HC Deb 18 December 1979 vol 976 cc524-54 3.32 am
Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

Even at this late or early hour, I welcome the opportunity that the debate provides to discuss some of the many problems currently facing the fishing industry. We have not had a comprehensive debate on the fishing industry for almost six months. My memory tells me that the last debate of that description took place on 26 July. It is a good thing for the House, for the Minister and for the industry that at intervals no more widely spaced than six months we have a chance to discuss in a general way what is happening to the industry and what we would like to see the Government do to improve its current prospects.

I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member or Banff (Mr. Myles) in the Chamber to give his support. I am also pleased to see in their places the hon. Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I hope that the presence of the hon. Member for Grimsby betokens the fact that the long-established bipartisan policy on these matters is to be continued. If we had problems with the support of individuals, we would have insoluble problems with a fragmented House.

Everyone in the House is well aware that the fishing industry is in an extremely gloomy position. Unfortunately, that is not recognised by everybody outside the Chamber. It is the view of some hon. Members that it is facing an apocalypse. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West (Mr. Johnson) made an interesting contribution to a debate in Committee. He thought that fishing in Hull might be finished within 12 months. That may be an over-gloomy view but it indicates the gravity that those who know a great deal about the industry attach to their consideration of it.

There has been a substantial loss of waters off Faroes, Iceland and Norway. In the past five years we have seen about 45,000 jobs lost to the fishing industry on the sea and on the land. We have had to endure the confusion and turmoil of the common fisheries policy, or the lack of a satisfactory policy. There is also the tremendous and tragic reduction in the size of the fleet.

Perhaps I can exemplify what I mean when I speak of the reduction in the size of the fleet by describing the situation in Aberdeen. About 10 years ago there were about 140 vessels that belong to members of the Aberdeen Fishing Vessel Owners Association. In January this year the total had shrunk to 69, and since January it has shrunk further, to 42. That decline from 140 to about 40 vessels within less than 10 years is in itself a graphic indication of the decline of the industry.

I need say no more in sketching out the gravity of the situation, and I make one reference now to the common fisheries policy. On this, perhaps the only occasion when the issue of the common fisheries policy is not done to death in debate, I would say that we are extremely glad that my hon. Friend the Minister of State and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made absolutely clear before the Dublin summit that there was no way in which the fishing industry would be traded off against any reductions in our net contribution to the European Community.

We are glad about that. We welcome the stand which, very early on, my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friends took, but perhaps he could quieten the fears now being expressed that, that stand having been taken at the Dublin summit and it being reported that at the Dublin summit and subsequently the Germans and others have been saying that oil should be thrown into the next negotiations over the Community budget, per- haps fish also would be thrown into them, after the firm stand taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Will my hon. Friend make absolutely clear that the pledge that was given about any trade-off of the fishing industry applies not just to the Dublin summit but to the next and any subsequent summits, our case on Britain's part in the common fisheries policy being one of simple justice, not to be bargained away for anything else?

I come now to some of the problems that we face in Aberdeen. I recognise that on one of them my hon. Friend the Minister of State does not have direct responsibility, it being a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I hope that he will pass on any points that he feels he cannot deal with now.

One difficulty in Aberdeen is the extent to which the fishing industry is competing with the oil industry. The fact that this matter has been aired in the House before does not mean that it is not a continuing problem. It is twofold. First, it concerns wages. Before oil came to Aberdeen, wages there were below the national average. Since oil came they have been above the national average. In many ways that is excellent, but it puts considerable problems on the fishing industry.

The other major difficulty which oil has brought is that the marine back-up service which the fishing industry expects is not there in the way it was. There are delays because oil vessels or oil needs are being cared for and, what is more, the cost, reacting to the money which the oil industry can afford, is much greater. So the oil industry, boon and blessing as it has been, on balance, has nevertheless brought substantial problems to the fishing industry.

I come now to a matter properly for the Secretary of State for Scotland, namely, the question of Aberdeen receiving the same or similar aid to that given in 1978 to Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood. The authorities in Aberdeen put in a very reasoned submission to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland but have not yet received an affirmative response. I hear that Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood are thinking of applying for more aid, before Aberdeen has received any aid. Perhaps the hon. Member for Grimsby will confirm that. The Secretary of State should confirm that Aberdeen will receive aid on the same basis as that given to Hull, Fleetwood and Grimsby.

The third point to which I shall briefly refer—it could be elaborated at much greater length on another occasion—is the effect upon Aberdeen of the dock labour scheme. Aberdeen is the only port in Scotland that feels the effects of the scheme. Whatever the scheme's merits, it works to the detriment of the fishing industry in Aberdeen. I accept that fishing is not the only factor in the perspective. This weekend I was told of a skipper who landed at Peter head and paid £17 for the labour that he needed to land his fish. He worked out that that same labour would have cost £350 in Aberdeen. That is the differential. That is why everybody in Aberdeen to whom I have spoken about this matter agrees that substantial amounts of fishing trade have left Aberdeen. The Government must reconsider the effect upon the fishing industry in Aberdeen of the workings of the dock labour scheme.

If the only way to mitigate the ill effects is to have voluntary redundancies, I hope that the Government can help with that matter. This is a considerable financial matter, as each redundancy is likely to cost between £5,000 and £7,000.

The fourth point is not confined to Aberdeen. I refer to the cost of fuel, which at the moment is about £120 a ton. It is likely to go up by another £20 or £30 next month. That adds an enormous burden to an industry that is already crippled by the effects of the oil industry upon wages and the much lower throughput of fish at the port, the dock labour scheme and the lack of aid to Aberdeen, although aid has been given to other ports in the United Kingdom. The fact that we must pay high prices for our fuel is especially galling when we read reports of the French Government subsidising the French fishing industry by allowing it to obtain its fuel at enormously reduced prices. I have heard £40 a ton quoted. There is no way in which we can pay three times as much as the French fishing industry and still hope to remain competitive.

I mentioned four points—the problems of the oil industry; the aid that Hull. Fleetwood and Grimsby receive; the dock labour scheme; and the cost of fuel—which add up to a strong case for Aberdeen's having a special needs allowance to help her through this extremely difficult period.

I hope that it will be possible to set up an early meeting between representatives of the industry in Aberdeen, the Department responsible and the Scottish Office.

One other general point that is much discussed at the moment is the question of restructuring of the fleet. Proposals were made to the previous and present Governments. So far we have had little reaction from either Government. The Government's normal answer is "We must wait until the common fisheries policy is settled. We can decide nothing until that is settled."

Up to a point, of course, we all accept that nothing can be decided finally until we know what the potential of the fleet will be, but, having said that, it is a fact that other Common Market countries that will also be affected by the outcome of the common fisheries policy renegotiations are already restructuring their fleets. They are injecting confidence and boosting the morale of their fishermen. That boost comes from the realisation by their Governments that there is a serious problem about what the size and the shape of the industry should be in future.

Other fleets are getting this morale booster, while our fleet is not. Although we are not consciously restructuring the fleet, it is being restructured by default. I quote the decline in the number of vessels in Aberdeen alone, from 140 to 40within nine or 10 years. That shows that the fleet is being restructured. I hope that the Government will not delay until the common fisheries policy is settled before doing something further.

We hope that the policy will be settled by next July, August or September, but we have all heard the story many times before. Many in the fishing industry would not be surprised—though they would be disappointed, certainly—if the common fisheries policy were not finally settled next year. We cannot go on putting off the restructuring of the fleet. At least the initial discussions between the Government and the industry on proposals already put forward should not be put off any longer.

I turn to the issue of cheap foreign imports and particularly their relationship to subsidies on foreign—especially Common Market—fleets. I have never had a satisfactory answer to my questions about the situation that obtained in Aberdeen until October—it may start up again—whereby fish landed in Dutch ports from Dutch vessels were taken to the South of England and then transported by lorry to Aberdeen to be offered there at a cheaper price than fish landed from our own vessels. That argues a considerable system of subsidy by the Dutch Government.

When I have put forward arguments about the subsidy for French fuel and, by implication, for Dutch fish, my hon. Friend has previously said very fairly—I do not quibble—that the fishing industry should find out exactly what was going on. However, we cannot expect Aberdeen fishermen to find out what the German or Dutch Governments are doing to subsidise their fleets. Our fishermen may occasionally be able to find out what French fuel costs are. There may be one or two things that they can find out but it must be up to the Government and their representatives overseas to find out exactly what is happening.

Perhaps we will never compare with the £100 million a year subsidy that, I understand, the Norwegian Government give to their fishing industry. The French Government, I understand, will increase their subsidy to the fishing industry next year by 37 per cent. I am not even sure that that does not exclude the subsidy on fuel. I understand that it is mainly a subsidy for the 100 vessels concerned, the fish marketing organisations, and the various incentives for building and scrapping.

In West Germany it appears—I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend says about this—that the Government make special payments for what are euphemistically called unfamiliar species in unfamiliar grounds. It is widely believed in the British fishing industry that although those payments are given for unfamiliar species in unfamiliar grounds the fish concerned are familiar species from familiar grounds. Those payments are really operating subsidies to the German fishing industry.

The Germans have scrapping premiums, which we do not have. The Netherlands have scrapping premiums and laying-up premiums. The Danes have laying-up premiums and give rebates on the interest on loans to fishermen. That adds up to a substantial if hard to pin down web of subsidies for our competitors. The fishing industry in Aberdeen does not ask for anything more than is available in the rest of the United Kingdom. Similarly, the United Kingdom industry does not ask for more than our competitors get.

We simply ask that within the Common Market the level of subsidy be eradicated, because it represents unfair competition. Let us have the same facilities. Let us compete on all fours. The fishing industry does not want any unfair or special help. It wants justice in order to overcome its considerable problems.

3.51 am
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

We have had many fisheries debates, some of which have taken place during the day, some at midnight, and some at an even later hour than this. The characters do not change much. There are changes in personnel, but the major parts are played by the same people. We have tried hard to change the person who plays the character of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat), but we have never quite succeeded. Perhaps that is one cheerful prospect to which I can look forward at this time in the morning.

It is difficult to be other than gloomy about the fishing industry. We are not to be compared with the little boy who cried "Wolf". Everything that we have said about the difficulties facing the fishing fleets has come true. We find that their plight has become worse each time we discuss this matter. The statistics on the decline of the trawling fleet in Aberdeen make grim reading.

My figures and those quoted by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South may not tally, because vessels other than those that he mentioned sail out of Aberdeen. Currently, 53 trawlers sail from the port, compared to 80 at the beginning of the year and 115 in 1975. Currently, 520 crewing jobs are available. At the beginning of the year there were 850 and in 1975 1,200 crewing jobs. Those figures represent a considerable loss of jobs for the people who sail our trawlers.

Aberdeen is said not to have many unemployment problems compared with the rest of the country, but there is still a substantial loss of jobs. Currently, 6,112 fishing industry jobs are available compared with 8,606 four years ago. That is a big drop, although perhaps not as big a drop as might be expected, given the fall in the size of the fleet and the fewer jobs available.

Much of the shortfall has been met by imported fish.

However, imported fish does not provide all the answers for the processors and those with jobs on land. Severe problems face the industry. Sometimes one must remember why the industry faces such difficulties. The British trawling industry newsheet of 3 December this year referred specifically to the major problems—loss of fishing grounds and catching capacity, and a reduction in potential.

It stated that Iceland was lost three years ago, although the Belgians still fish there and the EEC gives the Icelanders very generous tariff concessions to exploit the Community market (which is mostly the UK); Canadian waters provide scarcely enough for one trawler trip (although the EEC has gained much better treatment for the French and the Germans); Greenland is closed for (legal) cod fishing; the Faroes are unfishable, despite an EEC Agreement (out of which the French and the Germans have done very nicely), due to moves ranging from unilateral closures of key fishing areas to outright gunboat harassment, leaving the port of Aberdeen struggling for survival and the Faroes laughing at the fact that the British have been able to catch less than 4 per cent. of the fish taken by Faroese vessels in UK waters. That highlights very clearly the unfortunate way in which the whole Faroes agreement has been reached, in that we are quite unable to take the catch we are allowed because of a number of restrictions on mesh size, the areas where we can catch, different closures, and so forth.

The matter has caused great concern over a broad spectrum of opinion that normally would not coalesce into any sort of unified or similar view. Indeed, a meeting was held in Aberdeen on 23 November which was initiated by the City of Aberdeen district council, at which it was decided that a meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland should be sought and that the issue of the difficulties of fishing and what can be done to improve the situation should be raised with the Prime Minister and, indeed, with the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Apart from the City of Aberdeen district council, there were representatives of the Aberdeen Fishing Vessel Owners Association Limited, the Aberdeen Fish Curers and Merchants Association Limited, the White Fish Authority, the Aberdeen Inshore Fish Selling Company Limited, the Aberdeen Trawl Officers Guild, the Aberdeen Harbour Board, the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, the Aberdeen Trades Council, the Aberdeen Ice Company Limited, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, the Scottish White Fish Producers Association and the General and Municipal Workers' Union. Here we see a broad coalition of industry, of commerce and of those employed in the fishing industry coming together to express their serious concern.

One of the main concerns is where exactly we are going in relation to the common fisheries policy. People often refer to a lack of a common fisheries policy, but we have to emphasise continually that there is a common fisheries policy. It may not be in a operation to the full extent, but the EEC has a common fisheries policy. It is a fisheries policy that was cobbled together only days before we joined the EEC, with one aim in view. That aim has been adhered to rigidly by the people that we call our partners in the EEC. That single aim was to get maximum access to fish in United Kingdom waters. That is what it was all about. It was nothing to do with conservation. It was nothing to do with having rational fishing arrangements. It was nothing to do with marketing. It was nothing to do with the consumer. It was simply to allow those nations—which by their predatory fishing methods had ruined their own grounds—to gain access to the fish that swim in our waters. That was its sole purpose.

Over the many years that we have tried to renegotiate the common fisheries policy, we have met at all times rigid refusal to understand how important fishing is to certain parts of Britain. It is true that the fishing industry is a small part of the totality of our industry. We must accept that. It may be small in comparison with the farming industry—the other industry which produces food for the consumer—but it is a very important part of industry in Aberdeen and the North-East of Scotland.

I know that if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will be able to tell you how important fishing is to his part of the world. It plays a very important part indeed. We have to stand up and tell our partners in the EEC that we shall not give way on any of the requirements essential to satisfy our needs.

I would not go so far as to say that the Minister of State is in a unique historic position, but very few people in history have had the opportunity to redeem themselves in the way in which he has. The hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Scottish Office at the time when we joined the EEC—at the time when this agreement was cobbled together—and he accepted the assurances that were given then that our partners were amenable to change, and they gave assurances that between then and 1982 changes in the arrangements would be made to suit us. Had that really been the purpose, this agreement need not have been cobbled together. The Minister of State is now in the position of being able to redeem himself.

I do not want at any time of the morning to disturb the bipartisan relationship that we have had in the House over the years. It has at times been a bit shaky. There were times when my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) was challenged for being too robust. I do not think that one could ever accuse the Minister of State of being too robust. However, he and his right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland must stiffen their resolve with regard to their approach.

They must get tough. It is no use being charming and saying "We shall work it out nice and friendly." We must get tough, because it is quite clear that no assurances have been met. Unless we really say that we mean business, we shall get nowhere. We must be very quick about that, because that is where the difficulties of the CFP become more urgent as time goes on. 1982 is not all that far away. It is only 13 or 14 months before we could be faced with the full rigours of the CFP.

I hope that the Minister of State will say that there will be no going back on the assurances that were given to the fishing industry by successive Governments. I cannot recall whether the hon. Gentleman was a signatory, but I hope that he will remember the famous—or infamous, depending on one's point of view—telegram that was sent out about two days before the general election, when Conservatives in and around the North-East of Scotland began to panic. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South feared that he would not hold his seat, and others were frightened that they would not regain their seats from the Scottish National Party. They sent a sudden telegram to the then Leader of the Opposition stating that the Conservative Party must have a fisheries policy. We have been told all these years that it has had one, but the only one it ever had was ours, and that was to stand up for our interests in the Common Market. However, I hope that the Minister will remember the pledges that were given to the fishing industry about the CFP.

In some senses, the most immediate problem facing us is the question of access to the Faroes. The Minister of State will recall that I wrote to him on 5 November, when I raised a number of points, especially with regard to access to the Faroes and the way in which the Faroese, by insisting on very large mesh sizes, were making it most difficult, if not impossible, for us to take up the quota that was agreed.

The Minister replied to me on 23 November, when he said: We have made clear to the Faroese and to the EEC Commission, who are responsible for conducting negotiations with third countries, that unless conditions of fishing at Faroe are substantially eased in 1980 we shall not be prepared to countenance anything approaching the present scale of Faroese fishing in British waters". That was a very strong statement indeed. It was even stronger than the assurances that I was given in April, 1978 by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), who was then the Scottish Office Minister responsible for agriculture. Yet a report in the Preston Journal of 11 December appeared some days later under the heading "Little progress at EEC talks" and saying that A Scottish Office spokesman admitted yesterday that 'little progress' was made at Friday's talks aimed at working out a reciprocal fishing deal with the EEC for next year and a question mark now clearly hangs over participation by Aberdeen and other UK trawlers in the Farces grounds next year…The feeling is that Friday's talks stayed far away from specifics and the UK trawling industry will now have to consider carefully their next move as the Faroese representatives made it so 'abundantly clear' that there would be no improved access conditions for Aberdeen and other UK trawlers next year. Is that accurate? If so, it means that the strong words used by the Minister in the letter to me of 23 November have been passed by and washed over.

The report continues: However, what might influence Faroese opinion is the possibility of reduced access to UK mackerel stocks because of a poor reciprocal deal for the UK fleet, as the Faroese have a strong interest in the mackerel shoals. I am not sure that restriction of such access will have a big influence with the Faroese. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has issued restrictive licensing arrangements for mackerel fishing off the South Coast. Do the Faroese fish there? Is any attempt to be made to restrict their access? It is no use saying that the November meeting was talked off and the likelihood is that the February meeting will be talked off and the matter will be passed over. Urgent action is required.

I am astonished every time I hear the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South crying out for the fishing industry—especially since I know that many of his friends in the industry share his political views. Every time I meet them they complain bitterly about the amount of money used for State subsidy and intervention. However, when it comes to the fishing industry they all want it. I have said that privately and I have no objection to saying it publicly. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is in danger of catching schizophrenia. He bawls and shouts about people getting money for nothing and he is against aid for industry, yet there are certain times when he makes a powerful case—with which I agree—for aid for the fishing industry. He does his case no good by his inconsistency.

The problems of the fishing industry in Aberdeen will not be reduced by the union-bashing that the hon. Gentleman displayed tonight. It is grossly unfair to say that one of Abredeen's big problems is the dock labour scheme and that there must be voluntary redundancies. There will be no improvement in landings if there are redundancies of any sort. The hon. Member should know the volatile nature of the fishing industry. He should know that people have gone through periods of depression. If he does not understand the problems of docklands, he should not drag—this was not meant to be a dreadful pun but I now realise that it is—red herrings into the matter Let us have no talk about redundancies if they can be avoided. Landing difficulties will not be removed by withdrawing the dock labour scheme or by the threat of compulsory voluntary redundancies.

I wish to raise one other matter with the Minister, although I know that he has it very much in mind, as we have spoken of it on other occasions. We must remain optimistic that we shall achieve a common fisheries policy that takes our needs into account. When that happens, it will need to be policed. When are we likely to have a decision on the new mark II offshore patrol vessel, designed by Paul Russell and Company, a shipyard in my constituency? How many vessels do the Government have in mind, how soon do they want them, and, most importantly, when will the decision be taken on the design so that orders can proceed? I know that certain problems have to be resolved, so I do not press the Minister too hard tonight, but I believe that in this debate I should give him a gentle prod and remind him that we should move ahead as quickly as possible.

The fishing industry will never return to its former glory, with large numbers of vessels going to sea and large numbers of men employed. That way of life has been destroyed by the passage of time and changing conditions, and not by Government action, but we must try to preserve what remains. The industry provides employment for the men who go to sea and those who process the fish once they are landed.

The need to restructure the industry is bedevilled by the common fisheries policy. On a number of occasions I raised with the previous Government the need for a White Paper on the industry so that we could see the options and plan ahead, which would enable us, even in these days of uncertainty, at least to have some idea where we were going. It was said that that was not possible because it would display our negotiating hand and make it difficult for us to drive a hard bargain.

I hope that we shall drive a hard bargain. I also hope that serious discussion is taking place in the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Whitehall, so that as soon as the matter is settled plans for restructuring the industry can be announced. We need to know what assistance there will be for building, so that we can give a boost to the industry.

It will not be good enough, when a common fisheries policy is achieved, for the Government to sit back and relax. It should be a time of maximum vigilance and the industry will need the maximum boost to become profitable, not just for the owners—in some respects they are of secondary importance—but to provide jobs at decent rates of pay for all connected with it.

In fishing ports we sometimes say this almost as an aside, but it is also important to have an industry that provides fish for people to eat at a price that they can afford. There is no point in catching fish if they cannot be sold to consumers to enjoy, and that is of vital concern to us all.

4.13 am
Mr. David Myles (Banff)

I rise with a feeling of added responsibility after the tragic events of last week, which were highlighted in the question answered yesterday.

The fishing industry is one that hitherto I knew little about, although I have twice been out on a fishing boat—on one occasion for almost a week, when I experienced a force 8 gale—so I feel that I know something about the subject.

I enjoyed the bipartisan asides of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), and the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). I feel that I have responsibility for the smaller fishing ports of Scotland, such as Buckie, Macduff, White mills and other communities along the Moray coast, such as Port Gordon, Cullen, Portsoy and Portessie. One of my predecessors, Sir William Duthie, came from Portessie. I feel responsible for the men who fish out of Peterhead and Fraserburgh and follow the shoals around to the West Coast and possibly down to Cornwall.

There is much that concerns these hardy, independent men at present. They understand the need for conservation of stocks and they realise that there must be discipline. They welcome the discipline of the pout box. However, fishermen alone must not be required to bear the burden of conservation. The fish-eating public must realise that the law of supply and demand applies in this case. If decreasing quotas are applied, the price of fish must rise to spread the load and ensure that the fishermen can meet the ever-increasing costs of their gear, oil and interest charges.

If the market is distorted by imports flooding in from countries that are not so concerned about conservation, there is no way in which the fishermen can meet their commitments and pay off their debts. Imports have increased massively this year. I dug out a few details with the help of a Library assistant. Cod imports were up from 37,561 tons in 1973 to 49,025 tons this year—an increase of 30 per cent. Haddock imports were up from 4,572 tons in 1978 to 8,266 tons in 1979—an increase of 80 per cent. We must not push our fishermen too hard. I hope that that is not what happened to the young skipper and crew of the ill-fated "Ocean Monarch".

The Government's ideas for fish quotas in the North Sea for 1980 are 12 cwt. each of whiting and haddock per man per week, and no restriction initially on cod. On the West Coast the quotas are 18 cwt. for haddock and 12 cwt. for whiting, and, once again, no restriction on cod landings. I have talked to fishermen who believe that the quotas should be more than that and that they should be the same for both sectors. At present fishermen are landing, on the West Coast, whiting that presumably come from the North Sea. This is distorting the figures on which the scientists base their findings. It is not giving a true picture of the whiting stocks in the North Sea.

If the proposed Government quotas and the differentials of 18 cwt from the West Coast and 12 cwt from the North Sea were imposed, everyone would be landing haddock, saying that they had been caught in the West when they may have been caught in the North Sea.

The other control that fishermen feel strongly should be imposed is that quotas should be imposed for a fortnight, with no back catch or forward catch transfers or allowances. It should be noted that the fishermen themselves are suggesting controls, regulations, quotas and conservation. They feel that there could be a fortnight, from Saturday to Saturday. A boat could go out and catch its full quota in a day, but it would then have to tie up for the rest of the fortnight. The boat could not go on fishing and transfer the catch to a forward period, or transfer it to a back period.

The fishermen also believe that the Government should pay attention to the majority view rather than keeping regulations that suit a minority but are detrimental to fisheries as a whole. The majority will not accept voluntary catch control if that control is not imposed for a minority section.

The white fish catchers are concerned that the big boats will come from the South and perhaps catch all the cod by pair trawling before August. There could be no cod quota left. The Government would have to impose a quota because the total allowable catch would have been taken, leaving no cod for the white fish catchers after August, when the southern boats depart. The fishermen feel, in other words, that a cod quota should be imposed from the start. There is a feeling that boats with larger engines should perhaps be allowed a larger quota. I accept that this would be difficult to introduce.

There must be a tightening up of "ashore" crews. Every crew member for whom a catch quota is allocated must have been to sea and sailed with the boat. This can be checked through the officers who pay the men. Only men who are paid on a voyage should be taken into account for a catch quota.

If all those tightening-up restrictions were implemented, fishermen believe that the quotas proposed by the Government could be substantially raised. They also feel that for the first three months, anyway, there should be a combined quota of haddock and whiting, so that fishermen catch what is in the net and not, as at present, catch perhaps 30boxes of whiting in order to get six boxes of haddock and then have to throw the whiting back. They believe that this is neither conservation nor common sense and that it is doing no good for the fisheries.

The fishermen are a little concerned about the transfer of fish from one boat to another, whereby boxes are transferred between a boat that has not caught its quota and its neighbour that has over-caught, the money then being transferred back to the actual catcher. This anomaly should be removed.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will require the wisdom of Solomon to find solutions. I ask only that he thinks on those things.

4.25 am
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

I welcome this debate on the fishing industry, but my feelings about the hour at which it is taking place—4.25 am—are possibly unprintable. The hour may be symbolic of the status of fishing, particularly as regards debates in the House.

The weakness of the fishing industry looms large in a few places. Nationally, it is a comparatively small industry, making a comparatively small contribution to our gross national product. The result is that Members of Parliament representing constituencies with fishing interests tend to become voices crying in the wilderness—or in the early hours of the morning. Indeed, I feel somewhat like a reversed somnambulist talking in other people's sleep. "Somnambulist" is not the right word, perhaps, but I will leave that image.

I share the prevailing concern of previous speakers about the future of the industry, yet there are bright aspects to the picture. One is the success of the port of Grimsby in fighting back from the disasters that hit the port a few years ago and maintaining itself as a vigorous and effective fishing port. It has been a major success in the face of serious body blows. The loss of fishing in Icelandic waters was the most tragic blow. The curtailment of catches in Norwegian and Russian waters, and now in Faroese waters, was another serious blow. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) noted that we are allowed to take from their waters only 4 per cent. of the catches that they are taking from our waters. That situation must be rectified by the exclusion of Faroese catches in our waters.

The loss of catches in distant waters was more or less inevitable as nations extended their fishing waters to 200 miles. Our tragedy was not so much the loss of catches in those distant waters—it was going to happen sooner or later—as the fact that we were prevented from following suit by our membership of the Common Market. Faced with the loss of distant water fishing off Iceland and with curtailment of catches off Norway, our alternative should have been to declare our own 200-mile limit, to develop it, and to build within it, as we had the potential to do, a bigger, richer and more effective industry, fishing our own waters instead of the distant waters on which ports such as Hull and, to a lesser extent, Grimsby depended. We could probably have caught more, even in our 50-mile limit, than we were catching in our home waters plus the distant waters, but we were not able to do that.

Despite that, Grimsby has had great success in pulling the industry up by its own boot straps and changing it from an industry that was 50 per cent. based on distant waters to one entirely based on near waters—particularly the North Sea. The few big boats, particularly the freezers, have now been replaced by about 200 seine netters.

The industry has had to get on or get out, because the maintenance of the dock facilities, the labour force and the distribution network could not be continued with dwindling catches. Grimsby has managed to avoid that danger. It has kept the catches, supplemented by imports, at a sufficient level to maintain an effective distribution network.

I do not dissent from the prevailing criticism of imports. If ports such as Grimsby cannot be kept going as fishing ports, they must turn to imports to make up for what the local industry cannot catch, partly because of the EEC and the loss of distant water fishing. Imports will be necessary to fill that gap. If there are restrictions, they should not be imposed on wet fish imports, which provide jobs and fulfil an important role in keeping the industry going. They should be imposed on frozen fish imports, because they are imports with the jobs taken away and performed in the country that originally caught and processed the fish.

Imports helped to maintain the port and its facilities and made a major contribution to the boot-strap operation of pulling up the port by its own efforts. In many ways, that produced a more democratic industry. The big owners, whose main contribution to fishing had been to take money out and not put money back, not to invest, not to re-equip and maintain their fleets, or pay their fishermen adequately, became less important because the smaller units were more democratic and effective.

A new industry developed—an industry that relied upon smaller landings with higher prices. Though that is, for Grimsby, a success story that cannot be told for many other ports in England, all is clearly not well. We still face the problem of the remaining distant water fleets, with fewer places left in which to fish. If fishing continues at its present rate the mackerel will he threatened.

I was glad to hear the Minister's announcement that the industry has been too cautious in seeking alternatives. In the summer I visited New Zealand, where they have a 200-mile limit, and that is the fourth biggest economic zone in the world. I received a chorus of complaints about the British fishing industry. From the start the New Zealanders were anxious to develop joint ventures with British firms, using British trawlers and expertise and bringing them into joint partnership.

The story was a unanimous one of opportunities being offered to British firms and being fairly uniformly rejected. Those offers had been snapped up by Japanese, German and Korean firms, and even, in one joint venture, by a Russian organisation. The British let the whole opportunity slide. I am afraid that that has been all too typical of the industry's search for alternatives. Our distant water industry is under threat and needs to develop alternatives. Some of these might come from New Zealand or from the South Atlantic, and Government finance is needed to seek out those alternatives.

For the rest of the industry—the rather more important and dynamic part of the industry—the main problem is simply that of over-fishing in the North Sea. There is a concentration of catching power in the waters round our coast, which are now seriously threatened, in which the quotas are fixed by the Common Market. They are fixed not on the basis of a scientific evaluation of the stocks but on the basis of a political haggle—which is the basis of decision-making in most matters relating to the Common Market. Those quotas are far too large and are totally unsuitable as a means of policing conservation. The general assumption is that everybody cheats on quotas. Our assumption is that while there might be some element of cheating on quotas by British fishermen it is far more common and difficult to control in the Common Market countries with which we are competing.

Given that assumption, quotas are totally useless as an adequate means of conservation. The industry is right to reject the quotas allocated to it. They have been pathetic. The most that we have been offered is 24 per cent. of the catch. We bring to the Common Market pool two-thirds of the waters and probably over 70 per cent. of the stocks, given that our waters are probably the most prolific and the richest fishing grounds in the world. They are certainly the richest in the Common Market.

Unless the EEC can adequately police quotas, it is asking for power without responsibility. It doles the quotas out with no adequate means of seeing that nations observe them or that the port authorities enforce them. The quota system is producing a tragedy in the North Sea—a tragedy of over fishing and of decimation of the stock. It is at times depressing to go down to the docks and see some of the landings, particularly at the start of the season. Small and immature fish that should have been left in the water to complete the cycle have been caught. This industry is catching its own future if it is being forced by competition to catch young stock in that fashion.

The desperate need is for conservation. The best and most effective method is national conservation. Only a nation can be the real guarantor of its own stocks. Only a nation can police conservation, and only a nation has the vital interest in those stocks. Grimsby's future is in those fishing stocks. Our direct interest is in fishing and conserving those stocks properly. That does not go for many of our competitors, who engage in a massive fishing operation and do not have the same concern about maintaining the stocks. We therefore need proper conservation and an effective increase in the mesh size. That is one of the most effective ways of guaranteeing conservation.

Grimsby has tried to give a lead here, and the British industry has generally been seeking an increase in mesh sizes. The great delay has been forced upon us by the Common Market. We need the one-net rule to stop people opportunistically switching nets, and we must be able to police effectively the increased mesh sizes. We need to stop industrial fishing. The by-catches are very difficult to police. There certainly needs to be far stricter control of by-catches of edible species. The situation is now so desperate that it would be better to stop industrial fishing and, with it, to stop beam trawling, with its destructive effects on the sea bed and the stocks.

Above all, we need to control the numbers fishing by some form of licensing arrangement that will put a limit on fishing effort. Limitation of effort and of the numbers of fishing provides the only means of securing what quotas cannot—proper conservation. But that brings up a major problem for the British industry generally and Grimsby in particular. If the sort of limitation that I have described were accepted, we would have to determine what level of limitation was acceptable for this country. We face the problem of a political compromise in which justice is astranger and has little bearing on the decisions. It is a compromise in a situation of power politics.

It must be emphasised that this country has suffered drastic losses in its catch and that they have to be taken into account in any determination of future catching potential. A port such as Grimsby, which has effectively fought back, expanded its fleet, with small seine netters, and, I hope, will go on expanding the fleet—there is scope for more vessels—needs to be protected against limitation of effort, which will produce hard decisions between ports in this country as well as between countries within the Common Market.

The claims of the vigorous ports that have done their best to adjust to the new situation cannot be ignored. That would force us back into the situation in which a dwindling catch might endanger the facilities of the market, the landing force, the distribution system, and so on, which need to be run at a certain level. That must be a prime consideration for a port such as Grimsby in any limitation of effort.

The conservation crisis is the prime reason why the Government must not compromise in the Common Market negotiations. I fear the pressures for compromises that are building up—not only the emollient voice of the Foreign Office, which always speaks to our competitors in obsequious tones, but the situation produced by the confrontation on the budgetary contribution.

Any Government faced by such a confrontation would look round for a compromise. The Prime Minister came away from the Dublin summit saying that she was prepared to compromise. The longstanding haggle over fisheries is, we fear, one ground on which an unspoken compromise may he forced on the industry. There have already been forecasts of a settlement next year. Taking that with the haggle over the budget, I become alarmed. The industry and the Government have kept each other going in a conspiracy of optimism. The industry has stated its demands and the Government have replied "We cannot get those, but we will do our best." Both sides have hoped for the best, but any settlement dictated by the sort of pressure that we are under will sadly disillusion the industry.

I fear that the only way out is unilateral action. I see no salvation for the industry within the EEC, given the pressure for compromise and the facts that our claims have been neglected and we are one of a larger number, all of whom have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that we want changed so that it is more favourable to us. I see little prospect of a successful outcome of the negotiations, and my instinct is to impose more unilateral conservation measures to show the seriousness of our concern to conserve stocks and to end the Fishery Limits Act 1976, so that the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972 do not apply to that legislation. We must be able to enforce our own limits.

A settlement that does not give us a 12-mile exclusive zone, a dominant share of the catch and a stake in the increased catch by means of proper conservation in the waters up to 50 miles, and the power to impose national conservation measures within 200 miles, bodes ill for the industry. Such a settlement would be a major blow to an industry that in some respects is on the turn and in other respects is threatened by the conservation crisis.

There is a pressing need in the industry for new investment and re-equipment. There is need for a national plan for fishing. That should provide domestically that which the EEC has failed to provide for the industry. The industry's argument is that the negotiations have gone on for too long, the industry has been allowed to remain in the doldrums for too long, and it is time to take action internally to permit re-equipment, reinvestment and the replacement of vessels. There is a need not to build up the fleet but to replace and modernise, so that the subsidiary industries connected with fishing may be kept going at a reasonable level.

The industry argues that it needs a settlement that will give it a certain future and knowledge of that for which it is investing. Secondly, it says that it is waiting for Common Market cash. However, we know the basic outline of the industry in future. It will be an industry that operates within our own waters. The prospect of Common market money has been held out with the purpose, perhaps, of pressing us to settle with the Common Market. The need is now, and we should prepare to meet the need with a national plan.

Such a plan would mean Government investment. Grants from the White Fish Authority are heavily over-subscribed. There is almost deadlock. There is a need for a new stimulus for the industry. Other countries are putting money into their industries. We do little for our industry. In the next few years it will be in a trough, because of conservation problems. However, it has a viable long-term future. With proper conservation we can build up our stocks.

The threat to the industry has had one good effect, namely, to bring the various parts of the industry together. Rivalry between port and port is less important. Rivalry of interest against interest is less important. The rivalry of distant water fishermen versus inshore fishermen is far less important. However, the industry will be in a trough for the next few years. Bearing in mind the prolonged uncertainty of the Common Market negotiations, we must try nationally to provide for a better future by investment and by providing through Government action the type of stimulus that industries in competitive countries receive from their Governments.

I see a future for fishing that is much more akin to the way in which farming has developed over the years. I believe that it will become a self-regulatory, highly organised and, to some extent, subsidised industry. It will be based on heavy capitalisation and highly trained and skilled manpower. Training is another element that has been neglected in the period of uncertainty. We must provide a skilled work force for fishing. That will be vital in the industry's brighter future. It will be organised in the disciplined and effective manner of farming. It will be a better-run and better-organised industry. If it can evolve on those lines, with the Government stepping in to provide what the Common Market is not now providing, it will become a much better industry. It will survive the vicissitudes of the next few years and serve Britain.

4.50 am
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) on securing this debate. His chosen subject is of considerable importance not only to the constituencies of those hon. Members who have spoken but to the United Kingdom as a whole, and I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive and helpful way in which he opened the debate.

I wish, in a sense, to turn the debate somewhat round the other way because, although my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South and Banff (Mr. Myles) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) have rightly drawn attention to the problems facing the industry—problems that I do not seek to minimise and that the Government are concerned to tackle in the coming weeks and months—the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), especially in the early part of his speech, adopted an approach somewhat in contrast to what had been said by others.

While acknowledging many of the problems, the hon. Member for Grimsby expressed a certain optimism. If I may say so, I share that optimism. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited Grimsby in the summer—unfortunately, when he was away in New Zealand, as he said—and I certainly found considerable optimism there. The port of Grimsby was originally based largely on the deep sea industry, but a considerable amount of adaptation has taken place there through the efforts of the industry itself. There is also a significant partnership between what one may call the traditional fishing company and the share fishermen more associated with the Scottish scene familiar to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff.

Although there are difficulties in Grimsby—I was certainly told of them, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was—they were seen more as a challenge to be met and overcome. I think that what the Hon. Gentleman put to the House is typical. I spent a lot of time this summer visiting different fishing ports around the coast of England and Wales, and I have constantly felt that, although there are problems, what makes the fishing industry so worth while to work for is that people are prepared to do things for themselves and, whatever the obstacles—this is true of all the ports—to try to get on with the job and do it well. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Grimsby for the tone of his remarks.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North that we are very much aware of the serious situation in Aberdeen today. My noble Friend the Minister of State at the Scottish Office is closely in touch with matters in Aberdeen, and I understand that he is arranging to meet representatives of the industry in Aberdeen early in January, when they will have the opportunity to put their views directly to him.

I also am much concerned about Aberdeen, since part of my constituency covers a small portion of the city and I am in personal contact with many of the people there.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is the meeting with Lord Mansfield in response to the request from the joint meeting on 23 November seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State? If so, will the hon. Gentleman pass on to his noble Friend that both the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and I have been asked to associate ourselves with that meeting? May we be told as soon as possible when the meeting will be?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I shall pass on that message to my noble Friend. I shall also draw his attention to any points about Aberdeen that I did not answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South raised the question of the aid given to Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood. The situation is being considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the light of representations made to him. There was a difference between the situation in Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood and that of Aberdeen. They were not strictly comparable. The ports to which aid was given were obliged to meet particular obligations in respect of landing dues which were calculated on a tonnage basis and which created difficulties of a different character from those of Aberdeen. I appreciate that Aberdeen is facing difficulties. My right hon. and noble Friends will also discuss those matters.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of the dock labour scheme. I am aware of the concern in the Aberdeen industry about the effects of the scheme. I understand that representatives of the Aberdeen industry have been in touch with the Department of Employment. The Fisheries Department will give any help that may be necessary to explore whether there is any way in which the situation may be eased or helped.

In the context of aid to industry, my hon. Friend raised the question of other interim measures by which we may give aid. In the past few weeks we announced a measure that was welcomed. I refer to the sum of £443,000 that we are making available for exploratory voyages. The industry expressed thanks for the measure. I hope that it will help in the short term by making resources available to the industry and, much more important, provide some evidence of the opportunities to exploit species that are not currently exploited and therefore provide future opportunities for our fishing fleet. When the announcement was made, we emphasised that the results of these exploratory voyages would be made freely available to the fishing industry. It can make its own assessment. If it feels that there is an opportunity to participate in what is revealed, it may make its own decision to do so.

My hon. Friend raised the question whether imports were undercutting our fish or were being dumped as a result of help given to the fishing industries of other countries. I am aware of concern about this problem. We shall continue to watch carefully the position of imports. However, from 1 January the new EEC withdrawal prices come into effect. Although the actual prices have been only marginally increased, there will be a greater increase as a result of the two devaluations of the green pound that took place in the past year. The reference price, which is calculated on that basis, will have an effect on imports.

I share the concern about subsidies given in other EEC countries. In the past few months we have examined this matter with the assistance of our embassies and attachés in these countries. We are about to start another exercise to update the information received. If we have evidence of unfair competition, we shall certainly draw it to the attention of those involved and the Commission. I agree that it is important that competition should be fair.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North raised specifically the question of the Faroese fisheries. As he knows, and as he acknowledged as a result of the letter that I wrote to him and from which he quoted, we are concerned about the unsatisfactory situation in the Faroes. I confirm that we have made it clear that unless the Faroese improve the conditions under which we have to fish in the Faroes we must insist on a substantial reduction in the amount of fishing which they enjoy in our waters.

The hon. Gentleman quibbled slightly over the negotiations that have taken place. The results are a consequence of the hard line that we are taking. In negotiations of this kind one does not necessarily reach the desired goal in one step. The fact that we have had difficult negotiations so far is a consequence of our insistence on better conditions for our fishermen in Faroese waters.

As I indicated earlier, we have refused to allow the Faroese to continue fishing pending the resumption of negotiations. To that extent we have made it clear to them how strongly we feel about the issue.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of fishery protection, as did his hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby in a wider context. I cannot make any dramatic announcement tonight about this, much as I would like to do so. As a result of discussions, I am wholly seized of the urgent need for a decision on the replacement of the "Ton" class minesweeper, on which our coastal protection is largely based.

Detailed discussions are taking place among my Department, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland and the Ministry of Defence on the question of replacement. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we hope to come to a decision as soon as possible and that that decision will ensure that we have adequate protection forces for the future. The hon. Member for Grimsby quite rightly said that conservation agreements were not worth the paper they were written on unless we had the resources to police them and back them up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff raised a number of points. I express my personal regrets at the loss of the "Ocean Monarch". I have worked closely with the fishing industry over the years, and I know the hazards faced not only by the fishermen but more particularly by their wives and families. I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy voiced in the House earlier this week and I hope that my hon. Friend will convey my sympathy when he returns to his constituency at the end of this week.

My hon. Friend spoke of imports and raised the important question of quotas for1980. I appreciate his point that in any effective conservation policy, and in reference to any quotas that we decide are essential to that policy, we must make sure that quotas are applied in a sensible and practical way.

If they are sensible and practical quotas, and if they are understood by the fishing industry, they are much more likely to be effective because they will be observed. We hope by that means to avoid such activities as the dumping of unwanted fish in the sea. I assure my hon. Friend that we will look seriously at the views put forward by the industry about the way in which these quotas should be worked out for 1980.

I turn to the general points raised by the hon. Member for Grimsby. I share his concern about opportunities further a field. It is sad in some respects that we appear—I use the word "appear"advisedly—to have stood aside when opportunities from New Zealand, for example, emerged. We must put this in perspective. One company in particular became involved in an Australian venture. Unfortunately, for many reasons, that company was unsuccessful. Because of early lack of success, the industry naturally has been cautious about ventures elsewhere.

I have had discussions with representatives of the New Zealand Government. If that Government make definite proposals or offer other opportunities to develop elsewhere, I shall be ready to use my offices in whatever way I can to try to bring together all those who may be interested. We must look further than round our own coast.

Hon Members also mentioned the more immediate problems of over-fishing and political haggling over quotas. That is why, in negotiations on the common fisheries policy, we sought to base our case on scientific advice. That is the most objective base, and it should be common to all industries and Governments in the Common Market.

I welcome what the hon. Member for Grimsby said about the increase in mesh sizes. In the short term, that could cause hardship, not only in terms of limited catches but because of the expense of providing new nets. To its credit, the British fishing industry has co-operated in that respect. Only in that way can we preserve the opportunities for fishing.

I am grateful for the welcome given to my announcement yesterday about the introduction of a restricted licensing scheme for mackerel fishing. That applies to the mackerel fishery off the West Coast and not simply off the South-West Coast. We believe that that scheme is necessary. With the new vessels, particularly in view of the methods now used, we shall not achieve effective conservation unless we are prepared to control the overall effort devoted to this fishery.

Those involved in that fishery will understand the quotas better and be more prepared to observe them if an overall limit is imposed. I understand that my announcement has been welcomed as a sensible measure. Many people would like us to go much further, with a general, comprehensive licensing scheme. This is a deep and important subject. Great difficulties are involved. If we are to have a flexible and organic industry, we must have a flexible and organic scheme. Too rigid a scheme will not necessarily benefit the industry as a whole. For that reason, we decided to introduce effective licensing where the pressure is greatest—in the mackerel fisheries. We have a totally open mind about whether what we learn from the mackerel fishery should be extended to other fisheries or whether we should adopt a more general comprehensive scheme later.

If, as a result of our proposal for the mackerel fishery, there is a diversion of effort to other fisheries, we shall not hesitate to take further measures to ensure that our conservation and management policies are effective and not made void because of inadequate control.

Finally, I should like to return to the point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South opened and on which every contributor to the debate has asked for assurances. What is important is to repeat yet again—and I do so with all the sincerity that I have stated it before—that Britain's fishing industry is not up for trading in the Common Market renegotiations. My right hon. Friend demonstrated this in Dublin. I believe that the mere fact that after Dublin, at the first Fisheries Council, we were prepared to talk constructively about some of the measures that were necessary for an effective common fisheries policy demonstrated to our partners in Europe that we did not see the fishing negotiations as part of the Dublin negotiations. They thought that we would take pique over fishing, because of Dublin. The fact that we were able to talk about fishing was proof that we wanted to deal with fishing and intended to continue to deal with the subject on its merits.

It is on that note that I finish tonight. I thank those who have contributed to the debate. I repeat yet again that the fishing industry is a most important industry. The livelihood of those who work in it—and the well-being of their families—is important to the Govern- ment. I thank the House for the fact that in our renegotiation of the common fisheries policy my right hon. Friend and I have had the support of all parties in the House in pursuing the objective of ensuring a proper future for our fishermen.