HC Deb 10 December 1976 vol 922 cc905-11

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Bishop

I beg to move Amendment No. 18, in page 3, leave out lines 27 to 32 and insert: '(2) Such an order may apply to fishing generally in the specified area or to fishing—

  1. (a) for a specified description of sea fish;
  2. (b) by a specified method;
  3. (c) during a specified season of the year or other period; or
  4. (d) in the case of an order under subsection (1)(a), by fishing boats registered in a specified country,
and whether the order is general or limited in scope it may provide for exceptions from the prohibition contained in it'.

The purpose of the amendment is to provide Ministers with greater flexibility than in the Bill as printed to prohibit fishing by foreign boats within British limits except under the authority of a licence. In its existing form the Bill would enable an order to be made prohibiting all unlicensed fishing in a particular area, subject to exceptions. The amendment would substitute a new subsection (2) in the clause.

The amended form of words would enable Ministers to license fishing by foreign vessels of particular countries, on a selective basis. We have decided that it is desirable to make this extra provision because, quite obviously, access agreements between the Community and third countries will not all have been concluded by 1st January next year. We may wish, thereofre, to introduce licensing arrangements in respect of different third country vessels at different times.

Apart from introducing this element of selectivity, the new subsection has the same effect as the subsection that it is designed to replace, including provision for exceptions from a general prohibition.

Sir John Gilmour

We are happy to accept the amendment, which puts into effect the earlier expressions of opinion that it is desirable to ensure that the House of Commons shall have the opportunity to debate these complicated orders so that we know exactly what is their effect.

Mr. Bishop

The orders are subject to the annulment procedure.

Amendment agreed to.

Sir John Gilmour

I beg to move Amendment No. 23, in page 4, line 10, at end insert— 'and detailing any method of fishing at present held to be illegal or which may be declared illegal in future by any Order laid before Parliament'. According to Clause 3(5)(d), the method of sea fishing can be defined, but no definition is given of methods which may not be used. What implication has this on the ban which the United Kingdom put on the drift netting of salmon? Does it have any bearing on the discussions that we have had from time to time on the question whether beam trawling should be allowed? Would it not be desirable for the Minister not only to be able to define the methods that can be adopted, but also to specify the methods that are illegal or will become illegal?

Mr. Bishop

I appreciate the concern that is often expressed by hon. Members, especially those who represent fishing areas—as does the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour)—about the control of methods that may be used in exercising primarily the control of fishing. Control of the methods that may be used is currently exercised mainly by means of orders made under Section 5 of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967. This will continue to be the case. In addition, further and more detailed control may be exercised by including the appropriate conditions on the licences issued under what will be the new Section 4 of that Act, contained in Clause 3 of the Bill.

These conditions may permit fishing by one method or two methods only, or they may permit fishing by any method with specific exemptions. The possibilities of control are, therefore, comprehensively catered for, and this will continue to be the case under the new Section 4 contained in Clause 3 of the Bill.

If the proposed amendment were accepted, licences would have to contain not only conditions relating to fishing methods but also details of any other prohibitions contained in orders. That would involve unnecessary duplication and could lead to licences having to be withdrawn and re-issued if a new order was made.

The second part of the amendment, requiring licences to contain details of any methods that may be declared illegal in future, is, as the hon. Gentleman will see, plainly unworkable. Quite apart from the propriety of following such a course, it is in any case impossible to predict what conservation methods will be needed as the stock situation develops.

The powers contained in the 1967 Act and the new clause in the Bill are entirely adequate to enable Ministers to regulate methods used for fishing.

With that assurance of maintaining the status quo and providing all the powers for which the hon. Gentleman asked, I hope that he will see fit to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Sir John Gilmour

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Grimond

I beg to move Amendment No. 28, in page 4, line 40, at end insert 'but the said licensing powers shall not be used to introduce a system of general licensing of boats or skippers'.

No area concerned with fishing has a greater interest in conservation than my constituency. That is one of the reasons why we have been so adamant over the need for a 50-mile limit. I am delighted that today the Minister has gone away seized of the unanimity in the House on the need for this limit.

Apart from the general reasons for conserving stocks all round Britain, there are certain special reasons concerning Shetland. We are in the front line. Every day and night off our shores there are great quantities of foreign boats fishing for all sorts of fish. When they come into Lerwick, or go to parts of Orkney, we can see their holds full of pulp, and can therefore imagine how ineffective any system of quotas is bound to be, because in many cases it is impossible to tell what sort of fish has been caught.

I am in general sympathy with any clause aimed, as this one is, at conserving the stocks and regulating the fishing round Britain, but I must confess that licensing fills me with some concern. My amendment is designed to raise what are to me very considerable doubts about any general system of licensing and to impress upon the Government how careful they need to be in proceeding in this matter.

I wholly accept that in special cases, in special areas, it may be necessary to limit the amount of fishing, but a general system of licensing would be of far-reaching importance to the industry. First, it would create monopoly. Instead of fishing being an open-ended occupation which those with the skill or inclination could enter, it would be closed. But, secondly, how would any licensing system be operated? I hope that even in relation to the limited way in which no doubt the Government intend to operate it under the clause, they will tell us a little about their methods.

One can only too well foresee a time when licensing is done by some system of Buggins' turn, or fair shares for all, and when, perhaps, every fishing area has to reduce the number of boats at sea. But, to take an extreme case, just think of the effect of that in Shetland. There is no hinterland to the fishing community of Skerries. It is a fishing community anchored on rocks in the middle of the sea, with no other occupation whatsoever. Whalsay is in much the same position. It has some crofting land, but very little, and is wholly dependent on fishing. It is also wholly dependent on the quality of the skippers. Everyone connected with fishing knows what an enormous difference there is between the really expert skippers and the mediocre ones.

If, under some licensing system, we were to forbid—for what might appear to be good reason in theory—the operation of the two or three boats which regularly fish from Skerries, or if we were to withdraw the licence from one boat, it would virtually put an end to the community there. If they cannot fish they must leave. In Whalsay there would be very dire effects, and to a lesser extent this would be so in all fishing areas.

I do not think that we should pass the clause without taking a glance at possible repercussions. Once the clause has been passed, as I read it, it gives the Minister very wide powers. Earlier on, as I understand it, the Minister agreed that action under the clause should be subject to scrutiny by Parliament. But subsection (8) reads: The licensing powers conferred by this section may be exercised so as to limit the number of fishing boats, or of any class of fishing boats, engaged in fishing in any area, or in fishing in any area for any description of fish, to such extent as appears to the Ministers necessary or expedient for the regulation of sea fishing.

That is extremely wide. I feel that I must at least make clear my concern about the possible effects of this in my constituency, and urge upon the Minister that he should not use this as the thin end of the wedge to introduce a general system of fish licensing without very much more discussion both within the House and within the fishing community.

Mr. Bishop

The powers of Clause 3 are drawn widely precisely to enable Ministers to introduce whatever measures may be necessary in order to conserve the fish stocks on which the industry depends.

I do not think it is possible at this stage to predict precisely, as the right hon. Gentleman may have in mind—I am not sure that it was his intention—what measures will be necessary, or the degree to which regulation by means of licensing will need to be developed.

This is partly because we do not know how the fish stock situation will develop—although we certainly intend to do better than in the past—and partly because truly effective conservation measures can be worked out only on an international basis. In our case, that means within the Community.

It is certainly not the intention at present to require all fishing by all boats to be carried out only under licence from 1st January, nor do we have plans for a system for licensing skippers.

The amendment might introduce an unwanted element of rigidity into the clause, and the right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, would not wish that. We are with the right hon. Gentleman entirely in wanting all the powers that a Ministry can use to ensure that there is no general licensing of fishing, whatever that may mean. We want to be able to use the powers we have, with no restrictions, so that we can act on this very important matter, including conservation.

The right hon. Gentleman has made a useful comment, and we take his point, but I think the Committee would be well advised to leave the clause as it is, giving the Minister power to act, although, of course, being very sensitive to the views that have been expressed.

Mr. Grimond

In view of the assurance that it is not the intention to introduce a general system of licensing, and that the Minister appreciates the possible reactions upon small communities, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Wall

We are discussing the licensing of both British and foreign fishing vessels. It has been estimated that within the 50-mile limit from our shores there are 2½ million tons of fish which could be caught in any one year. It has also been estimated that within the 12-mile limit there are 1.1 million tons.

The Committee will agree that the capacity of the United Kingdom industry could rise to between 1½ million and 2 million tons a year. That is one reason why the 50-mile limit is popular on both sides of the Committee. It ensures that we can catch up to our full capacity.

The Committee should also realise that there is an excessive catching capacity within the EEC, and that it now catches about 60 per cent. of its total catch within what, under the Bill, will become the British pond—the British 200-mile exclusive limit. Therefore, it is clear from the figures I have given that the British industry needs protection, and it could be provided under the clause.

2.30 p.m.

I repeat a point of view expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading, that catch quotas as defined by the EEC are wholly unsatisfactory. The only acceptable quotas are the effort quotas imposed by the Icelandic Government on us—that is, the number of ships to be allowed in a certain area and the period for which they may be there. Those quotas can easily be policed and maintained, and they are fair. I hope that only such quotas will be tolerable to the Committee.

Mr. Bishop

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We are all concerned to see that quotas or effort limitation—whatever method is used—shall be effective in addition to looking after the interests of the industry and conservation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

[Sir Myer Galpern in the Chair]

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