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Fishing Quotas

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 11 January 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on European Community fishing quotas.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Curry)

We won the best possible opportunities for British fishermen consistent with the need to conserve stocks, which is now an urgent priority.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to emphasise that the schemes for the sale and leasing of quotas, which he has been mooting in newspapers over recent days, are entirely speculative and not yet Government policy? Will he take on board the fact that any such scheme would have a devastating impact on the fishing industry in certain areas such as the north-west coast of Scotland, where it is vital to the local community's economic well-being and dominated by the small boat sector?

In the present very difficult circumstances for the fishing industry, the Government have a duty to examine all the options that could provide long-term stability. I have made it clear that we are examining that scheme, which is known as individual transferable quotas, in the light of the decision of New Zealand, parts of Canada and Iceland to adopt it. If it offers us some help, we shall discuss it with the industry. We certainly should not introduce anything without the consent of the industry and we should consult it fully. If the scheme offers nothing, we shall throw it away.

Does the Minister agree that, when fishing quotas are set, it is vital to ensure that they are within the scientific evidence available on the size of stocks? Will he not follow the lead given by certain fishing interests in Scotland, who suggest that we should overfish and thus not preserve our stocks for the future?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. We have always been scrupulous to negotiate catching levels that are consistent with scientific advice. The alternative is to fix them on the advice of politicians, which tends to be less reliable.

Has the Minister fully considered the social and economic impact on fishing communities of the Council's decisions on quotas? Will he comment on the case of Forbes boat builders in the village of Sandhaven in my constituency, which has just laid off a quarter of its 32-strong work force? Is the Minister saying that boat-building and repairing skills, which have been present in that village for almost a century, are no longer needed? Has he ruled out any form of aid to cushion the blow on fishing communities?

As I have said many times in the House, I cannot invent fish. There is a problem with stocks; we must get our fishing effort in line with the availability of stocks. That, of course, means that there must be contraction in the fishing industry. The skills to which the hon. Gentleman referred are certainly important. I hope that by trying to secure the long-term interests of the fishing fleet, through technical, conservation and better management measures, we shall secure the future of such jobs in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

No one can deny that the fishing industry is facing one of its most severe downturns in recent years, but is that not due to appalling mismanagement over 10 years, not only by the EEC but by the Government? Is it not a fact that in the 1980s, with grants, the Government encouraged the expansion of the fishing fleet, against scientific advice? Yet they are now refusing to help to reduce the fleet with decommissioning grants. Does the Minister accept that the industry needs a strategic plan that takes into account supplies, conservation measures, technical assistance and grants? Why are the Government prepared to pay farmers not to produce crops but not prepared to help fishermen who cannot catch fish?

I have been seeking to discuss our long-term plans with the industry. That is why I have not brought forward any plans from secret committees and why I discuss our projects quite openly. If they work, we shall see whether we can adopt them and if they do not, we shall throw them away. I notice that when I start to talk a little about schemes that might be helpful, many people become alarmed.

I thank my hon. Friend for attending the North Shields fish quay last Friday. I remind him of the concern expressed to him by the industry about the serious consequences of the cuts in quotas that have been inevitable for this year. Can he confirm that there will be recompense for the quotas that the fishermen lost last year as a result of the excessive fishing by other fishermen, especially north of the border? Will he give particular consideration to the EEC laying-up scheme, which was discussed with him on Friday?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in this and he accompanied me on my visit to North Shields, which I enjoyed very much. He has raised two separate issues. When fishermen have suffered from over-fishing elsewhere, there is a mechanism by which they are compensated, and we shall ensure that that mechanism is observed. The laying-up scheme was designed by the Community to respond to specific circumstances. It does not, of course, respond to the circumstances in which one needs to achieve a significantly lower fleet and there is a long delay in payment. Were circumstances to arise in which that would be a useful instrument, we should not, of course, close any doors.