HC Deb 30 June 1975 vol 894 cc1021-95

3.33 p.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

On this day, when the Opposition have the choice of subject, we have decided that we want to raise the problems of the fishing industry, which are so serious at this time. I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture is here. I know that he has had important engagements elswhere, to which he was kind enough to ask me. We are grateful that he has come here and genuinely sorry that he has not been able to fulfil his other engagements.

Of all who work around the country and around our shores to supply the essential needs of this nation, none work more dangerously and more uncomfortably than the fishermen. No one—I include the coalminers—leads a tougher and harder life. We should certainly begin by expressing our admiration to our fishermen. But today our admiration is not enough. Today the fishing industry is in a serious mess—perhaps the most serious crisis that almost anyone in it can remember since the days of the war. The fishermen face great financial losses, ships being tied up and scrapped, considerable unemployment and even greater uncertainty about the future.

There are two main reasons why the industry is in this situation—first, the economic squeeze that it is suffering and, second, the uncertainty about the future, to which I have referred.

Taking first, the economic squeeze, fishermen and owners of boats are in a pincer-like grip, with sky-high costs of operation on the one hand and very low returns on the other. As a consequence, they face considerable financial losses. As an example, I would refer to some figures, produced the other day by the Scottish Trawlers Federation, which were sent to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, whom I am also glad to see here. In them, the federation's accountants show that on average the boats operated by their members over the six months to the end of March this year showed an average loss of £19,000 each. When one deducts the subsidy which they have received, that means that each of those boats in Scotland has had an average overall loss of £16,000.

However, even more up to date than figures for the period ended last March, I was interested to read in Fishing News of 20th June of a Hull trawler which came into that port after 19 days at sea and sold its catch for £22,560. The local manager of that line was quoted as saying that two years ago that same catch would have realised £35,000–55 per cent. more. He also said that, apart from the low return, the oil costs of that trip were four times what they were two years ago and that the bill for the trip alone came to over £5,000.

But it is not only the cost of oil which is putting up the costs of operation of our fishing fleets. They are having to face vastly increased wages. I see that there is a new wage claim in at the moment. High interest rates hit the industry hard. There is also the increased cost of gear and the large amount which has to be written off on those most expensive boats which use modern trawling techniques.

But these costs are matched by low returns. The price of fish, like those of other meats, has been depressed over the last year or 18 months. The price of fish has been affected indirectly by the world beef glut, of which we have spoken so much over the last year or so. The price of fish has also been affected by the lack of demand, particularly in the United States, for cod, which in the past they have traditionally imported from European waters and European countries.

As a consequence of the falling off in demand in the United States, we have felt increased pressure from fish supplied by other countries to British markets. This, too, has contributed to depressing our prices of fish here, which have added to the problems which our industry faces.

As an example of the impact of imports of fish into this country, in the first three months of this year the price of imported frozen cod was down by 32 per cent., while the quantity was up by 33 per cent. That shows the increased pressure on our own industry of the extra supplies and the lower price of fish.

The effect of increased operating costs and lower returns has naturally meant that with the losses has come the consequent laying up of a large proportion of our trawler fleet. The latest figures I have seen show that no fewer than 112 trawlers have been laid up and scrapped out of our fleet since January 1974. I have had estimates given to me by the industry that, unless the Minister does something fairly quickly to deal with the matter, another 60 trawlers will be put out of operation before the end of this year. So the Government must take action to stem this decline in the size of the fleet. We have had a very much faster decline in this country than has occurred in almost any other country in the North Atlantic and North Sea area.

Apart from the figures that I have quoted, there has been a large consequential decline as well in our inshore fleet. We must never forget our inshore fleet, which supplies about 59 per cent. of the volume of fish landings in Britain.

With all these trawlers and inshore boats going out of action in the course of the past year or 18 months, what does this mean in terms of the amount of fish landed in this country by our own fishermen? Again, the latest figure that I have seen is that since January 1974 the catching capacity of the British fishing fleet has declined by 93,000 tons. I am told that, if this decline continues, by the end of the year, if these extra 60 trawlers are put out of action, it will mean a decline of 160,000 tons per annum of whole fish being landed by our trawler fleet alone.

The value of all that fish—160,000 tons —I have had estimated at about £50 million. So the consequence of inaction will be that, if the decline in the size of our fleet continues, we shall have to spend at least an extra £50 million a year importing fish as a consequence of the decline in our trawling fleet alone. That does not take into account the very important size of the inshore fleet and the share of our fish supplies that it has.

Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that, if this decline continues, in the future we may have to spend up to £100 million a year extra on buying from other sources fish which would otherwise have been caught and provided by the British trawling industry.

Therefore, who can doubt the anxiety of our fishermen as they see their share of the market and the size of their fleet declining rapidly? Can anyone be surprised that there have been no new applications to the White Fish Authority within the past year for help in building new boats?

The House has previously debated the problems of the trawling and fishing boat building industry. That industry is in very serious difficulty indeed. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us today of new steps to be taken which will provide confidence again so that our fishing boat building industry can see orders coming in which it has not seen for so long.

I believe that the whole attitude of the fishing industry was summed up in a letter sent on 20th May by the British Trawlers Federation to Members of the House who have fishing interests in their constituencies, which said: The industry is in danger of total collapse but very few seem to be noticing or caring. Today we on this side are having this debate because we care. We care about the loss of capacity and the lost use of resources to the country. We are concerned and care about the lost employment. Already over 1,000 jobs have been lost. I have seen estimates that, if the decline continues, another 1,500 jobs will be lost. This is only in the actual fishing operation. It does not take care of all the ancillary jobs in processing, packaging and distribution which inevitably go with it.

It seems strange that the Government should be presiding over this sort of decline and such hard terms at the same time as they have produced their White Paper on the agricultural industry—"Food From Our Own Resources". I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that there is no basic difference between the production of food from our soil by British people and with British resources and the production of fish from our seas by British people and with British resources.

I was interested in some remarks which the Prime Minister is quoted as making at the Royal Show at Stoneleigh only this morning. I copied them straight off the tape just before I came to the House and I read them as quoted on the tape: It made sense to expand food production in Britain. If that is what the Prime Minister thinks, I greatly hope that we shall hear this afternoon of new steps and new proposals by the Government to give new confidence and the hope of expansion again to our fish-producing industry in the same way as the Government have proposed for our food-producing industry from our soil.

Apart from the problems of the economy, there are also major problems of uncertainty facing the industry. I spoke about those in my opening remarks. There is a whole range of areas where there is uncertainty. We have seen over the past months the debates which have been carried on at the Conference on the Law of the Sea. Unhappily, these talks have broken down temporarily. I know that the breakdown has not primarily been about fishing, although this has featured in it.

I am sorry that the talks have broken down, but it remains our policy on this side of the House to support a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around our coasts. I hope that the Government will tell us that they will continue to press for this. We on this side also believe that there should be an area within that 200-mile EEZ which is restricted to United Kingdom vessels. We believe strongly that consideration should be given to the interests of coastal States like our own. We greatly hope that the Government will insist on keeping a 200-mile EEZ exclusive area for our own vessels.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

As the North Sea is not exactly 400 miles wide, do I take it that the hon. Gentleman wants, like myself, a median which is 11 miles off Dover, 50 miles off Yarmouth or Lowestoft, and 150 miles off Hull? Is something of that nature what he is after?

Mr. Jopling

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. There is very little argument between the two sides and in places outside the House about how to deal with an area like the North Sea, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is not 400 miles wide. There is little argument about how it should be split in the way the hon. Gentleman describes. I accept that.

The general view, both in the House and outside it, is that a 200-mile exclusive economic zone will come, and we hope that it comes as soon as possible. Here lies a cause of uncertainty. Not only do our fishermen not know for sure whether there will be a 200-mile zone, but there is uncertainty about what might happen in the meantime. We have all heard rumours. We have heard stories in the Press and elsewhere that in the meantime, pending some agreement at the Conference on the Law of the Sea, some countries might be tempted to go for a 200-mile zone unilaterally. We have heard rumours that the United States and Canada might do this. It has been suggested that this would trigger off Iceland and Norway to do the same sort of thing. Therefore I hope the Minister will tell us what his attitude is to these threats. We have suggested that in the meantime there might be some sense in our Government engaging in bilateral talks with Norway particularly, and perhaps Iceland as well, to see whether we can form some agreements, say, up to 50 miles, from our coasts. I hope this is regarded by the Minister as a helpful and constructive suggestion. It may be that nothing would come of it, but we believe that there is opportunity here for an attempt.

The Commissioner in Brussels, Mr. Lardinois, has been making very welcome noises to the effect that if Norway or Iceland were unilaterally to declare a 200-miles exclusive economic zone, the Community would react in a very forceful way. I welcome that statement. I hope the Minister will give his full support to Mr. Lardinois. I am sure the whole House will agree that now that we are full members of the Economic Community our hand is strengthened very much in the event of some of these countries being tempted to declare unilaterally a 200-miles zone.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's argument with close attention. It seems to me that if he is arguing the use of the strength of the Community to negotiate against Iceland's unilateral declaration, it is contrary to his earlier argument that he hopes to say to the Community "We are going to declare an Iceland on you", which he was calling for in the earlier part of his speech.

Mr. Jopling

I do not think I have done that. I do not recall any part of my speech in which I have done so. I hope the hon. Gentleman will read Hansard tomorrow. I do not think he will find that I said that at all.

I hope the Minister will tell us that it Iceland and Norway were unilaterally to declare a 200-mile zone there would then be no question of those countries fishing in similar zones around our own coast. I hope this will be understood in those countries—that if they declare a zone unilaterally they must expect to give up all their rights to fish in areas close to our coasts.

The next form of uncertainty to which I should like to refer is the important matter of the conservation of stocks. We have recently seen a recommendation which the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission thrashed out a few weeks ago. We hope very much that those proposals will be ratified by the member countries. As I understand it, it needs only three countries to refuse to ratify these suggestions for them to be void. There are rumours—the Minister will have heard them—that it is likely that three nations will refuse to ratify the Commission's recommendations. I hope the Government are using the diplomatic machine to its fullest extent to try to persuade any potential dissidents from these recommendations into ratification. It is very important. Indeed, it is absolutely essential, and particularly for this country, that we take every possible step to conserve the fishing stocks around our coasts.

The truth is that some nations in the North Sea and beyond have fished regardlessly and irresponsibly in the past few years. Some countries have scooped certain parts of the North Sea and the North-East Atlantic clean of certain sorts of fish, and some of those countries are now turning to the waters around our coasts with the intention of scooping them clean, too. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that he will be taking every possible step to ensure that the conservation of stocks is very high on his list of priorities.

It is also important that the Government do all they can to institute proper policing, where there are quotas and agreements, in the waters around our shores. There has been a good deal of cheating by various countries in underreporting catches, and it is important that that is dealt with.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman also will use his best endeavours to control industrial fishing of edible species, because we have seen in the past far too much of countries scooping all sorts of fish, including many under-sized fish, which should be the breeding stocks of the future, and including them in their fish meal catches.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do what he can to reduce the menace of beam trawling. I know that there are various parts of our country, such as Brixham, where beam trawling is an important part of the local economy, but it is generally felt that beam trawling is an evil, and I hope the Minister will continue to do what he can in this matter.

I think that our fishermen have behaved very responsibly in connection with the conservation of stocks. I was very impressed by a remarkable offer by the Scottish inshore fishermen to stop altogether the fishing of herring off the North-West coast of Scotland during the period June to September. This seems to exhibit the height of responsibility, and I am very glad that it was our fishermen who made such a generous offer.

Let me now turn to what we want the Government to do in this crisis and in this time of difficulty. I hope, first, that the Government will use this debate to assert their determination to help the fishing industry, and tell us what action they intend to take to protect this form of our food-producing industry. There is the opportunity of taking positive steps in the European Community. I believe that the common fisheries policy has been shown by events to be inadequate in modern times. I do not believe that the common fisheries policy can cope with the probability in the next few months, as I hope, of a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. I do not believe that the common fisheries policy, as it is, is capable of dealing with the degree of inflation of the costs of fishing and the need to recoup from the Market the cost of producing the fish. Nor do I believe that the common fisheries policy is able now to cope with a Community of Nine nations as opposed to the Six for which it was originally designed.

The recent fisheries package which the Minister brought back from Brussels and told us about does not seem to me to have had much effect. The industry has described the package as irrelevant. It has described the cold storage scheme as being too meagre. It has said of the export restitution scheme that it cannot stimulate any substantial exports. With regard to reference prices, the industry has said that they could have been very useful indeed if they had been fixed at realistic levels.

We want from the Government an assurance that they will take urgent steps to modernise the common fisheries policy, as it has become out of date in the course of the last year or so. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will tell us of the Government's determination to stand firm on the rights of our inshore fishermen after 1982. We believe very strongly that preference should be given within the Community to coastal States and their inshore fishing fleets.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

I hope that in the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the situation—and I am sure he would agree that much more could have been said but for the short time available—he would nevertheless emphasise that the vast majority of inshore fishermen are one-boat owners and that this is a characteristic of the traditional family supported occupations. Therefore they need special treatment within the context of the Common Market in order to assist them on matters already raised.

Mr. Jopling

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would visit my constituency and make a speech such as that which he has just made to the self-employed there, because not many of them take the worthwhile view that he takes about the antics of the Government.

Finally, we must have Government action on the extension of the White Fish and Herring Subsidies Scheme. As the Minister well knows, that scheme expires tonight. I confess that I am somewhat surprised that the Government have not already extended it. I am astonished that they have not made an announcement in the course of the past few days about the future. I shall re-read to the House the remarks of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when we debated in the First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments on 21st May the scheme which has run for the past six months and which expires tonight. The right hon. Gentleman said: More and more voyages were returning a loss. An increasing number of vessels were being scrapped, laid up, sold or put to other work and, without some ray of hope of future improvement the rate of rundown of the fleet was in danger of reaching unacceptable proportions, with all the social, economic and structural problems that that would entail. And of course a severe rundown, once the less economic units of the fleet have been eliminated, could only mean loss of catching capacity for the future, with later shortages and high prices to consumers or an increase in the import bill which the nation can ill afford."—[Official Report, First Standing Committee On Statutory Instruments: 21st May 1975, c. 3–4.] If I had had to take a text for what I have said this afternoon, those remarks by the Minister would have been my text, because that was the gist of what I have been trying to say. However, since those days matters have not improved. We still have all the problems which I have mentioned. We are still in danger of having to import more fish and we are still in danger of many more boats having to be tied up and more people losing their jobs. Matters are not even just the same today; they are worse.

Therefore it is essential that the scheme is renewed today. If it is not, this country will be the only country within the European Economic Community not to aid its fleet in this way. At present the Norwegians are spending about £45 million on giving this sort of aid to their fleet. We look forward to the Government's announcement today that the subsidy will continue for another six months. Indeed, Mr. Lardinois in Brussels has said that it should happen. I have no doubt that the Minister was one of those who raised his hand in Brussels to allow governments to give this sort of aid. That related to the problems of horticulture. The Minister agreed, in Brussels, to let other countries subsidise and support their fishing industries, and he should not deny aid to our fishing industry.

The Opposition are in favour, as we have said, of reduced Government spending overall. However, we have always said that we are prepared for increases to be awarded to certain sectors, and help for the food-producing sector is one. The continuation of this scheme will cost around £6¼ million in the next six months. We believe that that is a small price to pay. It will save imports, and we must have the scheme. It is essential that it continues because it is vital to the industry's survival.

We shall listen carefully to what the Minister says this afternoon. We are anxious not to vote on this issue. We believe that support for the fishing industry—and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), who is chairman of the All-Party Fisheries Committee, will agree with me—has always been on an all-party basis and we are anxious not to break that tradition. However, we reserve the right both to vote this afternoon and to return to this topic later. I hope that it will not be necessary to do so. Above all, I hope that this debate will serve to draw attention to this great and important industry and to its need for this vital assistance from the Government.

4.5 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has pointed out that the fishing industry is facing a difficult, if not critical, situation. I believe that he is right, therefore, that we should debate this matter today. I agree with him on many matters that he has analysed. However, I cannot agree with him about his constituency. He must also remember that his own leader has made a plea for cutting down public expenditure. I shall deal with the matters he has raised on subsidies later in my speech, together with all the other points he has raised.

I am glad that I have been able to open this debate, but I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is not able to be present. He took part in the two very successful meetings I had with the All-Party Fisheries Committee. I was glad that the hon. Member for Westmorland paid tribute to that committee. It is a forum that I have always attended and at which we discussed—not as party people—the issues affecting the fishing industry. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has made a careful, moderate and constructive speech and I make no complaint. Obviously he has a right to say that the Government must do this and that, and he has a right to ask me for my views. Like myself and the Minister of State, he has been visiting fishing ports. Indeed, I was at Lowestoft not long ago, and I have also visited Hull. I have also met the fishing industry. It is right that I should understand the policy of the industry.

The industry is as important as the agricultural industry in the sense that it catches and produces food for the British people. I would not argue with the hon. Gentleman that the industry faces serious difficulties. I will begin by taking an overall view of what has caused them.

The hon. Gentleman made a fair analysis and I want to elaborate on it. Basically there are three causes. First, the industry faces serious economic difficulties which are linked to the economic difficulties facing the economy generally. Secondly, there are problems arising from the over-exploitation of fish stocks and from the need for conservation measures. Thirdly, there are difficulties which stem from uncertainty about fishing limits—both those of the United Kingdom and of countries off whose coasts our deep-sea fleet traditionally fishes. These three problems are separate in their origin but, as I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, from his analysis, they interact on each other.

Problems of the economic return from fishing are exacerbated by the problems of fish stocks. As a result, confidence in the industry is affected and confidence is further damaged by worries about future fishing limits. Our Scottish friends have raised this over and over again. I shall come on to discuss each of these problems separately and how they affect our fishing industry.

Before I do so, however, it is worth making a general point about the industry itself. We often talk about it as though it were a single entity. But, of course, it is not. Our fishermen compete not only with foreign fleets but also with each other. Individual sections of the industry have their own problems, and the solutions to the problems of one sector can cause difficulties for other sectors. For example, small boat fishermen might well see advantage in excluding from grounds they have traditionally fished bigger and more powerful boats based elsewhere. But protection for the one would be at the prejudice of the other. Similarly, unilateral action in the interests of inshore fishermen to exclude vessels from third countries from waters off our shores could precipitate comparable action elsewhere to the detriment of the distant water section of the industry. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), who is Chairman of the All-Party Fisheries Committee, would agree with me on that issue.

The Government have to take an overall view and try to act in the interests of the United Kingdom industry as a whole. This is a heavy responsibility and one which I take seriously. I believe that our fishing fleet is the biggest in the Community and an important national asset.

I said that I would be looking in more detail at the causes of the industry's difficulties. The first of these is economic.

In 1972 and 1973 the first-hand prices of fish rose sharply along with the prices of other food commodities due to circumstances in world commodity markets which no one could have foreseen. In Western Europe food processors hastened to build up stocks of frozen fish because they thought prices might rise further. The result was that heavy stocks were accumulated and have not yet been dissipated. They still overhang the market and depress prices.

Over the last two years the market in North America, mentioned by the hon. Member for Westmorland, which has traditionally taken substantial supplies of West European and Scandinavian cod has been taking instead, as he knows, heavy supplies of Alaskan pollack. So the cod supplies which normally go to the United States of America and Canada have also been depressing prices on the West European market. The result has been that first-hand prices of fish have been static or even falling since the middle of 1974.

The industry might have withstood the pressure arising from static prices but for the increases in costs. They were led by the savage increases in the price of fuel which began in September 1973 and continued until very recently. This has meant not only that fishermen have had to pay more for their oil or petrol but also that gear such as nets which are made from materials extracted from crude oil is also much more expensive. Together with the general inflation of costs, the industry has been caught in a severe cost-price squeeze.

I must emphasise—as I do today—that the Government have not stood idly by. We knew that some contraction of the fleet would be right, particularly after the boom years of 1972 and 1973, and also in the knowledge that fishing nations around the North Atlantic and North Sea would have to reduce their fishing efforts in order to conserve stocks. The Government did not allow the squeeze on the industry to continue unchecked. We thought that a serious structural situation might be developing, and so my hon. Friend the Minister of State announced a system of temporary aid for the fishing industry on 27th February. We expected to inject aid to the tune of £6¼ million by means of a daily rate payment system operating for the first six months of this year.

Now I accept that the aid made available did not satisfy everyone. No system of Government aid ever has! But we were able to give help to the vessels which provide more than 90 per cent. of the nation's supply of white fish and herring, and these are, in the main, staple foods and a cheap source of protein for the housewife. This is important because we are concerned with the nation's food supply.

I have been asked about an extension of the subsidy. I should like to be in a position today to say whether and in what form this aid can be continued, but I say to the hon. Member for Westmorland that I am afraid that I cannot do so. However, we are considering the question urgently and carefully, and we shall announce our decision as soon as possible. I cannot go beyond that today.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend hope to be making a statement before the rising of the House for the Summer Recess?

Mr. Peart

I hope that I shall make a statement. I cannot go beyond that. I am certain that my hon. Friend understands the politics of this matter.

Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)

Are we to gather from what the right hon. Gentleman is saying that this could form part of the economic statement to be made later this month by the Government?

Mr. Peart

I cannot pre-judge this matter. This is something specific in which I am involved and interested. I can say no more at this stage.

A moment ago I mentioned the housewife. Even though fish is a source of relatively cheap protein, the housewife has seen the prices on the fishmonger's slab rise and stay high, and inevitably in her mind there must be a question of why there is a wide gap between the quayside price of fish and its price on the fishmonger's slab or in the fish and chip shop. The Government have taken action here also, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection has called upon the Price Commission to make an inquiry into the marketing margins and distribution of fish. I mentioned this at the meeting of the all-party committee. We want to know why this gap exists and if it can be justified. Only an inquiry like this can tell us.

I turn to the question of imports. A lot of people would have liked us to ban imports as a means of helping the industry. But that proposition, I assert, is not realistic. Firstly, it would have meant taking action against friendly nations like Norway and Iceland. Secondly, it would mean taking action against the housewife, because we need those imports to help satisfy the demand from the consumer. The problem was much more one of price than of supply. After informal discussion at official level, the Norwegian Government unilaterally set up a minimum export price scheme which was aimed at avoiding disturbance of the market in the United Kingdom. This was a help, despite criticisms.

The Council of Ministers in Brussels had also recognised the serious nature of the problem affecting the market for fish, and at its meeting on 28th-29th April a package of measures was made up. We took the initiative here. The package was aimed at alleviating the depressing effects on the fish market of the heavy stocks of frozen fish. For us in the United Kingdom the most important measure was the introduction of reference prices for frozen fish. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Westmorland to criticise this. I believe this was a gain and an advance.

It is worth saying more about this point. First, it is a permanent system under the control of the Community itself and applicable to the whole Common Market. Secondly, if supplies of frozen fish enter from third countries below these reference prices, the Community can restrict or even ban the imports.

Thirdly, these are wide powers but they are powers that will have to be used with an eye to balancing the needs of consumers and of producers. Then, of course, the level of the prices can be reviewed in the light of experience. Fourthly, the prices are broadly comparable with those in the Norwegian scheme. Some are a little higher, some are a little lower, but the general effect is the same. The important point is that the system is now on a permanent and Community-wide basis and under Community control.

Mr. Leadbitter

My right hon. Friend's last few words, "under Community control", are the operative words. Whether or not these advantages, which he declares have been gained—which I am not prepared to dispute—both with Norway and with the EEC, will my right hon. Friend say to what extent they have been acceptable to the British fishing industry?

Mr. Peart

I think that generally people in the industry have broadly welcomed this. This is a major advance because it gives us the power to ban exports coming in below a reference price. This is what the fishing industry has always wanted. We can use it as we wish. I believe that the British presence in the Community—it is for this reason that I defended it—will make an important contribution to the development of this policy. I shall come to that later.

I should like to refer now to conservation measures. How right the hon. Member for Westmorland was in stressing this matter. It is a matter of common knowledge that the fish stocks in the waters that we normally fish are running down. The reason is simple. Bluntly, the seas are being over-fished. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. In these circumstances it is natural that pressure should arise for us to take measures to conserve our stocks, particularly in the waters nearer our coasts, and this pressure is very understandable. But we must take a broad view. The most effective conservation measures are those taken by international agreement, because the stocks of fish can migrate from place to place, and hence they can be fished by fishermen of many nationalities. The fish swim about—

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

Is the right hon. Gentleman sure?

Mr. Peart

—and we must therefore think of waters outside our own control when dealing with these matters. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is being humorous, and he is a former fisheries Minister.

Always when discussing conservation we must think beyond our own unilateral position. That is all I am emphasising. Conservation, therefore, is an international problem, and its solution must also be international. It is all very well for people to be brave and talk of unilateral action. Unilateral action will give no solution to our problems in these matters. As hon. Members know, the United Kingdom is an active member of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and of the International Commission for the North West Atlantic Fisheries.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

May I revert to the right hon. Gentleman's last point about unilateral action? Does he recall the situation in the 1960s when fishermen were asking for the limit to be extended to 12 miles? The Government at that time said that we could not take unilateral action and when the time actually came we were the last North Sea country to do it?

Mr. Peart

I believe now, in view of what has happened—I have referred to the discussions in the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, and our negotiations with other countries—that it is far better to try to achieve an international solution. I am sure that that is so, though I understand the argument which the hon. Gentleman puts. I am emphasising that it is important that we seek to negotiate an international agreement.

The North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, which I regard as the more important body from the United Kingdom point of view, has just held its annual meeting, as hon. Members know. At that meeting, it was agreed to recommend new quota arrangements for herring in the North Sea and the West of Scotland, as well as for sole and plaice in the North Sea, the English Channel, the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea. Catch quotas have also been determined for cod stocks in the important north-east Arctic fishery.

The continuation of the present quota schemes for the stocks of cod, haddock and whiting in the North Sea and other major fishing grounds around our coasts will be discussed at the Commission's special meeting in November.

I know that there has been some reduction in some of the quotas, and these reductions are not popular. Nevertheless, the sacrifices have been borne by all and serve, I believe, our longer-term interests in our efforts to ensure a continuing supply of fish.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am grateful to him for taking up certain questions with his colleagues on the Continent regarding quotas. When he says that the schemes are to remain until November, he should bear in mind that the quotas for Scotland are so small that the industry there will go out of business this summer, and in the meantime it seems that the Danish and the Icelandic quotas remain huge for industrial fishing.

Mr. Peart

I acknowledge that, and, as I informed the right hon. Gentleman, I had unilateral discussions with the Danish Government about that. I shall pursue the matter before November. The same will apply to Iceland. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to mention that, although I did intend to refer to it later.

As I said, I realise that the reductions in some of the quotas are not popular, but I believe that the proposals agreed last month for a complete ban on industrial fishing for herring represent a step forward in the rational management of fisheries resources. This is where the view expressed so often by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) is important, and, as I mentioned, he will recall that I discussed the matter with him before the NEAFC meeting and I spoke to the Danish Minister concerned.

While some fish stocks are of value only for reduction for industrial purposes, the unregulated use of valuable human consumption fish for this is, in our view, a deplorable waste of the stock's potential as a food resource. The United Kingdom delegation played a major rôle in these discussions and has tabled for further discussion at the special meeting a range of proposals for even stricter control of the by-catch of protected species caught in industrial fisheries.

Taken together with the extensive range of existing regulatory measures covering the mesh of nets, minimum sizes for fish and international joint inspection of vessels, all these measures represent a major advance towards the more rational utilisation and conservation of the stocks on which the livelihoods of our fishermen depend.

When dealing with the conservation of stocks, I referred to the pressure for some extension of fishing limits. I said that I could understand this pressure for us to undertake a unilateral extension of limits in order to protect our stocks, but this would not necessarily result in a benefit for our industry. I doubt that a unilateral extension could be enforced if other States chose to disregard it, and there is no reason why they should accept it. Furthermore, reckless action on our part could jeopardise international conservation measures where we have recently made the progress which I described a few moments ago.

Hon. Members will know that at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea we supported the principle of the 200-mile economic zone. This would give coastal States sovereign rights over the resources of fish within 200 miles of the coast. It remains—I repeat this today, in response to the request by the hon. Member for Westmorland to know my attitude—the policy of the Government to participate in a general extension of limits by international agreement.

I come now to Iceland and the question of the 200-mile limit. We knew that the Icelandic Government intended to adopt unilaterally their own 200-mile limit some time this year. A recent announcement by Iceland's Prime Minister, therefore, did not add much to what we already knew. Nor does it necessarily make any difference to what our fishermen may catch off Iceland. Almost all the fish we take there is caught inside what Iceland already claims to be her 50-mile fishery limit. The fishing activities of our vessels are governed by the interim agreement which the previous Government negotiated in 1973. This agreement expires in November, but it is the Government's aim to initiate a new agreement providing continued access to Icelandic waters for our vessels. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

I come now to the common fisheries policy of the European Community. This was raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland, and I was questioned about it also by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). So far, I have talked in rather general terms about the 200-mile limit for fisheries. But there is an aspect of this subject of great importance to us. I know that there is a good deal of concern in the industry about how we might be affected by the provisions of the Community common fisheries policy relating to access to fishing grounds if and when the 200-mile limits become generally adopted. I fully share that concern. We shall probably have to accept that a decline in distant-water fishing opportunities is likely. This will put pressure on the fishing industries of all Community countries. But the United Kingdom, both in terms of the size of our industry and by virtue of the wealth of resources around our coasts, is the most important fishery nation in the Community. I have stressed that over and over again to M. Lardinois and other Community representatives.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. It is disturbing to some of us who represent inshore fisheries that in the agenda presented to the House last week for the next round of talks there is no question of bringing up the EEC fisheries policy.

Mr. Peart

If one wishes, one may always take an initiative. I have done that on previous occasions. I shall look carefully at the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I have already stressed this and I hope that hon. Members will accept what I have said. We have a major stake in this matter and will want a favourable outcome of any talks or negotiations. We are also the most important consumers of fish in the Community. Nor do I forget that certain parts of this country are very heavily dependent on the industry. It is not just a question of producers and processors. Many other people are also involved.

For all of these reasons, I called upon my colleagues in the Council of Ministers to initiate a re-appraisal of the common fisheries policy in the light of the changes likely to emerge from the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference. I was glad to see how readily my colleagues in the Council accepted this suggestion. I criticised the fisheries policy when the hon. Member for Westmorland was defending his Government. I have never particularly liked it, but it is there and it has to be adapted. I made clear in the Council that I was not rejecting the concept of a common fisheries policy but that it was necessary to adapt the policy to meet a situation quite different from that in which it was originally formulated.

Now that our membership of the Community is confirmed, in quite unambiguous terms, I am glad to say, we are in a position to press ahead with this task, and I hope that I shall have the support of every hon. Member and all parties.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

As the right hon. Gentleman is calling for the support of the whole House for the adaptation of the common fisheries policy, can he outline the form of the adaptation for which he wishes support?

Mr. Peart

That would take another long speech, but I am asking for support because of the failure of the Law of the Sea Conference to reach agreement, and the importance of protecting the producer and the consumer. Decisions have to be taken on reference prices backed by the Community and on limits which would be affected by a 200-mile economic zone or by the actions of other Powers. These are matters which we can discuss in the Community and we can come forward more strongly with a Community plan.

I will not speak for much longer as this is a short debate, but I cannot disguise the fact that there are difficult problems for the fishing industry. I repeat that the Government will stand by an economically operating industry, rationally exploiting the resources open to it, and an industry which provides an essential part of the nation's diet. I am glad that we have had this debate and I hope that it will be continued in a constructive way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Before calling the next hon. Member to speak, I would remind the House that there are 15 hon. Members who wish to speak in the two hours left for back benchers.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)

I very rarely quote from my past speeches, not because they do not deserve quotation but because I do not wish to encourage other hon. Members in this practice. Long ago in my maiden speech in a fisheries debate, I suggested that whatever the unknowns of the agricultural industry, the harvest of the land, compared with the harvest of the sea, presented a glorious certainty. This has possibly become even truer over the years, except that the relative uncertainties are harder to measure in the light of the general dreadful uncertainty in which we all have to live.

The fishing industry's present lack of confidence is all too evident and the reasons for it are disturbingly compelling. Most of them have already been mentioned by the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), so I will keep my references brief. There is the uncertainty about future limits, and the impossibility of planning investment until final decisions have been taken by the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference. There is also the difficulty that demand for our catches in Britain depends on a number of factors, only marginally connected with the fishing industry in this country. There is a need for effective and enforceable arrangements to make sure that there are fish to catch around our shores in a few years' time. There is the fear, very much held by the inshore fishermen in my constituency, of interference with their traditional methods of unloading their catch, and, above all, there is the economic squeeze, beyond which new burdens being proposed for the industry seem likely to be the straw, or shall I say sprat, which will break the skipper's back. Some of these doubts can be more easily resolved than others. The common agricultural policy has admirable objectives, but is sometimes less than admirable in operation. Similarly, changes in the common fisheries policy are necessary.

In all the discussions I had with fishermen in my constituency before the referendum, I expressed the confidence, which I still feel—and I was heartened by what the Minister said—that changes which Britain could negotiate would relieve at least part of this uncertainty. Although it is only part of the problem, successful action on limits could bring us a great deal nearer a constructive policy of conservation than complete reliance on what has been a far from satisfactory quota system.

The present threat to the fishing industry is miserably undeniable. No one, not even the Minister, has tried to deny it. It contains several other serious contributory threats—the threat of further burdens on our balance of payments, which is very serious, the threat of additional unemployment, and, perhaps more serious of all, the threat of a permanent and irreplaceable loss of fishing capacity in this country. A dangerous reduction of capacity has already been forced on the British industry in recent months—alone among members of the Community.

There will be very great disappointment about the delay—I am giving the Minister every benefit of the doubt—announced for the decision on the continuation of the oil subsidy. It will bring disappointment even if he agrees to continue the subsidy. It might reduce, though it will probably not arrest, the decline about which we are now complaining, and it has contained in the past no comfort for the smaller boats. I imagine the Minister will argue questions of cost and administrative difficulties, but these seem very small beside the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland for extending it to smaller boats, which are in very great need. I have never felt that subsidies should be a permanent, or could be a satisfactory answer to our economic problems, but our fishermen, if they are to continue, and it is surely in the interests of Britain that they should continue, must be assured of a fair return for their labour. They are not getting that at present.

It is very foolish to make comparisons with other occupations, but it is undeniably true that thousands of people are now more richly rewarded for work that is less arduous and difficult and for which the reward is much more certain. It is also foolish to compare the case of the inshore men with that of the larger boats except that they land more than half our catch and are, therefore, entitled to at least half the consideration the Government give to the whole industry.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

Will the right hon. Member give way?

Mr. Wood

No. I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me. If I am to conform with your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I dare not sit down for the hon. Lady.

Like many other hon. Members, I firmly believe that the Government are answerable for a great deal of the uncertainty and anxiety which now besets most of our productive enterprises. I do not take the view that the lack of certainty and confidence in the fishing industry can so fairly be laid at the door of the Minister himself and I applaud the sympathetic visits which the Parliamentary Secretary has made to fishing ports in my part of Yorkshire and in other parts of the country. I want to plead for energetic action to arrest the decline before it is too late.

4.41 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

I do not intend to take a great deal of time in this debate, nor to develop many of the interesting points which have already been made. I want to concentrate on the position of the deep and middle water fishermen who are members of my union and who are my constituents or who live in the other constituencies in Hull and Grimsby.

I was a little disappointed that my right hon. Friend was unable to say anything more positive about further help for the industry. We implore him to make a statement as early as possible on this matter, which is of vital importance to the industry. Over the last year employment prospects in this industry have been severely curtailed. Unemployment of registered fishermen in the port of Hull has nearly doubled, and that has taken place in an area which already had above-average male unemployment—8.2 per cent.—and where employment opportunities are fast disappearing. In spite of our hopes for the future in terms of people bringing home money from full employment to buy food for their families rather than living on unemployment benefit, the job opportunities are rapidly diminishing. It is not a happy sight to see the number of unemployed fishermen nearly double in the last 12 months.

I am concerned not only in terms of what is happening in Humberside as a whole, but for the employment prospects in the other major fishing ports where the members of my union are employed. Because of the regional location of these ports and because of the distribution of industry in the rest of the country, their employment prospects are severely limited. At the beginning of last year there were 375 trawlers. At the end of this year we shall be lucky if there are just over 200. Every time we lose a trawler we are immediately losing 20 or 30 jobs, and in the long run there is a further loss in terms of employment in shipbuilding and in all the services associated with the fishing industry.

This is why it is of the utmost importance that when my right hon. Friend negotiates on the common fisheries policy he looks at the question of the sea limits. That is also why an early decision is vitally necessary. All the questions of investment policies, the types of vessels to be used and the agreements we will have to enter into bilaterally with other nations are of the utmost importance not only for confidence in investment but in order to maintain employment in our areas. My principal aim in this debate is to stress the importance of these aspects.

The problem is further heightened by the fact that fishing is still a casual industry. For those who work in it, whether skippers or deckie learners, it has none of the cushions which exist in ordinary urban industry. There is no Contracts of Employment Act and no Redundancy Payments Act. There is no proper Government registration scheme for cushioning fishermen at times of unemployment. This degree of unemployment percolates not only through families but throughout the whole community.

When my right hon. Friend is conducting his negotiations he must consider what is to happen to the middle-water and distant-water fleets and what their future holds with a 200-mile economic zone for all nations. What steps will the Government take to help to restructure this industry, in terms not only of the immediate interests of the employers but of the men who are employed in the industry who have represented its sinews in both real and metaphorical terms since the industry has operated from Humber-side.

This is an important and pressing matter. In this brief speech I will not go into all the intricacies of the negotiations which have to be made at intergovernmental and Community level, but in terms of basic bread and butter issues and the livelihoods of many of our constituents and their families and of those working in the associated industries two things are vital. First, we must have an early statement of the Government's intentions to help the industry. Secondly, the Government must press for decisions as quickly as possible on a sensible common fisheries policy—and new fishing limits in the rest of the world—which will ensure the livelihoods of our constituents.

4.46 p.m.

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

All the Members taking part in the debate today are well aware of the seriousness of the position facing the industry, and that point does not need to be laboured. I was struck by the number of working fishermen I have seen in the last few days who were far more aware of our proceedings than usual. They knew that Parliament was to debate fishing this afternoon and they are looking to our debate with greater concern and attention than our debates normally attract. They will be bitterly disappointed if there is no clear indication from the Government on certain vital issues this afternoon, particularly on the future of the fuel cost subsidy and the time scale within which the Government hope to do something about adapting the common fisheries policy. I hope that in his reply the Minister can proceed a few paces further on these issues.

The immediate priorities for the industry must surely be the safeguarding of stocks and the safeguarding of the fleet to catch those stocks. The safeguarding of the stocks involves such measures as banning the industrial fishing of species which can and should be fished only for human consumption and not for industrial purposes, by ensuring that we get a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, by ensuring that if there is unilateral action by any other country we are not left behind, and by regulating the catching of threatened species.

We must safeguard the fleet by looking again at the fuel cost subsidy. I am quite sure that the Minister has no figures which would undermine the case for continuing the subsidy for a period. I suspect that he is aware of the need to continue the subsidy, and I hope that he has been impressed by the number of hon. Members who have stressed the difficulties of the owners of small vessels and of the shell fishermen. I do not believe that the situation and the evidence available to the Minister have changed. I believe, and I hope, that he is involved in persuading his Cabinet colleagues how serious the situation is and how badly needed is this public expenditure. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is successful in impressing upon the rest of the Government the needs of the fishing industry. This is no time to put a precipitate end to the subsidy.

No one wants the fishing industry permanently propped up by an external subsidy. That is the last demand any fisherman would make. Fishermen are naturally independent people who do not want to live their lives on a subsidy, but they must have some indication of the structure the Government have in mind for the industry. It cannot be restructured on the basis of a stampede to lay up vessels resulting from the serious economic situation.

The Minister will have seen demands for a fleet-scrapping subsidy. Sections of the fishing community are asking for help to get out. They want to know how they can reduce their capacity quickly without bankrupting themselves or the concerns in which they are involved. We need from the Government an indication of the shape of the future fishing fleet, rather than an assumption that we can take away the assistance now being given and rely on the fierce market forces now operating to cut down the fleet.

It cannot be the case that the kind of collapse which is going on in some sections of the fishing community is what the Government seek. I assume that they have a clear view of what they believe the future fishing fleet should be, and I hope that they will give us some inkling of their views. It is no good supposing that the product of the present market forces would be a sensible future fishing fleet. All of us who represent fishing constituencies know that it would not be. We should like from the Government a clear indication of what the future fishing fleet should be and how they are prepared to see the fleet go through the present situation and reach that point, rather than go headlong into precipitate collapse.

I said that no section of the industry would want permanently to be propped up by a subsidy. Therefore, I particularly draw the attention of the Minister to the attempts of the industry to help itself and organise itself for the future. In this there is no more important element than the producer organisations. The Minister has said on a number of occasions that the inshore section of the industry in particular could be very much better orgainsed than it is. I think that he would value better and more effective communications with that section of the industry. He would like to see it organised on a sounder footing. The basis for that exists in the developing producer organisations.

I have in my constituency the headquarters of the Anglo-Scottish Fish Producers' Organisation. I hope to have from the Ministry and the Scottish Office a clearer indication of a readiness to support and develop the self-help activities of the producer organisations than there has been so far. We are bound to be worried by the fact that the Ministry did not want to see the Anglo-Scottish Fish Producers' Organisation participating in the working group on the white fish quotas when it met in March this year, and refused to have a delegate or representative from it at that meeting.

The producer organisations are entitled to ask for Government action to help them with the problem of the compensation payments that they make. The present arrangements under which the producer organisations try to pay the compensation for withdrawal quickly, so as to ensure the continuity of operation of the scheme and to discourage fishermen from pulling out, impose a heavy burden on them, or mean their having to obtain a bank loan with security, because the repayments from European funds take such a long time to come through. Other countries have been able to help by making bond arrangements, which relieve the producer organisations of the heavy overdraft payments involved. There seems to be no reason why the British Government should not consider help in this aspect of the self-help which the fishing community is trying to carry out.

Another problem affecting the producer organisations is that if the system of maintaining a reasonable return for fishermen is to work they must be able to come to some arrangement to enable them to operate outside their own areas. The nature of the fishing industry is such that landings take place at different ports. Some of those ports are outside the home area of any one fish producers' organisation. This presents serious problems. Whereas it was assumed at first—and all the indications from European Community organisations suggested this—that the producers' organisations could operate outwith their own immediate areas, the Ministry and the Scottish Office seem to be taking a very different view My local fish producers' organisation points out that as of tomorrow a fleet will congregate at North Shields for the summer herring season. As the supply of herring is so small, rigorous rules for landing and marketing must be applied. We can certainly control our boats but 50 per cent. of the landings may be by Moray Firth boats. These cannot be controlled by us as they are not our members. They cannot now be controlled by the Scottish Fishermen's Organisation as they will be landing out of the SFO 'economic area'. The whole system of rules is therefore liable to break down. I ask the Minister to look at the situation carefully.

The fishing industry, with Government encouragement, is trying to help itself. In the very nature of fishing, if every landing which takes place outside a home area is outwith the scheme the whole system will break down and another attempt at self-help will go by the board.

Overhanging the thinking of practically every hon. Member who has taken part in the debate have been the recent discussions of the North Atlantic Group on the question of herring. Little more needs to be said, except to echo the feeling of concern at the existence of quotas for industrial fishing by countries such as Denmark, and the apparent unwillingness of those countries to work within the obvious need to produce edible fish primarily for human consumption when stocks are endangered. We welcome the Minister's statement that he is prepared to continue diplomatic pressure. This is an issue on which the full range of our diplomatic resources needs to be applied.

The concern we have in our area about the Seahouses-Longstone herring fishery is strengthened in this situation. We shall be very worried if non-traditional fishermen move into that area simply because they are no longer able to work elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) expressed great concern about the future of the common fisheries policy, and professed to express great concern about the inshore fishing fleet. But it was his Government who failed to negotiate a 12-mile limit along that very stretch of coastline, and left North Northumberland with only a six-mile limit. I wish that concern for the inshore industry had been present a little earlier.

I turn to two matters of particular concern to the inshore industry. The first is lobster stocks and the Edwards Report, a matter that the Minister has under consideration. I hope that he will treat it as a matter of urgency. Lobsters are another species endangered by commercial exploitation.

I hope that the Minister will realise that it may be necessary to apply different solutions in different areas, and that certainly in an area such as Northumberland it will be necessary to confine the landing of lobsters to bona fide fishermen in registered vessels. Some of the statements that have emanated from the Department and elsewhere have been rather worrying. The Northumberland Sea Fisheries Committee wrote in a recent letter: The Ministry were quite adamant that the licensing of lobster fishermen would not be countenanced. The committee may not be an authority on the Ministry's thinking, but such tales are going abroad, and fishermen in Northumberland are very concerned to see that the regulation of lobster fishing is properly carried out, and that the landing of lobsters is confined to those who are doing a proper fishing job and are earning a living by fishing. We cannot afford a free-for-all with that species any more than with others.

I should also like the Minister to examine the problem of the landing of crabs, which is becoming increasingly serious. The need for the inquiry on fish marketing, which took so long to set up and for which we asked over such a long period, is clearly illustrated in this case. Fishermen in my constituency landing crab receive 70p-80p a stone. Even in the local shops—and the situation is much worse in London—customers are paying more than 70p each for crabs; the process of boiling, transporting, marketing and so on cannot require that amount of profit. In some parts of the country it is difficult to obtain crabs at all.

Something very peculiar is going on in crab marketing. It is extremely trying to the fishing community, for whom crabs are an important part of the work, to find that they are restricted to one or two days' fishing a week because the only outlets to which they can go are imposing very restricting quotas on them. This point was borne in on the Minister of State when he visited the Northumberland coast recently. I hope that he has not forgotten what he learnt then, and that the Ministry is looking closely at the problem.

I hope that the Minister will persuade his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to move more quickly on the issue of seals. It is ludicrous that we should be arguing about conservation of stocks when between 8,000 cwt. and 14,000 cwt. of fish are being consumed each week by a seal colony which all the naturalists and conservationists agree is too large for its own good. It requires serious action on the lines of the cull carried out some years ago, when the job was not finished. Everyone concerned recognises that we need action soon.

To sum up, we need a national fisheries policy to cover all the species which are fished commercially, to take into account the needs of each area in which fishing is carried out, and to resolve some of the difficulties arising between sections of the industry.

These questions also need to be resolved within the new EEC fisheries policy. If there was ever a case for renegotiation, it was the common fisheries policy. In the whole renegotiation exercise many things which could have been achieved perfectly well within the Community, without any great song and dance, were dealt with under the title of "renegotiation". The one issue on which the EEC was almost totally wrong, the fisheries policy, was the one which was not brought under the umbrella of renegotiation. I agree that something was done at the last minute as a result of the right hon. Gentleman's efforts, but it was at the last minute and did not go anywhere near as far as is required.

All these things must be done within a new framework of an international fishing policy, which puts an end to the grossly irresponsible and cavalier fishing of species on which we depend for future food supplies. The fishing industry of this country wants to hear from this debate that both the Government and Parliament are dedicated to these ends.

5.1 p.m.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

The fact that the Minister has been unable to say whether any help can be given to the fishing industry will, I know be very disturbing to everyone concerned with the industry, particularly because we have had the experience of the horticulture industry, where help was given and was cut off and not continued in any way at all.

I should like to remind the Minister that, quite apart from the difficulties with costs and other matters which the fishing industry was experiencing in February when the Minister introduced the scheme, there has been a still further increase in the cost of gear, and in the rentals of electronic equipment which come up for five-yearly renewal. There are also the increasing annual insurance premiums on vessels, so that, quite apart from the high costs back in February, these costs have been building up all the time.

The Minister also spoke of the differential in price between what is received on the quayside and what is paid by the housewife. I made inquiries in my own constituency, in Pittenweem, this weekend, where haddock is the main species landed. A 7-stone box of haddock makes on average about £7.50 per box, and out of that is produced 38 lb of fillets. The 38 lb of fillets, when sold, make between 50p and 60p per lb. This means that the housewife's price, £7.50 per box having been the price at the quayside, goes up to between £19 and £23.

Whatever we may say about asking for a continuation of subsidy, I find that everyone in the fishing industry is agreed that subsidies should not be built in as a permanent feature of support for the industry. But, without subsidies, how else are people to get the money? The only way is by increasing the price on the quayside. Surely this is a matter that must be given top priority.

There is also the question whether help should be given to prawn fishermen. They are at the moment excluded from any schemes of help. Many people think that prawn fishing is done only by small boats. In my constituency we have boats up to 50 ft. and 60 ft. in length involved in prawn fishing. If it is not possible for them to go on doing this they in turn will be forced into fishing for some other species, increasing the pressure already there, so would it not be wise to try to give this help to prawn fishermen?

The Anglo-Scottish Fish Producers' Association, in recommendations which many Members will have received today, suggests that there should be a minimum size for prawns to make certain that prawn stocks are not over-fished, resulting in permanent harm and damage to a very valuable fish which ought to be preserved.

I hope the Government will take practical steps to consider the renewal of the subsidy. In doing this it might be worthwhile for them to look at some of the anomalies that have come up in the past six months. Might not it be better in some ways to relate the subsidy to the horsepower of the vessel rather than its overall length? I feel that vessels of about 40 ft. should also be brought into consideration, because the one point the Minister has made on many occasions is that he wishes to have a unified fishing industry speaking to him. If we are to have a unified fishing industry, surely all fishermen must receive the help and aid which the Government give, and there should not be a cut-off line at an arbitrary length.

A great deal is said now in all fishing debates of every sort about the Law of the Sea Conference, but I cannot help feeling that we should not expect too much from it in the immediate future. This conference, I believe, has been adjourned until next March in New York. I doubt very much whether concrete agreements will come out in March-April of next year. The conference will go on until the year after. Even if some agreement were to be reached, it would probably be at least two or three years after that before all the countries ratified it, so that, when talking of the results of this conference, one is talking in terms of anything up to five and six years ahead.

We need to do something particularly concerning the North Atlantic area and the North Sea. If some interim agreement could be reached, would this not be an impetus to getting something agreed by the Law of the Sea Conference? I think it would help if something concrete could be seen to emerge from the areas for which we have responsibilities.

Hon. Members have mentioned the need to renegotiate the Common Market fisheries policy. This may be so, but many of the fishermen to whom I have spoken say that the greatest dangers—apart from some trouble with industrial fishing, which hon. Members have already mentioned—come from the non-EEC countries. This is what they feel is the danger in the North Sea area and the North Atlantic.

With this in mind there is urgent need to get something done on an area basis as an example to the rest of the world. If we could do this we should be taking a positive step to help the industry. This would be very much better in many ways than a financial subsidy. It is the action of convening a conference and getting people to sit down and solve our difficulties that the fishing industry feels we need at the present time.

5.7 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Although I am apparently the only Member on the Government benches I do not intend to take 16 times as long as any Member on the other side, who number 16.

This is a very vital debate. It is more than merely important: it is vital. It is not a post mortem. It is not even an autopsy. I have enormous faith in our people in the ports, as all hon. Members must have. Although the Minister is not here for the moment, I want to ask him in his absence: does he wish to have a healthy and viable industry? The answer is obviously in the affirmative. We all do. What is he going to do about it? That is the question I ask in his absence.

In the last debate some weeks ago, having heard the howls of anguish that issued from the BTF, I said that we had heard all this before. We thought that it might be crying "Wolf". Although I have said this often before, I do not think I was correct then.

I have in my constituency the biggest deep-sea fleet west of Murmansk; and I have been down at the dock lately and talked to quite a few people—not merely owners but skippers and all grades through to deckie learners. If hon. Members were to take a walk in West Hull on a nice Saturday morning, as I did last week, they would see ship after ship laid up in St. Andrew's Dock. The trawlers are there, and, in my view, they will not come out again. Although the vessel owners have made millions in the past—particularly in the last few years since the Labour Government of 1966–70, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) was the Minister, when they were given their sliding-scale subsidy scheme—there is no doubt whatsoever that at this moment they are not making millions. There is no doubt that Associated Fisheries and many other firms are losing quite a lot of money.

The only part of the Fishing News report about this with which I quibble is the statement that At the time the A.F. results were being announced, the British Trawlers' Federation was circulating fishing port MPs with the message that the industry is bleeding to death. The article went on to say that few of us seemed to be noticing or caring. That is nonsense, of course. I know that I can say on behalf of my absent colleagues that no hon. Member who represents a fishing port does not feel that people who fish in the dangerous conditions of the Arctic are not the most intrepid of men. If we did not stand up for them, we would not be in this Chamber today.

Owners face huge costs in fuel charges, inflation, dearer gear, higher wages and the like. As a result, half the wet fishers and side-winders in Hull will not sail again. If fewer boats go to sea, fewer fish are caught. If fewer fish are landed, there will be fewer men employed in catching and landing fish. Already we see rising unemployment in the fishing industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) said earlier. This affects not only deckhands but dockers as well. Hull owners are obliged to make men redundant, and numbers have been voluntarily agreed. Representatives of my union, the General and Municipal Workers, have met the owners, and we have scaled down the original figure of 82 redundancies to 32, which is quite an achievement.

Having said that, however, it is extremely important that the men who catch fish have security. Even if, unfortunately, some have to lose their jobs, like many other workers in different walks of life, it is extremely important that those who stay have security. Both those who catch fish and those who land it are not in the national dock labour scheme. Men who are now in their fifties will soon finish. They will get nothing like a golden handshake and nothing like the redundancy payments looked forward to by men who work on the commercial dock alongside them. This applies to both those who go to sea and those who land fish. It is very important that we have improved working conditions—and that these men are not only paid better wages but are also given de-casualisation. They have to be given guaranteed jobs with firms. More important, after a career lasting 35 or 40 years, bearing in mind that a boy can go to the Arctic at the age of 15—it used to be 14—they deserve fair treatment at the end of their years at sea.

In the light of all this, does my hon. Friend the Minister of State accept the figures of the BTF? If he does, what does he intend to do about them? We heard today that a decision would be made as soon as possible. I would have preferred my Government to say "at the earliest possible moment". We cannot wait until the end of July. It is important in the next few days that the mandarins lurking behind the doors of the Treasury and allocating money for other departments should make up their minds. These men who go to the Arctic and other waters cannot wait too long. It is essential that the waiting period is as short as possible.

We are debating this issue at the 12th hour. I gather that at 12 o'clock tonight the £6.25 million subsidy is to finish, and down will go the shutters.

Another matter touched upon earlier was the fact that the United Kingdom has not merely magnificent men but a magnificent fleet. We have the biggest and best fleet in the EEC. As a result, our bargaining position is strong. What is happening about the common fisheries policy? Fishing has never been a party issue, and there is deep dismay in all parts of the House about the existing set-up in the EEC. That applies especially north of the Tweed.

We have had the Law of the Sea Conference, which settled nothing. But the consensus, not merely among BTF members but among people in Scotland and other areas, is that we shall move towards an exclusive economic zone of 200 miles. There is no doubt about this. I find the trawler owners in my constituency as adamant about this as anyone in Chile, Senegal, Canada or Iceland. It is bound to come. If it comes inside the CFP, where we are committed to no discrimination amongst the nine partners, what do we do?

Earlier in the debate, I asked the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) about this matter. I hope that, like me, he wants an immediate 11 miles at Dover or Folkestone, possibly 50 miles at Lowestoft and 150 miles at Hull, Aberdeen and so forth. If we have that, what happens on our side of the median? Not only our old neighbours like Norway and Iceland but now the Communist States are fishing off Scotland, Yorkshire and Northumberland, so it is vitally important that we barter or have "swops" with the Norwegians and the Icelanders. There is no doubt that we shall still catch fish off Norway and Iceland; even if they advance limits not 50 but 200 miles. If we are allowed to catch 100,000 tons off Norway and Iceland, by the same argument we should allow the Norwegians and Icelanders to catch herring, mackerel and the like off our shores.

I want to see a halt called to the immoral behaviour of EEC nations like Denmark, with industrial fishing, and France. The French are completely amoral—they may be immoral as well—and they poach outside our southern Channel ports.

Besides fighting for the median, we have also, as partners in the common fisheries policy, to stand up for better conditions for our fishermen. This is not impossible. We have heard the Minister say that his Common Market colleagues are sympathetic. Even more important, Mr. Lardinois has been laying down the law—at least, I understand he has. If the Minister does not do so, there is no future in the common fisheries policy, bearing in mind that it was originally shaped for six partners and not to suit the Irish, the Danes and ourselves.

This is so important. Everything is on our side—logic, history, decency, morality and equity. Now we need tough Ministers who will fight inside the CFP.

I turn now to the question of industrial relations, which have been notoriously bad in the fishing industry. This is shown in the feeling between owners and men, certainly in the deep-sea and distant-water fleet in Hull, and I am sure that the same applies also in Fleetwood and in Grimsby and Aberdeen. The employers have been a law unto themselves. But if they are now asking for £6 million or more of taxpayers' money for the second half of the year—and I hope they will get it, as they should—they must offer a quid pro quo and behave slightly better towards their employees and accept decasualisation in the industry.

Even more important is the question of giving workers on the docks and elsewhere a decent emolument or "handshake", as we term it, when they leave. That is certainly not happening now. I took my General and Municipal Workers' Union deputation to the Department of Employment last week. In Hull we were deadlocked on the issue since the employers are making bobbers redundant, and are not giving them anything additional for severence payment.

I have asked the vessel owners about this matter. Some were willing to chip in to a kitty in order to give the men a little extra money when they are finishing their work, but the majority will not. For example, British United Trawlers might put in £40,000 for its fleet, but there are smaller owners like Mike Burton, of Newington Trawlers, who has four boats. If the fleet is to keep going to sea, and if we are to vote subsidy for the industry, it is vitally important to get better relations between owners and the men on the dockside.

My right hon. Friend referred to the all-party committee on the fishing industry, of which I am chairman. More important, he is a unique Minister. He is doing something that No. 10 Downing Street has stopped doing. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is the only Department whose Minister and his colleagues, together with the Minister of State, Scottish Office, comes along to such a committee with his Civil Service advisers and answers any questions that members of that committee may put. Nothing is barred. He and his colleagues do their best to answer. No other Department attempts such an exercise.

My right hon. Friend hinted today that one of his first tasks after the debate is to meet our all-party committee and stand up to a volley of questions. I can tell him some of them now. What is happening about the limits? What does he intend to do next time he sees Mr. Lardinois and company? If he can get the necessary assurances from these gentlemen on behalf of our industry, we might get somewhere given hard work and toughness from our Ministers who go to Luxembourg or Strasbourg or any other "bourg".

5.24 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

In such a short debate, and with so many hon. Members wanting to speak, it is essential to stick to the basic objective, of the debate. This is a Supply Day, and it is no secret that we had intended it to push the Minister into making an announcement about an operation subsidy. In that, we have failed. But, as a Member for a fishing port, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman. He is approachable and he visits the fishing ports frequently. His summary today of the problems of the industry was excellent. There is no question of his ability. We question his strength. Is he strong enough to stand up to the Treasury? If he is not we shall not have a fishing industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), who so ably opened the debate, spoke about a Hull trawler and the losses she has made on a voyage. I would refer to a Grimsby trawler which recently returned to port having grossed £28,000, a good-to-average receipt. But the fuel bills were £27,000, and on top of that were the wages, costs and so on. That trawler has been taken off the active list and may well be scrapped.

I appreciate that the Government, as a point of principle, do not want a fuel subsidy for the fishing industry, since every other industry would want it as well. Hence the temporary operating subsidy, which ends today. I take it that every vessel which has been in receipt of a subsidy and sails tomorrow will receive no subsidy as from then. This must surely mean that many vessels will not continue sailing.

The EEC has extended permission for member States to give subsidies up to January next year. Norway is giving £45 million. But we are giving our market to foreigners as well as our fishing. Already, 93,000 tons of catching capacity, or 14 per cent. of our demersal fish production, has been lost. That means an import bill of £100 million in substitution. There are huge stocks of frozen cod in Iceland and Norway and as has been pointed out, the American market is now taking stocks of Alaskan pollack.

The result of all this is that two British trawlers a week are being taken out of service. Last year 78 distant-water vessels were taken out of service, 42 have gone out of service already this year, and there is the possibility of another 50 going the same way unless something is done immediately. There are virtually no orders for new building; all that is in hand is completion of ships already under construction. As a result, 1,000 people on the production side of the industry have been made redundant. together with about 100 from the managerial ranks. Crews are losing their jobs, and those who remain are, naturally, because of inflation, asking for more pay. It is the usual vicious circle, which is making things even more difficult for the companies. Associated Fisheries lost £4½ million on its trawler operations in half a year, and no company can stand that sort of loss for long. In Hull 58 bobbers are to be made redundant, and unemployment has doubled in the last year.

Mr. James Johnson

I hope the statement will not go unchallenged that Associated Fisheries has lost £4½ million in fishing alone. Would the hon. Gentleman care to check that figure?

Mr. Wall

I understand that to be the figure. It was stated in the Press that it was on the trawling operations. It is a very large sum.

The operating subsidy has been with us since the day of the Fleck Report, which is quite a long time ago. It was introduced because we were losing fishing grounds because of extended limits. The original scheme was phased out by the Conservative Government and the present Government brought in the temporary subsidy, which ends today. Last Thursday, when I asked about the continuation of the subsidy, the Minister told me that it would not be helpful to make a statement at this stage. That was a rather unfortunate expression. It is most unhelpful that a statement has not been made, because the situation is so serious. There must be a statement in the very near future if our fishing fleet is to survive. If the Government want a fishing industry, they must do something about it. We do not blame the right hon. Gentleman; he is doing his best. But he should point out to the Treasury that the balance is £100 million in the cost of imports as against £6¼ million in subsidy. There is no stronger case for a temporary subsidy than that advanced on both sides of the House today.

I now turn to the question of boats. Despite the Law of the Sea Conference, there is going to be pressure for unilateral action. Iceland says that her limits will be extended in November, and there is the possibility of other, larger, countries following suit. I agree that such a situa- tion would be unfortunate because we should then have chaos and anarchy on the high seas, which would not be of benefit to anybody, particularly a great fishing and trading nation such as ours. I understand that Icelandic representatives were here in the last few days to discuss the problem. What was the result?

The right hon. Gentleman said that he wants to negotiate a new agreement with Iceland when the present one ends in November. It is important for us to know how far negotiations have gone. Such negotiations take time, and if they have already begun that is a good start, because we remember what happened on the last two occasions. We do not want another cod war. That is the last thing that either we or, indeed, Iceland want.

However, I believe that international pressure will not stand any further delay of the Law of the Sea Conference beyond next summer. The pressure for a 200-mile EEZ will then become absolutely irresistible. As has already been said, when we extended our limit to 12 miles we did so after everyone else, we had been talking about it for years and indeed, I had raised the matter here on many occasions, but we were still the last nation to extend our limits.

I hope that when we are allowed to do so under international law the Minister will be fully prepared to extend our limits. Those limits must be protected. It is useless having a 200-mile limit around our coast if we cannot protect it. Protection of oil rigs, anti-pollution and air sea rescue should all be brought together within one composite force. We want not only the vessels which have been provided for the protection of oil rigs but vessels equipped with helicopters so that we can catch poachers quickly. We also want one or two fast patrol boals, which would be of use to the Navy in time of war.

I agree that we do not want to take unilateral action and we hope that others will not do so, but are the Government making adequate provision for extending our limits if we are allowed to do so next summer? Are they providing shipping, aircraft or helicopters to protect the new limits?

I turn now to the fish themselves. The Law of the Sea Conference is designed to protect fish stocks. I am in possession of all kinds of evidence which I cannot read to the House because there is no time. That evidence is from fishermen and especially those in the South Coast constituencies who have gone to Belgium and France and looked at the fish markets and fish quays and seen immature fish for sale. We must do something about this. There is an international law, but we must do more to ensure that it is enforced by other countries. We enforce it scrupulously, and it is time that our partners in the EEC followed suit, because at present it is unfair and causes strong feeling in the fishing industry.

I support those who are pleased that the North-East Atlantic Sea Fisheries Commission is banning industrial fishing for herring. I hope that this will eventually be extended to other forms of fish. It is an extremely wasteful form of fishing. Fish meal is obtained from offal and so on. To fish for edible fish and use it in fish meal is an awful waste of world resources.

I turn finally to prices. A housewife who pays 80p to £1.20 for sole begins to wonder what all the fuss is about and why the trawlermen are making a loss if she has to pay such a price. She forgets that the Sussex fisherman who caught that sole is getting only 28p a pound. We need the Prices Commission to which the Minister has referred. I hope that when he winds up the debate he will be able to say that we shall get action and an interim report on this matter soon. We cannot wait too long. I realise that it is a very complicated investigation, but it is a matter of extreme importance to the housewife as well as to the industry.

To sum up, I suggest that the immediate problem of the fishing industry is fuel costs. The future problems will be those of conservation and limits. Therefore, the industry will be in a difficult situation for some years to come.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House firmly believe that Britain needs a fishing industry. Our fishermen lead tough and dangerous lives. They want our help, and they will get it, leaving party politics aside, from both sides of the House. Party politics does, I am glad to say, not come into this matter. We agree that the first and foremost require- ment is a decision from the Government about an operating subsidy at the earliest possible moment.

5.34 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

There have been very few occasions in the House when the Scottish National Party has been grateful to the Opposition, but we are grateful to them this afternoon, for having given us the opportunity of using this Supply Day to debate the problems of the fishing industry.

It must be placed on record that my party has been pleading with the Opposition for the allocation of a day, for months now, in order to debate this subject. As was pointed out to the House in the Consolidated Fund Bill debate in January there has been a great deal going on in the fishing industry over the past two years. It is not mere coincidence that seven of the 11 Scottish National Party Members of Parliament sit for fishing constituencies. It has been obvious to us in Scotland that the fishing communities have been greatly concerned about what has been going wrong. In the meantime matters have been going from bad to worse.

Throughout the 16 months that my colleagues and I have been in Parliament we have tried to use every parliamentary method to get action from the Government. There is not one member of the Government Front Bench who has not felt the lash of our tongues on this matter, and yet throughout all that time they have chosen to do nothing. At Question Time, during business questions, and in every other way we have sought to get action to save the industry, and it has all been to no avail.

At the same time fishermen in every port in Scotland have had meeting after meeting voicing their frustration at the continuing inactivity of the Government and of the Civil Service alike. Their frustration culminated, as we all know in their outstandingly successful blockade in April.

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman may disagree with the action that was taken about the operating subsidy, but it was welcomed by the industry. He may disagree about reference prices over a wider range of frozen fish, but that was agreed to by the industry. I believe that this action was useful. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, whose views I always respect and listen to very carefully, will be sensible in his approach.

Mr. Watt

This action was taken, and was welcomed at the time, but it was obviously too little and too late. As we have heard today, the subsidy is not to continue. Therefore what possible good can the interim subsidy have been to the industry?

I was saying that the fishermen's frustration culminated in their outstandingly successful blockade in April, when virtually every port in Britain was brought to a standstill. In that blockade the fishermen of Britain showed the country just what reasonable people they were. They never sought to hinder any emergency case, nor did they keep the blockade for one moment longer than they believed it to be necessary. When their case had been heard they thought that their legitimate needs would be met. After only four days they lifted their blockade as swiftly and as efficiently as they had brought it into being.

The fishermen, by their action that week, won the admiration of virtually the whole nation. They demonstrated once again that they had not lost any of the disciplines or the skills of seamanship that were so necessary to our country during the last two wars. It was they, and their like, who kept the lifelines of this nation open when all else had failed us. What kind of thanks have they had in the past few months and what kind of recognition have they had as their reward?

Fishing is an unbelievably complicated industry. Although the Government Front Bench tonight has strength, it does not have the breadth that would be required fully to represent these complications. The fishermen have seen their industry sink to a level worse than it was in the 1930s. I am assured of that fact by all the fishermen in my constituency. In Banffshire there are more than 30 boats tied up at present—boats which cannot make ends meet and boats for which there are no buyers. Each weekend men come to me with desperate tax problems. They are being asked to pay tax on money they earned either last year or in previous years, but now they have no money to pay it with. They have no money to keep their families, let alone to pay tax.

I know that many hon. Members will say that they should have saved money from the good years to pay the tax demands that they knew would be coming. They did save this money. Many of them saved enough, or what they believed was enough and to spare, to meet this tax and any other emergency that arose. However, they had no idea that their industry would sink to the present low level, where week after week they have had to use their savings and they have seen them disappear at a rate which they would never have believed when they were putting them by. They go to sea and come back with little or no fish, and what fish they do bring back meets a market that has very low prices or that is totally glutted.

Unlike virtually any other industry, the fishing industry cannot cut its input costs. It is not like a factory which can run at 40 per cent., 50 per cent., or 60 per cent. of capacity. A boat either goes to sea to fish or stays tied up.

I am aware that most hon. Members do not care about the fishing industry. Indeed, many hon. Members do not know about it. Attendance in the House this afternoon is indicative of that fact. Hon. Members have no sympathy for anyone who has income tax problems. However, I should point out that practically every man who goes to sea is a share fisherman. Every man in my constituency who goes to sea is vitally involved in the profits or losses that his boat makes. Fishermen get no wages as such. They do not pay PAYE. That is not their choice. I have often asked the Treasury to change the system, but it just will not listen. That is another problem of the fishing industry. But where are the men from the Treasury today?

I turn now to another problem which is staring our fishermen in the face today. I refer to the Board of Trade surveys, which I understand are due to start tomorrow, 1st July. Everyone in this House is interested in safety at sea. So are our fishermen. After all, their lives are at stake. Therefore, they are interested in safety at sea. But when they are about to have rules and regulations imposed upon them in blanket fashion, which will deprive them of any hope of earning their livelihoods, naturally they are annoyed and up in arms.

Many boats which never go out of sight of land and are always within an hour's sailing from their home ports now have to meet the same standard of safety as boats which go deep-sea fishing. I know that the Board of Trade is proceeding with stealth in this matter, picking off the boats and their crews one by one. It starts, first, with boats built pre-1948. I know that it will take its time in progressing to boats built at the present day, but it will get them all just the same. Every boat will probably find that it has to meet a survey fee of up to £3,000. Goodness knows how many more thousands of pounds it will cost to get boats up to these unnecessarily stringent standards which are due to be imposed by the Board of Trade inspectors.

The position is very serious. I could take hon. Members to a fishing port in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) where not one of the boats has any hope of passing any of the stringent regulations. Therefore, they are all likely to be scrapped.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman simply does not know the situation. That is not true.

Mr. Watt

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have recently spoken to fishermen in his constituency who work from that port and they are extremely worried.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Which port?

Mr. Watt

The fishing port of Gordon.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I have been in that port and met the fishermen far more recently than the hon. Gentleman. I know that individual fishermen have problems. However, I beg the hon. Gentleman to get the matter into perspective and not to use exaggerated phrases which imply that no boat can possibly comply with the regulations. It is not true.

Mr. Watt

I shall be delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman in due time which boats in that port will be fit to pass the survey.

The boats of the fishing fleet of which I speak normally carry crews of four up to a maximum of eight. Comparing that with a shop, factory or workshop, what do we find? Naturally, the owner has to spend money to bring his property up to a certain standard of safety, but workshops, factories or shops do not have to pay a survey fee. Even the owner of a bus, which might carry 40 or 50 passengers, has to pay only a tiny survey fee compared with the fantastically high fee that the fishermen are due to meet. So how about a little charity? I thought that we were debating the problems of the fishing industry. Here is a problem which is directly attributable to the Department of Trade. Where are the representatives of that Department?

If this country genuinely cares for the future of its fishing industry, it must recognise its present plight with imposed quotas and low prices and take steps to eliminate them.

First, we must recognise the difficulty created by severe cuts in fishing quotas. All fishermen agree that there must be severe cuts. They also agree that there is a need for contraction of the industry. I plead with the Minister to initiate a scrapping subsidy which will allow the owners of older boats to take them out of service. That will also allow some of the older men to come ashore a year or two earlier than they would normally do. After all, the Government are not liable for redundancy payments to these fishermen. Therefore, this would save money. They will not lightly be called on to produce training grants, so again that will save money.

The Government must either abolish or greatly reduce these survey fees and extend a degree of charity to this industry. They must also instruct the surveyors to use their utmost discretion and understanding in the early stages, especially while the industry is going through such a lean time.

I believe that most of the problems of the fishing industry could have been avoided if it had had a proper marketing organisation similar to the dairy farmers, who have the Milk Marketing Board. Why have fishermen not got such an organisation? The fault lies not with the fishermen but with the courts, which have issued an injunction on the industry. There is a case against the industry in the Restrictive Practices Court which prevents it taking any action to set up a producers' organisation. That is the situation in North-East Scotland, anyway. So why are the Law Officers absent from the Government Front Bench? I thought that we were debating the problems of the fishing industry. I mentioned earlier that it was a fragmented industry.

I turn now to the problems facing the industry due to oil-related debris. Many hon. Members representing fishing constituencies know of the problems facing fishermen when trying to get compensation from the oil companies for damage which has been done to their gear. So, far little or nothing has been done. However, I was pleased to learn from a Written Answer last week that at long last a compensation fund is to be or has been set up. But there is no one from the Department of Industry on the Government Front Bench to deal with these complicated problems.

I turn now to the Foreign Office. There is an urgent need to extend our fishing limit to 200 miles and to ensure that within that limit we have an exclusive fishing zone of 50 miles for our own fishermen.

Turning to those who should be negotiating for us on the common fisheries policy, many people will say that we are not in a position to patrol or to police the 50-miles, let alone the 200-miles, limit. I suggest that each British fisherman who goes to sea will be a policeman and that every fishing boat will be like a police car ensuring that the foreigner does not get into our waters.

I know from experience that our fishermen are vitally interested in conservation. They appreciate the urgency of a conservation policy and are greatly concerned to keep out the people who are causing most deprivation—the Norwegians and the Russians. Now that we have landed in the EEC—it appears for keeps—we have the greatest pirate of all as one of our partners—Denmark. I could go on and quote facts and figures. I could show graphs and also maps.

Mr. Russell Fairgrieve (Aberdeenshire, West)

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on the brief that his party has prepared for him, but may I ask him to comment on the fact that the three nations indulging in the largest amount of industrial fishing are Norway, Russia and Poland, none of which is a member of the Common Market?

Mr. Watt

I invite the hon. Gentleman to study the table which I have here, which shows that Denmark caught 31.2 per cent. of all the fish caught in the North Sea last year, Norway caught 25 per cent., while the United Kingdom caught 12.4 per cent. Will the hon. Gentleman please get his facts right before he seeks to intervene again?

I am disappointed that the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Wilson) is not present. Together he and I might have pored over maps and agreed or disagreed about which nations were guilty or not guilty of industrial fishing, because in the past there appears to have been some doubt in his mind. There is no doubt in my mind about which nations are doing the most damage.

I said that the fishing industry is complex and fragmented, and I hope that have been able to illustrate precisely what I mean. I hope, too, that all these organisations and bodies will get together and work out a sensible fishing policy, one which will give our constituents some sort of future.

The main reason why so many fishing constituencies in Scotland elected us as Members is that they know that no Scottish Government, of whatever colour, would neglect the fishing industry in the way that this House has done in the past. In a Scottish context the fishing industry would assume much greater importance than it has in a United Kingdom context. Fishermen are aware that this House has many problems facing it, and they do not want to rock the boat. They are responsible people who ask only for the right to play their full part in helping the country's economy. But they know that for the fishing industry to survive action must be taken within the next few weeks—perhaps six at the most.

I hardly like to say this. I bear the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) no ill-will. In fact, I like him as a person. I know that in some of his portfolios he has done an excellent job, but when it comes to the fishing industry his action, or inaction, has shown that he has little or no understanding of the problems facing the industry. When one thinks of the promises that he made to the fishermen in Aberdeen at the time of the blockade and matches them against his inaction since, surely his own conscience should tell him what to do. Can he honestly say that he and his team did their best when they negotiated North Sea herring quotas and got the United Kingdom a miserable 6 per cent. of the total of the North-East Atlantic catch?

I do not claim that the fault lies entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I hope I have indicated that much of the fault lies elsewhere. Nevertheless, he has responsibility for the fishing industry of Scotland in his hands, and it is under his stewardship that the industry has reached its present depressing state. To him would go the credit if things were going well, so to him also must go the blame for the present sad situation. I am sure that nobody in this House wants to be in the obituary business, but we shall be unless action is taken now.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I remind the House that eight hon. Members want to catch my eye in 35 minutes.

5.55 p.m.

Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) has just delivered himself of an inaccurate and, I think, irresponsible speech. It is the height of irresponsibility to praise a blockade that was illegal. I am president of my inshore fishermen's association. I condemned the blockade at the time, and that is what Parliament should do. To pretend that the Scottish National Party is the only one interested in the fishing industry is irresponsible. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his predecessor made better speeches on this subject than he has ever done.

Mr. Watt

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clegg


I am glad to see the Minister of Agriculture back after his shake-up in the train accident. I often use that line, and I hope that nothing similar ever happens to me.

All that we have had from the right hon. Gentleman today is Peart and sympathy, and that is not enough. The head- line in the Fleetwood Chronicle last weekend was If subsidy is discontinued 'trawlers laid up within weeks'", and it said: A grim warning about the future of the British fishing industry was sounded at Fleetwood on Friday by Mr. Bill Suddaby, president of the British Trawlers' Federation. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for sending his Minister of State to visit Fleetwood. There can be no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman has had a full report of what is happening in the industry, but if he had been there himself he would have seen the dilemma that we are facing. We have an improved fish dock being expanded, which is costing a great deal of money and putting up charges, while at the same time the trawler "Arsenal" from the other side is being broken up before its time, not because it is not a useful ship but because it cannot make money under present circumstances. That is the dilemma that we are facing today.

We know that the right hon. Gentleman is having a battle with the Treasury. We hope he will win the battle, and win it in the very near future, because if we do not get a statement today about the subsidy there will be deep trouble and probably 50 to 60 trawlers, especially the side-winders, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) said, and the oil burners, will disappear for good and with them a number of jobs.

The agreement with Iceland is of the utmost importance to my port. We are more dependent upon Icelandic waters than are the Humber ports and possibly Aberdeen too. We do not want another cod war. The fishermen do not want to face that with winter coming on. The Prospect is appalling, and I hope that the Minister will be represented at the talks. I hope that a fisheries Minister from his Department or from the Scottish Office will always be present together with the Foreign Office negotiators. It is necessary to ensure that fisheries interests are represented at the talks and that, if necessary, the attitude of the Foreign Office is stiffened, because the right hon. Gentleman knows far more than Foreign Office Ministers do the problems that we are facing and the communities that may die unless this equation is worked out correctly.

I was one of those who welcomed the Minister' achievement on reference prices when the matter was considered in Brussels. That got me into trouble with many people in the trawler industry who welcomed reference prices, but not the level at which they were fixed. If we are not to get a continuation of subsidy as an immediate measure, there should be an increase in the reference prices.

I think that this can be pressed through by our colleagues in the European Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Shaw) can assist the Minister in that direction. The right hon. Gentleman has today painted a picture of the fishing industry that is true in every detail. In his analysis he has shown the dangers and difficulties that lie ahead. We need action now. The Minister has set out the problems. Let him try to solve them.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. John Corrie (Bute and North Ayrshire)

Although this is a very short debate, that does not detract from its importance. This proud industry faces a serious problem. We are not talking just about the men who go to sea but about their families who for generations have handed the boats down from father to son and about entire communities which live and depend entirely on fishing and which will die unless the Minister can act quickly. I hope he appreciates that this is a personal problem for many people in Scotland.

It has been said that Europe did not take much interest in fishing. We have had three or four debates on fishing in the European institutions since last March. Modesty forbids me to say who led two of them.

The industry has gone from the wave of two years ago to the trough of the present day. In those good days many fishermen bought new boats and better equipment. Now they face major cash flow problems. Cannot the Minister help with those problems for people who are trying to pay for boats they bought a year or two ago? The fuel subsidy has been helpful and it is a sad thing that it is being taken off. The fishermen like the glasshouse men, are being sold down the river. Our friends in Europe are being given the fishing subsidy, as they are the glasshouse subsidy, but it is not being given to people in this country. Cannot the subsidy continue? Could it not be given for boats of 35 to 40 ft.? That would take in most of the big boats in our fishing fleet.

The main problem is the protection of stocks around our coast. There is no point in discussing the industry's problems if in a year or two there will be no fish for it to catch. We must get down with other EEC countries to discussing agreements on our fishing and perhaps make some bilateral arrangements with Norway, which after all takes about 90 per cent. of the herring stocks from our waters. I do not think that Norway would be allowed by the EEC to go it alone with a 50-mile limit. We have just discussed over there allowing Norway to have closed areas at certain times for her fishing. She had to go to the EEC for that permission although she is not a member. Surely the same thing would happen if she were to push her limits out.

The NEAFC conference has failed to do the job it set out to do. It has tried to please all countries and to share out catches that do not exist. For instance, on the West Coast of Scotland the catch has been put at 150,000 tons. My fishermen friends tell me that it will not be above 66,000 tons in the coming year.

The Scottish fishermen also suggest that their areas should have a fishing-free time in certain months. I notice in the handout from the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission that this matter is again being considered. I hope that some ideas will come up in the session from 11th to 18th November. The scientists have their figures right, but many boffins behind desks have their figures wrong. Soon there will be no fish. Could not this country try to show leadership in ways of protecting the fish around our coasts? Industrial fishing for herring is having a serious effect. Perhaps we can contact our European friends to see what we can sort out.

Another major problem is policing. Perhaps we, as British people, are so honest that we would do nothing wrong, but many of the countries fishing around our coasts are not doing what they are supposed to do. The Russians fished 50 purse-netters off the West Coast from four mother ships last year, yet they claimed that no herring were being caught and that the fish that were being caught were for industrial use only. Those boats were fishing right among our own herring fleet, so they must have been taking herring as well. But this could not be checked. Could we not find a way of checking on what is being caught? In 1966–70 in that area 60,000 tons of herring were being taken annually. That figure rose in 1973 to 250,000 tons. That cannot go on.

I know that there is in Europe a growing fish mountain in certain types—cod and saithe, for instance—but perhaps, like Jacob's translation of Pharoah's dream, these are the fat years before the lean. We will not have fish to catch in a few years. Soon it will be a luxury food. Exclusive rights must come for British fishermen, but it is no good having exclusive rights if there is nothing left to catch.

I am sure that the Minister is sincere, but I hope that by the end of the evening he can turn his sincere words into hard cash. I hope he will do something before this proud industry drowns in despair and men no longer go down to the sea in ships.

6.6 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

I want to talk about only one facet of this problem. There are hundreds of angry fishermen along the Sussex coast because of the Government's failure to recognise how their fishing grounds are being destroyed by beam trawling. I do not care whether the beam trawlers come from Belgium or Brixham, but for 16 months now the fishermen of Sussex have been repeatedly pressing the Government for reasonable scientific evidence to disprove their case that they are losing their livelihood by stealth. The evidence presented to them so far has been totally inadequate by any reasonable scientific standards.

I plead with the Minister once more to look at this problem. The outgoing Conservative Government in February 1974 acknowledged that the problem was there and agreed to ban beam trawling while a better scientific study was made. Cannot the Minister listen to these fishermen? Their livelihoods depend on their ability to continue fishing in the way that they know is best suited to the coasts of the South of England. The Minister of State came to visit us—he came, he talked, he went away.

It is not necessary to seek such a ban from the EEC or to wait for any conference of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission or for the Law of the Sea Conference. Within his own powers and jurisdiction he has the right and the ability to introduce a ban. A ban is only reasonable when one considers the way in which these fishermen are gradually being driven from the sea.

The parameters required for a ban are well known to the Minister. There has been repeated correspondence on this subject, not only from me but from every hon. Member along the Sussex coast. The control of beam trawling could be effected by limiting the registered weight of vessels to 25 tons and their power to a maximum of 150 horsepower.

Why are the Government so stubborn on this subject? Democracy surely is the rule of the wishes of the majority. The majority of the fishermen, all their Members of Parliament and nearly every constituent one talks to agree that this ban should be introduced to protect these fishermen. We all like our fish and chips. Our Dover sole and plaice come from Hastings, not from any other part of the British Isles. We expect the fishermen's rights to be understood. This country is the prime partner in Europe's Community fishing industry. Here is one subject in which we could take an initiative now and show leadership. We need wait for no one but ourselves.

6.9 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

The fishing industry is vital to this country and it is a tragedy that fishermen face financial hardship and unemployment. It is intolerable that the Minister has said nothing helpful in this debate for the fishermen, nothing on cost or oil subsidies and nothing about the exclusive fishing limit around our coasts which is necessary to protect our fishermen from foreign competitors. It is lamentable that the right hon. Gentleman did not today confirm the oil subsidy which is received by our competitors, Norway and the EEC fishing countries. Without that subsidy our fishermen are facing bankruptcy, because they are not getting any decent return for the fish they land at the quay.

The fishermen are in an angry mood. If the Government do not heed the fishermen, whose livelihood is at stake, there will be a confrontation, whether we like it or not, between the fishermen and the Government.

Last year British fishermen—that includes fishermen from my own port of Portvagoie and from Ardglass and Kilkeel in Northern Ireland—caught 25,000 tons of herring in the Manx fishing ground. That quantity was caught in the restricted season from 1st July to the end of September. Until the closed season was introduced, herring fishing went on up to the end of October.

I accept—and so do the Ulster fishermen—that restrictions are necessary to conserve herring stocks. However, the foreign boats can make nonsense of every measure to conserve fish. There is no means of knowing what the foreign boats caught last season. These foreign boats are mainly French, Dutch and Belgian. They are about three times as large as the average British fishing vessel. Some have deep freezing plants. One foreign boat alone can catch anything up to 500 tons of herring a week. They do not respect the closed season and will not respect any other restriction imposed by the Government. It makes mockery of Government measures for conservation if foreign boats can put the herring in jeopardy with impunity.

The British fisherman is in danger of losing his employment through this unfair competition. It is not only fishermen but those engaged in fish processing.

The Government now suggest that British boats should be restricted to 18,000 tons of herring in the season which is just commencing, with a ban on fishing on the east side of the Isle of Man and restricting fishing tot 30th September, as last year, with fishing all out seven days a week if the fishermen so wish. But the fishermen do not believe that these are the best measures. I think that the Government should heed the fishermen. The fishermen are prepared to restrict their fishing to three and a half or four days a week within that restricted season. However, the foreign vessels must be stopped.

The Government say—we have heard it from the right hon. Gentleman—that they cannot do anything about the foreign boats. For example, I believe that boats from the Irish Republic took about 2,000 tons of herring last year from the Manx fishing ground. Is it right that the Government have asked if they would please keep to 2,000 tons this season?

Again, there is no power to enforce that limit on those fishermen. The Government are prepared, seemingly, to dictate to British fishermen, but they will not or cannot stop the foreign fishing vessels from their piracy of the fish that is within our seas. There must be a fishing zone around the British coast restricted exclusively to British fishermen, and the fishing limit must be patrolled by fishery protection vessels and other vessels. It is scandalous for the Government to say that this is not possible.

I as an Ulsterman hear that boats are patrolling up and down the Ulster coast to prevent guns and explosives from being smuggled in. Surely it must therefore be possible to prevent these foreign fishing boats from taking the food out of the mouths of British people.

I understand—perhaps the Minister will deal with this point later—that it is possible for a British fish wholesaler, or indeed anyone else in this country, to hire a foreign fishing vessel and fish the Manx grounds for any quantity and at any time while the British fishing boats are lying, or could be left lying, idle.

Finally, the fishermen have grave financial burdens to bear. These have been expressed already and eloquently enough in the House and I do not need to rehearse the matter again. The fishermen have a heavy outlay and a very small return and sometimes no return at all. The wide gap between the price of fish at the harbour and that in the shops is ridiculous.

Those who look to the fishermen to provide fish for this country should go out of their way to protect the fishermen. I hope that when the Minister winds up this brief debate he will, despite what the right hon. Gentleman said at the beginning, be able to offer something concrete to the fishermen, otherwise they will be very angry, and I shall not blame them, because they will be witnessing the destruction of their industry.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

I, too, welcome this opportunity as a West Country Member to speak in this debate and agree that it could not come at a more appropriate time. I shall concentrate my remarks purely on the inshore sector.

I want enthusiastically to support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) about the need to make a decision, which I thought had been taken in principle already, prior to February 1974, that beam trawling should be banned pending the outcome of a further investigation. The problems that arise for the inshore fishermen of Devon and Cornwall as a consequence of beam trawlers coming, from Brixham are just as great as any competition they receive from any other part of the United Kingdom or from any of our European competitors.

Mr. Peart

May I respond to what was said by another hon. Member who pressed me on this? Naturally I have to rely on scientific advice. My present advice is that, although beam trawling is undoubtedly a highly efficient method of catching fish, the real threat to stocks lies in the general danger of over-fishing. This is the argument which is put to me. In view of the representations that have been made previously and what has been said in this debate I give the assurance that I will respond to the probing of my parliamentary colleagues and look at this again.

Mr. Hicks

We on this side of the House are most grateful to the Minister for that assurance.

I want to say a few words about the operating subsidy. All fishermen, whether deep sea or inshore, have been faced with very significant increases in their operating costs—in particular, the costs of energy, wages and equipment. Those increases in operating costs have not been compensated by increased quayside prices. As a direct consequence of this there has been a decline in the size of our fishing fleet and thus of our catching capacity. The cycle does not end there. It also means increased imports of fish, which further accentuate our adverse balance of payments situation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) so rightly said, there is a parallel here with the farming industry. Earlier this year the Government published the White Paper entitled "Food From Our Own Resources". Surely it is logical and consistent to take just the same necessary remedial action in respect of the fish-producing industry as it is for the land itself.

When in February of this year the Minister announced the introduction of an operating subsidy, it did not apply to inshore vessels of less than 40 ft. Although hon. Members on both sides may be disappointed that no decision has been made on whether this operating subsidy is to continue, it at least enables me tonight to emphasise again the very strong case, which, I believe, the inshore fishermen have, to be grant aided in a similar way to that in which boats over 40 ft. have been over the past six months.

It is also very clear that this decision lies with the British Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We have the necessary clearance from Brussels. Indeed, our European competitors are subsidising their own fleets. Therefore, when the Minister makes his announcement, which I hope will be soon—and I hope that it will be in favour of the continuation of the principle of an operating subsidy—I hope it will include boats less than 40 ft. in length. I say this for the following reasons. The arguments that applied in favour of grant aiding the deep sea and middle distance vessels are equally appropriate to the inshore vessels. After all, the inshore operators have had to bear the necessary increase in costs, and those considerations which were valid for the deep sea and middle distance vessels are equally valid in the case of the inshore vessels.

When in February of this year I put down a Parliamentary Question to the Minister asking why boats under 40 ft. in length would not qualify for this assistance I was informed that in the case of the inshore fleet serious structural dislocation was not likely to take place. I believe that this structural dislocation, which the Minister was anxious to avoid in the case of boats over 40 ft. in length, is equally applicable to vessels under 40 ft. In the inshore fishing industry in Devon and Cornwall boats under 40 ft. in length play a very significant part in the local economy. In Cornwall there are about 200 vessels. This means that about 180 boats, fishing largely for mackerel but also for prime fish such as plaice and sole, and, of course, shellfish, are not eligible. Within my own constituency 40 boats are not eligible. These directly employ 100 people. With the spin-off in the subsidiary industries, probably 400 people are involved. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give sympathetic consideration to including vessels under 40 ft.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that parts of Cornwall are located within a development area. There are very few alternative employment opportunities there at present. We also depend, in these districts, on the tourist industry. One reason why this is an important tourist area is that people come to Looe and Polperro in my constituency not only because they are attractive scenically but also because they are alive. They are alive because of the activity at the fish quays. Therefore, although not directly applicable to the fishing industry, this is an important consideration.

The Government must not think that because fishermen from the West Country are not at the moment sailing up the River Thames, as they did on an earlier occasion, all is satisfactory. We in the west are keeping a very close watch on the current situation, and we all hope that the Government will respond favourably within the next week and will include an operating subsidy for vessels under 40 ft. in length.

6.24 p.m.

Mr. Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

I shall not follow the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) straight away, although in a few moments I may refer to something that he said. I, too, welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling).

I think that all the speeches in this debate so far have proved that there is real concern about the industry and that there was a real need for this debate. We have heard speeches on behalf of the middle and distant water fleets and also the inshore fleets. The fact is that we cannot isolate the problems of the various fleets, because if action is taken in the interests of one section of the industry it has an effect either directly or indirectly on other sectors of the industry. So while we have to look at the individual parts, at the same time we have to see what reaction there will be to whatever we are proposing on the other parts as well.

The biggest worry must lie in the future of the industry. Certainly all the fishermen in my constituency regard that as their chief worry, although they have some real difficulties to contend with at the moment. The lack of any decisive outcome from the Law of the Sea Conference, whilst not surprising, was none the less disappointing. There is a very real danger of unilateral action by individual countries, and we must be prepared to react vigorously and immediately. We are in a far better position to do that within the Common Market than outside it.

Here I should like to retract something that I thought earlier about the right hon. Gentleman the Minister. At first, I thought that he was not interested in the fishing industry. Now I know that he is. I believe that he has tried his best to help the industry to promote in Europe a realisation of the needs of the British fishing industry, and he is to be congratulated on doing that.

I believe we ought to put into the record of this debate the actual words of support used by Mr. Lardinois in the debate in April, after discussions with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that if our Community fishermen are threatened by the unilateral action of third parties…may we count on it that if a situation of this kind arises, we shall review our market agreement with those countries which includes a provision to the effect that the existing fishery arrangements must not be disturbed; we shall in fact look after the interests of our own people whose existence would then be threatened, and attempt to find a solution for them. That shows that the interests of our fishing industry are very much in the minds of Mr. Lardinois and the Commission, and I believe that by working together the Community is much more likely to reach a solution for the benefit of our fishing industry than if we sought to do it alone. This is a very great step forward. I hope that those words will be written on the door of the Minister's private office to remind him that we are prepared at this moment to take action if it is proved to be necessary, and I hope that we shall always be prepared to take that action.

May I refer to the fuel subsidy? It has been announced that the Community has agreed that if nations want to take advantage of this they can do so till the end of the year. We have heard that it is still under consideration by the Minister. I believe that this is not the Minister's fault, and that the fault lies with the inaction of other sections of the Government. I hope that in that and many other directions there will be speedy conclusions so that action may be taken. However, when a decision is made, and should it be decided that the fuel subsidy will be continued, I should like to know whether it will be retrospective to the beginning of this month. I believe that this much, at any rate, we ought to know. I also believe that if the subsidy is to continue it should apply also to the small boats, which have been particularly heavily hit during these last two months.

On 26th March I raised with the right hon. Gentleman the question of the right to land one's own catch. This is a vital question to many inshore fishermen. The right hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to write to me fully on this matter. I should like to read just part of his reply and then ask him a question. He said that …generally vessels of less than 801, and occasionally a few larger ones are operated on a genuine share basis. That is to say the crews are paid solely on an agreed share of the proceeds of the voyage after costs have been met…The ports where this is a traditional practice are known beyond question and it would be a matter of concern to the Fishery Minister if unilateral action were initiated to alter the practice contrary to the spirit and the intention stated in the consultative document which is to preserve the historic pattern. The only question I would ask the Minister is, would he now, on behalf of the Government, declare that it is the Government's firm intention to maintain this practice? If he were to say that on behalf of the whole Government, not just on behalf of his Ministry, many fishermen in many ports throughout the country would be very relieved indeed.

6.31 p.m.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

This afternoon we have had an extremely wide-ranging debate with hon. Members speaking for many different parts of the country. The very serious nature of the debate and the unanimity of view which has been expressed by all hon. Members and by all parties with equal strength of feeling will, I hope, drive home to the Minister and his Friends the urgency of the present situation. However, I beg the Scottish National Party to realise that it does not have a monopoly of interest in the fishing industry. The one thing that this debate has demonstrated is the tremendous breadth of feeling across many areas.

I do not want to include in the debate anything of a party political note, but if the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) and fellow members of his party feel so strongly about the fishing industry and if, as they say, they have taken every opportunity to raise this matter in the House on different occasions, I simply ask them why they were not present at the meeting of the Standing Committee on 21st May when the subsidy scheme was discussed. No hon. Member of that party was present during that debate.

Mr. Welsh

I would simply ask the hon. Gentleman where he and all his colleagues were during the debate on the Consolidated Fund which dealt with the fishing industry.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) was present at that debate. I am simply begging the Scottish National Party not to put around claims which are untrue.

The strength of feeling in the House is demonstrated by the very wide range of areas that have been represented. Among hon. Member who have spoken are, from the far South, my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) and from the North the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt). The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has also intervened. Front across the Irish Sea the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) has strongly represented the views of the Ulster fishermen. From coastal areas around Britain my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour), my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie), the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Shaw) have spoken on behalf of the inshore industry and the particular problems it faces at present. From the fishing ports and hon. Members with interests in the middle and further distant waters my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), my hon. Friend the Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) and the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) and Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) have put their views very forcibly.

There are many other Members—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat), who has an interest in the Aberdeen fishing fleet but who has not spoken—who have with unanimity tried to drive home to the Government how seriously they regard the situation in the fishing industry. This matter is urgent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice said, the subsidy ends tonight. Any boat going to sea after midnight, or indeed any boat at sea at present, ceases to get any subsidy as from midnight. This is the twelfth hour. Although we appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has to consider this matter with his colleagues in the Government and with his Treasury colleagues, he told us this on 21st May in Committee. He has had quite a long time to consider the matter. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman is genuine and I accept his sincerity about the industry, but I beg him to realise that we, as responsible Members of Parliament who appreciate the position, have been constructive in the debate.

We appreciate the difficulties facing the Government. I beg the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend who will reply to consider those people who do not have the same access to matters as Ministers. Those people have not heard the sincerity of the Minister's words tonight. Those who are working on the boats, in the ports and at sea are worried. They have to accept assurances which are second hand. For them deeds, not words, will provide the solution. It is deeds that we want. I hope that the Minister will convey to his colleagues in the Cabinet the united words from the House—from every hon. Member who has spoken, from all parts of the United Kingdom—about just how urgent the situation is, because it is desperately urgent.

Three main points have been mentioned tonight. I do not intend to go over all the arguments because they have been put far more forcefully and strongly by many hon. Members than I could put them. I shall summarise them under three heads. First, I shall deal with them in relation to the economic situation of the industry. I do not want to go over the figures again but I shall put one or two figures to the House simply to emphasise the situation. I shall take purely Scottish figures because those for other areas have already been put. I shall deal with the point of view of the Scottish Trawlers' Federation, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South would have dealt if he had had a chance to address the House.

In the six months to 31st March 1974 the 48 vessels operating at the time were operating to a margin of profit of about £55 a day. In the six months to 31st March 1975 over 56 vessels were operating at a loss of £172 per day. Against that has to be set an average daily subsidy of £58. Therefore, there is a loss of over £100 a day. How long can the fleet continue—how long can any industry continue—on that basis? That is the extent of the seriousness of the situation.

I shall take as an example the Scottish inshore fleet which is fishing for white fish. In the first five months of 1974 its total earnings—I emphasise "total"— were £21 million. In the first five months of 1975 its total earnings were £16 million. In other words, there has been a downturn in cash terms of 24 per cent. and in real terms of 39 per cent. in the earnings that those in that section of the industry receive. I shall take as a further example the Scottish herring industry. In the first five months of 1974 its total earnings were £5.9 million. These decreased to £3.4 million in the first five months of 1975. In other words, there was a reduction of 42 per cent. in money terms and 54 per cent. in real terms.

We do not know the detailed cost position for the inshore industry. We have detailed costs for the deep sea industry. I shall compare the situation with that which appertained a year ago. Deep sea industry costs increased by about 25 per cent. Therefore, with the dramatic fall in earnings the industry is suffering a catastrophic blow with costs increasing by over 25 per cent. How long can the industry survive? This is the question that the industry is asking itself—we are not the only people who are asking it—because the industry is desperately worried.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman wants, as we all want a future for the industry. I beg him to put himself in the position of a skipper on a share boat coming out of a port in the north-east of Scotland, perhaps Peterhead or Fraser-burgh. If he does not do that, he will lose his crew. They will go to the oil rigs. When the oil industry loses the momentum that it has at present, as it inevitably will at some stage, from where shall we be able to bring back a fishing industry? There will be no fishing industry. That is the worry facing people at present, quite apart from the problems we have throughout the processing industry and everything else.

In Aberdeen a few weeks ago Findus, as reported in the Press and Journal of 16th June, was paying off 93 employees out of a work force of 550, again relating to the present difficulties in the industry. Talking in terms of the catch side and of the quayside and processing industries, this is a situation of very serious crisis which requires action and not just pledges or words from the Government.

Secondly, as regards the question of limits and conservation, I simply repeat what my colleagues have said from all sides of the House. I do not believe that we can simply wait to see what happens. We cannot afford to wait. We have made our attempts through the Law of the Sea Conference. I commend the efforts of everyone who took part in them. We have seen the efforts made in the North East Atlantic Fishery Commission and we are now waiting to see whether the results of that commission are to be ratified. But time is running out in relation to the NEAFC. If any country fails to ratify the NEAFC—Denmark, for example—by November, what will happen then? What will happen is that there will be an absolute free-for-all. That is the urgency of it. If the existing arrangements fail, that is what makes proper internationally agreed arrangements—I agree with the right hon. Gentleman here—essential in order to make sure that we can conserve our fish stocks.

I believe that it is important that we do not wait either way. We cannot wait for the Law of the Sea Conference which reconvenes in a year's time. That is far too long. We cannot even wait until November, until we see whether countries ratify the North East Atlantic Fishery Commission agreement. The Government should be starting talks now. I do not ask them to say publicly whether they are doing so, but I urge them to say privately that they are starting talks. The only way to get agreement on this vital matter of conserving fish stocks is for those who have an interest in the waters around our shores to get together, as individuals, in pairs or as groups of nations, and try to work out the kind of arrangements to which we can come in order to conserve stocks. I ask the Government not to wait but to act now.

Third, as regards the EEC, I remind the Government—I beg of them to remember it—how important we are as a fishing nation within the EEC. The right hon. Gentleman has said this, and I am glad. I wish that he would acknowledge it in deeds as well as words. We would give him time to do so. If the limits go out to 200 miles, we must remember that 56 per cent. of the area of the new 200-mile limit falls in waters around the United Kingdom. That is the extent of our stake in the fishing pond of the Common Market. At the same time, in terms of landings we are by far the most important Common Market country.

As my hon. Friends have pointed out, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough, within the EEC we are in a position of influence because of our importance as a fishing nation. We are also in a position, working with the other countries, to have far greater influence on countries such as Iceland or Norway, which may be tempted to take unilateral action. We start from a position of far greater strength. We want to see that happen and to see that we are using our position within the EEC to do it.

Summing up quickly, what I want to say to the Government is this. First, we want an answer on the subsidy and we want that answer quickly, otherwise the industry may die. Second, we want to know from the Minister his views about the future of the industry. Does he want an industry or not? We believe that he does, although it may be a slightly different industry. Is he prepared to start talks now with the industry to see what kind of structure and industry we want in the future?

Third, we ask the Minister to start talks now—I say "now" and I mean now—with other countries which have an interest in the waters around our shores and with the EEC in order to get effective conservation measures for our fishing industry. We want the Government to give much more priority to this industry.

In the last moments available to me in the debate, perhaps I may compare the oil industry with the fishing industry. The oil industry is very much in competition with the fishing industry at present. I am worried that the fishing industry is not getting all the attention that it should. Let us remember that oil is a wasting resource. The oil industry is most important to the nation at present, for our balance of payments and for 101 reasons. But oil is a wasting asset. It is a resource that is declining as we exploit it, whereas let us remember that fish is a natural resource and a renewable resource, but it is a renewable resource only if we are prepared to conserve it and to husband it. It is that which we ask the Government to do.

I do not intend to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House this evening. We are disappointed that the Minister has not given all the assurances for which we have asked. However, I beg him to go back after the debate with a true sense of the strong feeling in the House and talk about this matter again with his colleagues and see what he can do to answer the points that have been raised. Unless the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues come up with an answer to some of them, we make the pledge that we intend to return to this matter. We believe in keeping a united, all-party approach to the problems of the fishing industry. I beg the right hon. Gentleman not to put us into the position of having to divide the House on matters relating to such an important industry, important for Scotland and for the United Kingdom as a whole.

6.46 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Hugh D. Brown)

I welcome the useful and constructive approach of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). It is typical of all the contributions that have been made, with the notable exception of that of the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt), to which I shall come in due course.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Tell that to the fishermen.

Mr. Brown

I have already done that.

Mrs. Ewing

Tell it to them again.

Mr. Brown

I do not have much time. The number of interventions is up to hon. Members.

Nevertheless, this has been a most useful and constructive debate. I am sure that the whole House appreciates that the Opposition have used half a Supply Day to enable us to have this discussion.

Hon. Members have raised many questions. I do not need to apologise for mentioning the contribution that Scottish fishermen make to the industry as a whole. It is not always understood, even in the House, that Scotland contributes about 50 per cent. in weight of the catches landed and something over 40 per cent. in value. There is no need for the hon. Member for Banff or anyone else to lecture me about the importance of the industry to the people of Scotland.

Having said that, however, I think it would be wise at the beginning to assure hon. Members who have raised this matter, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), that there is absolutely no reluctance on the part of my right hon. Friend the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland or myself to have meetings on an all-party basis with the officials present. I hope that they continue. Hon. Members may criticise the Government for not being speedy enough or not managing to solve every problem. Nevertheless, I have personally found these meetings a most useful contribution to fishing debates. The knowledge of both officials and hon. Members has been increased through this kind of dialogue. Therefore, there is no question that we cannot continue with these meetings as and when there is a need.

If I omit to reply to any particular points, it will not be a deliberate omission. I shall check to make sure that they receive a reply.

The analysis of the state of the industry by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) was very fair. I would not disagree with him. Perhaps I may merely emphasise the point that the severity of the problems facing the industry arises to some extent in the sharp contrast of all the problems that have accumulated in the past year as compared with the exceptional prosperity the industry enjoyed in the period from 1971 to 1973. The position of the fishing industry in this respect is very like that of any other industry. The hon. Gentleman made the fair point in connection with farming that in the beef sector in particular it was hard to take the situation last year to some extent because of the good years which had preceded a bad year.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the problems facing the industry. I should not necessarily disagree with his figures, although I must point out—he will know this very well from experience—that when any organisations submits a claim it is often safer to wait until the background to that claim has been examined in detail both by officials and in course of discussions before one comes to firm conclusions on it. Sometimes a claim can be somewhat exaggerated, though I do not say that there is any attempt deliberately to mislead the Government. I imagine that we are all guilty at times of exaggerating a case.

Although I do not necessarily accept all the hon. Gentleman's figures regarding present losses, I readily accept that we need to discuss the state of the industry in detail, and we are now doing just that.

It is not true, as the British Trawlers' Federation has suggested, that very few are either noticing or caring about the fishing industry. For the whole of this year it has rated a high priority. I have used that phrase in discussions with the fishermen. We were challenged by the fishermen at the time of the blockade, it being their view that their industry should have figured in the renegotiations about entry into the EEC. This is hardly fair to the Government. I am not making a party point here. The economics of the fishing industry were not causing great concern at the time of the renegotiations. Renegotiation of the common fisheries policy was not in our election manifesto, and to the best of my knowledge it was not in anyone else's manifesto. I do not think that it was in the Liberal Party manifesto—

Mr. Beith

It was.

Mr. Brown

I suppose that pretty well everything one can think of will be in the Liberal Party manifesto, although there will be no likelihood of that manifesto being implemented. Seriously, I think it perfectly reasonable to say, in response to what the fishermen and their organisations have been saying since the time of the blockade, that there has been no cause whatever to criticise my right hon. Friends or the Government in general for any lack of care for or interest in the fishing industry.

It is unfair now to suggest that the common fisheries policy is inadequate and not capable of dealing with some of the problems facing the industry. The fact that there are now nine nations instead of six in the Community makes a difference. If we had been involved in the early stages of the EEC, perhaps the common fisheries policy would have had more attention. But we are dealing with the situation now. It has been put on the agenda by my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that it will be tackled with some urgency.

Mr. Donald Stewart

It is not on the agenda.

Mr. Brown

It is.

Many points have been raised in the debate, and I must do my best to comment briefly on as many as possible. I noticed that the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), while arguing about the continuation of the subsidy, did not suggest that it was a permanent solution. I do not think anyone has suggested that. Recognising that it is not a permanent solution, we have to look for other answers to the present problems—I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that—but that is not to say that we are not looking at the continuation of the subsidy, although I have to tell the House that no information has been passed to me since my right hon. Friend spoke earlier, and I know that hon. Members will not expect me to make an announcement. We have made clear that the matter is still being considered, and I can add nothing to that.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) raised many problems, some of which he has raised with me personally on other occasions or in the Chamber in previous debates. He will not expect me to reply to all of them tonight, but I wish to take up one matter to which he and others referred, namely, a scrapping subsidy for the fishing fleet. In my view it is a bit too soon to take that sort of pessimistic or even despondent view. In the first place, we are still negotiating quotas and possible limits. It is, therefore, premature to think in terms of aiming at a certain structure for the industry when other information is required and other decisions have to be made before one could reach that stage.

The hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall)—perhaps he may have used his influence to have this debate—expressed the hope that it would give the Government an opportunity to announce a subsidy. I have noted his disappointment. The hon. Gentleman is a Member of long experience, and I think that he was using a well-know parliamentary technique. I have not the slightest doubt that my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland are both pretty strong characters. One need have no illusions about that. I do not wish to present it in the terms which the hon. Gentleman used for being capable of standing up to the

Treasury, but I do not think that he need be too concerned about that.

It has been a useful debate because we have been made aware—[Interruption.] I hope that hon. Members will not overdo it. This has been a harmonious debate, and I do not want to make provocative comments about increasing public expenditure.

I think it right now to say a word or two to the hon. Member for Banff. Repeatedly he exaggerates. Repeatedly he refuses to give credit to the Government for what has been done. It may not be enough. It may be—

Mr. Watt

That is not what I said.

Mr. Brown

I noted the hon. Gentle man's words carefully. He said that the Government had chosen to do nothing. When pinned down on that he rephrased and revised it, saying that if they had done anything it was too little and too late. Both cannot be right. In fact, the Government have done something—

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)


Mr. Brown

No, I cannot give way. It is grossly unfair to make attacks of that kind on the Government. People outside the House can know what goes on here only through the Press and radio—I hope that it will be on radio tonight—and it is grossly unfair of the hon. Member for Banff and his party to make such attacks if they are not at the same time prepared to give credit when credit is due, and they are ever ready to exploit the fears which undoubtedly prevail in many parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom about the future of the industry. It is bad enough for a Government faced with two—

Mrs. Winifred Ewing rose in her place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 9, Noes 4.

Division No. 248.] AYES [6.59 p.m.
Evans Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Thompson, George TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Watt, Hamish Mrs. Margaret Bain and
Kilfedder, James Welsh, Andrew Mr. Douglas Henderson.
MacCormick, Iain Wigley, Dafydd
Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)
Hooson, Emlyn
Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Mr. Donald Coleman and
Miss Margaret Jackson.

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 31 (Majority for Closure).

It being after Seven o'clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of The CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking Private Business), further Proceeding stood postponed.

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