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Quota-Hopping

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 11 June 1998

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(". This Act shall come into force only when each House of Parliament has come to a resolution on a motion tabled by a Minister of the Crown considering the legal protection for British fishermen afforded by the Treaty of Amsterdam on the issue of quota-hopping.")

1A The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

Because it would not be appropriate to restrict commencement of the Act in the way proposed.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A. I remind the House that the Bill received from another place, which would allow for ratification by the United Kingdom of the Treaty of Amsterdam, was approved without amendment to its central provisions by your Lordships' House. The amendment that this House passed and which another place, by a majority of 196, has not accepted was a delaying caveat that would not alter the substance of the Bill or the Treaty of Amsterdam. Indeed, it relates to an issue not covered by the changes made to the treaties at Amsterdam. However, the important issue before the House today is that if the amendment were to be reinstated by this House it could have disastrous repercussions by delaying ratification by all 15 member states. It could potentially destabilise relations with our partners and reverse all the painstaking progress made in our European policy since the advent of this Government.

I accept that the amendment was tabled by the Opposition on the supposed basis of seeking to help Britain's fishing communities. I must make clear to noble Lords that the amendment would not remove a single quota-hopper from the British register or help our British fishermen in any way whatever. Instead, it would delay or block ratification of a treaty that offers many benefits and advantages to this country. However, in no way does this mean that we do not share the very genuine concern of the Opposition and noble Lords generally about the plight of our fishing industry. We do. The exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President of the Commission at Amsterdam was a real step forward. That exchange recorded the Commission's interpretation of how a member state might, within the rules of the single market, require an economic link between fishing activity and fishing communities. Since Amsterdam we have taken this forward. We issued a consultation document last July, following which the Government had extensive meetings with representatives of the UK fishing industry to discuss implementation of the "economic link" licensing conditions that we proposed.

Following that consultation, we submitted draft proposals to the European Commission which incorporated contributions from the UK fishing industry. A copy of those proposals was placed in the Library of the House on 12th May. This is a substantive package of measures which will be both effective and compatible with the treaty. We intend that all vessels shall be required to comply with one of the following criteria: having to land 50 per cent. of their catch of quota species in the UK; or requiring 50 per cent. of the crew to be resident in UK coastal areas; or requiring a certain level of operational expenditure in UK coastal areas; or other measures which will provide sufficient economic benefit to populations in the UK which are dependent on fishing and related industries.

The process of putting flesh on the bones of the exchange of letters between ourselves and the Commission at Amsterdam is an important one. We await the Commission's final opinion on the proposals. Only last week my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food discussed progress with Commissioner Bonino.

This subject affects a number of member states as well as ourselves and it will be discussed at official level in Brussels tomorrow. We have learnt that France and Belgium are already modelling an economic link for licence conditions in their countries based on our proposals. We understand that the Commission will soon present its opinion. We expect real progress from that opinion. We have made progress. These measures will ensure that in future real economic links exist between the UK's fishing fleet and our coastal communities. That is a significant improvement on the current situation in which many vessels bring little or no benefit to the UK. Vessels that fail to maintain an economic link with the UK will be unable to fish UK quota species until such time as they are able to demonstrate that satisfactory economic links have been established.

During debates on the Bill we ranged over a number of issues, but we passed only this amendment. It is only this amendment that the Commons has rejected. While no doubt on past form certain noble Lords will wish to range slightly wider than the amendment in the course of the debate, this is the issue before the House. The elected Members of another place have overwhelmingly made clear their collective view.

Perhaps I may provide some slight comfort to the Official Opposition in regard to their amendment. I can report that its passage through this House was noted to some extent in Europe. It impressed upon the Commission and our partners that fishing is an important issue for the UK. But it also alarmed them to see that it threatens ratification. Therefore, in one sense it has achieved an impact. Unfortunately, that impact is double edged. The other edge is that our partners fear that the UK, despite the achievements of this Government, is reverting to the negative table-thumping, Europhobic behaviour of earlier years. If they go on thinking that we shall again end up on the margins of Europe. Unfortunately, that second impact is already in danger of predominating. If we persist by restoring the amendment today it will predominate and the main losers will be the very fishing communities that the amendment purports to help.

While most of the debate on the treaty was conducted in good spirit, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and I exchanged a few harsh words. I am sure that the noble Lord does not wish to see a negative impact on the fishing communities any more than I and other noble Lords do. I appeal to the noble Lord and other noble Lords not to oppose the Commons rejection of our amendment. What limited positive impact our discussion of the importance of the fishing industry may have had could be jeopardised by persistence in the amendment. I hope that neither the Official Opposition nor the House in general will oppose the elected House on this issue. I call upon the noble Lord and the House to accept the position adopted by the House of Commons.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.—( Lord Whitty.)

My Lords, I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, in his place today. He was right yesterday to point out that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is a popular figure in your Lordships' House. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand if, in my opening remarks, I put any personal feelings of your Lordships aside and focus on the political judgment of a Foreign Office team that once again has determined that our final consideration of this Bill—the only Foreign Office legislation in this Session—apparently does not warrant the presence of the Minister.

Noble Lords will recall the importance that was attached to this matter by your Lordships' House at Second Reading. At that time my noble friend Lord Beloff begged to move that the debate be adjourned because of the absence of the Minister. Today the Minister is not with us again. I remind noble Lords of the speech of my noble friend Lord Beloff:
"It is the opinion of many noble Lords that this [Bill] is a matter of great constitutional importance and that there are precedents which show that, whenever a matter of constitutional importance is before your Lordships' House, the Bill is piloted on Second Reading and, even more importantly, in its later stages by a Minister from the department concerned".
He continued:
"The fact that this Bill is of constitutional importance hardly needs demonstrating by reference to its own clauses. In another place, it was taken through all its stages by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Clearly, they thought that it was a matter of such constitutional importance that, in spite of their many other commitments, often airborne, they would have to devote the necessary time to dealing with it".—[Official Report, 16/2/98; cols. 25–26.]
The importance of the amendment is that it is constitutional, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, a moment ago. He said that it was of constitutional importance, and recognised as such in Europe.

On Tuesday night, when the amendment that we are considering was debated in another place, the subject was of sufficient importance to warrant the direct involvement of two Ministers in a discussion which lasted over three hours and saw no fewer than 468 Members of Parliament go through the Division Lobbies. But today, once again, we are presented with a Whip to mop up behind the absent Minister, albeit a very good Whip indeed.

My Lords, I have not often interrupted the noble Lord. I need to now. It was made clear in the exchange following my noble friend's intervention yesterday that my noble friend the Minister is carrying out important business in Canada and the US. It may have escaped the notice of some noble Lords that she is responsible in the Foreign Office for relations with Canada and the US. There was no earlier objection to her not dealing with this final stage of the Bill, which has been down in my name for at least one week and probably longer.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, on that occasion, rightly directed his criticism not to my noble friend but to the business managers. His procedural Motion was defeated by the House at that stage. Having taken account of views expressed during the debate, my noble friend participated fully in the debates on the Bill. She was present throughout the Committee and Report stages. She dealt with the central issues of common foreign and security policy, defence, sovereignty, human rights and many other issues. During those stages I dealt with quota hopping. There was no objection from the Official Opposition or any other quarter of this House to my doing that. My noble friend dealt with Third Reading in this House.

As I said yesterday, in my experience of this House no Minister has shown greater diligence in fulfilling her duties to this House. However, she has other duties which are vitally important to this country and to our relations with two of our greatest allies. It is trivial for the noble Lord to raise this issue, in this way, at this time. I hope that he will not persist in it, but will let us get on with debating the substance of the amendment.

My Lords, that is a wholly unacceptable response from the Government Front Bench. The first duty of any Minister in either House is to the House. That is a fundamental priority. Last night my noble friend Lady Young raised an important debate. The Minister was absent. Today, we have another important debate on a constitutional measure, and the Minister is absent. It is not unreasonable to point out that the Minister may, in any case, have felt compelled to return from the US to make a personal statement to the House in relation to her answers to your Lordships' House on the arms to Africa affair.

We have had three important foreign affairs issues this week. It has not been an average week in your Lordships' House for matters relating to foreign affairs. That warrants the presence of a Minister in your Lordships' House. It warrants it, as was proved on Tuesday night, when another House felt that it warranted two Ministers to appear at the Dispatch Box—two Ministers to answer in detail the points that were raised. I shall be more than happy to give way again if the noble Lord can say why it was necessary for two Ministers to be accountable to the other place where this issue had been rehearsed significantly during earlier stages of the Bill, and rightly so, whereas there is no Minister present in your Lordships' House today?

4.15 p.m.

My Lords, it may have escaped the noble Lord that this place operates differently from another place. It has long been recognised that Whips take on what, in another place, would be regarded as ministerial duties. We did not object to that when the noble Lord's party was in power. I am amazed that he does so now. If he objects to my dealing with the substance of the amendment, why did he not do so in Committee, on Report or at any other stage? If it was proper for me to deal with it then, why is it suddenly not proper for me to deal with it now? The noble Lord is making a meal of this. I hope that we can get on with the substance of the Bill, not just for the fishing communities of this country but for our future relations with Europe. None of this will be understood outside this House, and precious few people within the House will understand it.

My Lords, the noble Lord cannot lightly dismiss the importance of ministerial accountability. We will return to that point time and time again. I have made my point. I hope that I have made it clearly. I echoed the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. I highlighted the fact that on Second Reading this was a subject of considerable importance which was debated in full across the Chamber. I merely restate that point. I am not for a minute questioning the ability of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to respond to parts of this legislation. I have praised his ability on many occasions. Indeed I have done more than that.

As noble Lords will be aware, I have argued strongly that due to his regular presence at the Dispatch Box on matters regarding foreign affairs he should be made Minister in the Foreign Office and should be given the backing he deserves for his eloquence and attention to detail. It is a pity that he has had so many opportunities because his noble friend the Minister is so frequently absent from the House on important constitutional matters as at Second Reading and today.

I thank the noble Lord for his brief response. Having read the proceedings in the other place on Tuesday night, his response was disappointing, although predictable. I regret the fact that the Government used their majority in the other place to overturn the amendment. I shall not rehearse all the key points. There were some interesting developments on Tuesday night which are worthy of further consideration in your Lordships' House.

The issue of quota hopping to which the amendment refers is a grievous example of a promise made and a promise broken. Before the election the Prime Minister told the country that the one thing he would ensure he delivered at Amsterdam—the top priority for British negotiators—was the resolution of this issue. He said that he would hold up IGC business to get the right changes to fishing policy in British interests.

The amendment clearly puts on the face of the Bill the Prime Minister's apparent intent when he made that promise. He did not say that about any other issue. He said it about fishing policy. He said it about British fishermen's interests. Yet the Government failed. They failed to achieve indisputable legal protection for British fishermen at Amsterdam. The Prime Minister returned with barely more than a confirmation of the status quo. At Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, despite our best efforts, we have been given no satisfactory explanation for that, let alone a compelling one.

Instead, we have had trotted out, time and time again, the same empty rhetoric in this House, and, two days ago, in another place while the Government attempt to hijack the high moral ground by savaging the previous administration's record. The logic of the argument seems to be that the provenance of any criticism is more relevant and more important than the objective validity of that criticism. In that way, attention can be neatly diverted from any governmental shortcomings.

For all the righteous sound and fury, the defence by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, of the Government's record was flimsy to the point of threadbare. The intended effectiveness of his attack on the previous government's record throughout discussions on this issue was in inverse proportion to the weak defence of his Government's own record. As a result, we still do not know why the crucial opportunity to ensure that British fishermen were afforded legal protection—it is what they would have received—which was there to be grasped at Amsterdam, was lost.

It is with great interest that I note what the Minister responsible for quotas stated in another place. He argued surprisingly that when in government he realised that life was a little different from what it was when he was in Opposition; and because it was tough he simply did not push it, and that was that. On the one key issue on which the Prime Minister had said that they would hold up the IGC in order to get a deal, the junior Minister concerned suddenly realised the day after he was in government that life was different. And that despite the comprehensive and assiduous as ever contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, before the election which he told us on many occasions was a key mark to the work he was doing, and the effect of that work after the election.

It is fascinating to me now to question whether the whole manifesto, by virtue of being drawn up in Opposition, holds the same importance as we are regularly told it should once in government. It was a paltry excuse from the Front Bench in another House for failure to protect British fishermen's interests.

I make these comments because I see it as vital to recognise that, unless the Government go ahead, unless they push hard for changes on behalf of British fishermen, they will lose. The Government ducked this issue at the IGC because they did not have support; they saw opposition coming. We heard today about new initiatives that the Government were taking in this context. It is interesting to note what Patrick Nicholls, Member of Parliament, stated on those very proposals on Tuesday night. He asked:
"Where are we now? We have been told that some new proposals have been worked out, so where are they? Aficionados of such matters will have to find an obscure parliamentary question of 12 May saying in effect, 'These things are in the pipeline. We are waiting for Europe to tell us whether we can do what we want".—[Official Report, Commons, 2/6/98; col. 971.]
Europe has since spoken. The Spaniards have already said what they think about that. They have raised grave reservations and doubts about the revised version of the United Kingdom proposals. That is the status of those proposals for British fishermen and for the British Government in their attempt to get changes. I predict they will fail. I predict that they will not have the heart to fight for them, as was clearly displayed at the IGC and which led to the tabling of this amendment. From these Benches we have made our feelings very clear. The Government's approach to the whole subject has been regrettable; and I sincerely hope that it is not a harbinger of disappointments to come.

But it is not my intention to press the point today. We shall not oppose the decision of another place to remove the amendment from the Bill, but we shall leave on record our complete disappointment at the failure of the ministerial team to deliver what the Prime Minister said he would fight for; namely, the interests of British fishermen—interests which have been jettisoned, interests which were thrown away by this Government in their negotiations at the IGC.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he explain his own government's part in this? Will he explain why they signed up to the Treaty of Corfu in 1957, and the circumstances in which the government spokesman from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr. David Davis, addressed himself to the chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on European Legislation? He endeavoured to explain the circumstances in which the assent of the government to the Treaty of Corfu was obtained.

Will the noble Lord agree that, on reflection, the real treaty to be discussed in this connection is not the Treaty of Amsterdam, which was not about this subject, but the Treaty of Corfu which was? Can the noble Lord clarify that position? It may well be that his own government are not without blame in this for the ambiguities that have arisen in this matter.

My Lords, I am always willing to be as helpful as I can to the noble Lord in answering his questions. I recognise that the passage has been long and difficult, not just with regard to the implications of the Treaty of Corfu which the noble Lord rightly points out, but also the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act, the responses of the European Court of Justice, and the difficulties throughout the 1980s in resolving the question. All that led to the conclusion that the most effective way forward was to write a protocol which sought to deal with a quota-hopping problem once and for all by entrenching the condition that UK quotas must provide economic benefit to UK fishing communities and not to fishing interests in other member states.

Because of the history, the difficulties and the challenges, both parties recognise that the IGC and the Treaty of Amsterdam provided an opportunity to resolve that issue once and for all. It was because of my sincere disappointment that that opportunity was not taken to address the subject once and for all that I tabled the amendment that went to another place.

My Lords, this is hardly an appropriate subject for party polemics in however mild a form they may have been embarked upon. Rather, it is an occasion where, despite our being fairly hardened politicians, we should feel and express some collective shame for the state of our fishing industry and the way in which successive governments have failed to secure their minimum interests.

The issue does not arise just over Amsterdam, as we all well know. It arose in the beginning by the British government of the day abandoning the concept of British waters and accepting that the waters around our islands are a "Community" resource. Further to our great disadvantage was the imposition and acceptance of fishing quotas which enormously undervalued the previous British take from our waters, with the result that we have had a continuing contraction of the British fishing fleet. Indeed, when historians write about this period, one of the many subjects which they will find puzzling indeed is how a great maritime nation, with the debt it owed to its navy, its merchant navy and its fishermen, came to abandon what is a great national resource.

We now come to the present situation. What is there left for Parliament to do? It is not the best way to threaten to hold up the implementation of a treaty which has been broadly agreed and must clearly be brought into effect. But virtually every other sensible way of proceeding has been denied to us. There was the third great humiliation. Some years ago we passed the Merchant Shipping Act which would have excluded the Spaniards from quota-hopping as regards the British quota. That measure was struck down by the superior legislative and judicial powers of the European Court of Justice.

To add insult to injury, millions of pounds of compensation are now being paid to deprived Spaniards. If it comes off, the deal described by my noble friend would at least guarantee 50 per cent. of the British quota being landed in British ports and 50 per cent. of the ships which are not British, operating in our waters, would have to have some connection with the maritime interests of this country; and that is a hit of progress. But I have yet to be convinced that it will be achieved. What a miserable situation this is when we have to content ourselves with a mere 50 per cent. of what should lawfully be our own.

I cannot disagree with the course recommended by the noble Lord who speaks for the Opposition, but I do say to my noble friend that something has to be done. We are going to see a further dramatic contraction in the British fishing fleet unless we find a way of escaping from the trap into which successive European treaties have placed us.

4.30 p.m.

My Lords, there are, I fear, very few issues of European policy on which the noble Lord, Lord Shore, and I would agree. Nevertheless, I would like to say, on behalf of us all, how delighted we are to see him back among us after his absence through illness.

The only reason for my intervening is the extraordinary speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, at the beginning of this debate. My noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire will apply himself to the situation as far as the fishing industry is concerned and the text of this amendment. But I do not think that it is right to let that extraordinary speech go by without some comment from these Benches.

I have rarely heard an exercise in synthetic indignation on quite such a scale. First of all, he was factually inaccurate, which perhaps is not altogether surprising. He seems to imagine that the Government Whips in this House are not Ministers. They are Ministers of the Crown, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, will no doubt learn over a period of time in this House. If, in fact, his argument is to be taken seriously—namely, that it is some form of constitutional outrage that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is not with us—let me say this to him. The last Minister of State responsible for Foreign and Commonwealth Office business in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, was often absent from the House because she was carrying out her ministerial responsibilities abroad. I cannot remember one occasion when anyone made the sort of trivial complaint which we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. It really was dreadful stuff. I hope he is going to improve.

In a moment I shall gladly give way, but we had 14 minutes of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on this narrow issue before he applied himself, in seven minutes, to the issue related to the fishing industry. That is a two-to-one ratio which, in itself, is remarkable.

I hope that ungracious attacks made on a Minister, who is carrying out public duties outside this country, will not be repeated on future occasions by the noble Lord.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I should like to point out to him that I am fully aware of the status of Government Whips. I was rather surprised by the tone of his intervention on that point.

Indeed, I went further than that, because as the noble Lord may know, there was a time when we understood that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, had been made Minister with special responsibility for the EU presidency. Specific questions were tabled in another place by Mr. Michael Howard—I would be happy to give the noble Lord copies—which disprove his point. Sadly, in my view, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was not made Minister with special responsibility for the EU presidency, but was a Whip with special responsibility for FCO business.

As for the other points which the noble Lord raised, they were not trivial. They were important because they emphasised, as I would do once again, the importance of ministerial accountability to this House on legislation which has a far-reaching constitutional impact. That is the point I was making. It is an extremely serious point. I am surprised that the noble Lord, from his Benches, trivialises that. It is critical that on any major legislation the Minister responsible should come before the House. That is the first priority of the Minister.

That was the point I was making. It will be a point that I shall always make and it was a point that I made regularly when I was in another place. I believe that noble Lords on all sides of this House recognise the power of that argument. It is wholly reasonable for your Lordships to expect the Minister responsible to be present, especially when it is the only legislation in the whole Session, and indeed likely to be the only significant legislation during this Parliament, coming from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, but as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was intervening in my speech and I gave way to him. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has sought to justify the point which he made earlier. In my view, the point that he made earlier was entirely unjustifiable. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, gave him his answer. If it had been so wrong for anyone other than the Minister of State to address the House on this issue, why was that point not taken when the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was addressing the issue during the earlier stages of this Bill?

When the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, quoted the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, with warm approval, he omitted to point out that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was rejected by this House, and by a substantial margin. He almost indicated to us that the words of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, were rather like a judgment of the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Criminal Appeal. I did not see that as a precise analogy, but having made the point which I have made, I propose to conclude my observations by repeating the point that I hope that we shall not have a repetition of such an ungracious statement from the Opposition Front Bench in future.

My Lords, perhaps I may descend from the great heights of ministerial responsibility and the interests of our fishing industry, to make a minor grammatical point about the Motion before us. I know it is a long time since I was at school, but I was taught to agree or disagree "with" things, not "to" them. We find on the Order Paper that we are asked to disagree to this amendment.

It may be that without my knowledge the use of our great language, which is now the language of the world, has changed. I hope not and I believe not. I hope that we can get this right in future.

My Lords, the Chairman frequently says "The Question is that this Motion be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say 'Content' or 'Not-Content'". Clearly, parliamentary usage is different from that which the noble Lord was taught at school.

My Lords, perhaps I may suggest that the Minister for Education should be called before the House.

My Lords, I feel that I should start by apologising for the fact that my noble friend Lady Williams is not able to be here today. She is in the United States on business.

My Lords, I gave way, but not with a view to terminating my speech. It may be that I have such a limited knowledge of our language, after so many years practising the law and 53 years in Parliament, that I am wrong, but I do not think that the word "to" in these circumstances is as good as the word "with"

Having made that minor point, I say that we were right to ask Members of another place to think again about ways in which the interests of our great fishing industry, which has declined, could be protected. The noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, referred to matters long ago which were against the interests, as he maintains, of our fishing industry. On this occasion we gave the Government and Members of another place an opportunity to improve things, and regrettably they have rejected that opportunity.

Alas, the other place has the last word, but we have asked them to think again. As my noble friend Lord Moynihan said, we must leave the matter there; it is not one on which we can reject the whole Bill and have forced upon us the Parliament Act. I believe that my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Bruce, were right to draw attention to a missed opportunity, which is regrettable.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for interrupting. I had not realised that he had not finished his speech. I was merely commenting that some of us who specialise in foreign affairs from time to time find it useful to go abroad. That unavoidably interferes with the business of this House.

I yield to no one in admiring the largely solo performance of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. On one or two occasions I wondered whether some members of the previous government who were experts on foreign affairs had gone abroad permanently and left him to handle so much.

I wish to make two further comments. We all agree that as regards fisheries, the issue is not only the British case but the conservation of fisheries in the North Sea and elsewhere. That is an extremely important issue on which the European Union as a whole needs to take further measures. We were not helped in particular by the Spanish, but the previous government cannot escape some of the blame. It was one of two cases when the Conservatives, driven by Treasury considerations, failed to provide full compensation for those who were asked to take vessels out of service. That encouraged British fishery owners to sell their boats to Spanish owners rather than accept full government compensation. The other case on which the previous government, on Treasury advice, thought it cheaper not to provide full compensation was in the early stages of BSE. That also had deleterious effects. I hope that the current Government, driven by a remarkably parsimonious Chancellor of the Exchequer, will not repeat that mistake in other matters.

My second point is the importance of the completion of the Bill. I and many others were ashamed that the previous government delayed ratification of the Maastricht Treaty for so long and waited until everyone else had done so. Today, we have a chance to complete ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty a good deal earlier than our partners and are demonstrating that it is not always the intention of the British Government to drag their feet on European issues. That is much the most important issue and I am glad that the Conservatives will not be insisting on the amendment and dividing the House.

My Lords, I was most surprised that there was no Motion on the Marshalled List that this House insists upon its amendment. That is what I really would like to have seen. If we want to put pressure on the European Commission and the other countries of Europe, we must show them that we are tough.

There was another way in which we could have shown that we are tough. We could have proposed another amendment and sent it back to the House of Commons for consideration. That really would have been putting pressure not only on our own Government but also on the other governments of the European Community. I believe that an opportunity has been missed.

Noble Lords might ask why on earth I did not table such a Motion. The fact is that if I had done so I would not have received support. However, if the Opposition were doing its job, if it were really on the ball, it would have played this for as long as it possibly could. I understood from yesterday's Daily Telegraph that the Conservative Opposition was to have a new lease of life and that it would oppose the Government whenever it could. Yet when the first opportunity arises it falls at the first fence.

I very much regret that, but the Conservatives have a bad history on that, as my noble friends pointed out. I wish to remind the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, whom we all respect particularly for his operations on the Bill, which have been considerable and very effective, that it was under a Conservative Government that we had the spectacle—and I say that advisedly—of the unfortunate Mr. Jack being pelted with flour by British fishermen while they were feting the High Commissioner for Canada and flying not the Union Jack but the Canadian flag all over the south-west. If there ever were a failure over fishing policy it was a failure of the Conservative Government. I hope that my noble friends in the new Labour Government will be able to do far better.

I regret that today we are not to give more power to the Government's elbow because of the failure of this House yet again to do what it can, which is to put additional pressure on the House of Commons and on the Government. That failure is noted outside and it will do us no good. I must tell those hereditary Peers who believe that being gutless will save them that it will do nothing of the kind.

4.45 p.m.

My Lords, what the noble Lord has proposed would mean that the Bill might not come into operation for another year if we had successfully pressed the amendment. It could conceivably have come back to us from the House of Commons yet again, but that would be a most unusual procedure. I remember it being used only once, and then we did not resist. I believe that in the unfortunate circumstances we simply must accept it.

My Lords, I take that as an intervention. The noble Lord will know that I often put innovative ideas to the House but it does not appear to accept them, which is a great pity. He also knows that if we were prepared to insist on our amendment and that prevented the treaty from coming into operation for a year, I should be over the moon and delighted. Indeed, the country as a whole would benefit.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney pointed out in most forthright terms, there can be little doubt that Parliament as a whole, comprising both parties, has let down the British fishing industry. No party can escape the blame for that. As my noble friend pointed out, the origin of the existing unsatisfactory position of our fishing industry arose from the deliberate deception—the deliberate deception—of the British public on the passing of the European Communities Act 1972. Then it was not revealed to the British public as anything worthy of their consideration that we were giving up our rights within the 200 mile limit. That was never explained and the approval of the British people and the British Parliament was obtained by deception. Of that there can be no doubt whatever.

The question is: what can we now do to redress the position? I suggest to your Lordships with the utmost respect, and as one who has spent the last portion of his life studying these matters, that the argument, "we must not be kept on the fringes of Europe" is a generality that is no longer acceptable at all. Every time any Member of your Lordships' House or of another place raises a question—even a question—about the validity of our existing arrangements within the European Community there is a jeer and a sneer that we must relegate ourselves to the outer regions of Europe. We must somehow conform in order to be admitted to the inner circle of Europe, which still remains, and will remain, France and Germany, whatever their temporary dislocations may be.

Every time an argument has been raised about the validity of our arrangements with Europe, of the economic benefits and otherwise to Europe, they are covered in these blanket terms, this miserable cowardice that we must agree with our European partners or we shall be relegated to the margins. I am sick of that argument as, I think, is the country as a whole.

What we need to address ourselves to, from the existing position, is how we can make amends to our own British fishing industry within the constraints under which we now labour. First, we must use our muscle. Sometimes one would think that the Government did not have any muscle despite their insistence on how important they are in Europe. We must determine what steps should be taken in order to redress the position of the British fishing industry. That requires thinking. It does not require slogans. It also requires reading through a host of regulations, decisions and directives inflicted upon this industry with the connivance or even through the ignorance of the Ministry of Agriculture not all of whose legislation in the form of regulations or even Acts of Parliament is thoroughly read by people in Parliament who should read and understand them.

It has become one of the defects of our democratic system that those responsible for the legislation know so damn little about what they are passing into enactment, let alone authoritatively argue about it. This must stop. The steps we need to take are firstly to apprise ourselves of the position. I was in general sympathy with the whole purpose of the amendment until I began to dig into the documents. Believe me, even working full-time it will take at least another three weeks or a month for me—and I am very familiar with European affairs—to ascertain precisely in European law and regulations, let alone in British regulations, exactly what the position of the industry is and what legal rights it has or does not have. That will take time. All of us who support the British fishing industry should undertake that task.

Clearly, it is insufficient and would be futile, other than as a gesture, to use the amendment to the Treaty of Amsterdam, or the British enactment of that treaty, as a vehicle in the argument for British fisheries. That is not a suitable vehicle. The matter requires far greater time. Therefore I shall not be insisting on our own amendment here. I shall support the Government if it comes to a vote. But I warn the Government that they should give these matters serious attention, and not just on a sloganised basis. They should endeavour to tackle the problems at base. That, after all, is why we are here. We are not here to mouth generalisations and make debating points.

We are here as part of Parliament. This is our job. Not all of us can do it; not all of us have the time to do it. But we should at least play our part. So in agreeing that the Government Motion should go forward I issue a warning. The Government should give the matter real and detailed attention and cease to heed ridiculous cries of, "We must not stay on the margin; we have to keep in with the boys in order to be recognised." Until they can ignore those arguments and deal with the facts, they will be faced with the shame of having ruined the British fishing industry.

Before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that I greatly respect his contribution to the House on these matters as a sort of in-house guru. Perhaps I may ask him whether he knows how we came to make the agreement ceding our shores to the Spaniards to come and fish and cause this distress? If the noble Lord knows, it may help if he can tell us. If we are to try to put things right would it not be helpful to know how it happened?

I am very pleased to answer the noble Lord. I do not yet know the steps to be taken. It will take weeks of study in order to piece the whole matter together within its correct context.

One matter to be borne in mind is the term "British fisherman". I am from the West Country. I was delighted to hear what the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart, and Lord Shore, had to say. I feel that possibly we shall be helped in the not-too-distant future if we are worried about the English and the Welsh. The English, certainly, are the West Countrymen. The Welsh may decide, as the Scottish have said they will decide as soon as they have their own parliament, what to do with the common fisheries policy. That matter was raised by myself and other noble Lords last year. It may be that everything which has been sorted out today, as we heard, will be thrown overboard by the Scots when they have their fishing fleet under their rules within the European Union, or without—but probably within because there is money involved. The same will apply if the ever-eager Welsh follow suit. It is only right for us to consider that it looks likely that whatever may be agreed today will be thrown overboard by what were initially parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, if there is one thing I can welcome in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, it is the indication that the Official Opposition will not be insisting on this amendment. I do not wish to raise the temperature any further at this stage. I do not wish to pursue the question of ministerial appearance here. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, expressed the views of many in this House more eloquently than I can.

Incidentally, I am gratified to note the change of policy on the Liberal Democrat Benches. It was a Liberal Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey, who prided himself on going abroad and we ended up with the First World War. It is possible to be a Foreign Office Minister and fulfil your obligations to this House and your diplomatic obligations also. My noble friend Lady Symons certainly does that.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to savaging the past government's record. I have tried to do that on previous occasions but have not really done so today. My noble friends Lord Shore, Lord Bruce and Lord Stoddart have done it for me. As noble Lords know, we have not always seen eye to eye during the passage of this Bill, but on that issue we do.

I shall dwell briefly on the last passage of the previous government's performance in this area. The noble Lord said that there was an agreement to be gained in Amsterdam that was somehow better than that we managed to achieve. The real history is that the previous government submitted a memorandum to the Amsterdam process in July 1996. The following May, after we took over government, the Foreign Ministers of most major countries in Europe had not heard of it. Could it possibly be the case that the previous Foreign Secretary felt too diffident to approach his colleagues in the other chancelleries of Europe and tell them what a central part of the negotiating policy of the British Government this was? I really cannot believe that of Malcolm Rifkind. It is surely more likely that he realised that the domestic insistence that we should hold up the Treaty of Amsterdam if we did not achieve a legally binding deal at Amsterdam on the basis of a change in the treaty—which is what the last government claimed—was a piece of domestic politicking and therefore, obviously, of no concern to the Foreign Office.

I fear that that is what much of this debate has been about. But, as noble Lords have indicated, there is a serious situation behind it. To be fair to all noble Lords who have participated in the debate, I am sure we all recognise that the British fishing industry has suffered seriously since the advent of the common fisheries policy. We are all committed to trying to reverse that downward trend. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney that there is no way of doing that other than by seeking to block the treaty. It is wrong to dismiss the 50 per cent. linkages but I accept also that other steps need to be taken to improve the situation of the fisheries industry.

It would be extremely beneficial to the fishing communities of all parts of this kingdom to move on from debate on the Amsterdam Treaty to pursuing the discussions between my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham and the Commission in order to reach a positive conclusion for the fishing industry in an entirely different context. I believe that the exchange at Amsterdam gave us the basis for that and what we have done to pursue that has given us an even better basis.

My Lords, I may even elicit support from noble Lords on the Front Bench of the Liberal Democrats on this point. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is a great admirer of my noble friend Lady Trumpington. It is fair to place on record—and she would be the first to do it if she were here—that back in June 1996 she began intensive work with regard to notification of the IGC, the Commission and member states on the tabling of proposals to deal with the problem of quota hopping. It was high on her agenda. It is historically rather inaccurate to say that the previous government and in particular my noble friend Lady Trumpington were not active on this point well before the IGC.

My Lords, I mean absolutely no disparagement of the commitment of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. I am not in the habit of disparaging the noble Lord's colleagues. I was pointing out that the person who conducted the negotiations for Britain and who was therefore focused on the key points of our negotiating portfolio was not pushing this point with our allies. That is not to say that the Ministry of Agriculture at that time was not taking the matter seriously. But the treaty negotiators and those preparing for the Amsterdam conference, had the last administration been re-elected, did not take it seriously because it was not the way forward any more than boycotting and vetoing matters in the so-called beef war was the way forward. That set us back for months. It is a situation which my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham is only now beginning to rectify. The insistence on threatening the rest of Europe does not help our fisheries industry any more than it helped our beef industry.

I hope that in this House, from now on, we can move on to more constructive support of the fisheries industry. My noble friend Lord Bruce made some good points but I do not agree with his view that it is miserable cowardice for us to want to be at the heart of Europe. We should be there and we should use our negotiating strength to full effect on behalf of the fisheries industry and other British interests. The Amsterdam Treaty provides us with an opportunity to do that. We should now move on, and I ask the House not to insist on their amendment with which the Commons disagreed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.