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Fisheries Council

Volume 164: debated on Wednesday 20 December 1989

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4.43 pm

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

Together with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I represented the United Kingdom at the recent Council of Fisheries Ministers in Brussels on 18 and 19 December.

The stocks in the waters most important to us are seriously depleted and there is no way in which a responsible Community or Government could seek to allow fishing on a scale which would further endanger the future. Therefore, no package could have been agreed which would provide all the fishing opportunities that fishermen would like. Our purpose was therefore to gain the best possible opportunities for British fishermen compatible with a responsible conservation policy.

To that end, our first aim was to maintain the principle of relative stability and thereby guarantee our fishermen their fair share of community fishing opportunities. The key test of that was the allocations under the second Greenland protocol. I am pleased to inform the House that these have been made fully in accordance with that fundamental principle, despite the strong opposition of certain member states.

Our second priority was to argue against the Commission's proposals which would have set the total allowable catches and therefore British quotas below the figures recommended by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas—the scientific body to which we all adhere. We succeeded in obtaining our aims fully in respect of haddock and largely in respect of cod, the two main edible species. In the case of whiting, we negotiated changes which gave us a much improved quota.

Our third priority was to ensure that the special arrangements that protect our most vulnerable fishing communities under the Hague preference would be continued.

From an isolated position, we again secured recognition of our Hague preference for North sea haddock, obtaining 87 per cent. of the community stock available. That is over 10 per cent. more than we would otherwise have got. As all that comes from allocations of fish which would otherwise have gone to other Community countries, the House will recognise what an important achievement this is.

During the debate last Thursday, we defined our fourth priority as securing a continuing arrangement to safeguard the important mackerel fishery to the north of Scotland. That proved extremely difficult, and most of the last session of the council was devoted to it. We were eventually successful in convincing other member states of the reasonableness of our case and secured the continued flexibility to catch a part of that stock in the North sea.

In total, 17 United Kingdom quotas, including Channel cod, Irish sea herring and west of Scotland and eastern Channel sole, were increased above the level proposed by the Commission. Moreover, we again made a number of useful swaps, bringing advantages, including increased North sea herring and sole as well as extra quantities of a number of stocks off the south-west.

The House made it perfectly clear that both sides were dissatisfied with the agreement initialled by the Commission and Norway, and I was particularly critical of it. It is therefore particularly satisfying that we secured a number of important changes which made possible the increases for our fishermen.

Conservation is the key to increasing opportunities for our fishing industry. Total allowable catches and quotas canot achieve that on their own. Last week, the Government undertook to press the Commission yet again to bring forward improved technical conservation measures. We were supported in that by almost every speaker in the debate last Thursday. I am therefore encouraged by the Commission's commitment to produce proposals on that by the end of July. Following the useful discussions we have had with our industry over recent months, we will also be putting our own ideas to the Commission in the near future.

These are urgent matters, and although we have ensured that the unacceptable proposals for community involvement in our quota management have been withdrawn, we have committed ourselves to take immediate steps to reduce our fishing effort against North sea haddock.

We will also be having an intensive dialogue with our industry to find ways of improving our fisheries management systems so that they encourage rational investment and exploitation.

It is clear that only by working with the industry and harnessing fishermen's own skills and judgment can we hope to secure the necessary improvements in how our fleet prosecutes its fishing opportunities. Centralised planning and subsidy are certainly not going to produce satisfactory results.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said in the House last week, a decommissioning scheme would not be a sensible use of the taxpayers' money. Moreover, subsidising the construction and modernisation of fishing vessels serves in general to distort rather than encourage sensible investment decisions. In future, subject to clearance with the Commission in accordance with article 92 of the treaty of Rome, we plan to continue to grant aid essential safety improvements for fishing vessels. Otherwise, we intend to restrict vessel grant aid to those cases where it is needed to back up Community grant aid.

We have shown our commitment to the industry by our determination at this week's Council to preserve the fundamental principles of relative stability and our Hague preference and to secure the best possible outcome for our industry consistent with conservation. That is what the House asked us to do. We have achieved it in almost every particular.

I am sure that the Minister will accept that the Opposition recognise the importance of conservation measures, and that quota figures must be based on scientific advice if fish stocks are to be protected and improved. To suggest otherwise—that advice and quotas should be ignored—would be totally irresponsible.

We welcome the fact that the agreed quotas are better in most cases than those that the Commissioner was seeking, although the figure for cod was less than was hoped for. We also welcome the deals on access to Greenland waters, the mackeral quotas and the improvements on Channel cod quotas after the swaps are taken into account.

Overall, however, the deal still represents major problems and some notable failures which will cause severe difficulties for the fishing fleet. Why have we done so badly with the cod quota in north Norway? Does the Minister accept that that will severely hit what is left of our deep-water freezer fleet? Why did the Minister manage to get the maximum available quota—according to scientific advice—for haddock, but fail to get that for cod?

Will the Minister confirm that he agreed to allocate 500 tonnes from the United Kingdom cod allocation to the Danes? Is that right? Was that a trade-off as part of a deal to obtain Hague preference levels? Does the Minister accept that, with the industry in severe difficulties, a firm package of conservation measures is required to be drawn up by the Ministry to reduce the discard levels by increasing mesh size and type, to protect juvenile fish?

Does the Minister also accept that firm policing measures of agreed quota are vital? Can he confirm that expenditure on fishery protection in Scotland decreased from £6·14 million last year to £5·4 million this year, according to the provisional figures? Does he agree that that does not imply that there are adequate protection measures?

I am sure that the whole industry will be disappointed to hear the Minister rejecting central planning and the decommissioning scheme. It is not the industry's fault that it is at the mercy of Community planning and regulations. A free market approach to the industry struggling to survive this period would lead to bankruptcies, redundancies and the undermining of the whole fishing industry.

The industry needs a planned structure of support. Last year £21·8 million was spent in aid for building and modernising the fishing fleet, even though the Ministry knew that there was over-capacity in the fleet. Why cannot some of that money be switched to a proper decommissioning scheme, taking into account the problems of horsepower and all the other problems? I believe that the industry is playing its part in trying to adapt to these difficult times. The Government must accept that they also have a responsibility to assist and protect the industry on which so many jobs and communities depend.

I thank the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for his rather grudging comments about our successes. The industry was rather more generous and said that we came away with the best possible deal. I heard that from the industry leaders themselves directly after they had heard details of the deal. We gave details to them as soon as they were complete. The hon. Gentleman must recall our debate last Thursday in which hon. Members did not believe that it would be possible to get the whole agreement with Norway reopened. In fact, we have had it substantially changed.

Of course the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked me for it. However, if he looks back at what he said last Thursday, he will see that he asked for it as if he did not believe that we would have the determination to do it. He did not believe that it was possible. We did what he asked us to do. It is a bit hard for the hon. Member for South Shields now to appear to say that we did not get everything on every point that the United Kingdom, among 12 other nations, wanted. We got almost everything we sought, and that is a remarkable achievement.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who speaks so often from a sedentary position, has not followed or understood the negotiations. That is obvious from that comment.

The United Kingdom has fought for a Common Market policing force. That force has been substantially supported and extended by the United Kingdom. We have spent a great deal more money in recent years on enforcement, but we have spent it more effectively. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has found a number of ways in recent years to improve enforcement, but at lower cost. That seems to be valuable. It is very odd that the Opposition measure expenditure and not efficacy. That is an element of their economic policy which has brought them to rack and ruin for so long.

The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said that the industry was at the mercy of European Community planning. It is not: it is at the mercy of reduced fish stocks. The point of the Community planning is to share out the fish equitably between countries. At a time when we have greater capacity than we can possibly use with the available opportunities, I do not believe that it is sensible to continue to grant-aid the modernisation of that capacity, which only increases it. Therefore, I believe that it is more sensible to do what we are doing.

I have considered the details of the decommissioning scheme, and I believe that the Public Accounts Committee was right. The scheme as it used to be caused exactly the opposite effect from what was intended. Opposition Members believe that we could have a different scheme, but I do not believe that any scheme is the proper way to deal with the problem. To deal with the problem we should have the conservation measures that we will put before the Commission and a more sensible way of dealing with our quota management, both of which factors will be changed considerably. I am sure that Opposition Members will be pleased with what results.

Order. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that there will be a debate later tonight on the future of the United Kingdom fishing industry. Perhaps detailed questions could be raised in that debate—although I accept that I am not an expert on fishing. If that were the case, perhaps we could reach that debate more rapidly.

Mr. Speaker, you will always be welcome in Scarborough.

During the negotiations, was it accepted either that the scientists were consistently wrong in fixing quotas or that the fishermen were wrong in not keeping to the quota system? As a result of that examination, did my right hon. Friend the Minister conclude that enforcement should be better in future? I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his tremendously successful period of negotiation. Anyone who has studied the problem must conclude that he has done a first-class job within the limits for our fishermen.

We have a complete haddock quota. Now that that quota is for the country as a whole, will new enforceable arrangements be made to make sure that all our fishermen get their fair share of it?

We shall seek to do the latter in the fairest possible way. On my hon. Friend's original question, we discussed the reasons for the continued decline in the stock. It is our view that there was considerable over-fishing, certainly in earlier years. That has been very much reduced, but there is still a great deal to be done in that direction and in the direction of discards. That is why we must have a real package of conservation measures. I shall hold hon. Members to their words in the previous debate. They said that they would support those conservation measures, even though they will be difficult.

I give credit where credit is due. In the negotiations, the Minister and his right hon. and hon. Friends succeeded in achieving success with regard to critical TACs and flexibility on the north of Scotland mackerel fishery, and obtained proposals on conservation measures to come forward next year. However, he will cause great dismay to the industry by effectively jettisoning any plans for decommissioning. He will ask the industry to accept a much reduced fishing effort. How does he propose to manage the reduction in capacity without decommissioning? What will be the effect of his proposals today on meeting the target set under the multi-annual guidance programme? With the exception of safety improvements, vessel grants will be allowed only when the European Community is also giving grant aid. Does that mean that he is handing the Commission responsibility for the future structure of the industry? Is that not an abdication of his responsibility?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his first comments. Obviously, we would not want to exclude people from European Community grant, because there is no matching grant from the United Kingdom. That is the reason for that decision. On the rest of what the hon. Gentleman said, he will have to watch major changes both in conservation terms and in other proposals that will come forward. A decommissioning scheme would not achieve the ends that he desires. A whole series of different things will achieve those ends. As we discuss matters in the coming months, no doubt we will decide, first in prospect, who is right and then, in retrospect, who was right.

May I be the second hon. Member to congratulate my right hon. Friend on a very worthwhile task? The figures that he has achieved were almost unbelievable only a few days ago. As my right hon. Friend knows, there are two other points to conservation. First, there are rumours from the South Coast Fishermen's Association that French trawlers are still using a boom trawl which scoops up almost any size fish. Secondly, my right hon. Friend's Ministry issues licences from South West Water for the dumping of sludge. That can have harmful effects not only on oyster beds in the Solent but on the coarse fishing around the island.

I assure my hon. Friend that I will take up any information that he gives me about the illegal use of equipment, particularly as I want the Community to have further and tougher measures on these matters, and we must make sure that they arZe enforced. Sludge is 95 per cent. water. Wherever there is any danger of it having any kind of deleterious effect, my Ministry does not issue a licence. If my hon. Friend has any particular cases in mind, I shall be happy to look at them. I take a close personal interest in the matter and I am determined that fishing grounds shall not be invaded.

Does the Minister accept that Opposition Members believe that he has done the best he could, given the very bad hand that he was dealt by the Commission at the outset? Does he accept also that that implies that he is still gambling with the industry? Is he aware that, instead of centralised planning and subsidy, he is offering the restructuring of the fleet by the attrition of bankruptcy, without any regard to the people whose livelihoods depend on the sea, whether on the catching side or on the processing side? Why does the right hon. Gentleman have such a principled objection to subsidy? He is quite prepared to pay farmers under the set-aside scheme, but he is unwilling to help fishermen, people on land and crews by introducing a decommissioning scheme that would take account of their fears and responsibilities?

After his kind comments, I must promise the hon. Gentleman that I would be happy to spend the money if I thought that it was a good way of spending money. But I do not think that it will achieve that end. There are better ways of dealing with this matter. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, apart from this year, in every previous year, although fishing opportunities declined, fishermen have received significantly more from the sale of fish. Therefore, the actual return to fishermen has increased in real terms every year until the present, when the 11 per cent. cut in opportunity was matched by only a 9 per cent. increase in price.

My right hon. Friend will realise that I ask my question with some reluctance. I congratulate him on what he has achieved this year. I congratulate the Government also on the £50 million of taxpayers' money that they have put into the fishing industry every year, regardless. On central planning, I congratulate my right hon. Friend also on beating off the European Community's insistence of the disturbance of relative stability. That is the most important factor. Does he agree that we must keep relative stability?

I thank my hon. Friend. I also pay tribute to the Fisheries Ministers in Scotland and England, who, over the past few months, have been preparing for this negotiation. It is only through their work that we have achieved what we did.

It would be churlish not to congratulate the Secretary of State on the general success of the talks in Brussels. He said that there were four members in the United Kingdom ministerial team. Which Minister represented the interests of the Northern Ireland fishing industry in the discussions?

The matter of decommissioning is for another day, but I should like answers to one or two questions relating to the Irish sea. The Minister said that the herring quota has been increased. Is that an increase over the Commission's proposal or an increase over last year's quota? On whiting in the Irish sea, there was a Commission proposal for a reduction of more than 58 per cent., to 8,300 tonnes. Will the Minister assure us that that has been overcome? He said that there has been an increase in whiting, but does that increase apply to the Irish sea? Until we are provided with actual figures, we will be discussing the matter in the dark. When will we have the actual figures that were decided at the Council meeting?

The actual figures will not be available from the Commission for a couple of weeks. Therefore, I will place in the Library in the next 24 hours, I hope, the figures that will be the provisional figures which we ourselves have worked out in detail in a form that is acceptable to the House. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Commission proposal on whiting in the Irish sea was for a total allowable catch of only 8,300 tonnes as against 18,170 tonnes last year. We got that proposal of 8,000 tonnes increased to 15,000 tonnes. It is not as good as last year's, but it is within scientific advice, and that seemed to us to be the right answer. I am sure that it will help the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

I represented the whole of the United Kingdom in the discussions, and, on every occasion on television and radio, I mentioned the importance to Northern Irish fishermen of this matter.

I add my congratulations to all members of the ministerial team on putting up a tremendous and successful fight on behalf of fishermen in all parts of the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend say something about the impact of the deal on the south-west? Am I right in thinking that, although there has been an increase in the channel cod quota, which we welcome, there has been a minuscule reduction in the sole quota in western waters and that there has been or could be a decrease in the plaice quota? How could that possibly be offset?

I thank my hon. Friend. I am using figures that include the swaps that have taken place as a adjunct to these discussions, as they always do. Out of the 24 United Kingdom quotas in the south and south-west for 1990, four have been increased, 13 have been retained at the same level, and seven have been reduced. That is a better outcome than we had feared.

In addition, there has been some increase in Channel cod and sole has been subject to some swaps. I shall give my hon. Friend some details so that he can see exactly how it affects his constituents. The Channel cod TAC is particularly important because we have about 2 per cent. more in the quota although there is a lower TAC. I am sure that that will be a relief to my hon. Friend's fishermen.

Does the Minister recall what was said in last week's debate about the knock-on effects of the quota cuts on the other fishing fleets in other parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom that are not directly involved? Bearing that in mind, will he consider directing a serious research effort into the prawn stocks in the Minch to make absolutely sure that in a couple of years we shall not be discussing quota cuts to deal with those stocks in the way that we are discussing cod and haddock today?

On his statement about the diminishing grant for the construction of new vessels, was the right hon. Gentleman speaking for his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland? If so, will he remember that some of the fleets are not over-capacity but under-capacity and deal with stocks that could bear some more fishing, which means that it would not be wise universally to end all grants for new vessels?

Yes, I am speaking for my right hon. and learned Friend, who is present and will have heard the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall certainly look into his point about prawns. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will help me in saying to many other fishermen that any improvement that benefits, for example, the Scottish fisheries is important for English fishermen also because it relieves some of the pressure that would otherwise have arisen on the stocks that have not changed.

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he made any progress on the subjective regulations that were proposed on the judgment of oyster meat quality, which many south coast fishermen believe to be unenforceable? Did my right hon. Friend take up my point about the disparity between the French regulations for the taking of bass and the nursery stocks that he has proposed for the larger size of bass which the south coast fishermen are required to fish? Will he bear in mind the fact that the French are still plundering the nursery stocks in the Channel?

I did not believe that it was the right moment to take up those issues, which might have divided me from putative friends when I was in the business of trying to gather together as much support as possible for the British position. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the French have suggested that they are prepared to take up on bass parallel rules which would be similar to our own. We are seeking to press the Commission to ensure that its package will bring into line a whole series of conservation measures so that our fishermen realise that, when they are asked to take tough measures, they are taking them in common with other fishermen and that other fishermen will not be allowed to have an advantage.

Does the Minister accept that the deal that he has struck will cause enormous difficulties for the fishing industry? On the specific question of haddock, which is almost exclusively a United Kingdom stock and largely a Scottish stock, will the Minister explain why we have to wait another six months for the possibility of conservation measures designed to allow the young fish to escape, which might work, and why we are pursuing the policy of low quotas, which has failed before and will fail again? Why was action on industrial fishing not included on the agenda? Is he aware that his dismissive attitude towards providing assistance for the industry in this its hour of need will not be forgotten by the fishing communities?

I am surprised that, having listened to a statement in which a Minister has brought back all the things that the hon. Gentleman said we would not be tough enough to fight for, he has not had the courtesy to give thanks for those things that have arrived. The industry will notice that, once again, the Scottish National party is carping about such matters, that it never ever gives credit where credit is due, and that it always proposes a simple answer in which there is no pain. That is why the fishing industry takes no notice of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Having known my right hon. Friend for about 20 years, I am not surprised that he has once again proved to be a doughty fighter on behalf of our fishermen. I should like to ask him a specific question that concerns fishermen in Wales and the south-west and especially my fishermen in Milford Haven whom my right hon. Friend came to see last year. I refer to the European Court ruling of 13 December, which overturned parts of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. Did the negotiations take into account the fact that that would have a serious effect on our quota? Did we get more as a result of the hearing?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, but I do not believe that the European Court hearing should concern us overmuch. We should have liked to win on every count, but we won on the majority of counts and we can use that hearing to do a great deal to exclude from our quotas those people who have no business to be fishing them. Therefore, I hope that we shall be able to do what my hon. Friend wants, but in relation to those things that are found to be legal. I hope that the fishermen in my hon. Friend's constituency will recognise that the size of the British fleet should be measured with British boats, and that it should not include those who have nothing to do with Britain. I shall not go firm on any figures about the British fleet until I have managed to remove from the list those who should have never been on it.

Will the Minister consider giving a friendly and efficacious answer to a friendly and efficacious question? On the July marine conservation measures, will the Minister consider sending some of his most experienced inspectors, who on no account should live near the north of Scotland and should preferably come from the south of England, to find out what is really happening in the area of Ullapool, Aultbea and Wester Ross in relation to two things—first, the sand eels which provide so much food for fish, and, secondly, what some fish farmers are doing in letting out effluent, taking cheap corner cuts and sometimes opening the gates when the prices are not right and letting loose fish farm salmon with heaven knows what genetic effect on the Atlantic stocks? Does he accept that this is a serious question and agree that it is something that MAFF should find out about?

I take seriously what the hon. Gentleman has said. If there were truth in either of the points that he has made—I have to say "if", because I have not done the research to which he draws my attention—it would be a serious matter and something on which we should take immediate action. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall look into the matter to see how best to attest what he has put to me.

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations, not only on the outcome of the negotiations but on the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), which will be extremely welcome to my fishermen in Swanage, Weymouth and Portland, when he said that the French will follow our lead on physical conservation measures? Can he say more about how he will press the rest of our partners in the EEC to take such conservation measures as setting up nursery areas, increasing mesh sizes and reducing the size of the fish that are landed? Has my right hon. Friend had any success with other nations during this round of talks?

The French have already agreed to take action in relation to the Channel, and we are working closely with them? One thing that is noticeable as a result of the agreement is the degree to which Fisheries Ministers throughout Europe have come to be able to work closely together. Therefore, I believe that the common conservation measures that will be proposed will cover most of the things that my hon. Friend wants to cover and that they will receive support throughout the Community. I also hope that they will receive real support in the House from hon. Members of all parties, because they will not be easy measures. It is no good proposing conservation measures as if they were a simple answer that would cause no hurt. They will mean real changes in fishing practice.

Does the Minister accept that the great majority of Scottish Members recognise that the settlement had to be within the terms of the scientific recommendations, and that to urge otherwise in the interests of local populism is irresponsible and would repeat the errors of the past that have cost us dear down to the present time? Will he reconsider his comments in last week's debate about the knock-on effects to which my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) referred, when he said that the effects on other areas of over-fishing by one section of the fleet were not a matter on which the European lead should be accepted, and recognised that there was a need to do something about that? Will he now look closely at the case for establishing regional managemet schemes around the coast? Will the Minister say something about the need to increase mesh sizes and nets? Should that not be at the top of the conservation priority list, not least because I have a net manufacturing interest in my constituency?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Conservation measures, mesh sizes and gear and the problems of discards are absolutely top priority. I think that the Commission will reach that conclusion in the urgent report that is to be made by a high level group. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about keeping to the scientific advice. It is not that we need to discard the TACs and quotas, but that we need to underpin them with conservation measures.

It is a serious matter that there are still one or two hon. Members—although only one or two—who propose conservation as an easy alternative to TACs and quotas, when both are very difficult and need to be held together. The hon. Gentleman has a good record of not being populist in these matters.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about regional management of quotas, I have already said that we must entirely reconsider the way in which we manage them. I am not satisfied with the present system, and we must find better ways to do it. Anybody who cares about the industry would agree with that. I have no doubt that there will be a large number of arguments about how best to do it.

The Minister has repeatedly referred to the scientific advice, but I am sure that he will understand that fishermen in my part of the world, and no doubt in other parts, sometimes wonder about the quality of that advice. Will he be exploring any measures to increase Zthe advice available and the work that goes into forming that advice?

My fishermen feel strongly about the question of regional quotas. Can he tell us about the direction in which he thinks matters may move?

I do not want to elaborate, as I should not like to give credence to the unfortunate view of some fishermen that, if there is any alternative, it means that they will get more fish. The only way for some fishermen to get more fish is for others to catch less. That is the nature of the present shortage of stock. I do not want to give any credence to the belief that some rearrangements will mean that vast stocks of untapped fish will be provided—if that is not mixing about five metaphors.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems faced by his area. I hope that he will accept my invitation to visit Lowestoft, when he will appreciate that the resources necessary for the purpose are provided. Britain plays a very important part in the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas. If there are any specific areas where he thinks we are not doing these things as we should, I am happy to consider them and to judge whether we should be adding to the resources.