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Fishing Industry(Blockading Of Ports)

Volume 889: debated on Wednesday 9 April 1975

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With permission, I should like to make a statement about the blockade of ports last week by inshore fishermen. I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House, for the slight delay in making this statement.

A blockade of ports throughout the United Kingdom organised by an action committee based in Scotland started on Monday 31st March. The fishermen involved claimed to be still worried about the arrangements relating to imports of frozen fish. In addition, they were concerned about the common fisheries policy of the EEC and to press their view that the United Kingdom should extend her fishing limits urgently irrespective of the outcome of the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference should other countries in the North Atlantic area do so. Other points concerning them were the proposed extension of the National Dock Labour Scheme and what they felt to be the inadequate coverage of the Government's temporary aid for the fishing industry.

I had previously arranged to meet the Scottish Trawler Federation and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, each of which had already raised these issues, and neither of which was associated with the blockade. I took the view that it was inappropriate to meet the action committee, but I had no objection to the attendance of members of the committee who were on the executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, and two others who were invited as guests of the federation. This meeting was held on 2nd April. All those who spoke, whether or not they condoned the blockade, took a virtually unanimous view on the issues which had led to it. I emphasised the value to our industry of the measures with regard to Norwegian exports of frozen fish announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 26th March and described the Government's policy with regard to the other issues. I do not think the fishermen had properly appreciated the assurances given by my right hon. Friend in the House on these issues in answer to questions following his statement. These were incorporated in a statement released after the meeting. With permission, I will circulate a copy in the Official Report. On the basis of this statement the action committee decided to terminate the blockade early on 3rd April.

The Government cannot condone the blockade, which caused loss and inconvenience to many who were not otherwise concerned, but I must express approval of the action of the fishermen in ending it so quickly after hearing the assurances I was able to give them. These included an undertaking to reconvene a similar meeting as soon as possible after the discussions of the Council of Agricultural Ministers of the EEC to which my right hon. Friend referred in reply to supplementary questions on 26th March, and the relevant discussions on fisheries limits at the Law of the Sea Conference.

I thank the Minister for making that statement, albeit belatedly. We appreciate the part that the hon. Gentleman played personally in reaching agreement with the fishermen. However, with respect to him, was it not a dispute which should never have happened? All the issues raised in it, about which all sections of the fishing industry were unanimous, as the hon. Gentleman said in his statement, were forcefully stated in the House in a debate on 17th March. Why did the Government not act more positively then?

I have three specific questions. First, can the Minister say anything about the help for boats under 40 feet, a matter that is causing considerable concern in certain sections of the industry?

Secondly, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep the House fully informed of the progress of negotiations on the common fisheries policy, which is particularly important? In the light of what is proposed at the Law of the Sea Conference, there is an urgency about this. We on this side of the House shall certainly support the hon. Gentleman in what he is seeking to do.

Thirdly, the Minister was reported in the Press last Friday, after his meeting with the fishermen's associations, as saying that as a result of all that had happened the Government would be giving higher priority to the industry. Will the hon. Gentleman now repeat that assurance to the House?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his personal tribute, but I think that he is a little unfair to the Government. My outstanding impression was that there was inadequate communication between the Government and the fishing industry. It was not helped by some comments made by hon. Members following the statement made by my right hon. Friend. I am not referring to the lion. Gentleman in particular. I felt that the Government needed better communications with the industry.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman's three questions. The Scottish inshore men— — that is, roughly all those with boats between 40 feet and 80 feet—made a generous offer that they would be willing to give up to their colleagues with boats under 40 feet some of the money being made available to them in the temporary aid already announced. I made a commitment that I would consider that. There are difficulties, but the House should be informed of this generous gesture made by the Scottish inshore men.

We shall certainly keep the House informed about the common fisheries policy.

I think that fishing will of necessity attract a higher priority in discussions because of past events, because of the Law of the Sea Conference, and because of the implications of the review of the common fisheries policy. It was in that context that I was able to give assurance easily.

The sort of behaviour described by my hon. Friend in his statement is unusual among fishermen, particularly inshoremen, but they have a deep-down fear that the stocks of the fish they catch are slowly being exhausted. Does my hon. Friend accept that this fear is exacerbated by industrial fishing? What steps is my hon. Friend taking in consultation with nations such as Denmark which are fishing here almost on a "Hoover" scale and exhausting the stocks when the North Sea quota is almost exhausted?

I think that my hon. Friend accurately expresses the fears and concerns of the fishing industry. I accept that the fishermen have never had to deal with a situation of quotas in the past. There is a great deal of opposition to industrialised fishing. My right hon. Friend has already given an indication that this is not just a fishing matter. Trade considerations arise as well. We have assured the fishermen that we shall have to examine these in the allocation of any future quotas or, indeed, in the discussion of limits.

I thank the Minister for coming to Shetland to see the Shetland fishermen. I ask him to repeat to the House the undertaking given by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he will take up with the Danes the question of the quota and to confirm what was reported after his meeting with the fishermen in Aberdeen, that he had said that, while he very much hoped that we could have an international agreement on extending the limits, if that proved impossible the Government would at least reconsider a unilateral extension of the limits.

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman said about my visit to Shetland. It is a very nice place, and I quite enjoyed the visit, although I would not suggest that I was there to help the right hon. Gentleman. I hope he will agree that there is a problem here. I think he knows that there are two problems which are related—quotas which deal with conservation of stocks, and limits. Partly they arise from the common fisheries policy and partly they are the concern of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, which is a slightly wider body.

All I can do is repeat the assurance I gave in Aberdeen, that we regard these problems as of some urgency. They can be solved and arrangements approved only with a willingness on the part of all concerned to get together and tackle them. That is why unilateral action is so undesirable. I said that if following the Law of the Sea Conference any other nation should take unilateral action we should need to consider what action we should need to take as a result.

Does the Minister not agree that his statement today is considerably less definitive than the statement he gave to the fishermen in Aberdeen last Wednesday? Does he accept that the blockade last week was only a token blockade and that the fishermen are genuinely worried about the future of their industry? Unless something is done to prevent foreign boats carrying on with industrial fishing, they fear that there will be no fish left for them to catch.

The hon. Member is one of those I was referring to earlier. I wish he would give credit where credit is due. My right hon. Friend's statement was a good statement which referred to almost all the things which I discussed with the fishermen, but the hon. Member's reaction to it was that it would not satisfy anyone. If hon. Members, in the interests of getting votes, intend not to convey the facts of what takes place in this House they must be warned. The fishermen like a straight deal and will not stand for being manipulated by any political party. I warn the hon. Member that he should be a bit more encouraging when worthwhile action is being taken by the Government.

I wish to take the opportunity of congratulating my hon. Friend. At least half the men in that fleet, as far as I can gather, are relatives of mine, as my hon. Friend probably knows by this time. There is great resentment at attitudes adopted by some hon. Members. We are pleased to hear—but it is only to be expected—that fishermen with boats of over 40 ft. are willing to help out their colleagues with smaller vessels. I hope there will be no legal obstacles to that kind of solution. Even so, that is no final solution for a proper subsidy to the fleet.

What has happened to the spate of legal actions with which the fishermen were threatened a week or two back?

I have already said that I gave a commitment on the question of the subsidy and my hon. Friend will appreciate that the offer was made in the context of an offer by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. I want to make that clear—the Scottish inshore men are slightly better organised. I have said that we will look at this matter again.

The legal actions were taken by the various port authorities. They were injunctions. I do not know whether I have the correct legal phraseology, but as far as I am aware the injunctions were to restrain fishermen from holding a blockade. When the blockade was lifted the legal actions were withdrawn in the sense that they did not need to be continued. Therefore, I do not think that there is any difficulty over the question of anyone pursuing the fishermen.

Will the Minister accept my congratulations on the considerable personal part he played in getting the blockade ended so quickly? Will he undertake to ensure that when his right hon. Friend goes to Brussels he makes quite clear during the renegotiations of the common fisheries policy that there can be no question of full access to our beaches after 1982?

As for further financial support, will the Minister undertake to give at least full and objective consideration to the further submission for help that the industry intends to make after 30th June?

On the last point, we have already said quite clearly that we are providing only temporary aid. That does not prevent any recipient coming back to us when it ends. It is not for me to encourage the fishermen in that direction, even if they needed any encouragement.

On the second point, I agree that there has been a lot of distortion by certain people, for some reason or another, to the effect that all foreigners—and that is an emotive phrase—will be fishing up to the Scottish beaches tomorrow. I do not accuse the hon. Member of that distortion, but the distortion has created uncertainty among the fishermen. This situation just does not apply before 1982. Every fair-minded person recognises that there will be a lot of renegotiation and changes long before 1982. I shall myself be accompanying my right hon. Friend to Luxembourg next week and to Brussels thereafter. Following is the information:
Statement issued following Meeting held on Wednesday 2nd April between Mr. Hugh Brown, MP, Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office and Scottish Fisheries Organisations
After the meeting with the Scottish Trawlers Federation and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, which included members of the Action Group, Mr. Hugh Brown issued the following statement:
"I was greatly impressed with the sincerity and unanimity of the fishing industry today. As regards the chief points they raised, the Government intend to seek changes in the Common Fisheries Policy of the EEC in the light of the UN Law of the Sea Conference and the subject will be raised at the meeting of EEC Agricultural Ministers later in April.
As regards limits, in the event of unilateral action by other countries we should consider the situation urgently with a view to protecting the interests of our fishermen.
The question of imports from non-EEC countries is being studied by EEC and early progress is expected. A ban on imports would be against our worldwide trade relations, but we will keep the situation under review for evidence of dumping and we will also keep under review the economic state of the industry.
As regards subsidy for boats under 40 feet and shellfish boats I cannot make a commitment but we will review the position fairly.
As regards the dock labour scheme the Government does not envisage any extension to operations by crews of inshore fishing boats and will welcome detailed comments on this.
I undertook to discuss all the points raised by the meeting with my Ministerial colleagues and to re-convene a similar meeting, if possible on a UK basis, within about 10 days of the relevant meetings at Brussels and at the Law of the Sea Conference. On this understanding I appealed for an end to the blockade."