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Common Fisheries Policy

Volume 990: debated on Thursday 7 August 1980

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

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Is it to be the industry's financial year? It is plain from all the documents that the industry is referring to the end of the calendar year. All the assessments of vessel figures are based on the calendar year. Is it the industry's financial year or is it the Government's financial year? There is a difference of almost three months. That is significant in terms of what the industry has to face in future. I hope that that issue will be resolved.

There has been some concern about the way in which the previous few million pounds of aid was distributed. I know that the Minister has said that he is changing the allocation scheme. I hope that he will do something to ensure that the aid that goes into the industry is reflected in prices in the shops. The hon. Member for Fife, East says that the consumption of fish is decreasing. That is hardly surprising when we consider how the price of fish on the fishmonger's slab is increasing.

In our fishing debates, we often concentrate on the industry and leave out of the equation the most important factor, namely, the consumer. If the consumer's rating is £15 million, £18 million, £30 million or whatever figure the Government claim and the price of fish is increasing in the shops, the public are bound to ask why.

Those who are acquainted with the industry know that market prices have to be considered carefully. However, the public read in the press of boxes of haddock being sold at £2 a box in the fish market. That has been the catalyst for a great furore in the fishing ports. At the same time, the price of haddock at the fishmonger's is over £1 a pound and cod is £1·75 a pound. The public are bound to ask "What is happening?" I hope that the Government will do something to ensure that the money that they put into the industry is used in part to keep prices down.

Am I right in thinking that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the money that goes into the industry should go to the housewife and not to the industry?

Not in whole. I am suggesting that the money that is going into the industry should be reflected in keeping prices down in the shops, if not reducing them. I am not suggesting that all the money should be used for that purpose. Unless we increase the consumption of fish, there is no point in keeping the industry alive.

I welcome the Minister's confirmation of the order to Hall Russell and Co. for two offshore patrol vessels. It is not a new order. It is not an order for two additional vessels. These are the vessels for which the Ministry of Defence issued a letter of intent to Hall Russell and Co. in February. As I understand it, the order is now signed, sealed and delivered. It has been signed on the dotted line. The Minister will know, because I have been telephoning his office almost every day since the beginning of July, that there has been unhappiness about the delay in confirming the order.

I was alarmed to hear the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South refer to the Minister as the hero of the hour who had battled to get that order. I had always understood, throughout the last four or five weeks, that there was no doubt about the order being placed and that the issue was one of accounting difficulty among the four Departments about who would pay for the two vessels. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was slightly overdrawing events and was not suggesting that the signing of the order was in doubt. If there were doubt, the situation would be much more serious.

The placing of the order, while important for Hall Russell and for our fisheries protection fleet, is not enough to ensure a proper fishery protection fleet for conservation, protection and the policing of quotas. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the Government are considering placing further orders. I make the constituency point that I should like such orders to go to Hall Russell. Wherever they are placed, in the interests of our fishing industry we should have a much bigger fishery protection fleet.

It is not simply yards such as Hall Russell that depend on the fishing industry. Hon. Members from fishing ports around Scotland and England will know that many small boat builders face serious trouble. Some face redundancies and there is fear that a number may have to close because orders have all but dried up. This has happened, I understand, to the extent that £2 million of White Fish Authority money will not be spent this year. I hope that such rumours are untrue.

I hope that the extent to which boat builders depend on the confidence of those who go to sea is recognised. If reconstruction funds are channelled into boat building from the EEC or elsewhere, I hope that owners, who have been arguing, rightly, that there should be import controls against cheap fish, will take the point that when they receive British aid to build vessels they should not simply duck across the Channel and elsewhere to place orders in foreign yards. This has happened far too much. I hope that owners will realise their responsibility to the boat-building industry in this country.

The aid given to owners by Continental Governments to purchase vessels is conditional on those orders being placed in domestic yards. We have always had the answer that we are bound by the Treaty of Rome and previously by EFTA rules that free competition had to arise and that people should be allowed to place orders anywhere. It happens nowhere else except in this country that people are allowed to take Government money and spend it outside the country. Apart from any action the Government take, the fishing industry should feel a sense of responsibility.

I wish to refer to the EEC generally. I disagree with the Minister, who gave a fairly rosy picture of how matters had developed since he became Minister. The hon. Gentleman suggested that in the period in which the Government had been taking part in negotiations there had been significant moves towards the British point of view. That idea is entirely misplaced. It seems that the Government have learnt nothing since the days when they were first elected—the heady days of optimism when they started negotiations. At that time, their message was that it would be "full speed ahead" towards agreement on a common fisheries policy. Apparently, the days of obstruction by my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), the days of disagreement in the Community because some Labour Members were antagonistic to the EEC and had no enthusiasm for it, had passed. The reason, we were told, why there had not been progress towards a new common fisheries policy was the lack of flexibility and the intransigence of those carrying out the negotiations.

We have had 15 or 16 months of the new flexible approach of the commitment to the European Community. That was supposed to remove the difficulties in our way. The reality is very different from what we were promised. It is also different from what the Minister said tonight. Far from its being full speed ahead towards a fisheries agreement, the anchors are still firmly embedded in the sea bed. We have made no progress at all.

Whether the Government like it or not, they are boxed in in their negotiations. The negotiations are linked with the budget issue, which they claim to have settled. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), in a rare moment when we happened to agree, was right when he said that it is not so much what is said in the House at the Dispatch Box that counts as what is said by and emanates from other EEC Governments. They have made it clear that if we do not reach a fisheries agreement satisfactory to their fishermen—not to our fishermen—we shall not get the budget rebate which we are due to get on 1 January next year. We are hemmed in. I do not know why the Government allowed themselves to be conned into the 1 January 1981 date.

The indicative or illustrative quotas, or whatever is the current euphemism to be applied to them, are an insult to this country. As I interjected earlier, we have for four to five years been trying to negotiate a new common fisheries policy. Yet the result of the great progress that we have made is indicative or illustrative quotas. It is a sad position in which to find ourselves.

I hope that the Government will stand firm in their resolve. I doubt whether they will be able to do so. The issue has gone so far and they have got so boxed in that they will not be able to reach an agreement. I hope that they will, but I doubt it. As an earnest of the Government's intention to reach an agreement, I hope that the Minister will announce that he accepts our amendment. Some hon. Members think that the amendment is inadequate. Nevertheless, it encapsulates our negotiating position. Failure to accept our amendment will mean that the divide in the so-called bipartisan policy is widening.

When we have asked the Government to stand firm, they have said that they will stand firm. When we have asked them to say what will happen if we drift on as we have done—on the question of negotiations, one could almost open Hansard at 13 April, col. so and so, repeat it and sit down, because we have been over it so many times—we have been told that we must wait and see when that happens because we cannot declare our negotiating hand. That excuse is wearing thin, because the issue facing the fishing industry is very serious.

The Government must now say that if there is no agreement in October satisfactory to our fishing industry it will be a question not of discussing the rebate, which we might or might not get in January, but of saying that we shall not pay one penny of our money into EEC funds until we get an agreement satisfactory to our fishing industry.

10.14 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has been a powerful advocate for the fishing industry for many years. The one thing shown by the debate is that the east coast of Scotland's fishing communities are not short of powerful advocates. Eight Members on both sides of the House representing Scottish east coast constituencies have taken part in the debate. I think that it is right that hon. Members on both sides of the House should be united in their concern about the future of this important industry.

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the strong stand that has been taken by the Minister of State on quotas, conservation, protection, and so on. The nation and the House are united on those issues. I also welcome the fact that the Government are to give financial assistance to the industry. The sum of £14 million is a convenient compromise—judging from press reports—and we must recognise that it must have been difficult for the Minister to extract that sort of sum from the Treasury under present stances. It is a joy to share the pleasure of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr Sproat) on one of these happy occasions when he can revel in public expenditure for his constituency, which he would be only too willing to deny to people in other parts of the country.

The Minister of State could have been more forthcoming about how the money will be distributed. In terms of the need, there is not very much money. I hope that he will say how much will be spent in Scotland as compared with other parts of the country and how much will go to the inshore fleet as compared with other parts of the fishing fleet. He could have said more, and he will have to say more.

I should like to make one minor constituency point. I wonder how much is left of that part of the previous sum of £3 millon that was set aside for experimental projects for the industry. Is there anything left in that kitty which might be used to help fishermen in my constituency who operate small boats and who are hoping to develop ways and means of supplementing the loss that they are making in fishing for crabs and lobsters by developing a new method of fishing for clams? Perhaps the Minister could write to me about that in due course.

I have looked again at the submission that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation made to the Government last month. Not long ago I spoke to Mr. David Aitcheson, chief executive of the SFF. The Scottish Fisherman's Federation says that three things are needed if the Scottish fishing industry is to be put on an equal footing with its foreign competitors.

First, £5½ million is needed for an interest support scheme in order to cope with the massive and expensive accumulating debt burden that the industry carries at present. Secondly, £4½ million is needed as a fuel subsidy. It should be noted that while fishermen in my constituency have to pay 70p a gallon for their diesel, fishermen in other parts of the world, notably Canada, are paying only 20p. That must be particularly galling for some of our fishermen on the east coast of Scotland who are having to cope with the problems of the oil industry and the disruption that it is causing in their fishing grounds and their fishing ports. Thirdly, the industry needs £2 million for a minimum price scheme to firm up the protective prices that the fishermen receive for the fish that they land.

Those three items total £20 million for Scotland alone. I appreciate that the SFF. may have put its bill a little high, but, in fairness, the last time it asked for money it asked for too little. But when the calculations are of this nature it must be said that the £14 million figure is perhaps a little inadequate and a little too late.

The industry is in a perilous condition, and the Government cannot escape a measure of responsibility for the problem because they are responsible for the high level of interest rates and the high value of the pound, which has led to the cheap import blitz that has created such problems for fishermen in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

That the industry is in a critical condition is demonstrated by the fact that many fishing boat skippers have found it necessary literally to go on strike. They tied up their vessels a week or two back. These are not the sort of people who do that kind of thing lightheartedly. The situation has been critical, and it remains critical.

I know that the House has some extremely important business to deal with later. I should be the last person to want to delay that. Therefore, in conclusion, I take this opportunity to wish the fleet better luck and better fishing in the future and to wish the Minister of State good luck and continued good fishing in the Treasury's pout box.

10.20 pm

I thank the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for his good wishes. I hope that my right hon. Friends and I will be successful in that fishing operation. I also thank him for correcting one thing that I think was wrong in relation to some of the allegations made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian made it quite clear that the amount of money for which the Scottish Fishing Federation was asking—which I certainly understood to be for the Scottish industry as a whole—was just over £20 million, and not £35 million for six months. I accept that. It was not a question of £35 million for six months or for the industry as a whole. Therefore, I start by correcting some of the misapprehensions which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North might have been spreading around the House.

I think that the Minister has to be corrected in his correction. I was speaking about £35 million in a full year, whereas the submissions here are speaking about £20 million over six months, so I am not that far out.

The hon. Member's arithmetic was rather interesting to follow. It seemed to get very quickly up to £70 million. I am simply going by the facts of the case put to the Government, which were confirmed by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian. That is on the record. The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian is correct about the case put to the Government.

I should like to deal with one or two other matters which I regard as misapprehensions. I believe that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is totally wrong and is misleading the House in suggesting that it is only the fishing industry of the United Kingdom that is in trouble among the fishing industries of Europe. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will have read, even in the past 24 hours, press reports in British newspapers of, for example, French fishermen who prevented the landing in France of British visitors and tourists and others who are using car ferries, because the French fishermen are concerned about their industry. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman has met, as I have met, members of the Danish fishing industry—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) referred to this matter—who, in the area of Jutland, for example, where they have a tradition of industrial fishing, have been unable to fish in the way to which they are accustomed and have had to tie up vessels, probably more than any other section of any fishing industry in Europe.

If the right hon. Member for Down, South cares to consider the fishing industry of one country that is outside the EEC yet is within Europe, that of Norway, he will find that that country has to pay in aid to its fishing industry more than any other country in Europe. That does not indicate that merely by being outside the EEC one country's fishing industry is necessarily in better health than those of EEC countries. There is a more rigorous programme of scrapping vessels in Norway than in any EEC country. The Norwegians are talking not only in terms of scrapping in scrapyards. They have been sinking purse seiners at sea.

I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to get these matters right and to realise the problems of the United Kingdom fishing industry. By the aid that we are giving, the Government acknowledge that problems exist. However, such problems must not be seen in isolation from the problems of the fishing industries of other European countries, both within and without the EEC.

Will the hon. Genteman explain at whose expense we shall gain through the common fisheries policy?

I shall deal with that question shortly. It is not as simple as that. The right hon. Gentleman is good at asking questions in a simple and rather appealing way, but he does not see the subject in the round, nor does he see the different aspects involved. He oversimplifies problems and, in doing so, often reaches the wrong conclusion.

The right hon. Gentleman was wrong on two other points. I admit that our deep-sea fleet has suffered the most and that boats are tied up in ports and are rusting. However, that is not a product of the common fisheries policy. As Germany's deep-sea industry will acknowledge, it is the result of 200-mile fishing zones not within Europe but round other countries which are further away. That would have happened whether or not we were members of the EEC. The right hon. Gentleman should not ignore that.

I should like to turn to the more positive side of this issue. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will point out to the fishermen in his constituency that effective conservation measures cannot be obtained without international agreement. The EEC gives us an opportunity to achieve such measures. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is against the concept of the EEC. I shall not attempt to argue about the philosophy and wider arguments involved. Whatever the right hon. Gentleman may think about the drawbacks of EEC membership, he should recognise that before we were members of the EEC we tried to achieve effective conservation through international co-operation. The only result was that the stock around Europe and in the North Atlantic decreased inexorably year by year. Voluntary efforts did not produce effective conservation. One of the United Kingdom's most valuable stocks,—the herring stock—was depleted to such an extent that fishing for that stock has had to be prohibited for a number of years.

International co-operation is necessary. Fish do not know about boundaries. The European countries do not enjoy 200-mile limits because of the median lines in the North Sea and in the Channel. We could not conserve our fish without an agreement with other countries. An extreme example might be salmon. Such a fish requires even wider conservation agreements with countries such as Greenland. By good fortune, that country, through its association with Denmark, is still a member of the Community. We therefore have an opportunity to obtain effective conservation measures for a fish that swims even further than most of the other species around our coasts.

We have tried voluntary agreements, but they have failed. Membership of the EEC gives us an opportunity to reach an agreement that will have the force of Community law behind it. If, as I hope, effective conservation is achieved, and if there is effective enforcement of that conservation, we shall have, for the first time, fishing agreements on the main stocks round the coast of the United Kingdom. Such agreements will have the force of Community law behind them. They are more likely to be enforced than any of our previous agreements. Whatever the right hon. Member for Down, South may feel about the EEC, he should recognise that in the narrow issue of fishing we have an opportunity for more effective conservation. That conservation is useful, and it will be to the benefit of our fishing industry.

The remarks of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) contained a number of misapprehensions. I share his concern about the organisation of the mackerel fishery, but I ask him to get his facts straighter. Already there is provision for reporting to the port inspectorate before our own vessels land their fish on the factory ship. I put to the hon. Gentleman again, but in more precise terms, the question I put to him when he intervened in my opening speech: would he rather see the Cornish mackerel going for 4p a pound for human consumption than for 2p per pound for fish meal? That is what we are faced with at present. If we could spread that fishery over the whole year, how wonderful it would be. But, again, we are dealing with a living resource and we cannot choose just when we have that fishery. Nature has ordained the times of the peaks and the times when there can be no fishing.

In such circumstances, it is inevitable that at present the only major outlet—and it is about twice the value it would be for fish meal—is the one that the hon. Gentleman finds abhorent. I ask him to recognise what the alternative is if we do not have that outlet. It means that the fish will not go primarily for human consumption and there will be about half the return to the fishermen.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the organisation of the fishery, as he knows. I have seen some of the aspects of it at first hand. He also knows that I tried through a restrictive licensing scheme to get better organisation because in doing so we should get better longterm outlets for processing. The way the current licensing system has worked has not been conducive to the better longterm outlets for processing.

The hon. Gentleman also knows that some of my proposals have been rejected by the industry. We are producing a scheme this year not all that different from that of last year but containing certain elements which I hope will be incorporated in the long term to attain a more effective management of the fishery. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is scope for more effective management. It requires a different attitude not only from the Government but also from those who take part in the fishery. I hope to see developments in that direction. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I take to heart some of his criticisms about policing, and we shall do our best to organise that as best we can.

Is not the alternative to selling or practically giving it away to the Russians for 4p a pound to leave a larger portion of the fish in the sea? There is worrying evidence that the total quantity of mackerel, at least around my part of the country, is diminishing rather rapidly.

I tried in our last debate on fishing to lay low the hon. Gentleman's misapprehension. Of course I am concerned about over-fishing. The total allowable catch for that fishery had to be reduced by 10 per cent. again this year, and we have introduced a large conservation box in the South-West which is proving effective.

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to exaggerate the position. As I explained to him in our last debate, there were mistakes over the figures; there were simple arithmetical mistakes on the part of Customs and Excise in the way the figures were converted after the fish had been processed. It meant that the figures he had been using were not accurate in reflecting the total number of fish caught.

I turn to some of the points about structure which relate to the EEC documents. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for North Fylde (Sir W. Clegg) that there are, in this document, proposals which could cover the question that he raised on compensation for redundancy. In the discussions on this document, I shall bear in mind the points that he has made. I shall also bear in mind the remarks of other hon. Members on the question of structure. It is right that we should reserve judgment on the structure document until we know the outcome of negotiations on more important matters such as quotas and access.

On conservation, I have already mentioned the question of the pout box. We shall consider this very carefully in the light of the court judgment. This is a particularly important matter in that the extension of the box takes effect from 1 October, and some urgency is needed.

I was encouraged by the remarks of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East about conservation. He is right: we must maintain our right, even after a common fisheries policy is agreed, to apply our own measures in an emergency on a non-discriminatory basis if we believe that a particular stock or fishery is put at risk and if there are no common fishery measures. I assure the hon. Member that in the negotiations we shall try to incorporate that under the conservation measures.

On the question of quotas, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) was right. These quotas are fundamental to the whole CFP. We have made clear that we believe that the illustrative figures are very unsatisfactory in a number of respects. But the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East is correct: we must be very careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions on the basis of the figures alone. One must look at the figures—the percentage of the tonnage—and then at the stocks that are important to our fishermen, such as haddock, whiting, cod, mackerel and herring. Our other stocks have nothing like the same value. The value of the quota proposals must be seen in the light of the stocks concerned.

Secondly, we must look not simply at the quantity figures but at the value. Cod is one of the most valuable resources. We shall certainly reserve our judgment on the figures until we know exactly where we are.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East moved an amendment, and I am quite prepared to accept it. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) that it does not make sense to tie oneself to particular figures when one is negotiating, but I believe that the words of the amendment have been carefully chosen and I hope that the objectives that the Opposition have put in their amendment will be achieved during the course of the negotiations. We must wait and see how the negotiations progress.

Finally, I turn to the question of aid. I thank hon. Members for the way in which they have welcomed the announcement tonight. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North for the concern that they have expressed recently about the uncertainty at Hall Russell. I hope that my announcement tonight will enable the yard to continue in certainty as a result of the two very good, well-designed and well-built vessels which, I believe, are well up to time.

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr Henderson) asked about the distribution of the aid. The House rises tomorrow, and we considered that we should announce now the aid available to the industry rather than wait for the details. Had we delayed until the details had been worked out, the House would have risen, and it would have been discourteous of us. I am, therefore, afraid that I cannot give the information requested.

Another factor is equally important, and it was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Pollock) in his brief but effective speech. He mentioned the important consultations and partnership between the industry and the Government. If they are to mean anything, in this aid package as much as in relation to the common fisheries policy, the industry has a right to be consulted on the way in which the aid is applied. Officials of the Fisheries Departments will be approaching representatives of the fishing industry tomorrow to try to arrange a meeting next week in order that the details of the aid package can be worked out. Once that is done, we shall make sure that the information is made available.

The debate has been useful and wide-ranging. We have covered the long-term problems of the industry in relation to the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy. I am grateful to the House for suporting the line that the Government are taking, which gives us much greater strength in the negotiations. I am also grateful to the House for welcoming the aid package.

The leaders of the fishing industry have as had a task as the Government in trying to steer the fortunes of the industry and keeping those at the grass roots informed. I pay tribute to their response- bility. In relation to the aid package and the common fisheries policy, I hope that their counsel, wisdom and responsibility will be understood and respected by those at the working end of the industry.

The interim aid scheme is important. We must keep the industry viable while negotiations on the common fisheries policy continue. In the House and in the industry I hope that we shall keep our eyes on the longer-term negotiation of the common fisheries policy. Only by doing so can we ensure that we have an effective industry for the future.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.


That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. R/2988/75, R/2519/77, R/2520/77, R/1514/78 and 8959/80 on structural policy, No. 8583/80 on catch reporting, No. 8957/80 on conservation, No. 8958/80 on 1980 quota allocations, No. 9047/80 on quota allocation criteria and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's unnumbered explanatory memorandum of 21 July 1980 on access; and supports the Government's objective of a satisfactory overall settlement of the revised Common Fisheries Policy in its own right at the earliest possible opportunity which takes adequate account of the need to conserve and safeguard fish stocks and of the overall requirements of the United Kingdom fishing industry, and in particular, maintains the need to secure exclusive access within 12 miles, preferential access within 12 to 50 miles, and an overall share of fish for United Kingdom fishermen which reflects United Kingdom losses incurred in third country waters and the contribution made by United Kingdom waters to total European Community fish resources.