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Fishing Incident (Scilly Isles)

Volume 210: debated on Thursday 25 June 1992

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3.30 pm

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement on the action by French fishermen against Cornish fishermen and their nets off the Scilly Isles last night. [Interruption.]

Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving please do so quietly? We have a lot of business before us today and the Minister is waiting to respond to the private notice question.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Curry)

The British fishing vessel, St. Uny, reported an incident between British netters and French trawlers at 1750 BST yesterday. The incident was reported to Falmouth Coastguard as taking place in a position 16 miles north-west of the Isles of Scilly. The coastguard requested that the fishery protection vessel HMS Brecon be sent to the area at 1830 BST. That was confirmed by the inspectorate duty officer at 1900 hours. At 1830 BST, the British fishing vessel Britannia IV advised the coastguard that it was being harassed by a number of French trawlers. Two of those vessels were identified as the Concarneau-registered Rhapsody and Larche.

The British vessels claim that the French vessels deliberately towed through their gear and, when the St. Uny approached the Larche to advise the position of the nets, it was pelted with lumps of metal and pieces of chain. HMS Brecon arrived at the scene at 2 o'clock this morning but by that time the vessels had left the area.

There have been a number of similar incidents previously, the most recent of which was just four days ago. On each occasion the French vessels were from Concarneau, and the Rhapsody was identified in an earlier incident.

The British vessels are fishing with bottom set tangle nets. It is reported, but not confirmed, that at least one of the British vessels is fishing an area of approximately 10 square miles. The British vessels have claimed that there has been extensive damage to their gear but there are happily no reports of any injuries or damage.

We shall take statements from the British vessels as soon as they arrive in their home ports. The Britannia and the Sardia Louise are back in Newlyn and we shall seek details today. We have just received new reports of a further incident involving the St. Uny and the Larche. We are investigating it urgently and HMS Brecon is on the scene and has orders to board the French vessel. That will take place within the hour.

Two hours ago, I spoke to the French Fisheries Minister, Mr. Charles Josselin, and expressed very forcibly the anger of British fishermen and my own anger at repeated incidents involving French vessels—often the same ones and involving the same English vessels—in these waters.

Mr. Josselin vigorously condemned the behaviour of the French boats. He will hold an inquiry to establish the facts once the boats are back in port, and if the allegations are confirmed he has promised very firm action. In particular, he indicated that two sanctions could be taken in the event of the allegations being substantiated: first, economic sanctions in the shape of compensation for loss of earnings and replacement or repair of gear; secondly, sanctions in the shape of the withdrawal of the captains' tickets. He asked me to send urgently all the evidence about the incidents and estimates of the losses sustained. The first details have already been sent.

This is a violent and outrageous incident. The British Government will sustain pressure on the French Government to make sure that their vessels are brought to book.

I thank my hon. Friend for that full statement and for the prompt action taken by Her Majesty's Government. Is he aware of the burning anger felt, particularly by Cornish fishermen, at the latest series of deplorable incidents, especially as they come at the end of a long line of similar outrages by some French vessels? Will he keep up the pressure on the French Government in the knowledge that it is only they who can ensure that this totally unacceptable behaviour is stamped on firmly? Will he ensure that the fishery protection vessel remains on station as long as there is any threat of further incidents, and that fishery protection will be intensified if there are any more such events? Will he welcome and support the action taken by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation in establishing a sensible working arrangement with French fishermen, particularly those from the port of Concarneau?

Yes, I will. It is important that we do the maximum to sort out such problems bilaterally. I can assure my hon. Friend that the fishery protection vessel will remain on station while there is a risk. The district is also under aerial surveillance. It is important that the French discipline their fishing vessels. I shall maintain pressure on the French Government. I am as aware as my hon. Friend is that the incident was the last in a long sequence of clashes involving not merely French vessels, and we must bring such incidents to an end.

Is the Minister aware that the fishing fleets of Cornwall and other parts of the United Kingdom will be concerned to ensure that there is effective prevention, not simply effective enforcement? Is the Minister aware that there was a considerable delay between the first call from the fishing boats involved and the arrival of HMS Brecon? Will he assure the House that, during the United Kingdom's presidency of the Council of Ministers, the most effective steps will be taken to ensure that, if one member country is unable to deal effectively with such a scandal, the other countries will be in a position to take action?

Are any of the alleged offences extradictable? As it is an open secret that the Ministry is currently considering whether to continue the contract for fishery protection with the Royal Navy, will he confirm that the present conflict will not encourage the view that a privatised service would do the job better?

Order. Before the Minister responds, may I make a plea to the House? A number of hon. Members are interested in the subject, so if each Member could ask just one question of the Minister, we could proceed quickly.

The Royal Navy vessel was on the scene quickly, but, as a matter of common sense, it must be obvious that we cannot patrol every square mile of the ocean all the time—there are not enough Royal Navy vessels to do that. As for market testing, we are obliged to test that we receive value for money from all the services that we commission—that is now taking place. We will not make a decision that means that we do not receive a degree of fishery protection at least as good as the present service. We are finding out the facts of the incident from the crews of the French and British vessels so that the French Minister can be given the means to fulfil his promise. It is absolutely essential that member states discipline their vessels over such incidents, as we do.

In the event of those allegations being substantiated, could they lead to the arrest of the French fishing vessels which have been partaking in those dreadful incidents? Will my hon. Friend give an undertaking that, if that is so, those vessels will be arrested and, with the assistance of continued aerial surveillance, their skippers will be brought to the courts?

I gave my right hon. Friend the assurance that, when we can catch vessels and their crews who are guilty of an offence for which we have the powers to charge them, we will not hesitate to bring charges.

Does not this incident, paralleled as it is by similar outrages in the North sea on the part of Dutch beamers—particularly perpetrated on Grimsby vessels and their gear—show how crazy it would be to consider contracting out the fishery protection service?

We have to deliver protection to our fishing vessels. There are four fishery protection services: the aerial service in Scotland, the maritime service in Scotland, the aerial service in England and Wales, and the Navy. Three of those four are carried out by private contracted vessels entirely satisfactorily. That is not a reason to change; it does mean that we have to confirm whether we are getting the best value for money and the best protection that we can deliver to our fishermen. That is what we are doing—nothing more, nothing less.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the fishermen of Hastings and Rye are just as concerned as the fishermen in the western approaches about this depredation by the French? Will he welcome with me the French insistence that they will take sanctions against those who perpetrate these incidents—and ensure that they will apply also to fishermen along the French coast opposite England?

The French were fishing where they had a right to fish—there was no question of their fishing there because of the derogation. They were fishing in international waters that come under the United Kingdom supervision framework. Of course, I accept that my hon. Friend's fishermen constituents are concerned about this. We are in the business of protecting all British fishermen. There have been repeated incidents, some of them between Englishmen and Cornishmen. The sensible thing to do is to sort out the matter as between friends and by gentleman's agreement—but if we cannot, we will have to ensure that we deliver protection. We will do so.

The House will welcome the firm response from the French Minister, but we want not firmness of response but action to resolve such conflicts. Bearing in mind the violence of such conflicts and the threats to fishermen at sea, will the Minister reconsider his proposals for privatising fisheries protection? Does he agree that the Royal Navy commands considerable authority and respect; and that undermining that authority while fishing stocks decline—that is likely to lead to further conflicts—will put at risk our fishermen at sea?

No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise. A significant part of our fishery protection is already carried out by private contractors, and we receive no complaints about its efficiency. We will therefore be testing the market to determine whether we get best value for money. We are nowhere near making a decision yet, but whatever decision is taken, it will deliver full fishery protection to our vessels. That is the whole point of the exercise.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is growing anger and resentment in the west country about the propensity of the French to take the law into their own hands? First, British lorries were blockaded in Calais by the French. Then British lambs were burnt by the French. Now our fishing fleet is attacked by the French. Is my hon. Friend aware that, if he takes a tough line on this, he will enjoy the support of my constituents, the House and the nation?