HC Deb 01 April 1980 vol 982 cc223-7 4.17 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that the Fishery Limits Act of 1976 shall apply notwithstanding any provisions of the European Communities Act 1972 so as to allow the enforcement of the Act against all fishing vessels, whether from Common Market countries or from outside; to empower the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make regulations requiring licensing and registration of all foreign vessels fishing within British limits, advance notification through fishing plans of all arrivals of licensed vessels and notification before departure of all catches taken and giving him power to exclude both individual vessels and vessels of denominated countries; and to provide for the bi-lateral negotiation of reciprocal catch quotas with other national governments, thus allowing licensed foreign vessels to take specified catches in British waters in return for British catches within the waters of their country. The purpose of the Bill is simple and straightforward. It amends the Fishery Limits Act 1976, by which we in Britain followed a world trend and extended our fishing limits to 200 miles, so that that Act shall apply notwithstanding any provisions of the European Communities Act 1972. The intention is that in the event of a conflict between our legislation and the Common Market provisions, British courts will be empowered to enforce British law and to regard it as superior to any Common Market provisions that may conflict with it.

In other words, where we now have the power to control and exclude the vessels of third-party nations from our waters, this amendment would give us the same potential power over Common Market vessels—a power that we do not now have because of our acceptance of the common fisheries agreement, which was cobbled together a matter of months before our accession to the EEC and which we effectively accepted through the European Communities Act.

The Bill will also empower the Minister to impose, by regulation, a system of licensing on foreign vessels to require fishing plans and catch returns, and to come to bilateral catch swaps with third parties, and, if necessary, with EEC members as well, on the basis of a straight swap of specified catches in our waters for specified catches in theirs. We cannot make such arrangements now because such deals are handled by the European Commission. Therefore, the essence of the Bill is to allow us, if necessary and if we so decide, to control our own waters against all parties. I argue that such control is both essential in principle and necessary in practice.

A nation is the best and the only real guarantor of its own conservation. After all, no one else has the same vital interest in conserving our fish stocks. For other nations our fish stocks are a resource to be used and to keep their fleets going. For us they are the future of our industry.

Indeed, the most telling lesson of recent years has been the divergence in fortunes between those nations that took control of their own limits and Britain, which did not enforce control. In the former category I include nations such as Iceland, which is rapidly building up both its decimated stocks and its fishing industry, and those such as Canada, which expects to double its fish exports. On the other hand, Britain has not enforced the same controls, and as a result our stocks are being decimated and plundered by Continental fleets that are kept going at too high a level by subsidy and Government support. Our industry, which has already been hard hit by the loss of distant waters, is not only refused the chance to rebuild and reorganise in our own waters but is being further hit by competition, which at this moment is catching British fish in British waters and dumping much of that fish on our market, to ruin our catching industry.

No amount of Government aid will get around the central problem, which is the fact that the situation can continue, because there is no effective control of conservation. At the moment the principal means of control—quotas—seems to be largely ignored by the fishing fleets and, except in this country, there is no effective enforcement at the ports.

At some Continental ports we see new fish colours—not only white and red fish but grey and black fish, the kinds of fish that seem to have fallen off the back of a trawler.

The net result is to place this country in a Common Market catch-22 situation. If we hold up a fishing settlement to get the best possible terms for this country our stocks are decimated in the meantime by the largely uncontrolled efforts of huge Continental fleets, which are kept in being to inherit the benefits of the settlement. On the other hand, if we agree to a settlement, our stocks will then be hopelessly decimated legally by overlarge Continental fleets, which can do that because they are allowed to do it by the settlement.

Either way, there is a forbidding future for our industry unless we have the power to protect ourselves. At the moment we just do not have that power. We have our own 12-mile limit, which we have only by derogation, and for two more years. We have our national conservation measures, some of which are already in danger of being struck down by the Court. What shall we do if those measures are struck down by the Court?

The Bill will give us the power to control the over-fishing that is now going on. It will also strengthen our hands in the current negotiation situation—one in which, regrettably and tragically, we have all too few cards to play. I am not particularly attracted by the spectacle of our Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food going naked into the conference chamber to face a haggle on the common fisheries settlement.

I give one example of the negotiating pressure that could be brought. France has now upped the negotiating ante by her actions against British lamb, which were undoubtedly taken as a means of increasing negotiating pressure on this country. If we wanted to increase negotiating pressure in the fisheries negotiations we could not do so, even if we wanted to, because we should be in the same humiliating position as that in which the Irish found themselves in 1977, when they imposed a 50-mile limit in respect of the larger vessels, which their courts simply declined to enforce. We should be in exactly the same situation. That is a situation that the Bill is intended to avoid.

As well as strengthening our negotiating hand and allowing us to stop over-fishing until there is a common fisheries settlement, the Bill proposes to take power to enforce our own laws, and will almost certainly be necessary to enforce any settlement, if we get one. Currently we are told that we are negotiating and that we have our cards on the table for either a 50-mile limit or a dominant pre- ference area of 50 miles. I hope that those negotiating positions are meant seriously, because they are what the industry wants.

If we do get an agreement, how can we enforce the limits unless we can act under regulations made under section 3 of the Fishery Limits Act 1976? Those regulations must be enforceable in our courts against all vessels, not just third parties.

Therefore, the case for the Bill is simple. We may be a long way from a fisheries settlement, in which case we need this Bill to protect our interests and our stocks in the meantime. We may be near to a settlement, in which case we need the Bill as a form of negotiating pressure to show that we are serious. We shall also need it to enforce the settlement. In either case the introduction of the Bill will have one further effect. The fishing industry has been disastrously run down in recent years. It is still being run down. For understandable reasons it feels that it has been betrayed. The Bill will show the fishing industry that this honourable House is serious about fishing and is concerned to defend the industry's interests.

I therefore commend the Bill to the House. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will support its introduction.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. A. J. Beith, Dr. David Clark, Mr Robert Hughes, Mr. James Johnson, Mr. Kevin McNamara and Mr. Donald Stewart.