§ 8.32 p.m.
§ The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)
I beg to move,That the White Fish and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) (No. 3) Scheme 1975, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th November, be approved.The purpose of the Scheme is to provide for payment of aid to the fishing industry for the final quarter of this year. It will be observed that the Scheme, covering the period October to December 1975 only, is number three in calendar sequence.
The year opened with the fleet in the grip of an adverse costs-to-earnings situation. Given the new pattern of costs, dominated by fuel and likely changes in 1355 the future pattern of fishing, some alteration of the fleet was both inevitable and right. But the pace of change was gathering an unhealthy momentum which, if not arrested, could have led to permanent structural damage. It was decided, therefore, to give temporary aid, for six months only, to allow the industry—I use the term in the widest sense—time to adjust to the changed circumstances.
Subsequently it became apparent that adjustment was occurring more slowly than anticipated. The catching sector began to rationalise its operations, particularly by the removal from service of a number of old, high-cost vessels. However, prices at port auctions, which hold the key to economic and operational stability, had not recovered significantly from levels to which they had descended 12 months previously. The Government decided, therefore, that the circumstances justified continuation of aid.
On 29th July my right hon. Friend told the House that aid would be continued until, but only until, the end of the year. But, to ensure that resources were adapted to need, bearing in mind the changeable nature of the industry, the level of aid was fixed initially for the July to September quarter only, leaving the final period to be settled later.
The Scheme before us this evening is necessary to implement the arrangement announced by my right hon. Friend on 23rd October for the final quarter of the year. Hon. Members will be aware that the daily rates of aid applicable to all but the two smallest categories of vessel have been reduced. At the end of June this year earnings for the fleet as a whole were 15 per cent. down on the corresponding period last year. This was a material factor in the decision to continue the aid temporarily.
Bearing in mind the reductions which have occurred, particularly in the deep-sea sector, a reduction in overall earnings might be expected. Yet during the quarter ended 30th September earnings were 1.6 per cent. higher than the same quarter last year—and this with a smaller fleet. It implies a higher unit efficiency, and in that sense the industry can be seen to have used the breathing space afforded by the temporary aid to adjust operations to the changed circumstances. As there 1356 are no apparent reasons why this recovery should not continue, we took the view that the reduced level of aid for the final quarter was consistent with the needs of the situation and the orderly phasing out of the temporary arrangements.
We have also reduced the number of qualifying days from 30 and 43 for inshore and deep-sea vessels to 20 and 30 respectively. This should be helpful in view of the interruption to fishing caused by the weather at this time.
For this final quarter we have set aside the sum of £1 million, being additional to the sums of £6¼ million for the first half of the year and £2¼ million for the third quarter.
It is quite misleading to take the final period in isolation. It is necessary, to get the matter in perspective, to look back at what we set out to do and balance the aid given over the year as a whole against the objective and the results achieved. Our aim has been to ensure that during a difficult time our fishing fleet is preserved in a situation where it will be ready to meet opportunities which arise.
As well as the temporary financial aid we are considering this evening, which benefits the sector catching about 90 per cent. of our white fish and herring, there is an extensive and continuous programme of help to the fishing industry. I emphasise this, because we must not forget the aids and facilities afforded to our industry. We have continued to make available grants towards the modernisation of the fleet. Only last month the House agreed to the extension for a further year of the vessel loan arrangements.
In addition, the United Kingdom Fisheries Departments provide substantial nation-wide support to the industry at ports and around our coasts, with fisheries enforcement and many other services.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)
Can my hon. Friend tell the House how many new vessels have been built or ordered as a result of the loan scheme?
§ Mr. Bishop
That is perhaps a matter which can be dealt with in the reply.
The United Kingdom Fisheries Departments provide substantial nation-wide support to the industry at ports and around our coasts with fisheries enforcement and 1357 many other services, many of which the industry tends to take for granted most of the time. The Government provide financial aids for fishing harbour facilities. We also provide aid through the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board, and there are the valuable research facilities providing essential scientific and other help in the industry's fight for viability.
On the marketing side we have sought to protect returns. We have succeeded in persuading the Community to introduce for the first time reference prices for imports of frozen fish products which protect the whole Community market from undercutting by unduly low-priced third country imports. This protection is now a permanent feature of our market and our Community partners' markets. It is encouraging to note that stability is returning to the market. Prices are now showing response to market factors.
Quayside prices for the main species generally began to turn upwards by midsummer and have since shown steady improvement over those ruling in the corresponding period last year. Moreover, fish prices are influenced by the price of other protein sources which may be expected to rise next year.
I should like to make a simple comparison. In 1974 the value of fish landed by the United Kingdom fleet was £154 million. The cost of Government aid in the corresponding financial year was £22.6 million—a ratio of about seven to one. This year the value of the catch seems unlikely to exceed last year's figure, and may indeed fall some way below it, but the support provision has risen to approximately £35 million—a ratio of about four and a half to one. That factor should be borne in mind. These figures represent the clearest possible evidence that the Government not only care about the well-being of the fishing industry but, despite the financial problems entailed, have matched their concern with effective action.
There are a number of factors still to be resolved, but we think that the temporary financial aid we gave this year and the other support measures will enable the industry to make the best of the opportunities which will arise in future.
1358 I have pleasure in commending the Scheme to the House.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)
The Minister of State comes to the House congratulating himself on what the Government have done for the fishing industry. I only wish that what he said bore more realistically on what is happening in the industry. I do not share his optimistic feelings.
There is little on which one can congratulate the Government. I should have found the Minister's speech more convincing if he had faced the problems of the industry more realistically instead of merely cataloguing the assistance which has been given to the industry, which has been continuing for some time and will go on in the future. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, as we heard in debates upstairs, are concerned about the prospects for the industry. Although the Minister may have a light heart, I have a heavy heart because I do not share his optimism.
We welcomed the financial help which the Government gave to the industry at the beginning of this year. By giving that help, the Government acknowledged that the industry was going through special financial difficulties. I criticise the Government for their intention to terminate that help when the future economic prospects do not justify the gloss which the Minister put on them.
I have received letters from fishermen who have read our Committee debates. They refer to the platitudes uttered by the Government. They want to know when action will be taken by the Government to implement their good intentions.
I have not had a chance to express on the Floor of the House our deep concern at the way in which the Minister announced the Scheme. We debated the previous Scheme, which ended on 30th September, in Committee on 22nd October. We pressed the Minister to say what he proposed to do for the industry for the remainder of the year—and we were already in the remainder of the year. The fishermen had already been going to sea in the final quarter for 22 days without knowing what the subsidy was to be. The hon. Gentleman would 1359 not answer. He said that he required more time. He told us:It is not easy to give the situation within a week or so and we must therefore obtain returns from the industry to ascertain the situation."—[Official Report, First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, 22nd October 1975; c. 33.]Twenty-four hours later, away from the interrogation of hon. Members, the Minister announced what the Scheme would be.
What were the returns which the hon. Gentleman got in those 24 hours which enabled him to make that announcement? I suggest that he was afraid to tell hon. Members that the Government were to cut the subsidy scheme. I dislike having to say this, but he showed a certain contempt for the House in not being prepared to say in Committee what he was prepared to do for the industry. If he now says that certain crucial returns came to hand in the 24 hours after 22nd October, lack of which had hindered him from explaining to us on that day, I shall accept his word.
§ Mr. Bishop
I owe no apology to the hon. Gentleman or to the House. When we debated the subsidy for the third quarter in Committee, no decision had been made by the Ministry. The matter was still under consideration. We made it clear that we would not be able to decide the subsidy for the final quarter until the returns for the third quarter had been examined. That was the position. I had no decision to announce in Committee at that time on what the policy was to be. If I had, I would have been pleased to announce it. In any case, the House is having its opportunity to debate the matter tonight.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
Nothing indicates more clearly the hand-to-mouth basis on which the Government work. Before a Committee of this House, they have no idea what they are to do for the fishing industry because they are awaiting crucial returns, but within 24 hours they are able to make an announcement. I cannot believe that even this inefficient Labour Government had no idea in the debate in Committee what they were going to do. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Government made up their minds within 24 hours of the Committee what the subsidy would be, 1360 it suggests that the Government have lost their sense of direction altogether. That is also the feeling in the fishing industry.
This episode typifies the attitude that the fishing industry has come to expect from the Government. I say seriously and with respect to the hon. Gentleman that if that is the sort of argument he intends to put to us, we will not accept it. Nor will the fishing industry be kidded. I move among fishermen and talk to them, and I know they feel that the Government act in a hand-to-mouth way in dealing with the fishing industry.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned, quite rightly, the help which the industry has received, and which I acknowledge—£6,250,000 for the first six months of this year. Has that sum been paid out in full? If not, what balance is left? Is the remainder to be paid out? Is the fact that a balance still remains due to administrative delay or delay in making claims? Does the hon. Gentleman expect the full sum to be paid out?
My information is that in the first six months of this year the Scheme cost not £6¼ million but £4¼ million and that the full cost of it did not come up to the Ministry's expectation. I should like clarification of this matter. If the cost was not £6¼ million, I should like to know what it was. There may have been some misleading of the industry in this respect.
I turn to the details of the Scheme and the position in the industry. The Minister of State quite rightly said that conditions in the industry improved in the third quarter of the year, and that it was on the basis of this improvement that the Government decided to reduce the rates and terminate the Scheme at the end of the year. I should like to consider for a few moments the question of costs in different sections of the industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) will deal more specifically with the English side of the question and I hope that the House will forgive me if I deal with the Scottish side, of which I have first-hand experience and on which I can more readily obtain information.
The Minister of State spoke of an improving situation in the industry, but in fact it is a loss situation. If I were an outsider listening to the debate who 1361 knew nothing about the industry, I should be excused for thinking that the industry was going into an improving situation, perhaps a profit situation, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I wish to deal with the three sections of the industry which interest me. The first is the deep-sea industry. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) have an intimate knowledge of this matter. I have the figures relating to the number of boats in operation and the total average loss per boat, but I prefer to deal with the matter on a daily basis and not to burden the House with statistics. The figures which I shall use have been presented to the Government and have been audited. Therefore, they have not been simply plucked out of the air.
For the six months to 30th June 1975 the average loss per day of each of the 58 vessels operating from Aberdeen in the middle- and distant-water Scottish fleet was £86. Depreciation is £72—10 percent. on the insurance value of the vessel, which is very much below the replacement value. For the first six months of this year, the average operating loss on every day that those vessels put to sea was a total of £158. There was a subsidy of £56 per day, leaving an average operating loss of £102 per vessel for every day that it put to sea.
There has been an improvement in the two months for which I have the latest figures, July and August. There is normally an improvement in the third quarter because the weather is better and the vessels spend more days at sea. For those two months, the daily loss fell from £86 to £63. The depreciation is £76. Depreciation continues regardless of operating costs. Therefore, the total operating loss is £139 per day against an average subsidy payment per day of £53. There was a substantial loss of £86 a day for every day that the boats were at sea.
That is the improving situation of which the Government speak. Indeed it is an improving situation, but it still leaves the industry in a loss position. What other industry, except perhaps a nationalised industry or the motor car industry, can continue working every day and make a loss of that kind? The industry cannot continue on that path. I beg the Government to realise that fact.
1362 That is perhaps shown most particularly if we compare the number of vessels that were in Aberdeen two years ago with the number there today; there has been a reduction of about 35. I accept that this has not all happened during the last six months, but the loss has accelerated in the past 12 months. The Scottish middle- and distant-water fleet comprises about 80 vessels—the all-time low for that fleet. The facts of what is happening in the industry are before the Government and the House.
I turn to the overall position for the year to 30th September. I am working on estimates; audited figures are not yet available. For Aberdeen vessels, the loss will average about £30,000 per vessel after subsidy has been paid. That is the measure of the financial crisis facing the industry.
The inshore industry is important not only to places such as Aberdeen and Granton but to smaller villages and ports around the coast. For the boats fishing for white fish the situation is not quite so bad, but for the herring industry the situation is serious.
First, I shall deal with the Scottish white fish industry. I have had discussions with the White Fish Authority, which has supplied figures. About 400 vessels of between 60 ft. to 80 ft. in length fish for white fish from Scotland. For the three months June, July and August—the most recent period—there was an overall loss of £120,000 before depreciation for those 400-odd vessels. If depreciation is added, I am told that the figure is boosted to £2½ million. Therefore, the situation is extremely serious. Considerable loss has been suffered in that section of the industry.
I made some inquiries towards the end of last week to obtain more recent figures for the smaller boats which fish for white fish. Anyone who knows the industry will appreciate that it is harder to get figures for smaller boats. From inquiries made of fish salesmen, I managed to obtain a fairly representative sample of 28 vessels ranging from 50 ft. to 80 ft. in length. Smaller boats have lower operating costs, and the one gleam of optimism that I would grant to the Minister is that the loss has been only about £200 over this period. However, depreciation of £800 has to be added to that figure and, therefore, it is evident that 1363 these smaller boats were operating at a loss of £1,000 per boat—according to this sample—over that three-month period. Even in a section of the industry which has been doing better over the past three months, there is an average loss of £1,000 for every boat in the group.
The situation is most serious in the herring industry. I have been unable to get precise figures, although some of my hon. Friends may have been able to obtain figures over the weekend. However, I shall put three figures before the House. This section of the industry has been subject to the same costs as the rest of the industry—an increase of about 22 per cent. compared with a year ago—but it has seen a reduction in the weight of its catch, from 1st January to the Middle of October, of about 26 per cent., and a fall in its value is about 28.6 per cent. as compared with the similar period in the previous year.
With that kind of situation, a reduction in the catch—and it has suffered a far greater fall than the white fish industry—a very dramatic drop in value and a 22 per cent. increase in costs, we must realise the serious situation facing many of our herring fishermen.
Here I come to my third question to the Minister. This applies specifically to the inshore industry, the herring industry and the Scottish white fish industry. In the face of this economic situation and the reduction and subsequent withdrawal of the subsidy, what is the Minister's view of the position of the Scottish inshore fishermen in relation to those people meeting their repayments of the capital due on the loans which they have had from the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority? My information is that about 40 per cent. of commitments that were due to be met in repayments at the end of September have not been met.
The inshore industry in Scotland has an almost totally clear record of always keeping up with these repayments of loans and interest in regard to the very useful grants and loans it receives from the statutory bodies. I understand that the authorities are being generous, as the Minister has indicated in a previous debate, in not pressing for these payments. However, if this figure is true and 40 per cent. of inshore fishermen are 1364 behind with their payments, it is a frightening matter and we must realise what it means. It means not only that repayments are being delayed but also that interest is beginning to accrue on what has not been paid. This is adding to the burden on those fishermen.
I hope very much that the Minister will be able to give some more reassuring picture. Again this is only an impression that I have been able to gain, but it has been gained from those who have first-hand experience of the industry. If 40 per cent. are falling behind with their loan repayments, albeit so far for only a short period—we are only at the end of November—this is something that bodes very ill for the future Scottish inshore industry.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
Has it been drawn to my hon. Friend's attention that very high survey fees also make the cash flow position very difficult?
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
As my hon. Friend knows, we support safety for the industry, but given the cost of the safety requirements and the survey fees in particular—which we debated a week or two ago—this is an added cost burden. I am sorry that the Government have been so unresponsive in helping to meet these costs or considering a moratorium concerning these surveys.
That is the position at present in the Scottish industry. I ask the Government and all hon. Members: what industry can continue being viable in that sort of situation? I understand that the price of fuel, for example, which is a major part of the costs of the industry, is to rise again on 1st January by about £8 to £12 per ton. A middle-distance vessel going out from Aberdeen burns about 2 to 2¼ tons of fuel per day. That will mean another £16 to £30 of extra cost daily, in addition to the loss figures I have already mentioned.
That is the "improving situation" which the Government are mentioning and under which they want to reduce the subsidy and eventually to withdraw it. In this situation it is not surprising that there is so much cynicism and disbelief in the industry as to the protestations that the Government make about their wish to help it.
Finally, I want to mention three things that are relevant to the Scheme. First, 1365 there is the question of depreciation. My worry is that the Government are dealing far too much with simply the direct costs of operating a fishing vessel and are not paying anything like sufficient attention to the need for the industry to meet its depreciation costs. I have cited the figures in relation to Aberdeen. If one adds in depreciation, one just about doubles the operating loss.
I have cited the position in relation to the white fish boats, the section of the industry that is doing the best, covering about 400 vessels. Operating losses of £120,000 rise to £2½ million if depreciation is added. We must take depreciation into account when considering the industry's cost situation, because otherwise our fishermen will not have the resources with which to modernise and replace their vessels. The Government's present policy is running the fleet on to the rocks. We shall see the fleet run down. We shall not see the modern methods and the new boats which the industry needs if it is to compete in a much more difficult international situation in the future.
Unless the Government are prepared to pay much more attention to the problem of depreciation and ensure that the industry gets the returns that are adequate to cover depreciation, we shall see a massive rundown in our fleet in the future similar to that which we can already see especially in our middle- and distant-water fleet in Aberdeen and also in our smaller inshore ports. Therefore, I ask the Minister when he replies to assure us that the subsidy question can still be open and that if it is open the Government will pay much more attention to the question of depreciation, otherwise we shall see this industry run down.
Secondly—this is fundamental to the whole debate—the Minister said that he sees a future in which the industry will be viable and will cover its costs. Can he really put his hand on his heart and say that? Is he aware of what is happening in Iceland? Is he aware that if Iceland is successful in what it is doing, it will push back an enormous amount of fishing effort into the inshore waters around our coast? Moreover, in any event, we shall soon see limits pushed out generally, not in a year's time but 1366 perhaps in two years' time, to 200 miles, and, apart from Iceland's actions, we shall see our middle- and distant-water efforts pushed back into our inshore waters. Does not the Minister understand that when that happens we shall see a greater fishing effort in our home waters, and thus there will be less fish for each individual boat to catch? Does he not see that as a danger for our fishing industry? Will he not face up to it as a reality which our fishermen are having to face up to but which the Government seem to be conveniently ignoring? Will he give us some assurance that the Government are alive to this matter?
I understand that a study has been made of what we should lose in terms of our middle- and distant-water fleet if limits were pushed out to 200 miles and what in proportion we might gain as our share of the Common Market fisheries pond if it were done simply on a proportional basis, projecting our existing share. At present values, out of total annual landings of about £150 million, I believe that we should stand to lose aproximately £50 million worth—that's a 33⅓ per cent. loss of fish landings in this country.
I ask the Minister to put on his other hat and consider his responsibilities for food. Is he prepared to stand by and see that happen to our housewives and consumers? That is the type of situation which the Government are drifting towards without saying or doing anything positive to meet it. I hope that the Minister will be able to say a few words about this matter tonight.
There is one final matter which is also relevant to the future and to the uncertainties which the industry faces. Indeed, the industry and I have repeatedly asked that the Government should continue their help, at least on a temporary basis, until some of these uncertainties are resolved. I am referring to the whole of the Government's policy concerning the law of the sea and the common fisheries policy which they have pledged themselves to renegotiate in this new situation.
On the law of the sea, it is a fair assessment that one cannot be certain of a conclusion being reached early next year when the conference reconvenes. It may 1367 come later. Therefore, I ask the Government to give the industry an assurance to-night in this state of very great uncertainty that, in the event of failure to reach a conclusion early next year to resolve these matters, they will consider approaching the matter on a North Atlantic basis and taking some initiative on a narrower basis than perhaps all fishing nations, to seek some resolution and at least to set the pace a bit more than they are doing at present for resolving the question of international limits.
As for the Common Market countries, I beg the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North and also those who sit on the SNP Bench—[Interruption.]—yes, I heard those two hon. Members laugh together at the reference to the common fisheries policy—to remember that if we use the Common Market rightly, as a means of improving our negotiating strength, we ought to be able to reach a good conclusion at the Law of the Sea Conference. Let it be remembered that fishery limits are not negotiated only in Europe; they are negotiated world-wide, and as 10 nations meeting together we are much stronger than one nation—much stronger than the Scottish nation alone.
If the Common Market is to mean anything—I believe that it can be made to mean something—by using our negotiating strength through membership of the Common Market we can exercise a far greater influence on the Law of the Sea Conference. Let us approach it in that way, being prepared to bring the Common Market countries together to reach a proper resolution of the severe problems that face us.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the West Germans concluded a separate agreement with Iceland without considering us?
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that the negotiations with Iceland were negotiations between one nation and another. Equally, he may not have understood that the negotiations in the Law of the Sea Conference are multilateral, and I am talking about multilateral negotiations. In Iceland's case—it is their waters that the Icelanders are talking about—the 1368 Icelandic Government chose to negotiate on a unilateral basis. The position is entirely different in the Law of the Sea Conference.
§ Mr. McNamara
The hon. Gentleman said, with reference to Iceland, that they are negotiating about their waters. They are not their waters. They are international waters.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I should certainly not apologise to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr). If he would himself set an example of courtesy, I might be prepared to follow it, but until he does I shall do nothing of the kind. But the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) is right to point out that they are international waters, and Britain has been vindicated in making its case that they are international waters. But the Icelandic Government—I come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North—have laid unilateral claim to those waters, and it is on that basis that the negotiation with Iceland is proceeding. That is the point I am making, drawing the distinction from the Law of the Sea Conference.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chose to be so patronising in his response to me. My point is simply that the solidarity in the EEC did not seem to work in the case of negotiations with Iceland, where people simply operated on a bilateral basis, one nation negotiating with another. I am suggesting that perhaps on fishing and the EEC generally we ought to operate on the same basis.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will consider the general history of international negotiations and have a word with some of his colleagues in the Foreign Office. He will then understand the totally different basis on which these two sets of negotiations are proceeding.
The industry is in deep uncertainty on both the economic situation and the whole question of limits and international 1369 negotiation. I ask the Government to take an initiative with our European partners in the Common Market to try to break the deadlock in international negotiations on fishing limits and the 200 miles. The Government have repeatedly said—we have heard it in Committee—that they are taking the initiative. The Minister must tell us tonight what initiative they have taken, what decisions have been reached, and what meetings there have been to establish us as the leading fishing nation of Europe. I believe that the Government are dragging their feet in this matter. We could be leading Europe forward and using our negotiating strength in order to obtain a more realistic deal for our fishermen.
I believe that while this Scheme gives limited temporary help to the industry, what the Government are doing is inadequate for the needs of the industry. The Government are letting down our fishermen. They are ignoring the longer-term food needs of our housewives. I urge the Government to take the subject more seriously, to stop playing around with the industry, and to do something on a longer-term basis.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
When this debate began I did not expect that I would have to make an appeal for brevity in speeches. As hon. Members are aware, the debate must finish by 11.30 tonight. Hon. Members may disagree with my point of view, but I am merely making a suggestion. I have not said that hon. Members must agree to my suggestion. I am merely asking them to be reasonable and to allow the 10 hon. Members who are anxious to take part in the debate to do so.
§ 9.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). It is interesting to know that one field of public expenditure is to be saved from Margaret's axe, namely, the fishing subsidies. Indeed, the Tory Party is united in its desire to increase public expenditure in the fishing industry. I would be quite happy about that if it were not for the fact that that is the first area of expenditure that the Conservatives axed 1370 in 1970 when they attacked the operating subsidy introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), who was a distinguished Minister of Agriculture and one of the best fishery Ministers we have ever had. In fact, they attacked the whole basis of subsidies to the fishing fleet generally.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member said about the spearhead of advance which we are to get from the Common Market countries in solving this problem. I have with me an official handout from the British Trawler Federation to Members of Parliament about the agreement reached with the Common Market countries at the time of our accession. The handout states thatThe terms of the Common Fisheries Policy should give some recognition to the United Kingdom's predominance in this sphere, but they do not. They were hurriedly devised, on the eve of United Kingdom entry into EEC, without any pretence of consultation with or regard for the needs of the United Kingdom or any other new entrant. They were devised by the Six for the benefit of the Six and in the context of a world of 12-mile fishery limits.We have had nothing but humbug from the Opposition so far. Having said that, may I also say to my hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that I have heard nothing from them, either. All we have had has been a string of statements about payments made one way or the other. We have heard nothing whatsoever about the future of the industry—distant water, middle water or inshore. We have heard nothing whatsoever about future policy, and nothing about the overall effects, as seen by the Government—of the Law of the Sea Conference on this issue.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State said what we have done. He said that the fleet has had time to adjust. Yes, it has. I have some brand-new modern freezers laid up in the port of Hull and not fishing. Over 400 fishermen, members of my union, are unemployed. Men are laid off from trawler maintenance work in the city of Hull. We have heard that a fish processing plant is to close in the next few months. Is this progress? Are these adjustments? Is this the happy and successful future that we are to have in the fishing industry that my hon. Friend has been talking about? We have had no indication of policy. When my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North 1371 (Mr. Hughes) asked for a White Paper, what was the reply?
There is no policy, and no idea of where we are going. The Government hope that there will be an upturn after Christmas. The price of fish always goes up then. They are more difficult to catch and have a scarcity value. Then we shall come into the new series of quotas with Norway and in the North-East Atlantic, and the Government hope to get the men to sea for a few months and get over this hump. But the period of quotas will come to an end and we shall be back in the same position.
The trawler owners are no particular friends of mine, but I predict that they will be here cap in hand at the end of the year requesting, urgently and desperately, Government assistance on current expenditure accounts. They do not know where they are going. They cannot plan or decide what vessels to order because they cannot see where the Government are taking them.
We have had no positive Government statement about what is to happen over fishing limits, and no statement that we might do the same as other countries on a peaceful basis. The Government have not even said that they will consider the situation. The Trawler Federation is pressing for a 200-mile limit and a 100-mile exclusive economic zone. The Government's reaction has been deafening in its silence. They have not even said that they are interested, or that they will consider the suggestion. There has been no response. We have had no undertakings from the Government that there will be any sort of bilateral negotiations on what is to happen.
On the coast of Yorkshire, we have had droves of foreign vessels fishing out our stocks. A similar situation is occurring off the South Coast of England. Down there they are even complaining about Hull vessels? I do not know what would happen if they had Scotsmen down there! We have not had any positive action from the Government or from any previous Governments. This is not a new phenomenon. We have heard nothing about the way in which the Government are going to deal with the problem of overfishing in our own area, and this will be increasingly important, as we shall be 1372 forced back to make greater fishing demands in our own waters.
There has been no statement from the Government that they may consider ways of policing foreign vessels in our waters. They have not even said that they will consider limiting the number of vessels from a particular country in a particular area and the number of days on which they can fish there. That would be a positive limitation on the actual fishing effort. Foreign statistics of what is going on are completely inaccurate. Off the South Coast, a British patrol vessel even had to inform a Belgian vessel that the Belgian Government had announced that they had already satisfied their own quota. We must have something better than that.
The Minister said the adjustment was being made to meet some of the problems of inflation but the amount of the subsidy has fallen, because quotas have been reached and vessels have been laid up. Nothing positive is being done to encourage fresh investment in new vessels.
The Minister spoke about imports and the strong action taken by the Government to deal with them. He referred to the system of reference prices, which the Common Market has so kindly negotiated with us. It is estimated that the Norwegian Government will subsidise their fleet by about 100 million units of account next year. Fish have been landed from Eastern European countries at prices below which not even they could catch them.
We also know what the industry says about the reference price, namely, thatThere is a widespread lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the reference price system"—so much for my hon. Friend's fanfare about it—as a means of controlling grossly unfair competition from fish imported from third countries. We feel strongly that, in its place, there should be a system of minimum entry prices, or threshold prices, below which imports would be prohibited. But, as far as imports of frozen fillets are concerned, we cannot accept that the EEC conversion factors are right. Frozen fillets retail prices are below the raw material cost of fillets produced from British fish bought at the wholesale prices generally operated at United Kingdom ports!Is that a satisfactory arrangement? It does not satisfy the unemployed fishermen in Hull.
1373 I now come to the question of what is to happen about the common fisheries policy, which has an important effect upon subsidies and upon the whole content of this Scheme. I have already quoted what the trawler industry said about the way in which the Tories threw away the British fishing interest on the eve of going into the Common Market. However, for better or for worse we are in the Common Market for the moment.
§ Mr. McNamara
We start with the situation that, as far as I can assess it, all that we have within the Common Market bureaucracy is a division to deal with the problems of fishing. We need at least a directorate. The present division does not seem to have any expertise, and, lamentably, it has been weakened over the past six to nine months, for a number of reasons.
Our position in the Community is that we have the biggest fleet, the largest consumption of fish within our own country and the largest fishing resources around our own islands, but the greater part of our fishing effort is concentrated outside our own immediate waters. That being the case, we have to be very careful to maintain the size and strength of our fishing fleet, so that when the time comes to negotiate with our Common Market partners we shall be in a position to drive a bargain that represents our interests as the greatest fishing nation within the Community, rather than accept anything which the other countries suggest. If we proceed on the basis of the catch from our own waters, our position will be considerably weakened.
We have the strange scheme involving £60 million for reducing Community fleets that was referred to in the Press earlier this week. If we are put in that situation, it will be of little or no help to our fishermen. The scheme deals only with the smaller boats. Will my hon. Friend confirm that under that scheme the amount of money to be given to help to train and retrain fishermen will be only 5 per cent. of the total cost of the project? It will be a great encouragement, will it not to get 5 per cent. from that scheme?
We have before us a half-baked measure to provide a temporary remedy for 1374 some of our ills. The Government have shown no ability to diagnose the real problems facing our industry.
§ Mr. Bishop
If my hon. Friend had been present at more of our fishing debates he would not have been asking about future policy indications. I have indicated the continuing negotiations for acces to international waters around other countries, including Iceland and Norway. I have recently been involved in the Icelandic negotiations, albeit unsuccessfully. I recently met the Norwegian Minister to discuss access to international waters around that country's shores. We are also involved with the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference, where we have said that we believe not in unilateral action but in universal agreement on a 200-mile limit. That is why we deplore the unilateral action taken by Iceland. We played a part in the North-East Atlantic Fisheries quota arrangments, where we took certain initiatives. My hon. Friend knows that in April of this year my right hon. Friend said that we would take initiatives through the common fisheries policy. My hon. Friend should acknowledge all that we have done.
§ Mr. McNamara
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Now will he say what the policy is? What has he asked for? What quotas is he getting from Norway? What agreement is he making about international waters? What proposals has he put forward to the Common Market countries? I ask him to give us something that we can discuss, something that we can get our teeth into, something on which we can assess what Government policy is about. Then we might be happier. I shall happily give way to my hon. Friend if he can tell me. I am very interested. I am pleased about every one of these initiatives. Where have they got us? What have we asked for?
§ Mr. Bishop
I repeat to my hon. Friend that if he had attended our many debates on fishing, both in the House and in Committee, he would have had a very detailed background knowledge of these matters. He will appreciate that in negotiations it is not a good point to reveal one's hand too soon. We recognise that Britain has the biggest fishing interest in the Community and we shall try to keep it that way.
§ Mr. McNamara
I am grateful for that. Now what has my hon. Friend asked for? I shall give way to my hon. Friend. We have the biggest fishing fleet in the Community, and my hon. Friend hopes to keep in that way. How big? What is our negotiating position? What is my hon. Friend asking for? That is the point, and that is what we do not know. What we know is that vessels are laid up and that men are unemployed. Therefore, although I welcome what has been done, I am not happy about our lack of fishing policies.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
There has been an appeal from the Chair for short speeches. I think that I can say all that I need say in a couple of minutes.
We have had these debates before. The Minister has been down to the South Coast and has seen my own fishermen on the quay. They have expressed disappointment that the subsidies apply only to 40 ft vessels. We thought that we had convinced him that the horse-power of the boat was more important than its length.
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that last week there was a very serious collision in the Channel. A large tanker was holed by a naval vessel. If it had not been for the fishing fleet in Folkestone and Dungeness, the Channel would have taken much longer to clean. The fishing fleet turned out immediately. Boats were able to put detergent on to the oil and, instead of what was expected to be another "Torrey Canyon" disaster, we had a clean sea and clean harbours in three days. Surely that alone justifies keeping our fishing fleet going.
Government supporters have stressed much better than I can that the fishing fleet cannot carry on without subsidies of this kind. Without the fishing fleet, we shall have no lifeboat crews. Without the fishing fleet, we shall not be able to clear up the Channel when we have further accidents. I ask the Minister to help us.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) pointed out correctly that in the Conservative negotiations for entry into the EEC no concern 1376 had been shown for our fishermen. The hon. Gentleman might have continued the story by demonstrating that no concern had been shown for our fishermen in the Labour Party renegotiations with the EEC. The position is unchanged, and time is moving on. Looking ahead to 1982, it appears from the dilatory methods of the Government that if the fishing industry still exists it will be in danger of coming to an end.
I welcome this scheme for a further extension of the white fish and herring subsidies, but I regret that there has been no change in the Government's attitude towards an extension of the subsidies. The lifebelt thrown to the fishing industry will be snatched away, perhaps at its moment of greatest need. A crucial situation confronts the industry. After 31st December, unless the Government have some regard for the issues at stake, the industry will face one of the worst economic crises in its history.
The facts speak for themselves. Landings of all species for the period 1st January to 4th October this year amounted to just over 5½ million cwts, valued at £42 million—a drop of 974,907 cwt and £7½ million, compared with the same period in 1974. In the first seven months of this year, earnings for the whole of the Scottish fishing industry dropped by £7½ million, yet in the same period the costs of gear, fuel, and so on, soared, and additional heavy survey costs have now to be added to the cost of running the vessels.
As for the men themselves, there was a drop in numbers from 1973 to 1974, and there has been a rapid downward swing this year. In Stornaway, in my constituency, there were 20 crews wanting boats three or four years ago. There are now boats for sale. That situation can be duplicated in many ports around the coast.
The decision to discontinue the subsidy will inevitably hasten the departure of more men from the industry, and they are unlikely to return. This will inflate the unemployment figures in traditional fishing areas and cause a shortage of fish and a steep rise in prices to the already overburdened housewife.
All this will follow from the Government's refusal to sustain this vital industry through its difficult days. The 1377 Government are setting the fishing industry adrift, without waiting until it is in a strong enough position to bear the brunt of what is to come and without the offer of alternative aid or action.
I should like to say something about policing. In my part of the country, small inshore fishermen are having their fishings destroyed through lack of proper protection. I have been in touch with the Scottish Office about the matter on several occasions. Why has the Scottish Office fleet been reduced from nine vessels to six? The vessels are required to police areas of breeding stock of fish whose protection would benefit all fishermen—inshore, middle waters, and so on.
The position is aggravated by the Government's stubborn attitude in response to the almost universal demand from all sections of the fishing industry to extend the fishing limits. It should not be impossible to negotiate regional agreements well in advance of a world agreement on all other aspects of the law of the sea. Surely that is not impossible when it is demanded by all sections of the fishing industry in the United Kingdom.
Delay is dangerous. There will not be an industry to support by the time the Government get round to taking the decision to extend the limits. It is a decision that they know perfectly well they will take eventually. There is no getting away from that, and they should face up to it now. I say "Take it now, while it still makes sense."
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)
I wish to speak rather more specifically to the problems experienced in the past few months by the Cornish fishing industry. We have an unusual situation in Cornwall, where for once the small man was beating the big man. Then, it appears to the local people, the rules were changed to make sure that the big man won after all.
The Cornish fishing industry is essentially built up on boats of less than 40 ft. in length. It has been built up in the past 10 years mainly by the initiative and good sense of the local community, who have exploited the Roscoff ferry connection between Cornwall and Europe and now sell many tons of Cornish mackerel in Europe. The Cornish have always had the good sense to eat 1378 mackerel. The main problem was that the English had never known the delights of that fish, and therefore we had to find other markets.
The problem now is that the industry has been invaded by ships from other parts of the country. The Cornishman would not particularly object to that if he were competing on intelligent, economic grounds. But I understand that many of the boats that have come to Cornwall are not suited to fishing for mackerel and that the only reason why they have come, and presumably are running profitably, is the EEC subsidy, the guaranteed price for meal.
The Cornish fishermen are desperate to have a system by which the amount of fish caught and marketed for meal is limited on a tonnage per man per day basis. That is a system that would find favour with others besides the Cornish fishermen. Many people are genuinely concerned about the long-term conservation of fish stocks which have been built up. It now appears that anything that moves and can be taken from the sea can be ground up and sold for short-term profit. The Cornish fisherman is asking for equal treatment. He would accept a situation in which the industry was told to manage without subsidies or a situation in which he received the same subsidies as everyone else. Over the past few years the Cornish fishing industry has made good profits.
I am talking about a community in which 10.3 per cent. of my constituents are unemployed. That is 10.3 per cent. of the working population. The Cornish fishing industry has been built up over the past five or six years to provide well over 1,000 jobs, but we are now in real danger, in the short term, of destroying an industry which has been making money within the national fishing set-up.
Little reference has been made to the Statutory Instrument before us, but it concerns the 40-ft vessels. The argument that is taking place a long way away concerning Iceland is pushing the long-distance fishermen into middle waters and the middle-water fishermen into the inshore fishing areas. As a local fisherman in my constituency said only recently. "The only place left for me to fish is up the High Street." As hon. Members will no doubt appreciate, one does not 1379 find many fish in the High Street. I ask the Minister to give careful consideration to the inshore industry.
The fishermen would like a substantial extension of fishing limits. In the past few weeks many people have pointed out to me the enthusiasm that is shown by the Government for protecting what appear to me to be dubious claims on moral grounds to fish 26 miles off the coast of Iceland, hundreds of miles away. That is a claim that they make with great enthusiasm, yet they appear to show no interest or inclination to take positive action to protect fishing rights within 13 miles of the coast off my constituency.
I ask the Minister to think carefully about the inshore fishing industry, an industry that can provide good and well-paid jobs in some of the remoter areas which have sustained and substantial unemployment. The present lack of policy is in danger of destroying an industry that many men have spent the past 10 years building up into something of real significance for Cornwall.
§ 9.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has taken such a buffeting that I feel I should come to his defence. The kind of criticism which has been made of the Government was predictable, given that the decision to continue the fishing subsidy took such a long time to be finalised and, when finalised, meant a reduction in the amount available. It is natural that there should be a great deal of criticism.
I do not dissociate myself from much of the criticism which has been made, except to say that I realise that the Government are in a difficult position. For generations, Governments of all colours have taken the view in fishing matters, as in other matters, that we should always play by the rules of the game. If there are negotiations to be undertaken or if negotiations are in the process of taking place, we are the last people to do anything to disrupt them or to suggest that we should take a certain course of action if we are unsuccessful. I do not know how many times I have heard it said that we must not declare our hand and that if we go into negotiations we must enter them freely without saying that if we do not get our way we shall have it anyway.
1380 The Government have been caught up by a number of events which they could not have foreseen—for example, the rapid increase in oil costs which has meant an increase in operating costs. There has been general inflation, and an increase in the limits off Iceland has been established unilaterally. The Government do not know exactly where they stand. I say that not as a condemnation of the Government but as a statement of fact.
I appreciate that the Minister of State cannot say that the Government do not know where they are going. I know that I occasionally stood at the Dispatch Box and denied allegations that the Government did not know where they were going although that was the case. The Government and the industry have to make up their minds about what kind of industry they want. Do they want a subsidised industry? If so, the sooner we get down to discussions on a long-term basis, dealing with how the subsidies will operate, the better it will be for everyone. My fishing contacts say quite clearly that what concerns them is the lack of vision and the corresponding inability to make sensible decisions about the size of the fleet, the ordering of new boats and so on.
I do not believe that responsibility for this rests entirely with the Government. I do not believe that the industry knows where it wants to go. It says that it wants a profitable industry which does not have to rely on subsidies, but it cannot tell us how it will reach that state. It may well have to come to the view that subsidies must be a permanent feature. If so, the industry must accept that no Government can simply hand out money without exercising a greater control over the industry. The "dreaded spectre of Government interference" as someone put it, has to be taken into account. This is why I have asked on more than one occasion for a White Paper dealing with the industry. The trouble is that the Government choose to interpret this as a request to produce a White Paper setting out definitively what the future of the industry will be.
There is merit in producing a White Paper setting out the problems, the different approaches and the benefits which 1381 lie on one hand and the disadvantages which exist on the other hand. There are advantages and disadvantages in subsidy arrangements. The Government must give us a much more comprehensive review showing where we are going. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) asked some awkward questions. If he had attended all the fishing debates he would know what the answers were. We can go through all the debates picking out bits and pieces and try to produce our own White Paper. But this is a Government responsibility.
I welcome the extension of the subsidy. I hope that in the short period left to us there will be a further extension, either at the same or at an increased level.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) is not in the Chamber. We should hear a little less humbug from the Opposition Front Bench these days. Conservatives are totally responsible for the current EEC fisheries policy. They accepted it in the negotiations and said that it was for the benefit of our industry. Now they say that it should be renegotiated. That would not be necessary if it had not been accepted in the first place.
It is a little hard that the Leader of the Opposition should go to the Dispatch Box on almost every occasion when the Prime Minister answers Questions and demand public expenditure cuts, not next year or next month but today, this week. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House put it well when he said that far too often the Opposition talk public expenditure cuts but act public expenditure increases. This is a prime example. They want public expenditure increases for the fishing industry. I do not disagree. But they cannot repeat throughout the country that we must cut public expenditure globally and then enter this special pleading.
§ Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)
Would not the hon. Member accept that demands for subsidies for the fishing industry involve peanuts compared with the thousands of millions of pounds which the Government want to spend on ludicrous nationalisation?
§ Mr. Hughes
May I give a "Yes-No" answer. Yes, the amount of money is 1382 probably peanuts compared with global public expenditure, but I do not agree that the amount of money that is to be spent on nationalisation is ludicrous. That is money well spent. This is a perfect example of what I was saying. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) wishes to cut public expenditure in one sector and to increase it in another. There is no absolute standard. We would all make different choices. I would wish to cut defence expenditure whereas the hon. Member would not. We can argue that at some other time.
Will my hon. Friend tell us when he replies how many trawling companies, individual inshore boats and owners of several inshore boats run a depreciation account? How many put money by when the industry was profitable so that there would be money in the kitty towards replacement? I suspect that very few have done so. My family was in fishing for a long time. There is none left now, I suppose because the eldest sons and others have more sense than to go into fishing. It was always a hard and not very remunerative job in my father's and grandfather's day. In those days, when a boat was in shared ownership the income was divided into so much for each member of the crew, so much for the running expenses and so much for the boat—in other words, to replace the boat. I do not know how many fishermen still do that, but I suspect that one reason why they have landed in this difficulty is that over the years they have not put sufficient away for depreciation.
One problem we face with the roll back effect—which may continue, because our deep-sea vessels will be driven back into waters formerly fished by inshore and middle-water vessels—is that fishermen throughout the United Kingdom are beginning to fight among themselves about who shall have the right to fish in a certain area.
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said that fishermen objected to other vessels coming into their areas. He may have had foreign vessels in mind. Complaints have been coming from the South of England about Scots boats coming to fish off those waters, but they are just as entitled to do that as English boats are entitled to fish in Scottish 1383 waters. Fishermen throughout the length and breadth of the country are dividing amongst themselves when they should be making common cause. I find it strange that the Leader of the SNP, who complains about the South of England, should speak of "Scottish" oil but not agree about "English" fish.
§ 9.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) made an interesting speech, to which I shall refer later. We have heard arguments about the common fisheries policy. Some have argued that the Conservative Party is to blame for not getting the policy right before we went into the Common Market. Some have argued that the fisheries policy did not form part of the Labour Party's renegotiation. All these arguments are sterile, because, whoever is to blame, we are faced with that policy and have to deal with it.
I have always felt that the fisheries policy should be renegotiated within the Community. A policy designed for six countries is not necessarily the right policy for nine countries, especially when one of the nine has the biggest fishing interests of any country within the EEC. I find it difficult to understand why the Government have not made a more determined effort to renegotiate the common fisheries policy.
Part of the uncertainty that affects the industry flows from the fact that we do not know exactly what will happen when we get the new limits from the Law of the Sea conference. It would be fatal for Britain to leave renegotiation of the common fisheries policy until we have the result of the Law of the Sea Conference. If the Government delay any further they will lose their negotiating position. Their No. 1 priority should be that this renegotiation takes place forthwith. The Government should consider the fishing industry as a major British interest. Some of us who are connected with the industry think that from time to time it has been given a rather Cinderella-like treatment. We expect the Government to make the most determined attempts to renegotiate the policy and, if necessary, to take the same firm steps as other countries.
1384 I join in the general criticism of the Government that their policy is not only unclear but is weak and flabby.
Months before Iceland extended its limits it was well known that she would do so and that our trawlers would be under stress in international waters when the agreement came to an end, but we had to wait until our trawlers were attacked before action was taken. The Government said to the trawlers "Stay there in international waters and continue to fish, as is your right". The Government should not have done so without giving the trawlers the support of the Royal Navy. It is this weakness and flabbiness which is leading to the criticisms of the Government from both sides of the House.
It is an ill thing for an industry to have to be subsidised, and I welcome the fact that the Conservative Government found the industry in such a profitable condition that they could withdraw the subsidy. I am certain that most of the fishermen that I know would be glad if we were not having to have a debate about subsidies.
Why is it that an industry which only comparatively recently was surviving without a subsidy, now has to come to the House to ask for one? The truth is that the competition that the fishermen are facing is unfair, because subsidised fish is coming into this country from abroad. It is no longer a free and open market, because goods are coming in at a specially low price, caused not by superior catching methods by either Iceland or Norway but by an injection of public money. Off Iceland our trawlers are fishing in "boxes", supervised by the Navy, at times and in places where they do not want to fish. This is an artificial situation. They are not catching fish in normal circumstances and therefore their claim to subsidy is justified at this time.
The Minister came to my constituency to talk and listen to inshore fishermen, and I think that he understood their problems. I echo what has been said about the vessels under 40 ft in length. I echo the demand that if we are to have subsidies they should be based not on the length but on the horse-power of a vessel. The hon. Gentleman's colleague in the Department of Trade received nothing like the reception that the hon. 1385 Gentleman received. His colleague had a much more fiery time on the question of the new safety regulations, which will cost a tremendous amount of money in survey fees. I ask the Minister to consider that matter most carefully. It is an added burden, which is difficult to bear at this time.
No deep-sea trawlers are being built, and it is easy to see why—the uncertainty of the future. This matter is not entirely within the Government's control—they must await the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference before they can look far into the future—but they have power to renegotiate the common fisheries policy of the EEC, and I beg them to do that, because it is desperately urgent.
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)
I readily place on record that we welcome the subsidy as far as it goes. However, the news that the subsidies were to be reduced and then terminated at the end of December was greeted with deep dismay in Aberdeen. The Minister of State must not think that that is a party point. It is simply the straightforward truth.
The subsidy did not stop the fleet losing money. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) said: that however one calculates the profit or loss of each vessel, certainly as it left Aberdeen—I am sure that this applies to all Scottish ports—and even if one adds the grant and does not count depreciation, which I believe one should, each vessel was losing many thousands of pounds a year. We cannot expect any industry to continue in that way.
The subsidy did not stop unemployment. It did not stop vessels being tied up. In the past 18 months or two years, 30 per cent. of the vessels fishing out of Aberdeen have had to be tied up. I do not claim that that is because of the Government's policy or lack of it—many of the vessels have been transferred to oil-related work—but, whatever the reason, it is an ingredient in the lack of confidence and the uncertainty in the industry which we are begging the Government to resolve. That uncertainty is almost the major factor in their general attitude. Also, the subsidy did not encourage new building.
1386 When one combines all those factors with the possibly unhappy use in Committee of the word "restructuring" by the Minister of State, one understands the great and growing uncertainty in the industry. When the Minister used that word in Committee, I said to him that it sounded like a sinister euphemism for running down the fleet. When I put it to the Secretary of State for Scotland the other day, he said, possibly misunderstanding the use of the word, that he could not consider restructuring the fleet because there were too many uncertainties. That is what we are complaining about. The fishing industry wants to know the Government's plans. If the Government have planned deliberately to restructure the industry and do not wish simply to see it run down naturally, let us have the plans so that we can consider what the restructuring means.
I echo what has been said about the great surprise which I felt and which most people in the industry felt when, on the day following the Committee meeting at which we were told of the new subsidy arrangements and we had pressed the Minister to say what would happen so that we could tell our constituents "This is the plan for the next three months", the hon. Gentleman said that he could not give an answer because the Government were awaiting new statistics. The very next day we were told what were the plans. There may be a good reason for that. I was not convinced by the Minister of State when he intervened, but possibly we shall be told.
That is the sort of thing that makes the fishing industry in Aberdeen ask "Do the Government know what is going on? One day they say that they are not in a position to state what the subsidies will be, and the very next day they come forward with what the industry regards as inadequate subsidies." This treatment grossly exacerbates the uncertainty and lack of confidence that is felt by the industry.
How can the Minister expect the industry to square the importance which the Government and Opposition attach to it as a provider of food for this country in the future with the ending of aid which is vital if it is to continue? We all know of the difficult economic situation with which the Government are faced. We also know of the considerable good will 1387 between the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the fishermen of Scotland. [Interruption.] Whatever Members of the Scottish National Party may say the fishermen in the North-East of Scotland were extremely impressed by the sincerity with which the Under-Secretary approached their problems. There is no question of any party attitude here whatever.
How can the Under-Secretary say to the fishing industry that he is not prepared to give it any subsidy whatever as from the new year while at the same time he can say to other sections of the community that the Government will spend £550 million a year on general food subsidies, the majority of which the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection admits goes to those who do not need it? How can he say to the fishing industry that the Government will not spend one penny on it when they are spending millions of pounds on nationalisation? Aberdeen is the centre of the oil industry, and we all know how much money has been lavished on that industry. However, not one penny is to be given to the fishing industry, which will be there years after the oil industry has gone.
It does not seem possible for the Government to justify the vast expenditure on general food and housing subsidies and on the nationalisation of industries and at the same time to say "We regard the fishing industry as an important industry but we cannot give you one penny." That is neither just now nor wise for the future.
The first result of Government policy has been to endanger our capacity to provide food for the future. This debate is not the place to go into that at great length, but most hon. Members will agree that within a generation the provision of food for the people of this planet will be our No. 1 problem. Yet here we are putting the provision of our food at risk by allowing the industry to run down.
The result of Government policy has also been to reduce our power of argument at the international negotiating table by allowing our fleet to run down. Our fleet is contracting faster than the fleet of any country in the EEC. That must 1388 reduce our power when the important negotiations begin over the next six months.
The third result of Government policy has been to create unemployment. Other hon. Members have gone into this matter in some detail. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) mentioned the figure of 400 unemployed fishermen in his constituency. We have the same situation in Aberdeen In the North-East as a whole and especially in Aberdeen—possibly the hon Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) will confirm this if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker—the position is not quite the same, because if men are lost to the industry they will not come back to it when and if it revives, because they will be soaked up by the oil industry. We are, therefore, afraid that they will be lost to the fishing industry now and will never come back, and that we shall see lost for ever, or certainly for a generation, the whole of our fishing capacity off North-East Scotland. This is a very serious fact not only with regard to employment there and the social balance we want to keep in certain areas but with regard to our ability to provide ourselves with food in the future.
I have mentioned the very great and general uncertainty and lack of confidence which the industry feels. This is not confined solely to the situation with regard to subsidies. It embraces the whole situation with regard to limits, the fuel price increases that we shall see in the new year and the whole question of EEC policy. I need do no more than mention these things in passing since this is a debate about subsidies. But I beg the Government to take on board the fact that the morale of the fishing industry, as has been told to me by people engaged in the industry in Aberdeen, has never been lower. This is the worst continuing crisis that those now engaged in the industry can remember.
I ask the Government to try, if not tonight at least within the next few weeks, to end this whole stop-go attitude to the industry, the hand-to-mouth attitude under which the industry now feels it is labouring, and to give to the industry some feeling that the Government have a long-term plan. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has called 1389 for a White Paper. I do not care whether it is a White Paper or whatever it is. However, the Government must let the industry know in writing how they see its future, because confidence must be restored to the industry. Long-term 1390 stability and long-term viability is what the industry must have. I should have thought that some continuation of subsidy as from the new year would at least contribute something towards that much-needed confidence.
§ 10.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)
I take up one point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). He said that there was within the industry a great deal of good will towards the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I think that the hon. Gentleman was describing a situation that was probably true some months ago. However, he must now be aware that there is considerable concern in the industry about the position which the Under-Secretary has taken and about the lack of initiative we have seen from him. Frankly, the industry is becoming fed up with the kind of platitudes which the Under-Secretary is wont to deliver and which I dare say we shall be hearing again when he winds up the debate. Indeed, there must be considerable competition between him and the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as to who can generate the most platitudes and say the least convincing things during a winding-up speech.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), who made an extremely valuable contribution to the debate, was accused by the Minister of State of not having attended all the debates. I think that I have attended all the debates on this subject, and it will be no surprise to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central if I assure him that his conclusions are exactly the same as mine in relation to the policies, or lack of policies, of the Government.
§ Mr. McNamara
I did not wish to pursue my hon. Friend the Minister of State on that particular point. However, to keep the record straight, perhaps I should say that I have attended almost every fishing debate except on occasions when I have been in Committee—once in the Northern Ireland Committee and on another occasion, I think, in the Committee considering the Community Land Bill.
§ Mr. Henderson
I am delighted to have given the hon. Member the opportunity to correct what was clearly a very misleading impression from his hon. Friend the Minister of State.
In a rather lengthy and totally inconclusive intervention, the Minister of State 1392 more or less said as regards the negotiations "You cannot tell the other side what your position is because they might agree with you." The Minister of State was saying "When you go into negotiations, for Heaven's sake remember that the very last thing you do is tell the other side what your position is and what you want to achieve, because there is just the outside chance that they might agree with you and reach some agreement with you."
The Government's attitude is one which must be brought to book here in the House. It has been brought to book by all sides and by all parties in this debate tonight. The criterion by which we should judge the Scheme and any other views which the Government may put forward is how relevant and useful it is to the fishing industry at present. Right from the first measure this year we have seen the subsidy for most of the boats with which I am concerned—that is, boats of 60 ft to 80 ft in length—cut from £20 a day to £15 a day while other boats have suffered by other decreases. During this time the costs of gear and oil have been rising.
The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) referred to the repayments which are being made and which are expected of fishermen. Fishermen morally feel that they must repay a loan which they have received. Some men in my constituency have very heavy hearts because they are financially unable to meet their commitments for repayment of loans to the White Fish Authority or the Herring Industry Board. This is not a matter which the Government can lightly shrug off. The Government, whether Labour or Conservative, induced these fishermen to re-equip and to build modern vessels with improved technology of catching, but now they are saying "We wash our hands of you". We heard all that the Minister of State said, but the Government are not doing what the industry needs.
Of course, boats of less than 40 feet are excluded. Many hon. Members have raised this matter previously with the Minister. The two- or three-man business which involves boats right at the 1393 end of the scale is excluded from any kind of consideration.
It has not been mentioned so far, but it is right to put on record the increasing problem which the fishing industry is encountering with oil operations. I have written to the Under-Secretary on many occasions about this matter. For example, Skipper George Baird of the Peterhead boat "Duncairn" has suffered thousands of pounds worth of damage because his propellor was fouled by a hawser left by some of these people. Skipper Tommy Milne of the Peterhead boat "Starella" has suffered similarly. These are all factors which are affecting the industry, but all we have had from the Government is this Scheme, reducing the amount for the fourth quarter of this year, and then the imposition of an embargo from next year on any further funds to the industry.
We are entitled to ask what are the Government's intentions and what alternative they are offering the fishing industry in place of the subsidy. An hon. Member has already asked what progress is being made with the common fisheries policy renegotiations. We have never had a statement in this House of what progress is being made. When the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made his statement on Wednesday about the next meeting of the Common Market Ministers, he announced that Agriculture Ministers were to meet this month to consider a number of problems, prominent among which was the grubbing-up of low-quality vines, but he was totally unable to say what progress was being made on the common fisheries policy and when we were to have a statement from the Government on it. It is not good enough for the Government to leave the industry in this state of suspense and confusion.
I turn to the whole question of fishing limits generally. We hear that we must wait for the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference. We have been waiting for that conference for the past two years. The Government must make it clear that they have a contingency position which they are prepared to adopt if agreement is not reached at the next session of the Law of the Sea Conference. It would be useful for them now to call a conference of the political leaders of 1394 all the fishing nations in the West and to invite not only Government leaders but people from the Opposition parties in those countries as well. Let them discuss the issue and see whether a consensus emerges which can give us the increase in limits which we so desperately need. I hope that the Government will at least try to do this, because when I tell my fishermen that the Government say that they are doing this or that, my fishermen say "We see no sign whatever that this Government are taking any initiative, whether it be on the common fisheries policy, the Law of the Sea Conference or anything else."
I understand why the Icelanders are taking their present action. They have the guts to stand up for their rights and to protect their future. At the same time, we know that at present there are approximately 40 Icelandic boats fishing for herring off Shetland. Naturally, fishermen ask why the Government are not doing something to protect them when the Icelandic Government are protecting their fishermen. Our Government cannot just leave these problems, sit back and express the sort of pious platitudes that we have had from them up to now.
We have a system of quotas, and I was glad to see the renegotiation of the herring quota which took place at the NEAFC conference a few weeks ago. It is right here to pay tribute to our negotiators at that conference, especially those from the Scottish Office, who are undoubtedly the best negotiators in the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Henderson
No, I shall not. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has any knowledge of fishing matters.
It is extremely important that the catch quotas which are agreed internationally should be observed, and there is considerable doubt about whether they are being observed. There is all sorts of evidence on mesh sizes, for example. In the communication which we all received from the British Trawlers' Federation, there is a quotation from Nordlys, a Norwegian newspaper, which says that when the Norwegian fishery protection service boarded the Soviet trawler "Gurieb" the inspecting officer found extra nets with mesh width of 53 mm, the regulation 1395 mesh being 120 to 130 mm. Moreover Belgium, which according to international catch quota agreements is allowed in 1975 to fish 500 tons in the Barents Sea, now has 10 trawlers there, and with such a fleet its quota must have been taken by now.
There is utter cynicism in our fishing industry at the lack of international policing of mesh sizes and quotas. Although most of our catch can be monitored because most of it is for human consumption, in these other cases, where the catch is primarily for fish meal, it seems impossible to ensure that international agreements are honoured and are properly policed.
There have been references to restructuring. Restructuring can come only when we know what our limits will be and when we know what stocks of fish will be available to us for the future. This is the crucial issue. When I talked to my fishermen last weekend, their message was "As an industry, we do not want subsidies. What we want from the Government is a clear policy. We want an assurance that our limits will be increased and that the stocks will be available".
When a fisherman asks me "Do you think that I should put my laddie to sea, as I have gone before?", I am in doubt as to how to answer him because I see no sign from this Government which can give any confidence, and I do not believe that we shall hear from the Under-Secretary of State tonight that they have the courage and vision essential for the future of the industry.
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)
First, I apologise to the Minister for not being present at the start of the debate. I was addressing an audience elsewhere in the expectation that the debate would begin at 10 o'clock, not when it did.
I wish to make just three points, and they all touch matters vital to the future of the whole industry. The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) and all others whom I have heard stressed the crisis now facing the industry and emphasised its unsettled the future. Hon. Members have rightly said that the Government have done nothing to chart the industry's future.
1396 The Minister may recall that I suggested some time ago that it was about time we had another Fleck Committee. Fourteen years ago there was a Fleck Committee to consider the future of the industry over the next 10 years. I think that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food took the view earlier that it would not be much good having a Royal Commission or another Fleck Committee as there were too many imponderables facing him. In my view, because of the seriousness of the present situation, the Government ought to look again to the future and so give the industry some confidence.
The operational subsidies are to end at the end of this year. Surely, the present is the worst possible time to end subsidies. Unfortunately, the dispute with Iceland has followed its almost preordained course. I understand the views of both sides. The Icelanders do not want to risk the future of their cod stocks. For our part, we wish to fish wherever we are allowed to do so under international law, and if we are impeded in so doing we naturally turn to the Royal Navy for protection.
It seems surprising that the negotiators failed to agree on what amounted to 35,000 tons of cod—the difference between the two negotiating positions. Having had some experience, I know how difficult it is to negotiate with the Icelanders, who are most friendly people and yet the most obstinate in the world. At least there is good will on both sides, and I cite the instance of the "Miranda" which was assisted by the Icelandic coastguard only yesterday to show that, although we may be quarrelling over the amount of cod that we may catch, we are still friends and allies.
I do not believe that the dispute with Iceland will be settled until the Law of the Sea Conference has completed its work, one hopes in April or May next year. It is not true to say that by sending in the Royal Navy to protect our trawlers we have used either the big stick or our last shot. Now that the Icelanders have reached agreement with West Germany, they only have to reach agreement with us to get access to the Common Market. That must be immensely important to their economy, and that is a point that we must press home in order to obtain a renewal of negotiations.
1397 As I say, I do not believe that much will happen until the Law of the Sea Conference has completed its work. If it does not complete its work by next summer, many large nations like Canada and America will take unilateral action, and no doubt we shall have to do the same. Countries will establish 200-mile limits, whether the United Nations agrees or not. I hope that this knowledge will force Iceland to come to an agreement early in 1976.
My third point and perhaps the most important of all is that the Government have made clear that, once they are allowed to do so by international law, they will extend their limits to 200 miles. They must make preparations for this now. We cannot extend our limits in July 1976 and then find that we have not the adequate fishery protection vessels to police those limits. To protect 200 miles is very different from protecting 12 miles. Protection in Scottish waters at the moment, with the present limits, is not all that good. This is no fault of the Royal Navy, but there are too few vessels and we are not using helicopters and aeroplanes as we ought.
§ Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we get our limits extended, every British fisherman will be a policeman and will immediately notify the authorities if any foreigners are fishing in the area?
§ Mr. Wall
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but notifying the authorities is not much use unless the authorities are able to arrest the vessel which is poaching. They cannot do that because they have not yet got sufficient resources in the shape of helicopters, aeroplanes and patrol vessels at present let alone in the future. Once the limits are extended they have to be protected, otherwise it is no good extending them.
A point which has been raised a number of times in the debate is that of a common fisheries policy. If we push out our limits to 200 miles there are, I am told, about 1½ million tons of fish to be caught within those limits. The British industry wants to know what percentage of this total it will be allowed to catch. It wants to know whether it will have an exclusive right to fish in a pretty large band around our coasts—personally I would say 100 1398 miles exclusive and 200 miles with the normal facilities.
This kind of negotiation will be difficult. Our partners in the EEC have fished out their own waters and will be gathering—I was going to say "like vultures", but that is not the correct metaphor—
§ Mr. Wall
—yes, like gannets, to take all the fish they can from within our limits. They must be exclusive and they must be patrolled. We have got until 1982, and that is not very long hence.
I raised this point the last time we had a debate on this subject, and the Minister assured me that negotiations were under way. I know that the Minister is doing his best, but it is not known in the industry that the British Government are doing much about preparing to extend the limits to 200 miles or doing much about these important negotiations. If the Minister is doing all this important work, why is he so secretive? The more he can tell the industry, the more confidence he will receive from the industry, and that is what we need more than anything else.
When we go out to 200 miles, we shall be able to reach an agreement with Iceland to swap sectors of our 200-miles limit where there are herring for sectors of Iceland's limit where cod are available. The dispute should then end with a happy compromise. The new limit will, however, mean that the deep-water trawlers from Hull and Grimsby will be fishing much closer inshore, and there is bound to be trouble from inshore fishermen. I hope that this will be sorted out before it starts and that the rules are clearly defined.
We must start catching new species of fish. I commend the White Fish Authority for the work it has done on the blue whiting. The success of this venture depends on British housewives eating the fish. An article in the latest edition of the Economist says thatThe potential annual catch of blue whiting is one million tons, more than Britain's total current haul of all species.If we can make this fish acceptable to the housewives, many of the fishing industry's problems will be solved.
1399 The Government's standing with the fishing industry is very low despite the efforts of Ministers. People in the industry cannot see that anything is being done. They want an assurance that preparations are being made now for the extension of our limits to 200 miles and that adequate negotiations are taking place with our partners in the EEC to ensure that we have a belt round this country which is reserved exclusively for our own fishermen.
§ 10.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)
I represent a constituency which does not have a particularly large fishing interest, though there are a number of mid-water trawlers and a considerable number of inshore fishermen. At a time when the industry is in such a perilous financial state, it is absurd for the Government to propose the phasing out on 31st December of that assistance which has been of such value over the years.
I join in the pleas of those hon. Members representing constituencies with deep-water fleets, but I want to remind the skippers of those boats of the danger they cause to inshore fishermen by indiscriminate trawling very close to the shore.
I recently received a letter from a fisherman in my constituency. I have forwarded it to the Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office. The fisherman told me that £800 worth of damage was caused in one night by three trawlers which came in, completely disregarding his prawn creels and tackle. They trawled straight through and destroyed the lot. I advised him, as I have advised other constituents in a similar position, to contact the local procurator fiscal, who sent the protest to the Scottish Office. My constituent received a totally inadequate reply from the Scottish Office, despite the fact that he had supplied the names, and even, I understand, the numbers of the trawlers involved. I have also raised this question with the Under-Secretary and I trust that severe action will be taken and the interests of inshore fishermen will be preserved and upheld.
The hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) has already mentioned that the protection of inshore fishermen and 1400 deep-water fleets appears to be inadequate. I hope the Government will consider the implications of inadequately protected trawlers fishing in distant waters where they are obviously not welcome. As for inshore fishermen, the protection fleet has been reduced from nine to six, instead of being increased. It is high time that more realistic methods were adopted to protect those inshore fleets.
The situation, particularly on the west coast of Scotland, is that when the fisheries cruiser comes out of Stornoway every rogue trawler within a radius of about 50 miles knows that it has come out. The news is signalled from point to point, and all the illegal trawling ceases immediately. In this day and age the system of protection is not good enough, and the time has come for a more realistic method to be adopted.
I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to intervene in this debate. I particularly wanted to raise the plight of the inshore fishermen, who are so often forgotten, and I hope that the Minister will pay attention to what has been said.
§ 10.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)
We have had what I would describe as a short, sharp debate. The Minister of State rightly prides himself on the fact that he has visited a number of fishing ports around the country, and having visited a number of ports after the Minister has been to them I know that he has been there and that he is said to have listened to what the fishermen have had to say to him. However, after listening to the Minister tonight it seems to me that although he has listened to the fishermen he has learnt little or nothing, and one has to ask whether he has treated those visits as a public relations exercise and not in the way that they were publicised—as fact-finding missions.
The Minister's speech tonight was in sharp contrast to the speeches of hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who represent fishing ports. One would not have thought, from hearing his speech tonight, that the Minister had been to talk to the kind of people represented by my hon. Friends the Members for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg), Aberdeen, South 1401 (Mr. Sproat) and Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray). One has to ask whether the Minister has any understanding of the uncertainty and despair arising from the financial losses that the industry is sustaining. It seems that the Minister's visits, trotting from port to port with an army of civil servants before and behind him, are a bit of a waste of time if this is the sort of thing that emerges from them.
I think that the Minister might wish to forget what has happened, and I dare say he is wishing that he could rewrite his speech and make it again. In future, let him keep in better touch with the problems of the industry; in future debates on this subject, let him make speeches that reflect not what he would like to hear from fishermen but what he does hear from them. If he does not believe what I am saying, I can only say that the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) backs me up entirely.
The Minister had a bit of a cheek to accuse his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central of non-attendance at fishing industry debates, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity of putting the record straight, because a number of us on the Conservative Benches take the view that the hon. Gentleman is one of the Members on the Government side who take a continuing and permanent interest in this industry.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will not accuse my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) of exaggeration. No sooner had my hon. Friend resumed his seat than virtually the same was said by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central. There was no exaggeration in those two speeches. We had fine speeches from both hon. Members. I differ with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central only when he criticises my party, when in Government, of cutting the subsidy in 1970. I remind him that in 1970 we had a highly prosperous fishing industry. I can remember going, in that year, with my right hon. Friend the then Minister, to the Humber ports, where we saw for ourselves just how prosperous tie industry was at that time, and how little criticism there was over cutting the subsidies. But I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about there being no 1402 future planning in the industry. This really causes exasperation. That is a point which has come out in speech after speech.
We have to ask ourselves what the Government are doing if the Law of the Sea Conference, when it reconvenes in New York early next year, produces no fishing agreement, which we hope will come out before an overall agreement on some of the other more contentious matters. If, next year, the Law of the Sea Conference fails to provide a fishing agreement, what plans have the Government to deal with the likely extension by other nations to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone?
My hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) said that there was a real likelihood that, in the event of a failure to get a fishing agreement, countries like the United States, Canada, Denmark—which is already making preparations through Greenland—and Norway would create 200-mile zones. I have been talking today to representatives of the British Trawlers' Federation. They were extremely worried about this situation. They have authorised me to say that they see no evidence of the Government's preparations to deal with a move by other nations to 200-mile exclusive economic zones, so we must ask the Government to tell the House what their policy is to meet this real likelihood What will they do if this should happen? Will they take up my hon. Friend's suggestion that in the event of this happening they will call a regional conference of countries in this part of the North Atlantic to try to work out a zoning arrangement which is satisfactory to us all?
Again, there appears to be no future planning over the reorganisation of the common fisheries policy. Again, the British Trawlers' Federation's representatives tell me that they see no evidence of any headway in the renegotiation of that policy. So we have to ask what is happening. What moves are being made? As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South said a few minutes ago, as our fleet declines so does our bargaining position decline, as we renegotiate the common fisheries policy.
The whole background to the policy of this Government is one of uncertainty—an uncertainty that is matched 1403 only by the uncertainty that we find in the industry. Over recent months we have done our best, by trying to extract from the Government a statement of their policy. In recent years there have never been so many debates, both on the Floor of the House and in Committee, on fisheries matters.
We have a situation in our ports in which even some of our newest trawlers are tied up. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central spoke of modern freezer boats which had been tied up in recent weeks. This is not something which has been going on since earlier in the year. It has happened very recently. Boats are being driven back into our waters. We face a somewhat bizarre situation. I believe that the largest trawler in the whole of the British fleet has been driven back to catching mackerel within the seas around the Isle of Man and off the south-west coast of England. It is bound to cause immense tensions with the inshore fishermen when, for instance, off the south-west coast they have seen the "Arctic Galliard" trawling mackerel out of the sea and steaming up and down faster than most of the inshore boats can go when they are not fishing.
This increased uncertainty that surrounds the dispute with Iceland makes it all the more essential that the industry should know what the Government have in mind. The subsidy that we are debating has been vital for the period between the running out of our agreement with Iceland and the moment when the Navy moved in. At that time fishing was very difficult. Now that the Navy has moved in we are in a somewhat better position. The British Trawlers' Federation has told me that, with the Navy, things are going quite well, and that there is now firm evidence that we shall be able to fish commercially under protection in the same way as we did during our last dispute with Iceland. It tells me that the likelihood is that we shall catch far more fish than we could settle for in the negotiations. It is clear that to the fishermen who are operating in the waters which surround Iceland, and which Iceland has claimed as her own, subsidy is vital.
We must have an assurance from the Government that the subsidy will be re-introduced in the New Year if it should 1404 become necessary, as it was apparently necessary in the months that have passed. The scheme will help out until the end of the year, but we cannot go on for much longer with non-policies and the hand-to-mouth remedial measures that the Government introduce week by week. We are tired of having these fruitless debates, dealing with the major problems facing the industry, and receiving no answers. We must shortly have a definitive major statement from the Minister. If the Government plan a rundown of the industry, let them tell us. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said that we might have a White Paper. I agree with him that we must have a comprehensive account of where we are going. If the Government are not prepared to give us a White Paper or a definitive statement of their policy, we may have to fall back on the rather longer procedure of a Fleck Committee Report, or a new version of it.
I hope that the Government will take to heart the fact that the House is becoming increasingly bored and impatient with the drift from which the industry is suffering. I hope that they will regard the debate as a sharp warning, and that before long we shall have a much better idea that the future of the industry has been properly thought out, and will be properly implemented.
§ 10.50 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Hugh D. Brown)
I am conscious that references have been made to platitudes. It is said that the Government offer nothing but platitudes. It seems that this matter is now becoming boring, but there is a general lack of precision about the suggestions that are made as to what the Government should do about the fishing industry. I have been equally impressed by the same lack of constructive and specific suggestions from Opposition Members. It is easy for them to say that the Government should be showing more initiative, that they should be handing out more in subsidy, but at the same time they profess to support the idea that the industry does not want subsidies. Platitudes can work both ways.
It is easy to be critical when one has no responsibility and does not even exercise responsibility in the presentation of 1405 a case. I refer to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson). The case that he presented was cheap.
On previous occasions some of my hon. Friends have claimed that I have omitted to pay attention to what they have said, but on this occasion I have nothing to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) for saying. He was critical of the Government, and I thought that he was a little unfair. I shall deal specifically with some of the matters that he raised. I shall also take up the constructive comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) regarding a White Paper. I know that he raised the matter only a couple of weeks ago, when he was given an assurance that it would be considered sympathetically. I shall explain some of the difficulties in even contemplating a White Paper when we are going into a negotiating position not just with Iceland but with EEC and non-EEC countries on the question of the areas in which we fish.
It is extremely difficult and somewhat unrealistic for the industry to expect the Government to demonstrate in detail and with precision their aims and objectives. I assure Opposition Members that when they contemplate these profound remarks they will realise that they are being a little unfair in wanting a definitive and precise statement on limits.
It is suggested that we should state what we would regard as being a reasonable exclusive area for United Kingdom fishing vessels. Opposition Members know, none better than the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), who was involved in the original negotiations, that they are being less than fair. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating the industry's difficulties, but I think that he is exaggerating the ease with which his party would be able to solve these problems if it were in government.
I shall deal as quickly as I can with some of the questions that have been raised. I shall then give the background to some of the problems and an outline of what we are trying to do.
The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns referred to the losses in the various sectors. This is a matter that should be put in to perspective. We 1406 reckon that the average subsidy—these are average figures, and can vary between the different sizes of boat and within the same sizes of boats—works out at approximately 3 per cent. of earnings for the 60 ft. to 80 ft. vessels. I do not think that anyone would suggest that either taking that away or doubling it would make all the difference between having an industry—
§ Mr. Watt rose—
§ Mr. Watt rose—
§ Mr. Brown
The hon. Member is rising on a valid point that I thought I was making. Let me add to it. If the argument is put forward that the continuation of this subsidy is vital to the industry, it is a slight exaggeration. Obviously, no matter what the subsidy is—even though it may be only 3 per cent. of the earnings—it may be vital to the owners of some vessels, because it may be the difference between a profit or a loss. I am not an economist, but I would have thought that that was fairly obvious. [Interruption.] Are hon. Members now telling me that there is some fantastic figure between a profit or a loss? It can be as little as £1. Conservative Members should not be so supercilious about this. I know enough about business to know the difference between a profit and a loss.
Conservative Members should make up their minds. Is this subsidy significant, or is it not? I suggest that it is an important contribution, but that its importance should not be exaggerated by critics. I argue that, in limited circumstances only, it has made the difference between a profit and a loss for a few boats. It is not the solution to the fundamental problems facing the industry. Some hon. Members have suggested that if this subsidy is not continued there will be no fishing industry. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns when he asked about the earnings and losses in various sections of the industry. Of course, the subsidy has made a significant contribution, but it 1407 is not a matter of life or death to the industry's future, as he made it out to be.
I was asked whether the £6¼ million was paid out for the first six months. The answer is "No." Claims amounted to about £5 million.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why we were told by the Minister in his opening speech that it was £6¼ million.
§ Mr. Brown
When any amount of money that is available is based on conditions concerning the number of days at sea before a vessel qualifies, and similar factors, there must be an element of guessing. Hon. Members can read Hansard tomorrow. I assure the House that the Minister was not misleading it. He was merely saying that the money set aside totalled £6¼ million in the first year. That was only a factual point. I thought I was being asked what had been claimed as expenditure. [Interruption.] I cannot hear all these interesting comments. I am sure that they are clever and relevant, but as I cannot hear them I do not know whether they are good points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central, who is not present at the moment, was a little unfair in saying that we have no policy on limits. The Government have made their policy clear on numerous occasions. I am speaking here in the context of the EEC. We have said bluntly that we are the largest coastal State.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Notwithstanding the difficult point that my hon. Friend has reached, will he tell us what is the policy on fishing limits? I am interested.
§ Mr. Brown
We have said in the EEC that we expect the fact that we have the biggest coastal fisheries to be recognised 1408 in future discussions. That is as far as any Government can go in saying how they approach the problem. That does not mean that we do not recognise that, as we are in the EEC, in negotiations we have to bear in mind all the other considerations involved—not just fishing, but all the other industries which have perhaps attracted greater attention in the past, such as agriculture, or greater attention now, such as energy. Within that context, we have made our starting position clear.
§ Mr. Brown
No, I did not say that. I give the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) credit for not being stupid, but if he is not stupid he is deliberately misleading the House. I did not say that the livelihood of the people employed in our fishing industry was negotiable, but the hon. Gentleman must recognise that, just as cod is of vital importance to Iceland, so is wine of vital importance to certain parts of France and Italy. But perhaps Members of the SNP are not interested in the problems of working people in other countries. When we enter into negotiations we have a prime responsibility for looking after our people, but in negotiations we do not always get exactly what we want. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's farm workers do not get everything they ask for.
§ Mr. Brown
I do not know what I have done to attract all this criticism. I thought that hon. Members opposite were well informed of the position. Perhaps they think I am a bit soft, and are taking advantage of me. It is surely 1409 well known that it was my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and Food who, at the Council of Ministers meeting in April, raised the question of the review of the common fisheries policy. The procedure then was for officials of the Commission to report on the policy. That is the stage we are at. It was set in train as a result of our initiative, but it takes time to go through the machinery, prepare proposals, and report back to the Council of Ministers. We are pursuing the matter at both ministerial and official level.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I have a certain interest in this matter in relation to the European Parliament, where these matters are discussed. Will my hon. Friend answer a question put by Austin Laing, of the British Trawlers' Federation? Before any agreement is reached on an expansion of the limits to 200 miles, are there likely to be negotiations with Belgium and France and other countries involved about what should be done before agreeing to the outer limits?
§ Mr. Brown
Those countries are our partners in the EEC. I do not understand what my hon. Friend is trying to convey. Inevitably there will be discussions at official level with other member States before such changes in the common fisheries policy are negotiated.
Perhaps, in reply to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), I may be allowed a little nationalistic fervour. Surely the conduct particularly of Scottish fishermen who have been fishing off Cornwall for mackerel has been most exemplary, in terms of their willingness to discuss with the local community the best way of using the available fishing grounds there. In other words, the Scottish fishermen have been most concerned that apparently the only way in which they could make a living out of it was by going so much for fish meal. They have taken steps to try to increase the outlets for home consumption of mackerel. I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there was a degree of co-operation and understanding, helped by officials, which promises well for the future. I understand, regardless of the opinion of some of the local fishing community, that there will be no pirating. I think that there is hope from the experience of this year.
1410 Hon. Members have raised questions about the general state of the industry and whether earnings have been going up, and so on. This is a difficult matter. In some sections, earnings have gone up; indeed, in some cases they are 12 per cent. higher than last year. Nevertheless, I would be guilty of exaggeration if I suggested that that experience was anything like common, because in herring fishing earnings have been drastically reduced. I shall not minimise the general seriousness of the situation in the industry.
The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East spoke about mesh infringements and the general question of inspection and enforcement. Again, I may be lacking in diplomacy, but I do not think it gets us anywhere if it is assumed that no United Kingdom fishermen break the rules, because that is just not true. The corollary of such an assumption would be that one could not trust any foreigner. Perhaps this fits into the nice nationalistic chauvinistic pattern of the SNP, but in international discussions, whether it be with Norway or any other country, it does not seem to be a helpful approach to start on the basis that the other guy is a twister.
§ Mr. Henderson
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that our fishermen are not to be trusted but that the fishermen of other countries are to be trusted? If not, will he say in detail what policing methods are available and are used?
§ Mr. Brown
I notice that the hon. Gentleman, with his usual lack of courage, has dodged the question I have put to him. He is not saying that he admits that there has been law-breaking by Scottish or English fishermen—[Interruption.] I am exposing, I hope, the complete lack of honesty by Members of the SNP. I was saying that at a time when an industry is beset by so many problems it was not helpful to leave the impression that if we could do something about the foreigners all the problems would be solved. That is precisely the approach that I meet in SNP circles when we debate, I hope rationally, the problems of the fishing industry.
That approach is not helpful, because I firmly believe that fishermen are almost a unique group in the community. They have tremendous skills, and they have to 1411 face tremendous hardships. In any emergency they are willing to help each other. I want us to encourage fishermen to talk to fishermen and to discuss their common problems. Undue chauvinism from the SNP or from any other narrow nationalist party in any other part of the world is not helpful. This is part of the difficulty in agreeing a common fisheries policy.
I have had responsibility for these matters for 18 months, and I shall not accept all the blame and responsibility for the state of the fishing industry, but it is fair comment to say that it has been hit with almost everything one can imagine. The United States market has been an extremely important factor in the fortunes of the industry, on both the processing side and the catching side. There has been tremendous change in the past couple of years. Sad to say, the Japanese had something to do with it—
§ Mr. Brown
I am suggesting to the hon. Gentleman that he cannot solve the problems of the fishing industry in Fraserburgh unless he is prepared to adopt a more international outlook than he is apparently willing to do. We cannot deliberately ignore the world economic factors which have an influence on the prospects, performance and opportunities of the fishing fleet.
There is a world recession, which is plainly a factor that must be taken into account. There has been the pressure on this country of imports from countries affected by the decline in the American market. There was a 50 per cent. increase in the cost of oil in 1974. The fishing industry has been extremely badly hit by oil prices, because oil is a major element in its costs. It was one of the reasons for the subsidies. Of course, the industry is also hit by general inflation.
I turn to the question of safety provisions—the little extras that have been pushed into a difficult situation. People complain because they are frustrated—they do not know whether there is a good future for the industry. It is a pity that there is not greater recognition of the fact that these safety regulations 1412 have been discussed with the industry for years and should have been implemented in the years of plenty. Hon. Members can protest and say that it is not the right time, but often that has been the argument of those who were never greatly concerned about safety regulations in any industry. These are the small, unfortunate things—they are more than pinpricks—that have been flung in to this difficult situation, and I admit that they have added to the worries and concerns of those in the industry.
Probably the greatest difficulty of all has been the introduction of a quota system. Why are there quotas? Who is arguing that there should not be quotas? Not one hon. Member has suggested that we should not have conservation policies. We cannot have conservation policies without quotas and without entering into a new situation in which we have to reach agreement with others who at present have a legal and legitimate right to fish the seas. This kind of new situation is not easy for fishermen, for those who obtain their livelihood from the sea, or for the Government, to face.
I do not claim that this Scheme is any more than a modest contribution. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile contribution to help the fishing industry. I can appreciate the pressures. It is more than a public relations exercise to go round ports. The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has a great capacity for saying cheap things. If we do not go round a port, that is wrong and if we do, we are trooping round with civil servants in front of and behind us. Did you do it any differently? Do not be so cheap or childish. I believe that it is well worth while for Ministers to talk to those who have the problems. Probably I have done more of that than any previous Under-Secretary. It is a recognition that there are problems in the industry. Do not be so trivial about it. At least you should give us credit for being concerned about it.
§ Mr. Henderson
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to accuse you of being cheap and trivial?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Morton)
The Chair is aware that there 1413 have been occasional lapsi linguae but I understand what the Minister says.
§ Mr. Brown
Obviously most of the references should have been made directly to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East.
I hope that in the difficult circumstances that I have outlined at least the Government will be acquitted of the charge of not being concerned about the industry. We are extremely concerned about it. This is a modest contribution, to help the industry get over difficult circumstances. I make it quite clear that the major element in the fishing industry's salvation, in the short term, is an improvement in prices. We shall do everything we can to help that. I am not prepared to dodge any unpopularity that that may result on the part of housewives or consumers. It is something that has to be faced. We shall not shirk our responsibilities. I hope that in future we shall get a little more credit and a little more support and understanding from Opposition Members.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the White Fish and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) (No. 3) Scheme 1975, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th November, be approved.