§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)
I told the House on Monday that I was meeting representatives of fishermen and would make a statement to the House afterwards.
The discussion was frank and constructive. The fishermen drew attention to low quayside prices for fish in relation to the increased costs of fishing. They said that earnings were reduced and many voyages undertaken at a loss. Heavy unloading of imported frozen fish was a major contributory factor. If this situation were to continue, vessels would go out of fishing, supplies of fresh fish to the consumer would suffer and prices thereafter would rise unduly.
The Government have for some time been aware of the depressed state of the market. We introduced temporary aid to ease the situation while price adjustment took place. Within the European Community, we have been having discussions. The intention is shortly to introduce a system of reference prices for frozen fillets with a view to stabilising the market at satisfactory levels. We have also been having other talks.
Arrangements by Norway for minimum prices for frozen cod and haddock coming to our market come into operation today. This is an important move towards market stability. In view of it, there has been no need to ask the Community for use of the safeguard clause.
The fishermen also gave me their views on other matters, including points about fisheries limits. I have taken full note of their views; but I made it plain that the Government would not act unilaterally or in advance of the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference. The discussion was helpful. I am glad to see that the blockade has been lifted in some ports 490 I am hopeful that others will follow this responsible example.
§ Mr. Pym
The House will be most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making a statement the day after he met the fishermen. Having listened so carefully to their views, we trust that he will follow that up and take urgent and practical action. We are glad, too, that the blockade has been lifted in some ports, but there are other relevant aspects about the crisis on which I should like to question the right hon. Gentleman.
First, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the dissatisfaction with the herring quota, which is causing some boats to be idle? What hope can he hold out for improvements in the quota? As he will be aware, this dissatisfaction has exacerbated the anger of the fishermen and caused them to press for a 50-mile limit to preserve their livelihoods. How in present circumstances can these fishermen maintain their incomes?
Secondly, what are the facts about rising imports? We are glad about the action taken by Norway, but how will that action effect the level of imports? What we are concerned with here is fair competition.
Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentle:nan aware of the real fears that exist in the industry of overfishing by foreign boats? What is required is reassurance about the future safeguarding of the livelihood of these fishermen, and we should like to hear something about that.
Finally, in his statement the right hon. Gentleman refers to a reconsideration of existing provisions of the common fisheries policy. Has that reconsideration begun, how quickly will it proceed and when will the results of it be likely to be made known?
§ Mr. Peart
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, his Government and the Conservative Party accepted the common fisheries policy. It is there. I shall be having discussions on this matter in the Community when I visit Brussels in April. There are some aspects on which I feel that we need to have assurances. There is no question about that.
The herring quota is not a matter which has affected the dispute with which I have been dealing. Here we are dealing 491 basically with imports coming from Norway affecting the market, and this is the matter to which my attention was drawn. I recognise that the herring quota is a matter of importance, and 1 have been having discussions with my Scottish colleagues about it.
On the 50-mile limit, I thought I had given my views to the House. We could not do something unilaterally on this matter. We are bound by the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference discussions. This is right and proper, because we ought to see what emerges from that conference.
The question of overfishing is an important matter but does not affect this dispute.
§ Mr. James Johnson
Bearing in mind that my right hon. Friend the Minister is now fully aware of the desperate mood of inshore fishermen following his talks with them, may I ask whether he is further aware that the deep-sea fleet men are fully in sympathy with these men in the stand they are taking? The deep-sea men do not condone their tactics, of course, but they are in sympathy with their view about the state of the market. As the nations which are now—not dumping exactly—unloading fish on to our market are outside the EEC, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the proposed negotiations and arrangements with the Norwegians in particular but also with the Icelanders, if possible?
§ Mr. Peart
I know that my hon. Friend represents a fishing constituency and is in close contact with the British Trawler Federation. I understand that the federation accepted that the inshore men have a case. In relation to my hon. Friend's specific question about the countries which are supplying fish here, I should like to say about Norway that I am happy to pay tribute to the Norwegian Government, who have taken a constructive and helpful step. With permission, I shall circulate information about the minimum export prices in theOfficial Report. They come into force today and will be kept under review. 'We have had discussions with Norway on this matter and they have been constructive.
§ Mr. Grimond
May I also thank the Minister for the early part of his state- 492 ment? However, may I impress upon him the fact that anxiety is felt all round the coasts by all sections of the fishing industry and ask him a little more about the limit? We appreciate that the 200-mile limit may have to wait upon the Law of the Sea Conference, but will he impress upon all those concerned that what we have in mind is that unless steps are taken to preserve stocks, particularly herring, in the North Sea, there will be no fish to fish for at all very soon?
§ Mr. Peart
Yes, I agree, and the right hon. Gentleman rightly has stressed the point raised by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym). Conservation is vital. At all conferences the British Government's point of view, I know, is that which previous Governments have always expressed. I shall certainly bear it in mind. There is anxiety on this matter. I accept that. But what we have achieved from discussions will be helpful.
§ Mr. McNamara
Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the amount of frozen fish stocks in EEC countries as a whole? Second, what is likely to be the effect upon the inshore and other fleets when the derogation from the Treaty of Rome negotiated by the previous Conservative Government comes to an end? Thirdly, has he sought the opinion of the Law Officers as to whether the fishermen, in the way that they are handling their dispute, might become guilty of a common law conspiracy?
§ Mr. Peart
I do not want to get involved in that question. I met the fishermen. Some of my colleagues in the House, from both sides, were with me and represented certain interests. I am anxious to see this dispute settled amicably. I do not like to use threats in this way. [Interruption] I have not threatened anyone. I hope that my lion. Friends will listen to what I am saying. I am anxious that the blockade should cease, and I hope that nothing which is said in the House will prevent that.
On the question of imports from Europe, I have no figures. The problem has been imports from Norway and countries outside the EEC. I shall try to get those figures and write to my hon. Friend about them.
§ Mr. Brotherton
is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great problem now facing the commercial ports of Immingham and Grimsby, where the blockade is still being maintained? Is he aware, for example, that there are ships in Grimsby and Immingham that have been prevented from sailing since last Friday because of the dispute? Is he also aware that the very vague nature of his reply today will unfortunately not give much satisfaction to the Humberside fishermen?
I reinforce the right hon. Gentleman's plea to those blockading these ports to call off the blockade, particularly because a court injunction has been granted. However, these men are very firm indeed in their view that they will not call off the blockade unless they get a really satisfactory answer from the Minister.
§ Mr. Peart
I am aware of that, but I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should make those remarks. This is no contribution to a constructive solution. We had discussions with Norway about this. As I have said, the important step, which I stressed with the men yesterday, is to get market stability. That is what they wanted. Indeed, my reply fulfils that.
§ Mr. Fell
I think we all realise that the Minister is doing his best. However, may I ask him this question on the herring quota? Is he aware that this quota affects longshore herring as well? This involves the small boats and not the big drifters. Could not an exception be made for the longshore herring, particularly as he talked about fresh fish? Heaven knows, there cannot be much fresh fish left among the quota that has already been fulfilled because the fishermen are not allowed to catch them. We have these wonderful longshore herring swimming around the coast and my people are not allowed to catch them.
§ Mr. Watt
I appreciate the difficulties in which the Minister finds himself, but will he not recognise the fact that virtually no skipper around the Scottish 494 coast will be satisfied with his statement today? Will he realise that this situation cannot be cleared up piecemeal and that he must go for a package deal, on which the fishermen insist—for example, minimum prices at ports, control of imports, and a complete renegotiation of the common fisheries policy so that our men may have exclusive use of the first 50 miles of water around our coast?
§ Mr. Peart
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate what I said about the common fisheries policy. This was not a specific issue which the fishermen raised with me. This is a matter which I volunteered to the House. When I go to Brussels in April I will put our point of view. It is a formidable one, because the British are the largest fishing nation in the Community. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should say that my statement will not satisfy people. Of course it will not satisfy those who do not want to be satisfied. I hope he will appreciate what we have achieved. I stress the importance of market stability and the arrangements about minimum prices. These are matters which affect frozen cod and haddock coming into our market, and they will come into operation today.
§ Mr. Wall
Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, while I welcome what he has said about prices and imports, these matters take us only part of the way? May I ask him about the use of registered dock labour for unloading fishing vessels? Is he aware that this ties up with the official definition of an inshore vessel, which is causing a great deal of concern in the small ports?
§ Mr. Peart
I appreciate that the hon. Member represents an important fishing area. He will know that the Government have recently issued a consultative document dealing with registered dock labour and containing proposals for legislation. The proposed dock labour schemes exempt inshore fishing vessels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will be taking serious account of the views which have been put to him about these proposals. At his request I am conveying to him the general representations which the fishermen made on this point.
§ Mr. Michael Shaw
While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. 495 may I take up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall)? Is there to be any definition of an inshore fishing boat, because this seems to be the point on which the whole issue hinges?
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
May I reassure the right hon. Gentleman by telling him that the Scottish fishermen are international in outlook and appreciate that these negotiations have to be carried out and agreed internationally? Does he accept that they are asking for this 50-mile limit simply as an interim measure, to be agreed internationally? If the Government reject this, can the right hon. Gentleman say what measures they would support to achieve conservation in the interim? Is he aware that the fishermen are prepared even to accept a temporary ban on herring fishing? Does he accept that the timing of the referendum creates a new situation and that it is important that he tries to achieve agreement on the common fisheries policy before the referendum?
§ Mr. Peart
I hope that I shall not be influenced in what I do at any time because there happens to be a referendum. I must do what I think is best for the industry. I have always behaved like that when I have gone to Brussels and achieved what I have achieved. I know that a lot of people may be critical of my achievements but I believe that the interests of Britain are more important than the issue of the referendum. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about the fishermen of Scotland. It would be wrong for Britain to act unilaterally when we are committed to holding discussions at the Law of the Sea Conference.
§ Mr. Powell
While I agree with all that has been said about the urgency of action on the fishing limits, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is the Government's view that these imports of frozen fish come within the definition of dumping, or are the proposed measures part of the generally restrictive approach of the EEC towards food?
§ Mr. Peart
No, this is nothing to do with the attitude of the EEC towards 496 food. It would be wrong to draw that conclusion. I know the right hon. Gentleman's views but I can assure him that that is not so. This is specifically related to imports from countries such as Norway, which has now agreed to this pricing policy.
§ Mr. Biffen
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is with great diffidence that I raise this point. If this dispute should, unhappily, be protracted and there is occasion for a future ministerial statement, may I ask you to give consideration to calling those Members whose constituents consume fish as well as those whose constituents merely catch it?
§ Following are the figures
§ The Norwegian Minimum Export Prices for the United Kingdom are:
|Boneless/skinless fillets frozen in blocks (industrial blocks).||3.65||3.65|
|Frozen catering fillets,skin on|
|under 8 oz.||2.80||3.20|
|over 16 oz.||3.70||4.00|
|Frozen catering fillets,skinless|
|under 8 oz.||3.20||3.70|
|over 16 oz.||4.10||4.50|
|(All prices are in £/stone, cif British ports).|