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Fisheries Council

Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

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11 am

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

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the outcome of the Fisheries Council held earlier this week.

I attended the Council of Fisheries Ministers on 17 and 18 December, together with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Lord Strathclyde.

I undertook to the House to fight for the application of the Hague preference, mackerel flexibility, better fishing opportunities, where they could be obtained within the bounds of scientific advice, and alternatives to the current eight-day tie-up rule. We achieved all of these.

On the tie-up rule, we were faced with a Commission proposal for 200 days. Some restriction is necessary to conserve the stocks, but we secured agreement that there should be a choice between this year's requirement for eight consecutive days tie-up each month and an option for vessels to tie up for 135 days in total, on the same catch criteria as last year. The exact details of this are for us to work out, so that we can ensure the flexibility which was missing from this year's arrangement.

We shall also be able to give fishermen the choice of using more selective gear instead of all or part of their tie-up obligations. We shall need to put proposals to the Commission under the same procedure as this year. We shall do so early in the new year and the new rules will come into force on 1 February 1992.

These measures, combined with the improvements in technical conservation measures which are being introduced from next June, will be important in safeguarding the cod and haddock stocks which are so important to our fishermen, while covering the range of interests of the United Kingdom's industry much better than this year's rules.

We not only secured the flexibility to take western mackerel east of 4 deg. west but, for the first time, secured agreement to take the full quantity provided for in the Community's agreement with Norway. This will greatly help our fishermen, who have faced considerable difficulties because of the changed migratory pattern of the mackerel, by enabling them to take up to 36,370 tonnes, which is 15 per cent. of the United Kingdom quota in the eastern waters. We successfully resisted the Commission's proposal for national allocations for the western horse mackerel stock.

We succeeded in securing the Hague preference as on the basis of last year. This year it will apply to North sea haddock, and west of Scotland saithe and whiting. If the Commission does not achieve a modest increase in the total allowable catch in consultation with Norway, we shall also have a Hague preference for North sea cod. Following the negotiations at the Council of the 49 TACs of interest to the UK, 14 will increase compared with 1991, 18 will decrease and 17 will remain the same.

In the North sea, taking into account the Hague preference, the demersal opportunities will be very much the same as in 1991, with a small increase in haddock, a drop in saithe and a marginal reduction in cod. Flatfish opportunities will be reduced, reflecting chiefly the passing of the very abundant 1987 sole year class. A new TAC was introduced for North sea nephrops, but was not allocated between member states.

In the west of Scotland, two quotas increase, six are reduced and six stay the same. In the Irish sea, with minor changes in the whiting TAC consistent with the science and with quota exchanges with other member states, higher quantities of cod and whiting will be available to our fleet in 1992. The increase in the nephrops TAC will also be very welcome. In the channel, we achieved better TACs for cod and whiting and for some flatfish than were proposed, as well as the usual quota exchanges with the Netherlands. Overall, we have achieved some welcome changes for every part of the many and varied fisheries around our coasts. No transfers or swaps were concluded with Denmark.

The fishing industry will, I hope, recognise that we have secured a good package on its behalf. Processors will welcome the relaxations on autonomous tariff quotas and tariff suspensions on certain fish imports which are vital to their businesses. Consumers should also benefit from the greater availability with reduced import restrictions.

We have worked hard to secure a good package. We have achieved this. Early in 1992 we shall enter further consultations with our industry on special measures we could take to improve the conservation of the fish stocks of importance to us.

It is fair to say that we welcome many aspects of the arrangement that the Minister obtained in Brussels, in particular the flexibility of days in port and the reduction from 200 days to 135 days. We also welcome the gear option which is to be negotiated, although it is a shame that, as last year, that option was not resolved at the same time at the Council of Ministers, so that fishermen would know where they stood and what was available to them. We also very much welcome the fact that Denmark did not get the 400 tonnes of cod from the United Kingdom allocation which it received last year.

The main problem is that, although this deal is, I think, by far the best that could be obtained in the present circumstances, I do not see how it will meet the target of a 30 per cent. effort reduction on fish stocks in United Kingdom waters. In that respect, although it meets the requirements of this year, it is a sticking-plaster deal which does not provide a long-term framework for stability. When will the Minister make an application for aid to the relevant budgets in the Community for decommissioning grants to restructure the fleets and give some long-term stability?

Will the Minister also apply for aid from the social fund to assist the communities that will be affected? On that point, will he press his hon. Friends to try to resolve the dispute between the Government and the Commission about the application of those funds? Will he also take note of Mr. Marin's comments about fisheries enforcements and the fact that it is up to individual states to ensure that the rules are kept? Will the Minister consider enforcement in this country and the fact that there has been fairly widespread breaking of the rules? In that conection, will he consider a pilot scheme for the satellite tracking of fishing fleets?

It is a sad fact that cheating has occurred in this country, as it has in all member states. Some fishermen say that they cheat because they have no choice—that they are driven to it by economic circumstances and by the level of fish stocks and the pressures on them. The fact that fishermen are driven to do that does not excuse it, but it underlines the Government's failure so far to match effort to available fish stocks and to ensure a long-term future for the industry. When will the Government deal with that problem and introduce the long-term planning and policies needed to ensure that this country has a sustainable industry?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's congratulations on the package. The reduction to 135 days is welcome, and the gear option will be obtainable on the same basis as last year, in that the regulation is the same. We must be fair and say that, with a 135-day tie-up taken across the year and taken in fairly flexibly—we must work out the detailed arrangements—the requirement of the gear option is likely to be somewhat less than it was in the current year. I was also pleased that we did not conclude what I called a "Christmas bonus" for Denmark with a small allocation of cod—I thought that this year we would keep it for ourselves.

The conservation element of the package has to be seen in the light of a series of measures. The package contains the reduction in the TACs, which is in itself an element of conservation. The package of the eight-day tie-up was more onerous. The problem is that if we ask fishermen to do something that they do not consider reasonable—even using that word somewhat flexibly—we shall not get conservation at the end of the day. They are driven to the point at which anti-conservation results.

Therefore, although some people may say that the package is liberal, it is better to ask fishermen to observe the rules thoroughly on something that is reasonable. My appeal to the industry is that many of the arguments at present are about illegal landings. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) has raised that issue several times.

There is much talk in the fishing press about that subject and about cheating. Nobody could argue that this package drives fishermen to cheat; it has introduced the very elements of flexibility for which the fishermen asked. If fishermen cheat, misreport and take deliberate decisions not to obey the rules, the inevitable result will be that, in future years, scientists will advise us to have a more restrictive package. We would then be back to the position of tying up the industry in red tape, which is not the way to progress.

Inevitably, the hon. Member for Glandford and Scunthorpe mentioned decommissioning, as he finds the package fairly congenial. He knows that we are having discussions with the industry on an overall package of conservation measures, of which decommissioning could form an element. The package is sensible and sets our relations with the industry on a stable and sensible base. Given our recent success in obtaining the safeguards against Norwegian salmon and the rapidity with which we dealt with the outbreak of paralytic shellfish poisoning that threatened shellfish exports from Scotland, I think that the industry can regard the Fisheries Department as having worked extremely well on their behalf.

Order. The House knows that today is a private Members' day. I shall allow questions on the statement to continue until 11.30 am and hope that, in that time, all hon. Members present may be called to speak.

There are a number of aspects of the package that are welcome, and the Minister should be congratulated on his achievements, particularly the fact that he has managed to obtain the full quantity of mackerel allowed in the agreement between the Community and Norway. I know that that will be especially welcomed by the pelagic fishermen in my constituency. While none of us thought that the package would result in something as bad as a 200-day period, we were realistic enough to know that the period would never be totally eliminated. There has been a significant reduction in the number of tie-up days and, as the Minister said, the flexibility allowed will be helpful.

How many vessels of nations other than the United Kingdom will be affected by the tie-up rules? Did I understand the Minister to say that the new proposals on the gear option are to be the same as this year's? Will he reassure those who are sceptical about the gear option that it will not prove to be a loophole but will be properly enforced? Will he comment on the disappointment felt about the west coast TACs?

Finally, like the hon. Memberr for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), I must mention decommissioning. As we go from year to year, anxiety is felt within the fishing industry every December about the threat and reality of tie-ups, and such worries will continue until we have a decommissioning scheme. The industry has responded reasonably warmly to what the Minister has achieved, and relations between the industry and the Government are perhaps better now than they have been for a long time. Will the Government take this opportunity to talk constructively to the industry about a well-targeted and well-resourced decommissioning scheme?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He has always been fair in his observations on the fishing industry. It is true that the package is a good deal for his fishermen and those based in the islands, particularly western land mackerel flexibility. Whichever boat is caught, the criterion remains the same: 100 tonnes and 40 per cent. over the same reference period. It is up to the member states to apply to the Commission for derogation, which the Commission will deal with under a series of criteria, one of which is the extent to which the fishermen might expect to take their quota. Certainly, we expect Danes to be caught under these rules in the Skaggerak and Kattegat unless they can prove to the contrary.

The words on which the gear option is hung—if I may use that phrase—are the same as last year. That does not mean that the gear option as such would necessarily be the same as last year. We must ask questions of and make representations to the Commission. I outlined to the Commissioner in a statement in the Council the sort of options that we might want. I asked him to say whether he agreed on the sort of ball park area, and he said yes, so we shall get those gear options. However, many boats that have taken up the gear option this year will not find the same necessity to do so next year.

It was an extremely useful exercise, as people fishing with 110 mm nets gained practical experience and found that the nets had greater conservation benefits than they thought and the quantity of catchable fish was greater than they had thought. I hope that some boat crews will ask for a gear option of 120 mm. I know that some Shetland fishermen would seriously contemplate that as a feasible option.

As for the Government's relations with the industry, they are co-operating closely with it, having conducted a series of meetings and are currently discussing a conservation package. We all know what elements that package will contain, and I shall meet representatives of the industry early in the new year to see how we can advance the package.

May I join other hon. Members in welcoming the more flexible package that the Minister has achieved and which the industry can live with? Does the Minister recall that, apart from one year and small marginal changes this year, TACs have been reduced every year since they were introduced? Is he aware of the pressures on stocks? The problems relate not just to minimum size; the quality of fish now caught is much poorer than it was some years ago.

What long-term studies are the Government undertaking to find out why the stocks are under such pressure and whether the problem is due simply to overfishing or whether there is some serious form of pollution in the breeding grounds that is gravely affecting the stocks? We must have a longer-term plan and study the problem, or we shall merely stagger from crisis to crisis, year after year.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about the quality of fish. One reason why we were anxious to obtain a cut-off date of 1 August for western horse mackerel stock was that the fish caught are of a much higher quality in the latter part of the year. The fishing is carried out for human consumption, using freezer trawlers, and the catch often goes straight to Japan. The Commission is producing a report on the industrial fishery.

One achievement contained in the package was to reduce significantly the industrial by-catch in cod and haddock fisheries. The Commission is committed to bringing forward a report on the effect of the industrial fishery. The House will know that none of us likes industrial fisheries, and we believe that fish should be used for human consumption. The package should go some way to ensuring that.

I join the welcome for the flexibility of the package. As one who represents a constituency in which 25 per cent. of jobs depend on the fisheries industry, I can say that not a single tear will be shed for the ending of the infamous eight-day consecutive tie-up rule, which was always potentially life-threatening.

As for the retention of the 40 per cent. option on the TACs for cod and haddock, does the Minister recognise that the people who suffered most last year under the eight-day tie-up rule have again been targeted? Why was not total flexibility implemented, so that effort limitation could have been spread evenly across the Community and throughout the United Kingdom? How will the Minister nominate the 135-day rule, and how will it be policed? Will any——

We shall write to the industry shortly asking how it would like the 135-day rule to operate—whether it would like it in quarterly chunks and what notification procedure should be used. We were willing to see an amendment in the 100 tonnes and 40 per cent. rule to widen its scope, but our proposal was not backed by a majority, so we were not successful.

I also congratulate the Minister on the successes in the package. Will he ask his colleagues in the Scottish Office to consider the implications of the package for the west coast nephrops fleet? I still believe that a weekend ban on nephrops fishing on the west coast would be effective and desirable.

Will the Minister respond to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) about social fund money from the Commission for the restructuring of the fleet and the possibility of funding along the lines now available for the coal and steel industries and, potentially, for the textile industry?

We have a consultation on the nephrops fishery, and a weekend ban is one of the items on which we are asking the industry to give its views. I will raise funding matters with my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Will the Minister confirm that all he hears from west Cumbrian fishermen is that they want a decommisioning scheme and fair treatment under the Hague preference? Will he confirm that they will still be penalised under the Hague preference as a result of the package that he has negotiated? Can the Minister tell me why we can decommission land to stop the production of agricultural products but we cannot decommission boats to prevent fishermen from fishing? Why is there inconsistency in the Government's view of these matters?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the effects of the Hague preference in the Irish sea. If we get the Hague preference, the Irish do, too; the two go together. We have tried to achieve a proper mean. In the last half-year period, we have operated on the same basis under the Hague preference as we did last year. It is a difficult issue.

Most of the industry talks about decommissioning, but, as a result of our talks, it is increasingly recognising that effort control and limitation go with decommissioning as part of a package, and that has made it a much more sensible dialogue.

Will the Minister say something about the detail of the increased flexibility in the package, which is welcome? When will we know exactly what is and what is not allowable? Will the Minister now consider the availability of compensation because there is to be an increase in the number of restricted days and therefore a decrease in fishing opportunities? Few other industries in the country have a statutory prescription on their earning capacity. Either the EC must come forward with per diem compensation, or unemployment benefit or family credit should be extended to fishermen who are denied their opportunity to work.

On flexibility, we will consult the industry on how it wants the scheme to work, and that discussion will include such matters as refits, the necessity to come into port, breakdowns and so on. As the rules stand at the moment, a day in port for any reason whatever counts against the 135 days. We shall have to ask the industry how it wants the scheme to work.

On compensation, I must emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that very few boats in practice fish for more than 230 days a year. Those that need to do so may well be able to benefit from the gear option. I do not see any scope for compensation.

My first reaction was to think, "Thank God the eight day tie-up rule is to be thrown overboard." When the Minister was in Brussels, did he consult the report that is being prepared by Community officials on the current circumstances of the industry? I believe that that report is part of the gradual process leading up to the mid-term review.

Two important issues arise: the first is industrial fishing and the second is the concept of relative stability by which fixed percentages of traditional fishing opportunities are maintained. May I urge on the hon. Gentleman the need to reject the Spanish demands about an incursion into that relative stability? It must be adhered to and surely there must be a complete ban on industrial fishing.

The Commission is to produce a report on industrial fishing by the middle of next year and I hope that, following that, we can begin the process of eliminating it. The report on the mid-term review was not brought forward to the Council meeting, but the hon. Gentleman can be assured that, when it is, I shall argue that we believe that the principle of relative stability is an important part of the policy and should remain.

May I congratulate the Government on their speedy and effective action over the so-called shellfish ban? Will the Minister undertake to examine very soon the consequences of the package on the village-based fishing industry? In particular—as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is here—will the Minister encourage his Scottish Office colleagues to take an early and favourable decision in respect of the proposal for improved fish handling facilities and safety at Pittenweem harbour in my constituency?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks about the shellfish ban. The Ministry and the Scottish Office acted very quickly and that great threat to the industry has now been eliminated. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has heard what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about his constituency.

May I say a word about the fish processing industry? The industry generally welcomes the flexibility that the new tie-up arrangements have brought, which should lead to some stability and continuity of supply. Some concerns remain, however. The first is the amount of industrial fishing; some 4 per cent. of the haddock quota is to be applied for industrial purposes—mainly fishmeal production. Given the pressure on stocks, I appreciate the Minister's comments on that.

Another cause for concern is the suspension of the import tariff, which appears to institutionalise or formalize imports as the main source of supply for the fish processing industry. About 75 to 80 per cent. of fish processed in some of the larger factories is imported, but small businesses account for a large proportion of the industry and two or three-person businesses cannot afford imported fish and the facilities required to handle it. What proposals does the Minister have in respect of those small firms?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a by-catch for the industrial fishery—other than an absolutely genuine by-catch—is unacceptable. I do not believe that there should be an industrial fishery if we can possibly avoid it. That is why we argued that people pursuing the directed whiting fishery should not be able to count that as a derogation against their days. We were successful in that and the directed whiting fishery does not constitute a reason to be excused days of the tie-up. We do not like that fishery; we do not believe that it actually exists.

I said that I was willing to accept some liberalisation of tariffs because of the processing industry. There was some tariff liberalisation and the hon. Gentleman will know that, from 1 January 1993, the EFTA agreement will come into force and there will be a further significant liberalisation, which should help the processing industry. That will not, of course, include the main pelagic species, which are particularly sensitive to our industry, especially in Scotland.

All this good will and congratulation is becoming very depressing, so may I open on a sour note and express the disappointment felt by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation at the cuts in white fish quotas on the west coast? Why was that issue not more successfully prosecuted? Having said that, I join in the cautious support for the view that the greater flexibility of the 135-day ban represents an improvement on the current rigidities of the eight-day tie-up rule.

Now that this measure and the TACs for next year are agreed upon, will the Minister address the question of where we stand on the social measures that are supposed to accompany the conservation policies? I do not know how often the hon. Gentleman tunes into Scottish radio, but in the past week, Lord Strathclyde has offered several winks and nods to suggest that a decommissioning scheme is now a genuine prospect. Is there any substance in those suggestions, because that is the big question still to be answered in Scottish fishing communities before the general election?

Where do the Government stand on compensation for fishermen who are edged out of their livelihoods as a result of the agreement? Surely there must be a social dimension.

Finally, will the Minister take steps to differentiate between fact and fiction on the issues of illegal landings and "black fish"? There is no point in the House asking the Minister questions about what has been presented as a conservation agreement if that agreement is being breached on the scale suggested by some reports. We must have the facts and then, if justified, action commensurate with them.

I am grateful. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation described the deal as

"better news than we expected".
Coming from the SFF, that is positively euphoric.

The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations was somewhat more enthusiastic. Mr. Charlie Dawson said:
"This is fantastic news. It sounds like a good deal and is exactly what we asked for. There could be dancing in the streets of the North-east."
I do not wish to refer to "The Cloggies", but if there is dancing in the streets, I hope that I may be invited to participate. I look forward to Scottish reserve breaking occasionally into similar forms of enthusiasm.

Our relations with the industry are extremely good, both north and south of the border, and we hope to pursue those good relations constructively for the benefit of the industry.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the west coast and the Irish sea. In the Irish sea, our swaps with the Dutch and the Irish largely offset the Hague preference and that is a bonus. The Irish sea is in a bad state in conservation terms. My officials have made contact with the Irish Government, and I am in contact with the Irish Minister, with a view to examining some sort of joint approach to the Irish sea and deciding how we can tackle the genuine crisis in stocks.

I have replied to questions on the social measures. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns. As for illegal landings and so on, we shall have the maximum enforcement effort. That is an enormously expensive effort and, as I have explained before in the House, we cannot man every boat at every port 24 hours a day. It would not be feasible to try to do that. We do better than any other member state.

It is important, on the basis of the agreement, for the industry to realise that it is its job to make sure that fisherman does not steal from fisherman, which is what a lot of the issue is about. Otherwise, the stocks and the fishermen lose at the end of the day, and we would end up with a return to the sort of dirigiste measures which nobody likes, which are not effective, which are not in the interest of the fishermen and which ultimately also defeat conservation.