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Ec Fishing Proposals: Uk Stance

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 30 April 1998

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in response to the European Commission's further consultative paper on working time restrictions, they will ensure that the present directive will not extend to British share fishermen.

My Lords, we shall be studying the Commission's proposals with interest, and any response will take into account the current arrangements in each sector. In particular, the Government recognise the important role played by share fishermen in the UK fishing industry and their unique employment status, and will endeavour to ensure that any Commission proposals take account of this.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. As British share fishermen are self-employed and do not have trade unions, are further consultations with employers and employees relevant to this industry? Will the Government oppose this extension despite the report that Labour MEPs supported it in the parliament's fisheries committee, though, from comments at Question Time yesterday, they may have been old Labour and therefore in the frame for replacement?

My Lords, I recognise the noble Lord's great experience in the matter of fishing both from another place and indeed from Scotland, which will have its own views on the fishing industry. We are still in debate with the Commission, and until the Commission has finished its consultation and has heard all the submissions from the social partners, it is premature to say what position we shall take. We will be negotiating to achieve the position I put to the noble Lord in my first Answer.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that share fishermen and other fishermen are very concerned about the way, month after month, we are told, as with quota hopping, "Discussions are going on. Wait and see"? They really do wonder, first, whether the Government understand how the fishing industry works and how ridiculous a working time directive would be and, secondly, whether the Commission understands. Can the noble Lord at least give the industry some assurance that we will come to a decision about this sooner rather than later—perhaps as soon as possible or shortly, even—and, furthermore, if we do come to a decision, that the British authorities will be as vigilant as the Spanish authorities are in enforcing fisheries-type legislation?

My Lords, the length of time negotiations take is in part stipulated by the length of time of the consultation. The consultation is not due to close until the middle of May. Whether that is "shortly" or "very shortly" I shall leave to the Opposition to decide. The period after that will be one of further negotiation for all parties. All countries will be responding to the Commission and all will have views they wish to make as firmly as we do ourselves. The Government well understand the complexity of remuneration in the fishing sector and will take that into account in arriving at a balanced solution.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Commission's attitude towards the British fishing industry and its history is not particularly impressive? Will he avoid the position, if he can, whereby negotiations are continued by the Commission ad infinitum to a point where little advantage can accrue to the British fishing industry? Will he, on reviewing the situation very carefully indeed, come to the conclusion that it is now time to stand up rigorously in defence of legitimate British fishing interests?

My Lords, the feature of the excluded sectors arrangement is that it allows all governments to reflect most carefully on the particular position of their industry. There are only eight excluded sectors, one of which is fishing. We will reflect as carefully and as rigorously as other governments in coming to a conclusion. We have no intention whatever of putting fishermen into a position where they are not well represented by the British Government in securing the balanced agreement that we need with our partners in Europe.

My Lords, the Minister says that the British Government will endeavour to ensure that the Commission and presumably eventually the Council behave in a reasonable manner. Can he confirm that the issue will be decided by qualified majority vote at the end of the day and that, if so and the vote goes against us, there is absolutely nothing the British Government can do about it?

My Lords, I think it will depend on which features of the negotiation one wishes to specify. This is an agreement about the terms in which a Commission directive passes into UK law. How we do that and the circumstances under which we do it will depend on the way the negotiations with our partners are carried out. I would not like to specify at this stage whether it will even come to votes.

My Lords, is the Minister able to say that the Government do realise that the conditions set out are quite impossible for share fishermen or any other fishermen?

My Lords, the reason for having excluded sectors was that it was well understood that some of the basic elements of the working time directive could not be applied in these defined areas. Hence the nature of the negotiation in understanding which parts of the directive can be applied sensibly in the eight excluded areas and which cannot. That is a sensible way of progressing matters and we shall negotiate accordingly.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that fishermen's fishing time is subject to the weather, which is not regulated by the European Commission but by the Almighty?

My Lords, we are aware of that, but we are working on it. One of the negotiating issues is indeed about how time is calculated in the excluded sectors. It is well understood that the special arrangements in fishing will have to take account of the fact that rest periods, in the normal sense of the phrase, are not able to be applied as they are generally throughout industry. That is certainly well understood.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that my reference to old attitudes was not intended to be flippant? It is generally too little known that the large distant water trawlers have virtually disappeared from the British fishing fleet and with them the owner companies and the payment of wages to the fishermen, who were seamen, mostly in seamen's unions. That is now all past history.

My Lords, I would not wish to comment on the change in the nature of the fleet. There must be many reasons for that because of the dynamics of the market place, fishing stock and the terms of competition. But I understand that for the 20,000 or so fishermen—it is quite difficult to get the exact numbers—who are currently being looked after in these negotiations the majority are share fishermen. Therefore, we shall have to take account of their special and unique circumstances both in terms of their fiscal treatment, their hours of work and the way in which they are remunerated.