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European Community Council Meeting (Fisheries)

Volume 959: debated on Tuesday 28 November 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on fisheries.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I represented the United Kingdom at a meeting of the Fisheries Council in Brussels on 23rd and 24th November 1978. The Council met to discuss the revision of the common fisheries policy and had before it a new document from the Commission demonstrating a more flexible attitude, which encouraged me to believe that progress could be made provided other member States Showed -understanding of the United Kingdom position.

In the course of the discussions the United Kingdom was asked to submit in writing its proposals.on preferential access. This we did, and copies of the United Kingdom paper will be placed in the Library of the House., Our proposals were on the' lines I have frequently explained to the House; they were for an exclusive belt out to 12 miles' and for a preference in some of the waters outside 12 miles. We made it quite clear that we were ready to enter into constructive discussion on all these matters.

Unfortunately, no substantive progress was made at this meeting of the Council. It remains our objective to arrive at an agreement on the common fisheries policy by the end of this year. Her Majesty's Government will play their part and I am confident that, given good will and realism by all concerned, an honourable agreement can still be achieved.

I do not want to seem ungrateful, but the right hon. Gentleman has not told us a great deal. First, perhaps he could say what foundations he has for hoping that there might be a settlement by the end of the year. Secondly, does he have any crumbs of comfort to offer to the distant water fleet, whose members, with the ports from which they operate, are likely to be the chief sufferers from this extended stalemate?

The right hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the two main points about this Council meeting. With any series of negotiations, particularly when there are intervals between Councils, as there are in this case, one must consider how the position has changed.

The difference here is that the Commission, for the first time, has put on the table before the Council a working document based on the British framework. That is absolutely new. Up to now, no one—neither the Commission nor any of the member States—has been prepared to consider any departure from the proposals put forward by the Commission. This working document—not as extensive as one would like in certain areas and needing amplification—nevertheless moves a long way, and moves some way towards the question of the deep water fleets, particularly in that it accepts the point about a preferential growth and a preferential quota being necessary for the United Kingdom. It is a bit too vague on access. These movements were very clear, and for the first time, as I say, the United Kingdom's basis of conservation was pretty well accepted by the Commission.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his efforts on behalf of Britain's fishing industry and sympathise with him over the arrogant insults that he has had to take from the German chairman of this Council. What are the Government now prepared to do to help the fishing industry? Will my right hon. Friend recommend the Cabinet to consider unilateral action to save the British fishing industry from disappearing completely?

The basic way ahead is to get an agreement on the common fisheries policy which accepts the basic principles that we have put before our colleagues in the Council and before the Commission. I believe that we are moving towards that position, so it does not reallly matter that one does not get everything one wants at this Council or that. We are moving a great deal faster perhaps than any of us could have envisaged, say, six months ago.

Has the Minister discussed with his colleagues in Europe the question of quotas and licences for fishing? Clearly, even if we get this preferential treatment, there will still be a danger of acute over-fishing in certain areas of the North Sea, with disastrous results for local communities.

This is an important factor. The main question was in the Commission document, and we would have discussed it had we continued at that Council meeting, but it was getting late on the Friday when we broke. But the main point is that it seemed to me, and I think to the others concerned, that it was better to deal with the key problem, that of access—that is the one which dominates everything and it was better to face up to it—and that for the first time the United Kingdom should be allowed to put its proposals on the table. We have never been allowed to do that before. It is difficult, and the details are difficult. If the problem could not be studied immediately, I do not think that that would have mattered very much, but we shall certainly come to the i4ght hon. Gentleman's point, and I bear it very much in mind.

I think that I shall be able to call all those hon. Members who have already risen.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, following the Anglo-German talks in Bonn, hon. Members representing fishing constituencies expected a little more sympathy and understanding from the Germans, particularly as we are now told that a flexible document was put before the nine Ministers and their advisers by Mr. Gundelach. the Commissioner? I am told that the chairman, Herr Ertl, turned the whole matter down with very little discussion. What happens now? Will there be talks about fishing on 4th and 5th December, when I think the Prime Ministers will be talking together? I do not know where the talks are to be held. Will there be fishing talks then, after the present fiasco? If not, I shall not warn anyone, but I simply say to my right hon. Friend that the latent militancy in the fishing industry will increase. That is no good to him, no good to the House and no good to anyone else.

I think that the most important aspect of the whole of that last Council meeting arose when I asked the Commission whether the objectives clearly enunciated by the United Kingdom were capable of being put in a Commission proposal. After all, it was somewhat unusual to ask a member State to produce proposals. That is not how it is normally done. The Commissioner accepted that that was so. Therefore, it seems to me that that is the way ahead.

It is not for me to defend or attack the presidency of the Council. What I can say, however, is that after we had been asked to submit proposals in a very short time—we worked through most of the night: to have them ready on time—it is hardly surprising that perhaps they were not totally understood right at the beginning.

Will not the Secretary of of State acknowledge that the proposals are in themselves a sell-out? He has already backed down far too far. What is worrying the fishermen of Scotland is whether they can be certain that the right hon. Gentleman will not be asked to back down even further under pressure from the Prime Minister. That is worrying us all very much.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us that after he reaches an agreement, poor as it is, he can be sure that from that date onwards the gross over-fishing by our EEC partners will stop? Is he confident that he has sufficient of a fishery protection fleet to do the job thoroughly?

I shall deal first with the substance of what the hon. Gentleman asked, beginning with conservation. I said, and I repeat, that this matter has unquestionably gone our way. There is now a total disposition by the Commission and most of the other members to accept that the British case on conservation is the right one.

I have often said in the House that the fishery protection service is the finest in the world. If we find that it needs any changes or additions, that is clearly a matter that we shall very much bear in mind.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's other points, I must remind the House that I remained absolutely clear on the principles. I have not moved from them by one inch ever since, I think in July of last year, I put them to the House, and I do not intend that those principles shall in any way be changed. What can be changed in the course of negotiations is a simple matter of arithmetic, but that is nothing to do with principles

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, following the comments of the German chairman, he is more than welcome into the ranks of the 300-odd other contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party? While we are in that sort of position, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be secure and happy.

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that the fishermen in England, particularly the fishermen who go out and catch the fish as opposed to those people who merely make profits out of the industry, are keenly aware of the strong stand he is taking on these matters and welcome his insistence and obstinacy on these matters? Is he further aware that, despite the agreement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the German Chancellor earlier this year, we would rather have no agreement than one that sells out our legitimate interests?

I want only to assure my hon. Friend that there is no question of a sell-out. There is a negotiation which at present has in no way been blocked. It is moving much at the pace I should have thought it would.

I do not want to bother the right hon. Gentleman too much, but does not he think that it is a little false to draw quite such a sharp distinction as he appears to have done between arithmetic and principles?

I was using shorthand, and I must apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. What I meant was this. If we are to get—as the Commission now for the first time suggests we should, and I believe that no member State objects—a preferential percentage of growth, there will clearly be an argument about how much of that percentage should be applied to, say, cod, how much to mackerel and how much to herring. I meant no more than that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the key fishing areas of the North-East and South-West coasts of England remain integral to any settlement that he even contemplates accepting? If they are not, or if the settlement is weak in any other way, will he resist any attempt to force a settlement by the end of the year?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because his views reconcile totally with my own. I recommend him to read a copy of the proposals that we put in, and he will find that the preferential areas with which we concerned ourselves were—I give them in order going down the coast—Scotland, from Berwick, to below Humberside, then the South-West, Wales, Fleetwood, the North-West and Northern Ireland.

Will my right hon. Friend accept our assurance that he has the strong support of a united fishing industry in the firm stand that he has taken on behalf of Britain's rights? However, instead of envisaging concessions in the process of negotiation, will he now go on not only to introduce further national conservation measures—in particular, the one net rule and an increase in permissible mesh sizes, which would be the most valuable method of securing conservation—but to consider the introduction of a compulsory notification system for all vessels, British, Common Market and third party, entering or leaving our 200-mile limit?

At present all the indications are that conservation measures are working very well. I hear this from the fishing industry and very clearly from other member States.

When it comes to the question of management, my hon. Friend certainly has a point, but working out the management will be a matter of detail. We need the agreement first.

May I follow on from the question put to the Minister by the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). If our position on conservation is now broadly accepted by the Community, may we expect firmer action from the Minister very soon in the South-West, in a non-discriminatory form, to deal with the severe and continuing problem of the mackerel fisheries? If the basis is to be a percentage of stocks, it cannot be based upon over-fished stocks, such as we have in the South-West at present. Will the right hon. Gentleman now take national conservation measures of a non-discriminatory kind to deal with our mackerel problem?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware that I have taken some measures. What he is saying is that I have not gone far enough for the inshore fishermen. I had to make a balance here, and I believe that I made the right one, but the trouble about making a balance is that those on either side of the balance think that one has not dealt them sufficient justice. I shall keep that point under review, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is aware that what has been added, after all the difficulties that our deep-water fishermen have gone through, is a new fund in mackerel. Provided we do not overfish it—here I agree with the hon. Gentleman—we have something that is of considerable use to the whole country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government are currently throwing their weight about without the force of law? Would not it be a good idea to use sanctions against the Common Market wildcats that are taking too great a percentage share of British fish? My right hon. Friend would get more support for that set of sanctions than the Government will get for the one that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is pursuing.

I have not the figure with me because I did not think that the point would be raised, but I undertake to send my hon. Friend the number of prosecutions which have taken place against foreign vessels infringing our conservation regulations by poaching—

—within the force of law—and the boardings which have taken place. These have been highly effective.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say specifically whether the problems of the common fisheries policy will be raised at the summit meeting of Heads of Government on 4th December and what further unilateral conservation measures he has it in mind to take? Will he now reactivate the nephrops measure which he abandoned originally as a good will gesture to our partners?

I must correct the hon. Member. I did not abandon the nephrops measure. I postponed it. I said that I would postpone it for a limited period to see how negotiations went. I am not quite as pessimistic about those negotiations as perhaps some people are. Let us wait and see on that.

As for measures of national conservation, I believe that there is one very important aspect which we must preserve, and that is the ultimate right of any coastal State to take national measures in defence of conservation. Not to do that is to lose the whole basis of conservation. Therefore, this right remains with us. At the moment, I do not believe that there are any vital measures of conservation to be added to what is already a pretty powerful battery of conservation measures. That is a management question; it is not a conservation question. The hon. Member should understand this, because I have raised it in the House before.

Is the Minister aware that the proposals which he put to the Council last week represent the very limit which the Scottish fishing industry will be prepared to accept, and that his statement today envisaging that an honourable agreement"can still be achieved by the end of the year suggests to us that there will be a positive dilution of the Government's proposals? May we assure him that, if there is any further dilution of these proposals, we shall attack and oppose him as resolutely as we have supported him in the past?

I beg the hon. Member to do what I am not sure my colleagues in the Fisheries Council had time to do at the last meeting—to read those proposals very, very carefully. If he takes his time over them—and I am not being patronising because they are detailed and, as one of the German delegation said, the devil is in details—he will see exactly the effect of them.

Is the Minister aware that time for the deep sea fleet is running out very rapidly? In the last few minutes, I have heard from Fleetwood that, unless Government aid is forthcoming to help the industry through by 8th December, the fishing vessel owners will lay off the lumpers, which will mean virtually the closure of the port and the loss of 3,000 jobs. I have asked the Minister to meet a delegation. Could he meet the delegation with some sense of urgency?

I was myself informed today about what the hon. Gentleman said. I have asked that urgent—and I mean urgent—consideration be given to the position straight away.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the next formal meeting of the Council of Ministers is very close to Christmas? If he realises his hopes to bring this matter to a conclusion before the end of the year, what opporttunity will there be for this House to discuss the proposals? Will he submit the proposals to the House before they are finalised?

I should prefer to bring any agreement to the House, if possible.

I must make the obvious reservation because agreements can be made in the small hours of the night and one may have to take it or leave it. But my aim is to see that the House has a chance to examine and, I hope, endorse an agreement if we come to one. There are dates which are left vacant between next week and Christmas. They have not been filled in for a Fisheries Council, and they might be used.

With reference to mackerel, will the right hon. Gentleman beware of taking 1977 as a base year, for two reasons? First, it was after the rush by many countries to establish historic rights. Secondly, it was a year in which there was a marked difference between the total catch by purse seiners, including dumping at sea, and the records of fish killed by landings. Since the right hon. Gentleman's draft regulation has not been accepted by his EEC partners, will he therefore put in a caveat that he reserves the right to alter the base year, bearing in mind that they did not accept his proposals when they were first offered?

Their non-acceptance of the 1977 base year arose from the fact that they did not quite understand—this is one of the difficulties about reading the document very quickly, and some of the translations were not very good—that, if the total allowable catch rose, so did their capability. That was badly translated. The difficulty really is that 1977 was the first —and also the last—full year in which we had definite knowledge from sightings by our own fisheries protection service of the number of vessels fishing in our waters. There was not a record before; it was only guesswork. That was why we chose 1977. The hon. Member will appreciate that it may be better on balance to take a record which one can justify than one which one cannot justify.