HC Deb 19 January 1978 vol 942 cc676-86
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Silkin)

I beg leave to make a statement about the meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels on 16th, 17th and 18th January on fisheries.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I represented the United Kingdom at this meeting of the Council to consider proposals put forward by the Commission for a definitive common fisheries policy. Perhaps I should remind the House that the Government have three essential requirements—a preferential position for our fishermen within 50 miles; adequate and properly enforced conservation measures; and acceptable quotas.

I believe that further progress has been made towards an agreed solution. In particular, the Commission has now put forward proposals on quotas which the Government could regard as a basis of discussion if sufficient progress could be made on the crucial issue of preferential access. There was considerable opposition to my demands on this question on the basis that they were contrary to the Treaty of Accession. Nevertheless, the Council is now willing to consider whether our demands can be met by means of fishing plans. That is an important advance and I believe also that not too much separates us from our partners on the important question of conservation measures.

I reiterated that the acceptability of any measures so far proposed will depend not only on the content of the proposals looked at by themselves but also on the nature of the final package when it can be seen as a whole. My right hon. Friend and I have not, therefore, agreed to any part of the proposals so far examined. The position of the Government on them is entirely reserved and our judgment of their acceptability must depend first on what can be achieved on coastal preference—which is now the most difficult single issue—and then on the balance between the different parts of any possible overall package.

Despite the difficulties which may well lie ahead, I believe that progress is being made. There is now time for a pause for reflection and the Council will then meet again in Brussels on 30th January to make a further effort towards reaching final agreement.

Mr. Peyton

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman what he means by a preferential position for our fishermen within 50 miles? It could mean anything or nothing.

Secondly, what does the right hon. Gentleman mean by acceptable quotas? It has been made clear by almost everyone who has spoken on the subject in this country that catch quotas would not be acceptable and are in practice an invitation to cheat.

Thirdly, what is meant by fishing plans? It seems to us that, however attractive a pipedream these may be in some Government office, it would be exceedingly difficult to translate them into any thing workable on the high seas.

Would not one be right in concluding that the right hon. Gentleman's words can no longer conceal the fact that his way and that of the industry are now parting? Will not he ask his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to find time for an early debate, to enable him fully to explain his position?

Mr. Skinner

We have plenty of time for everything now.

Mr. Silkin

I think that I can answer the points put by the right hon. Gentleman. First, what we mean by preference —and have said over and over again—is an exclusive zone from zero to 12 miles and a dominant preference between 12 and 50 miles. I thought that there was not one hon. Member who was not aware of that.

Secondly, I also thought that there was not one hon. Member who was not aware that we regard catch quotas without limitation of effort as totally unacceptable. I therefore did not think it necessary to weary the House—particularly at this time in the afternoon—by repeating what it well knows.

Thirdly, although the right hon. Gentleman may not know what a fishing plan is, anyone who was concerned with the cod war off Iceland knows extremely well what it is. A fishing plan is a basis whereby a particular zone of water is reserved for fishing vessels of particular nations in particular numbers, fishing for a limited number of hours or days for particular species at a particular season. It can be as definite as that. It would have to be permanent, and it would have to represent an offer to us by the Community of that coastal preference which was given away in the Treaty of Accession.

Mr. Peyton

The right hon. Gentleman must not answer questions with mere words. He throws meaningless phrases about. What does he mean by his dominant preference? What does he mean by acceptable quotas? I am glad that he is not thinking of veering into catch quotas. What will these fishing plans mean in fact? It is no good ex-planning them by reference to Iceland. We believe that they will be a thoroughly unsatisfactory method. I want to know on what the right hon. Gentleman founds his hopes that these things will work.

Mr. Silkin

Those on the right hon. Gentleman's Front Bench should be experts on what "unacceptable" means when it comes to the fishing industry. They were the people who signed the Treaty of Accession. It is my job to try to repair the damage that they did.

I mentioned the question of Iceland because the right hon. Gentleman told me that he had never understood what a fishing plan meant and did not know what it was about. I was trying to tell him what it was about. Let me put the position clearly. The position of many of our partners in Europe was that a dominant preference and an exclusive zone of the sort that I seek—or of any sort—was not covered by the Treaty of Accession, which the right hon. Gentleman and his fellow Members of the Front Bench were only too delighted to agree at the time. Therefore, the question arose whether there was something that could bridge what we regard as essential and what can be Community policy.

The invention of the fishing plan is something new. It was invented at the time of the Iceland cod war. Whether it will be enough to meet our demands permanently, and whether it can be sufficiently well-written and sufficiently clear in every detail, remains to be seen. I do not know. It is up to the Commission to make its proposals. The House will have its opportunity to judge, if I regard them as satisfactory. If I were not to do so, perhaps the House would have its opportunity to judge that also.

I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is not pressing me on the exclusive zone. We know what that means.

By a dominant preference I mean that the limitation of effort, the conservation measures, the management of that zone and the growth potential are dominantly preferential in favour of the coastal State. It is as simple as that, and I have explained it to the House many times.

Mr. Powell

Is it not clear from the increasingly ambiguous course of the negotiations, even when they are conducted by a Minister devoted to the interests of this country, that the only result which can be satisfactory to the British fishing industry is one which is based upon national control of that part of our sovereign waters which is necessary to our fishing industry, and that if the other members of the European Community cannot find a means of combining that with our membership of the Community, they must face the alternative?

Mr. Silkin

I thought that in my own slightly different language, not as elegant as that of the right hon. Gentleman, I was trying to give something of the flavour of his remarks.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Notwithstanding the difficulty of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) in understanding what is proposed, will my right hon. Friend accept that discussions with the fishing industry in Scotland this morning show that there is extreme nervousness, indeed, some distress, at the proposals put forward by the Commission? While we appreciate the difficulties and weaknesses of our negotiating position resulting from the disgraceful terms of entry accepted by the previous Conservative Government, will my right hon. Friend tell the Commission that there is no prospect of his accepting any agreement until such time as the House of Commons has approved of it?

Mr. Silkin

My hon. Friend need not be on the defensive about what we are doing. I did not spend three days and nights of intense arguing in Brussels merely in order to give the industry away. My job is simply to get the best possible terms that I can for our industry. We know what they are, I have told the House of this over and over again and do not go back on it. My hands were originally tied behind my back. I have noticed a slight loosening. I said at the time to my fellow Ministers—if I may move the metaphor a little—that there was a time earlier this week when I thought that they were trying to paint me into a corner. I got the impression after a while that they had run out of paint.

Mr. Henderson

Is the Minister aware that I have today received a message from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation representatives who were in Brussels? They are distressed about what they regard as a shift in the Government's stand on this issue, particularly in agreeing to discuss figures rather than principles, which is what the Minister said in the past he would not do. This is a very important matter. If there cannot be a debate, would not the right hon. Gentleman think it worth while to meet the all-party fisheries committee within the next few days to allow us to discuss it in far greater depth than Mr. Speaker can possibly permit this afternoon?

Mr. Silkin

As for what some sections of the Scottish fishing industry may have told the hon. Gentleman, let me make one point abundantly clear—it probably did not come through, although I said it in the statement: I have not discussed the acceptability of quotas. I have not discussed the figures involved. I have said that, if everything else were right, they would form an appropriate basis for discussion. I have not gone into that question at all. But I understand very well, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does, the nervousness of the fishing industry. After all, five or six years ago it had every reason to feel nervous, and it has every reason to continue to feel nervous.

Mr. Skinner

We—or to put it more correctly, the Government and certain sections of the Labour Party—have used their "best endeavours" and cut short the debate on the direct elections Bill in order to placate those with whom my right hon. Friend is dealing on fishing matters. Therefore, why do the best endeavours of those others seem to indicate to many of us that they are hardening on the question of Britain's application to get an exclusive fishing zone inside the Common Market? Does not my right hon. Friend appreciate that, while we do not disregard his efforts, the institution of the Common Market prevents him from getting what he wants? Can he tell us whether the directly elected European Assembly—Parliament, as some would call it—would provide him with better hopes than his present position as Minister does? Can he give us any different information on that matter?

Mr. Silkin

I am not a great expert on the European Assembly. I am sure that my hon. Friend is a much better expert than I. I can only judge by my own job. But it is fair to say that the movement has come from the other eight members. My hon. Friend should bear that in mind. He is totally disregarding the situation that was left by the previous Government. He is totally ignoring—perhaps he does not know—the proposals of the Commission a year ago. If he does not see movement there, and if he does not see the exclusivity coming through, he has not taken a great deal of notice of what I have been trying to tell the House.

Mr. Skinner

I understand.

Mr. Sproat

Is not it quite clear that, in spite of the right hon. Gentleman's robust efforts, we shall simply not get justice for the British fishing industry from the EEC? Will he, therefore, give a categorical assurance that, if we do not achieve an agreement at the next meeting which he mentioned this afternoon, we shall by unilateral action declare a 50-mile exclusively controlled zone?

Mr. Silkin

I have said many times that, failing an agreement, we must take our own national unilateral conservation measures. I have been very clear about that. Those measures would be very strong, very difficult and very tough. I hope that in the repercussions of that I should have the House with me. But I hope that there will be an agreement on what we in this House would regard as the right terms, for the simple reason that we have a fishing industry. We need to maintain it, preserve it and, I hope, expand it. That has been my aim all along. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. There have been one or two difficulties along the road.

Mr. Beith

The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to preserve the British position on every part of this agreement. Has he been able to ascertain precisely which species are covered by the quota suggestions and which proportion is represented by such species as horse mackerel, dogfish and fish not suitable for human consumption? I was relieved to hear—although it was not in the right hon. Gentleman's original statement—a clear reference to the recovery of full protection for the full 12 miles, including the sections that were given away by the Conservative Party when it was in office.

Mr. Silkin

I said that I did not want to make too much of that. I was somewhat provoked into it. I am, after all, in the middle of a negotiation; we have moved a long way from the Treaty of Accession and a long way from the Commission's proposals of a year ago. But the hon. Gentleman is quite right.

At this stage, I do not want to go into the basis of individual species beyond making three brief comments about it. First, horse mackerel is eaten. There is a very large export trade in it to Nigeria, for example, and it is an expanding trade. Therefore, one must be careful about the species one is talking about.

Secondly, in terms of what might be described as "rubbish", the offer of rubbish is very small in these proposals. But I said that I was not prepared to discuss them with my colleagues until we had looked at the overall package. Then they might form the basis for a reasonable discussion.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his refusal to accept the inadequate proposals currently being put forward, but will he not agree that the time has now come to assert our national interest by the imposition of further national conservation measures?

Mr. Silkin

May I say first how pleased I am to see my hon. Friend back, alert, smiling and sticking it in? That is good.

I do not know that what my hon. Friend suggests is quite the right thought to go through my mind at this stage of the negotiations. Let us see first what happens to the negotiations. Then, if they do not work out the way we need them to work out, I can start thinking about my hon. Friend's suggestions.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that Denmark, an EEC country, is allowed by the EEC to negotiate unilaterally with Sweden for access to Skaggerack herring? Therefore, it cannot object to Britain negotiating unilaterally with Norway for access to British fishing areas. Will he represent strongly to Mr. Gundelach that what is sauce for the Danish goose must be sauce for the British gander?

Mr. Silkin

The British gander also has a number of different parts. For example, in the Isle of Man, which is specifically exempted from the Treaty of Accession, there are differences. Others of these curious anomalies occur in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, where they have their own methods. But the basic answer to the hon. Gentleman is, let us try to get as good a settlement as we can, and one that we can live with. If we cannot, very well: we know what to do.

Mr. James Johnson

I express my continuing and complete faith in the Minister in this matter and hope that he will come to our all-party fisheries committee. But will he accept that the key to our future lies in this 12 to 50-mile belt? Does he agree not only that we must have a preference there but that we must enforce the law there, police it and—never mind quotas—be the coastal State which will issue licences for those boats fishing there, whatever country they belong to?

Mr. Silkin

I do not think that it is a question of licences. Licences are a bit like dog licences—anyone can have them, whether he has a dog or not. I am thinking of the limitation of effort. If one can say that only so many boats will fish in that area, that is the control that is necessary.

I quite understand why my hon. Friend fights for 12 to 50 miles, and he has been a doughty constituency fighter. The range is zero to 12 miles, and an exclusive zone to my mind is of vital importance to us, too.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Six hon. Members wish to speak, five of whom have a constituency interest in fishing. I shall call them all, but I hope that they will be as brief as possible.

Mr. Bowden

I congratulate the Minister on his determination, but will he accept that the Sussex inshore fishermen are totally demoralised and see very little hope for the future? The quota system will not work. Will he accept that the only hope is to get them an exclusive zone, and will he settle for nothing less?

Mr. Silkin

I thought that I had conveyed that impression to the House, not only today but on a number of occasions.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

If the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to apportion blame, may I remind him about renegotiation? But is it not better that, at this stage of critical negotiations, he acknowledges the wish of the fishing industry that what matters is not party politics but getting the right solution to this very difficult problem? May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said and ask the Minister whether he does not think that unless fishing plans are combined with control by the coastal State, they cannot possibly achieve effective conservation, which, after all, is the stated aim of the Community itself?

Mr. Silkin

So far as the fishing plans are concerned, I quite agree. There is one other aspect on which I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me. Such plans have to be permanent. They must not be just for one year or two years. They must give, in whatever convoluted Community language, effectively what we want. That is what I am trying to see.

Mr. Clegg

May I ask the Minister about the inter-reaction between the position if we get a 12-mile exclusive zone and then a 12-to-50-mile zone? Will the fish caught in our exclusive zone count against any fishing effort or quota system in the 12-to-50-mile zone?

Mr. Silkin

The hon. Gentleman must remember that the basis of a quota system does not apply to every fish. It applies only to fish which would be in danger of extinction if they continued to be caught without any sort of control. There has to be that sort of quota throughout anyway, and it is on that basis that one erects a quota.

The next question—and, to my mind, the important one—is how to enforce that quota. I do not believe that one can enforce it without limitation of effort. One does not need limitation of effort in the 0-to-12-mile zone if one has an exclusive right. One can limit one's own effort, of course, but one does not have to have limitation of effort for ships of other nations. In the 12-to-50-mile zone, where one has the dominant preference but not exclusivity, one does need that.

Mr. Warren

Since the House is getting absolutely fed up with the gerrymandering of our so-called EEC partners in relation to our fishing rights, would it not be reasonable for the Minister to go to the next meeting and put down the unilateral declaration which, I am sure, would be supported by both sides of the House?

Mr. Fernyhough

How did the hon. Gentleman vote in 1971?

Mr. Silkin

It would be possible, I agree. But is it not better to see whether we can agree? Perhaps we cannot—I have always made that reservation—but if we can agree on our terms, that probably would be a bit better.

Mr. Welsh

What specific assurances can the Minister give the fishing industry with regard to adequate consultation on the detail of fishing plans, given that time is now rapidly running out? Will he also tell us what personal lessons he has learned from the French and the Irish with regard to conducting EEC negotiations?

Mr. Silkin

On the second point, I have learned one curious piece of information, namely, that if one is direct and says "This is what we require", after a bit people get used to it and they no longer talk about one being the thug of Europe or anything like that. On the contrary, they are really quite pleased to know that that is exactly what one means and that the language is not capable of being twisted. I am afraid that I have forgotten the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question in my enthusiasm to answer the second.

Mr. Welsh

A specific assurance about consultation over fishing plans.

Mr. Silkin

I have had consultations with the fishing industry right the way through on every aspect of this. I shall again—I hope, before I meet my colleagues. I was not able to have a full talk with them yesterday night for the simple reason that I had to come back to the House, and there was freezing fog coming down on London Airport. That is the only reason. I believe that, if I had been able to see them, I might have been able to explain how things went as reasonably as I have tried to explain it to hon. Members today.

Mr. Ronald Bell

In spite of the movement, are we not still quite close to the position of Britain, with 60 per cent. of the fish, being offered 30 per cent. of the catch on a take-it-or-leave-it basis? Will the Minister bear in mind the smart-ale trick of the Six in defining the common fisheries policy just before Britain joined and the specific ministerial assurances that we were given in 1972 about Britain withdrawing from the Community if, in the end, a satisfactory fishing settlement was not arrived at? Since the present Government, through renegotiation and recommending continued membership, must have accepted and adopted those assurances, what will the Government do if a satisfactory settlement does not emerge from these negotiations?

Mr. Silkin

I think I said what would arise if there were no satisfactory settlement, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). The hon. and learned Gentleman should know better than to start quarrelling at the door of the court. It is far better to wait until one gets inside, if necessary, and see what happens. I hope that what emerges will be something to which we can agree, but, failing that, we shall have to take other measures, and I am perfectly aware of that.