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Fishing Industry: Compensation

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2001

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2.41 p.m.

What plans they have to compensate British fishermen who can no longer make a living as a result of government action.

My Lords, the Government and other EU member states have been obliged to act as a result of the severe decline in some of the main commercial fish stocks. If not reversed, this decline in stocks threatens the long-term viability of the industry. We are urgently considering requests from the industry for financial assistance, and we expect to be able to make an announcement shortly—within days rather than weeks.

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear that Answer. I assume that, as the necessity is to reduce the catching capacity, the Government are thinking of a decommissioning scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that it will not be like the previous one, which was so unrealistic that fishermen sold their quotas and their boats to Dutchmen and Spaniards rather than take part in the scheme? Will the noble Lord also assure the House that, in addition to the decommissioning scheme, some short-term measures will be taken to alleviate the present distress caused by boats being tied up without fish to fish for?

Yes, my Lords. I do not have the details of the plan that is to be announced; however, I am aware that decommissioning is high on the agenda. The Government have certainly learnt from the experience of the previous decommissioning scheme. The noble Lord referred to foreign vessels taking advantage of that. It is worth pointing out that the number of foreign-owned vessels in the UK fleet has been reduced substantially. They represent about 5½ per cent of the fleet and about 17 per cent of the vessel capacity. A scheme is in place to provide £60 million over three years in England and in the devolved administrations in order to help the fishing industry. That will help to alleviate some of the problems referred to.

My Lords, in terms of tonnage at least half of the British fishing fleet is Scottish. As fishing is a devolved matter, and as the Scottish Executive, consisting of Labour and Liberal Democrat members, recently took an extraordinary decision—contrary to the advice of fishermen's organisations—leading, it seems, to the massacre of juvenile haddock, from where would any compensation come? Would it come from Westminster, from Edinburgh, or from both?

My Lords, I am delighted to say that I am not responsible for the actions of the Scottish Executive. The Scottish Executive announced a scheme to provide up to £25 million for decommissioning. The money came from the famous—I almost said "notorious"—Barnett formula funds, and the money will obviously have to be found from somewhere else within the total. That decision was followed by a Motion in the Scottish Parliament for a change of policy, which succeeded by one vote; namely, the casting vote of the Presiding Officer, the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. I understand that the Scottish Executive is going ahead with the scheme to provide £25 million for decommissioning, which, I repeat, comes from Scottish funds and not from the taxpayer in England and Wales.

My Lords, for the record, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the changes in areas where vessels might fish in the North Sea have absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish Executive or any extraordinary decisions taken by it? The Presiding Officer—I am not sure whether he should be described as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, or Sir David Steel—took a step that was extraordinary in the circumstances and used his casting vote. Is it not the case that fishermen primarily in the north-east of Scotland voluntarily decided not to go to sea? Is it not extraordinary that they should demand compensation for their own actions?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. In his existence as Sir David Steel, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament did exercise the casting vote in favour of a Motion to add a tie-up scheme to decommissioning. As I understand it, the Scottish Executive decided to stick with the plan that it had already announced; namely, to spend £25 million only on decommissioning.

My Lords, will the Minister explain further the arrangements that the Government are making? They have spoken about decommissioning; but how much money is being set aside for those members of the fishing fleet who have their boats tied up and cannot fish at the present time and who do not want to decommission? Secondly, if the Scottish Parliament has made this sum of money available, what do the Government intend to do about the English, Welsh and Northern Irish fishermen?

My Lords, as I have explained, an announcement will be made within the next few days which will set out the Government's proposals in response to the problems presently faced by the fishing fleet. I cannot say at this stage how much will be involved. However, I shall be surprised if the scheme does not involve the decommissioning of vessels. As I said, £60 million has been allocated over a period of three years for the UK—that is, for the devolved administrations and the Westminster Parliament. The tying up of boats does not provide the long-term solution to the problem of over-capacity within the fishing fleet; nor does it provide any short-term conservation benefit for fish stocks. For example, the protection of the abundance of small haddock is best addressed through technical measures. To tie the boats up and offer, as was proposed in Scotland, £1,000 for a period of time does not solve the long-term problem. Once the stocks have recovered, the tied-up boats are there and the over-capacity still exists.

My Lords, will the Government make certain that when the European Union is subsidising the Spaniards to build extra fishing boats it is not at the same time subsidising Scots to tie boats up? That is what has been happening, and it cannot be sensible.

My Lords, all the measures attempted by other member states to support their fishermen must be within EU rules. The Commission is much more active than it used to be in examining the way in which the rules are interpreted. For example, the French attempted to compensate their fishermen for the cost of fuel. This was immediately stamped on by the Commission.

My Lords, my noble friend made reference to over-capacity in the fishing fleet. Does he mean the European fishing fleet or the British fishing fleet? Would British fishermen be better off remaining within the common fisheries policy or, indeed, coming out of it?

My Lords, I must say that the last part of my noble friend's intervention comes as a complete surprise to me. I should point out that there is over-capacity throughout the European fleet. I shall repeat a line that I know my noble friend has heard a number of times previously—however, I shall try once more: withdrawing from the common fisheries policy is totally unrealistic. I am sure that my noble friend knows that fish are a natural and mobile resource; they do not respect national boundaries.

Conserving fish stocks requires co-operation among member states in the EU. Pretending that leaving the CFP will solve all fishermen's problems is a distraction from the real issues with which the country is faced today. Although we recognise that, at present, the CFP is far from perfect, the Government's approach is to work for an improvement within it. The way in which the Irish Sea cod recovery programme—and now the North Sea cod and northern hake plans—are being developed is a good start. It shows that the CFP can work.

My Lords, despite the admirably succinct way in which the Minister answered the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, I am afraid that I am still in something of a quandary. Can the noble Lord explain for the benefit of the House how it is that the CFP has benefited both fish stocks and British fisherman more than, for example, a 200-mile exclusion zone would have done?

My Lords, we have in fact done well out of the closure plan. Although we received more than 50 per cent of the allowable catch in the closure area, what we actually have is less than 50 per cent of the area to be closed.

My Lords, when the Government make their announcement in the next few days or weeks, can the Minister say whether it will affect the whole of the British fleet—as set out in the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie—or whether it will apply only to the English and Welsh fleets?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, it will be for the English and Welsh fleets. However, if that information is incorrect, I shall write to the noble Earl.