HC Deb 30 October 1975 vol 898 cc1733-8
5. Mr. Beith

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment he has made of the likely future size of the British fishing fleet.

Mr. Bishop

I have nothing to add to the reply given by my hon. Friend to a very similar Question by the hon. Member on 23rd October.

Mr. Beith

Since the Minister is apparently unable to make an assessment, on what assumptions did he end the operating subsidy last week? How can he reconcile allowing the British fishing industry's catching capacity to be reduced drastically as a result of the laying up of vessels with our negotiations with our EEC partners and other countries in the North Atlantic Sea Fisheries Committee about the future fishing requirements of various countries?

Mr. Bishop

I have to make an apology to the House. Instead of skipping the reply to Question No. 4, I read it in reply to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). However, the Question is much the same, and I have an equally good reply for the hon. Gentleman. My original reply should have been that any such assessment would be premature if made prior to certain knowledge of the fishing opportunities open to us in the future.

Now perhaps I may deal with the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. He will realise that there are many factors still undecided, including the 200-mile limit matters, considerations by the Law of the Sea Conference, the common fisheries policy, and our attempts to have continued access to various parts of other countries' areas. These and other matters are all so uncertain that it is very difficult to make a clear assessment of the future size of the British fishing fleet.

Mr. McNamara

It appears that at the moment the British Government have no policy for fishing. We seem to depend on other people's decisions, and the Government will not give any outline of their proposals for our fishing industry, whether it be the deep water industry or the in-shore industry. They are very important industries which depend upon our having an effective fisheries policy. When are we likely to see something of it from the Government?

Mr. Bishop

Let me outline a few of the principles on which we are proceeding. The House will realise that we are negotiating with Iceland about continued access to its waters. We had conversations in London a week ago with a representative of the Norwegian Government about continued access. We have made clear our views on the 200-mile limit. We do not believe in unilateral action of the kind taken by Iceland. We want agreement at the Law of the Sea Conference. As my right hon. Friend said clearly in Brussels last April, we also want a very early reconsideration of the common fisheries policy. These are markers. We cannot anticipate what the situation will be in relation to the negotiations which are going on quite urgently about all these matters.

As for subsidies to the fishing fleet, we have made it clear that we are anxious to ensure that the fleet does not contract unduly in the time before the matters to which I have made reference are resolved. The House will be aware that we have made available £10 million this year in financial aid to the industry to help to maintain it until we know the answers to some of these questions.

Mr. Hicks

In view of the fact that the Government have shown their total insensitivity to the problems facing the in-shore fishing sector, will not the Minister agree that there is an urgent need for an inquiry and an analysis of the fishing industry so that those concerned with production may know where they stand, not just for months, but over the next few years?

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that inquiries are all very well. We want evidence of future trends. I think that it will be agreed that we are not yet in a position, nor is the industry, to recognise—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There appears to be a private row in progress. It must not happen.

Mr. Bishop

The industry and hon. Members on both sides of the House are not yet able to recognise the future trends. But, in the meantime, the Government have acted. Not only have we introduced capital grants to vessels by raising the moratorium imposed by the previous administration; we have introduced temporary aid, which is of great benefit to the industry.

Mr. Powell

When will the Government realise that there is a point beyond which we cannot allow the fishing opportunities to which the Minister referred to be restricted and reduced by the unilateral action of other countries? Will the Government desist from throwing away any cards that they may possess by forswearing unilateral action in advance?

Mr. Bishop

It should be recognised that while we deplore unilateral action by other countries, it would be improper for us to say that this was a course that we should pursue ourselves. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the best way to get orderly conduct amongst the fishing nations is to take action with regard to 200-mile or other limits by general agreement and not by the kind of action being taken at present.

Mr. Henderson

Is the Minister aware that the fishing industry is sick and tired of the kind of waffle that we are having here today? Does he not realise that the Icelandic Government are extending their limits, that the United States Government now have a Bill going through Congress to increase their limits, that the Canadians are proposing to increase their limits, and that the Norwegians wish to increase their limits? Are we to be the last country to do so?

Mr. Bishop

I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should be getting so excited. The Law of the Sea Conference is due to meet next February in New York. We believe that that will be the occasion to make our views known. But we have emphasised already that we believe in going to 200-mile limits by agreement. It is to the benefit of all to have general agreement on this rather than to take unilateral action.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does the Minister agree that it is time we had a White Paper on the fishing industry so that the Government could put all the different views into perspective and so we could see exactly on what basis they would wish the common fisheries policy to be renegotiated? If that were done, we would know what was happening and be able to give some confidence to the fishing industry, which at present has no idea where it is going.

Mr. Bishop

The House has debated the fishing industry on numerous occasions of late and is well aware of the Government's views on this matter. It is difficult to define the future shape of the industry until some of the factors are known. There are indications that the matters which are now in doubt will be decided in the near future.

Mr. Beith

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall try to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

13. Mr. Mudd

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what arrangements he has made for the continuation of subsidies on fishing vessels.

Mr. Bishop

I refer the hon. Member to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) on 23rd October.

Mr. Mudd

Does the Minister recognise the apparent inconsistency on the part of the Government who for convenience will back-date the award to the fishermen by three weeks beyond the date on which it was agreed, but who will not back-date the award to the shareholders of Nation Life? In the light of the subsidy, is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is growing fury among the majority of Cornish inshore fishermen, who do not enjoy the subsidy, when they see their fishing grounds constantly and consistently raped by the fishermen of Scotland who do enjoy the subsidy?

Mr. Bishop

I should hesitate to get involved in the kind of argument that the hon. Gentleman has put forward. I recognise his concern. I think that he is referring to vessels under 40 ft. whose owners have not had the subsidy. In reply to that serious aspect of his question, the answer I must give is that, in deciding what subsidy to give from January until December this year we have had to have regard to helping the sector that provides between 90 per cent. and 95 per cent. of the white fish. We have helped a substantial part of the industry by doing that.

The second point about the subsidy is that it has been given as temporary financial aid to maintain the great mass of the fleet and to stop undue contraction by boats going out of service until the time, which we hope will be soon, when we can see what the future shape of the industry must be.

Mr. Prescott

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time we reviewed the whole principle involved in the giving of subsidies to the fishing industry? Let it be made quite clear that the giving of subsidies should be tied to improving working conditions in the industry, conditions which are highly dangerous and of a most deplorable kind. No subsidy should be given until the conditions of the worker are improved.

Mr. Bishop

I recognise my hon. Friend's concern. There are two points to be made. First, the temporary financial aid was a quick form of help to the industry when it needed help. Secondly, the subsidy is intended to be phased out in December. The second point, about which my hon. Friend has rightly expressed concern, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. My hon. Friend will be aware of the steps taken to increase safety and to improve conditions on vessels generally. These steps have been welcomed by the industry.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to repudiate the offensive remarks of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd)? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is riot possible for fishermen in one part of the United Kingdom to keep fishermen from another part out of their area? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh! Long live the Union."]

As regards the phasing out of subsidies; in the not unlikely event that many fishermen will have to default on repayments to the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board, what action will the Government take? Will they seek to repossess vessels, or will they declare a moratorium on payments?

Mr. Bishop

One of my objectives in life is to keep my hon. Friends happy. I do not intend to become involved in pursuing that objective with Opposition Members. As regards a moratorium, it would be unfair at present to take any action on the matter. The subsidies that we have announced are intended to help the industry over a difficult period.

Back to