HC Deb 13 March 1980 vol 980 cc1571-82
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the problems of the United Kingdom fishing industry and the Government's plans for providing short-term aid.

When I met representatives of the fishing industry on 23 January, they described the problems which they were experiencing as a result of increasing costs and deteriorating prices. I asked them to provide me with details of their economic position and to suggest ways in which their problems might be eased. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland met the executive committee of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation on 1 February, he received similar representations and asked the Scottish fishermen for their suggestions on possible action.

The Secretaries of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and myself have now analysed the responses from the industry and we have concluded that assistance from the Government is justified and necessary. As the House knows, the fishing industry faces great difficulties. It is having to adjust to reduced fishing opportunities. It is uncertain about the future because we are still in the process of negotiating on a common fisheries policy in the EEC; and the recent economic pressures have added substantially to the problems. This is threatening the whole structure of our industry. To meet this situation, the Government intend to introduce two schemes of temporary aid.

First, we propose to make up to £2 million available to the industry through the fish producers' organisations over the period 1 April to 30 September. This will be in the form of financial aids to be used for a range of prescribed purposes. These purposes include helping the industry to cover part of the cost of intervention so as to maintain withdrawal prices, the provision of temporary laying-up premia, the payment of dock, harbour and landing dues and the financing of approved programmes to improve the grading, handling and sales promotion of fish.

It is an important feature of the scheme that it will give producer organisations a real degree of discretion so that they can match their efforts to the specific needs of the areas in which they operate. A further statement on the details of the scheme will be made after notification to the European Commission and consultation with the industry, which will take place as soon as possible.

In addition, we propose to allocate a further £1 million to extending the programme of exploratory voyages to assess the commercial potential for exploiting under-utilised species.

The Government were urged to act quickly. This we have done. We believe that our proposals taken together will benefit the great majority of fishermen.

The Government remain determined to try to reach a Community fisheries policy that provides a good future for the industry, and the decisions that I have announced today will enable the industry to take advantage of an agreement when it is reached.

Mr. Mason

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's statement will be welcomed. Most fishermen will be pleased that he is granting some short-term relief to the industry. I should congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his timing —certainly this announcement will help the Prime Minister when she sees the fishermen in Hull tomorrow.

On the question of the proposed £2 million for the producer organisations in the next six months, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although there appears to be flexibility to use the grant to each port's best advantage, there is some confusion over who will determine the share-out between the ports, bearing in mind the differences between the deep sea ports and those dependent on inshore and middle distance operations?

Secondly, is the Minister aware that we welcome the extension of the exploratory voyages experiment? This has already had some success and is worthy of encouragement. How many more vessels will benefit and from which ports will they come?

Finally, welcome though this statement is, is the Minister satisfied that this £2 million of short-term aid to the fish producer organisations will be sufficient to stop the price war in fishing ports, encourage more British fish landings and give hope to the industry until a better common fisheries' policy is realised?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for welcoming my statement.

The money will be distributed in accordance with catch values over the previous year. This is something that we will discuss with the industry. We are trying this afternoon to arrange meetings with the producer organisations next week so that speedy action can be taken.

I cannot give the detail that the right hon. Gentleman seeks about the number of exploratory voyages because again we wish to discuss this with the industry. A number of ports will benefit—basically those that have been most adversely hit by the loss of our long-distance fishing.

On the third point about whether this is an adequate amount, it is difficult to judge future trends. The figures for January showed an alarming drop in prices. In December the picture was very different. No one month's figures can give a true indication. This is our best judgment of what is needed. I think that the Opposition's judgment would be the same because the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) suggested in our recent fishing debate that £3 million was needed. That is the judgment of the Government as well.

Mr. Wall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the use of the grant to adjust withdrawal prices will help all sections of the industry, and the use for dock charges and exploratory voyages will particularly benefit Hull? I note that the grant expires on 30 September. Does this indicate that my right hon. Friend hopes to have the common fisheries policy buttoned up by then?

Mr. Walker

The date on which agreement will be reached—if agreement is reached—is beyond any accurate speculation. I hope that the progress that is being made will result in our reaching an agreement by June or July, or, at the latest, early autumn. That is why we have based our programme on the period when there is likely to be uncertainty.

I think that the methods that we have used for helping the industry, which were arrived at in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, best meet the considerable diversity of problems affecting the fishing ports.

Mr. Grimond

Will the Minister give us an undertaking that the interests of the inshore fishermen are being protected? Can he say which organisations will be consulted and whether any money will be available to meet particularly heavy payments due on new boats? As the grant is only for six months, will he give an assurance that conversations will continue with the industry during that time on quotas and imports?

Mr. Walker

A substantial part of our proposals will benefit inshore fishermen, and many of the producer organisations represent such fishermen. I give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will continue—both in the negotiations on the common fisheries policy and in examining the detailed problems of the industry —to consider the questions in closest association with the various leaders of the fishing industry. We have tried to do that over the past nine months. The first of the new problems arose in January, and I immediately asked the industry to give me the details. On that basis, I believe that we have acted pretty quickly.

Mr. Sproat

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the measures that he has announced today will be widely welcomed in the fishing industry, not least because the Government's proposals are largely based on what the fishing industry wanted? Will he confirm that the £1 million for exploratory voyages will particularly and substantially help trawling fleets, such as the one based at Aberdeen? Can he also confirm that the £2 million for the producer organisations can be used to sort out the deeply damaging effect of the dock labour scheme in ports such as Aberdeen?

Mr. Walker

The proposals that we have announced will be of benefit to Aberdeen. Both sets of proposals will have application to this port. As I said, I hope to discuss next week with those closely concerned the details of how the aid that is available is used.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I congratulate the Minister on his readiness to give assistance to the fishing industry at a critical time. At the risk of appearing ungrateful, may I again ask him for an assurance that this assistance is not intended as a softening-up approach for the industry over the negotiations with the Common Market on fishing policy?

Mr. Walker

Both the Prime Minister and myself have constantly stated the basic principles on which we will negotiate a common fisheries policy. There is no question of selling out the fishing industry for other factors.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I thank my right hon. Friend for this timely assistance to the industry. In allocating the £2 million on the basis of landings, will he say whether this will be done on a sliding scale, bearing in mind that the smallest fishing communities are least creditworthy with the banks and therefore need a more than arithmetic degree of support?

Mr. Walker

I understand that particular aspect of the problem facing some of the smaller fishing communities, but I must point out that the sectors of the fishing industry that have been most adversely affected in recent years are the major fishing ports and the long-distance fishermen. They have lost their fishing grounds, whereas some of our inshore fishermen have enjoyed periods during the past few years when they have had pretty good catches and very fair prices. By basing our aid on the value of catches in the past, I think that we are being as fair as possible.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Does the Minister recognise that until this country regains effective control over the fisheries in our sovereign waters, measures of this kind can be no more than a palliative and a prolongation of miseries which are not due to any fault or failure of the British fishing industry?

Mr. Walker

To some extent, the fact that Iceland has gained control of its waters is one of the major problems of the British fishing industry. I recognise —as does the fishing industry—that the problems of conservation would be much better organised and carried out to the benefit of future fishing in general if it were organised on a European basis. Unfortunately, fish do not have any great respect for territorial boundaries.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

While accepting what my right hon. Friend has just said about dealing with this problem on a European basis, may I ask him whether he is aware of the mounting evidence that the world fish demand will not be met by the exploitation of the open sea? Is he aware that evidence from Japan suggests that this need can be met in future only by fish farming on a massive scale? Will attempts be made in this country to develop fish farming, and will it be equally open to aid of this sort?

Mr. Walker

Fish farming in this country is developing in certain spheres and my Department has shown an interest in research developments. I agree that, in terms of potential, production of fish proteins and edible fish is a very important factor. We will continue the research. At present there is a great deal of fish farming in this country which is prospering. It has not had the disadvantage of being deprived of its waters as some of our fishermen have.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the Minister aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed by fishermen in Hull who have taken such a battering over the past 12 months or more? We warmly welcome the statement about the Prime Minister's visit. She will receive a warm welcome in more ways than one. We are glad that she is coming. Does the Minister accept that the proposal is a lifeline for Hull in the next few weeks? Does he agree that unless there is a fleet of Hull vessels manned by Hull men, landing fish in Hull, we are finished as a port? Does it not behove us to get a decent settlement in June so that our fishermen can sail out of Hull again?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Prime Minister's welcome in Hull. The hon. Gentleman and the fishing industry must know of the close interest that the Prime Minister took in the fishing industry long before the problems of last month. I know that the fishing industry welcomes that.

I totally agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance to Hull of the solution of a common fisheries policy. Nothing could be more important to a port such as Hull than a satisfactory settlement of the common fishing policy.

Sir Walter Clegg

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and say how welcome it will be in the ports? The £1 million for exploratory voyages will be greatly welcomed as they have already proved successful in locating new fishing areas. That will be much welcomed in Fleetwood, especially if there are further voyages. Will the Minister keep in close touch with the general situation and constantly monitor it? The position is delicate, as I am sure my right hon. Friend appreciates.

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend knows from my visit to Fleetwood last year how much I admired the manner in which that port struggled against unbelievably adverse circumstances, yet survived. I am delighted that one of the recent exploratory voyages from Fleetwood was especially successful. I hope that the aid will give further encouragement to Fleetwood as a port.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Does the Minister accept that today's proposals are a minor first step or a mini U-turn by this noninterventionist Government? Does the Minister agree that the sums involved are small, in contrast to the real needs of the industry? Is there not a need to prolong this aid beyond the six-month period? Is there not a need for an operating subsidy, which sections of the industry wanted? Is not there a prime need for action on imports, to put up the official withdrawal prices on the Continent and, as there is what amounts to a dumping situation, an emergency levy on imports to make our fish competitive?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman said rather begrudgingly that a relatively small amount was involved and that much more was needed. The problems in his part of the world have existed for some time. In the last two years of office of the Labour Government, the total aid, in addition to the normal ongoing schemes, was £750,000 over two years. The hon. Gentleman can hardly complain about £3 million over six months.

I saw many figures of imports in January. They are substantial. Landings of cod by our own fishermen in January were 50 per cent. up because climatic and weather conditions were then better than in many past Januaries. It is difficult to judge the import position on one month's figures. For example, in January imports of cod were massively up. In December they were 20 per cent. down. Plaice imports were quoted by some sections of the fishing industry as a public relations exercise. Imports of plaice were much affected by a strike in Lowestoft and the need to substitute other fish for them. This is a difficult and delicate period for the fishing industry. I shall constantly remain in contact with the industry over the matter.

Mr. Brotherton

May I add my thanks to my right hon. Friend for the aid and his assurance about the future negotiations for a common fisheries policy? I congratulate him on his sense of timing, which is so much better than that of the Lord Privy Seal on the question of the Olympic Games debate.

As this is a short-term measure, which is designed to take us up to 30 September, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the most important aspect for the fishing industry is the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy? In particular, will he say something about the relationships of the Community with third nations such as Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Canada?

Mr. Walker

It is only when we have a common fishing policy that we can have suitable and effective negotiations with third countries. I hope that out of those negotiations with third countries will come substantial benefit to the British fishing fleet.

Mr. John Home Robertson

Is the Minister aware that the House welcomes this charming little U-turn by the Government? Will he keep in mind the vexed question of cheap, and in many cases poached, imports that are still causing enormous problems for the industry? Will he undertake to do something about the recommendations of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs? That would at least ensure that the White Fish Authority levy is imposed on imported and transhipped fish.

Mr. Walker

Yes. As to the hon. Gentleman's last point, the Government are considering the position at present. They will make an announcement.

It is important to get a balance of imports. The fish processing industries and a large number of jobs depend upon the continuation of imports. Therefore, a ban on imports would not be to the overall benefit of anybody.

We have been concerned at the nature of imports. We persuaded other Governments to take prosecutions, as in the case of Germany against a number of its fishermen. We are having discussions with the Dutch Government on the manner in which they organise their trade with this country so that it is less disruptive of some British markets and the British fishing position. We are well aware of those problems and will continue to study them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising. I hope that they will co-operate and be brief. Of course, I shall call the Front Bench speakers at the end.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will the Minister say how much aid will be available to fishermen in Northern Ireland and how it will be distributed? Will he ensure that skippers will be able to obtain financial aid—they cannot at the moment—towards the renovation of their boats?

Mr. Walker

In preparing this, I was in close consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Discussions will take place with producer organisations in Northern Ireland. They will receive their proper share of the aid.

Mr. Pollock

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his welcome statement and say that any financial assistance is most welcome at this most difficult time? May I take it from a previous answer that the Government remain firmly committed to a rigorous examination of any evidence of import abuse? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will press for stern action against any illegal imports?

Mr. Walker


Mr. Robert Hughes

May I welcome the useful £2 million which is being made available? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the range of items to be covered by the money is the best way of ensuring that the money goes to the industry? In other words, is he satisfied that the scheme is not too complicated? How quickly will money find its way into the industry?

Mr. Walker

The Government went out of their way to avoid a complicated scheme and to give considerable flexibility and therefore responsibility, to some extent, to the producer organisations. As to the speed with which we can get the money to the recipients, the reason that my office and the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland are contacting the producer arganisations this afternoon is the hope of arranging a meeting with them next week.

Mr. Henderson

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this positive response to the excellent representations from the fishing industry will be widely welcomed? Is he aware that in many parts of the country, especially in the Firth of Forth and East Fife, which concern me, many fishing boats are not members of the producer organisations. Can he say that, if they are not at present included, they will not be precluded from the scope of his statement if they now form or join one? Is there any way in which the Government can assist them in this matter?

Mr. Walker

We shall ensure in the allocation of money that there is scope to take account of fisherman who now join producers' organisations and groups of fisherman who decide that they will now form a producers' organisation. The Scottish Office and my office will be only too pleased to give help and guidance required in the formation of any producers' organisations.

Mr. McQuarrie

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his Minister of State, the Secretary of State for Scotland and, not least, the Prime Minister on honouring the right hon. Lady's obligation to treat fisheries as a priority? Does my right hon. Friend agree that this money is most valuable, especially in a constituency such as mine, Aberdeenshire, East?

I was delighted that the Secretary of State said that £1 million would be made available for exploratory work. Will he assure us that the purse-seiners will be given an opportunity of tendering for that work so that they may look for the additional fish that is necessary and relieve the strain on the inshore fishermen? They will have a better opportunity of making a valuable catch and thus reduce the amount of money needed from the £2 million.

Mr. Walker

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. As he well knows, there is a diversity of problems around our coast and the contribution to our proposals by the Secretary of State for Scotland, following his close consultations with the industry, was an important factor. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend assurances about the nature of the exploratory voyages, not because of any wish not to give him such information, but because, having decided on the principle of the position, it is important, before making any announcement, as I think he will understand, that we discuss with the industry how best that £1 million should be allocated.

Mr. Strang

I congratulate the Minister on this breach in the Thatcherite policy of non-intervention in industry and accept that he is right not to look further forward than September, but will he accept that, if there is no improvement in the market situation and if he is not successful in securing a proper conclu- sion to the negotiations on the EEC fisheries policy, it will be necessary to continue the scheme beyond September?

Mr. Walker

I think that what I announced in principle at the end of my statement makes it clear that the Government consider it important to retain a viable fishing industry until such time as we agree on a common fishing policy. If that meant considering further action, whether an extention of these measures or other measures, we would of course do that in consultation with the industry.

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