Friday, November 28, 2008

House Points: The future of fishing

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Kettles of fish

MPs assembled the other day for a great Commons occasion. Not the pre-budget report but the annual debate on fisheries. It featured a figure that this column has become obsessed with over the years: the Minister for Fish. Last Thursday there was a new one in plaice: Huw Irranca-Davies.

Hansard calls him the "Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs," but we know what that really means.

It is always an important debate for members with fishing interests in their constituencies, and many of them are Liberal Democrats. Alan Beith, Alan Reid, Andrew George and Alistair Carmichael all took part. Even Ming Campbell lowered his sights from the finer points of international diplomacy to plead for the lobster fishermen of Pittenweem.

The history of the fishing industry is a tragedy. The apparently endless bounty of the oceans has been all but exhausted by overfishing. This has inevitably led to regulation, but the absurdities of centrally imposed rules lead to fish being thrown back dead because it is illegal to land them.

Most MPs called for more local regulation of fishing. Though some may dream of a return to a free-for-all, for most this was just a wish for more sensible regulation.

Others will point out that fishing is now regulated by the EU via its Common Fisheries Policy and wonder if their industry was uppermost in Edward Heath’s mind when he negotiated Britain’s entry. It is easy to imagine an allegorical painting entitled The Sacrifice of Poseidon to Europa. In it Heath lies chubbily naked on a bed of haddock with his arm around the neck of a bull… Just me, then.

Perhaps there is a parallel with the pre-budget report after all. The seemingly bottomless sea of credit has also been fished out. Individual voters now realise they will have to pay back every penny they have borrowed, and their debts are no longer being made to look insignificant by rising house prices.

In this light Alistair Darling’s cut in the rate of VAT looks very like a red herring. And soon we will have to find the money to pay for it too.

No cormorants were harmed in the writing of this column.

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