HC Deb 18 May 1977 vol 932 cc450-61
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Silkin)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to report to the House on the discussions in the Council of Agriculture Ministers on 16th–17th May, at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown)—represented the United Kingdom for the discussions on fisheries. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary represented the United Kingdom for the discussions on agriculture.

The Council considered a proposal by the Commission for a regulation to govern fishing for herring in the waters of member States in the period 1st June to 31st December 1977. The United Kingdom supported the Commission's proposals for a continuation of the temporary ban in the North Sea until the end of the year and for a system of quotas for the West of Scotland stock under which the United Kingdom would receive over 70 per cent. of the total allocations. The majority of delegations, however, despite the scientific evidence, favoured the allocation of quotas in the North Sea for the remainder of the year. This was not acceptable to Her Majesty's Government.

Eventually it was agreed to extend the North Sea ban until the end of June, except for a small special quota for the Netherlands to enable her to meet the requirements of her traditional June festival. It was also agreed to introduce a ban on herring fishing off the West of Scotland for the month of June. The latter measure will not affect United Kingdom fishermen since they normally do not start fishing for herring off the West of Scotland until the late summer.

The Council agreed to meet in Luxembourg on 27th June to decide on herring conservation measures for the period after the end of June and to consider all aspects of the internal fisheries régime. The Government are determined that real progress should be made then towards the adoption of definitive arrangements that adequately reflect the importance of the fishing industry to the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend told the Council that the calculation of monetary compensatory amounts on pigmeat must be adjusted to remove the difficulties to which they give rise. The Commission has now tabled a proposal which, if agreed, would allow the Commission to reduce MCAs on certain products, including pigmeat. It is intended that the implications of this proposal should be clarified urgently at official level with a view to the Council taking a decision on it at its next meeting on 20th-21st June.

The Council agreed to a directive on pure-bred cattle. This will remove obstacles to intra-Community trade, subject to the necessary animal health rules. I am confident that, as a result, our exports of pure-bred cattle will be benefited in due course.

The Council also discussed measures on wine, and on the so-called butter ships, operating mainly from North German ports, which offer cheap butter to their passengers, but final decisions were deferred until the next meeting.

In view of criticisms that had been made against him by some Ministers earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Tugendhat approached me and asked me to allow him to make a statement to the Council and to answer questions. I acceded to his request and I gave him the opportunity to make an opening statement, to hear criticisms, and to reply.

Mr. Peyton

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition give him their whole-hearted support for the robust attitude that he has taken in favour of conservation? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is a serious matter, despite the levity displayed by Labour Members. We believe that if greedy policies on the fishing grounds are allowed to continue, we shall be left with nothing to argue about tomorrow.

Is the Minister further aware that we support him in rejecting unenforceable quota arrangements? These are totally unsatisfactory. We also support his determination that progress be made towards arrangements for a sensible definitive régime which recognises this country's interests.

My last point relates to pigmeat. I am pleased that the Commission has at last awakened to the seriousness of the problem and has put forward proposals. Is the Minister yet in a position to tell us whether the Commission's proposals carry some promise of substantial relief to this hard-pressed industry?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support for the stand that we have taken on fishing. This is absolutely vital. Like him, I have for some time taken the view—perhaps a little longer than the right hon. Gentleman, because I was occupying this position before he adopted his Shadow rôle—that we were the best judges of what conservation measures were necessary in our own waters.

The House must remember that I tabled the proposals about pigmeat to the Commission within the first week of becoming Minister in September. This was the first time that the Commission had laid them on the table for discussion by the Council. A number of technical matters need to be settled. Many countries, while in principle supporting the Commission, want to look more clearly at the implications from their point of view. Needless to say, some countries were not perhaps as happy with the Commission's proposals as we were. In principle, we are very much in favour of these proposals. The details are being worked out. I wish that I could tell the House at this stage exactly how they will work out, but this is rather novel.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I appreciate the positive aspects which have so far come out of the fisheries discussions. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the industry is facing a serious future? Does he accept that death by a thousand meetings is totally unacceptable? When are we to get firm action on a secure future for the industry?

Mr. Silkin

I am aware of these facts, and I am as keen as my hon. Friend to see that we get the right answer, and get it soon. That was why I pressed strongly, and eventually—it did not happen immediately—got the Council to accept that we should have a separate day for fisheries matters—27th June—on which we would discuss the definitive regime. Unfortunately, because the herring ban is only temporary, we shall have to discuss that matter as well. No doubt we shall discuss that within the main context, which seems to be the basic principle that we have to satisfy.

Mr. Beith

Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear on 27th June that if this nonsense is not ended soon, there is support on both sides of the House for unilateral action on a 50-mile limit?

Mr. Silkin

If I had not made it clear, there were about 120 people, led by a piper of distinction—I am not an expert in judging how well he was playing, but I am sure that he was playing well—who would have drawn it to the attention of the Council and the Commission. Of course, there were hon. Members from all parties also present on that occasion.

Mr. James Johnson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in order to gain the confidence not only of the anti-Marketeers but of the whole fishing industry—

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend voted to go in.

Mr. Johnson

Order, order.

Mr. Skinner

It is true. He voted to go in.

Mr. Johnson

Order, Order.

Mr. Speaker

I often feel like saying that myself. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), should let his hon. Friend proceed.

Mr. Johnson

If the Minister is to get the total confidence of us all he must see that there are no loopholes. The Danes, for example, are being allowed, under this herring agreement, to fish in extenso off the Kattegat and Skagerrak. In view of the Danes' record of industrial fishing, how does the Minister feel about that?

Mr. Silkin

That is one of the issues that must be settled at the 27th June meeting. My purpose at this stage was to see that there was a ban in the North Sea and, as far as possible, a ban off the West Coast of Scotland. The House should remember that a ban has been achieved off the West Coast of Scotland at a time when our own fishermen do not fish there.

Mr. Powell

In view of the slowness and the obduracy of the Council and the Commission in understanding, let alone meeting, the minimum requirements of the British fishing industry, would it not now be perfectly fair and reasonable that we should withdraw the compromise proposals of a fishing limit of up to 50 miles which we put forward in expectation of genuine negotiations and table our minimum requirement, which is a 50-mile limit all around our coasts?

Mr. Silkin

Those questions will come up on 27th June. We have told the Commission that we are going to make new proposals. They are not so much proposals as a list of matters to be discussed. Undoubtedly the whole question will come up at that time. By then I shall have had to put a definitive view to my partners on this matter.

Mr. Jay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Norway, having stayed out of the EEC, has obtained a 200-mile exclusive zone? Since we have gratuitously thrown that away, thanks to the Opposition, can the Minister assure us that he will stand firm on the 50-mile zone, at least, for this country and, if necessary, enforce it unilaterally?

Mr. Silkin

I have believed for some time that this is one of the difficulties of my hon. Friend's variable belt scheme which was intended to show where all the fish were but did not quite do so. Fifty miles is a more sensible allocation, because everybody knows what 50 miles or 80 kilometres is. The important question is not necessarily exclusivity of fishing, because one will want to do some trade-off on fishing, for example with the Norwegians, who fish in our waters. We are talking of exclusivity of control.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Am I correct in saying that the more pressure that is put on, the better the Minister is satisfied? Does he accept that part of that pressure comes from the Scottish fishing industry, 112 members of which went to Brussels this week to demand a 50-mile—and not a millimetre less—exclusive zone? The Scottish Under-Secretary in charge of fishing made a reassuring statement in a meeting which I attended. He said that if there was not to be justice for the industry we could be assured that the Government would not hesitate to take unilateral action. Does that include the unilateral declaration of a 50-mile limit, or is it just talk?

Mr. Silkin

The hon. Lady is right. I need the support not only of hon. Members on this side of the House—although I know that I have their support—but of all those who are concerned with fisheries. We have shown our good faith. The Government made it clear during the speedy passage of the Fisheries Limit Act when I or my hon. Friend pointed out that we have that right within the Bill.

Mr. Torney

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is pleasing to see that the Opposition now realise that the fault in the pig industry lies with the Common Market and not with the British Government? Can he assure us that action will be taken to renegotiate or reorganise the common agricultural policy, because it is of no use to the British farmer or the British consumer?

Mr. Silkin

The pigmeat situation is a little more complicated than my hon. Friend implied. The fact remains that measures that clearly are legal, or were legal in the United Kingdom before we joined the Community, can at least now be questioned. Let us put it no higher than that. I am bound to tell the House that I do not regard the CAP as the best policy that has ever been evolved for agriculture.

Mr. Kimball

Does the Minister appreciate that the salmon stocks in this country now need the same protection as he is giving to herring? Will he draw the attention of the EEC to the need for it to preserve a ban on drift netting for salmon? Will he put our own house in order by asking the British inspectorate to ban the landing at our ports of salmon which have been caught in drift nets, which is illegal?

Mr. Silkin

I should be grateful for more information on that subject. All the conservation questions are bound to come up at the meeting.

Mr. Corbett

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the most alarming reports that the Council is turning itself into a Star Chamber and that Commissioner Tugendhat is having to face charges of being a Left-wing extremist? Is this likely to continue? If it is, is the heretic, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), also to be summoned to explain his objections to the CAP?

Mr. Silkin

I cannot answer for the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). He must answer for himself. That is precisely the way in which I thought Commissioner Tugendhat might care to arrange matters. He was not harangued, as has been reported in the Press. He asked me whether he could make a statement. I told him "By all means. You can hear the criticisms and answer them at the end. "I do not believe that it was for me to answer for the former hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South about whether he is a Left-wing extremist. I am in agreement with some of his statements but there are a number with which I do not agree. I do not believe that the matter deserved as much moment and importance as it appeared to get.

Mr. Younger

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that British fishermen have no confidence that the system of quotas either has been or can be properly enforced? What steps are being taken to ensure that the small derogation granted to the Netherlands is absolutely accurately observed? Would this not be a test case for someone to prove whether a quota system can be operated effectively?

Mr. Silkin

I accept that a quota system alone is not effective. There is something in what the hon. Member says. This is intended to be a token amount. The Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, who was at that time leading the United Kingdom Government delegation, suggested to the Netherlands delegation that it might transfer to haggis rather than herring, but that was not accepted.

Mr. McNamara

The House will have been intrigued about these butter ships. Will my right hon. Friend say whether they float upon lakes of wine, and whether they are likely to be wrecked upon submerged reefs of beef? As this is an interesting sort of precedent, is it possible that Her Majesty's Fleet, which is in mothballs, might be taken out, and that we could have one big jamboree to celebrate Jubilee Year outside the zones, buying cheap beef, butter, milk powder, wine and all the other surpluses?

Mr. Silkin

The second part of that question would be more properly addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

The first part of the question arises in this way. There are ships which sail outside the territorial waters, mainly of Germany, and which come into harbour and pick up hungry housewives complete with shopping baskets, who then buy butter off the ship very much cheaper than they can buy it inside their own countries. The reason why they buy it is that it is Eastern European butter. I leave the House to consider what the cycle may be on this occasion.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

Was the important matter of a regulation on sheepmeat discussed, and did the Minister fight for it?

Mr. Silkin

That subject did not arise at this Council meeting.

Mr. Heffer

Will my right hon. Friend accept from us our thanks for his gallant efforts? Nevertheless, is not the position that we, as a Government, make a firm stand, we are then pressurised by our European partners, we then reach a compromise, and the British are worse off as a result just because we are in the Common Market? Is it not time to say to our partners that we are ending the CAP commitment from right now?

Mr. Silkin

Let us see how we go. It looks to me as though we have not made a bad start in making some rather important improvements. We have a long, long way to go. About that I totally agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Bulmer

Is the Minister aware that some pig farmers in my constituency have gone bankrupt in recent weeks and that others are in grave difficulty? Did anything come out of his meeting which would lead him to advise such farmers to seek further credit from their bank managers or, indeed, their bank managers to grant such credit?

Mr. Silkin

I think that I made the position fairly clear. It is that although my proposals were tabled early in September, this was the first time that they were discussed in the Council. The proposals were sent urgently to officials for official discussion of the details of them, and they will come back at the next Council meeting. I should have thought that any decisions that need to be taken would perhaps best be considered in the light of what might arise out of that. I cannot say what will come out of that Council meeting. I can only say that this is the first time that there has been some move.

Mr. Spearing

My right hon. Friend may have seen reports in the Press about the statement by Commissioner Tugendhat to the effect that the cost of the agricultural package is now much greater than was originally thought. Can my right hon. Friend give the cost which is now given by Commissioner Tugendhat, and say whether any agriculture Ministers other than himself also represent the interests of the consumer in the Council of Ministers?

Mr. Silkin

As to the second half of my hon. Friend's question, I believe that I am the only Minister there for agriculture, fisheries and food, but I suppose that all of my partners would say that in one way or another they represented the consumers as well. As to the first part of the question, I cannot give the cost without notice, but I certainly shall do so.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

When the Minister atend the June meeting, will he take the oportunity not merely to criticise the CAP, which certainly needs reform—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—but to put forward some specific, practicable and acceptable proposals for its reform?

Mr. Silkin

Yes, Sir. On a number of occasions I have made such suggestions. I have made them in the House. If the hon. Gentleman cares to consider them, I shall send him the references in due course. However, I quite agree that what is needed is to take this issue head-on. One of the proposals that I have for when my European colleagues come over here—they will be doing so next week when I shall be their host—is to suggest to them how we might arrange for such a discussion.

Mr. John Ellis

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there are still real problems in respect of pigs? Despite his undoubted achievement, not least in educating the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) to the fact that the trouble lies with the formula for the MCAs, will my right hon. Friend make it clear when he renegotiates that there are those of us in the House who fully supported him when he took his unilateral stand, for which he will be going to court, and who will apply pressure for him to be in exactly the same position and will back him to the hilt if we again take arbitrary action to look after our pig industry?

Mr. Marten

Although I do not think that I can yet claim to represent the majority of Opposition Members as regards the Common Market, will the Minister realise that if he sticks firmly to a 50-mile limit and no compromise, he will have the support of the great majority of Opposition Members? Secondly, is there any relationship between that 50-mile fishing limit and what might be on the bed of the sea? Has it any subsequent follow-through to wider negotiations?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. As to the wider negotiations, I should not have thought so. It arises out of a common fisheries policy which, frankly, the Six agreed very hurriedly and speedily before we made our application. I am glad, as always, of the hon. Gentleman's support in this matter.

Mr. Skinner

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that every time he comes to the House and delivers another load of this Continental nonsense, there seem to be fewer and fewer people who can be clearly identified as pro-Market? As a result of the robust attitude that he has taken in the Common Market, it can now be perceived that the Opposition on the Front Bench, and indeed the Liberals, are now trying to steal my right hon. Friend's anti-Market clothes. Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that there is only one way for him now to travel, and that is to get closer and closer towards those who have taken a strong anti-Market position and to declare himself along with the idea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), and to argue the case for getting out of the Common Market?

Mr. Silkin

Putting the matter in perspective, what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said was that we should scrap the CAP. I do not think that he went quite so far as to say that we should go any further than that at this stage.

Concerning the CAP, I think that I have from time to time noticed a certain shift in opinion, not only on the part of the public but even in this House.

Mr. Watt

As Mr. Gundelach has failed in his negotiations on our behalf with Iceland, has failed in his negotiations on our behalf with the Faroes and appears to be failing in his negotiations on our behalf with Norway, does not the Minister consider that it is time that he adopted the saying in the Scottish bothy ballad which says, Never trust the middle man, But do your work yourself"?

Mr. Silkin

I have been trying to do a little work myself for the past few months—not always, incidentally, with the full support of the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), judging by some of the speeches he has made about the CAP, but perhaps he can discuss that from time to time with his right hon. Friend. However, I think that we shall keep to the line that the House recognises, and the fishing industry recognises, is the right line to take.

Dr. McDonald

Did Commissioner Tugendhat's statement to the Council of Ministers include any hope of the abolition of the levy on isoglucose, which at present is costing jobs in Tilbury and Greenwich?

Mr. Silkin

Not that I know of.

Mr. Grimond

As the right hon. Gentleman has specifically asked again for support from the Opposition side of the House for his valiant efforts in Brussels, may I ask whether he has drawn to the attention of his colleagues there the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), which would impose a 50-mile limit? May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we on the Liberal Bench will support his efforts to get that limit and that our support will be implacable?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support. Liberal support these days is very unusual, and I know that my hon. Friends and I very much appreciate it, particularly as we happen to be in the right on the fisheries question.

Mr. Welsh

Noting the statement "clarification at official level" regarding MCAs, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to assure us that such clarification will also include the NFUs and other such bodies? Is he aware that half of Scotland's pig production comes from the North-East? Will the voice of those pig producers be heard in such discussions?

Mr. Silkin

It will indirectly, but the truth of the matter is that when I referred to official discussions I meant the official committees, such as the Special Committee on Agriculture, and, where it comes into it, the Committee of Permanent Representatives.