HC Deb 09 December 1977 vol 940 cc1849-56
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Silkin)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to report to the House on the recent meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I represented the United Kingdom at the special three-day meeting in Brussels from 5th to 7th December.

The Council had before it a number of proposals from the Commission on the common fisheries policy, including proposals on quotas, access and conservation.

I have already told the House that the United Kingdom could not possibly accept the quota and access proposals, and that the conservation proposals were inadequate although they had some good features.

With regard to conservation, I once again emphasised that a comprehensive and fully effective programme of measures would be an essential part of a future CFP. I found a somewhat greater readiness among our EEC partners to recognise this point than heretofore. However, it remains the Government's policy that a Community conservation policy, which must include measures to allow coastal member States to safeguard the stocks within their sovereignty or jurisdiction, cannot be adopted separately from decisions on access and quotas.

The question of division of resources is more difficult. The basis of our position is well known to the House. The United Kingdom is the member State which has lost most in distant waters and contributes most to the fish stocks in the waters of member Stales, but the present Com- mission proposals did not take proper account of these factors. They must be changed.

I believe that at this Council there was a more widespread recognition that any quotas need to take account of distant water losses. I also believe that the general position of the United Kingdom is now better understood, although our contribution is not fully recognised even now.

The crucial questions of access and coastal preference were not fully discussed. The Government's position on these points remains unchanged.

The Council has agreed to "stop the clock" and to meet again on 16th January 1978 and the Commission has undertaken in the meantime to reconsider its present proposals.

The Council also agreed that existing conservation measures should continue unchanged until 31st January. These include the "standstill" on fishing effort adopted during 1977 and all other measures, whether they are Community measures or national. This is important, because it means that the present North Sea herring ban and Norway pout box will continue.

Mr. Peyton

Is the Minister aware that we on the Opposition Benches feel that it would be very wrong indeed if anyone in Brussels or elsewhere thought there was anything but unanimity on this point? We fully support the Minister in the stand that he has taken. Is he also aware that we agree specifically that it is right to "stop the clock" in present circumstances? I only wish that this could be done over a wider area. [An HON. MEMBER: "Does the right hon. Gentleman mean put the clock back'?"] I was not saying that. It is completely right to have got this position now.

I also agree that the quota and access proposals that have come from the Commission are wholly inadequate for the reasons that the Minister himself gave in that they take no adequate account either of our very considerable distant water losses or of the contribution that we shall be making in relation to both water and stocks.

We agree with the Minister in his determination to keep the whole question together. It would be wholly wrong to allow the vital matter of conservation to become isolated from quota and access. What part has the 50-mile limit played in the discussions? We regard that as a very important part of the background to conservation. Is the Minister aware of the apprehension that we share with the industry about the need to have a comprehensive and tough policy of conservation with very clear measures, not based on any optimism but of a realistic kind?

We are a little concerned about the cavalier attitude that has been taken by some countries towards conservation and enforcement, particularly those countries that have fished out their own grounds in quite a heedless manner.

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I made the point—I think that I made it fairly forcefully, in case anyone is unaware of it—during what were very long and tiring negotiations, that I had the whole House, the whole industry and the whole country with me in the point that I was making. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reiterating that. I am also grateful to him for his agreement by way of questions to me, if I may put it that way, to the major negotiating stance that we took.

Stopping the clock until, I estimate, 47th December means that the Belgian Presidency remains there, whereas otherwise the Danish Presidency would take over. There was a general feeling that as the Belgians, after the Luxembourgers and the Italians, perhaps, had less of a direct interest than other countries, this would he the best way of dealing with it. So it really forms a kind of resumed session.

On conservation, I had to get a specific assurance that Community and national conservation measures would be preserved. Unless that assurance had been given—and it was given—they would have lapsed and the stopping-the-clock procedure would have bypassed them, with the result that the conservation measures that we had taken would have ended. That was, I think, preserved.

As for comprehensive and tough measures on conservation, of course I agree. This is our policy and we must preserve it. I noticed that on this there was a movement in our direction. For the first time when talking about controls —the point that most of the House has had in mind for about a year and which I pushed, apparently, unavailingly, before—there was general acceptance of that.

As for the point about the 50-mile limit, I should tell the House that I left the Commission and the Council in no doubt that there were certain minimum demands that must be met but that everything above those minimum demands might be negotiable. This included a 50-mile basis of conservation, a 12-mile exclusive zone, and a 12-to-50-mile dominant preference. These were minimum demands, as were our demands on conservation.

Mr. Prescott

I welcome very much the further advance made by Ministers in seeking a fishing agreement which once again is very much along the lines advocated by the European Socialist Group in the Parliament two years ago. Can my right hon. Friend give us any further information about the reports that Germany has accepted the exclusive principle argument for conservation, which is essential for any quota agreement?

Will my right hon. Friend consider, for the final negotiations on 15th January—if they are final—the possibility that Humberside, Which will be hit more than any other area in the United Kingdom under this agreement, might be considered a European fishing centre for training and research and development, so that that might be developed as a bonus? Secondly, will he consider lifting the discriminatory operations against Humberside, such as the 15 per cent. quota on Icelandic wet fish, which would help our markets over this difficult time?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is difficult, but I do not want to comment at the moment on the stances of individual countries in the course of there negotiations. I do not think that that would be altogether helpful in the process of negotiation. The House will realise that in various Press comments there have been reports of individual countries or individual Ministers saying various things but that I have been rather careful not to be specific. I do not want to interfere in the process of negotiation.

As for the question about Humberside raised by my lion. Friend, I take his point, but we must first see that the sort of common fisheries policy that we require and demand is agreed before we can start looking a the consequentials. Once we have done that, I agree that there is a great deal in what he says.

Mr. Hooson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on the Liberal Bench agree with the stance that he has taken? When he says that the clock has stopped until 18th January, is he optimistic that the clock will then be restarted and will accord with Greenwich? Is he aware that he appears to be as popular with British fishermen as he is unpopular with British farmers, and that the reasons are fairly obvious from his statement today?

Mr. Silkin

I do not know that British farmers would be altogether grateful to me if I took an even tougher line than I have done during the past year. British fishermen rather appreciate a somewhat tougher or more realistic line.

As for the clock, the hon. and learned Gentleman's arithmetic is wrong. The 47th December is not 18th January: it is 16th January. But I quite agree that the timing should be more in record with Greenwich than with other methods of timing.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the support of this House for his rejection of the totally inadequate proposals put forward by the Commission? Will he say whether the variable belt proposal or the 50-mile dominant preference proposal is at the forefront of his negotiating position? Which does he have the strongest hopes of achieving? Whilst the clocks are stopped in Brussels, is there time for us to introduce any new national conservation measures?

Mr. Silkin

The right to introduce national conservation measures was preserved, as I have pointed out, by the assurance that I sought and obtained before I could give my agreement to stopping the clock. That position remains unaffected.

As to whether the variable belt or the dominant preference is the basis of my thinking, I have always said that these are means of getting that coastal zone which we require. We are perfectly prepared to look at these or any other means that may be suggested. However, these two remain on the table, and there have been no suggestions from my colleagues in the Council for any alternative to them.

In answer to my hon. Friend, there is one significant factor about which should tell the House. The House will recall that the Commission's proposals were laid in October 1976 and that at Council after Council the Commissioner said that he did not intend to alter the proposals. In open Council on this occasion he said—and the words are quite significant—"I am now in a position to amend these proposals."

Mr. Sproat

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to deny the rumours which have been circulating in the industry in the last few days that we are prepared to settle not for a quota of 21 per cent. but for something under one-third? Will he lose no opportunity between now and 16th January to make it clear that these quotas are totally unfair and that, even if they were more reasonable, they would be unworkable without licences? Will he also make it clear that if we do not get an agreement, we must impose unilaterally conservation measures of our own within an exclusive control, 50-mile limit?

Mr. Silkin

With regard to all those matters, save the question of numbers and percentages, I give the hon. Gentleman a totally unqualified "Yes" I will do that, and I have done it. However, I do not intend to play the numbers game. All that I have done is to say that there are minimum demands. These minimum demands may give rise to certain rather incomplete and perhaps qualified figures on which others can make deductions. But I am not talking numbers at the moment.

Mr. Hooley

Since quotas by themselves are useless, was there any discussion of techniques or methods of licensing fishing effort? On the conservation point, has there been any discussion about preserving the mackerel stocks which are now the main subject of attack in the light of the herring ban and other control measures?

Mr. Silkin

I am aware of the difficulties about the mackerel stock. But I want to pay my tribute to the industry itself, which has entered into a self-denying ordinance in this respect. It is working out very well.

With regard to the techniques for the limitation of effort, again I made this point and, for once, I seemed to have the whole Council with me. What is more, the Commissioner made the point that we had seen the limitation of effort technically in operation. That was in the case of Icelandic waters. That is exactly where it was done, and done successfully.

Mr. Fell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that although he may be popular with most fishermen he is not frightfully popular at the moment with small boat herring fishermen off East Anglia and, I suppose, other parts of the country? Can he give them any hope that they will soon be given some sort of quota?

Mr. Silkin

The hon. Member will recall that when this question was last raised I said that the Council, as a result of my request, was considering whether to make proposals for a derogation for the inshore fishermen. This would affect East Anglia and other parts of the country, including Northern Ireland.

It is only fair to the Commission to say that it did have rather a lot to get through in the three difficult days that we have had and that this matter did not appear high on the agenda. I understand how important it is for those concerned, but the Commission had to work on other matters. It is not for me to make these proposals; it is for the Commission.

Mr. William Hamilton

Did my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Council that he would have the support of the whole House in taking unilateral action should our national interest not be properly regarded, recognised and accepted, especially in Scotland? In that context, does he not deplore the absence today of all the Members of the Scottish National Party who continually shout about protecting Scottish interests?

Mr. Silkin

It may be a curious way to put it, but I did notice the absence of Members of the Scottish National Party on an issue which is of vital concern to Scotland. I answered my hon. Friend's first question in my reply to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), after he had given a list of requests from the industry, with which I sympathise. We are taking national measures. The Norway pout box is a national measure.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

The Minister said that the United Kingdom position was well known, especially on conservation. He talked of tough measures and the coastal zone that we require. Can he explain what appears to be an inconsistency to me, as an inland Member? About a year ago we were almost in a state of war with Iceland over its fishing limits. What is our position today on a unilateral declaration of fishing zones?

Mr. Silkin

Modern techniques, the increase in fishing and the adoption of 200-mile zones has resulted in a concentration of fishing efforts within our own waters. That is a danger and difficulty that we must meet in a number of ways. First, on the conservation basis, we must look at everything that is likely to endanger fishing stocks and prevent that from happening, preferably by Community measures, because they have a wider operation. During the debate that we had just over a week ago I discussed a number of measures on which there seems to be a great deal of movement on the part of our European colleagues.

The question of zones is fundamental. This is why we are talking in terms of 50 miles. Broadly speaking, give or take a mile in either direction, this is where the bulk of stock in our waters is to be found. That is where we must operate conservation measures.

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