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Fishing Industry

Volume 888: debated on Monday 17 March 1975

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7.30 p.m.

I wish to address myself to Class III Vote 7 subheads A4A and A6. As will be appreciated, this is a considerably wider Vote than that which has just been discussed. I hope, therefore, that we shall be able to deal with a large number of matters affecting the fishing industry. The industry is full of complexities. It is often difficult to recommend improvements for one section without treading on the toes of another section or even depriving it of some of its rights.

I shall attempt to highlight some of the fears and problems which fishermen face at all levels of their business. I use the term "business" intentionally. I believe that for the vast majority of those who sail in fishing fleets this is how they see their industry. They enjoy a greater participation than many and, despite the hazards, their job satisfaction is enormous. I have met very few fishermen who, all things being equal, would wish to change their employment. The trouble is that at the moment all things are not equal and the industry is fighting for its survival.

I welcome the Government's announcement earlier this month about temporary aid. I am, however, unhappy about certain exclusions about which I shall have something more to say later. The Scottish Trawlers Federation has calculated the scheme to be worth about £700,000. While this will be of assistance to boats already at sea which are faced with ever-increasing costs and a fall in market prices, it is unlikely to prove a sufficient incentive, at the rates outlined in the Government's statement, to entice back to the fishing grounds boats which are presently tied up.

Most important is the fact that it is a temporary help. While it is most welcome, it will not solve the long-term problem. I would counsel the Minister to enter into early discussions with representatives of the various fishing interests to determine the principles of a more permanent scheme of support to follow after June 1975. At the moment there is no suggestion of any likelihood of increased market prices. Indeed, if the present trend is followed the market for United Kingdom fresh fish could worsen considerably.

Taking the cumulative effect of the January-February catch landed at Aberdeen in 1975, there is a reduction of 11·7 per cent. on 1974 prices. Other ports show a similar decline, but I use the Aberdeen figures because they were kindly provided for me. Given the high incidence of foreign fish imports, together with the stockpiling of fish throughout the world, it has now become essential for the Government to re-examine their attitudes towards third-country fish imports.

France has already imposed a complete ban and I see no reason why similar action could not be considered by this country. The argument that we cannot do this because of EEC membership is surely overcome when we consider the steps that France has taken. It would be a great pity if our fishermen had to resort to the extreme measures which their French neighbours took to gain some sort of Government recognition.

I must ask why the temporary aid is not being extended to vessels of less than 40 feet in length.

The Minister must be aware that over the years limits have been agreed regarding the size of craft allowed to fish in certain areas. There is a considerable number of boats which have been designed and constructed with this in mind. The 40-ft. limit excludes a good number of vessels of about 35 ft. which perform functions almost identical to those of the 40-ft. craft but which operate in areas of restriction. I suggest that assistance be extended to include those vessels. Further, I am disappointed that a way has not been found of assisting those engaged primarily in shell fishing. These are the real small inshore fishermen. They are being discriminated against because they do not fish for white fish or herring.

Yet those are the people who all too often suffer severe damage to their gear by illegal fishing by larger craft. I have known a prawn fisherman to lose £400 worth of tackle in one night as a result of a large trawler coming in, probably with lights out, and sweeping all before it. I am afraid that the fishery protection service is woefully inadequate. The Government must give immediate attention to this problem.

In the meantime, and until such time as a proper fishery protection service can be extended to inshore fishermen, I reiterate a suggestion I made in a letter to the Minister recently. This concerns a stretch of water fished by inshore fishermen from Kyle and Applecross in my constituency of Ross and Cromarty. Over the years the fishermen there have been plagued by illegal fishing by larger craft in a sea bounded in the south by Kyle Rhea and in the north by a line from the north end of the Isle of Skye to Gairloch. Byelaws have recently been published and one is being considered locally in connection with the BUTEC range which will shortly be in operation in that area. I suggest that included in those byelaws should be a provision to the effect that in the sea area I have mentioned there should be a ban on all forms of trawling, whether ground trawling, which is illegal inside the 3-mile limit anyway, or midwater pair trawling, which is not illegal but which causes great damage in the area.

Pair trawling is such a serious matter in such an area that it constitutes a hazard to the livelihood of local fishermen. In addition, such a measure would have the effect of creating a fish conservation area which would help replenish the depleted fish stocks in surrounding waters. This problem may not be directly relevant to the Department of Defence or to the byelaws, but if this suggestion were incorporated the Ministry would not object.

I come now to a problem facing another type of fisherman altogether. I understand that it is the intention of the Secretary of State for Scotland shortly to lay an order the purpose of which would be to place a total ban on gill netting. I appreciate that certain sections of the industry have been pressing for such a measure for some time. I accept that in a few places it may be justified, but I ask the Minister carefully to consider the suggestion I am now putting forward.

One of the key factors about this form of fishing is that the net must be attached to the shore. The abuse which has been taking place arises from the fact that the net has in some instances been stretched as far as three or four miles out from the short. Few would disagree that that practice is wrong. I ask that, rather than impose a total ban, the Minister should stipulate a certain distance beyond which it would be illegal to lay a net from the shore. I suggest that 800 yards might be a suitable distance. Few who use this type of method would want to lay nets more than about 600 yards from the shore. This would leave them a safety margin. By imposing a complete ban on this practice, many fishermen in a small way of business would be severely penalised.

I understand that the use of filament nets is also likely to be banned. It would be most unfair to do this without warning. If it is the Minister's intention to include such nets in the order, he ought to give due warning to those who use nets of this type that as at some future date it is the Government's intention to ban them. This would give these people the opportunity to replace their tackle.

I remind the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland of another group of fishermen who have their eyes focussed on him. I refer to those who fish largely for sport and who have been waiting, since the publication some years ago of the Hunter Report, for legislation on freshwater fishing. My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) did much work on a proposed piece of legislation which he hoped to introduce and which would have been introduced by now had not we been defeated in February 1974. Governments of both parties have had good intentions on this matter, but parliamentary time has been at a premium. Nevertheless. I feel sure that such a Bill would be of much greater value than some of the Government's obnoxious measures.

I have dealt in some detail with a number of the problems confronting the fishing industry but I have not mentioned the question of limits or the EEC. I tabled a great many Questions at the end of last week but unfortunately I received the answers only shortly before I came into the Chamber, and therefore I have not been able to use them as I might have wished. However I have distributed them among my hon. Friends who, because they will be speaking later, will no doubt use them more adequately.

I am sure that I speak for every hon. Member when I say that on many previous occasions the question of the 200-mile limit has been spoken to. At this stage all I can say is that I wholly support the arguments deployed in favour of such a limit, and, although it is highly desirable, the 50-mile limit for herring fishing has become a positive necessity.

I refer to two of the Questions which I tabled. I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how much of the white fish catch and of the herring catch in each of the past five years in the waters around Scotland was caught within six miles, within 12 miles, within 50 miles and within 200 miles respectively. I received a reply confirming the need for a 50-mile limit as soon as possible, namely, that all herring was caught within a 50-mile limit and there was no record of catches between 50 and 200 miles. All but 11 per cent. of the white fish was also caught within a 50-mile limit.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland was as impressed as we all were by the arguments submitted to us by the fishing delegation which visited the House in January. Those men did not come here in a militant mood. They tried to persuade us and to argue their case. All of us who met them felt that they made a very good case and that we would do all we could to help them in the fearful problem which they faced.

Just outside the existing 12-mile limit off North-West Scotland the herring stocks are being plundered by foreign fleets. I am advised that the Norwegians, Faroese and Icelanders are fishing indiscriminately. It has been suggested to me from within the fishing industry that little attention is being paid to the question of quota. Will the Minister confirm that those countries are enforcing the strict checks which we apply to boats operating from our ports, and is there any means by which this can be independently examined by representatives of NEAFC?

Our own industry has nothing to fear in this matter, and our figures can be checked by anyone. But there is growing dissatisfaction within the industry about the present quotas and I trust that the Government will watch this matter very closely. It is impossible to say when the Law of the Sea Conference will come to a decision on the question of limits. I suggest to the Minister that we should not wait for such a decision regarding a 50-mile limit for herring but that the Government should enter into consultations with the other countries concerned if the Geneva talks do not produce agreements.

I tabled a Question to the Foreign Office asking the Secretary of State what negotiations had taken place with member countries of the EEC in relation to the common fisheries policies, particularly with regard to the proposed 200-mile fishing limit. I was relieved to receive a reply to the effect that the Government had made it clear to the other member States that if, following the Law of the Sea Conference, there was a general extension of fisheries limits to 200 miles the common fisheries policy would need to be modified considerably. I understand that the commission has made proposals and there have already been preliminary discussions about them.

I am very sorry that the Prime Minister, when he was in Dublin last week, did not make this a prime issue in his discussions. The answer which I received from the Foreign Office, although encouraging, is by no means likely to convince the fishermen of the Government's good intentions.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns was very much involved in the negotiations which took place while the Conservative Party was in government in the months leading up to entry to the EEC in 1972. He made it clear at that time that it was the then Government's intention to ensure that when 1982 came the position of the inshore fishermen would be protected, as it is at the moment. I should like the Minister to give us an assurance that the present Government will give the same priority to this question and will seek a common fisheries policy in order to prevent free access to each other's territorial waters.

We are plagued by Russians, Poles, Norwegians, Faroese and Icelanders, not to mention certain EEC countries, but it would be quite wrong for anyone to pretend that our main fear stems from the EEC countries, because countries outwith the EEC are just as great a menace to our fishing industry as any of those within it. But the Government must be seen to be acting quickly and firmly.

The problems which I have outlined are among many which face the fishing industry. The great difficulty is that the industry has to look ahead. Its future is uncertain. Whether a 200-mile limit or a 50-mile limit is achieved, the industry will face many problems, not least those arising from entry to the EEC. I speak as one who is absolutely in favour of our staying in the EEC because the benefits to this country far outweigh the disadvantages. But it is imperative that the fishing industry, particularly the inshore fishing industry, should be wholly protected in the negotiations into which the Government will soon enter.

I am glad to have had the opportunity of raising the problems which face the fishing industry, and I am grateful to the Minister and to other hon. Members for being present tonight.

7.50 p.m.

Those of us who represent fishing ports do not have many chances to debate the fishing industry, so we are grateful to the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) for seizing the opportunity to do so. Fishing is the Cinderella in comparison with its massive partner agriculture in that office in Whitehall, but with our new Minister of State I am sure that as well as sympathy we shall have action in the coming months.

It has been said that this is a momentous year, but it is also a dangerous year. Unless something is done, this year will see the end of some fishing firms which fish in inshore waters and have insufficient cash to weather the storm. Families with vessels of less than 40 feet in length receive no monetary assistance, whereas wealthier firms in Hull get, I think, £90 a day while they are at sea. This year will settle the future of many in the industry.

The question is: what is to be the future of the industry? Last Saturday there was a seminar in Hull which was attended by representatives of all sections of the industry, and my colleagues in the House on both sides who buy Fishing News will know about it. That seminar was attended by owners, deck hands, union officials, merchants and fishmongers. Mr. Charles Meek, from Edinburgh, made a helpful speech about the 50-mile limit and the fishermen north of the Tweed who wish to take action now. He talked about the politics of persuasion.

By way of persuasion, I suggest to my colleagues that we are in the same difficulty and that, instead of agitating for a 50-mile limit, we should wait until after the Geneva conference and not take the law into our own hands. I believe that then there will be a consensus of perhaps 70 fishing nations for the extension of limits not to 50 miles but to 200 miles. In that event, I should like my colleagues in the late summer or early autumn to urge the Government to take action to extend our limits.

As Austin Laing said on Saturday in Hull, if we were left behind in claiming limits we should be in an awful mess, and there would be a chaotic scramble involving not only Chile and Senegal but many of the so-called civilised States of Western Europe which might take the law into their own hands. Norway comes to mind. I should not like to see my colleagues north of the Tweed behaving as the Icelanders did. We had plenty to say about that 12 months or two years ago, when they used shot—blank, of course—against our skippers. We did not like it.

We should think twice about trying to extend by force the limits to 50 miles off the Scottish coast. For one thing, we should need fishery protection. How would Russian, Polish or Norwegian vessels, which came within the 50-mile limit be stopped? The skippers of the vessels would say "The Limit is still 12 miles. Stop us if you can." I should deplore such incidents, as we all deplored similar incidents with the Icelanders.

After 30th June, when the £6¼ million expires, what is our future? The fishing industry, whether north or south of the Tweed, or in Northern Ireland, will not wish to continue to receive perpetual handouts from any Government. We must consider some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty which might help to stabilise our fishing industry and give fishermen a better chance of paying their way and not being dependent on handouts from the Government.

I could not agree more with what the hon. Gentleman said about the control of imports. I had a deputation in Hull on Saturday morning from skippers and others who are deeply concerned about imports from Norway—and the same is true of the skippers in Fleetwood. Norway is not in the EEC and Norway is not usually a lawless State. We have imports from Iceland where export subsidies are immensely increased by continuing devaluation of the kroner. Holland, by artificially low export prices for plaice, is almost killing off the Lowestoft market. Most people will accept that Austin Laing knows a little about this subject. and he said that the Government were aware of the depressed state of the market but he was not sure that they also realised that if imports continued to undermine quayside prices the main object of the subsidy, which was to slow the decline in the fishing fleet might well be defeated. Our task is to stiffen our Government. This is a job for them.

France is in the EEC, which is supposed to have a common fisheries policy. If the French look after their people by stopping the unfair competition caused by putting large amounts of fish on their domestic market, why should not we look after our own people? I do not often like to copy the French The Gaullists are the biggest menace inside the EEC, and they have been the biggest stumbling block of the last few years. The French may quote theology about the Common Market but they do not always abide by it. They take the law into their own hands. We should be acting legally if, on behalf of our own people, we did what the French are doing.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty that we should extend the limits. A lot of nonsense is being talked about Norway, Spain and other countries which object to Her Majesty's Government's planting a flag on the island of Rockall off the north-west coast of Scotland. That island by the 1958 convention is ours by any international understanding. Who wants to fish there, other than ourselves? Who will want to fish off that part of Scotland in future whether it is within a 12-mile limit, a 50-mile limit or a 200-mile limit?

It is important that we should clear our minds about the common fisheries policy. It is extraordinary that during the Dublin meeting the subject was apparently not mentioned. It now looks as though Her Majesty's Government will suggest to the people, in face of the referendum, that we should stay in the EEC, and, indeed that they will so advise our people to vote. On Saturday in Hull I met a large number deep-sea and inshore fishermen who said "Whether we like the EEC or not, if it is a matter of continuing a common fisheries policy, count us out." They are men who, on balance of the other circumstances, wish to stay in the Common Market. Those fishermen have seen a situation where the Dutch, Belgians, Danes and others have fished out their own waters, and they will now be enabled to come the distance of 50, 100 or 150 miles and fish off our shores—the shores of the Yorkshire coast, Northumberland, Aberdeen and elsewhere. This is just not good enough. It will also similarly happen off the South Coast.

All those in the fishing industry are at one on this matter. It is a burning issue, and will become hotter as the weeks go on. It will increase as the debate peps up leading to the vote on the referendum some time in June or July.

There are many other hon. Members who wish to speak, and so I shall be brief. We have indeed been fortunate to have this debate at this moment when this extremely important issue is so topical. I plead with the Minister to remember that we are dealing with the future of some of the finest men in the nation. The fishing industry is the most genuine of all. It is comprised of men who face danger, whether it be in the Arctic or off Lands End. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty said that these men go to sea because they want to do so. They have not opted for a safe or easy job elsewhere. They have chosen to go to sea and face danger. It is our duty to ensure that we do not let them down.

8.5 p.m.

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) on his good fortune in the Ballot and also for choosing the subject of fisheries for discussion. I would point out to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) that both the present subject and the previous one were instituted by Scottish Members of Parliament. I am in almost total agreement with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty. I agreed with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull. West but disagreed with others.

On the question of entry in the EEC, there is no doubt that both the Conservative Government in their day and the Labour Government in their renegotiations have neglected fishing interests. The Conservative Government had an excellent argument for dealing with the original Six in that they had no fisheries whatever to put into the common pool. Therefore, even at that stage the Government of the day might have taken a much stiffer line.

I was much disturbed to hear the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs say recently that fisheries policy was not a matter which had been covered during talks in Brussels, Dublin and elsewhere. It is a matter that will have to be straightened out. Our fisheries are under attack from other countries, quite apart from the EEC nations. The situation will alter in 1982 since other nations' vessels will have the same rights as our own vessels to fish in our waters. Those other nations have an enormous number of vessels—estimated at about 25,000. They fish with more sophisticated gear than that which is used on many of our vessels. Within a short time I can foresee our fisheries being left in a depleted condition.

I turn to the subject of the policing of fishing grounds. Again, over the years Conservative and Labour Governments have neglected the interests of the Scottish fisheries. I discovered from a recent answer given by the Secretary of State for Scotland that in December only two vessels were at sea on fishery protection duties. I appreciate that the Minister said in a recent letter that there are crewing difficulties not confined to the fishery protection service or to this country. However, surely the Department should regard the protection of fishery grounds as a matter of high priority and, through financial inducements or otherwise, seek to obtain officers to crew the ships.

I appreciate the help given by the "Westra" in the fleet, but it is inexplicable that the Secretary of State for Scotland agreed to the "Jura" being seconded to oil-rig protection duties. The Minister has stated that the "Jura" will also at the same time carry out fishery protection duties. With great respect, I find it almost impossible to accept that if that vessel is engaged in oil-rig protection she will at the same time be able to undertake fishery protection within the limits.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West mentioned the 50-mile limit and made a plea for no precipitate action to be taken. I give the hon. Gentleman his due since he did not speak in a party sense about fisheries. The whole point of the argument relates to the degree of urgency. Many of us felt that, although after the Geneva Conference we might well have a 200-mile limit, in the meantime the fisheries might be destroyed. I repeat that the matter is urgent. The damage is so extensive that we can hardly expect to wait any great length of time before anything is done about the situation.

The suggestion has been made by Professor Ian MacGibbon that countries such as Norway, the United Kingdom and perhaps the Soviet Union could come to some ad hoc agreement on the extension of limits.

Is there any scientific evidence that the whole of the stock could be cleaned out in the months ahead in this way? If that is the case, why is it that Charles Meek, the Chairman of the White Fish Authority, should say that we can wait a number of months and that our job is to come together on these matters involving limits?

The fact is that the figures of landings have been falling all this year. The fishermen in their representations have been quite definite. I am sure that they are sincere in their representations.

I turn to the question of subsidies, which seem to have been tailored to the needs of the large trawler fleets. I appreciate that the large fleets need assistance, but it is unfortunate that some of the smaller vessels have been cut out. In my constituency the cutting out of the vessels which fish for shell fish is very much resented because some fairly large-sized boats are engaged in that industry. In view of the difficulties about size and the restrictions on the fish the boats go after, one way out of the problem might simply be to change the subsidies to a system of rebates on the fuel used in the vessels. I shall be interested to have the Minister's reaction to that suggestion.

There is great uncertainty in the industry. For the first time for many years there are no new boats on order in my constituency. About two weeks ago a boatyard was closed on the east coast of Scotland. Boats are for sale all around the coast. I associate myself with what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West said about this body of men in a very honourable occupation, working hard, and enduring danger and discomfort. They do not owe anybody a living, but we owe them the backing they deserve when their industry goes through a particularly bad time.

8.11 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) for initiating the debate. It is quite apparent, especially from what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) has said, that there is on both sides of the House a desire to see whether we can all combine to do the best we can for the fishing industry in the difficult time which it faces.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the Law of the Sea Conference. I have been reading with great interest a report in the Fishing News of 14th March of what was said at that conference. Even if we are successful at the conference in getting the limit extended to 200 miles, how long does the Minister think it will be after agreement has been reached that we could achieve general agreement between all the countries for the alterations necessary to bring a 200-mile limit into operation? Is it practical politics to believe that at the stroke of a pen, for example, the whole of the Russian interest in the North Sea would suddenly be removed? I believe that it would have to be phased in over a period of years. This is why the request by the herring fleet in Scotland for a 50-mile limit at present needs to be closely examined.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether there was scientific evidence that the herring stocks could be obliterated in a comparatively short time. He and several other hon. Gentlemen listened about two weeks ago to one of our leading fish research officers, who pointed out that the immature herring was at greater risk outside the 50-mile limit than at any other time.

We should be seeing whether we can get some form of agreement to restrict industrial fishing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty asked a Question today relating to industrial fishing, and was kind enough to circulate to me the Minister's answer that these figures were not readily available. But I understand that the OECD Review of Fisheries Yearbook shows that the North Atlantic region's fishing for conversion to fish meal for the year 1972 was about 4 million tonnes, with Norway and Denmark together accounting for 3·3 million tonnes, or 82 per cent. Russia and Poland are not in the OECD, and their catches are not included.

I think I am right in saying that our total catch of fish, which is mainly in the North Sea, is just under 1 million tonnes. Therefore, if the OECD countries are catching 4 million tonnes and there are the industrial catches of Russia and the Polish fleet in addition, there is a real risk that if we do not take steps to restrict industrial fishing the sort of trouble that is threatening the herring stocks will actually come. Whilst we hope that the extension of the limits as a result of the conference will help us, unless we take steps to restrict industrial fishing as quickly as we can there will be a real danger to our fishing fleets.

Other hon. Members have already mentioned the interim award which has been given for six months to the fishing industry, and the fact that smaller boats are not included. One of the figures in the OECD review showed boats of about 60 feet to 65 feet in length having operating costs at £7 a day in 1973 which increased to £16 in 1974. However, for the smaller vessels the costs had gone up from £1 to £3, which showed an increased cost for oil of three times, whereas for the medium-sized boat the costs had gone up by just over 50 per cent.

In the light of these figures there is a very real need to ask the Minister to see whether he can look again at the question of help to boats which are under 40 feet in length. There is a real need to bring back confidence to the industry. I have a boatyard in my constituency which has recently run into trouble. It is likely to close down, but I hope that the boats it is at present fitting out will be completed. However, there is a boat which I saw two or three weeks ago and the keel had just been laid, but undoubtedly this order will have to be scrapped.

The question of stocks of fish which are held in cold store is also something that needs to be looked at. I asked a question of the Minister and was told that there are 48,000 tons of frozen fish held in cold store as at the 31st January this year. Our having all that fish in cold store, together with falling prices for the fish which we land at our ports, must reinforce the need to control the amount of fish allowed into the country. The problem is world wide. It is not only in this country that the stores are full of fish. I understand that the same applies in North America, and that some of our troubles have come from there.

One other subject which has not been mentioned concerning the Law of the Sea Conference, and the interests of the fishing industry in Scotland on a different level, is what is done for the protection of the Atlantic salmon. While we seek to extend our limits, we know that the salmon bred in our rivers feed well outside that limit, and can be, and often are, caught in large numbers there. Therefore, while we may reasonably hope that a 200-mile limit would be satisfactory for many of the species which we should like to catch, and which we have been catching, the North Atlantic salmon could be much at risk without special arrangements.

My other point concerns fishery protection. Could there not be more cooperation between the Royal Air Force and the fishery protection services? We know from experience that many sorties are flown over the North Sea by RAF planes. They should be able, from photographic reconnaissance and so on, to plot the position of ships, so that the fishery protection vessels may be better enabled to take more effective action.

There are many other points that I could raise on this all-important matter for our fishing industry, but the really important one is to see what interim measures we can introduce to bridge the gap between agreement on the 200-mile limit, if agreement is reached, and the time when it becomes effective. I do not believe that it will be possible, by a stroke of the pen, suddenly to go to 200-miles. That is why interim protection is essential if our fishing industry is to survive.

8.20 p.m.

I very much enjoyed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour), who went right through several of the most important points which we are considering. The port of Fleetwood knows only too well what can happen when a fishery is fished out. We used to be considered the great hake port of the West Coast, but, as hon. Members from Scotland will know, the hake fishery round the Minches was fished out by Spaniards and other foreigners by pair-fishing. Today hake is a rare fish in Fleetwood. Where we used to specialise in it, now we get it purely by chance. Therefore, we should take extremely seriously any threat to a particular fishery.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) for initiating the debate. I must tell the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) that it is not only the Scots who are devoted to the industry. Even nationalist Lancastrians and Yorkshire-men such as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) take a great interest in it and pursue the matter from time to time.

I should like to tell the Minister of the position in my port. The Fishing News of 14th March, under the heading
"Fleetwood Hit By Price Drop",
"Evidence of the tremendous fall in fish prices over the last year is given in the latest statistics provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Nowhere is the trend shown more clearly than at Fleetwood. In November 1974, 48,919 cwt. of fish was landed at the port and sold for £601,613. In 1973, for the same month, the figures were 50,370 cwt. which sold for £746,307."
There are later figures which show trend to be getting even worse.

I have figures from the Fleetwood Fishing Vessel Owners' Association for the last few landings. Total landings were as follows: Friday 7th March, 2,076 kits, of which 781 kits of prime fish went to fish meal; Monday 10th March, 3,672 kits, with 927 to fishmeal; Wednesday 12th March, 3,391 kits, with 919 to fishmeal. That means that one-quarter to one-third of the catch of prime fish which could be eaten by people was going to the fishmeal factories. It was not industrial fishing but edible fish, which the people of this and other countries could eat. In a starving world, that seems remarkable.

At the same time, from the other side, as we call it—the Humber ports—there are reports that in Hull about one-sxith of the catch is going for fishmeal. Obviously the industry is in a bad state when such figures can be given in a debate of this kind.

At the same time as the price has fallen and the bottom has dropped out of the fish market, costs have increased. The association says that in September 1973 the price of gas oil was £16·70 per ton. It is now £54·20. Apart from the increase in oil prices and the remarkable increase in the price of gear, the cost of everything else needed to run a fishing vessel has increased.

We should judge the subsidy against that background. We welcome the operational subsidy, for which we have pleaded for about a year. I do not like to quibble because I know that the Minister has to put up a fight against the Treasury for subsidies of this nature, amounting to £6,500,000. However, the horticulturists in my constituency bitterly regret the decision, which seems to have caused £6,500,000 to be taken away from them. I cannot win on this issue. I regret what has been done for the horticulturists while welcoming the help given to the fishermen.

As regards the 40 ft. limit, at one time length was the governing factor. However, new engines have been fitted to inshore vessels of less than 40 ft., which have a longer range and arc more powerful than vessels of more than 40 ft. The vessels belonging to fishermen in my constituency are 38·5 ft. in length. Five of those vessels were built with the help of White Fish Authority grants and loans. Those vessels are now excluded. I know that this is not an easy matter for the Government. However, the inshore fishing industry feels very strongly about it, and it would be a good thing if the Minister could help the industry along those lines.

The root of the problem of low prices, which is now faced by the deep-sea fishing industry, is tied up with the EEC fisheries policy and the general world situation. It is even more tied up with the fact that we are still trying to obtain cheap food in an age when it no longer exists and when the cost of producing food, including fish, is rising rapidly.

The guidelines set by the EEC policy board for fisheries are lamentably low. We must ensure that our producers of food receive a fair return from the market, and EEC policy should be formed on this basis. It is ludicrous to pursue a policy based on the old limits when there may be a fantastic change in the limits later this year with the adoption of a 200-mile limit, although the industry will claim a 50-mile limit to be totally controlled by the United Kingdom.

I should like to know what is happening in Brussels with regard to the EEC fisheries policy negotiations. A policy must be formulated, preferably before the end of the Law of the Sea Conference if possible.

If the French Government impose a ban on imports, that will show that EEC policy is in disarray. Therefore this is the best time, if we act quickly, to complete renegotiations in our own interests.

A temporary ban on the landings of foreign fish is necessary. Norway and Poland are sending large quantities of fish to the United Kingdom. Their other markets, especially the United States, have fallen, and the United Kingdom is the dumping ground. It is time that every British Government reacted more quickly to dumping.

I wish to refer to the question of what will happen when the Icelandic agreement runs out in September. That problem affects the whole fishing industry, and certainly the Aberdeen and Humber ports. The owners and fishermen in my constituency want to know the present state of the negotiations with the Icelandic Government. Will there be another cod war in October? What plans have the Government in the event of no agreement being reached?

The Minister will come to realise that on all these matters there is much general support in the House for seeing that the industry is put on the right road. It is facing very severe problems, and we should like to hear from the Minister about some positive action. Talk will go down very badly in the fishing industries. It is action that we want, not talk.

8.30 p.m.

The whole fishing industry, deep-sea and inshore, has been overtaken by this crisis in both fuel and gear costs. If there was one small result to come from the crisis it was that the industry was united and came together to the Minister saying "We are all affected and we need temporary assistance." It did not come looking for permanent feather-bedding from the Government. What it wanted was some way of getting over a crisis.

It was extremely disappointing that the Minister chose so divisive a way to deal with the crisis as the selection of an arbitrary limit which resulted in excluding from the assistance almost the whole of the inshore section of the industry at a time when, with other divisive problems facing them, the two sections of the industry were drawing together so well. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) has sought to bring the industry together. I suspect that he shares my disappointment that so divisive an idea as the 40 ft. limit on the subsidy should have been introduced.

I ask the Minister to consider the position at a few of the Northumbria ports. In the port of Amble, for example, there are 14 boats under 40 ft. and six over 40 ft. The under-40 ft. boats are only a few inches below the limit, and three of them are engaged in white fishing. The Minister's explanation of the selection of this arbitrary limit is that it is to distinguish boats in those sections of fishing in which there is what he describes as a serious structural situation. He has singled out white fishing. Vessels engaged in white fishing which are only inches below this limit are excluded from the assistance.

At the port of Seahouses there are 12 vessels under 40 ft and seven over 40 ft. I ask the Minister to think of the divisive effect upon any fishing community when vessels engaged in the same kind of fishing are arbitrarily singled out, with the result that some have benefit and others have none.

At the port of North Shields the situation is even more absurd. There are only a few boats under 40 ft but there are 30 over 40 ft, many of which are engaged in inshore fishing.

The Minister has chosen a limit which does not make sense.

Since the hon. Gentleman is talking about my own home and since I know many of these fishing families, will he say whether in his view the 40 ft limit is useless and whether it should be 35 ft or 38 ft?

The difficulty of using a figure and making it the basis for calculations is that fishing nowadays does not depend on the size of vessels, as the hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) pointed out. A number of the boats which I have cited as being just under 40 ft have engines which will carry them over a longer range than some of those above the limit. That suggests that any limit on length is perhaps the least appropriate method to choose. If a limit had to be chosen, I should prefer to see a lower one, perhaps 25 ft or 30 ft. But it is an unsatisfactory measure to use when there are other ways it could be done. At the very least, there should not be an absolute cut-off point at 40 ft but a scale which graded right down to a lower figure.

Whenever I have tabled Questions to the Minister on the subject I have been surprised by his reaction and by the way that replies on issues connected with his statement suggest that the whole scheme had been explained satisfactorily in the original statement. Recently, the hon. Gentleman answered two Questions, one by me and one by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks), and in his replies the Minister said that it was explained that the arrangements announced on 27th February were aimed at avoiding the development of a serious structural situation for certain classes of vessels fishing for white fish and herring. Although there were aspects of the statement of 27th February which we welcomed, it cannot be said that it explained anything very much. It did not explain the reason for the limit. It did not explain why shell-fishing vessels were excluded whether under or over 40 ft. The reports of the Press conference suggest that there was confusion at the time as to whether shell-fishing vessels were or were not included. It comes hard for the Minister to suggest that everything was totally and satisfactorily explained on 27th February.

There may well be a basis for different treatment of the inshore industry from the deep-sea industry, but, as the hon. Member for North Fylde has pointed out, the cost effect on the inshore industry is in some ways more dramatic than that on the middle-water and deep-sea industries. Many inshore vessel owners are facing costs which have trebled rather than risen by 50 per cent. of 75 per cent. There seems little justification for so arbitrary a distinction.

Many would agree with some of the things that the Minister said in his original statement. For example, he said:
"In the end, the cost of catching fish will have to he recovered in the price ….".— [Official Report, 27th February 1975; Vol. 887, c. 206.]
Most fishermen would agree with that and would want that to be the basis of the industry. However, the housewife might be forgiven who formed the impression that in recent years the cost of fishing has been recovered in the price. One of the things that have disturbed many fishermen is that the price on the fishmonger's slab has escalated when the price that they are receiving on the quayside is not increasing but falling.

It is for that reason that I have sought to persuade the Minister to consider the whole question of fish distribution and fish marketing. That is an area in which some of the Government's money could be well and usefully spent. Money could be spent on a simple operation of research and discussion with the interested parties to establish where some of the money is going. There is no doubt that there is concern amongst the organisations which represent consumers and amongst those that represent the fishermen that fish prices to the purchaser in the fishmonger's retail shop do not seem to respond in the same way as prices on the quayside. That is a difference that is difficult to explain.

There are some disturbing signs that in this and other respects the Minister is not well advised. There are some disturbing indications, some of which have been mentioned already. The business of choosing a 40-foot limit is one indication. Secondly, there is the failure to renegotiate the Common Market terms to include a common fishing policy. There were clear indications at the beginning of the Government's period of office that there would be such renegotiation. That is another matter which gives rise to concern.

In my area there was the extraordinary announcement by the Secretary of State for Scotland that gill net fishing would be banned. That causes us to wonder whether the Minister is in control of the situation. Does he realise that his right hon. Friend's announcement affects white fishing in an area for which the English Minister is responsible? I suspect that he is not aware of that. It is clear from parliamentary answers that the Secretary of State for Scotland has made no attempt to consult the English fishing interests on which he proposes to legislate by means of an order. That leaves the fishermen in my constituency very much concerned about whether the Minister is in control of the situation. They are concerned whether Scottish Ministers are not allowing their imperialist ambitions to get out of control. That is their fear, as it seems that Scottish Ministers propose to introduce orders without consultation which will affect the livelihood of people outside their normal area of jurisdiction.

There have been other matters—some arose before the Government's period of office began—which are still causing difficulty. The White Fish Authority has insufficient funds for training but the training opportunities scheme of the Department of Employment is still not allowed to make provision for share fishermen to benefit from it.

All these matters leave one wondering whether the advice is satisfactory on which decisions on public spending involving the industry are being made and whether the Minister is receiving the right sort of advice. That is the most charitable assumption to make. That is the one that I choose to adopt. The least charitable assumption is that a structural change is taking place. If that is so, the Minister will find that he is encouraging a substantial decline in the English inshore fishing industry. I do not suppose that to be the case, but the Minister must concede that it is an easy interpretation to put upon some of the things that are happening.

If it were the belief that the inshore fishing industry and the families of the fishermen involved could be set aside and allowed to decline the Minister should think again. He would create thereby unemployment in places where there is no alternative employment. Unemployment would arise of a kind which none of the conventional policies could alleviate. He would bring about a waste of the capital expenditure which has gone, for example, into grants for vessels and into grants to develop the inshore industry. Some of the things that have been happening, such as the 40-ft. limit, lead one to suppose that the Ministry is not well advised or is not well disposed towards the inshore fishing industry. I hope that something can be done to allay that disturbing impression.

8.40 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) on having the good fortune and good sense to give the House the opportunity of debating this important subject.

On a more local note, representing part of Aberdeen, I am glad that the fishing industry is being debated in the House, because so much attention, rightly, has been devoted to the oil industry in recent months. It is worth reminding the Scottish Office and people in the northeast of Scotland that up to 20,000 persons in that area arc closely engaged in the fishing industry. Therefore, we must not allow their interests to be overshadowed by the more glamorous aspects of the oil industry.

There is no doubt that the fishing industry is undergoing an extremely serious time with grave problems—probably unparalleled in its recent history. These problems have many causes, some of which have been mentioned. The industry has had enormous increases in fuel costs from about £17 a ton in October 1973 to over £50 a ton in December 1974. There have been increases in costs of building, gear and wages, and there have been problems over quotas.

There have been considerable and novel problems caused by the arrival of the oil industry in the north-cast of Scotland. Those problems range from restricted areas in which traditional fishing vessels were allowed to operate and are now not allowed to operate—areas which will be increased as more pipelines crisscross the sea floor—to gear being damaged by things thrown overboard from oil supply vessels, and so on.

The industry has also suffered from the effect of low fish prices. In Aberdeen in the first two months of this year there was a decrease on the average price per hundredweight of 11·7 per cent. On the last figure for February the average price per hundredweight has suffered a drop of 18·5 per cent. That drop in price, calamitous as it would be for the industry at any time, must be set against the fact that prices everywhere else are rising. Inflation is going ahead at 20 per cent. Therefore, the industry is being hit from both ends of the inflationary spectrum at once.

The Government, faced with this situation and after prompting from many sources, including myself and my hon. Friends, have given welcome financial support to the industry. I say that categorically. Equally categorically I must tell the Minister that that support does not go far enough. It is difficult to see how any vessel currently tied up because of the problems that I have listed will be caused to turn back to sea because of the Government's financial support. I do not believe that will come about, much as I should like to see it.

Whether that is right or wrong, we must all agree that the majority—probably all —of the problems currently facing the fishing industry will still be there when the scheme comes to an end in June. I therefore strongly urge the Minister and his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Scottish Office to set up machinery for continuing discussions to ensure the stability of the fishing industry on a more long-term basis than the mere six months' grace afforded by the scheme.

I understand that one of the Minister's hon. Friends at the Scottish Office announced last week that the Government had no intention of continuing the present system of support and that the argument advanced in support of that was the belief that prices of fish would rise and that, therefore, the industry would be able to find its own feet through that mechanism. If that were so nobody would be more pleased than the fishing industry. Nobody in the industry wants to be dependent upon Government aid. It is an unparalleled set of circumstances which has forced this situation upon the industry, and I do not know anybody in it who believes that soon enough in time we shall see a rise in fish prices so that the industry can put itself back on its own feet. I do not believe that the evidence available to us makes such a deduction possible.

Mention has been made of the dumping of foreign fish. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) quoted the astronomic amount of frozen fish still in store in this country waiting to be distributed. To a large extent this is what is pulling down the price of fish, and it is no use the Government thinking that the price of fish will rise while there are these vast stocks ready to be unleashed, as it were, on the British public. France has now imposed a ban on such imports. The fact that she is no longer a market for the unloading of stocks means that we shall be even more vulnerable than we were to the importation of fish that would otherwise have gone to France.

I therefore strongly urge the Minister and the Government to consider the continuation of financial support, though not necessarily on the same lines as before. The Minister will, no doubt, know that the fishing industry did not altogether agree with the lines on which that support was given. I shall not go into that now. I merely say that there should be a continuation of support on a basis to be discussed with representatives of the industry. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there must be a restriction on imports of frozen fish from non-EEC countries. I hope that we can get the support of the Minister to set up discussions at the earliest moment to consider these important aspects.

I now turn briefly to the question of the Common Market fisheries policy. I do not want to lay down in any detail tonight what the various branches of the industry feel they should have out of any renegotiation of the EEC fisheries policy. Various points have been made tonight by other hon. Members, but, no doubt, the industry itself will make quite clear to the Government what it feels should be done. There is to be an important meeting in Edinburgh next Monday at which various aspects of the United Kingdom industry are coming together, and I hope that very soon after that meeting the various branches will let the Government know what they think.

There must be some specific and definite commitment by the Government. before the referendum on the EEC, on what exclusive British rights will be absolutely guaranteed. I believe that it would be wrong for fishermen or members of any other section of the community to vote in the referendum solely on the narrow ground of how their own business or industry will be affected. The voting should be on the basis of the broad and long-term national interest. None the less, however much I may not like it, the fact is that many fishermen have already said that unless they get guarantees they will vote against the United Kingdom staying in the EEC.

Various references have been made to what was said in Hull at the weekend. Perhaps I may read to the Minister a telegram that was sent to his right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—a telegram to which, incidentally, a reply has not been received. The telegram reads:
"Scottish Trawlers' Federation demand that renegotiation of common fisheries policy on limits be regarded as essential matter for discussion in current negotiations regarding UK terms for remaining in EEC."
I also find it incredible that the Government did not regard this matter as important enough to negotiate at this early stage. If they had done so, the matter would, no doubt, have been settled.

The telegram goes on:
"If this matter not resolved to satisfaction of industry before referendum, effects seen as catastrophic and industry's opposition to EEC membership likely to harden substantially."
I believe that the herring fishermen sent messages on even harder lines, saying that they would definitely vote against the EEC. So it is important to get some sort of commitment from the Government.

I know the difficulties of giving a commitment, and I regret that the date of the referendum has thrown another spanner into an already complicated works, but this commitment is necessary for the industry's future and also to secure the maximum support in the referendum for our staying in. There must be a commitment that, whatever happens, the negotiations on the EEC fisheries policy will produce the removal of the policy of full access by 1982, and modifications which will give maximum priority to our vessels in our own waters. Those two matters are vital if we are to take the industry with us.

I hope that the Minister will say something about the longer-term proposals for securing stability.

8.52 p.m.

I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) on his good fortune in securing this debate on such an appropriate day. I want to deal with the problems of the fishing industry under the headings of rapidly escalating costs, the extinction of fish stocks and fishing limits.

The Government have recently announced plans for an operating subsidy for fishing boats. A few weeks ago the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, in answer to a Question from me, said that something was just around the corner. I said at the time that that was a reasonably fair answer, knowing that the fishermen of Argyll desperately wanted this kind of subsidy. But I did not know then that there would be a strict division between those who got the subsidy and those who did not. As the Under-Secretary must have known, most of the fishermen in my constituency will not get it.

Many hon. Members have referred to the arbitrary cut-off point of the subsidy. It is worse than arbitrary. Only boats of 40 ft. and longer will benefit, but there are particular reasons why most boats in the Firth of Clyde area are shorter than that, up to and including 39·9 ft.—because the byelaws provide that only boats of less than 40 ft. can fish in the three-mile limit. Therefore, the cut-off point positively militates against a fair deal.

Apart from boats wrongly being cut off from this subsidy, there is also a problem for boats engaged chiefly in shell fishing. Clearly the rationale—if one may use that word—of not giving the subsidy to shellfishing boats is that shellfish somehow are regarded as luxury foods and, therefore, clearly the gentlemen who fish for these luxury foods should not benefit from Government funds. However, I want to point out two things. First, in this day and age shellfish, over and above anything else, are not luxury foods. One thinks of the products of other primary producers and of fillet steak, for example, and even in fishing one thinks of halibut and turbot. One wonders why shellfish should be singled out for opprobrium as a luxury food.

Above all, one thinks of those who are carrying out this job. Even if the Government think that shellfish are a luxury food and that shellfishermen should not be paid subsidy, I would remind the Government that the occupation of shellfishing is certainly not a luxury occupation and that those who carry it out have to work just as hard as any other branch of the fishing industry to earn a living.

I do not want to take up too much time in discussing the question of subsidies. I conclude my remarks about it by saying that the present Labour Government disappoint me. They disappoint all of my hon. Friends because the Government have shown themselves to be, above all, the party of the big battalions. The Labour Party is not prepared to consider the legitimate interests of the small man, be he the small man in the fishing industry or with a builder's business or whatever he is. It has been shown clearly that the Government just do not care. They have let themselves down very badly. The tenor of many of the preceding speeches was that the Government had sacrificed the support of virtually everyone in the fishing industry and will continue to do so until they mend their ways in relation to current policies.

On the question of subsidy, I should like to suggest that in any case we should take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) when he put forward the idea that perhaps a more obvious and rational way of subsidising fishing boats, and a way which would cover boats of all lengths quite easily, would be simply to give a rebate on fuel. The hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) mentioned the question of horticulture when talking in terms of the Ministry. If one could do it for fishing, one could clearly do it for the horticulture industry too. It would be simply a question of the owners of fishing boats going to the Government with the receipts they had for payment for fuel supplies and receiving subsidy on that basis. I cannot think of a simpler way of giving the fishing industry the help that it requires.

I want to move on quickly to consider the question of fishing limits. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) asked my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles what scientific evidence he had for prognosticating that the herring shoals off the West Coast of Scotland were in imminent danger of extinction. Clearly, scientific evidence is always bound to vary on such a question, but conversations that I have had with marine biological experts in my area suggest that very soon, by next season, there will not be any herring worth catching off the West Coast of Scotland if something is not done, and done not merely within the next few months, because we are talking in terms of days or weeks and not months.

The Government are taking a very dangerous responsibility if they are pretending that this matter can somehow be postponed until all sorts of discussions have taken place, perhaps until they have got mixed up with some new plan for a revised system of quotas, or perhaps until the talks at Geneva are accomplished and a 200-mile limit is fixed. We do not know how long that will take to bring into operation, as the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) pointed out. The need is urgent and I regret that there appears to be no recognition by the Government Front Bench of just how urgent it has become.

I wish primarily to discuss another matter which was touched upon in the debate—the renegotiations which were supposedly accomplished in Dublin. In this matter the Government have shown a total dereliction of their duty to the fishing industry not only of Scotland but of the United Kingdom generally. How appropriate it is that we should be discussing this matter just as the Cabinet is trying to persuade all Ministers to support the renegotiation. There can be no doubt that the Government's dereliction of duty has been absolute. They have pretended to renegotiate but they have done nothing to help the fishing industry or to change the common fisheries policy which was so wrongly supported by the last Conservative Government.

I and my hon. Friends hope that even at the eleventh hour the Government will change their view and not only go all out to secure a proper limit—we have suggested for the short term a 50-mile limit—but will ensure that the small fishermen as well as those who operate on a large scale get the support they require and deserve.

9.2 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, which could not have come at a more appropriate time. As the representative of a Cornish constituency, I can well understand the Minister now feeling that this is a matter on which the representatives of the various Celtic fringes are united. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) on initiating the debate. I wish to deal, only with the inshore sector.

We all welcome the assistance that was announced by the Minister on 27th February last. All fishermen, whether deep-sea or inshore, have been faced with significant increases in energy costs which have not been compensated for by increased quayside prices. The Minister specifically excluded vessels of less than 40 ft. from the aid scheme. Like many other hon. Members, I found that disappointing. Fishermen in my constituency based at Looe, Polperro, Downderry and Kingsand used language far stronger than anything I am permitted to use in this House. After all, their difficulties are just as great proportionately as the difficulties of those who operate boats in excess of 40 ft.

I asked a Question on this matter and the Minister of State told me earlier this month that the reason boats of less than 40 ft. in length are not eligible is because the arrangements announced on 27th February were aimed at avoiding the development of a serious structural situation. These considerations did not apply in respect of vessels under 40 ft. in length. This is quite illogical and inconsistent.

I hope that by outlining the situation in my constituency I can show that the structural dislocation that the Minister is anxious to avoid applies as much to the inshore fishing fleet, particularly that of Devon and Cornwall, as to the deep-sea vessels. In those two counties 90 per cent. of the vessels are less than 40 ft. in length. In Cornwall alone there are approximately 200 vessels. This means that about 180 boats fishing largely for mackerel but also for prime fish, such as plaice and sole, and shellfish, will not be eligible.

If I translate the position in Cornwall as a whole to my own area, it means that only six of our 40 vessels will be eligible. These 40 vessels provide direct employment for over 100 men. It is often estimated that about four to five times the number of people directly employed in fishing are employed in the ancillary and subsidiary trades. I am speaking of an area of the country where alternative employment opportunities are limited. I ask the Minister, in the strongest possible terms, to reconsider the position of this important sector of the inshore fishing industry for the following reasons. The cost of fuel for a day's fishing has increased threefold since November 1973. In addition, a limited number of boats under 40 ft. in length have greater engine power than those over 40 ft. and thus use correspondingly more fuel. These boats are fulfilling the same functions as boats over 40 ft. in length.

Rising operating costs have not been compensated by increased quayside prices obtained by fishermen. Many of the boats of approximately 36 feet in length based on Cornish ports have been built in the past few years with the assistance of grant aid from the Government through the White Fish Authority. It is inconsistent for the Government to help with capital investment in an industry but to turn their backs on that sector of the industry when there is a need for short-term assistance.

Another reason why I make these representations, although this is not directly applicable to fishing, is that South-East Cornwall is located within the South-West assisted area. By definition, unemployment tends to be higher than the national average in this area. Employment opportunities are, therefore, more limited. This is particularly the case at present.

Inshore fishing makes a significant contribution both directly and indirectly to the local economy. This is an important tourist area. Why? It is because places like Looe and Polperro are alive. They are not dead villages. They are not full of people who have second homes there. People go to see the fishing vessels coming in, to watch the catch being landed and the fishermen mending their nets.

I ask the Minister to reconsider his earlier decision. I respectfully remind him that on an earlier occasion the operating subsidy applied to vessels in excess of 35 foot in length. What is more, for vessels under that length a system of landing payments on the basis of weight was used. Some form of short-term assistance should be forthcoming. At present it seems as though the Minister is of the view that only the larger vessels need help. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) pointed out that as representative of a deep sea port, this is not the case. The inshore people are just as much in need of this assistance.

I would make a short comment about the conservation of stocks and fishing limits. We are entering a crucial period for the fishing industry, particularly with the post-July 1975 period. It might be appropriate to suggest two possible courses of action. I preface this by emphasising the need for continuous consultation between the Government and all sections of the industry. My first proposal is that the limits should be extended, initially at least, to 50 miles. There seems to be general agreement on this. Second, there should be some control of industrial fishing. We have already seen stocks depleted in fishing areas around these islands. We in the West Country are anxious that this should not happen to us.

I wrote to the Minister on 11th November 1974 expressing concern over this possibility. It came as a surprise to us when he appeared to be taking a great deal of time in reaching a decision about banning beam trawling. Let me stress the current requirements of the inshore fishermen in the short term. In the long term, if we are to continue with a viable industry contributing to the national and local economy, it is essential quickly to work out a future programme for the industry.

The Government must not think that because fishermen from the West Country are not sailing up the River Thames as they did on an earlier occasion all is satisfactory. We in the West are keeping a close watch on the situation. I hope that the Government will respond in a favourable manner.

9.13 p.m.

So much of this debate has been focussed on fishing interests in Scotland and the north of England that I am most pleased to be able to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks). You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the English Channel has got fish in it just as much as the North Sea and the Atlantic. One thing that we have in common throughout the British Isles is the knowledge of the serious situation facing the fishing industry.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments that have been put forward so well already. Instead I shall deal with some points that affect my constituency and the rest of Kent. The first has to do with the extraordinary decision to limit subsidies to boats of over 40 feet in length. This is quite incomprehensible.

I served on a Sub-Committee of the Estimates Committee which went round the country studying the proposals of the White Fish Authority. It does not make sense for that authority to give grants for building boats regardless of size and for the Government to say that grants will be given only for boats of more than 40 feet in length. In Kent there are 70 inshore vessels, and 53 of them are less than 40 feet in length. A number of them have to be drawn up on the beaches. There are small fishing fleets at Dungeness and Hythe and some vessels are using Folkestone. The men at those ports will have to give up fishing unless something is done for them.

Let us consider the social consequences if they cease to be fishermen and do not return to the trade. The lifeboats, which are so important in the south of England, are all manned by the fishermen on a voluntary basis. It is no good the Minister laughing. I know that the question of fishing on the South Coast is not considered to be as dramatic as it is in Scotland, but how will the lifeboats be manned if the fishermen go out of business?

The question of safety worries me considerably. Fishermen are going out at night trawling on their own in bad weather conditions. Anyone who has experience of fishing alone at night and of the consequences of warps getting caught up knows how dangerous it is, but men are being forced to do it because they cannot afford to carry on as they have done in the past.

Is the Minister surprised to know that in 1966 plaice was fetching £1·78p per stone in Folkestone auction market and that last year it was fetching only £1·50p? Plenty of examples have been given tonight of the increases in the cost of run- ning fishing boats. The fishermen have given me figures, which I have checked, showing an over all increase in costs of 400 per cent. The price of a coil rope has increased from £8 to £18 in the last few years. The price of twine has increased from 30p to £1 a 1b. Steel wire has increased in cost by 300 per cent.

Much has been said about the import of fish. The Library has kindly provided me with a number of statistics on this matter. If the Minister will look at the Overseas Trade Statistics published under Class 031, he will see the amount of fish being imported. A good deal has been said about the effects of importing fish from the Common Market, but the biggest importation from any country last year was £15 million worth from Norway. Imports of fish total over £58 million. Here is an opportunity of making some savings on the balance of payments. Large quantities of fish are in store. It is hard to explain to fishermen in my constituency why they are getting £1·50 a stone for fish whereas in the shops in London it is nearly £1 a lb.

There is something seriously wrong about the distribution of fish. I sometimes wonder whether the system of auctioning fish is correct. Some years ago I had the honour of introducing a Private Member's Bill which made it illegal to carry out auction practices which did not give the benefit of the proper price to the seller. The time has come to consider the question of redistribution. I am glad to say that at weekends a number of people go to Folkestone market and buy fish retail. It is sold in quite small quantities.

It is pathetic to discover how little people know about fishing. The other day a fisherman told me that he had come in with a landing of fresh fish and one of the ladies from London refused to buy the herring because it did not have pink eyes. The fisherman told her that he would guarantee that if she kept it in store for a fortnight the eyes would go pink.

This debate has been most interesting. I hope the Minister will assure us that the nonsense about grants only for boats over 40 ft. in length will be stopped. I trust that the grants will continue for a sufficient time to put the industry back on its feet.

9.22 p.m.

I apologise for my late arrival in the debate owing to the fact that my aircraft from Scotland arrived late.

I wish to put three brief points to the Minister. This is a time when Scottish fishermen face a difficult situation. They face a record level of costs and a situation in which imports from foreign countries, such as Poland, are being dumped in the form of frozen fish and when the traditional fishing grounds are being fished out.

My three points are as follows. First, is it not wrong that this subsidy should be paid only to those with vessels of over 40 ft. in length? Surely many communities in Scotland with smaller fishing vessels should be catered for. Is it not the case that the temporary six months' subsidy will become payable only in July? Will the Government seriously consider making an interim payment since Scottish fishermen find themselves in great need at this stage?

Secondly, now that frozen fish is being dumped on the Scottish market from foreign countries, will the Government in safeguarding Scottish fishermen consider imposing a strong protective tariff against non-EEC countries?

Thirdly, will the Minister do everything in his power to encourage his colleagues to press as hard as possible at the Law of the Sea Conference in Geneva for a 200-mile limit? This is a matter of the utmost importance. It is a matter which should have been high on the agenda in the renegotiation of the Common Market terms. How can Scottish fishermen be expected to vote in the referendum to stay in the Common Market if their traditional fishing grounds are not safeguarded? It is a tragedy to see the situation concerning the Mediterranean coasts, where the waters have been fished out because of lack of international supervision and human greed. I hope that that tragedy will not be repeated in the North Sea. I emphasise that the Minister must press hard for a 200-mile limit.

There is a degree of urgency in this matter and I hope that the Minister will do his best not only on behalf of the fishermen of Granton but also on behalf of all those who enjoy sea fishing, and on behalf of future generations of fishermen in Scotland and, indeed, in Britain as a whole.

9.25 p.m.

I congratulate hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) on being so fortunate in the Ballot and on initiating this debate, which has given us a useful opportunity to discuss the problems and the future of the fishing industry. From the number of hon. Members who have taken part in the debate the Minister of State can be in no doubt about the anxiety of hon. Members of different parties and from different parts of the United Kingdom about the present situation and what the future holds for the fishing industry.

We must consider both the industry's present difficulties and its future. I will deal with one or two matters raised by my hon. Friends about the economic situation. I will not go over all that has been said because the state of the industry is well known to the Minister.

Many hon. Members referred to the tremendous escalation in fuel costs and in the cost of nets with a large element of man-made fibre, another casualty of the increase in oil prices. The Scottish Trawlers Federation in a letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland pointed out that in the three months up to 31st December 1974 boats fishing out of Aberdeen were incurring losses at the rate of £83 a day before depreciation. Losses were also incurred by smaller boats, though not to the same degree. That is a situation in which the industry cannot continue to operate profitably, and it is doubtful whether it will be able to survive.

At the same time, at the end of last year and in the first part of this year there was a fall in the price that the fishermen received, so that in face of rapidly escalating costs they had to cope with a falling financial return for their catches.

I am grateful for the help which the Government are giving to the industry. My only worry concerns the temporary nature of the help. In the first instance it is for only six months. I emphasise what hon. Members said. If at the end of that period the economic state of the industry is no better than it is now, or is worse, I hope that the Government will not hesitate either to continue the scheme or to introduce a similar scheme on a long-term basis. The industry requires that assurance, and it would help if the Minister can give it tonight so that the industry knows where it stands.

I hope that this period of six months can be used for discussions with the industry on ways in which the scheme can be made permanent if the economic circumstances warrant it at the end of the period. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary is "tuttutting" away in his seat. Perhaps he does not understand the serious state of the fishing industry. I assure him that in Scotland, and not so far from his constituency, the industry is going through a difficult period and is anxious not only about the present but about what will happen after the end of June. I am sorry that he, should show so little concern.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Strang)

Come off it.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) and Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). and the hon. Members for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) and Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) all referred to help being given for boats of under 40 ft. The Government spoilt what might otherwise have been a good scheme by limiting its extent to boats of more than 40 ft. in length. I know the reasons for that, but for anything but a temporary scheme it would be better to have a stonage basis, which was the basis of the previous scheme, to help the smaller boats. I accept the administrative difficulties of introducing such a scheme on a stonage basis for a temporary period. Equally, I hope that if the scheme is extended into another scheme the possibility of having a scheme on a stonage basis for smaller ships will be considered. I should be grateful for the Minister's view on this point, because it is of genuine concern.

Hon. Members from all parties have been to see the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland about the matter, and to find out why the measurement of 40 feet was used as the cut-off point. A number of my colleagues have explained quite clearly that the boats' technical construction is the same as that of the bigger boats and they do the same kind of fishing. Many boats in my constituency are below 40 feet in length but they are fishing in identical grounds and travelling greater distances. Therefore, I do not believe that the cut-off point of 40 feet is necessarily sensible. I accept that there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, but why did not the Minister use the cutoff point of the old scheme of 35 feet?

I am not so naive as to think—here I answer the question put by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson)—that there cannot be a cut-off point if there is not to be stonage payment, but I believe that 35 feet would be better. It would be more acceptable to the fishermen and better understood. The rate of subsidy for a boat over 40 feet long is, I believe, £5 a day, as opposed to nothing for a boat below that length. The subsidy will last for six months. It is a fair assumption that the boats may be fishing on average for four days a week for the six months. I am probably underestimating. That means that for similar boats of different lengths, fishing out of the same ports, for the same fish, in the same grounds, there will be a difference to the extent of £500. Five pounds a day does not sound a great deal, but over a period it makes a considerable difference.

We received a sympathetic hearing from the Minister's hon. Friend at the Scottish Office last week, but a clear understanding that he will do nothing. I beg the Minister even at this late stage to consider the matter.

Is not the situation made even more ridiculous by the fact that many of the boats are under the length covered by the order because of Government or Highlands Board regulations?

It shows the unfortunate inflexibility which the Government have introduced into the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take note of that point, even at this late stage.

The question of imports was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty, Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and others. The Government must pay particular attention to what hon. Members on both sides of the House have said. What fishermen do not understand is that we are members of a common market. We are members of the EEC. As a result of militant action by the French fishermen, their Government—within the EEC rules, so far as we know —managed to impose restrictions on the imports of fish into their country. How do we explain to our fishermen if the French can do it, why the British Government cannot do it as well?

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) referred to a speech in Edinburgh on Friday by Mr. Paul Tapscott, Chairman of Associated Fisheries. The Scotsman on Saturday said in its report of his speech:
"At Hull earlier this week, 800 tons of fillets had been landed by one Polish vessel—the equivalent of a week's supply to that market".
That is the kind of upset our market is suffering as a result of imports. In the difficult situation facing the industry, the Government must pay urgent attention to the problem of imports, if only in the interests of fairness between the different fishing nations of the Common Market.

I turn to the more deep-seated questions of the future, which I shall deal with in two parts. I take up first what I regard as the interim problems, and particularly the problem faced by the Scottish herring industry and its campaign for a 50-mile limit pending the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference. We should consider interim measures of conservation of fish stocks, because even if by a miracle in the next month we manage to reach agreement at the conference on a 200-mile limit it will not be introduced immediately. There may well be phasing arrangements, and policing will not be established overnight. Even if we reach agreement in the shortest possible time scale, other action will be needed in the interim in the interests of conservation of fish stocks.

I beg the Minister to have sympathy with what motivates the Scottish herring fishermen. It is certainly not selfishness or greed. It is simply the desire to maintain their livelihood and that of their children, and to make certain that what has been an important fishery is not fished out and lost simply because we are waiting for a 200-mile limit which we hope will result in moreeffective conservation.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked how urgent such an interim limit was, and whether it was necessary. I take the point made by a number of scientists that there is nothing magical about the 50-mile limit that would automatically preserve our herring. There arc breeding grounds outside that limit. But—and this is why I emphasise the temporary nature of what the Scottish fishermen are requesting—the hon. Gentleman should look at the figures of the catch. I am sure that the Government are examining the figures of the Scottish herring catch, comparing recent figures with those of a year ago. The catch in December 1974 was about a third down on that in December 1973.

I know that the figures fluctuate from year to year, but I believe that there is some significance in that. Whereas in 1974 the catch off the west coast in the area of the Minches up to 25th January was 13,991 tonnes, with a value of about £1·46 million, in the same period this year it was 11,716 tonnes, to a value of £940,000. Those figures show a definite downward trend. It is obviously because of that trend that the fishermen are worried.

The fishermen are also worried because of what they see. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has met some of them, as have other hon. Members. I believe the witness of their own eyes over the past 12 months, and particularly last summer. The size of the foreign fishing fleet off the Minch, outside our six-mile limit, had to be seen to be believed. The boats were numbered not in tens and scores but in hundreds.

The efforts of foreign fishermen are now much greater than for many years past. Our fishermen, who are practical people, speak from experience and do not exaggerate. They speak of what they have seen and experienced. Fishing runs in families and is an occupation passed down through the family. These men are the sons, nephews, grandsons and grandnephews of herring fishermen who have fished off the coasts of Scotland for generations. They have seen the fisheries of East Anglia, Yorkshire, Buchan and Shetland fished out. The herring fishing industry is of great importance to the fishermen of Shetland, where substantial fish stocks are at risk.

In the light of their experience the herring fishermen in Scotland are justified in their fears that the last remaining native herring stock is being put at risk. Fishing effort is being diverted from other areas, partly because areas such as Buchan have been fished out. The fact that the fishing catch of Shetland is being reduced reflects the efforts made to achieve conservation elsewhere. That applies both to herring and to white fish.

The Icelandic agreement is to be welcomed with regard to conservation and cod fishing in the Faroes and Norway. However, as a result of the ad hoc arrangements, fishing is diverted to those areas where fishing is relatively free. That causes pressure in fishing off the northwest coast of Scotland, and is a source of worry to Scottish fishermen.

It is vital that there should be the maximum policing of our limited fish stocks. Having been responsible for fisheries protection measures in Scotland, I know the problems. During the last three years in office of the Conservative Government there was a considerable strengthening and modernisation of the fisheries protection fleet. The Under-Secretary smiles. I should like to smile too. My smile would be one of sadness, but not because we have a poorer or less effective fleet. The tragedy is that we are unable to man the ships.

Will the Government look at their employment policies in relation to the staffing of these vessels? I realise that there are problems with regard to the social contract and Government service. However, the surveillance of our fish stocks is a vital task, and it is important that we should offer proper conditions to those manning the ships. The conditions must be comparable with what can be earned in other sections of the seagoing profession and the oil industry. I believe that the situation could be alleviated if better financial conditions were offered to those manning these ships.

Before coming to the common fisheries policy, on which I wish to conclude my remarks, I want to ask the Minister to say precisely where the Government stand on the question of an interim 50-mile limit for which the Scottish herring fisher- men are asking. The Minister and his colleagues have been very helpful and cooperative in meeting deputations to them from the industry and from hon. Members. On behalf of all those who have gone to see him and his colleagues, I wish to thank them for the way they have received us and listened to us.

We are reaching the stage where those in the industry want to know where the Government stand. They would like a firm answer. Are the Government prepared to act on the plea for a 50-mile limit, or is it their present inclination to reject it? If they are to reject it, there are doubtless good reasons. It may make more difficult the ultimate achievement of the 200-mile limit being discussed by the Law of the Sea Conference. But if they reject such proposals the Government owe it to the industry and to this House to say why. The fishing industry wants to know what alternative proposals the Government have in the event of their refusing this plea for a 50-mile limit for herring fishing. The industry wants to know what conservation measures the Government have for the interim period until the Law of the Sea Conference comes to a conclusion on a 200-mile limit.

Are the Government prepared to consider a temporary ban on herring fishing? The organisers of the campaign have said that they are prepared to consider a ban on all herring fishing for 12 months. Among members of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission there has been talk of a two-month ban this summer. This is what impresses me about the claims of the herring fishermen. If they are not to get a 50-mile limit, they themselves are prepared to accept a total ban for a period. I know that there are problems of diversion of effort and to know how they are to gain a livelihood in that period. But it is a measure of the integrity of the industry that in the absence of a 50-mile limit it is prepared to see a ban on herring fishing pending the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference.

We have heard various suggestions tonight about what should be done. The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Government would advocate a ban and the imposition of a 50-mile limit. He is making noises which suggest that the Opposition would be in favour of unilateral action on a ban and on a 50-mile limit. Will he say clearly whether he is suggesting that we should unilaterally impose a 50-mile limit at this stage, regardless of the other consequences?

Of course not. I am neither so naive nor so foolish as to suggest such a silly course of action—nor are the fishermen. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Opposition or the industry are considering unilateral action, he is quite wrong. Those in the industry are fishermen. They understand the position on the high seas. If the hon. Gentleman had attended the lobby of fishermen, he would know that they spoke in international terms about the need to get this agreed. In the cases of Iceland, the Faroes and Norway, ultimately there was international agreement.

It is international agreement that our fishermen seek. They seek it on the basis of a temporary agreement until the Law of the Sea Conference makes its decision. To suggest a ban on herring fishing unilaterally would be even more silly. What would be the use of our stopping fishing if the other nations came in to fish? But agreements have been reached internationally in relation to other areas. I hope that it may be possible for this limited area of the sea.

On behalf of a number of hon. Members in all parties, I wrote to the Minister at the Foreign Office who is conducting the negotiations asking him to let us know as soon as possible his decision about this. If the Minister of State is unable to give us an answer tonight, I hope he will be able to tell us fairly soon precisely where the Government stand on this important issue.

I come next to the question of what happens when, as we all hope, we get the 200-mile limit from the Law of the Sea Conference. I reiterate that we wish the Government well in their endeavours to achieve that limit in Geneva over the coming weeks. We hope that having achieved it we shall have it ratified fairly quickly thereafter. That begs the question of what happens to the common fisheries policy after we get the 200-mile limit. That is a matter to which we should increasingly give our attention. We must consider where we stand on that during the weeks and months ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty tabled a number of useful Questions and elicited much useful information from the Government. It is helpful to consider the size of what I would call the Common Market fisheries pond —namely, the area in the 200-mile limit which would be applicable to the United Kingdom and to the other eight countries of the EEC. My hon. Friend received a reply from the Secretary of State for Scotland which suggested that approximately 56 per cent. of the total common fishery pond would be within the 200-mile limit around the United Kingdom. In other words, 56 per cent. of that pond would be attributable to this country. That means, in fishing terms and in terms of fish stocks, that we would be making a massive contribution to the total fish resources of the European Economic Community. Given the size of that contribution, I believe it is essential that we obtain preference for the coastal States. I hope that the Government will seek to negotiate over the next few months so that we get real preference as in the original negotiations.

I remind the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) that we do not automatically revert to the common fisheries policy in 1982. I ask him to read again the text of the agreement when we went into the Common Market. All that is in question is a review by 1982 of the arrangements for the Common Market fisheries policy. One criterion which has to govern that review is the important matter of conservation. That is the topic that is to motivate the review. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as kindly and respectfully as I can, that I believe he is spreading scare stories when he says that it goes back to fishing off the beaches. It does not.

I believe in the principle of preference for the coastal States, the preference that was achieved in the agreement when we negotiated entry into the Common Market. Equally, as regards the review in 1982 and what happens on the 200-mile limit and the common fisheries policy, I hope we will make certain that we achieve a preference system for the coastal States. It is true that by going out to the 200-mile limit we should lose a large measure of fishing effort from the non-EEC nations unless there were reciprical arrangements. That would be of particular help to the herring industry. In answer to some Questions on the herring industry, the figures that were given show that in 1972 the United Kingdom caught 149,000 metric tons and that the other countries of the EEC caught 143,000 metric tons. The non-EEC countries, such as the Faroes, Iceland, Norway, Poland and the USSR, caught a total of 238,000 metric tons. If that amount of effort for herring is removed, it will be a major achievement and a considerable help to our industry. At the moment the balance is roughly 50–50 between our fishermen and the fishermen of the other EEC countries. Obviously there is a very heavy effort by the fishing industries of the other Common Market countries within our area.

The same applies to white fish. In 1972 the United Kingdom caught 319,000 metric tons. The other EEC countries caught 144,000 metric tons and the countries outside the EEC which I have just mentioned caught the not so important total of 77,000 metric tons.

By having a 200-mile limit and losing some of the non-EEC countries, we increase our potential. But there will be a considerable measure of competition, because there will be substantial catches and fishing effort by other EEC countries. We are bound to see a diversion of our deep-sea effort which currently goes elsewhere. If it is unable to go elsewhere, it will come back to these waters and take up some of the vacuum created by non-EEC countries which have left.

That leads me to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) about industrial fishing. We must be much tougher in future in controlling international industrial fishing. It does not make sense to catch species of edible standards at such high rates when there are so many other trash species, such as the blue whiting off Rockall and such places, available for industrial fishing.

The Government must state where they stand on renegotiation of the common fisheries policy. Whether the 200-mile limit will benefit this country depends on how the common fisheries policy is renegotiated. We are talking about a substantial industry which is most important to Scotland. Indeed, the value of the catch measures in tens of millions of pounds. We are also concerned with men. The industry offers a high degree of employment, and many communities are utterly dependent on it.

Therefore, I call upon the Government over the next few weeks to renegotiate the common fisheries policy in a way which gives preference to the United Kingdom as a coastal State. I ask them to give us answers on these matters over the next few weeks. If they do not give us the answers and obtain the kind of preference that our industry needs, we shall see militancy in the fishing industry. There is a real feeling of militancy amongst not only Scottish but English herring fishermen. They are not given to militancy, but they have seen militancy in other sectors of the British economy. They have seen it also in other countries—for example, France—in recent weeks.

I believe that the response of those in our fishing industry to the Government's policy on the Common Market will be coloured by the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy. Fishermen are in doubt where they stand. They are worried and anxious about the future. I give fair warning to the Government that they are ready to be militant if militancy is necessary. At the moment their leaders are determined to be moderate. That moderation has been marked in the speeches today. However, unless the Government give answers to the questions that have been posed, unless they tell us where they stand on the question of the 50-mile limit and the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy, once we get the 200-mile limit we shall not see anything like the same moderation as we have now.

10.0 p.m.

I am pleased to be able to reply to this debate, and I ask for the indulgence of the House in answering a number of issues which have been raised by hon. Members.

I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) for raising this debate and giving the House the opportunity, which it has from time to time, though some may say not often enough, to discuss matters of great concern to our fishing industry, which is the biggest of its kind in the European Community and which has enormous resources all round our coasts. It is important that from time to time the House should go into these matters in great detail.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) on his Front Bench performance. He was probably spurred on by looking over his shoulder at the SNP Members who seem to have been making the running in the issues with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. Nevertheless, I hope that he will continue as Opposition spokesman on fishing for many years to come.

I am glad to welcome to the Government Front Bench my hon Friends the Members for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), Stirling, Falkirk and Grange-mouth (Mr. Ewing), and Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown). It shows the interest that my Scottish colleagues have in the debate. They are here not only because of their ministerial responsibilities but because they are representatives of Scotland, and they are here to identify themselves with the problems of the industry.

I have been asked many questions, and I hope that interventions will be kept to the minimum.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), whose interest in the fishing industry is well known, on his initiative in holding a seminar in his constituency last week when leaders of the industry and of the workers and people who are involved in fishing at all levels were able to make their contributions to the discussion.

My hon. Friend said that we rarely get the opportunity to debate fishing, and to some extent he is right, but I remind the House that there have been a number of occasions recently, in which I have been concerned personally, when we have been involved with matters affecting the fishing industry and on which the Government were prepared to take action.

It may be within the recollection of the House that in recent months we were faced with the problem of the trawler-free zone action taken by the Norwegian Minister for Fishing, when he threatened before the end of last year that he would recommend his Government to take unilateral action about setting up a trawler-free zone around the north of Norway. This involved my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and myself in meetings both here and in Oslo to avert that situation. I suppose one of the results of success in anything that we do as a Government is that very few people know that a problem has been overcome, but when success is not obtained we are told that we should do something about it.

There were a number of meetings which involved consultations with the Germans and the French. We met the Norwegians both here and in Oslo to settle the dispute. I think that the matter has been settled amicably and without undue harm to the fishing industry. I mention this because when matters are resolved amicably they rarely hit the headlines. A cod war was prevented, to say nothing of avoiding a worsening of relationships between our fishermen and Norwegian fishermen.

I was pleased on my visit to the Council of Agriculture Ministers at Brussels in December to make my maiden speech on the subject of fishing, because the matter of the relationship between German fishermen and Iceland was raised. I was able to say that we identified ourselves with some of those problems, although we recognise that our relationship with Iceland is pretty good.

The Sea Fish Industry Act 1970 (Relaxation of Time Limits) Order 1974, the White Fish Authority (Research and Development Grants) Order 1974 and the Fishing Vessels (Acquisition and Improvement) (Grants) (Amendment) Scheme 1975 were other important aids at a crucial time for the industry. Under the last of these we could give £6 million a year in the form of 25 per cent. grants for new and improved vessels. That represented about £24 million and was a great help to the industry. Fifty per cent. loans are available towards the capital costs of vessels, and there is also the temporary financial aid to which I shall refer shortly.

The Opposition have the right to demand action, but we gave this new aid to the industry in the form of grants for new vessels and improvement because in the autumn of 1973 the previous Government saw that the expenditure provided for was running out. In June 1974 we lifted the moratorium imposed by the Conservative Government and made those grants available again.

I must ask the Minister to be fair. He said that the moratorium was imposed because funds ran out, but does he not acknowledge that the rate of building at the time was far above the capacity of the yards, that the moratorium had very little effect in terms of holding back fishermen's plans for building vessels and that it was only temporary?

I note the word "temporary", which we may find useful in future. But instead of increasing the amount, which was the alternative to a moratorium, the previous Government decided to bring a sudden halt to building.

Will the hon. Gentleman please answer my question—if not now, later? The industry's building was not halted, at least in the yards that I know. Any delay was due to the pressure of building in those yards at that time.

The hon. Gentleman must know that my point is that if the Government of the day say that grants are available for a certain period and then fail to make more money availaible when the earmarked funds run out, that discourages the industry from building—

I am not denying that, but the industry was gravely discouraged. Instead of the grants which had been available until then, no grants were available at all.

Would not the Minister agree that all this is totally irrelevant to the debate? There is no point in haggling about the money to build boats when there is no fish to catch.

The Government have been attacked for not doing enough to help the industry. Most hon. Members have talked about the temporary financial aid to the industry, and there has been no mention of the grants made after the moratorium was lifted last June or of the money that we put into the fund to be available from the beginning of this year. We should not overlook this substantial aid, which has been welcomed on both sides of the House and by the industry. There is also the fact that in the Vote that we are discussing, whereas the provision in A6—"Other Assistance to the Fishing Industry"—was £80,000 for 1974–75, we are increasing that now by £70,000, making £150,000 available, apart from the other Vote with which we are concerned.

A great deal of huffing and puffing has gone on this evening about the financial aid we are giving to the industry. I can well appreciate the very sincere points that have been made by hon. Members in all parts of the House in relation to this aid. The important fact is, however, that there were discussions between the authorities concerned before the announcement was made. The points that I want to draw to the attention of the House tonight are the reasons why the temporary financial aid was given.

I know that reference has been made tonight to the replies we have given to those who have asked about the basis for the aid at all. I want to quote from the reply to the Question of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West on 27th February, when we said:
"Rising costs of running the fishing fleet and particularly increased costs of fuel have not been matched by prices at the quay. Vessels are being taken out of fishing."
I went on to say:
"Some restructuring of the fishing fleet is inevitable and right"—
I am reminded of the comments of Austin Laing at my hon. Friend's seminar last week when he made the point about inevitable changes which will come about in the structure of the industry. I continued:
"but we must avoid radical contraction leading to permanent structural damage. In the end, the cost of catching fish will have to be recovered in the price; but time is needed for the adjustment to take place in an orderly way."—[Official Report, 27th February 1975; Vol. 887, c. 206.]
I do not think anyone will really say that that is an unreasonable policy.

I should like now to deal with some of the points which have arisen on the temporary financial aid to which I have referred. The length bands were selected after informal consultation with the industrial bodies as being most representative of vessel cost categories. The rates for each band were determined broadly on a proportionate basis relative to known cost structures. Any banding exercise of this type will inevitably produce anomalies. We believe that the groupings selected are both fair and reasonable. The 35 ft, to which some hon. Members have referred, was not a cut-off point in earlier schemes because boats of less than this length qualified on a stonage basis. But the fact remains that there must be some way of making limitations dependent on the amount of money which will be available.

I know the views of the Conservative Opposition and their dislike of subsidies of all kinds. I recall that earlier this evening there was strong pressure for the Government to reduce subsidies quite substantially. But we recognise that subsidies are important. One must take account of the particular problems of the industry concerned and decide what amount of money should be made available and how it can be applied in the most sensible and fair way.

The hon. Gentleman has said that discussions took place. Will he say with what sections of the inshore fishing industry he had discussions before the order was introduced?

Beyond saying what I have already said, no. I do not have the information with me, but I am prepared to write to the hon. Gentleman about the consultations which have taken place. Consultations have taken place with the industry in order to make sure that the money was applied in the fairest way.

One Opposition Member has talked about helping the big battalions and not the small chaps. He deplored the fact that we give the grant to the 40-footers but not to the 39 ft. 9 in. boats. The difference between the big battalions and the small battalions is a matter of three inches. Such points have been made. It seems clear—we must come clean on this matter—that it really means that we either have to increase the amount of money available in order to extend the range down to the lower limits or we have to say that if no more money is available we shall take money from other sectors of the industry in order to help the smaller men.

I have had no indication from Opposition Members tonight about whether they think the Government are wrong because they have not put more money into the kitty for a restricted range of subsidies, or whether we should take money away from the big boats in order to help the smaller operators. I have had no guidance. It might have been helpful if someone had said something along those lines.

We have been as helpful as we could, while recognising that it is for the Government to decide how much is made available for the purpose. However, the scheme was not constructed in such a way that the money can now be redistributed. Surely it is up to the Minister to grade the assistance so that all sections of the industry benefit. Is it the intention that the restructuring should take place in such a way that more boats of less than 40 ft. than boats of more than that length are taken out of fishing?

My reply to that is that we have had to take into account the amount of money we can make available, the problems of the industry and how the money can be distributed in the shortest possible time so that those in greatest need get it. As I said in my reply in February, we have sought to avoid undue contraction in the industry and the severe distortions of structure which would have been very harmful.

The other factor which must be borne in mind, although this is not a fundamental aspect, is that, as Austin Laing said last weekend, there are bound to be changes in the structure of the industry as a result of the Law of the Sea Conference and the common fisheries policy. This will mean that we can thereby ensure that the temporary aid helps the industry at a vital time. It is backdated to January and continues until June and will give an important breathing space. This is a holding operation.

Is the Minister saying that, having initially decided to introduce a scheme in which there was a cut-off point for boats of less than 40 ft., he is now prepared to review that scheme within the existing budget of £6 million-plus so that there is a gradual grading to take in all ranges of vessel?

I do not think it is possible at this stage to make the kind of review suggested by the hon. Member. If we reduced the limit to 39 ft. 9 in. we would then be asked to reduce it to 39 ft. or even 25 ft., and we should be accused of being arbitrary and discriminating against what some hon. Members might claim to be important parts of the fishing industry.

Generally, the grant has been welcomed. We recognise the problems facing the industry—the higher costs for gear, fuel and so on—and it is part of the Government's policy that in the regulation of fuel costs and other overheads we have to do our best to keep inflation down and overcome the economic problems which face the country. There is a limit to the amount of aid which can be given. I notice on the Order Paper today that there are about five Early-Day Motions signed by Conservative Members calling for subsidy and financial support for a number of industries with which my Ministry is concerned. It is about time the Conservatives said that they were in favour of increased public expenditure so that these subsidies could be financed.

What is the sense of the White Fish Authority saying in its wisdom that it will give a subsidy to build a boat, the fishermen putting their money into it and the Government then devising the limit of 40 ft. below which subsidy will not be paid?

It does not follow that because the Government give one kind of grant to a particular part of the industry we should give other kinds of aid as well. Other forms of aid are available under the Industry Act for example. The Government help to provide basic essentials for the industry, but the operating costs and general support must be a matter for the industry itself.

Not only is time needed for adjustments to take place in an orderly way, but ultimately the cost of catching fish will have to be recovered in the price. It is not much good for Conservative Members to say that there is no such thing as cheap food any longer and that the housewife must pay a realistic price devoid of subsidies, and then to deplore the fact that the higher cost of fish must be a factor in overcoming these problems.

Let me deal now with the justification for the qualifying period. The purpose of this subsidy is not to deal with simple maintenance or to recompense for rising costs. It is intended to provide temporary help to those sectors of the fishing fleet which, because of excessive cost pressures, are becoming increasingly vulnerable the more they incur voyage costs to the point when there is a risk of permanent structural damage. The qualifying period is well within the historic days-at-sea pattern of the classes covered and should allow for short-term interruptions.

May I make a short-term interruption? I do not think that this point was raised in the debate. Perhaps the Minister will deal with some of the points that were raised.

I think it is relevant. I shall deal with some of the other points raised about inshore fishermen. We should be clear about the purpose of aid for the industry. Economic pressures could lead to permanent withdrawal. Many of the vessels of less than 40 ft. in length may not be affected to the same extent as the larger vessels.

I turn now to this question of what happens after 30th June when the subsidy comes to an end. The measure announced on 27th February is essentially short-term. It is to enable the industry to adjust in a more orderly manner to future needs. As my right hon. Friend said in Hull on 20th December, the cost of catching fish must be recovered from the market. Unless the consumer is willing to accept this, a shortage of fish may result.

The market in fish and fish products at home and abroad is going through a difficult period. We are discussing the reasons for this and possible solutions with the Community and involved third countries. Our aim is that markets should be stabilised and able to ensure the catching industry a return commensurate with the cost and effort involved.

There is also the question of distributive prices and margins. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. We have kept in close touch with her Department on the question of minimum reserve prices and the relationship between first-hand prices at the quayside and those charged by the retailer.

The House must remember that a highly perishable commodity like fish is bound to show a considerable difference between the two price levels, to reflect handling, boxing, storage, transport, icing and so on, not to mention the cost of filleting, which more than doubles the cost of the raw product.

Hon. Members may like to know, if they did not hear the announcement today, that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, has said that his Department is considering asking the Price Commission to undertake a study of prices and margins in the distribution of fish. We hope that an announcement will be made about this in the near future.

With regard to the increase in the minimum price, the Hull trawler owners are members of the Fish Producers' Organisation Limited which is recognised under the EEC regulations. Producer organisations such as this, which are set up on the initiative of the producers, are charged with the task of implementing the objectives of the common fisheries policy, which include stabilising the market as well as guaranteeing a fair income to producer members. The fish producer organisations are expected to operate a market intervention system comprising minimum withdrawal prices below which their members' products will not be sold on the human consumption market.

The other questions with which I want to deal—

I initiated the debate, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give way. Perhaps he is not too well; he is having a drink of water. He may have a temperature. I have never listened to such a droning lot of rubbish. When will the hon. Gentleman wake up and answer some of the points raised in this debate instead of reading a Civil Service brief which he obviously does not even understand? I have never listened to anything quite like this in my life. It is an utter disgrace. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should make an apology to the House for the disgraceful attempt which his representative has made in answering this debate. It is a lot of irrelevance. Practically none of the points raised in the debate have been answered. I ask the hon. Gentleman to have another drink of water, think again and give us some answers.

It is unfair for the hon. Gentleman to refer to what the Minister has said as rubbish. Perhaps he is steaming at 35 knots, but that does not make it rubbish. He is trying to answer every point. Perhaps some have not been raised which the Minister thinks are more important.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As it is obvious that the Minister has no intention of trying to answer the points of a Scottish nature which were raised, may we ask that an Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office who is competent to deal with them be brought to the House to answer them?

We cannot at this stage say that the Minister will not deal with the points. He has not said that he is about to conclude. There is no time limit to the debate.

I appreciate what you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If Opposition Members did not intervene so much, they would get answers to the questions which they have posed. Although the debate is not timed in the usual way, there are 17 more subjects to be debated and I am anxious not to delay matters unduly. I want to deal with the points which have been raised. Indeed, I have been doing that since I began to speak.

The question has been raised of the banning of herring fishing which was announced last week. We have recently withdrawn all licences for herring fishing in the North Sea and Skagerrak. The United Kingdom quota of 18,900 tons agreed within the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission for the year July 1974 to June 1975 has now been reached and all fishing must cease. Our share of the total allowable catch for this stock was based broadly on our historic catches over the past 10 years. All other nation members of the commission have quotas calculated on the same basis.

I appreciate that the closure of the quota will cause hardship to a number of fishermen but, as the commission made clear, the herring stocks of the North Sea are heavily taxed—this is an important point for those who care about conservation—and are in continuing need of protection against overfishing. It is vital in the longer-term interests of all fishermen to abide by the agreed quotas.

I wish to answer several supplementary points which arise from that regarding the reasons why the quota has been exhausted so quickly. The United Kingdom quota has been very close to the average North Sea herring catches over the past few years. We had every reason to hope that our 1974–75 quota would be sufficient to meet our needs, but the unexpectedly high catches last autumn meant that we have to call a halt in fishing in mid-November as the quota was by then nearly taken up. Fishing for the remainder—less than 1,000 tons —began on 1st February, and the quota has now been fully taken.

If it is asked why the quota was not larger, I can only say that the shares of total allowable catch of 488,000 tons for all member countries of NEAFC were calculated on the basis of individual nations' historic performances in this fishery, and the United Kingdom quota of 18,900 tons was close to recent levels of catch.

Several other questions have been raised about the administration of the quota in the United Kingdom. My officials are consulting the industry on how best to administer the quotas for cod, haddock, whitting, sole, plaice and herring caught in the waters round the United Kingdom. These quotas were agreed with in the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and for 1975 the majority of the quotas are not greatly different from the catches in previous years. Where sacrifices have been made to conserve stocks, they have been made by all fishermen of all countries, and the national quotas have reflected these proportionate sacrifices in cases where, on the basis of international scientific advice, the commission has agreed that lower total catches are necessary to safeguard the stocks. There is no question of United Kingdom fishermen having been discriminated against.

I believe that the quotas are necessary as a conservation measure. In both the short and the long term, the only effective way in which stocks can be adequately safeguarded is by internationally-agreed quotas. I am sure that Opposition parties do not disagree with the idea of quotas, to ensure both fair fishing and conservation. Only in this way will the efforts of other nations be held in check. We are aware that the imposition of quotas is an irritation for the fishermen and can interfere with the making of fishing plans, but we are fortunate in that all quotas agreed so far correspond fairly well to the quantities we have been catching in these waters.

With regard to conservation and the danger to stocks, one matter which causes great concern to fishermen is the danger of the disappearance of valuable stocks of fishing off our shores. It is essential for the future well-being of our industry that these stocks are safeguarded. The situation has already gone much too far with North Sea herring, and the cutting back of fishing is necessary so that stocks may be allowed to build up again. That is an important factor for the future.

Several hon. Members referred to industrial fishing, which I know causes widespread concern. Our fishermen are greatly angered by seeing other nations fishing large quantities for industrial purposes. To some extent such fishing can be justifiable where it is for industrial species and where there are adequate stocks of such species. We share the fishermen's concern, however, where that fishing is of valuable human consumption species or where considerable quantities of these species are taken as a by-catch.

Again, such a problem can be dealt with only by international agreement, and the United Kingdom Government have pressed hard, already with some success, for measures to combat overfishing of this kind. We shall continue to press, and I am glad to say that there seems to be an increasing awareness, even among countries which have industries dependent upon such fishing, of the strength of feeling generally on this issue. I am sure that the views which have been expressed in the debate will help in that direction.

The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) raised the question of fishery protection generally, and I have dealt with that. I assure him that we are fully seized of the need for adequate protection and will continue to keep the matter in mind.

The question has been raised whether other countries are keeping to the quotas which were agreed by the NEAFC earlier this year. The trouble with quotas is that no country's fishermen think that any other country is keeping to the rules. There is a temptation to be less than honest about catches once quotas are in force. Therefore, we and the other countries involved must take every possible step to ensure that the quotas are observed. There are bound to be difficulties in enforcing quotas, especially when they are first introduced, but I am sure that all Governments represented in NEAFC are very conscious of the importance of the quotas and will enforce them as fully as they are able. The Government have been very active in NEAFC in pressing for stronger enforcement measures, and we shall continue to press accordingly.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty asked whether we should ban certain types of nets. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has taken note of the point made on the order relating to gill nets. We shall certainly draw that matter to his attention.

I am sorry, but I must get on.

In regard to other countries involved in fishing I should like to deal with the French situation, which was a matter raised by several hon. Members. Under the EEC regulations member States can ask the Commission to introduce measures to deal with market disturbances. In response to requests by the French Government, the Commission made a regulation banning imports into France of frozen boneless fillets and tunny for processing. The ban was for a limited period only, until 17th April, but it will give the French industry a breathing space to adjust to competition from the countries concerned. The ban does not affect our own trade in those products, which is minimal.

When the Council of Ministers recently discussed protection for the Common Market it concluded that the banning of imports from third countries would not in the long term be the best means of market protection and that in some cases measures could be counterproductive. These are matters which we should bear in mind in future discussions.

With regard to the situation of Norwegian fishing and imports from Norway, while it is true that supplies of frozen fillets from Norway in 1974 exceeded the 1973 total by 2,000 tons, an increase of about 36 per cent., nevertheless supplies overall of frozen boneless fish from that country were 270 tons less in 1974 than in 1973. Together with representatives of the industry, we have been consulting informally with the Norwegian authorities in order to seek solutions to our difficulties and we are confident that the problem will be resolved in the very near future.

The question of the 50-mile limit was raised with the Norwegian Minister concerned earlier in the year. Norway has said that it will extend limits to 50 miles later this year. I assure the House that discussions will take place in the near future to minimise the adverse effects of an extension to the United Kingdom industry. We have warned the Norwegians that any unilateral action which they take in this direction will be detrimental to the wider discussions which must take place at the Law of the Sea Conference and in regard to a common fisheries policy.

Will the Minister explain the situation in regard to Polish fish imports, which I am told by the British Trawler Federation are on a large scale? What talks is the Ministry having about those imports?

While I cannot say exactly what discussions are taking place with the Poles on this matter, I can say that we are bearing in mind the situation in regard to the Polish, Norwegian and Icelandic fishing within our waters and that we shall be taking such action as we can within the regulations to restrict it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West stressed the importance of the Law of the Sea Conference. This is a very important matter which has engaged the attention of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Agriculture for some time. The House will note that the conference reconvened today in Geneva to discuss, among other matters, fishery limits.

Perhaps I can say a few words about British objectives at the conference. As I have said before, the United Kingdom Government's policy on fisheries is to support the general trend towards extended zones of 200 miles, provided that our fishery and other interests are adequately safeguarded. Our aim is to reach an agreement which will include the concept of a 200-mile zone, including fishing rights. We think that it would be wrong to decide now what to do if that aim is not achieved or if some States anticipate formal ratification procedure.

With regard to the possibility of any unilateral extension by the United Kingdom, we would not contemplate any unilateral action by the United Kingdom beyond the limit sanctioned by international law. There are good reasons for so deciding. First, it would be inconsistent with our past and present attitudes to international law. It would gravely prejudice the prospects of the extension of limits at the Law of the Sea Conference. As we saw from the other side of the fence during the Icelandic dispute, other States may not observe such an extension, thus involving costly and counter-productive defensive expenditure. Conservation of stocks is better done by internationally-agreed quotas. Action is best decided in the light of the current session of the conference.

Does the Minister wholly reject the plea of the Scottish herring fishermen for a temporary 50-mile limit, internationally agreed?

We certainly do not reject any points of view put forward here or outside the House. The question is whether we would support the Scottish fishermen or the people who may be goaded on to some extent by the Scottish National Party.

May I rephrase that by saying "on the initiative of the Scottish National Party"? I know that it has taken a leading rôle in the matter and has expressed the deep concern of the Scottish fishermen. It is not alone in doing that. We recognise the strong feelings that exist.

We do not believe that unilateral action would be helpful to our prospects. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns agrees with me on that. I say sincerely to the Scottish fishermen that we do not think that that kind of action would help their chances. But I assure them and all who represent them that we have their problems very much in mind and that we shall raise the matters involved continually at the conference table.

I was surprised by the Minister's speaking of the Scottish National Party goading on the Scottish fishermen. If anything, the party has been trying to moderate their strong feelings about the need for action. I associate myself with the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) in asking whether the Government are prepared as a matter of urgency to negotiate a 50-mile limit for herring quite separately from the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference. It is on this issue that the Scottish herring fishermen wish for action, and wish to hear the answer. If the Government are not prepared to do that, what is the alternative? The situation is explosive in the herring industry in Scotland.

These matters will be taken into account. I know that the 50-mile limit is strongly supported by fishermen in Scotland, and perhaps elsewhere. It is also supported by Norway, which has already threatened to take unilateral action. We feel, however, that it would be a retrograde step at this stage to take unilateral action. These are matters which will be discussed in the conferences with which we are concerned.

A move to a 50-mile limit now would not achieve the conservation which we and the industry seek. Even assuming that it was feasible to get that limit, we must remember the mobility of stocks and the situation at spawning grounds. These can be safeguarded only by measures such as the quota.

The common fisheries policy has been referred to by a number of hon. Members. The Government believe that the trend towards wider fishery limits will be confirmed following the conference. This will inevitably require changes in the CFP. The EEC Commission recognises this, and discussions with the rest of the Community have already begun. The House may rest assured that the Government regard the fishing industry as a major national economic interest and are aware of the vital local importance of the industry throughout the coastal areas of the United Kingdom.

I was asked whether we should have involved the common fisheries policy in the renegotiations and at Dublin. This is a separate matter. The Government accept the general line of the common fisheries policy in the present circumstances in view of the Treaty of Accession and the fact that the policy is to be reviewed in 1982.

It is now clear that the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference is likely to be general acceptance of the 200-mile limit. This will create a new situation, calling for modification of the CFP. We see these modifications as part of the continuing work of the Community, which has to respond to changing world circumstances and to the changes which are taking place rapidly in the fishing industry.

It is surprising that the Conservative Opposition, who were responsible when in power for our entry to the EEC, now make demands and talk about the changes which should have taken place. Those points should have been raised by the Government of the day when they took the United Kingdom into the Community.

We have an important interest in the fishing industry. The Government hope to ensure that we safeguard these vital interests in the negotiations now taking place.

The Minister referred to the part played by the previous Government in the EEC negotiations, in which I was involved. Does he realise that one of the reasons why this matter is urgent is that the Labour Government have chosen to hold a referendum in June and, therefore, the fishing industry wants to know where it stands by the time the referendum is held? It is the action of the Government which makes this an urgent matter.

It may well be that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about some of the attitudes taken by the fishermen regarding their future in the EEC. This is a matter which will be debated in the next few months before the referendum takes place. Since fishing is so important to our country, much greater safeguards might have been included in the Treaty of Accession when the Conservative Party was in power.

I believe that I have answered most of the questions asked by both sides of the House. [Hon. MEMBERS: "No."] I give the assurance that the views which have been expressed will be taken very carefully into account. The Government recognise the importance of our fishing industry. We recognise that of all EEC member States the United Kingdom has the biggest fishing interests. It is our intention to do our utmost to safeguard the interests of all sections of the fishing industry during the Law of the Sea Conference, the negotiations on the common fisheries policy and other negotiations of interest to an industry which has an important rôle to play in providing food for our people.