§ Question again proposed.
§ Mr. Wallace
I will continue after that commercial break, Mr. Speaker.
As I was saying, it does not follow that if one takes some boats out of the fleet, other boats would automatically make up the difference. As the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside said, no one is proposing a decommissioning scheme while abandoning all other means of conservation. We are striving for better management of the relatively smaller stocks that are available. That might mean that some vessels, boat owners and crews will be able to sustain a better livelihood after decommissioning than is the case at present. There is no doubt that, at present, too much capacity is chasing fewer and fewer stocks.
It seems that bankruptcy is the Government's only instrument for trying to reduce the capacity of the fleet. Aggregation, to which my fishermen do not object, does not appear to have made a great impact on the problem. The Government should be in no doubt that, for those of us who represent fishing constituencies, bankruptcy is not an acceptable instrument of policy.
The Minister said, rightly, that we want a policy that will ensure that there are fish to be caught in the seas not only next year, but for many years to come. However, it is also important to ensure that there are still fishing communities and fishermen who are able to go out to sea to seek those stocks.
§ 10.3 pm
§ Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)
May I add my condolences to those hon. Members who represent constituencies that have lost fishermen in the past few weeks? It shows the high price that is paid by our fishing communities.
At one time, my constituency was a strong fishing community and experienced similar losses, but its main importance now is as a fish market and as the centre for Scotland's fish processing trade. It is one of the United Kingdom's leading fish processing centres. It is important to consider the consequences of the decisions that are being discussed in terms of the fish processing industry because those consequences are not limited to the catches only. Fish processors deserve our attention.
First, however, I should like to follow the point that was made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and to refer to the Minister's attitude to the debate. I was a wee bit disappointed that he did not follow the precedent that he set last year in his first year at the Dispatch Box on this matter. Before that debate, he called all hon Members who represent fishing constituencies to a private meeting at which he explained the Government's position on various aspects of the debate. We had a worthwhile and useful discussion beforehand. That helped to bring people together, which I believe is what the Minister intended. Today, however, he is taking a much more confrontational line, which is a matter of some regret, certainly to Opposition Members.
At the beginning of this year, 5,200 people in the north-east of Scotland worked in the fish processing 1206 industry. During the past year, we have lost 750 jobs and 14 firms have closed. We are now down to 4,500 employees.
Obviously, the fish processing industry depends on the fish catchers providing the supplies. I must express my extreme concern about the way in which the 10-days-permonth compulsory lay-off will affect the fish processors. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also referred to this point. I am not clear about whether the compulsory lay-off is to be across the board, whether there is to be no fishing on particular days or whether the restriction will be applied to individual ports. A daily intake of fish is absolutely necessary not only to my consituents who work in the fish processing industry, but to the consumer. It is crucial that that point is addressed and that we know exactly where we are.
It is worth considering what the fish processing industry —certainly in my constituency—has had to cope with in the past few years. I got some figures today which show that, in 1988, fish processors in the United Kingdom had access to 50,000 boxes of fish per week. In 1989, with the reduction in the quota, that had reduced to 22,000 boxes per week and had reduced again last year to 14,000 boxes. We are looking at further cuts this year.
The industry has been encouraged to change dramatically. In 1992, we are expecting new food hygiene and food handling regulations, which will be imposed on a Europewide basis. A lot of work is being done by the industry—I know, because I meet the fish processors in my constituency—to ensure that it can comply with the regulations in 1992. However, when the processors are faced with a reduction in their basic raw material, it is difficult for them to make the planned investment that is necessary if they are to meet and to cope with the regulations and, at the same time, continue to provide the high quality of fish that the consumer is entitled to expect.
Fish processors have another problem. All sorts of rumours are circulating about how the regulations will be imposed. I spoke today to Scottish fish merchants and processors; it is clear that they are uncertain about the requirements that will be imposed upon them. It has been suggested that there may be a phasing-in period in some areas. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State for Scotland could clarify that matter, because we need to know whether the new food hygiene regulations —I know that they are not before the House—are to be imposed with immediate effect on 1 January 1993, or whether there will be a phasing-in period so that people such as my constituents can prepare and adjust much more slowly.
The best processors—those who take the most businesslike attitude and those who care most about their product —are planning their investment now for 1 January 1993. They are worried that they will be left behind. Those who are slower to invest and those who wait to see how the regulations will affect them will steal quite a march on those who care and take the trouble to make that investment.
The fish processing industry faces serious problems and we do not want Government indecision on them on top of that. I would appreciate it if the Minister would clarify the point about investment. Investment in the fish processing industry is a crucial question which must be addressed.
We heard a great deal from the Minister tonight about the extra revenue which fish catchers have enjoyed this year. Of course, when there is much less fish on the market, the price goes up. That has its consequences on the fish 1207 processors. Prices at the quayside in the north-east of Scotland have increased by some 33 per cent. this year. That is 33 per cent. extra money which the fish processors have to find. Their cash flow is much more restricted than that in most other industries, but the retail price for fish once it is processed has increased by only 14 per cent., so fish processors are living within much tighter margins and are suffering seriously.
I am aware that the Scottish fish processors—the merchants—approached the Minister with a plea for assistance in adapting to the imposition of the new food hygiene regulations. The industry wants to improve and modernise and to have facilities which are as up to date, clean and hygienic as possible, but in these times it is difficult for them to make the adjustment. They applied for assistance and went to see the Minister, but they were rebuffed. The attitude taken was the same as that taken by the Minister today on decommissioning.
Some fundamental questions need to be asked about the Government's attitude. Fish is a food. It is a healthy food and one which people want to buy. People are encouraged to consume it. We should do everything possible to encourage fish consumption, yet it strikes me that exactly the opposite is happening. The price of fish in the supermarkets has increased dramatically. It is now almost as expensive as the best steak. I find that difficult to reconcile with the attitude of the Government when they wear another hat. Through the Department of Health and the Home and Health Department in Scotland, they encourage healthy eating. Poorer families certainly cannot afford to buy fish fresh from the fishmongers or the supermarket. That has happened simply because of the Government's lack of planning and their failure to make proper arrangements to ensure that the market is supported in exactly the same way as the food industry.
Fishermen like to contrast their position with that of the farmers, and they are right. Farmers are encouraged and subsidised to produce, because their product is seen as absolutely essential to the well-being of the nation. We cannot afford to go into too much deficit in food production. I cannot understand why fishermen are not treated in the same way.
We have surpluses in beef, milk and grain. I cannot understand why farmers are given the benefit of buy-in and set-aside schemes to encourage the removal of large acreages from production when fishermen do not benefit from such schemes. In the same way, we have argued tonight that vessels should be removed from fish catching. The analogies are too good to Miss for the fishermen, and I sympathise with them. I do not understand why the Minister refuses to acknowledge the points made by not only Opposition but Conservative Members. They are genuine points, which reflect the genuine anxieties of our constituents.
It does the Minister no credit to hark back to previous bad experiences. If the Government got it wrong in the past, surely they can learn from their experiences and work a little harder to get it right now. It is clear that the industry needs the Government's support, as does the country if it is to enjoy access to fish as a staple part of its diet.
When fish processors and catchers talk to me about decommissioning and financial support, they point out 1208 that they now operate in a wholly regulated market. There is no free market except for the price of the product and for the financial assistance which is denied to them. There is licensing of boats, there are quotas and now they face the imposition of severe food and hygiene regulations. The fishermen, fish catchers and processors are given no compensation for that totally regulated market. That cannot go on for ever.
That position is not determined by the availability of fish in the North sea. We are talking about international obligations, not just our national interests. That needs to be addressed before the Minister or the Secretary of State must cope with a real crisis in our fishing industry, when consumers are complaining, not about the price of fish, but about the fact that it is not available.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) on an excellent speech. He is well liked in my constituency among the growing number of fishermen who form part of the developing fishing community. They follow his words with great care. Although I cannot always give the answers, they ask me what the Labour Government will do for fisheries. I feel sure that my hon. Friend will be the Minister.
I wish to deal with the Commission's proposals for total allowable catches in block Vila, which mainly services constituency ports on the coast of Cumbria. I am thinking of Maryport, Workington and Whitchaven, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Those fishing ports face a TAC reduction for cod of 60 per cent., for whiting of 55 per cent., for plaice of 35 per cent. and for sole of 13 per cent.
The position is aggravated for cod by the Hague preference, whereby regionally dependent communities are given an advantage for reasons which I cannot understand. I should like the Minister to justify that system. I cannot see how Ireland can possibly lay claim to such a concession when conditions there are no worse and no better than those in my constituency. I do not see why Ireland should have the benefit of the preference at a cost to fishermen who work in my ports.
§ Mr. Salmond
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern for his ports, but we should remember that it was through the intervention work of Garret FitzGerald that we have the Hague preference. It is an excellent principle in the common fisheries policy which emphasises communities which are particularly dependent on fishing. That is a good principle in a fisheries policy, and it was an Irish Foreign Minister who was instumental in achieving it in 1976.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
That was 14 years ago, and communities which were wholly dependent on fishing are perhaps as different today as are constituencies which depended on the steel industry, as the hon. Gentleman will know is the case in Scotland.
The ports of west Cumberland probably employ about 200 people in the industry and several dozen people in the processing industry. The general view is that, if the TACs are applied, they may wipe out part of the west Cumberland fishing industry. That would be resented, particularly as, over the years, my constituent fishermen 1209 have repeatedly made protests to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about conservation policies.
In the past few years, I have sent a number of letters to the Ministry that have identified the need for conservation schemes as proposed by fishermen in my constituency. Requests were also made for a decommissioning scheme to be introduced.
Fishermen in my constituency have volutarily changed from using 70 mm nets to 80 mm nets. However, the TAC quotas are based upon scientific assessments which include a calculation based upon 70 mm nets. Therefore, my fishermen strongly believe that the TACs have been set on the basis of inaccurate information. They believe that the matter should be reviewed in the light of equipment used in my area and in other parts of the United Kingdom. My fishermen would not oppose an increase in the mesh size, but obviously they would oppose a 120 mm net.They have, however, voluntarily changed the size of their nets, and they object to the way in which the Commission has produced its figures.
I have made repeated representations to various Ministers about a decommissioning scheme. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee and I was present at those hearings when it dealt with the scheme which has been attacked tonight but which Ministers believe to be the basis upon which they can reject further schemes. The PAC report did not preclude, or include, any reference to the fact that decommissioning schemes were useless and could not be introduced. The Committee accepted that decommissioning schemes could work if that was the will of Government. Then, however, the will of Government was not to make that scheme work, and now they are unwilling to try again.
I believe that a decommissioning scheme could work. To put it bluntly. if we were to scrap boats that were more than 15 years old, it would wipe out a proportion of the British fishing fleet. Why do Ministers not deal with it on that basis? Why do they not consider the criteria that they have submitted tonight? If the reason for Government reticence is money, they should return to the PAC to examine some of the reports that we have produced on waste of public moneys.
The other day, the PAC identified a loss of about £100 million in the bus privatisation. Next Monday, we shall consider a loss of £6 billion due to miscalculation of SERPS. Over the years, the PAC has produced many reports about loss of public money as a result of policies being improperly implemented by civil servants or because the proper policy was not pursued. The money is there; it is just a question of how to allocate it properly.
A decommissioning scheme may be a harsh instrument, but the Government should pursue it. They should not impose damaging cuts on incomes in constituencies such as my own, particularly in the light of what happened earlier this year. My constituents received no additional money from the Government despite inclement weather, and many faced bankruptcy as a result. When the fuel price increases hit boat owners, they were left in a difficult position.
The Government should go for a decommissioning scheme, and they should do so with sufficient will and energy. They should not stand aside to leave it to the market, as is suggested in the proposals before us.
§ Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles)
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) that the arrangements now in force on the Clyde between fishing boats and submarines should be extended to all fishing areas. I know that the Minister suggested that it might be valuable to have a trial period, but I believe that that trial period could be usefully extended to all fishing areas. It is an urgent matter that should be considered by the Government.
The 10-day lay-up recommendation has been criticised as being potentially dangerous because it would encourage or compel fishermen to fish on days when, because of the weather, it would be inappropriate. The lay-up idea is not new. The 92-day option was the most popular with fishermen, no doubt because it would be easy to evade. That raises a second problem with the 10-day rule, for not only would it be dangerous but it would be almost impossible to enforce.
If all fishing boats were required to be tied up for 10 days a month, the scheme would become untenable. How could the entire fishing fleet be tied up for 10 days when different weather conditions prevail along different coastlines? Some would be happy to tie up while others would be unhappy because they would be Missing 10 good fishing days. In other words, it would be unfair to impose such a uniform 10-day rule on the fishing industry.
Alternatively, if fishing boats were allowed to choose their own 10 days in the month, the scheme could not be policed. It would be easy for people to write in their logs the 10 days in question, and then not necessarily keep to them. Either way, the 10-day rule would be difficult to enforce and police.
When we express doubts about the 10-day rule, the silence of the Government is indicative of their possible acceptance of the rule. That is odd, given that the west coast fishing industry has been proposing to the Government for some months a weekend ban on fishing activity. The Government have not responded in any way to that suggestion, even though they appear to be playing about with the notion of a 10-day ban. I press them urgently to consider the suggestion of the west coast fishing industry for a weekend ban on fishing activity, Unlike a 10-day ban, it would be easy to enforce. It would be easy to identify any boat that was out at the weekend. It would be better for processors because, instead of being idle for a huge chunk of the month, they would be able easily to respond to a consistent weekend hiatus in the supply of fish. They would be able to adjust to that more easily than to a 10-day ban.
If the Government adopted the west coast suggestion for a weekend ban, they would have an additional card to play in the negotiations. They could say, "We have already begun to incorporate certain ideas," and thereby be better able to resist pressure from other Ministers, especially in regard to the laying up of boats.
The Minister still uses the word "efficiency" in terms of fishing boats, and talks of the need to keep the most efficient fishing boats in the industry. I pointed out in the previous fisheries debate that efficiency is not a positive word when applied to fishing. In every other industry efficiency means lower prices at the end of the day for the consumer. In the fishing industry, uniquely, efficiency means higher prices for the consumer. Large boats 1211 vacuuming up fish from the sea mean in the long run fewer fish and hence higher prices for the consumer. That is exactly what is happening now.
Rather than scrutinising efficiency in this rather unthinking way, Ministers should look at the effects of 1212 policies that they might want to introduce on fishing communities, especially on the west coast of Scotland. That area more than any other has scarce resources, and it would be criminal to embark on a policy that would throw away one of the few natural advantages enjoyed by communities in that area and hand it over to fishermen from other areas.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
I begin with a few words about the loss of the Premier and its crew. Fishermen face all sorts of hazards, physical and man made. We need to hold a debate soon on the safety of fishing vessels. I have long argued that United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels should carry immersion suits, and enough of them for all crew members, as they are required to do in France.
My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) was right to emphasise the fragility of some of the fishing communities on the west coast of Scotland, particularly in his constituency. Some of them face a real threat from the advanced vessels from the north-east of Scotland. The technology that we possess for catching fish far outstrips the viability of the stocks. Somehow we must match the technology to the stocks of fish.
I asked earlier about the Greenland fishery quota. I now declare an interest: my brother Leslie is at this moment fishing for cod off the west coast of Greenland, along with 31 comrades on his stern freezer trawler. That is why I was able to tell the Minister with confidence that one of the reasons why the quota was not taken up was that the weather on both Greenland coasts has been dismal and there has been a lot of ice in the area.
Fishing off the east coast of Greenland—I have been there only once: never again—is much more dangerous than fishing off the west coast. Ministers may have thought that I was being facetious when I argued that only experienced fishermen should fish in those highly dangerous waters. I was not, although I accepted the Minister's point: how otherwise could fishermen gain experience of those inhospitable waters? Skippers and mates who seek to fish them should first travel as passengers with highly experienced crews. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that we never want to see again the loss of one of our big stern trawlers, such as occurred in 1972 with the loss of the Gaul. In that disaster, 32 men were lost. My brother was a member of the crew, but fortunately, his holiday coincided with that ill-fated voyage.
As we have seen in the past 24 hours, fishing anywhere in the north Atlantic is dangerous. The further north the fishermen go, the more dangerous it becomes, especially in the presence of ice. I do not know why the Secretary of State for Scotland is laughing, because this is a serious matter. I am sorry that he does not appreciate that.
I welcome the continuation of fishing in Greenland waters by our small fleet of distant-water trawlers. I also welcome what might be a slight increase in the United Kingdom's share of cod in the Norwegian exclusive zone. That will benefit our fishermen. What is the view of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about what they may see as the small quotas for Norwegian and Faroese waters that are to be given to the former German Democratic Republic?
I do not want to see fishermen there put ashore for ever, but the new Germany, which is part of the European Community, has a huge national fleet. Many of the aging vessels from east German ports should be tied up. I should not want to cross the Clyde in one of them, let alone fish from them in the north Atlantic. Is the door now open for the renewed Germany to be given bigger quotas in some areas? That important question must be addressed.
1214 I am being fair-minded, and I am pleased to see that the Clyde Fishermen's Association will be able to catch another 300 tonnes of Clyde herring. That is a good measure. I share the concern expressed by some hon. Members about the ban on fishing for 10 consecutive days. I said that in an intervention and perhaps the Secretary of State for Scotland will confirm that the 10 consecutive days will include Saturdays and Sundays and that, in effect, we are talking about the loss of six days' fishing.
§ Dr. Godman
The Minister nods, thereby clearing up one ambiguity.
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) spoke about what I call the Spanish problem. Members of the Select Committee on European Legislation will know that the president of the European Court of Justice delivered an interim judgment on, I think, section 14 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. If that judgment is carried out in a substantive sense by the European Court of Justice, it will have profound implications not only for our constitution and for this place—whatever power this place has—but for our fishermen, particularly in the south-west of England. That is worrying. That decision may be 18 months away, but it is deeply disturbing.
I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Harley), who I think has responsibility for fishing, agriculture and many other things, because I want to say a word about the Northern Ireland fleet. I think that he has been present throughout. I welcome him to his new ministerial post. He and I were on a parliamentary delegation recently and I thoroughly enjoyed his company. But we may part company on fishing matters.
The Northern Ireland fleet, which is important to the Province because of the employment multiplier ratio, and so on, is an aging fleet. I think that I am right in saying that more than 50 per cent. of the fleet is aged 20 years or more. That is getting on, for fishing boats. It is essential that the Minister should argue his corner with his ministerial colleagues as well as in Brussels. When talking about grants and the regeneration of our fleet in the Western Isles, Cornwall and elsewhere, we must not lose sight of the needs of the fishermen of Ulster.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
The fleet may be aging, but it was bought second-hand and it has been growing in the past few years.
§ Dr. Godman
I readily acknowledge that, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman in turn will readily acknowledge that replacing it is a major problem there, just as it is in the Western Isles and elsewhere.
With regard to the multi-annual guidance programme, can the Secretary of State for Scotland estimate what will be the percentage reduction in the United Kingdom's fishing fleet if we meet our obligations under that programme? Will it be about 25 per cent. between now and the end of 1991, or will it be even more than that? I see that the Secretary of State is getting advice, which I am sure will be good advice. Will the Secretary of State look at that formula and tell us roughly how many fishing vessels would be involved? Is it between 300 and 600 vessels? 'The Secretary of State shakes his head, but I should like to see his answer in the Official Report.
1215 In a nutshell, and oversimplifying like mad, too many fishermen are chasing too few fish. The United Kingdom-registered fishing fleet is far too big in terms of the stocks that that fleet harbours, hence the multi-annual guidance programme obligations. Its size must be reduced, and it is a question of how that is to be done. I have argued for some years that it should be achieved by what was called by a distinguished civil servant in the fisheries section of the Scottish Office—Mr. Boyd-Gordon, who retired a couple of years ago—a maritime set-aside. In other words, a decommissioning scheme. It should be possible to introduce one similar to that of the Danes, which reduced their fleet by a sizeable number.
Other hon. Members mentioned the experience of the previous decommissioning scheme, and there is no doubt that the Hull trawler owners took that scheme, the Government and the present Minister to the cleaners. For example, the owner of the trawler Pict received in the 1960s a grant in the region of £1 million from the White Fish Authority to build that vessel. Just before the disastrous decommissioning scheme was introduced, that owner was negotiating the sale of the Pict. Under the scheme, he received a sum in excess of £500,000, and then sold the vessel for about £600,000.
The Public Accounts Committee rightly censured the creators and administrators of that scheme. I know fishermen who worked for the owner of that vessel and for others for years, but who received under £500 in redundancy money—which was less than the decommissioning payment of around £415 per gross registered tonne. That is why the right hon. Gentleman and his officials are unwilling to introduce another scheme.
We should be able to devise a fair scheme. If the Government produced one, we would scrutinise it in a rigorous and critical way—although the Minister does not like criticism, as he showed tonight. The right hon. Gentleman started off being extremely polite, but ended by shouting and bawling at the temporary members of the Scottish National party. There was no need for that. We seek only to protect the interests of our fishermen.
With the support of right hon. and hon. Members, it ought to be possible to devise a scheme that would enable middle-aged fishermen to tie up once and for all their middle-aged vessels, without facing destitution. That should be our aim, and we should unite in that endeavour. There are too many vessels and too few fish to be caught by them, and the size of our fleet must be reduced.
A major decommissioning scheme could be devised that would allow for a reduction in the size of our fleet while at the same time allowing its aging sectors to be renewed—to allow young men to enter the catching sector with the conviction that they could earn a decent living in that most hazardous of occupations.
The Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland are wrong when they argue that there can be no decommissioning scheme. The alternative, if we are to protect our fishing stocks and to maintain their viability, is that fishermen will have to tie up and be reduced to a state of penury. I would willingly support Ministers if they came forward with a decent and reasonable decommissioning scheme for our fishermen.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
First, let me associate myself with the condolences that have been extended, through the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), to her constituents who are in mourning tonight.
This has been a good and a knowledgeable debate. It has been made clear—particularly in the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley)—that Labour's approach is not to recriminate in advance of the outcome, but to advance practical objections to the proposals in the hope of contributing constructively to the hand that the Ministers will play next week. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food asked us to help him in his battle, and we want to do that because, whatever the longer-term prospects, the livelihoods of many fishermen throughout Britain—and the wider communities which must rely on the industry—depend on the outcome.
I believe—as, I think, do many other hon. Members who have spoken, and who come from diverse parts of the United Kingdom—that it is fundamentally inaccurate to talk about the Scottish, the English or the Northern Irish fishing industry. Those generic terms cover a series of small industries with very different and sometimes conflicting interests. As we advance into the age of quotas, restrictions and regulations, my thinking becomes conditioned by the danger that, if all the regulations favour the strong against the weak, we shall end up not with healthy communities and the "living harbours" described by the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), but with, perhaps, a more efficient fleet without a socially balanced fishing community.
That applies to Scotland, England and, indeed, Europe as a whole. I have mentioned the conflict between the interests of, for instance, the east and the west; we should also recognise the problems of the south-west, where Spanish fishing boats are seen as a threat. We do not deny the existence of conservation problems, or scorn scientific evidence because we do not like its conclusions; that would be a foolish attitude for any party to adopt. Only short-term thinkers chase votes in the fishing communities by suggesting that there are painless solutions to the current problems.
As has been clear from every speech that we have heard tonight, two issues must be the subject of considerable effort and resistance in the Council next week; the question of white fish minimum net sizes, and the proposed requirement for vessels to abstain from fishing for 10 consecutive days per month in 1991. I have spoken to several people on the west coast tonight; the area has a first-class conservation record, and poses absolutely no threat to global stocks. One of those peple told me that, if the compromise of 100 mm mesh were accepted, it would be a disaster for his local fishing industry. He is not trying to dodge conservation responsibilities; he knows the problems that would be created.
Fishermen's organisations throughout Britain are committed to the 90 mm diamond-shaped mesh size, with the incorporation into the net of a panel of 80 mm square mesh above the cod end. That would reduce the number of discards, and would be a sensible step forward. The Minister should also bear in mind the fact that the change in gear would not only bring conservation benefits, but could be implemented cheaply by fishermen in the areas that I have mentioned. One of the problems of opting for 1217 a more dramatic change in mesh size is that many fishermen would have to entirely change their gear at a substantial cost.
A specific point was made to me and perhaps the Minister will deal with it tonight or write to me. It was suggested that, under the common agricultural policy, French fishermen have a right to have by-catch restrictions waived if they use selective trawls and that that is an incentive to adapt to conservation-minded gear. That seems a sensible proposition and I should be grateful if the Minister could advise me whether it would be open to British fishermen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe was right to say that cuts in catching effort that are based on quotas and restrictions will almost certainly lead to abuse and will appear unnatural to fishermen. By far the best way to approach the matter is with the emphasis on improvement and sophistication in gear and a more conservation-minded approach.
On the 10-day ban, the arguments are those of common sense and practicality. If fishermen know that there is a lay-off coming up, they have an incentive to fish harder in the preceding weeks. There is a long history of conservation measures that provide an answer on paper but prove to be worse than useless in practice. This is one such proposal, and it should not be agreed to. would increase the relative disadvantage to areas that have smaller boats and a much less capital-intensive fishing infrastructure.
As I understand it—I am not trying to be smart, and I would be happy for the Minister to write to me about it —the proposal is that a vessel that has achieved 40 per cent. of its total catch by the end of June would come within the framework of the 10-day ban. It seems extraordinary that it does not matter whether it is 40 per cent. of 200 boxes or 40 per cent. of 2,000 boxes. Nobody can make a comparison in terms of the effect on stocks between those two vessels, but the vessel that has caught, on these figures, 80 boxes will be subjected to the same ban as the vessel that has caught 800 boxes. That cannot be right. It disproportionately disadvantages the smaller, more conservation-minded vessels and the weaker fishing communities.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) pointed out, fishermen on the west coast have repeatedly called for a weekend ban. They saw this coming and put forward a more sensible approach. The Government should back them and strongly resist what is seen as a foolish proposal.
The misreporting or non-reporting of catches is a problem in many parts of the country. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) referred to it as cheating. It is cheating not against the Government or some abstract body but against other fishermen and fishing communities. If vessels go from east to west or north to south or vice versa and claim that fish came from there when they did not, they are taking away the right of fishermen in those areas to catch the fish in that year and are distorting the quotas that those fishermen will be eligible to catch in subsequent years.
I was told a story tonight—I will not go into detail —about a find at a west coast port last week. Under the surface of what was apparently a catch of coley there were 60 boxes of cod. The point made to me was that, if that is going on frequently and many boats are not reporting their catches, what in heaven's name has that done to the 1218 scientific projections on the west coast which have led, in the coming year, to a cut in the quota for west coast fishermen?
I said earlier that I wished that representatives of every political party would condemn that practice. The elegant way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) did so, without recrimination or sectional divide, was a model. I am sorry that it was not followed; I am particularly sorry that it was not followed by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).
The quota for monkfish and megrim is of particular concern on the west coast. It is believed that the precautionary TACs could be increased substantially, which would be a major compensation for fishermen who are losing out in other ways.
I conclude—these things must be rushed through at this hour—on the issue of decommissioning. The Minister says that it is not the way to reduce pressure on fish stocks. I understand his concern. We know that the previous decommissioning scheme was a fiasco and that it was mismanaged—that has been admitted—and we further know that the pressure stock licensing scheme was a fiasco. I remember that from long before I was a Member, when I wrote about it extensively. Everybody knew that it would be a fiasco. It was wide open to abuse, and it was clear that licences would move from parts of the country that were weak to parts that were already strong. Until that was stopped relatively recently, it is precisely what happened.
Tonight, as in previous fishery debates, not one Conservative Member has defended the Government's refusal to have any sort of decommissioning scheme. A decommissioning scheme is in progress. It is based on hardship and disillusionment among fishermen arid is taking out the wrong people and vessels. It is not touching the excessive catching power of some areas of the country. It is the wrong kind of decommissioning scheme and it is hurtful to many fishing communities.
I do not underestimate the difficulties that the Government face in implementing a decommissioning scheme. I sympathise with much of what the Minister said about those difficulties, but it is not adequate to say that there are difficulties and that there have been failures in the past in order to deny the possibility of doing it better in the future.
As the Minister goes to Europe, we do not wish to divide the House. This matter is for the British Government alone, but within Europe they alone are holding out against it.
I have been asked by hon. Members who have not spoken to seek an assurance from the Minister about transponders being fitted to gear, bearing in mind everything that has happened in the past two weeks, and about who is to pay for that. We would welcome an early assurance that the cost of transponders, or pingers, will be met by the Ministry of Defence.
Yes, we wish the Minister well as he goes to Europe. We understand the complexity of the issues in which he is involved. We have defined the issues on which we believe he must fight extremely hard, and we know that many fishermen and fishing communities will be waiting eagerly and anxiously for the outcome of the discussions.
§ 11.3 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang)
Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, I begin by adding, through the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), my expression of most sincere condolences to the bereaved families and friends of the crew of the fishing vessel Premier, which so tragically foundered recently. Anyone who has had contact with a small fishing community knows the intensity of grief that is experienced in such tragedies. When the bodies cannot be recovered, as so often is the case, the grief is extended and prolonged. I shall pass the hon. Lady's comments to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I can tell her that the marine accident investigation branch of the Department of Transport will conduct an inquiry into the loss. It will consider what steps are necessary to allow it to carry out its investigation properly. I shall bring her suggestions to my right hon. Friend's attention.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think that it would be appropriate if, on behalf of my constituents, I thanked all right hon. and hon. Members who have so rightly expressed their sympathy to them. Sometimes it may seem that words are easy to say, but I know the sincerity with which they were expressed. I shall relay those comments to my constituents over the weekend when I visit the families.
As the marine investigation group is in contact with Duchies of Lossiemouth, which is releasing as much information as it can about the Premier, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that details about any plans to raise the vessel are immediately given to that office or to me, because the relatives are deeply concerned? I know that the Secretary of State, a similar incident having occurred in his constituency, appreciates the sensitivities of this matter.
§ Mr. Lang
I certainly acknowledge that lack of information adds to the pain of the situation. I am sure that the hon. Lady's comments will be noted by those who read the debate. On the same broad subject, I assure the hon. Members for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence will take note of their points about the experiment in the Clyde involving submarines and fishing vessels.
This wide-ranging debate has embraced fishing interests throughout the United Kingdom. Many right hon. and hon. Members have contributed. Unfortunately, some have not been able to remain for the end of the debate, and I understand the reasons for that. One or two hon. Members have failed to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker —particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter), who has shown sustained support for fishing interests in East Anglia for a long time.
The national interest in fishing is reflected in the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food opened the debate; I, with my Scottish responsibilities, have the opportunity to wind it up; the Minister with responsibilities for agriculture and fisheries in Northern Ireland —my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley)—has been present throughout the debate and has listened carefully to it; and my hon. Friend who takes a special interest in fisheries matters at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and 1220 Food, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), has been present throughout the debate and contributed to it.
It has been a United Kingdom debate, reflecting the crucial importance of the fishing industry to many parts of the United Kingdom. The concern that exists on most sides of the House, although it is not so apparent on all, is that we should achieve long-term prosperity in that industry. Those who last year forecast desolation in the industry in 1990 have been proved wrong, as prices have increased to offset the reduction in fish landings. It is essential not to view these matters in the short term; we have to look to the future sustenance of the industry, to its long-term viability, and avoid the easy, short-term palliatives which are sometimes offered.
A number of themes came through in the debate. There was particular interest in technical conservation matters. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) suggested that there was no support for fishermen. If one reflects on the size of the fishing industry and sets against that the colossal Government effort in enforcement, research and administration, one cannot but admit that the Government rightly give enormous attention to the problems of the fishing industry. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the improvements in technical conservation and the reduction in discards which is sought by the various measures under consideration.
I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is not present now, that our scientists are negative about the square mesh. Because our scientists had already done work on cod ends and extension pieces, made entirely of square mesh, the industry was aware of the problems of nets made entirely of square mesh. Thoughts turned to panels, which have been experimented with throughout the year.
I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that there has been a delay. Within six weeks of receiving the Commission's proposals for using 120 mm square mesh net, scientists in the Department had already started the important trials which showed how unrealistic the Commission's proposals were. The House will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon describe the proposal for 120 mm as "dead in the water".
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) suggested that 90 mm with 80 mm square mesh panels would be the answer. It is true that that net combination would assist the discard of whiting and haddock, but it would do nothing for cod, and we have to deal with a mixed fishery. We need a measure that gives a balance between the species caught.
§ Mr. Lang
No, I want to cover other points on the issue in responding to other hon. Members.
The important point to emphasise is that technical conservation measures have an important contribution to make in helping to solve the problems. For over a year, we have been pressing for European Community measures to make fishing gear more selective. Square mesh panels and netting can give useful conservation benefits. The debate at 1221 the Fisheries Council next week will be about how far we should go in improving selectivity to protect small fish. It is vital that the Community reaches a compromise solution because if the talks fail, everybody loses.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) raised the question of the cuts in plaice and sole in area VII. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I are very much aware of the importance of plaice and sole stocks in that area. We will work to increase the TACs proposed where it is within the possibilities of science. We will also try to secure as many advantageous quota swaps as possible.
My hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives and for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) raised the question of quota hoppers, which one can understand because they represent constituencies in the south-west. I know that the matter worries them and that they are in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives recently had a meeting with my right hon. Friend, and I know that he will be aware of the great concern and close attention that is being given to the issue in the Ministry.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) raised the question of North sea saithe from Norway. It is true that the saithe TAC has increased by 4 per cent. and that Norway has retained more than its industry requires. However, the EC would need to find an additional 11,550 tonnes of cod equivalent and probably 14,500 tonnes of herring to buy it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the EC-Norway agreement on fish stocks forming a central role in the determination of North sea TACs and quotas. The key element in the agreement is the treatment of the western mackerel stock. The migratory pattern of the stock has changed in recent years and has resulted in a greater proportion of the fish being found in Norwegian waters. That is the underlying reason why the TACs are being negotiated in that way.
The central issue in effort limitation was the 10-day rule. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested that, under the Commission's proposals on limitation, boats would be required to fish for 10 consecutive days. He said that boats might, therefore, fish in unacceptable weather. The hon. Member did not get it quite right. The Commission's proposal is that boats fishing predominantly for cod and haddock should desist from fishing for 10 consecutive days of the month. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and others got that right.
That seems another sensible measure which is worth considering in the context of the need to conserve stocks. We accept the need to limit fishing effort to protect fish stocks. The proposal provides a starting point for discussion and refinement at the Fisheries Council. It is right that it should be further considered.
§ Mr. Lang
No. I am about to go on to decommissioning.
It is well known that many hon. Members oppose the Government's view on decommissioning. However, they have not answered the point put by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He said 1222 that we have to achieve a method that will work and give value for money. It would be possible for a large sum to he spent on the decommissioning scheme without reducing the catch by a single tonne. Some 30 per cent. of tonnage could come out without reducing the catch. Would a decommissioning scheme give good value for money? Our experience of a decommissioning scheme was extremely unsatisfactory.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
Did not my right hon. Friend listen to what I said on the decommissioning scheme? I endeavoured to deal precisely with my right hon. Friend's argument. Did he also not listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw), who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee? The Committee did not attack the concept of decommissioning; it attacked the way in which the decommissioning scheme worked for the Humberside fleet. It suggested that there were other ways in which a decommissioning scheme could be carried out cost-effectively.
§ Mr. Lang
I quite understand my right hon. Friend's point, which he has made for some time. The point is that the decommissioning scheme as proposed does not take the catching capacity out of the fleet, and it has not been found to be satisfactory on that ground.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) raised the matter of the sea fisheries committees for Scotland. This issue has been looked at in the past when the view was taken that the current management system best reflects the circumstances in Scotland. There has been no pressure from the Scottish industry for such changes. That is one area in which I cannot follow English colleagues.
The fishing industry is immensely important in Scotland, where some two thirds of the landings by value and some three quarters of the landings by volume take place. Eight of the top 10 ports in the United Kingdom by value of landings are in Scotland. All that would be put at risk if we followed the policies of the Scottish National party as set out in the amendment. It calls on the Government to "display some commitment", but the SNP is the party which, if it achieves its attempt to gain independence for Scotland, would destroy the common fisheries policy, which brings those great advantages to Scotland. The SNP talks about a "vital resource industry", but it is the party that would destroy the resources by pandering to the needs of today and neglecting the needs of tomorrow.
Scottish National party Members cannot have it all ways. They cannot have a policy in their own party of membership of the Community, but reject the procedures by which decisions are taken in the Community. They cannot claim that the fishing industry faces problems, which it undoubtedly does, but reject the means for dealing with those problems. They cannot care about the future of the fishing industry and propose irresponsible policies that would destroy it.
The policies of the Scottish National party pose an enormous threat to the Scottish fishing industry. An independent Scotland would have just three votes in the Fisheries Council instead of the 10 votes that it has at present. I urge the House to reject the SNP amendment.
This has been an extremely useful debate ahead of the Fisheries Council. I assure all hon. Members that the constructive points that have been made—for the most 1223 part—will be considered carefully ahead of the negotiations. The TACs and quotas for 1991 are but the first step in the management of the fisheries next year. We shall continue to pursue our policy of sensible management measures in consultation with the industry, and always with the aim of securing long-term prosperity.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House proceeded to a Division:
§ The House having divided: Ayes 22, Noes 76.1224
|Division No. 29]||[11.16 pm|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Macdonald, Calum A.|
|Beith, A. J.||McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)|
|Bellotti, David||Morley, Elliot|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Pike, Peter L.|
|Doran, Frank||Salmond, Alex|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Foulkes, George||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Wallace, James|
|Haynes, Frank||Wilson, Brian|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Mr. Andrew Welsh and|
|Kennedy, Charles||Mr. Archy Kirkwood.|
|Amess, David||Harris, David|
|Amos, Alan||Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)|
|Arbuthnot, James||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Atkinson, David||Hunter, Andrew|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Irvine, Michael.|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Jack, Michael|
|Bottomley, Peter||Janman, Tim|
|Bowis, John||Kilfedder, James|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Carrington, Matthew||Lang, Ian|
|Chapman, Sydney||Lightbown, David|
|Chope, Christopher||Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Cope, Rt Hon John||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Curry, David||Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Mitchell, Sir David|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Dover, Den||Neubert, Michael|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Norris, Steve|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Patnick, Irvine|
|Forth, Eric||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Portillo, Michael|
|Gregory, Conal||Raffan, Keith|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Redwood, John|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Hague, William||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Smith, Tim (Beaconstield)|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Stern, Michael|
|Stevens, Lewis||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Summerson, Hugo||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Taylor, John M (Solihull)||Wilshire, David|
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)||Wood, Timothy|
|Thurnham, Peter||Yeo, Tim|
|Twinn, Dr Ian||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Viggers, Peter||Mr. Nicholas Baker and|
|Wells, Bowen||Mr. Tim Boswell.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the proposals described in the un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 11th December 1990 relating to Total Allowable Catches and Quotas for 1991, the proposals described in its un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 11th December 1990 and its Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum of 12th December 1990 relating to the reciprocal fisheries Agreement between the Community and Norway for 1991, European Community Document No. 9898/90 on guide prices for fishery products for 1991, and of the Government's intention to negotiate the best possible fishing opportunities for the United Kingdom fishing industry for 1991 consistent with the requirement for conservation of fishing stocks.
§ Mr. Salmond
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Because of the incredible speed of delivery of the Secretary of State for Scotland, I was unable to hear whether he was going to the Fisheries Council meeting, whether he was aware that the Government were meant to agree with the 80 mm sq mesh and whether he called the proposal for 10 consecutive days of no fishing a sensible measure. I do not know whether the House could hear. As he is present, perhaps he will clarify those matters.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
That is not a point of order. The hon. Member is attempting to prolong the debate.