HC Deb 12 November 1975 vol 899 cc1503-5
1. Mr. Sproat

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the latest situation in the fishing industry.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

The decline in the number of days spent at sea in total catch, gross earnings, and average prices appears to be levelling off, although there are naturally seasonal and local variations in this trend. Average prices for the main species at the major ports of Aberdeen and Peter-head rose between July and September, and were higher than in the same months of 1974. The factors affecting the inshore industry and the deep-sea industry are similar.

Mr. Sproat

Despite the appreciable gloss that the Secretary of State is attempting to put on the situation, is he not aware that there is great and growing uncertainty in the fishing industry about limits, EEC policy and what will happen when the subsidies come to an end, because we suspect there will be even more tie-ups? Does the Secretary of State realise that his right hon. Friends are using the word "restructuring" very frequently and that it is sending shivers down the collective spine of the fishing industry? Will the right hon. Gentleman come clean on what exactly is the Government's plan for the fishing industry and especially on what size fleet they want?

Mr. Ross

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the question of limits is not purely for the British Government. It is a matter for the Law of the Sea Conference and the EEC. Until these matters are decided, we cannot make sensible decisions about the restructuring of the fleet. The hon. Gentleman knows that there are matters even more complicated than that. I understand that a meeting is taking place in London in respect of the fishing in the north-east Atlantic. That will be of great importance to certain sections of our fishing industry, for it will be dealing with where the fish are and the whole subject of conservation. The hon. Gentleman over-simplifies the position when he suggests that somehow or other we can produce solutions just like that.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I accept that the situation is not simple. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that sooner or later—sooner would be preferable—we should have a White Paper on the future of the fishing industry and setting out the industry's problems in a comprehensive manner? We could then proceed towards a comprehensive solution.

Mr. Ross

Yes, it is worth considering that. There will certainly be statements and debates on this matter, but we shall need to reach decisions on issues arising from the international negotiations now taking place. Indeed, some of those negotiations are very serious.

Mr. Watt

Does the Minister agree that one of the most urgent needs is for conservation of fishing stocks? Can he assure the House that he and his colleagues will be taking a firm line at the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Conference?

Mr. Ross

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I met representatives of the Scottish fishing industry a fortnight or three weeks ago. They stressed what the hon. Gentleman has said about conservation. Their view, probably understandably, was that we were good in all aspects of conservation, including our gear and where we fished, but other people were not quite so good.

Mr. Sillars

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the additional concern in the industry about reports of a new dispute with Iceland? Will my right hon. Friend comment on those reports?

Mr. Ross

I understand that there have been some reports today. It is important to bear in mind that negotiations are in progress for a new agreement with Iceland and that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be going to Iceland this weekend. I hope that there will not be a dispute, but the Government are taking precautionary measures to ensure that British vessels can be protected if that should become necessary. These measures have already been widely reported.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

In the light of the industry's demands, stated from both sides of the House, that the Government sit down with the industry and work out a long-term policy, and given that the Minister has said today that he is not prepared at this stage to do that, surely it would have been prudent to continue the assistance to the industry during the period of uncertainty until the new policy was worked out. Why have the Government taken this decision in advance of covering the grants to the industry as from 31st December this year?

Mr. Ross

I do not want to remind the hon. Gentleman of who stopped the grants to the industry, because he should know something about that. When certain circumstances arose concerning costs, especially fuel costs, the Government introduced grants on a temporary basis to allow the industry to become accustomed to the new circumstances. That was for a certain period, and we have continued it for a further six months. I think that the hon. Gentleman was unfair about what we have already done for the industry.

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