance gap” will be closed.
My final point relates to the very important fact that the fishing industry is not just about the catching side; there is still a very important processing and aquaculture industry alongside it, most of which, unsurprisingly, is based in or nearby fish-landing towns such as Grimsby and Immingham.
Indeed, 21 per cent of the industry is in Yorkshire and the Humber. It is an important provider of jobs in those areas, and for my home town of Grimsby it is still an important source of employment, with some 4,200 jobs dependent on the sector.
These processing plants also export much of their product into the EU, in a market worth £1.3bn, where we still enjoy a trade surplus. It is therefore vital in the drive to create world-leading fisheries that processing is not forgotten, as so far it has been in this debate. Full tariff-free access to the single market must be retained for the industry.
Grimsby makes some of the very best premium products in the world. One of the local fish-finger producing plants can take the fish from the moment it has landed at Immingham and have it in the lorry going to the supermarket in six hours.
One of the reasons why that is possible, and why the time from the moment of departure from Iceland to getting the product in the shops is concertinaed into a minimum, is the single market.
That fish is as fresh as possible, and those products are as good as they are, is because the single market has made it possible to ensure guaranteed standards while at the same time maximising productivity.
Any failure to secure access to the single market, such as by sacrificing our access to the market in return for keeping access to our waters broadly to ourselves, will represent a betrayal and could decimate processing in areas where the jobs and economic activity it provides are vital.
I am convinced that the processing side of the industry, which accounts for 64 per cent of the employment in the sector, will not want its interests to be sacrificed on the grounds that we will give no, or very limited, access to our waters to foreign vessels.
Angela Smith is the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. She spoke in a Commons debate on the Fisheries Bill – this is an edited version.