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European Community (Council Of Fisheries Ministers' Meeting)

Volume 977: debated on Wednesday 30 January 1980

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

I beg leave, Mr. Speaker, to make a statement about the meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers on 29 January.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department and I represented the United Kingdom at this meeting.

Agreement was reached on total allowable catches for 1980. These are based on scientific advice, with a few minor changes to take account of arrangements with third countries and, in a very limited number of cases, other factors. The agreement takes adequate account of the vital need to conserve stocks and it will form a good basis for further decisions on an effective Community conservation policy.

Agreement was also reached on the introduction of a Community system of catch reporting. Reporting will start next month on the basis of existing procedures and a full Community system is intended to be agreed by 1 July.

The signature of the framework agreements with Norway, Spain and Guinea-Bissau were agreed. In the case of Norway, this will help strengthen the Community's links with a country whose waters provide United Kingdom fishermen with very important fishing opportunities. In the case of Spain, the Community's willingness to sign the framework agreement will, because of the reference in it to reciprocity of fishing opportunities, help the Commission in the forthcoming negotiations with the Spaniards on fishing during 1980.

Mr. Speaker, this meeting was a meeting in which significant progress was made towards agreement on a revised common fisheries policy.

First of all, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he does not think that he has reneged on an undertaking given by the Leader of the House in a written answer on 13 July last year, at col. 302 of the Official Report, where, on total allowable catches, the Scrutiny Committee recommended that a debate should take place before there was any agreement on TACs?

The Leader of the House confirmed that this should be so on 13 July last year. This agreement seems to be a blatant disregard of the Scrutiny Committee's request and it certainly dishonours the undertaking given by the Leader of the House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will clear that matter up.

On the statement on catch levels for 1980, what benefits will British fishermen receive this year compared to last year? Will the right hon. Gentleman say more about proposed monitoring of reports of unloadings, of the log books revealing catch declarations, and about the checks on unloading at sea?

Following the right hon. Gentleman's discussions on national quotas—that is, the share-out—what is his quota demand for the United Kingdom? I hope that he still stands by the united view of the industry and this House on conservation, proper protection, the 12-mile exclusive zone, and the 12–50 mile dominant preference area.

:The fishing industry, with whom, as the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) knows, we have been in close contact and whose representatives were with us in Brussels yesterday, will be disappointed with the rather sour attitude of the right hon. Gentleman towards the progress that has been made. The fishing industry certainly welcomes the fact that at long last the deadlock has been broken and we can now get away from the total lack of agreement that existed under the previous Government.

As far as the Scrutiny Committee is concerned, I am anxious that the debates should take place at the earliest opportunity. The position of the Opposition and the Government has been that TACs should be based upon scientific evidence. The TACs that we negotiated successfully yesterday were all based on scientific evidence.

I cannot believe that anybody in this House would dispute that the TACs were agreed yesterday and that the fishing industry was certainly delighted at the progress that we made. Quotas and access go together. The position of the Government remains as clearly stated at the general election and since that period. Having now agreed TACs, as a catch reporting system, we can move on to discuss quotas based not upon the rigid quota system in existence before this Government came into power but upon quotas that will take into consideration the new agreements that have been reached.

The right hon. Gentleman must explain to the House why he has reneged on an undertaking given to it by the Leader of the House on 13 July last year. The fifteenth report of the Select Committee on European legislation states specifically, on total allowable catches for 1980, that in its opinion:

"The following instrument raises questions of political importance and recommend that it should be further considered in this House together with other documents on fishing matters."
The Leader of the House stated quite clearly that Ministers should not agree to any legislative proposal recommended by the Scrutiny Committee for further consideration by the House before the House had given it that consideration. Why has the right hon. Gentleman reneged on that undertaking?

Is the right hon. Gentleman trying to say that yesterday, on proposals tabled by the Commission a week ago—which were very much in line with the policies both of the previous Government and this one—we should not have made progress and should not have tried to reach agreement? In my judgment that would have been against the interests of the fishing industry and against the wishes of the House.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the existing reporting procedures? Unless they are satisfactory, the whole system of control obviously falls to the ground.

I am unable to say whether I am satisfied with existing procedures until those procedures have been put into operation and I have examined how effective they are. I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that unless those procedures are properly monitored and accurate for all countries they are meaningless. One cannot judge that until one starts to see the quality and the method of starting the procedures. By starting now, with national reporting procedures, before moving on 1 July to a Community basis, we can make any judgments and express any views to the Commission to see that there is a proper system of reporting procedures.

:Can my right hon. Friend tell us what the position will be under the new reporting procedures when fish are transhipped at sea to non-EEC factory ships—particularly from the Russian bloc—rather than being landed at EEC ports? Unless there are accurate records of actual catches for transhipment the whole TAC system collapses.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and within the terms of the European reporting procedures that will be adopted on 1 July we shall insist that there is proper scrutiny and check of transhipments. That already happens in this country, but perhaps not in others.

Since the expression "breaking of the deadlock" has an ominous connotation for some of us in connection with Common Market negotiations, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that at this stage the Government are still dealing with fisheries on the basis of a single issue, and on the basis of a settlement on limits and not on quotas?

:The question of fisheries has been treated as a single issue and there has been no pressure on the Government from any source for dealing with it otherwise. The agreements made yesterday were welcomed by the wide representation of the industry that was with us in Brussels. The industry recognised that the agreement represented a perfectly sane and sensible step, and it was totally in agreement with British policy.

As Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, may I question the Minister further about the scrutiny procedure and the Government's undertaking which has been flagrantly disregarded? In all, 18 documents relating to fisheries have been recommended for debate by the Committee. Fisheries policy was last debated in November1977. The House generally and many hon. Members with important constituency interests are affected by this issue. The Minister did not even have the courtesy to inform the Committee that he intended to agree to the proposals. Already before Christmas one of the instruments recommended for debate was passed without the Minister, under the terms of the Government's undertaking, explaining to the House why that was done. I hope that the Minister will realise that this disregards not only the Committee but the interests of the House itself.

:I have no disregard for the Committee. As the hon. Gentleman knows as Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, a large range of fishery questions were being debated long before the Government came into power. I have expressed my willingness to debate the whole range of major issues that are at stake. Certainly I would very much like to debate this one, because, as far as I know, there is no disagreement on it between any of the parties in the House.

In view of the welcome statement by my right hon. Friend about the progress of a revised fisheries policy, may we take it that it gives the lie to those who suggest that there may be a sell-out of British fishing interests in any future general negotiations about the European Community budget?

Certainly there never has been and never would be any question of a sell-out on the basis of negotiating in other areas. I can say, in fairness, that none of the other Community countries concerned has ever suggested that if we gave way on fishing it might consider giving way on other issues. There has always been straightforward negotiation, and at yesterday's meeting and the meeting before that progress was made in total compliance with the policy on fishing that is pursued by the Government and supported by the Opposition.

:Does the Minister think that the present system of reporting fish catches is anything short of an absolute abject farce? Is he aware that the White Fish Authority's current paper indicates that last year Britain succeeded in exporting twice as much mackerel as it succeeded in catching, and that catch figures are provided by the Russians? Why should we believe that the European system will be 1 per cent. better than this miserable farce, which is wrecking the West Country fishing industry?

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, the only way in which we shall conserve good fishing in the South- West is to develop a sensible system of catch reporting. Without it, fishing in this country and in Europe will be finished within a short period. Therefore, unless there is an effective and properly policed system of reporting, the deterioration of fishing here and abroad will persist. Yesterday we agreed on an attempt to create such a system.

:Was there any discussion in Brussels about cheap fish imports into Britain? There is considerable unrest in the fishing industry about this. Yesterday 1,000 boxes of fish were left unsold on the quay at Peterhead, in my constituency, through their failure to reach a proper price as a result of cheap fish imports. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is to be a protest meeting on Saturday, which 600 members of the fishing industry propose to attend in protest at the current position of the Scottish industry?

:I am well aware of the meeting planned for Saturday and of the anxiety of the industry about imports. I have met the industry and made it perfectly clear that if there is evidence of dumping we can take appropriate measures. There have always been times, of course, when prices at markets have not reached the required levels, and that has not necessarily been as a result of dumping here of surplus foreign stocks. The fishing industry knows that I am anxious to review and examine the matter with it. I hope that in the future there will be many examples of the British industry exporting fish. If that happens and the prices paid in foreign markets for domestically caught fish are not particularly good I would not expect our industry to be accused of dumping.

As the Minister's procedure here was a clear breach of undertakings given to the House and undermines the whole Scrutiny Committee system, will he at least given an assurance that he and the Leader of the House will ensure that it does not happen again?

I am most anxious that any topic concerning my Department should be debated in the House, I would always welcome that. I have made clear that I am perfectly willing and anxious to discuss these fishing questions. Under the previous Government a whole range of issues were discussed in this way, and I hope that there will soon be discussions.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has achieved so far. Did he tell our European partners of the deep concern felt by the British industry at the hidden subsidies and indirect support given to the fishing industries of our European competitors? If so, what did they say about it?

With the help of the fishing industry, we are currently updating information on the question of subsidies of various types. There is a range of subsidies which vary in effect. Some of them operate in this country. Our objective is to see that our fishing industry is not confronted with unfair competition from other countries. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his congratulation. Congratulations in respect of any progress that has been made deserve to fall upon my hon. Friend the Minister of State more than on anyone else, for his having done so much of the detailed organisation.

In view of the Minister's assurance that there will be no sell-out of the British fishing industry, will he bear in mind that 60 per cent. of the Community catch is taken in British waters? Will he therefore ensure that British trawlermen get at least the 45 per cent. of that total catch that they are demanding, and not the 25 per cent. that we understand the French want us to have?

On the question of quotas and access, the fishing industry knows full well that in all these negotiations we will remain close to it and have it by us before meetings and at meetings when we discuss this matter. Our fishing industry is well aware that it is immensely to its advantage to have agreement on a common fishing policy. For conservation of the fish it hopes to catch in the future it is vital that a European conservation policy is agreed to.

It worries me that agreements with third countries that are in the interests of other member countries should go ahead before agreement on the fundamentals has been reached.

Before saying that, the hon. Gentleman should examine the agreements reached. Norway's main vested interest is the United Kingdom. On Spain, there is a massive interest for United Kingdom fishermen in having a framework agreement that would be the basis of negotiation with the Spaniards. It may be an agreement that the Spaniards reject, but whether they reject or approve it it will help in our negotiations with Spain. Guinea-Bissau is not of direct interest to United Kingdom fishermen.

On the problems of quotas and access, a further available quantity of fish—although it is not available to the United Kingdom—should be taken into consideration in the total balances. It is in the interests of the United Kingdom fishermen to come to these agreements.

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising. I say that to save their frustration.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's confirmation that any agreement on the common fisheries policy will be reached on its own merits, and will not be part of a wider trade-off, but is he in a position to give an assurance that the proposal for agreement is not wholly to be based on a system of quotas but will take some account of exclusive areas or limits, especially to safeguard the interests of the inshore fishing fleets?

The question that I wished to put to the Minister has already been fairly well answered.

I warn the Minister against relying too much on the warm remarks from the fishing industry, whose members welcomed our entry into the Common Market and then changed their mind. The real issue that concerns Humberside is that there is no longer a guarantee that there will be a debate on fishing matters before the negotiations are concluded. Will the Minister tell the House whether, in the negotiations, he reached any understanding that there would be a more favourable response on the proportion of fish to come to the United Kingdom, rather than agreement in respect of the total Community in such a package?

The items on which we were trying to make progress yesterday were those of the total reliable catch and catch reported. At the next meeting we shall move on to the items mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. With all of the uncertainties and difficulties faced by Humberside, I believe that people there will be pleased that we made progress yesterday and can move on, whether we agree or not, to deal with those topics of fundamental interest, and that we are not still dealing with the topics that were settled yesterday.

:Is my right hon. Friend aware that the considerable energies that he and his right hon. Friends have put into the negotiations, together with the first signs of success, will be warmly welcomed? Is he further aware that there is great hope in Scotland that their energies will be turned now to dealing with the problem of the amount of catch that is allowed to be caught but that is not being sold at the pier heads because of imported fish'? If he wishes proof of that, he will find it at Chester House in Edinburgh today, in unsold fish.

:We recognise the anxieties over imports, the current price position and other problems, such as input costs of energy. The Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Minister of State and myself are in close consultation with the industry on these topics.

Will the Minister accept, first, that he has treated the Scrutiny Committee and the House with gross discourtesy? Secondly, does he agree that there are many who would not totally accept the marine biologist's agreement on total reliable catches? Thirdly, does he accept that the method of providing information to the member States on catches landed is wholly inadequate, unless there is an effective licensing system?

If the right hon. Gentleman goes to the next set of negotiations before there has been an effective debate in the House, he will be treating the House with gross contempt.

I have already said that I am anxious, happy and willing to debate the whole range of fishing issues at the earliest opportunity.

It is the total ignoring of modern marine biologists and scientific evidence that has resulted in the fishing industry of this country and other countries not being able to catch herring and other fish for a considerable number of years. That total ignoring and contempt of the scientific facts has been of great detriment to the fishing industry.

:Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are more likely to achieve a sensible fishing policy if the House welcomes rather than grouches at the fact that success has taken place? Does he further agree that if we wish for the support of the fishing industry in constituencies such as mine, we should ensure that the reporting techniques and the monitoring of that information is available to those fisherman so that they can see that it is fair, and properly monitored?

The fishing industry would be shocked at the reaction of some hon. Members, which is totally different from the industry's reaction to yesterday's events.

On the reporting of catches and the evidence of negotiations, I believe that no Government has ever worked closer to an industry throughout a negotiation than we have over the past few months.

:It has been the traditional argument that the quota for Britain should include not only our traditional share of the European market but a considerable allowance for our loss on third country markets. Is that still the basis of the Government's continuing negotiations?

Does the Minister accept that the many breaches that have taken place on current quota and conservation arrangements—not only with mackerel but in connection with the ban on herring fishing in the North Sea—have totally undermined the industry's confidence in the current conservation policies?

There will not be an acceptable conservation policy in the Community unless there is a comprehensive system of licensing, with higher penalties and effective national enforcement.

:The whole movement must be towards an effective system of catch reporting. National Governments should decide on a sensible system, under which they can operate effectively. If they do not, those Governments must be penalised for that failure. The nature, the degree and the method of operation must be left to the national Governments to decide. That will vary from country to country.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The words of the Leader of the House have been dishonoured. The Minister has blatantly disregarded the recommendations of the Select Committee on European legislation. He has dishonoured a Government agreement.

I wish to raise the point of order in the presence of the Leader of the House. If only for his good name, he should revert to the escape clause, namely, that if there are exceptional circumstances—and there are not in this case—and he circumvents a Government undertaking, he is obliged to make a personal statement to the House explaining why he so acted. I hope that he will make that statement at the earliest opportunity.