HC Deb 02 November 1976 vol 918 cc1206-16
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I will, with permission, make a statement about the outcome of a discussion of fisheries questions at a meeting of EEC Foreign Ministers in the Hague on 30th October.

I am glad to report that Foreign Ministers reached agreement on the matters which they had been unable to resolve in the Council on 18th and 19th October. It was agreed that member States of the Community should extend their fishing limits to 200 miles as from 1st January. Agreement was also reached on the outline mandates which will enable the Commission to open negotiations with third countries on framework agreements which will govern future Community fishing in the waters of those countries, and third country fishing in the waters of member States.

The House is aware of the particular urgency in the negotiations with Iceland, and I am glad to say that the Commission will start negotiations with the Icelandic Government very shortly. On the internal aspects of the Community's fishery policy, the details will have to be dealt with at a later stage. The Council did, however, agree that, in applying the common fisheries policy, account should be taken of the vital needs of the fishing communities in regions particularly dependent on fishing including inter alia the northern parts of the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary again made clear that the Government had in no way modified their view on the width and scope of the coastal arrangements which we are seeking.

Mr. Pym

Is the Minister aware that we welcome the agreement to move the limits and are pleased that that has been achieved? Does he accept that more than a framework agreement with Iceland will be required to deal with the situation which arises in the United Kingdom only on 1st December? On the crucial importance of the internal arrangements, I think that the House is agreed about objectives. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Foreign Secretary will be accompanied in his negotiations by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture? Can he confirm that fisheries will be on the agenda and discussed at the Heads of Government meeting at the end of the month?

How is the 200-mile limit to be policed and enforced? Where are the vessels to undertake the task and how is it to be organised? The right hon. Gentleman referred to the details needing to be dealt with later. Is he aware of the urgency and the need to reach agreement by 1st January 1977 so that the partners in the Community will know where they are? Why does the Minister single out the northern parts of the United Kingdom apparently as being particularly dependent upon fishing whereas in reality other parts of the United Kingdom are affected as well?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I readily confirm that there is considerable urgency in relation to Iceland and a need to make an arrangement there by 1st December. That, of course, has considerable impact on the deep-sea fishing. The Commission is well aware of that, particularly the Commissioner who is dealing with this matter at present.

As for the internal arrangements, it would be of advantage if all these matters could be agreed by 1st January. It would undoubtedly be better, but we must take a realistic view of the negotiations. There is still a formidable gap between the countries of the Nine about the internal régime and it would be optimistic to believe that we would get total agreement by 1st January—although I should be happy to see it.

As for the Heads of Government meeting, of course any Head of Government can put an item on the agenda for discussion. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether this matter would be discussed at the end of the month. I have no doubt that if we reached a situation in which there was no possibility of agreement with Iceland, the Prime Minister would wish to discuss the matter with his fellow Heads of Government, but if we can reach some agreement—negotiations are proceeding smoothly—it may be better for that to be discussed later.

Enforcement and policing are crucial parts of any internal regime. It is well known that the Commission has put forward proposals dealing with quotas. There is great scepticism about quotas, largely because of the enforcement procedures. This is therefore a central issue to be discussed as part of the internal regime, and it will be discussed.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the Minister aware of the dismay felt in all parts of the House following the massive compromise made by the members of our delegation in the European Parliament on this matter and the fact that we were unfortunately scuppered by the Irish delegation? I hope that he will convey to the Foreign Secretary, who is also a Humberside Member, the strong feeling that we have now achieved a massive breakthrough and can now attempt negotiations with the Icelanders, the Norwegians and others, such as the Canadians. We wish him and his team success in this difficult matter of achieving a system of banded zones of 12, 35 or 50 miles within the 50-mile exclusive economic zone which all parties in the House desire.

Dr. Owen

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words about the Foreign Secretary. My right hon. Friend has throughout upheld both the interests of the deep-water fishermen, of whom he has considerable knowledge because of his constituency, and the need for an arrangement on the internal regime to protect the coastal fishermen. A substantial change has been made. The fact that we have been able to get the Council to endorse what the Commission said in its document about the northern region—the first time that that has been stipulated—means that it is now a Council agreement. That is a substantial advance and the wording makes it clear that there are other regions, notably the southwest, all around the coast of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland which we also wish to protect.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope to call every hon. Member with a direct constituency interest in this matter, but I can do so only if hon. Members will make their questions as succinct as possible.

Mr. Powell

As the extension to 200 miles is a decision jointly taken and as, under the Treaty of Accession, the waters between 12 and 200 miles are now in effect Community waters, is there any mutual acceptance of responsibility for the policing of those waters?

Dr. Owen

This is still to be discussed. There are two different views on the question. Some fishermen in the United Kingdom would wish enforcement to be still a United Kingdom responsibility and are sceptical about the advantages of the Community. There are other smaller Community countries without the resources to do an effective policing job over a large area of sea. That was the matter raised by the Irish.

Mr. Beith

In drawing particular attention to the northern parts of the United Kingdom, are the Government making clear their recognition of the needs of the fishing communities in Northumberland, something which their predecessors did not do?

Dr. Owen

I do not wish to be involved in drawing a map at this stage, but I am well aware of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers. That is why the wording is cast in a fairly broad sense and talks about northern regions of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Robert Hughes

May I add my congratulations to the team who have begun on what may still be a very long haul before we get satisfaction? Can the Minister confirm that the Scottish Office will be represented when it comes to discussing the internal arrangements for the fishing régime?

Dr. Owen

Yes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland took part actively in the discussions on 18th and 19th October and has been closely associated with this matter. I discussed this issue with him on Saturday over the telephone.

Mr. Watt

May I congratulate the Government on their decision to extend the limits to 200 miles? Does the Minister recognise that urgency still exists until we get a 50-mile exclusive zone for Scottish fishermen? So long as our partners in the EEC—namely, the Danes and the Belgians—are allowed to rape our waters by industrial fishing, our entire fishing stocks will be in extreme danger?

Dr. Owen

Her Majesty's Government will look after the interests of British fishermen from wherever in the United Kingdom they come.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Is the Minister aware that Irish Ministers achieved a better deal for Irish fishermen than British Ministers did for British fishermen? Is he aware that there are many people in Scotland who will seriously question the benefits of British representation at the EEC? Is he aware of the seriousness of this matter and the grave responsibility which rests with him for the unity of the United Kingdom? If he fails to satisfy the legitimate needs of Scottish fishermen, he will fan the flames of separatism much more fiercely than all the nationalists and other extremists put together.

Dr. Owen

I am only too well aware of that. If we had been prepared to acquiesce in an arrangement which did not recognise the special problems of the United Kingdom, we should have had agreement much earlier. It was because my right hon. Friend fought for a recognition of the special interests of the United Kingdom that the negotiations took such a long time.

Mr. Prescott

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend's statement about the extension to 200 miles. However, would he fasten his attention on the real problem? That is the internal fishing policy and the fact that we may be playing off one area against another when what we should do is to consider an alternative policy of coastal control for conservation and quotas agreed with the Community, which would be an alternative to the exclusive zone argument.

Dr. Owen

I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent, that what we are discussing is fish. That is the central issue on which the livelihood of fishermen depends. Therefore, it is right to look seriously at conservation, enforcement and the viability of any system of quotas. However, at the moment the British view remains that we do not believe that we can sufficiently safeguard the interests of the British fishermen without some form of coastal zones.

Mr. John Davies

Would the Minister confirm, so that there can be no vestige of doubt, that his right hon. Friend has agreed in the Council of Ministers with the other Foreign Ministers on a 200-mile fisheries zone and not an exclusive economic zone, which has overtones going well beyond the cause of fisheries?

Dr. Owen

I can confirm that interpretation, which is an important one.

Mr. Jay

Are we then moving to a situation in which Iceland, Norway and other countries obtain a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone while we have to share most of ours with eight other countries?

Dr. Owen

We are moving towards a readjustment of the common fisheries policy, which it was accepted at the time of our accession had many unsatisfactory features. It is difficult to renegotiate that, but we are taking the opportunity of the extension to 200 miles to try to arrange a common fisheries policy which takes into account the interests of British fishermen rather more than hitherto.

Mr. Wall

Will the Minister explain why all the reports indicate that Ireland received better assurances for a 50-mile limit than were given to Britain? Is he aware that the real battle will be over the 50-mile limit? Is he aware of the explosive anger that will be demonstrated by the whole fishing industry if we fail to obtain a 50-mile exclusive limit?

Dr. Owen

That is a little rich coming from the hon. Gentleman who supported a system which gave no safeguards for fishermen. I do not wish to turn this into a political issue between the two sides of the House, but it does not lie in the mouths of the Conservatives to criticise us in our difficult task of recovering lost ground. We shall do so as far as is humanly possible.

Mr. Bowden

Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that the inshore fishermen on the South Coast are facing a particularly difficult problem? Will he ensure that when the final area is agreed for exclusive use that will also mean the cancellation of all historic rights?

Dr. Owen

That is an issue that may need to be discussed. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Commission's proposals for keeping to the 12-mile limit and allowing historic rights. Once one embarks on the subject of historic rights and seeks to revert to that situation, one is asking for substantial changes not envisaged at the time of the common fisheries policy.

All hon. Members will have to recognise that we are trying to regain a situation that was given away. It will not be easy to do that, and it would be most unwise for anyone to adopt an attitude which did not reflect that the issue has to be negotiated with nine other countries. These nine countries have shown a degree of understanding of the peculiar and special interests of the United Kingdom and Ireland. However, there is much further to go. I do not disagree with my hon. Friends who have said that we are only just starting the negotiations. I advise the House to look at the position realistically and to make a realistic assessment of the British position.

Sir Frederic Bennett

Is the Minister aware that I believe that what he says is entirely reasonable? We cannot expect to get a 50-mile limit or any other limit by 1st January because of all the complications involved. Will he nevertheless confirm that as from 1st January the fishing fleets of non-Community countries, notably of Japan, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, will be unable to fish within the 200-mile area without some agreement with Community members?

Dr. Owen

That is the essence of the negotiations that are before the Community now. There are problems attached to it. However, we take the view that there should be a reduction of fishing catches from 1st January mutually agreed between third parties and the Community.

Mr. Buchan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we agree with the decision about the 200-mile limit, and that I endorse his rejection of the hypocrisy of the Conservatives? May we, however, deal with the question of historic rights? Is it not the case that the vast amount of water that we are dealing with within the 200-mile limit is basically British water? In that context, is he aware that in considering belts and broad bands all rights up to 50 miles—and I would prefer the 50-mile limit—must also be thrown into the melting-pot and discussed before we reach a final decision on the bands up to and including 50 miles?

Dr. Owen

Yes, I totally agree. I think that the whole Common Market fishing policy, which takes in the common fisheries policy, will have to be discussed, and that should embrace the question of historic rights.

Mr. Luce

Is the Minister aware that one reason we must insist on a 50-mile exclusive zone in the internal regime is that we have seen the French and the Belgians over-fish their waters in recent years? If they proceed to do precisely the same in our waters off the Sussex coast and elsewhere, we shall have nothing left to fish.

Dr. Owen

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but there is an acceptable contrary view which believes that fish can be conserved by proper surveillance and protection and a system of quotas. We have to look into this matter. It is one of the points which will have to be discussed, but we believe that it is easier to do that if there are exclusive rights or a coastal zone.

Mr. Clegg

In Fleetwood we welcome the resumption of negotiations with Iceland. Will British advisers and representatives of the British Government be present when the Commissioner holds the talks?

Dr. Owen

No, these will be negotiations for the Commission to undertake. The Commission has been given a mandate by the Community, and it will negotiate for the Nine as a whole.

Mr. Nott

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall)? Were any specific undertakings given to Ireland as a result of the last meeting which were not given to the British? Why was the northern region specifically mentioned and the other regions of the United Kingdom merely mentioned inter alia? Is there some special feature of the northern region which was thought to deserve particular recognition?

Dr. Owen

The main reason was that this was an area which had already been picked up by the Commission. The Commission mentioned three areas—the northern region of the United Kingdom, Greenland and some regions off Southern Ireland. That was felt to be the most that could be achieved if we could secure the Council's endorsement of the Commission's proposals.

The inter alia reference was inserted when other countries recognised that there were other regions similarly affected—we mentioned the south-west and other parts and there was mention of regions off Germany. We argued the case for the southwest. Irish interests are for the Irish Government to take up.

The Irish made a great deal of play of the fact that they have a small fishing industry, as they have in relation to the rest of the Nine, and that they have a development programme in operation. To that extent they had an unusual reference, but their industry is not comparable with the industries of the other member States. I do not claim that they secured any special treatment. I think that the special treatment involved the three specific areas, leaving open the opportunity of arguing for all the other areas.

Mr. Michael Shaw

I welcome the statement and I acknowledge the words which point to the special needs of the northern parts of the United Kingdom. However, is the Minister aware that my constituents were very disturbed to see in the Press that those words were interpreted as meaning Scotland? Does he accept and confirm that they include the North-East Coast?

Dr. Owen

They mean what they say, and they do not mean just Scotland.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I indicated earlier that I would call those hon. Members with a direct constituency interest, but I meant those I had seen standing. However, I call Mr. Albert Costain.

Mr. Costain

I stood up the moment the statement finished, Mr. Speaker, and I have a direct constituency interest.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement today gave the impression that he had not realised the special problems which exist for the South-East Coast and the narrow waters of the Channel? Is he aware that the fishermen in my constituency—we have three fishing fleets—are extremely worried about conservation? Will he make certain that the talks cover such matters as the types of nets to be used, and that the importance of conserving the fish supply will be stressed? My constituents are apprehensive about what has already happened off the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts.

Dr. Owen

I am aware of the problems of the South-East Coast. I have some personal knowledge of it. These negotiations, however, were held in the Council of Foreign Ministers primarily to deal with external arrangements. The detail of the internal arrangements has yet to be negotiated. Those talks will be difficult, and it will take some time before we reach agreement in view of the difference of views which exists at the moment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not want the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) to be under a misapprehension. I was not referring to him when I made my observation. The hon. Gentleman about whom I was speaking knows to whom I was referring.

Mr. Ridsdale

I have a constituency interest which is closer to the Danes and the Belgians than most. Therefore, may I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in the negotiations? There is no doubt that on the East Coast there is considerable fear of over-fishing by the Belgians and the Danes.

Dr. Owen

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Conservation is central to the whole negotiations.

Mr. Pym

On enforcement the Minister commended on the admitted complications that will arise with any new internal arrangement. But what will happen about enforcement in the rest of the waters in the 200 miles? Will that be organised from 1st January?

May I take up the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall)? In 1971 and 1972 there was no thought of a 200-mile limit, but in 1975 it was being discussed all round the world. Was that not an item that the Government should have put on the list of matters to be renegotiated?

Dr. Owen

I shall try not to make this a partisan issue. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I did not start it, and if he looks in Hansard tomorrow he will see that I did not.

Internal and external regimes and enforcement to some extent run together and it is difficult to separate them. I agree that the 200-mile limit poses a much wider area of sea, and therefore there are greater problems of enforcement. A lot depends on the system operating in the internal regime and the ease with which any form of enforcement can be reached. Negotiations will have to take place in the Community about the resources for policing which the nine member nations can produce. But no final decision has been reached and this is a matter for discussion.

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