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Fisheries Council

Volume 33: debated on Tuesday 30 November 1982

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

3.35 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers held in Brussels on 29 November.

Together with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of State, I represented the United Kingdom.

Nine member States reaffirmed their agreement to the common fishing policy agreed on 8 November, but the Danish Minister asked for more time to consider his response. The nine member States made it clear that there could be no alteration to the agreement that they had reached.

On the instigation of the United Kingdom Government, it was agreed that the Commission would convene a meeting of high level officials to prepare the national measures that would be required should Danish agreement not be obtained before 31 December.

The brevity of the statement and the fact that it ignores every question that has been asked by an anxious industry that has only four weeks to know its fate is a disgrace. It not only makes a mockery of our proceedings but is an insult to the industry that has been asking questions for the past few months.

This morning I spent two hours with the representatives of the fishermen, who posed dozens of questions that the Minister should have answered today but has not. We are not told whether it is on the agenda—

Order. The Minister has made a statement, and the Opposition Front Bench is entitled to comment and not only to ask questions on a statement.

For example, we are not told about the contingency plans, or whether it is on the agenda for the Heads of Government meeting this week. We are not told anything about the legal questions posed by every newspaper and every fishing organisation.

First, will the Prime Minster deal with this matter at the Heads of State meeting this week? If so, will the hon. Gentleman guarantee that there will be no concessions on the present position and no trade-off in other directions to secure agreement?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman get on to the question of the national measures that must be taken? Is it not dangerously late to leave this to the decisions of the Commission on 21 December when on 1 January, if there is not an agreement, our waters will be open right up to the beaches? If the Minister is to apply national measures, does this mean—the fishermen think that this is what it means—United Kingdom jurisdiction up to the 200-mile limit and the appropriate median lines? Does it include the Shetland box and the pout box? Does it mean that our concessions last time concerning 7,000 tons of mackerel and the 6 per cent. cut in the Shetland box have been withdrawn? Can the Minister confirm that?

Will the Minister confirm that, even if concessions are made by the Germans and the French regarding their quotas, he will refuse to open up our waters off the northwest of Scotland to the Danes?

Will not control depend upon the issue of log-books, which will show where the catch was made, the species that were caught and the amount? Will it be possible to have this in operation by 1 January if decisions are to be made by the Commission on 21 December?

Is there any legal measure that will bind the Danes outside our 6-mile and 12-mile limits and outside the two boxes regarding the size of their catch? Does not the Minister agree that the legal position is infinitely more doubtful and dangerous than he has hitherto been saying? If we are not to apply a majority vote—and we do not want to do so—is it not the case that the Danes can argue that the derogation ends and the common fisheries policy is reverted to and they can fish up to our beaches? We need answers to these legal questions.

Can the Minister guarantee that if any Danish boat catching in the North Sea over the quotas already granted to the Danes is brought to a British court, the court's decision will not be overruled by the European Court? If that happens will it not make a mockery of our claim about defending the national interest within the EEC?

None of these questions, which have been posed continually since the Minister's last statement, has been answered. I reiterate that we should support any independent action that he took to protect our fishing fleet and waters.

Knowing my hon. Friend, I had better say any sensible measures to protect our waters and our fishing fleet. In view of the hold-up, is it not time to reassert the position, which was agreed by all parties in the House, of a 12-mile exclusive limit and 50-mile dominant preference? The Prime Minister made promises about that during the election campaign when she was speaking in the fishing port of Aberdeen.

The Minister's statement is disgraceful and an insult to the industry. Is it not time for a major debate on the fishing industry in Government time?

Any observer of the fishing industry who heard that series of questions will consider it one of the more pathetic performances on the fisheries platform. I was describing a meeting that took place this week. I discussed the object of that meeting with the leaders of the fishing industry this week. They completely agreed with that object. I met the leaders after the meeting and they were delighted with the result of the meeting.

There is no truth in the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) that the fishing industry is not in complete agreement with our tactics and what we have achieved. He is disappointed that the fishing industry wants the agreement and supports it. The industry is disappointed that Denmark has not come into line. The sooner that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West recognises that, the sooner he will receive some sympathy from the fishing industry.

It has been made clear by the Prime Minister and, I believe, by the President of France, the German Chancellor and the Dutch Prime Minister that they all require the subject to be on the agenda for the meeting of Prime Ministers and Presidents this week. I am sure therefore that it will be on the agenda and discussed.

None of the nine countries will depart in any way from the agreement that has been reached. Monday's meeting was important because it was the first meeting from which the Danish Minister had to return to Denmark with the clear message that there was no chance of any concessions of any description from any country, and that the nine member countries considered that the end of the negotiations had been reached. I am glad that that has been established before the summit meeting. It means that there will be no Danish vessels fishing for mackerel off the west coast of Scotland. All nine member countries are agreed on that, as is the Commission.

It has always been clear that we consider that action taken with the Commission's agreement will be legal. The Commission made it clear that, in the absence of agreement, it wishes the quota and access proposals, agreed by the nine countries to secure the fishing stock in Europe, to continue. It wants the nine countries to adopt national measures to achieve that. That is what the high level group will discuss in detail. The British Government have therefore prepared their proposals.

We have managed to obtain a few answers, but the Minister has not dealt with the main point. I shall remind him of what he said on his previous statement:

"We shall not impose in Danish waters measures which will affect them in their own waters. The deal will safeguard the waters of the other nine member States."—[Official Report, 27 October 1982; Vol. 29, c. 1053.]
We are interested, as he should be, in what will happen to the Danish fishing capacity in the North Sea in the waters outside our exclusive limits. What measures have been taken to deal with that? Can existing law deal with that position after we have granted them a quota?

I thank the Minister for telling us that there will be a meeting of Heads of Government on this matter. He should have told us that in the first place.

If the Danes decided to overfish in Danish coastal waters, it would be to the detriment of their fishing industry and that of everyone else. I do not believe that will happen. I hope that at either the summit meeting or at the meeting on 21 December the Danish Government will recognise that it is in their industry's interests to reach agreement. I am sorry that the hon. Member has not taken the opportunity to urge that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the firm stand that he took at Brussels. If, unfortunately, national measures have to be introduced by the other members of the Common Market, can he guarantee that there will be no nonsense about fishing up to the beaches and that the Danes will not exceed their authorised quota?

I can guarantee that there will be no fishing up to the beaches and that the basic access proposals, including the Shetland box, will be maintained by such national measures.

I believe that there will be an agreement that the Danes will be allowed to fish the quotas that the nine member countries considered reasonable. The enforcement regulations, which will enable the Commission for the first time to have inspectors boarding ships to see documents, irrespective of whether there is an agreement, come into operation on 1 January. That is something that the Opposition seem to have forgotten.

Can the Minister assure the House that Britain will take no position or action inconsistent with our insistence upon the right of veto?

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Shetland fishermen have expressed considerable anxiety about the scheme. Will the national measures enforce the agreement, about which we know, against all the countries involved, including the Danes? Will we have the right to bring Danish ships before British courts if they contravene the agreement even if they have not signed it?

Can the Minister confirm what the Secretary of State for Scotland has said—that when the matter is finally settled he will be willing to meet fishermen's associations to discuss the possibility of management schemes?

Yes, Sir. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) knows, the Secretary of State for Scotland has already had various discussions with Shetland island representatives and has said that he will be willing to discuss the future management and operation of those important waters which have a considerable effect on the Shetland islanders.

The Commission's view is that in the absence of an agreement it is right for the Commission to give its authority for, and therefore make completely legal, actions that would be needed to conserve fishing stocks. The action that has been taken in the Shetland box is an illustration of what the nine member countries considered necessary to conserve fishing stocks in the area. I have no doubt that that action would be legal and that anybody who contravened that—including British, French or other fishermen—could be brought before British courts.

Will the grant for restructuring continue whether or not the Danes agree to the package?

I hope that agreement will be reached for immediate temporary restructuring, because it does not affect the principles of any dispute between Denmark and ourselves. However, I cannot guarantee that. I hope that the restructuring proposals can proceed.

The Minister's terse statement left us feeling anxious. Is he assuring the House and telling the industry that if Danish boats were to attempt to catch 30,000 tonnes of mackerel off the north-west coast of Scotland, or anywhere else, he would take measures to have their vessels towed back to harbour?

We would use the legal powers already in existence against anyone discovered fishing illegally in this way—for example, any fishermen fishing a particular stock when their country had no quota. That would be an illegal action. They would be subject to the basic penalties of a fine of up to £50,000 and the confiscation of their fishing equipment.

I should like to try to clarify the juridical position which, despite what the Minister has stated, seems a little unclear. If nine member countries, on the basis of the terms which they have already approved, agree that they will pursue national measures within their own waters, will such action enjoy the support of Community law? If it does not enjoy the support of Community law—the right hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that it did—what real protection exists?

Case history in the courts makes it clear that a national measure that has not been disapproved by the Commission has legal validity. The Commission's view, clearly expressed, is that, in the absence of a firm agreement, it has a task in such a vacuum to give approval to national measures that conserve fish stocks—this means the quota and access arrangements—in a realistic and sensible way.

I wish to add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend for standing firm in Brussels. Is he aware that there will be considerable relief among fishermen in Bridlington that there has been no further concession to the Danes? If the Danes do not accept the agreement by 1 January, will national measures enable us to exclude them in the area up to the 200-mile limit?

No, Sir. The view of the Commission, which I personally support, is that in such a situation the type of quotas and access arrangements that nine countries have agreed would be considered to be sensible arrangements to conserve, enhance and improve fishing stocks in Europe. It would therefore be reasonable to implement the quotas that have been allocated. I should perhaps point out that if they do not accept the agreement the Danes will lose quite a lot of fish. The proposals would not include a substantial volume of fish given by the Norwegians who have made it clear that they are only willing to provide that fish in the event of there being a common fishing agreement among all ten member States. There would therefore be a loss of some importance in the quotas of Danish fishermen.

Order. If hon. Members are brief, I hope to call all those who have been standing.

As the Shetlanders depend so heavily on the fishing industry, and as the offer currently available to the Government is unacceptable to them, is it the Minister's intention to secure an improvement in these arrangements as they affect Shetland?

No, Sir. We abide by the agreement as currently reached. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has pointed out, a considerable amount, in terms of planning and management of the locality, can be done that is of interest to the Shetlands. We are not considering changes to the agreement.

It should be noted that 80 per cent. of the Shetland catch is within the 12-mile limit which remains an exclusive zone where foreign vessels cannot operate. It is one area of Western Europe where a licensing arrangement will ensure that important stocks in the locality are conserved and, I trust, will be enhanced in years to come. I believe that the agreement is a good one for the Shetland islands. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be only too willing to discuss the management proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition's response to his progress on this difficult issue is more than a little cavalier, especially as they manifestly failed to achieve anything along these lines during their period of office? Should not the Opposition be encouraged by the fact that the Danes have asked only for a little more time? Should not they also be encouraged by the resolution of our Prime Minister and the other Heads of the nine countries involved?

Yes, Sir. There is a rather sharp contrast between the present situation and that which I inherited when all eight member countries were lined up against Britain on a package that was exceedingly unacceptable and where no progress had been made. Our deep sea fleet had seen its biggest decline, but hardly any aid was forthcoming from the then Government. The comparison is recognised by the fishing industry.

I appreciate the considerable importance of the fishing industry to Denmark and to the Danish people. I hope that the Danes will now recognise that nine member countries and the Commission are united in their view that no changes can take place. Unlike any other member of the Community, a substantial proportion of Danish fishing consists of fishing for industrial purposes. Virtually the whole of that catch is free of quota. In that respect, there will be no adverse effect upon the Danish fishing industry. I hope that the Danes, following careful consideration of the facts and features of the agreement, will come to accept the agreement within a short period.

Will the Minister return to the legal point and explain how the Commission can overrule the provisions of the Treaty of Rome with regard to open access fishing on 1 January? If a Danish ship was to fish up to our beaches and was taken to court, how could a British court enforce national measures in view of the fact that the Treaty of Accession gives primacy to the Treaty of Rome?

There are two reasons. There is an equality of treatment which does not mean that the access arrangements cannot come into operation. The same approach is adopted for other member countries that are affected. In the Commission's view, that situation is perfectly correct. The second factor is that the Treaty of Rome did not state that on 1 January 1983 there would be no measures at all. In fact, there was a provision permitting replacement of existing measures by whatever had been agreed among the member countries. In the event of a vacuum occurring, the courts have held that action by the Commission is legal and valid.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the fishing industry appreciates what he has achieved in the negotiations and the work that he has contributed? Is he aware that Opposition Members are developing the nasty habit of making inaccurate statements basically to show that, when these are proved inaccurate, they have influenced the decision? Will he make certain that these inaccurate statements are shown up for what they are?

Yes, Sir. The leaders of the fishing industry have had their approval of the agreement endorsed by their executives and by fishermen's meetings. Following my talks with the leaders of the three fishing organisations last week and my talks in Brussels, I have no doubt that they are totally with the Government.

What are the Minister's plans for ensuring that the dispute does not affect fishing in third party waters? How does he intend to ensure continued fishing by British vessels in Norwegian waters? When the right hon. Gentleman announces in the near future, I hope, details of an aid package amounting to £15 million, will he bear in mind that the sum is now inadequate given the fact that interest rates are going up again and that a key problem is the burden of debt? Is he aware that uncertainty still remains?

The Government hope that the relationship with Norway will not be impaired by any failure to reach an agreement. Norway shares waters with the Community and is desperate and anxious for an agreement. It was therefore willing to make sacrifices on fishing stocks to ease the position of Denmark. Denmark will lose that if it fails to agree. I hope that pressure from Norway will help to bring about an agreement.

I find the hon. Gentleman's remarks about aid surprising. The aid being given by the Government this year is equal to the total amount of aid given during six years of a Labour Government. The aid given to Grimsby during the lifetime of this Government will be more than that given to the whole industry during the lifetime of the previous Labour Government.

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the threat to the sprat. Is he aware that the history of the control of fishing shows that if an important species is omitted, it becomes virtually extinct because so much effort is directed towards it? Can we, for once, be slightly ahead of events by imposing tighter control on sprat fishing so that the breeding stock of the sprat is not annihilated as a reaction to control on other species?

Obviously I shall bear in mind and consider what my hon. Friend has said. The decision to have no quota for the sprat is based on scientific advice. If that advice changes and it is suggested that a quota should be set for the sprat, the Government will support it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there are only 31 days to go and that there is no immediate prospect of a unanimous agreement? He must have some contingency plan. Will he tell the House what it is and how he will implement what he describes euphemistically as "national measures" to preserve our stocks?

We have operated national measures for some years with the approval of the Commission and with legal validity. We have discussed with other member States what national measures should come into operation in the absence of an agreement. There will be a high-powered meeting next week of top officials of the member States. It will work out the details of the measures and the manner in which they shall come into operation if it is necessary to introduce them. I hope very much that they will never have to come into operation. I believe that the agreement that has been reached will be good for Europe. I hope that the Danish Government are now at the point of deciding to accept it.

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that the Prime Minister will bring her considerable influence to bear on the Danish Prime Minister to get his country to agree to accept the package which has been described by the chairman of the Scottish Fishing Federation, Willie Hay, who is one of my constituents, as a "very good package"? Will he ensure that the Prime Minister uses her considerable influence so that the Danes will agree to the package before the end of the year and so make unnecessary all the hypothetical questions and the answers that he has had to give?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met the Danish Prime Minister a few days ago. A long conversation took place on this issue. I know that the Danish Prime Minister was left in no doubt that we considered it vital speedily to come to a common fishing agreement and that there was no possibility of any change in the package that had been obtained. I believe that the Danish Prime Minister received exactly the same message from the French Prime Minister and the President of France the same day. He received the same message on Monday from eight other member States and the Commission. I hope that the totality of the message will mean that the Danish Government will recognise that it is vital to the interests of Europe and Danish fishermen quickly to come to an agreement.

I return to the legal issues. How can the Minister determine that there is a vacuum and that legal action "taken without the opposition of the Commission will stand" when it is clear under the terms of the Treaty of Accession and the regulation of 20 October 1970 that

"Rules applied by each member State in respect of fishing in the maritime waters coming under its sovereignty or within its jurisdiction shall not lead to differences in treatment of other member States. Member States shall ensure in particular equal conditions of access to and use of the fishing grounds situated in the waters."
If that is the current legal position, which after 31 December will leave no room for a vacuum, how cart the House, without alteration to the Treaty of Accession, take such measures?

Will the Minister please note the need for a full debate? There are deep legal doubts about our ability to act.

The view of the United Kingdom, and I believe that of the Commission, is that there are provisions in the Treaty of Accession which state that on 1 January 1983 the current position will be replaced. In the event of failure to reach agreement on a common fisheries policy, there will be a vacuum and the Commission can act accordingly.