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European Community (Council Of Ministers Meeting)

Volume 934: debated on Wednesday 29 June 1977

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With permission, I wish to make a statement on the meeting of the Council of Ministers which was held in Luxembourg on Monday 27th June and chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The main issues which were discussed were the internal fishery arrangements for the common fisheries policy and the conservation of certain herring stocks. Among other issues considered were the allocation of catch quotas in Norwegian northern waters, the allocation of quotas to Spain, and membership of the International Commission for North-West Atlantic Fisheries.

On the common fisheries policy, I made it clear to the Council that the internal régime is a matter of the greatest political and economic importance to the United Kingdom and that the proposal which the Commission has so far made did not represent a satisfactory oasis of agreement for us. I indicated that the basis of the United Kingdom position is that we are bringing to the Community a major proportion of the total fish resources and that this contribution must be fully recognised and be seen in relation to other important aspects, including the heavy losses which we are suffering in distant waters.

I reminded the Council of the proposal for a variable coastal belt up to 50 miles which my right hon. Friend the then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made to it in May of last year. I made it clear that this proposal remained on the table. I indicated, however, that we were willing to look at other ways in which our essential needs might be met, so long as they provided our fishermen with an assured future and ensured that the fish stocks were properly conserved. I then outlined a proposal for dealing with the coastal band up to 50 miles on the lines indicated by my right hon. Friend in the debate on fisheries on Thursday of last week, involving an exclusive limit of 12 miles and a dominant preference in the area from 12 to 50 miles.

There was a useful discussion which appeared to reflect some willingness on the part of some member States to recognise our essential requirements. Discussion of the internal fisheries régime will be resumed at the Council Meeting on 18th July.

The Council also considered the measures necessary to conserve the herring stocks in a number of areas. In the case of the Irish Sea stock, it was agreed that consideration of the Commission's proposals should be deferred until there has been an opportunity for discussion with the Irish authorities and the Isle of Man Government about the management of this stock.

Further consideration was given to the West of Scotland stock. The Commission again put forward a proposal for a quota allocation but on the basis of a much reduced total allowable catch. We supported this proposal on the ground that it took account of the latest scientific evidence on the stock and also because the proposed distribution of the total catch among member States reflected out dominant interest in the stock. We were successful in getting agreement to the introduction of this quota allocation, subject, however, to an Irish reserve which will allow the new Irish Government time to consider the matter further. The present ban on the fishing of the stock will continue until 20th July.

The introduction of this quota arrangement, under which more than 70 per cent. of the total allowable catches to members of the Community is allocated to the United Kingdom, will provide useful fishing opportunities for our industry during the remainder of the year without risking the possibility of further serious damage to the stock.

The Commission's proposal for a continuation of the ban on the North Sea herring stock led to a long and particularly difficult discussion. I made it clear to the Council that, in our view, the scientific evidence was quite unassailable and that there could be no alternative to a further ban if we were not to run the risk of exterminating the stock. No agreement was reached on this point. I therefore felt it necessary to tell the Council that, in the absence of Community agreement, we had no choice but to consider taking national non-discriminatory measures in terms of the Hague Agreement.

We are now in touch with the Commission with a view to putting in hand the necessary steps to continue the ban on directed fishing for herring in the North Sea within our 200-mile limits for the rest of this year.

Although it will mean hardship for the Scottish herring fleet and fish processors, will the Secretary of State accept that he will have the support of the Opposition if, as seems to be the case, he proposes to introduce a ban on herring fishing in the North Sea, which is necessary if the stocks are to be saved from such ruthless decimation as has been suffered along the shores of some other EEC States? However, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that we have the resources in fishery protection vessels and aircraft to supervise such a wide area? Can he give a clear assurance that the ban will be backed up by the most intensive policing, including, where necessary, boarding and the checking of by-catches?

On the other hand, will the Secretary of State take it that we deplore the Government's decision to abandon the demand for an exclusive 50-miles management zone, on which the industry is united and on which the House appeared to be united only last Thursday, despite having received no apparent concession on any issue—in particular, added scope for our trawlers in areas such as Iceland, the Faroes and Norway? As the Government now seem willing to come to a settlement on dominant preference in the 12- to 50-miles zone, can the Secretary of State at least give an assurance that the catch allocation will be based not on quotas, in which the industry has entirely lost confidence, but on licensing and therefore restriction?

Finally, as the industry is vital for Scotland and for Britain, can the right hon. Gentleman at least give an assurance that he will make no further retreats or sell-outs unless he obtains comparable safeguards for the future of the industry?

If there were any sell-out of the British fishing industry, it took place several years ago, under the previous Tory Government. There has been no sell-out, and the proposals which I made on Monday were exactly in line with the proposals described to the House by my right hon. Friend and myself during the debate last Thursday. I note that the hon. Gentleman is careful to talk about an exclusive 50-miles management zone. What we are talking about here is a fishing zone, not just a management zone. That is what we are concerned about, because it is the amount of fish which we are able to get out of the 200 miles of Community waters as a whole and also what we can get from third-country waters which, at the end of the day, is the essential consideration.

We have, in fact, never asked for a 50-miles exclusive fishing zone because that would not make sense in terms of the needs of our industry. For certain species we can get more than our needs within 50 miles and we have to be willing to trade off the surplus fish within that area for fishing opportunities elsewhere including, of course, fishing opportunities in third countries such as the Faroes and Norway.

What my right hon. Friend did in May 1976 was to talk about a variable belt of no less than 12 miles but in some places up to 50 miles. The proposals that I have put forward on Monday are a development of that which, I believe, will give even better assurances for our own industry. I also believe that it is a development on which we can make progress in the negotiations with the Community.

With regard to the herring ban, of course the necessary arrangements will be made as soon as the present ban runs out at the end of this month. We want the new ban to operate from 1st July. I am confident that the other nations of the Community will see that their own fishing vessels respect the ban, which is, of course, perfectly legal. But apart from that, we shall see that the necessary enforcement measures are taken—if that is necessary.

Will the right hon. Gentleman define further the new concept of preference which has been introduced into this matter? While, of course, this country has never claimed that it would exclude all other fishermen from a zone of 50 miles or anywhere else, will he make it clear that what is essential for this country is the control and determination of the catch and quotas up to at least 50 miles around our coasts and that there will be no relaxation of that minimum requirement for the British fishing industry?

An essential requirement for the British fishing industry is that we have effective enforcement and satisfactory quotas, backed up by licences, for the whole of our 200-miles limit and not just for the 50-miles limit. That is extremely important because we can get most of our requirements within 50 miles. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we need a satisfactory agreement for the rest of the 200-miles zone as well.

I made it perfectly clear on Monday that any arrangement, whether of quotas, licences or whatever, would have to take account of the fact that we contribute about 60 per cent. of the total fish resources available to the Community. Any allocations to our industry must fully reflect that fact.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the proposals for a total ban on North Sea herring fishing will close the herring processing industry in Shetland indefinitely? How is it that the Dutch have a special concession of 1,500 tonnes for festival when Shetland, with a far more telling case, cannot get an allocation of 200 or 300 tonnes for a vital industry? Even if the Shetland boats can go to the West Coast, no herring will reach the Shetlands in any form. We demand to keep our ain fish guts for our ain sea maas.

What the right hon. Gentleman, the House and the industry as a whole must face up to is whether we are serious about conservation. We are serious about conservation. I argued that the North Sea herring ban was the first test for the Community on conservation. I am sorry to say that that test was not met by the other members of the Community. But we are serious about herring conservation.

Figures show that as recently as 1972 the herring catch in the North Sea was 500,000 tonnes. Last year that went down to 169,000 tonnes. If we do not have adequate conservation measures the stock will be completely fished out and there will be no fish at all either for our own fishing industry or for our processing industry. I have also met representatives of the processing industry.

However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that even if it had been legitimate on conservation grounds—which it would not have been—there was no way in which we could negotiate some special arrangement for the Shetlands in the negotiations that we had at the beginning of the week. Representatives of the Scottish herring industry, who were present at Luxembourg on Monday, at least accepted that fact.

I shall forget the nonsense about a sell-out and refer to the total unity in this Chamber last week when we all wished to have a 50-miles exclusive economic zone. Is it not a fact that the Government's position has slightly shifted? We are now speaking of a 12-miles exclusive zone with another belt of 12 to 50 miles in which we are in a preferential position. Is that not different from what the Foreign Office said some time ago when it talked of a 50-miles belt or zone which contained within it East Yorkshire, West Scotland and the South-West peninsula?

I am surprised at my hon. Friend. At no time have the British Government asked for a 50-miles exclusive fishing zone. The proposals put forward in May 1976 were for a variable belt as little as 12 miles in certain places and up to 50 miles in other places. That was the previous proposal. It has never been the policy of the Government to ask for a 50-miles exclusive fishing zone. What we have said is that we must have first call on the resources within 50 miles.

I believe that the proposals which I put forward on Monday are better proposals for the British fishing industry than those put forward by my right hon. Friend in May of last year. I also believe that my proposals provide a better basis for negotiation.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Commissioner Gundelach at a meeting in North-East Scotland last Friday attended by all strands of the fishing industry, in the face of a united demand for a 50-miles exclusive zone and warnings of the dire social consequences that would befall the United Kingdom if we did not obtain it, nevertheless showed an implacable opposition to the concept of the United Kingdom obtaining it? In those circumstances, is unilateral action ruled out by the Government? Will the Secretary of State consider the excellent suggestion which came from a young fisherman in the body of the hall to Commissioner Gundelach that we should try a 50-miles zone for five years to see the benefit of conservation of stocks? I urge the Government to consider unilateral action.

I have already made it clear that I believe that the 50-miles zone is the most important economic zone for the British fishing industry. But it is not the only zone, with all respect. We had numerous arguments in this House in earlier debates about Icelandic fisheries, for example. Any agreement that we would be able to reach with Iceland would depend on reciprocal arrangements allowing the Icelanders to fish within certain waters within our 200-miles zone. The same applies to the Norwegians and the Faroese.

We must not forget the very important fish resources available within the 50 to 200 miles for our own national interests. Therefore, it is not enough for the British fishing industry to concentrate exclusively on a 50-mile exclusive limit. When it comes down to the definition of what this would mean, no one has seriously suggested that no one, apart from British fishermen, should fish within the 50-miles limit. That does not make sense in terms of the overall requirements for our fishing industry.

I repeat that the proposals outlined in the House during the fisheries debate last Thursday, and which I repeated at Luxembourg on Monday in exactly the same terms, provide a far better opportunity for us to get an acceptable solution to this very difficult problem.

I propose to call the six hon. Members who have been standing and then we shall have to move on.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, while there will be disappointment among fishermen with regard to the North Sea ban, there will nevertheless be a welcome for the fact that he is prepared to take resolute action to conserve stocks? Is he also aware that the test for the EEC will be how the other countries respect this ban? Since the major issue is whether quotas or arrangements can stand, if the other Community countries fail to accept and agree to the ban that my right hon. Friend has proposed, the whole of the common fisheries policy will disappear.

Will my right hon. Friend stress to our partners that failure to accommodate the genuine essential interests of the British fishing industry will have repercussions in the Common Market far beyond the fishing policy itself?

I have already made it clear, as has my right hon. Friend on numerous occasions, that we consider this an essential British interest and that we are negotiating accordingly in our discussions with our partners in the Community. There is no question of the other nations of the Community having to agree to this ban. When we have imposed it. there will be a legal obligation on them to abide by it, and I would expect them to do so.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that the Government are fully justified in taking the strongest possible stand on this matter on the basis of the statement that I made to the House of Commons on behalf of the then Conservative Government on 15th December 1971, a statement which naturally the Labour Government did not have to renegotiate? Does he accept that that fully justifies the Government in being perfectly firm on conservation measures and access?

I am glad to have the right hon. and learned Gentleman's approval for what I have announced today. However, at the moment, out of kindness, I shall refrain from commenting on his record on fisheries policy generally.

My right hon. Friend took those last words right out of my mouth. Does he accept that, despite the problems which will especially face people in Shetland, there will be a general welcome for the forthright declaration of a unilateral ban within the 200-miles limit, because the long-term effect is much more important than our immediate needs? I hope that other Ministers involved in Brussels will follow this forthright lead in other matters. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt), on behalf of the Scottish National Party, also endorsed the view on variable belts up to 50 miles in a letter to the Commission last year?

However, will my right hon. Friend define what he means by the word "dominant"? Does it mean that beyond 12 miles we shall control the situation and decide whether other countries should have the right to fish or otherwise? This surely is the issue.

There has to be Community agreement under the terms of the common fisheries policy. I said that we should have first call on the resources up to 50 miles and priority fishing in these areas. That is the basis on which we shall be negotiating.

Is not the Secretary of State setting up the British fishing industry for yet another sell-out? Does he accept that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that the Government were negotiating for an exclusive 50-miles limit?

I can only repeat what I said earlier. I ask the hon. Gentleman and everyone else to re-read the statement that was made in May 1976, which was endorsed by the Opposition Front Bench spokesman last Thursday.

The right hon. Gentleman drew a distinction between a variable 50-miles limit and an exclusive 12-miles limit. Has he accepted the figure of 12 miles? In certain areas in the South-West it would make a considerable difference if, instead of saying 12 miles and accepting 12 miles, we had said 15 miles or even 20 miles. Has he already conceded that 12 miles is it? Whatever figure he has conceded or will stand by, will it be absolutely exclusive within the 12 miles, 15 miles or whatever the distance is, with no other rights, traditional or otherwise?

I can only repeat what was said last week. Within the 12 miles we would want to get to the situation of having exclusive fishing for coastal States. There are certain problems relating to historical fishing rights at which we have to look. The 12-miles limit has a certain currency not only within the Community but elsewhere. It seems sensible in the first instance to look at a 12-miles limit and to get a satisfactory solution for that in the wider context of looking at the 50-miles limit as a whole. However, that would not exclude arrangements which would effectively meet the point which the hon. Gentleman has legitimately put forward.

As the EEC Commissioners have always indicated that in the long term they would be prepared to concede an exclusive 12-miles limit, plus a special British preference interest in the outer zone, has not the Secretary of State, by announcing these terms, having paid lip-service to an exclusive 50-miles limit, let down our fishing industry and gravely damaged its future?

I repeat, we have never argued for an exclusive 50-miles limit. If the hon. Gentleman had been in Luxembourg on Monday he would not have got the impression that the statement that I then made was looked upon by the members of the Community as a weakening of the British position. It is not a weakening of the British position. I made that absolutely clear there and I make it absolutely clear here, too.