My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the conditions for a British registration of fishing trawlers and whether they will explain how Spanish-owned trawlers, with one and occasionally two British crewman, can register as British ships, as a result of which they can fish within British inshore limits and their catches are counted against United Kingdom quotas.
My Lords, any fishing boat which satisfies the conditions laid down in the Merchant Shipping (Fishing Boats Registry) Order 1981 may register as a British shipping boat. This order requires that the boat is wholly owned either by British subjects or by a company established in the British Islands and having its principal place of business there. British fishing boats registered in the United Kingdom must satisfy the manning requirements contained in the Merchant Shipping (United Kingdom Fishing Vessels: Manning) Regulations 1980, but these are not a condition for registration.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as of last Wednesday there were six such Spanish boats fishing within our waters in the South-West area? Is he really saying that any foreign company of trawlers can so register with a £100 company in this country and, by employing only one British seaman—although I understand that the most employed by any of these six Spanish trawlers was two British seamen—make it possible to evade the regulations and obviously not carry out the letter of our registration? If this is to be the case and any of our competitors abroad can by this manoeuvre invade our inshore waters, does it not make a nonsense of the present negotiations which we are now having on a common European fishing policy?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the present position is unsatisfactory, but it is not perhaps quite so easy to register an ex-foreign fishing boat in this country as she suggests. It is essential that the company owning the boat should have its principal place of business in the United Kingdom. Investigations are made to ensure that these conditions are fulfilled. Recently, two such ships were removed from the register and we are now considering what further measures should be taken.
My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister accept that Spain has, if not the largest fishing fleet, then a fishing fleet which is as large as any in the Community, and does he accept that this situation is one of the consequences of having no agreed common fisheries policy? How soon are the Government going to get a settlement—which is now urgent—and one that takes into account the fact that the vast majority of the fish in all the Community waters is within our 200-mile limits? Is this not essential if our fisherman are to get a net return profit?
My Lords, the question of a common fisheries policy lies outside the scope of the Question on the Order Paper. What we are dealing with is a form of legal avoidance of the British registry conditions. We ought not to exaggerate the problem, important though it is. Only about 60 such Spanish or ex-Spanish fishing vessels are registered here, out of a total of some 7,000 boats on the fishery register.
My Lords, although the Minister was good enough to say that the present position is unsatisfactory, is it satisfactory for a £100 company with a principal place of business in this country to be in a position to be allowed to conform with registration?
My Lords, the basic problem is that the powers we have are those conferred by the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, which I believe was passed by a Liberal Administration. If we were to seek further powers, it would require primary legislation.
My Lords, would the Minister be good enough not only to pay a tribute to the Liberal Party but also to answer my question: whether a £100 company with its principal place of business in this country is satisfactory for the purposes of registration under the present Acts?
I was totally unaware of the fact that I had paid a tribute to the Liberal Party and apologise for so doing. So far as the remainder of the noble Lord's question is concerned, the fact of the matter is that there are many £100 companies registered in this country which have their principal place of business here. I have already said that I do not regard the present position as being satisfactory, and we are investigating what further measures might be taken within the powers available to us.
My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that, although he may have evidence of only half a dozen or so boats, if they are allowed to get away with this, there is no limit to the number of French, Spanish and other trawlers which will abuse what are our traditional rights in the inshore fishing limits?
My Lords, I am well aware of the point my noble friend makes, and that is why I have said that we are now studying what further measures can be taken in this field to deal with the matter.
My Lords, if that is the Government's real intention, will the noble Lord the Minister then tell the House what has been done?
My Lords, whenever the Government take action of this kind it is, of course, a matter of public record. But, if at any stage the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, wishes further information I should be very willing to provide it—either in reply to a Question or in correspondence.