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British Fishing Fleet: Decommissioning

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 19 March 1996

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2.53 p.m.

Whether they are able to co-ordinate the rate of decommissioning of fishing boats under the United Kingdom's scheme with the numbers of newly built vessels being added to the British fishing fleet.

My Lords, the United Kingdom operates a restrictive licensing system, which means that new vessels must acquire existing entitlements to fish. Decommissioning is a voluntary scheme, the uptake of which is determined by competitive tender within the available funding. There is no link between decommissioning and new build.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that reply. As fishing effort must be reduced to conserve fish stocks, and, accordingly, the United Kingdom, like other countries, is operating a scheme to take boats out of commission, can the tonnage of new boats coming into service be restricted by the licensing system in order to achieve overall reduction? Further, can my noble friend comment on the statement made at the weekend by the visiting EU Commissioner, Signora Bonino, that the British fleet's tonnage has doubled in the past 10 years, given that a substantial part of that increase must have been caused by Spanish boats joining the British register?

My Lords, as regards the first part of my noble friend's question, I do not believe that we have a problem in that respect. All new boats that enter the register must do so as replacements for a rather greater tonnage of boats that have left the register. Therefore, as fishermen upgrade their boats—as they continue to do in large numbers—the actual tonnage of the British fleet and its engine power will decline.

So far as concerns the comments of Signora Bonino, I must disagree with the figures that she offered. She did not take account of the fact that a large number of vessels were not actively fishing at the time when the original figure that she quoted of 116,000 gross registered tonnes was compiled. If one looks at that in a more modern way—that is, that all boats are entitled to fish—that would increase the size of the fleet at that point. Signora Bonino quoted a current fleet of 239,000 gross registered tonnes. That is a figure that we do not recognise from any source. Indeed, our figure would be about 207,000 gross registered tonnes. The overall picture is of a UK fleet which is slowly declining but which has not declined at the rate required of it under the agreements into which we have entered.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the engine power of fishing vessels is taken into account in the licensing system as well as the length of the vessel and tonnage? Further, can the noble Lord say whether the engine power of foreign vessels permitted to fish in UK waters is monitored?

My Lords, I shall answer the noble Lord's second question first. Each state monitors the engine power of its own boats. We believe that the engine power is monitored in the same way as we monitor engine power; in other words, it is controlled. However, we have no way of checking the engine power of a boat at sea. We need to do a static test when it reaches port. As regards the noble Lord's first question, I can say that, yes, there are controls on engine power. If one is replacing a boat now, one has to ensure that the replacement boat has a lower tonnage and less engine power than that specified on the surrendered licence of the other boat in order to get a licence for the new boat.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the answer he gave to the first supplementary question seems to indicate that all that is happening is that it is taking the patient longer to die? I say that because there is a progressive diminution in the tonnage available for the fishing fleet. Are the Government going to stand aside and see the fishing fleet destroyed as they have with the merchant navy?

My Lords, I do not believe that that analogy is apposite. Indeed, a better analogy would be a person who has been told to lose weight by his doctor but has not kept up with the weight reduction programme to which he agreed. However, he is losing weight and we do not believe that he will die yet.

My Lords, I believe that I get the sense of the House that it was the turn of the Cross-Benches. We are running very short of time. I hope that the noble Lord will be patient. We must try to be as succinct as we can in order to leave enough time for the fourth Question.

My Lords, in view of the importance of reducing the amount of effort in the British fleet, can the Minister say whether the Government will be willing to consider making a little more money available for decommissioning?

My Lords, we have increased the amount of money available for decommissioning. Indeed, that was announced some time ago. However, whether we shall do so further in the future is a matter which must await the results of the current decommissioning rounds.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that if there was any rapport between Commissioner Bonino and the fishermen of Brixham and Newlyn it was indeed over quota hopping? The Commissioner appeared to believe that there was a real problem. Judging by the Minister's reply to the original Question, he appears to believe that the Commissioner was, perhaps, wrong. I hope that the noble Lord can deny that.

No, my Lords. I hope that we are talking about different aspects of what Mrs. Bonino said. We are enormously encouraged by her acknowledgement that there is a problem over quota hopping. She has said that she thinks it can be solved through various restrictive terms applied to quotas. We are not aware of any way that this can be done but we have immediately commissioned our officials, and she has commissioned hers, to work together to see what might be possible. But the recognition that something needs to be done is something that we are grateful for.