HC Deb 18 December 1980 vol 996 cc560-8
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Younger)

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Minister of State in that Department and I represented the United Kingdom at the meeting of the EEC Council of Fisheries Ministers which covered the three days of 15, 16 and 17 December. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who conducted the main negotiations throughout the Fisheries Council, regrets that he is unable to make this statement, but he is representing the United Kingdom at the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Brussels today dealing with the vital questions of access for New Zealand butter in 1981 and the Community sugar regime.

The Council considered quotas and access throughout the first two days. My right hon. Friend and I insisted that the two were totally linked and we were unwilling to agree to any figures on quotas until a satisfactory solution was found to the vital question of access. It was agreed by the Presidency that these two matters should be linked together. My right hon. Friend and I very much regret that in the early hours of 17 December it became apparent to the Commission and the Presidency that the inflexible attitude of the French delegation on the question of access would not allow the Commission to put forward generally acceptable proposals on that aspect. It therefore decided not to put forward proposals on access or on quotas and, accordingly, no decisions were taken on these points.

The House will recall that my right hon. Friend had previously urged the Commission to prepare a paper on control so that, for the first time, the Commission would have the resources and the power to see that all member countries complied with the regulations concerning conservation and quotas. We are pleased to say that at this meeting the Commission tabled such a paper, which is in total accord with our suggestion. It has in mind setting up an independent inspectorate of 40 persons who would systematically see that in future all member States equitaby enforce the regulations agreed to.

My right hon. Friend and I wish to express our gratitude to the fishing industry, whose leaders were present at Brussels and who were in close consultation with us throughout the entire negotiation. The Government and the industry were in total agreement as to both negotiating tactics and the overall settlement which would be acceptable to our industry and to the Government. There is no doubt that the unity of attitude between Government and industry throughout the negotiations greatly strengthened our negotiating position and, we are sure, will continue to do so until a satisfactory final agreement is reached. We hope that that will be as soon as possible in 1981.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

I wish to say at the outset that, in the light of the breakdown of the talks and the press speculation of a free-for-all on the seas, I hope that the Government will calm the fears of the fishermen. We do not want an escalation of the talk of a fishermen's war.

The discussions are at a crucial stage. It would not be right for us to jeopardise the negotiations. To date, the Secretary of State and his negotiating team have had the unanimous backing of the House and the whole of the fishing industry. But that unanimous backing has been based on four key points: first, effective conservation; secondly, negotiation for 45 per cent. of the total allowable catch; thirdly, an exclusive 12-mile belt around our shores for British fishermen; and, fourthly, a dominant preference for our fishermen between 12 and 50 miles. Those are the four crucial demands based on the fact that 60 per cent. of the fish caught are in the British sector. The demands are just and right and are based on the fact that, in the main, the fish are in the British part of the Common Market pond.

What is the record to date? On control, conservation and quotas, I note that an independent inspectorate of 40 persons is to be established. Will the right hon. Gentleman indicate to whom it will report? Will the question of breaches be the responsibility of the European Court or of national member States? With regard to the percentage of catch, the right hon. Gentleman is obviously aware—he was at the meeting, and it has been widely reported in the press—that'-,the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is prepared to accept 36 per cent. of the seven main species,, That means that on total allowable catch the percentage will be smaller and, therefore, much less than our 45 per cent. demand.

The Minister has not established the 12-mile belt. It has even been leaked that the Minister is prepared to let in the French. We want to know the truth about that. What is the position, which is still being negotiated, in relation to the 12 to 50 miles dominant preference?

The House will adjourn for Christmas soon. There will be a Fisheries Council meeting before the House meets again. I am sorry to say that it is becoming clear that the Minister is reneging on what he said to this House and to the industry. It is quite obvious from every press conference given by the Minister, from every press journalist who has attended the discussions and from every one of the fishermen's organisations that are closely watching the negotiations that on the four crucial demands the Minister is falling short. That necessitates a tougher British attitude in the discussions. We do not want the Minister to fail on his mandate. That mandate has come from the House and from the industry.

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks. He was right to say that one of the greatest strengths that we have had throughout the negotiations was the all-party support on which we were able to count when dealing with our Community partners. Having said that, I must wonder whether he was listening to my statement or whether he has read the reports.

As s result of his negotiations, my right hon. Friend the Minister has been able to come back on those four vital matters with better quotas than have ever been offered before, much more than has been offered before on the question of access, practically everything that Britain has wished to have on the question of control, and a structures policy that is more than has ever been offered before. It is a bit much for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that my right hon. Friend is reneging.

My right hon. Friend and I have always made it clear that we are not prepared to agree to a single figure or detail of any one of those aspects of policy until we see the whole package. We have agreed to no such figures, and we shall agree to no such figures, until we see the total package. We have been keeping the industry in touch with the total package and it is entirely satisfied with the way that my right hon. Friend is conducting his negotiations.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that no Minister in such negotiations could have done more to try to reach an agreement than my right hon. Friend. He has been to every capital in the EEC on many occasions and has had direct negotiations with each individual country. He certainly deserves a satisfactory conclusion to the negotiations, as does the fishing industry itself.

Mr. Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

Does my right hon. Friend understand that he has the full appreciation of this House and the country for the work that the British team has done to seek a full and satisfactory settlement? I agree entirely with him that no one could have done more. Will he confirm that it is a thousand pities that we cannot continue having a bipartisan view from this House right to the end of the negotiations? To talk one way one minute and another way the next, as the Opposition are doing, is not helpful to the negotiations.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the exclusive 12-mile zone, which was critical in the negotiations when we entered the Common Market, is just as critical today?

Mr Younger

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I agree with every word of it. I also agree with him that it would be the greatest pity—I hope that it will not happen—if my right hon. Friend and I have to go to the further negotiations without the full backing of both sides of the House. I very much hope that we shall have it. I believe that we shall.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the 12-mile exclusive zone is still as critical as it ever as. We have given nothing whatever away on that.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Was reference made during the talks to the illegal herring landings by the French, and was the Minister able to satisfy himself that the necessary prosecutions are going ahead? In the light of that, does the Minister really think that a team of 40 inspectors can possibly cope with the degree of illegality which seems to be going on? Does he have contingency plans which will enable him to turn down a bad settlement if that is what the total package turns out be?

Mr. Younger

On the last point, my right hon. Friend and I have always made it clear that the settlement which we are seeking is one that will be acceptable to the industry. In the event of its being a bad settlement, I have no doubt that we shall not accept it.

As to the extremely worrying reports which we have seen recently about illegal catches and so on, I understand that the Commission has started legal proceedings to ensure that the legal provisions on herring are properly enforced.

The details of future enforcement are still to be finalised, but it should be borne in mind that the 40 inspectors are not the people who will do the inspecting; they are a monitoring force to check on the inspectors, who will still be at work in every port.

In answer to the question put by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), the inspectors will, of course, be responsible to the Commission; and they will be responsible ultimately to the Commission and the Council of Ministers for the full implementation of the inspection regime by individual States in accordance with the common fisheries policy, when it is agreed.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the British Government's negotiating terms, if they are correctly reported, fall far short of what is required and would be regarded as a complete betrayal of our fishermen if they were carried through? In the interests of preserving the livelihoods of our fishermen and fishing communities, the four points mentioned by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) are the minimum on which we ought to be negotiating. In view of the depredations of the French in the meantime, will the Minister guarantee that he will seek the use of the resources of the Royal Navy to keep them out of our waters?

Mr. Younger

On the first point, the right hon. Gentleman ought to be reassured by the fact that we have given away no item of any factor in the negotiations, and we have no intention of doing so until we get a total package which the industry can accept.

Concerning our negotiating procedures, the industry, as I have said, is totally in support of the way in which my right hon. Friend and I have handled matters, and it has said so.

Our concern for local communities is a very important part of the negotiations. We were very glad—and this is a breakthrough on this occasion—that the Commission openly and positively accepted that this was a major factor which had to be taken into account. That was one of the reasons, I think, why the French were reluctant to go ahead with the negotiations.

We still have the right to enforce duly constituted laws within our own waters, and we shall do so with the aid of the Royal Navy if necessary.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I congratulate the Ministers on turning a minority of one to eight into a majority of eight to one. There has been some pretty wild talk about free-for-alls. What regulations are in force and will remain in force until a final agreement is reached?

Mr. Younger

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. He is quite correct. My right hon. Friend inherited a situation in which all the eight other member States reckoned that they had made an agreement, from which we were absent—because the previous Government were absent at that time. It has now transformed itself, as my hon. Friend rightly says, into a position of eight to one the other way round.

As to the laws that are in force, at the end of the meeting the other day we extended the existing agreements and rules for conservation and so on until 31 January, by which time another Council meeting will have taken place, and we shall be able to keep control.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

Will the Minister confirm that, because of an apparent linking of the internal and external agreements, the fact that the French have now stopped his right hon. Friend from selling out the British fishing industry not only means open slather in our waters, with a consequent disastrous effect on stocks, but also stops fishing in Norwegian waters since we now have no agreement with Norway? That fishing is vital to my constituents, who turn to Norwegian waters in January. We are now in the humiliating position of having two pistols pointed at our head to make us climb down even further and none at all pointed at the French. Will the Minister tell the House what he is doing to separate the external and internal agreements so that my constituents can resume the fishing in Norwegian waters which is vital to them?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct that one of many extremely worrying things about the temporary—I hope—breakdown of these talks is that the external side of the existing arrangements is now under question. But discussions are continuing urgently in Brussels about arrangements for reciprocal fishing opportunities in 1981 with Norway and other third countries. I share with the hon. Gentleman the concern about the uncertainty that this must give to his constituents and others, but I assure him that we have that point very much in mind and we are doing all that we can to resolve it in time.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

While congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and his team on the progress that has been made in the past negotiations—whatever the Opposition say—may I urge him, through the Secretary of State, to continue this battle, otherwise we shall find others fishing right up to the shores of our country? Will the Minister take it from this House that we are right behind him in his efforts to get these negotiations agreed to, because otherwise the outlook for fishermen off our coast is pretty gloomy?

Mr. Younger

I share my hon. Friend's view on this matter. We are most grateful for the expression of his support and for that of other hon. Members. It is most valuable to us. Anyone who knows my right hon. Friend will know that he is the last person who is likely to give up this fight, and, of course, he will not do so.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Whatever benefits the Minister thinks that this future package will confer upon his constituents, inshore fishermen about Scotland, is he aware that in Hull, for example, this has meant not merely a hitter disappointment but inspissated gloom for our people? There is no doubt about that.

Secondly, does the Minister think that any negotiations with the French are even worth a candle in view of their present behaviour, for which they had been attacked by the Commission itself, which has said that they are non-communautaire?

Lastly, I have said that this could be another nail in the coffin of Hull, so may I ask what the Minister intends to do about the deep sea fleet, not merely from Hull but from down the estuary in Grimsby, and from Fleetwood and Aberdeen? Is there any hope at all for these distant water vessels? Is he thinking in terms of allowing these bigger boats, which cannot go into these inshore waters—which are limited to boats of less than 50 ft., I gather—to make catches of pelagic stocks, for example, herring and mackerel? Is there any possibility of our getting some sandwich there?

Mr. Younger

I quite understand what the hon. Gentleman said about there being some gloom at the outcome of the negotiations this week. However, I very much hope that all concerned in the fishing industry will understand that we regard this as a temporary setback caused by these negotiations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the negotiating team has no intention of giving up the battle for the fishing industry to get an agreement which the industry can accept.

Secondly, I can only say that I was as deeply disappointed about the attitude of the French as the hon. Gentleman clearly is, particularly as my right hon. Friend and I have taken particular trouble to try to help the French with some of their problems, which were perfectly genuine in some cases, and what has happened in this matter is extremely disappointing.

With regard to the deep sea fleet, I assure the hon. Gentleman that our role is to try to get the best possible deal for the whole fishing industry. Of course, it is more difficult for the deep sea fleet now that these limits have been brought in in this way. On the question of herring, the Council has already agreed zero TACs for next year. That means that, as we have agreed to carry on from 1 January 1981 on the basis of the TACs for next year. That means that, as we have agreed to carry on from 1 January 1981 on the basis of the TACs proposed by the Commission, there is control over herring stocks. Of course, we are looking for opportunities for the deep sea fleet in every way possible.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that there is a constituency interest in this matter for almost all hon. Members who are rising. If they will co-operate, I shall call them, but there must be co-operation from hon. Members and from the Front Bench.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

I applaud my right hon. Friend and his colleagues for the marvellous negotiating determination they have shown, but does he accept that we hope that he will continue to stand no further nonsense from the French, bearing in mind that, having destroyed their fishing grounds on their side of the Channel, they are not welcome to help themselves on our side of the Channel at any time?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is of some consolation to know that all the other eight nations of the EEC are lined up with us on this issue. That will not be lost upon the French.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we believe that he has completely sold down the river the interests of the deep water fleet in favour of the inshore fleet? Therefore, will he tell the House what special arrangements will be made, through either the regional fund or the social fund, to meet the particular problems of towns such as Hull, Fleetwood and Grimsby, which are suffering from unemployment and enormous social problems as a result of this issue, which has been caused not by the recession or microchips but by straight political decisions of the Government? When will the next meeting be held? Where do we go from here?

Mr. Younger

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman made his opening remarks, particularly in view of the fact that my right hon. Friend and I have not given away any item yet, and we do not intend to do so until we have a total package. I particularly regret that he made those remarks because the industry has made it clear that it agrees with our negotiating objectives. The industry has been with us on all occasions, and we have worked closely together.

On the question of what happens next, the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that we expect a meeting to be held in January, but no date has yet been fixed. As soon as the necessary preliminary consultations are complete, we shall be glad to have a meeting as soon as possible on any date that is suggested by our partners.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

In view of the misleading press reports that have appeared, will my right hon. Friend confirm that until these negotiations are renewed and successfully concluded we shall not give away anything and that our existing legal rights will continue until such negotiations are concluded? Will he also confirm that there is no question of our losing anything and that we shall stand our ground until the negotiations are renewed? Is he aware that the main problem, almost above all others, is that there is a feeling that we are at a disadvantage in the supply of fuel energy for the various fishing fleets? Will he assure us that that point will be taken into account in the negotiations?

Mr. Younger

I assure my hon. Friend that the position has not changed for the worse by this breakdown, in that all existing regulations are rolled forward and will be kept in force in the meantime. We are still entitled to police our own waters, as we always have done. The question of fuel has not yet been raised in the negotiations, but if it is my right hon. Friend and I will take it seriously.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many Council meetings, negotiations and so on have been held in the last 19 months to achieve this total failure and breakdown in negotiations? Given the way in which these matters have been strung out, how can he possibly expect an agreement in the new year?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman is stretching things a little when he talks about total failure after 19 months when his Labour Government bequeathed to my right hon. Friend and me a majority of eight to one against us and no chance whatever of making progress towards a common fisheries policy. As I said earlier, we now have an offer of better figures than before; a package on structures, which is at least on the table; an agreement on control, which ties up with the paper that we presented to the Commission; and it has been agreed by the Commission and everyone concerned, except the French, that quotas cannot be discussed without taking access into consideration. All these are massive advances on what was bequeathed to my right hon. Friend and me, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be generous enough to admit it.

Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)

It is regrettable that the French provoked the breakdown of talks on access, but does not my right hon. Friend agree that the fundamental problem that remains is that of the size of the Danes' claim to their share of the quota? Will he confirm that there has been no final agreement on the size of the Danish share of the quota? Is he aware that many fishermen in this country still consider it to be unacceptably large?

Mr. Younger

My hon. Friend is correct. That has been one of the problems in working out quotas. The Danish share, such as it is, is distorted by the inclusion of large amounts of industrial fishing. We have been pressing strongly on the Commission and on everyone else concerned that that should not be given full effect in the assessment of quotas.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Is it not clear yet again that membership of the EEC leads to friction, controversy and deadlock with the French? Would we not be better off outside the EEC, like Norway, which has a 200-mile fishing limit?

Mr. Younger

The right hon. Gentleman is too easily discouraged. If we were discouraged as easily as he is, we would never get anything out of any international negotiation.

Mr. Alex Pollock (Moray and Nairn)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that France is completely isolated in taking the view that under the Treaty of Rome all Community waters should be open to all Community fishermen from 1983? Will he confirm that that view is intolerable for this country?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. This question had been agreed by all the member States, and my right hon. Friend and I considered that the previous French Minister had reached an agreement on that. It was a source of amazement to the Commission, to the Presidency and to us that late on Tuesday night the French reintroduced a concept that we thought had been abandoned some time ago. The Commissioner made it clear that for him this was a completely unacceptable volte face.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

What reasons, if any, did the French Minister give for requiring access to the 12-mile limit other than in historic fishing areas?

Mr. Younger

I do not think that the French Minister claimed the right of access inside the 12-mile limit other than for historical fishing methods. We made clear that, whereas we took the position that the 12-mile zone should be exclusive for local fishermen around our coasts, we were prepared to discuss the question of whether there were any vital historic rights. It was the abandonment of even that by the French that led us to believe that it was hopeless to continue the negotiations.

Mr. David Myles (Banff)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on the firm stand that he and his colleagues have taken in the negotiations? Will he urge the wild men of the sea to calm themselves a little, no matter how much they are encouraged by political opportunists who may try to encourage them to do stupid things that may jeopardise a future agreement that would be in their interests?

Mr. Younger

I share my hon. Friend's concern, but I am extremely impressed by the responsible way in which our fishing industry has responded to the extremely provocative items of news of recent weeks. I am sure that that is because our fishermen realise that sound conservation measures are very much in their long-term interests and that they therefore have no intention of copying others and breaking the laws. However, they naturally expect us to do all we can to ensure that those who break the sensible rules pay the price for doing so.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a sense of outrage, as well as anxiety, about the future of the fishing industry as a result of the behaviour of the French Government? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary what representations can now be made to the French Government in preparation for a more reasonable attitude when the negotiations are resumed early in the new year?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend and I will be consulting our colleages as soon as my right hon. Friend returns to see what steps we can take in the direction that my hon. Friend has suggested.

Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)

What is the approximate cash value of the 36 per cent. we are seeking to negotiate? Is it not between£300 million and£400 million, and is not that one-third of a loaf?

Mr. Younger

It is wrong to say that we are seeking to negotiate 36 per cent. We are seeking to negotiate a package which is acceptable overall. We have made no agreement on any individual figure either about quotas or access. I do not know how I could put a cash figure on the 36 per cent. The answer would depend on the species of fish involved.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

Is it not clear that the breakdown has arisen because the French Government are facing presidential elections within a few months, leaving themselves no room for the compromise into which the Opposition are trying to trap my right hon. Friend? Is not the Government's great success in lining up eight members of the Community on our side a tribute to the effectiveness with which they have operated in the Community and proof that Community policies pay off?

Mr. Younger

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food deserves a great deal of credit for the way in which he has succeeded in reversing the disastrous position that previously existed. I do not intend to speculate on the basic reasoning for the French attitude, but we shall have to find a way of overcoming it.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the 12-mile exclusive zone will be permanent and not subject to periodic reviews or transitional arrangements such as have been so unsatisfactory in so many other spheres in the past?

Mr. Younger

That is one of our important negotiating objectives.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his answers have done nothing to dispel our suspicion that agreement came close because the British Government were prepared to make vital concessions that would be unacceptable to the Opposition and which ought to be unacceptable to Conservative Members representing fishing constituencies? Will he give a categorical assurance, in the light of fresh speculation, that a permanent, exclusive 12-mile national limit is a vital element of any final package?

Mr. Younger

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has been involved in these matters, will be careful about distancing himself too far from the industry. The industry has been totally with us in these negotiations and has made it clear that it supports our negotiating objectives as they have been carried out by my right hon. Friend and myself. The 12-mile limit is one important part of what we are seeking to negotiate, and we are giving away nothing on that.

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