HC Deb 28 June 1976 vol 914 cc27-36
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on fisheries policy.

I should like to deal first with the short-term consequences of the agreement with Iceland for fishermen and shore-based workers whose jobs are likely to be affected. We intend, as a Government, to do all we can to avoid hardship to those concerned. We shall give all possible help under the existing schemes for the retraining and resettlement of redundant workers.

We shall discuss with the unions and employers the feasibility of an arrangement for compensation for those fishermen directly affected by the settlement who, because they do not have regular contracts of employment, are denied the benefits they might otherwise have received under the redundancy payments Acts.

We know that our fishing opportunities will undergo radical change. In the Government's view a satisfactory revision of the EEC's common fisheries policy is of major importance and priority. Other countries outside the European Community are preparing to extend their fisheries limits to 200 miles. We are therefore pressing for an early declaration that the member States of the Community intend to do the same.

We have also made very clear to the Community the United Kingdom's requirements for a reserved coastal band of not less than 12 miles, and extending in parts to 50 miles. We are pressing also for early progress in the Community's negotiations with third countries about access to their waters for British and other Community fishermen and about the limitation of fishing by third countries in the waters of member States. Outside the coastal bands we expect there to be a system of properly enforced quotas to ensure fair shares of the available fish resources and effective conservation of fish stocks.

As these negotiations progress, we shall be able to establish more precise objectives for our fishing industry. But already it is clear that changes will be called for in the structure of the fishing fleet, including provision of more stable conditions of employment. Changes will be called for in handling and distribution and in the processing industries.

The fish resources available to us will include species different from those now familiar to the consumer. Work on methods of processing and using these new species will be intensified. In carrying forward our plans, we shall of course seek to derive maximum benefit from any EEC schemes.

Accordingly the fisheries Ministers and other Ministers concerned are embarking on a programme of consultation with the industries and other interests affected. As a first step in this consultation my colleagues and I are meeting more than 30 representative organisations later this afternoon.

The international regime for fisheries is changing, and other factors are making adjustments inevitable. We can begin to see the direction in which a new strategy can be developed. The Government are determined to ensure that our fisheries resources and the industries exploiting them make a major contribution to the British economy.

Mr. Pym

We are grateful to the Minister for that statement, as far as it goes. We on these Benches are certainly desirous that the Government should carry into effect their determination to ensure that our fisheries resources shall make a major contribution to the British economy. We are also glad that he and his colleagues are starting discussions with the industry and its representatives today. But does it not seem to him rather late to be starting now? Should not these negotiations and consultations have been taking place throughout the past year?

The Minister referred to the exclusive zone, the coastal band, as … not less than 12 miles, and extending in parts to 50 miles. Does that not seem to him, as it seems to us, to be a far weaker statement of our position than was laid down earlier by the Government? It does not seem to conform to the very strong "definitive position" to which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office has referred earlier. I am sure that the Minister knows that there is more concern about limits than about anything else, because they represent the industry's livelihood and are vital for monitoring.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to "properly enforced quotas". Is he aware that the best way of achieving them is by having a larger coastal band, up to 50 miles?

On negotiations with third countries, we support this approach on a Community basis, but does the Minister accept that there must be a clear understanding among members of the Community beforehand as to the advantages and sacrifices involved in any of the agreements reached?

As for changes in structure, will the Minister give assurances about the inshore fleet, which feels threatened by events in deeper waters lately? Would he also tell us more of the Government's plans for exploiting other species, such as the blue whiting, which will clearly become of great importance to us?

We are glad that the Minister acknowledges that, because of the nature of their occupation, fishermen will need some special and additional arrangements beyond what is contained in the redundancy payments Acts, but can he be more specific?

When does the right hon. Gentleman think that his consultations and his negotiations with his partners in Europe will be complete, so that the industry can know for sure how to plan for the future and what it has to plan for?

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman has rightly put some important questions. Although I am meeting this large body today, there have been many informal meetings before this on a departmental basis, with my staff and officials. This is not something new, but I thought I should mention the important meeting, which will be one of the largest ever held by a Minister on this matter.

We still have to consider the terms of negotiation and discussion. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the figures I gave about our position in relation to the Community. We are in a negotiating position now and I cannot say what may come out of it. I have said what has been said to the House previously by the Minister of State. We shall now go into negotiations for a re-adaptation of the common fisheries policy. I have always believed in this. I had great reservations about what was negotiated previously, but I was not the negotiator. I will do my best to see what can be done. The negotiations on the limits mentioned in May will be conducted by the Foreign Office and the Ministers concerned.

I was asked whether there would be a clear understanding about third countries. Again, this is a matter for negotiation. Countries such as Norway, which supply us with fish and in whose waters we fish, are important countries and we must have discussions on that situation, also on a Community basis.

As for changes in the structure of the inshore fleet, I shall have discussions with that section of the industry, but I cannot say what adaptations will be made. It will depend on what we achieve out of the Community through negotiations. We shall have to exploit new species such as blue whiting.

On redundancy, I cannot be more specific: that will be a matter for the Department of Employment. It will have to identify the people affected, but it has been agreed in principle that a special scheme will be needed.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I want to seek the help of the House. The time taken on questions and answers on this statement will come out of the time not of the next debate but of the debate on the child benefit scheme. I have the names of many hon. Members who wish to speak in that debate. If hon. Members who are now called to ask supplementary questions would please make them direct and short, it would be very helpful.

Mr. James Johnson

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this statement has been basically triggered off by the tragic Icelandic settlement? Would he say more about compensation? He said that the difficulty might be the identification of the work force. Is he contemplating handshakes such as the dockers get from the NDLB? What steps are he and his Cabinet colleagues taking to initiate talks upon decasualisation so that these men are no longer looked upon as second-class citizens by comparison with their fellow workers on shore and indeed with men in the Merchant Navy? If we are to go for a 50-mile limit, shall we not need a much larger enforcement squadron of fishery protection vessels?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend is chairman of the all-party Committee on Fisheries, and I understand his great concern. We have agreed in principle that there will be certain redundancies not covered by existing legislation. That is why we are having talks with the trade unions and the employers.

On the question of decasualisation, here we are dealing with future conditions of employment for fishermen. This will be a subject which will inevitably arise during consultations with the industry. I have already met the trade unions on this matter.

Mention was made about extended limits and the broader issues. We have agreed to have a further five new protection vessels, and they are under construction, and four aircraft will be provided to operate in conjunction with the ships.

Mr. Powell

If other countries all round the world are to have 200-mile limits, how can 12 miles, with an occasional extension to 50 miles, be enough for Britain?

Mr. Peart

This is a matter for discussion with the Community in the re-adaptation of the common fisheries policy, but I believe that the Community should make an early decision and announce our desire to go to the 200-mile limit.

Mr. McNamara

May I welcome the Minister's statement and only regret that, as it contains so much that we knew before, it was not made the same day as the announcement of the Icelandic settlement? There is not a great deal new in it. The suggestions my right hon. Friend has made were matters which were put to him a long time ago.

May I also welcome on behalf of the union his statement about redundancy payments and express the hope that we can have details of the scheme as soon as possible? I also welcome his proposals to look at the question of decasualisation in the future. Having said that, I repeat that much of this could have been said a fortnight ago and it would have saved a lot of time now.

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend has said that this should have been said by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary a fortnight ago. Let us be fair to the Foreign Secretary. He was dealing specifi- cally with the Icelandic agreement. I have now to deal with the consequences, and that is what I am doing.

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomed what I said. I said on a previous occasion that there is inevitably a great problem of what we achieve in relation to the re-adaptation of the common fisheries policy.

Mr. John Davies

The Minister mentioned the unilateral intention which the Community might have, and which he welcomes, to nominate an exclusive economic zone of 200 miles. Is he able to tell the House firmly that matters other than fisheries will also be considered within that framework? Many other matters are concerned with the exclusive economic zone and I would hope that these would be taken into account as well as the fisheries issue.

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that a decision on a 200-mile exclusive zone affects the Continental Shelf and other important matters. If we are forced into this position I hope that the Community would be able to announce that.

Mr. Watt

Will the Minister acknowledge that many Scottish fishing interests say that this is the final sell-out? When will the Minister start standing up for the British people and insist on a 100-mile zone exclusive to our own people? Does he not recognise that there is an opportunity for expansion of the fishing industry, not of contraction? Does he further recognise that no Scottish Government of any calibre or complexion whatsoever will agree to abide by this kind of decision?

Mr. Peart

I always listen to the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt), but he is being unrealistic to talk about a 100-mile zone. We still have to negotiate and to get a re-adaptation of the common fisheries policy, and in the end Scotland will benefit.

Mr. Prescott

Is it not a fact that the common fisheries policy will have still greater consequences on our fishing industry than the Icelandic deal? If this statement today was intended to assist those facing the consequences of that agreement, it has done nothing to help the fishermen who have been put off by the trawler owners who are reducing their ships to the minimum number possible. Will my right hon. Friend now give us a positive affirmation that decasualisation will operate in this industry and that money will be provided for these fishermen who have been made redundant by the agreement of 1972?

Mr. Peart

I do not know why my hon. Friend should get so angry—

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Peart

The Government have decided, after discussions with the trade unions and with the employers, that there will be a special redundancy scheme which will be favourable to those fishermen who are not covered by previous legislation. What more does my hon. Friend want for them?

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Peart

I have said that the question of decasualisation will inevitably arise in the discussion. I am amazed that my hon. Friend is being so irresponsible.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that our inshore fishing areas are genuinely horrified that each time he comes before the House the Government's negotiating position in relation to the EEC seems to have been weakened?

Mr. Peart

I cannot accept that statement. Our negotiating position was declared by the Minister, and we hold to that. This will be a matter for negotiation. I cannot prejudge what will emerge. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a very reasonable person. He must understand the position.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

To what sort of timetable is the Minister working to prevent a complete collapse of confidence in the inshore industry in Scotland? Why in his statement did he make no reference to herrings?

Mr. Peart

Although I cannot state what the specific timetable will be, we recognise that it is an urgent matter. I cannot say whether it will be a week, a fortnight, or a month. It is a matter to be discussed in Europe.

Mr. Robert Hughes

First, will my hon. Friend confirm that the Scottish Trawlers Federation is to be involved in this after- noon's discussion? As his repeated consultations with the industry in the past about limits have given him the strong message that nothing less than a 50-mile exclusive zone would be acceptable, why does he not accept these views? Does he intend to take the advice on this occasion and stick by it?

Mr. Peart

This is a matter of access. A study of our coastal line and the different fish feeding off our coasts shows that what has been suggested by the Foreign Office provides a good basis for discussions in the Community.

Today I am to see the Scottish Trawlers Federation Ltd., the Scottish Fishermen's Federation Ltd., and the Aberdeen Trawler Officers Guild, amongst other bodies. I could go on and give a whole list of people represented—producers, trade unions, port wholesalers and inland wholesalers. I hope that Scottish Ministers will be present with me.

Mr. Clegg

Is the Minister aware that the statement he made is one which will be greatly resented in the fishing ports, especially as it constitutes a weakening of the bargaining position on limits? We started off going for 100 miles, then we went down to 50, and now it is down to 12. Will he make up his mind?

Mr. Peart

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman, who has an interest in Fleetwood. We are anxious to help those who were affected by the Icelandic dispute and who have been declared redundant. I have already said that. What more does the hon. Gentleman want? This applies to Humberside as well. The fishermen there have been affected, too. I am anxious that help should be given to those who have been declared redundant. However, the longer-term issue of the structure of the fleet in Fleetwood is another matter. There will be specific discussions.

Mr. Buchan

Am I right in thinking that our reply to the 200-mile demand which has been sought and achieved by other countries is that we are to draw back to 12 miles? Is it not the case that there is no element of gain here but that this is the position as put forward by the Commission? Thirdly, is it not the case that every statement we get on this matter retreats the lines still further? Fourthly, is it not the case that the earlier position of 50 miles was totally rejected by the industry? If this retreat has happened before negotiation, what in the name of God will happen after we negotiate?

Mr. Peart

I cannot accept that. We are in the Community now. My hon. Friend must face that, whether he believes in the Community or not. Some hon. Members act as though we are not in the Community. I understand that and I respect their point of view. However, we are in the Community and we must readapt the common fisheries policy. When we make a decision on the 200-mile limit it must be a Community decision. In negotiating with the third countries we derive great strength from being in the Community.

With regard to benefits from the Community, I assure my hon. Friends who represent fishing interests that they have benefited considerably. The EEC has authorised grants worth £7 million, and £1½million of this is going to Humberside and Yorkshire, mainly for fishing projects.

Mr. Rathbone

The right hon. Gentleman has not touched on any of the problems of the inshore fleet, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed out. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the greatest child benefit that he could possibly be talking about would be the maintenance of one of the nation's greatest food resources, namely, fish?

Mr. Peart

I agree, but the hon. Member must know that I am dealing with a statement that was made in the course of the aftermath of the Iceland agreement. The inshore fishing fleet will be a prosperous industry serving the nation with food.

Mr. Warren

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are the premier country in the whole of the Community and that, therefore, we ought to be in the leadership? In fact, we are merely following behind. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he has to get a move on because the whole industry is in peril?

Mr. Peart

I am surprised at a Conservative Member chiding me about our position in the Community. The Tories should have negotiated a better deal. However, we are in the Community now and we have instanced our desire to readapt the Community's fishing policy to what we think is a new situation. I believe that this will benefit our industry.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Does the Minister realise that it is not a question of readapting the Community's fishing policy but of re-adapting his starting point in the negotiations time after time, having gone back from 100 miles to 12 miles? It is a disgraceful retreat and it will be disastrous to our national interests.

Mr. Peart

The hon. and learned Member's suggestion of a 100-mile limit in relation to the common fisheries policy is completely unrealistic.