HC Deb 18 June 1997 vol 296 cc331-44 4.31 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a more detailed statement about the common fisheries policy and the agreement that the Prime Minister has concluded with the President of the Commission.

Fishing has an important place and a long tradition as an industry in this country. The Government intend to work with the industry to ensure its continued and sustainable future. That means devising a strategy to meet the challenges of low fish stocks and over-capacity.

We have inherited a series of profound problems as a result of the previous Administration's handling of fisheries policy, which lacked any sign of direction or support. One of their excuses for failure has been the problem of vessels owned largely by foreign interests which are United Kingdom-flagged and use UK fishing quotas. They give little or no economic benefit from their activities to our own fishing communities, because they are largely operated and crewed from other member states and land a high proportion of their catches outside the UK.

That is a long-standing problem, which the previous Administration allowed to develop and failed to solve. They could have addressed it in 1982, when the common fisheries policy was being negotiated, but they did not. Having failed to act then, they should have addressed the problem when enlargement to bring in Spain and Portugal was agreed in 1985.

However, the previous Government allowed matters to deteriorate and eventually last year proposed a draft treaty protocol which, it became clear, stood no realistic chance of success because they failed to secure support for it—nor is it clear that it would have dealt effectively with the existing situation. Not a single member state was willing to support the concept of a protocol proposed by the previous Administration.

In the weeks since 2 May, we have taken the matter up with the Commission and other member states. Our discussions included my talks with Commissioner Bonino on 20 May, and concluded in Amsterdam this week. The Government's efforts have now secured a constructive outcome.

In an exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President of the Commission, the Commission has set out measures that we can take, requiring UK-flagged vessels to demonstrate that their activities contribute substantial economic benefits for populations dependent on fishing and related industries in the UK.

The United Kingdom now has a basis for imposing on fishing vessels requirements that they comply with provisions to land a specified proportion of their catch—we envisage 50 per cent.—into UK ports, or have a majority of their crew resident in the UK, or commence a majority of their fishing trips from UK ports, or comply with a combination of measures. At present, many of these foreign-owned vessels contribute little or nothing to the economy of our fishing communities. The new rules would change this and ensure that benefits flow to our fishing communities and processors, by requiring the vessels to demonstrate that substantial economic benefits are secured.

We intend to introduce new licence rules to implement these measures as swiftly as possible. We shall be consulting the whole fishing industry about the new rules before asking the Commission to give a formal opinion on them. In this way, we can ensure that our rules are effective, sensitive to the interests of all affected by them, and consistent with the various legal requirements.

Without effective enforcement, all our efforts to ensure the conservation of fish stocks will be undermined. That is why the importance of enforcement has been the second major issue that we have pursued with the Commission. We have insisted that more must be done to ensure effective and consistent application of the rules. It is essential that, wherever fishermen land their catches, they must be subject to equivalent measures. The Commission is committed now to examining improvements in enforcement, including strengthened obligations on member states. It will also look at the role of Commission inspectors. They will report later this year to the Council with proposals as necessary.

Meanwhile, we are taking steps ourselves to tighten various aspects of enforcement. I will announce these in a separate written statement to the House. They concern action to assist the Marine Safety Agency in ensuring that vessels and their crews are properly certified to comply with safety requirements and, in addition, steps to prevent evading quota rules and undermining conservation objectives by discarding fish already stowed on board.

We have also obtained from the Commission assurances about the involvement of local fishing interests in the decision-making process, and about the review of and prospects for the common fisheries policy after 2002. The Commission has confirmed that key elements of the common fisheries policy are widely valued and that it considers it unlikely that the fundamental principle of relative stability would be called into question or that there would be a desire to modify present restrictions on access to waters inside member states' 12-mile limits. We will be building on those assurances during future discussions about the common fisheries policy.

In total, I consider that this is a valuable outcome. We have secured some very positive results concerning the application of economic links, as well as making constructive progress on a range of wider issues, all of which are central to the Government's approach to the common fisheries policy. Because we have agreed a way forward with the Commission, we are in a much better position to avoid legal challenge to the measures we adopt. Measures proposed by the Commission to the Fisheries Council would be agreed by qualified majority voting.

There is much more to be done to put our fishing industry on a sound footing for the future. I now propose to take this action forward urgently. With my colleagues responsible for fisheries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I am inviting the leaders of the UK fishing industry to participate in high-level talks on the industry's future. The highest priority is to decide the way in which we implement rules to require the economic link. However, there is a much wider agenda. We must address the problems of enforcement, low stocks and over-capacity, as well as looking at other possibilities for change in quota and licence management and the scope for more regional involvement.

The Government want to develop a realistic strategy to create a viable future for our fishing industry in the years ahead. These talks will start that process. We shall ensure that the industry is directly and fully involved.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post, and wish him well.

Outside the House, the Prime Minister's press secretary is claiming the proposals as a victory. It was interesting to note that not even the Prime Minister had the gall to claim them as such; rather, he spoke simply about making progress.

How can an exchange of letters between the United Kingdom Government and the Commission be binding on anyone else? What possible status in Community law does such an exchange of letters have? What is even more curious is that the Minister said that he would be consulting the fishing industry about the new rules before asking the Commission for a formal opinion on them. What is in those letters? [Interruption.] Perhaps they can be put in the Library so that we can all read them.

How can such measures be binding on the Spanish and others? Given the Factortame judgment, any such proposals will almost certainly be struck down by the European Court of Justice. [Interruption.] It is little wonder that the Spanish Government have poured scorn on those proposals, as meaningless and devoid of effect. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) keeps interrupting from a sedentary position, but I suspect that he will find it difficult to convince fishermen in Scotland that the outcome is anything other than a sell-out.

During the general election campaign, the Prime Minister agreed, as did everyone else, that quota hoppers could be effectively dealt with only by treaty changes. Indeed, the Prime Minister went further than that during the campaign, when he said at the time of the Luxembourg Fisheries Council that a Labour Government "would not rule out"—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Baldry

The right hon. Gentleman said that the Labour Government "would not rule out"—I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary to look up that quote—the Government using their vetoss at the Amsterdam summit to ensure that quota hoppers were dealt with through treaty changes.

In reality, the Government have made no attempt whatever to get treaty changes. That is a complete sell-out of the United Kingdom's fishing industry. The current proposals will not get rid of a single existing quota hopper; nor will they prevent the transfer of United Kingdom fishing licences to quota hoppers in the future. If there are to be national fishing quotas, it must be right that United Kingdom fish should be for United Kingdom fishermen. The agreement, however, does not give our fishermen one extra fish.

It is also clear from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the Government have failed to defend the concept of relative stability. They have also failed to make it clear that our 12-mile fishing limits are non-negotiable.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the fishermen of the United Kingdom will be appalled and angry at how they have been so comprehensively sold out and betrayed by the Government? This is a black day for those fishermen—a day when their interests were thrown away for a meaningless piece of paper and a cheap soundbite.

Dr. Cunningham

That long, boring and rather convoluted response barely merits a reply, but I shall deal with at least some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that some progress is not as good as no progress. For 18 years, the Conservative Government made no progress, but, as the Prime Minister has said, we have made some reasonable progress.

Let us consider the hon. Gentleman's repeated reference to a change to the protocol. Not a single member state was willing to vote for the protocol. In any event, it would not have dealt with the existing problem. That is the reality. The hon. Gentleman kept on referring to the protocol, but it was a complete fraud committed on Britishss fishermen. He knows that to be the case.

The Commission letter will be binding. The hon. Gentleman asked why we are consulting. We are consulting our own fishermen exactly because the new rules will apply to them, too. In case the hon. Gentleman is not aware of it, although I am sure that he is, plenty of our vessels land their catch at foreign ports. That is the reality, so we must consult our fishermen before changing the rules because they will be directly affected by them.

The hon. Gentleman said that he would like to see the exchange of letters. They have been in the Library since about noon today. They have been available.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

We had to ask the Library for a photocopy just before 3 o'clock.

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Lady intervenes from a sedentary position, and I should like to put it on the record that I sent in advance a copy of my statement to the leader or the spokesperson of every party in the House. Every party had a copy of my statement in advance of my making it. I have nothing to hide in making my statement.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) mentioned the consequences of the Factortame case. That case results from a bungled attempt by the previous Government to do something about these matters. The Government are now facing, as a result of the previous Government's bungling, 97 claims for compensation in the courts. That is the result of the previous Administration's incompetence.

The changes that I am announcing will affect both existing and future sales of British quota. The hon. Member for Banbury refers to the problem as if it is in some way the responsibility of the Spanish or Netherlands fishermen. What actually happened? Given the abysmal economic circumstances of the UK fishing industries, fishermen were forced out of business, and they willingly sold their quota to foreign owners. All that happened in three separate phases under the previous Government's administration. If we are apportioning blame today, it lies fairly and squarely with the previous Government's failed fisheries policies.

There may be an attempt to challenge the new rules. I would not be surprised if that were to happen—I do not suppose that anybody in the House would be surprised. The fact, however, that we shall agree the detailed changes and implementation with the Commission gives us added strength in our ability to resist any such challenge.

The hon. Member for Banbury finished with a sort of rhetorical flourish in saying that what I have announced would not be welcome to British fishermen and fishing communities. The reality is that we have made some significant progress in seven weeks in office, while the Conservative Government made none in 17 years.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we entered the Community without any agreement on fishing? The Conservative party, when in government under the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), did nothing to defend the distant water, middle water fleet or inshore fleets. When some of us tried to move the Adjournment of the House on that issue—that we should not go into the Community until the matter was settled—we were rebuffed ssby the Government of the day. That should be made extremely clear.

Since then, every Government have been seeking to improve the position of our fishermen. However, they have been playing from a hand that has held very few trumps, because the situation was lost at the outset. Therefore, my right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on such progress as has been made so far. It is showing an ability to try to negotiate with the Commission and eventually with our Community partners to try to bring at least some hope for the British fishing fleet.

As for the letters with the Commission, surely it would not be right to say that they are legally binding on it. They are merely a statement of intent on the part of the Commission, and any regulations that are made will be subject always to challenge in the European Court. On that basis, will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure that, in negotiating the new regulations, he bears in mind our fishing fleet and the fleets of other countries that also land in ports other than their home ports, so that we can get as many as possible of our partners in the Community behind us in pushing forward a new policy?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to say that the problem stems from the complete neglect of the UK fishing industry at the time of our entry into the European Community in 1972, and has flowed on from there. It is—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banbury is mumbling on from the other side of the Dispatch Box. He had every opportunity to make some progress—his party and he himself—and they failed to do so.

First, the Commission is the guardian of the treaty and of European Union law. It will be in the interests of the Commission, and in this instance the President of the Commission, to ensure that the final details of licences that we shall discuss with our fishermen will be enforced.

Secondly, my hon. Friend's constituents—he represents one of the most important fishing communities anywhere in the UK—can be assured that we shall properly consult them about these changes and about the policy developments that we want to make about the future of their industry, so that they can have a secure and sustainable future.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

I acknowledge that the Minister's inheritance in fisheries policy, as in quite a number of other policy areas within his remit, is a sorry one—a fact eloquently underscored by the response by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the Conservative party spokesman, to the right hon. Gentleman's statement. None the less, will the Minister acknowledge that, perhaps inescapably at this stage in the discussions, his statement almost raises more questions than it can provide immediate answers?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that quota hopping, devilish though it is, is a symptom of the deeper problem—the common fisheries policy itself? Will he therefore commit himself and the new Administration to a fundamental reform of the CFP, with the specific aim, based on the intention behind the discussions that he has outlined, of establishing proper regional management of fisheries, which must be more sane and sensible for the long-term viability of the domestic sector of our industry?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on his questions, which made far more sense and was far more constructive and realistic than what was said on behalf of the Conservative party. He is right to say that the inheritance is a sorry one, and I am pleased that he recognises that fact. He is also right to say that there are many more questions to which we must find answers. I share his opinion that the sale of United Kingdom quota was a symptom and a consequence of the neglect of our fishing industry. It is not the root of the problem, but we still want to act as quickly as we can in trying to mitigate it.

I share the hon. Gentleman's medium-term objective of reform of the common fisheries policy. We have already had preliminary discussions on that subject, as the Prime Minister and I have both confirmed. Better involvement of fishermen and fishing communities in the future of their industry is one of our primary objectives. I share the hon. Gentleman's attachment to that idea as part of the way forward. Regional management of our fisheries makes sense not only from the point of view of the people in those communities but from that of Ministers, too.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I appeal to all hon. Members, as well as to the Minister, for short questions and short answers. We have not yet even reached the Orders of the Day, and I have the rest of the business of the House to safeguard.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his succession to this bed not of nails but of dogfish and cattle teeth. I congratulate him, too, on doing more about the quota hoppers in his short period in office than the previous Government did in 18 years. None the less, the industry is very dissatisfied with a settlement that will make life more difficult for Grimsby vessels, many of which land overseas to a considerable extent, yet which does not close the door to future quota hoppers.

Quota hoppers still constitute 26 per cent. of the British fleet, so, when the time comes to assess our targets for effort limitation, an almost impossible cut in the British fleet will be required if we are to gain access to the European funding that the industry desperately needs, and that competing industries have already had.

Finally, because there is a ridiculously mixed system of capacity and effort limitation under multi-annual guidance programme IV, can the Minister tell us that he does not envisage any kind of limitation on days at sea, such as the previous Government failed to impose on the industry?

Dr. Cunningham

I can assure my hon. Friend that Grimsby fishermen and others sailing from that port will have every opportunity to add to his already formidable representation of their interests. As for conservation and the requirement for reduced effort, when the measures emerge they will affect all licence holders, not only those based in the United Kingdom. I cannot lawfully impose all such reductions on overseas vessels holding United Kingdom licences. I simply would not be allowed to do so

With regard to MAGP IV, we have discovered that part of this miserable legacy is the previous Administration's failure to meet many of the requirements of MAGP III, so we have inherited a huge backlog of work on conservation measures.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. I have known him for tens of years and I have never seen him as a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but none the less I wish him well, because, unless he does well, British agriculture and British fishing will suffer.

Will he overcome my concern that there is nothing in the statement about many of the most interesting and smaller communities of inshore fishermen, such as Seaton, Beer and Sidmouth in my constituency? Many small communities rely on the work of their men. No consideration has been given to many of their concerns—which I do not need to outline, because the right hon. Gentleman will know about them—either in the statement or in the negotiations.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kindness. I never saw myself as Minister of Agriculture, either, but I am enjoying the responsibilities, and am looking forward to playing an important role in my right hon. friend's Government.

The right hon. Gentleman says that we have given no consideration to small fishing communities. I am pleased to tell him that that is not true. I represent a small fishing community in the port of Whitehaven, so I am keenly aware of the points that he legitimately makes on behalf of smaller fishing communities. When we review the common fisheries policy, it will be important to such smaller communities that we seek some stability, especially the maintenance of the control of the 12-mile limit. We want to make it clear that many of the changes that we shall be required to implement under MAGP III and MAGP IV will not affect the smallest vessels.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

In his further talks with the Commission, will my right hon. Friend build on the Commission's interest, which I was pleased to hear him mention, in regional involvement in decision making? That would be welcome in the south-west, where conservation measures have often been inappropriate to the mixed fish stocks there, and would play an important part in the development of solutions for conservation.

Dr. Cunningham

I accept my hon. Friend's point. As I have said several times already, we intend to make significant changes to improve regional involvement of fishing communities in the policy development that is so important to their health and well-being.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Will the Minister confirm, perhaps for the benefit of the Prime Minister, that category A fishing licences—I have one here—already contain the stipulation that 50 per cent. of catches should be landed at domestic ports? If it is a question of implementation, how is transhipment to be dealt with? For example, are fish that are landed at the port of Buckie in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and taken straight to Spain counted as part of a domestically landed catch?

Am I right in believing that more than 90 per cent. of the crews of flags-of-convenience vessels do not have Marine Safety Agency certification? If so, are they not fishing illegally, and should not the same restraint be used on them as would be used on the crews of boats in my constituency or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, or on any domestic fishermen who did not have MSA certification?

Dr. Cunningham

I can confirm that, under existing licence rules, vessels that land less than 50 per cent. of a catch in the United Kingdom are required to visit UK ports at least four times in six months for inspection. That is a weak control. We propose a more effective control, which will give us more economic benefit than the existing provisions. The hon. Gentleman is partly, but not wholly, right.

As for enforcement, we should be candid with ourselves and recognise that enforcement measures have not been as effective as they might have been in respect of our own, let alone overseas, fishing effort. That is why the second most important part of what I have been saying, and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been saying, is that we must toughen up enforcement, and have uniform application of enforcement throughout the European Union. I do not want rules to apply to United Kingdom fishermen and their vessels that are not universally applied. We will continue to press that.

A number of vessels have been heavily fined for breaking the existing regulations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be even tougher in the future in enforcing the rules.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

My right hon. Friend is right to condemn previous Tory Administrations. It was the Tory Government led by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) who sold the pass, and others have continued down that sad road. I speak as a member of a fisherman's family.

Apart from the serious problem of quota hopping, there is another problem that I consider equally serious: industrial fishing. Will my right hon. Friend do something about the need to reduce, if not abolish, that wasteful practice? In Scottish waters, the Wee Bankie and the Buckie Man's bank should be protected from the onslaught on the sand eel by Danish fishermen.

Dr. Cunningham

As my hon. Friend says, the problem of the sale of the UK quota—which is what we are discussing—is one of a number of important and difficult problems. It is not—I am candid about this—a problem which will be easily or quickly resolved. People have legally acquired the quota: these were willing sales and legal purchases. No protocol on earth would have obliged those people to give up what they had legally acquired.

As for conservation and closing some areas, the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), is looking into that in some detail. We would not flinch from taking strong action if we concluded that that was the best way in which to improve conservation and prevent the fishing out of our important fisheries. Most sensible fishermen recognise that, if there are no fish, there is no future for them and their industry.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I represent the second largest fishing community in England and Wales, in Brixham. I am anxious to tell the Brixham fishermen exactly what the statement means for them.

Can the Minister tell us whether one extra fish will come to British fishermen as a result of the deal? If no more fish will come to them, will one boat under a flag of convenience come to the British fishing fleet? If that does not happen, will the British quota come back to Britain-even one fish of it?

If that does not happen, what will become of 50 per cent. of the fish that are landed on the Brixham dock? Will they have to be driven all the way to Holland and Spain—which would pollute the environment, and make the fish that arrived three or four days later not fresh for the people of those countries? What is the advantage of the deal to the Brixham community?

Dr. Cunningham

I am not sure what the advantage of the hon. Gentleman's intervention was to the Brixham community.

The advantage is that, for the first time, we have made some progress. We are not making over-the-top claims for progress on resolving the problem of the sale of the UK quota, which took place when the hon. Gentleman was sitting on the Government Benches behind his right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers. I did not hear him say too much about it while it was going on.

We are making some progress, which means that more fish will be landed in Britain. The protocol to which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends gave so much credence would have had no impact on the existing situation—even if it had obtained some support from other member states, which it signally failed to do. If the hon. Gentleman wants to help Brixham fishermen and their communities—and I understand that he would naturally want to do that—he can tell them that this is the first significant step towards regaining some economic benefit for them, following what has happened to fishing in Britain over the past 17 years.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Inevitably, part of the problem lies with British fishermen who have sold their quotas. Much of the solution to the problem of fish conservation lies in the hands of fishermen. What are the Minister's plans for seeking talks or involving fishermen in an attempt to find solutions to the problems that face their industry?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. In the context of quota selling, it must be said that the economic circumstances in fishing communities and the neglect of the fishing industry drove many fishermen, in some desperation, to sell their quotas, at a time when the previous Government were taking no notice of their problems—indeed, in some respects they were making them worse.

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall involve fishermen and fishing communities from the outset in the development of new policies to produce a sustainable industry. It would be absurd for the United Kingdom, as a maritime nation, not to have a sustainable fishing industry. We are determined to secure that, and that means taking some tough decisions on conservation, which is all the more reason for us wanting to engage fishermen from the outset. That is why we shall call them to a meeting as soon as possible.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Can the Minister say how long he expects the consultation process to go on? Can he guarantee that, when the proposals go to the Commission, they will be accepted? Will we get to the position where we are with beef, so that amendments will be sought, time will go on and on, and little advantage will be gained?

Dr. Cunningham

The consultation process will take, I hope, a relatively short period in respect of the licence conditions that I have mentioned. Of course, engaging in talks with fishermen about the future of the industry so that it is viable and sustainable will take considerably longer.

The hon. Gentleman asks about proposals going to the Commission. My right hon. Friend has secured in the letter from the President of the Commission a commitment to those licence changes. I do not think that there is a prospect of the President of the Commission wanting to see that to which he has committed himself in that letter frittered away.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announcement. Only last week, I made my maiden speech and urged the Government to include quota hopping in their discussions on Europe. Therefore, I am pleased that today we have the proofs of those discussions. My constituents will be pleased that fishing is at long last at the forefront of Government policy. For many years, it was ignored or pushed behind other issues that were seen as more important. I represent an area that was once—

Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I will deal with this. The hon. Lady is a new Member. Let us have a little tolerance. Time is passing, and I asked for quick questions and quick answers, but I have not had any response yet. I should like to have it now. I ask the hon. Lady to put a question to the Minister.

Mrs. Humble

I do apologise.

Madam Speaker

We all know her constituency very well, and we like it.

Mrs. Humble

The question that I shall be asked when I go back and talk to Fleetwood fishermen will be about the nature of the consultation. They will be pleased that there is to be consultation, but they and I would like more details about its nature and its timetable.

Dr. Cunningham

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) in the House. For that matter, I am delighted to see all my hon. Friends who represent fishing ports. It shows that all the bluff and bluster by the Conservative Government did not save the necks of many Conservative Members who represented fishing communities.

I shall write to my hon. Friend about the consultation process, and give her the assurance that her constituents in Fleetwood will have every opportunity to put their views to me and my colleagues.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Although I think that the House supports the Minister in his admirable objective of trying to safeguard coastal and fishing communities and to conserve our fishing stocks and the integrity of our economic zone, is not, in truth, the real trouble that fishing is a European Union competence—that is where the trouble lies? If the Minister were accountable and responsible within our domain, we would have a more effective fishing and conservation policy. In their discussions, will he and his right hon. Friends consider how and why—in what way—a European Union competence over our fisheries and our economic zone is in our national interest?

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman is really asking whether it is in Britain's interest to be a member of the EU. So long as we are a member of the EU, we are bound by the provisions of the common fisheries policy and, whether he likes it or not—whether I like it or not—we have to work within the confines of that policy. It is all the more important, therefore, that we do have a constructive, positive approach to EU membership. It is no accident that the new Labour Government's change in approach to dealing with our problems in the EU is showing some results, where none flowed from the belligerent, loud-mouthed and aggressive attitude of the previous Administration.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

On behalf of the fishing communities of Scarborough and Whitby, it is important that we have broken the deadlock on this whole issue. The reason I am here to represent those communities is that the Conservative party failed to deliver the consultation that it long promised, and its many other promises to fishing communities in Scarborough and Whitby. I should like know in some detail what my right hon. Friend the Minister proposes to do about regional initiatives to ensure that we conserve fishing stock, and about taking a more global approach to ensure that we achieve regional solutions to regional problems. After all, fish do not know any boundaries.

Dr. Cunningham

My hon. Friend has the distinction of representing two fishing ports; most of us are lucky to represent one. I cannot give him the detail now about how we intend to develop our thinking on regional involvement. It is exactly for that reason that we want to begin talks with fishing community representatives. There would be little point in having talks if I were going there simply to impose on them a blueprint that we had already decided; but, again, I assure him that his constituents in Scarborough and Whitby will have every opportunity to be involved in those discussions.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

What will happen if the Minister imposes regulations in the licence in accordance with the letters that have been exchanged, the case is then taken to the European Court, and his new licences are found to be in contravention of the treaty in the judgment of the European Court? What steps will the Government then take?

Dr. Cunningham

All that is hypothetical.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which will mean genuine progress in the fishing industry. I particularly welcome his announcement that he intends to hold a fishing summit. In Aberdeen, we recognise that the fishing industry is made up not just of the fish-catching side. Many thousands of jobs depend, for example, on the fish processing and merchant side of the business, and of course there is the consumer angle. Therefore, when he pulls together his summit, will he take those interests into consideration, and include them in his discussions?

Dr. Cunningham

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The Minister's statement referred to a number of requirements: 50 per cent. of catch should be landed at UK ports, a majority of the crew should be resident in the UK and a majority of fishing trips should start from the UK port. They are all linked by the word "or". Is it one out of three or two out of three, or is that the sort of matter that he will be discussing?

Dr. Cunningham

It can be a combination of all three in part. That is a matter for discussion in terms of the conditions that we shall apply to the licences.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Is not the truly remarkable thing about quota hopping the fact that, of all the European countries, the only fleet that has suffered significantly is Britain's? When I ask fishermen in Lowestoft, "Why don't you hop on another country's quota," they say, "You just try. You can't do that."

Therefore, is not the real significance of today's announcement the fact that, for the first time, we have a Government who have achieved something that will not only discourage future quota hopping by bringing in the economic link, but deal with the existing situation? Is it not a fact that more fish will therefore be landed in British ports, which is good for British fish markets, and more British fishermen will be able to be employed on the boats, where previously they were denied access?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and delighted to see him here, as I played a small part in his campaign. He is absolutely right, of course. The reason why our fishermen cannot buy quota in other countries is simply that it is not for sale: other Governments have ensured that the economic circumstances of their fishing industries make it profitable and secure for their fishermen to hold on to their quota. The previous Government failed to do that in this country, which led to the sale of quota and caused the problem in the first place.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I feel sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the announcement is more of a sprat than a prize fish. I know that, throughout the fishing industry, there will be deep disappointment that it does not deal with the fundamental issues. However, I feel sure that he also shares my concern that the fishing industry and fishermen in particular have, over the past year, perhaps been used by certain people of a more xenophobic—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am listening very carefully, but I have not yet heard a question.

Mr. George

The question is coming.

Madam Speaker

Good. Let us have it now.

Mr. George

In the measures proposed here, there are difficulties, in that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) pointed out, if it is a question of either/or in relation to the crewing requirement—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat for a moment. I have asked for a question. I am very tolerant with new Members, as I was with the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). I explained to the House that this is Question Time, and questions must be put to the Minister. I am now waiting for the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. George

Given the fact that there are difficulties, does the Minister agree that, under the crewing arrangements, it is possible for the crew of quota hoppers simply to use postal addresses in the United Kingdom? It is not possible to impose nationality criteria in relation to crewing arrangements.

Dr. Cunningham

In the part of the world that I was born and grew up in, we were told that, when the boat comes in, little fish are sweet, so I agree that this is by no means the end of the problems faced by the fishing industry and our fishing communities. This is the beginning of a strategy to tackle those deep-seated and long-established problems. The conditions that we shall apply to the licences will meet one of those criteria or a combination of one or more of them, so long as we are satisfied that the resulting economic benefit to the communities concerned is real and can be sustained.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Given the fact that we got into this mess under the Tories in the first place because they allowed free trade in licences and quotas, will the Minister consider reviewing the whole system of selling quotas and licences to the highest bidder as part of his review of local and regional fisheries management?

Dr. Cunningham

In a single market, I cannot stop people willingly and lawfully selling something that is theirs; that is the reality. We want to achieve circumstances in our fishing communities and fishing industries that make it attractive not to sell quota, but to retain it in those communities because they will obtain significant economic benefit from it.

The economic conditions that prevailed in the communities led to the sale of quota. We hope that, through the changes we shall make and through the development of a strategy for our fishing industries, we will minimize—I will not say eliminate—the sale of quota.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Is not the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) correct to suggest that the key to the problem is the clash between the concept of having quotas and the free market in Europe, which causes a problem with the common fisheries policy?

I want to press the Minister on the legality of what he has agreed. Is not the reality that the Spaniards are pleased because they know that there is no legal binding framework that is justiciable in front of the European Court of Justice? What does he plan to do to rectify that?

Dr. Cunningham

Depending on what newspaper one reads or what broadcast one listens to, our Spanish colleagues are either pleased or hopping mad. Both reports cannot be true. I am satisfied that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has concluded sensible, practical steps forward to deal with the problems. Those steps should be welcomed for what they are—reasonable progress in the circumstances. They give us an opportunity to build upon that progress. I want fishing communities and fishermen throughout the United Kingdom to play a part, with my ministerial colleagues and myself, in building on those important first steps.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Minister rightly said that enforcement is the key. My concern is that, until recently, there were no inspectors in Spain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made a key point: until we have an agreement that is part of the treaty—I understand that this agreement is not—it simply cannot stand up in the European Court of Justice. As my hon. Friend said, our fishermen do not have justiciable rights to rely on before the European Court or, indeed, any court in this country.

Dr. Cunningham

What the hon. Lady says is not true. The requirement to land 50 per cent. of catch already applies in Denmark. That has not been challenged in the European Court. I cannot rule out legal challenges, but I am confident that we can develop licence conditions—and get the agreement and support of the Commission—that we can sustain. That is our objective. The agreement achieved by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Amsterdam will give us the opportunity to secure that