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Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 17 June 1998

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What progress has been made towards resolving the situation whereby foreign fishing vessels from European Union countries (so-called "quota-hoppers") are entitled to catch fish reserved for United Kingdom fishermen within the European Union quota system.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the Government have drawn up a package of measures designed to ensure that all British-registered fishing vessels, including foreign-owned ones, have a genuine economic link with populations in the United Kingdom dependent upon fisheries and related industries. We are currently pressing the Commission for confirmation that those proposals are compatible with Community law. Once we have that confirmation, an announcement will be made on the way forward.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply; he sent me the package last February. As today is the first anniversary of the now famous exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President of the Commission on this subject, can the Government explain why they gave the firm impression, more than a year ago, that they could settle this pressing problem very quickly and without delay?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, this is a complicated issue. At the time we did not indicate that it was subject to rapid settlement. We first consulted the industry. Not surprisingly, the industry had diverse views. Having established the position based upon our consultation with the industry, at the beginning of this year we submitted our proposals to the Commission. The Commission considered them and came back to us on points of detail. We believe that we are close to an agreement.

However, I should say to the noble Lord, who supported the previous administration, that he and they will now understand why it is important to get the matter right and not do as they did in 1988 with their Merchant Shipping Act: that is, get it wrong. That Act was overturned; the vessels were re-registered and the Government were left with a potentially large charge.

My Lords, I acknowledge the difficulties involved in the fishing dispute and the need to protect British interests. But did the Government note the remark made by the head of the National Farmers Union that the reason progress is being made on BSE is because of the more co-operative attitude of this Government towards Europe? Will the Government on no account return to the discredited policies of the previous administration, which sought to blackmail the European Commission into concessions against our own national interests?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention, with which I agree totally. It was apparent to those of us who went to Brussels from last May onwards that the hostile atmosphere created by the previous administration had been extremely unhelpful in the settlement of these matters. We believe that a more constructive atmosphere now exists, but that does not eliminate genuine conflicts of national interest. They must be resolved and that is the process that is now under way.

My Lords, unlike the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, who does not seem to know the difference between farming and fishing, perhaps I can refer to the fishing dispute. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, it is now a year since the exchange of letters which was supposed to sort out the issue. Are the Government aware that a year is 12 months and, if this was a horse at Ascot, it would still be running?

In January the proposals were put to the Commission. The Government chaired the Council of Ministers. They have now ceased to chair the Council of Ministers, so in six months they have done nothing. They have not delivered a single one of the promises that they made to the fishing industry when they said that this was an easy problem, that it was only the incompetence of the Tories that prevented it from being solved and that the Labour Party would solve it in the blink of an eye. When will the eye stop blinking and the fishermen see a solution?

My Lords, I note the irritation of the noble Lord opposite, though his mention of Ascot was unfortunate. I have felt for some time that in future the noble Lord might choose a different week in which to table Questions of this nature.

One year is not long if we are to get this right, as I believe we will. Eighteen years was an extremely long time in which to get it wrong. In 1982 the previous government, in agreeing to the common fisheries policy, did nothing to protect us from quota-hoppers. When the Spaniards joined in 1985 we did nothing to negotiate protection for ourselves. It was under the previous government that the quota-hoppers were allowed to acquire licences, often for nothing. In 1988 they introduced that unfortunate Bill, which was overturned. In 1996 they put forward a ludicrous protocol which secured no support whatever in Europe. If we get it right in one year, in terms of the previous administration that will be a rapid settlement.

My Lords, on 14th May the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, stated that the Government were awaiting the Commission's final opinion on the British proposals and that he expected it to be received shortly. Can he now explain to us when the Government expect that final reply to arrive?

My Lords, I think the word used previously was very appropriate. I have been around just long enough not to give precise dates on which I might later be hung. However, I can assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham recently reminded Commissioner Bonino that we really do expect a settlement. We have no indications to suggest that the settlement will not be helpful.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept congratulations from me on the splendid rebuff he made to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, in which he also gave the whole history of fishing since 1972 when the Conservatives sold us down the river? However, he might have added that last Thursday they had the opportunity to insist on an amendment which they had carried at Report stage about fishing but they did not do so. Does not the fact that they did not do so show that they really are not serious about this matter?

My Lords, my noble friend's interventions are always interesting and often helpful. I can only say that I take note of what he said.