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European Community (Agriculture And Fisheries Ministers' Meetings)

Volume 986: debated on Wednesday 18 June 1980

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

Mr. Speaker, I beg leave to make a statement on the meetings of the Fisheries Council and the Agriculture Council that took place in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuseday of this week.

I start by offering my apologies to the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) for the fact that he received a copy of my statement only 15 minutes ago instead of the customary period. I regret that that happened, and I shall endeavour to ensure that it does not happen again.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I represented the United Kingdom at the meeting of the Fisheries Council on 16 June.

The Council had a friendly and constructive meeting and the main item on the agenda was to have a general discussion on the principles that would govern the allocation of catch quotas between member States on the basis of a background document prepared by the Commission.

The United Kingdom made clear its view as to the importance of taking into account all the considerable losses in fishing opportunities for the United Kingdom fleet that had taken place in the seas of third countries. We stressed the importance of the special needs of local comunities and the importance of recognising the proportion of the fish in the waters of member States that is found within United Kingdom fishery limits.

We resisted a proposal that herring fishing be allowed in certain areas in 1980 contrary to the clear scientific advice. We agreed to an extension until 31 July of the interim decision on internal fishing arrangements, which requires member States to control fishing activities by their national fleets having regard to the total allowable catches set by the Council.

The Council agreed to the ratification of the framework agreements establishing fishery arrangements with a number of third countries. This will have no effect on current or future fishing arrangements.

We refused to agree to the signature of an agreement with Finland which envisaged the possibility that Finland could obtain a catch of herring in the North Sea.

There was an important discussion on the possibility of a long-term fisheries agreement with Canada, and I pointed out that there could be serious implications for the United Kingdom market if unsuitable tariff concessions on fish products were to be granted to Canada at a time when our own market was already suffering from a surfeit of imports. The United Kingdom views were shared by three other delegations and the Commission undertook to have regard to these concerns in the talks that they are going to have with the Canadian Government.

The next meeting was fixed for 21 July when, following a series of bilateral meetings by the Commission with a number of member States, including ourselves, more detailed proposals will be put forward to the Council.

At its meeting yesterday, the Agriculture Council concluded its discussion of the text of the sheepmeat regulations, and at the United Kingdom's suggestion agreed that the structure of prices should be included in the one regulation. This will enable the new regime to be implemented as soon as possible, after negotiations with New Zealand and other countries have been finalised.

During discussions on structures, we argued for the early adoption of three integrated development programmes, which include one covering the Western Isles of Scotland. The Council also had before it new proposals for Northern Ireland, one dealing with agriculture in the less favoured areas of the Province and the other with the processing and marketing of eggs and poultrymeat. At my request, the Commission agreed to amend the second proposal to include pigs. The Council agreed that a high priority should be given to reaching agreement upon these various programmes with the object of the Council approving them at its meeting in July.

The Council discussed the Commission's report on the effect of competition in the glasshouse sector of differences in energy costs. I emphasised the problems faced by our own glasshouse sector and urged the need for speedy action to secure fair terms of competition between producers in different member States. We were supported by a number of member States in our view that urgent action was necessary to eliminate the adverse effects of the gas price advantage that Dutch growers were enjoying. At the end of the discussion the Commission agreed that urgent action was necessary and I hope that it will be making proposals prior to the July meeting of the Council.

The Commission indicated that it intended very shortly to make its proposals for the future access of New Zealand butter after 1980 and stressed the judgment of the Commission as to the political, economic and social importance of providing New Zealand with realistic quotas for 1981 onwards.

It was agreed that a special committee consisting of top officials should be set up to consider the Commission's proposals so that substantive discussion could take place at the July Council. I have asked Sir Brian Hayes, my permanent secretary, to represent me on this committee. The next meeting of the Council was fixed for 22 July.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his apology for the late delivery of the statement.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there was a unanimous resolution of the House on 20 March when he agreed that in the recent agriculture price fixing he would reduce the production of surpluses and the cost of the common agricultural policy, stand fast for a price freeze on milk and sugar and withhold any settlement that did not include a plan to achieve a steady reduction in surpluses? He failed on every count. As we know now, he was ditched by his right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister in what is now seen to be a rigged budget deal.

The right hon. Gentleman is now on test on a common fisheries policy. Once again all quarters of the House and all sections of the fishing industry have called for a 12-mile exclusive belt, a dominant preference for Britain's fishermen in a 12- to 50-mile zone and a total allowable catch that fully covers our historic and traditional fishing rights.

Will the right hon. Gentleman stand by that and assure the House that there has been no deal on fish as there was on agricultural prices? Will he tell the House the truth on the timing of a solution on a fisheries policy? What is the truth on the granting of concessions from our basic stand to the French and the Germans by July the next Fisheries Council, in view of the statements that have been made by President Giscard d'Estaing and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, especially after the Fisheries Council meeting took place? If a fisheries deal is not finalised by January 1981, is the whole budget deal off? I hope that the Minister will come clean on all these doubts.

New Zealand is the loser in the right hon. Gentleman's sheepmeat deal with the French. He has fixed them in an embarrassing straitjacket. Will he be prepared to stand by New Zealand if it refuses to curb its lamb exports to Britain? Will he be prepared to veto the cutback of its butter exports from 115,000 tonnes now to the proposed 90,000 tonnes, a threat which it appears is now being used to force New Zealand into line on lamb?

I shall take up the last point first. When the Labour Party was in Government it renegotiated the Common Market treaty and allowed a situation where the dairy products of New Zealand would be nil by December 1980. I am therefore shocked that the right hon. Gentleman should now speak up for New Zealand. When I came into office, New Zealand had no quota of dairy products from December 1980 onwards. The record of the previous Labour Government is therefore disgraceful.

Turning to the right hon. Gentleman's opening gambit, I should point out that he failed to make his case on the CAP settlement. That is understandable given the previous Labour Government's record on CAP settlements. However, the Labour Party is alone in Europe in believing that the deal that was struck for Britain was not exceedingly good. Germany and France are much more interested in reducing the surplus problem of Europe because they now have to foot more of the bill. We had our greatest success when we introduced the financial interests of the other major countries into the surplus problems of Europe.

I confirm that the Government's position on fishing rights remains the same. When the agreement was reached in Brussels, no concession was made as regards our negotiating position on fishing. I also confirm that at the Council meeting that took place the day before yesterday no member State raised the question of the budget. In addition, I confirm that during bilateral talks with the French and Germans they did not raise the relationship of the budget to the fishing agreement. The right hon. Gentleman speculated that that was so, and suggested that statements had been made by Herr Schmidt and by Giscard d'Estaing after the Fisheries Council on Monday. I know of no such statements. It is clear that Britain is in a position freely to negotiate, veto, or approve any fishing deal.

I am also anxious about the date. At the last Council meeting I supported a number of measures to speed up negotiations. I recognise that it is in the interests of the British fishing industry to reach a satisfactory agreement as quickly as possible. I am glad that no member State appeared to be attempting to delay or drag out the procedures in any way. I hope that speedy and quick progress will be made. However, there is no link with the budget agreement and the Brussels statement makes clear that no such link is involved.

I believe that the negotiations on sheepmeat and dairy products will result in a satisfactory agreement with New Zealand. The Govenment have constantly stood by New Zealand, and we have refused to agree to a sheepmeat regime that would not be subect to a satisfactory agreement with New Zealand. Earlier this year I spoke to the New Zealand Government about the prospect of dairy products coming into the Community. However, I had no negotiating strength, because on 31 December all allocations and quotas for New Zealand dairy products ran out. Any member country could have vetoed that. Judging by the Commission's statement earlier this week, and the position of the New Zealand Government, I think that we shall agree a deal on sheepmeat and dairy products that will satisfy the New Zealand Government.

Order. I wish to appeal to the House, and hope that the House will co-operate. At least 20 hon. Members have a direct interest in the Ferranti issue, which is to be debated later. It will be an abbreviated debate. I should be deeply grateful if questions were both to the point and quick.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hard-won quota agreed between the Danes and Great Britain on the number of immature salmon taken out of the North-West Atlantic fishery off Greenland is now invalidated? Will he assure the House that the quotas that apply to salmon in the North-West Atlantic will apply to all EEC nations, including the Danes? If such an assurance is not given, Mr. Speaker, that green bag behind your Chair will become redundant and we shall never put another good spring fish in it again.

That subject did not come up at the Council meeting. However, we are discussing it with the Danish Government and others.

Is the Minister aware that we, welcome his categorical assurance that a fishing agreement will not be linked to the budget? I congratulate him on stressing the need of local communities. Did he make any progress on the dumping of fish into Britain, which gravely affects our industry? Is he satisfied about the future negotiations, which will depend on giving Britain great preference in its own waters?

Prior to the meeting the Commission announced, as a result of its statements on safeguard prices, improvements relating to imports into Britain. I hope that it will shortly announce the arrangements for imports from third countries. That will help to improve the situation.

As for the Canadian agreement, we made clear that a further inflow of imports would have an adverse effect. In terms of overall quotas, member States could put forward their individual requirements at the meeting. There will now be a series of bilateral talks between the Commission and individual countries, including the United Kingdom. At those talks we shall spell out our requirements in great detail.

It is reported that other members of the EEC wish to settle the issue on the basis of a 12-mile United Kingdom limit and nothing else. Will the Minister assure us that he will not make any such settlement?

Although I congratulate the Minister on the energetic way in which he is dealing with the subject, particularly as he has had to make up a great deal of leeway resulting from the previous Administration, will he bear in mind that he may have to take unilateral action? The time factor is all-important for British fishing fleets. During discussions with Fisheries Ministers, I hope that Spain's entry into the Community will not be forgotten. It has vast fishing fleets that will considerably affect the South-West of England.

As regards unilateral action, my hon. Friend will know that we met the fishing industry in March and agreed on several national aids to the industry. I am having a further meeting with the industry on 3 July so that the industry and I can assess its current financial and economic problems. On that basis, and in conjunction with the progress made on the common fisheries policy, the Government will consider what needs to be done.

My hon. Friend is correct about the difficulty of negotiating. When we came to office, eight member countries had agreed a fishing policy in the absence of Britain. That gave us a difficult base from which to start negotiations. However, we have now created a climate in which sensible negotiation is possible. My hon. Friend's point about Spain is important, and is in the minds of a number of member States, including our own.

Whatever the Minister may think, is it true, as reported almost everywhere, that the French and German Governments regard the budget settlement as dependent on agreement on fisheries and on sheepmeat?

Obviously I am unable to speak for representatives of the French and German Governments. On Monday I had a meeting with the Fisheries Council that lasted for many hours. The French and Germans participated in that meeting. I had bilateral talks with both Ministers prior to the meeting. I have arranged bilateral talks with both countries before the next Council meeting. No mention was made of any link between the two, either at the Council meeting or during the bilateral talks. Whatever any politician in Europe may think, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the British Government believe that the budget settlement was made in its own right and that it was perfectly justified, just as the settlement of agricultural price fixing was made in its own right. There is no embargo on our freedom to negotiate the fishing agreement.

When and in what form will the proposals relating to Northern Ireland be published?

I shall make the proposals of the Commission available to the hon. Member in their present form. On the second set of proposals, we have added the pig industry, which is very important to Northern Ireland. I would think that we could reach agreement on these proposals at the July meeting. The proposals were first published at the meeting yesterday, and with the improvement of the inclusion of the pig industry they will, in total, bring substantial benefits to the farming industry in Northern Ireland.

If it is the case that by the end of this year there would have been a nil quota for New Zealand dairy products, is this not a damning indictment not just of the Last Labour Government but of all previous Governments who were engaged in negotiations on this issue? In pursuing the matter energetically with a determination to put it right, which I know he will, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that he is thereby securing a good bargain for the British people as well as justice for the New Zealand people?

It has always been the Government's view that the position of New Zealand and its access to the European market is an advantage to the British housewife. We are used to consuming New Zealand products, and this issue is also very important in political and economic terms. Europe as a whole has a substantial favourable balance of trade and balance of payments with New Zealand. Therefore, we believe that it is vital that sensible and realistic arrangements should be made for the future.

Will the Minister accept that attack is not always the best form of defence? Will he give a pledge that he will not allow any large imports of Canadian cod into the United Kingdom? Secondly, in making any agreement on quotas, will he bear in mind the fact that he should not make these in any way excessive, but should always consider the losses sustained by Hull and Humberside as a whole, particularly in the waters of Iceland and Norway?

On the question of Canadian cod, there is a swap of opportunities of long-distance fishing in Canadian waters, for a tariff reduction for Canadian fish in the European market. In present practical terms, this means that most of their fish will come into the United Kingdom and most of the longdistance fishing will go to other countries. On that basis the swap is a great disadvantage to the United Kingdom. I cannot say what the future balance of opportunity between long-distance fishing and imports of fish will be to the United Kingdom. However, I can assure the hon. Member that I will make my judgment in close consultation with the industry on what both the industry and myself believe to be to the net advantage to the United Kingdom.

But what about the losses sustained by Hull fishermen in Icelandic and Norwegian waters?

We have made it clear that the loss of fishing to places such as Hull since 1970 is a very important factor in the calculation of quotas.

Now that the Commission is at last to take action against the Dutch for operating subsidised prices to their glasshouse producers, does my right hon. Friend intend to seek a short time scale within which such action would operate?

On this occasion for the first time we were supported by the Germans, the Belgians and the Danes. I urged that it was no use making decisions at the end of the growing season, by which time most of our growers would have suffered. I wanted decisions by July. The Commissioner said that he recognised that it was important to make decisions now, and therefore I very much hope that at the July meeting we shall have positive proposals of the Commission.

Is it not obvious from recent statements that serious attempts are being made to undermine the Government's position and weaken their resolve not to link fishing with the budget? In order to counteract such pressure, will the Minister make it clear that unless such threats are stopped immediately the Government will cease to pay their contributions to the budget?

No such threats have been made to the British Government. No such threats were made to me at the Fisheries Council, and no such threats were made at the bilateral meetings with either of the countries concerned. No such threat has been made. If such a threat were made, I would totally reject it.

Will the Minister tell the the House a little more about the British Government's position on fishing limits? In particular, what is their standpoint on preferential rights?

This varies from one locality to another and from one fishing community to another. Our position remains as clearly stated by the Prime Minister before the election, and repeated by myself and the Secretary of State for Scotland since.

Order. Hon. Members have been very helpful with brief questions, so I will be able to call every hon. Member who has been rising in his place since the beginning of supplementary questions.

Can the Minister say whether his fellow Council Ministers have yet grasped the deep indignation felt by British fishermen about the way in which conservation measures are frequently and fragrantly flouted, particularly when the result of that is dumping in our own markets?

In fairness, I must say that in recent months there have been substantial prosecutions against German ships, with very heavy fines. The rate of prosecution by the French authorities against French ships has also increased considerably. I believe that the standards that we have set are beginning to be followed by other Community countries.

Is there any possibility of our budget contribution not being repayable if the common fisheries policy is not agreed by the end of the year? In the light of that deadline, is it not time to let the Prime Minister back out of the cage into which the Foreign Secretary has so unceremoniously bundled her on European issues, because without her backing there is very little chance of getting the 12-mile exclusive zone, the 50-mile preferential zone and the 200-mile conservation area, which is essential to the industry?

The hon. Member's statements are a travesty of what was agreed in Brussels. There was an attempt by other European countries to put in conditions about the fishing agreement. That attempt was totally rejected by the Foreign Secretary and never came into the text. The text that was agreed in Brussels left the British Government with total freedom to negotiate the fishing agreement—to agree to it, not to agree to it or to veto it. We can do whatever we like with it, and that position remains.

Is the Minister aware of the deep concern felt by the New Zealand Government about the new sheepmeat regime? Will he give an absolute assurance that he will support the New Zealand Government in their efforts to secure the continued shipment of quantities of lamb to the United Kingdom that will at least reflect the supplies sent in the past five to seven years? Will he also give an assurance that he will support the New Zealanders in their efforts to obtain a reduction of the 20 per cent. tariff that they are paying?

The short answer is "Yes" to both questions. The New Zealand Government are well aware how closely we have worked with them throughout the negotiations. We are continuing to do so. We have offered help and assistance to the New Zealand Government in this area, and as far as I know there is no attempt by other European countries to diminish the volume of New Zealand lamb coming into this country. I hope that as a result of the agreement the New Zealanders will succeed in getting a reduction in their tariff.

Could my right hon. Friend use his influence with the Commission before the next meeting of the Council of Ministers to urge them to calculate the exact benefit to countries, such as France, of selling produce at above world market prices within the EEC, and the lack of benefit to countries such as the United Kingdom, which must buy at European prices rather than world market prices? Then the people of the countries that have been party to the deal that was recently struck by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would know exactly what that deal was.

My hon. Friend knows that this position varies rather sharply and quickly. For example, last year France received considerable net benefit from selling sugar at a price well above the world market price. However, currently France has to sell sugar at a price way below the world market price. Therefore, the position can vary considerably. My Department makes assessments from time to time about the advantages and disadvantages.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the deepening concern of fishermen in small ports such as Girvan, Ballantrae, Dunure, Maidens and, indeed, Ayr, the constituency of the Secretary of State for Scotland? Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about what he hopes to achieve with regard to preferential rights to keep outside fishermen away from the areas close to these small ports?

The Secretary of State for Scotland, the Minister of State in my Department and I are well aware of the problems of Scottish fishing ports. Many fishermen from Scottish ports accompanied us to Brussels, and we are working close with them. We are demanding a preferential area that will secure inshore fishing for the United Kingdom.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that unless new rules are agreed by 1982 European fishermen will be able to fish right up to our shores? Does that not demonstrate that the Minister has no power of veto?

We would argue that in the absence of a policy we have a right to continue after 1982 the derogation that we have so far received.

Why did not the Government put forward specific proposals with regard to Canadian imports at the meeting in order to strike the balance that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned more fairly, so that British industry did not continue to suffer? Did the right hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State for Scotland raise, in the context of Canadian imports, the damage being done to local fisheries around the Scottish Highlands by lobster imports?

We mentioned that, apart from cod, there were problems with regard to lobsters and possibly herring fillets, which could also be part of the agreement. It is difficult for one country to put forward a specific proposal when discussing fishing rights and quotas for the Community as a whole. However, we put forward proposals for a balance between the two interests.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that previously I raised the topic of a link between fishing and the budget precisely because I had read the text to which he refers, which was capable of more than one interpretation? Will he admit that suspicions have been raised because his categorical assurance that there was no link was subsequently publicly contradicted by spokesmen for the French and German Governments? Since we are to hear the Commission's quota proposals at the next Council meeting, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that for those quotas to be acceptable to the United Kingdom not only will they have to reflect the fact that about two-thirds of the EEC's fish are in British waters but the terms will have to be much better than those rejected by the Labour Government in 1978?

As the hon. Gentleman knows better than most, the difficulty is that eight countries, in the absence of Britain, reached an agreement on fishing. It has therefore been difficult to shift the Community from that agreement. On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may feel that it was a pity to allow those countries to meet by themselves and reach that agreement. We want an improvement on the previous proposals and an agreement that gives long-term stability to the British fishing industry. That is the objective of our talks.

With regard to the link with the budget, it is absurd to suggest that any single country could demand a quota for specific fish on the basis that if it were not given it would destroy not only the budget but the common agricultural price fixing arrangement and the sheepmeat regime arrangement. That is not in the text, it is not the interpretation of the British Government, and it is not an interpretation that has been raised with the British Government by any other member Government.