HC Deb 30 October 1980 vol 991 cc707-14
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers on 28 October.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department and I represented the United Kingdom at this meeting.

The Council reached agreement in principle on a draft control regulation, which firmly establishes that each member State is responsible for enforcement within its fishery limits and empowers the Commission to make sure that member States fulfil their obligations on this aspect. The aim is for the new regulation to enter into force from 1 January 1981. At the behest of the United Kingdom, the Commission agreed that it was necessary for the Commission regularly to monitor the manner in which member States were carrying out their enforcement duties so as to guarantee that there was a uniformity of application of the regulation throughout the Community.

The Commission undertook that prior to the conclusion of a fishing agreement they would provide a paper setting out the operational methods by which they would ensure that all member States were fulfilling their obligations.

We welcomed the Commission's initiative in commencing a review of the market support system, for which we have been pressing for some time. We indicated that the United Kingdom expected the Commission to produce specific proposals in the near future and stressed particularly the importance of setting withdrawal prices at realistic levels, the desirability of a flexible but not too complex system, the need to extend the list of species covered by it, the importance of export refunds and the need for action to prevent imports from disturbing markets.

The Council had a further discussion of the criteria on which quota allocations should be based. I reiterated in particular the need to make greater allowances for past losses of fishing opportunities in the waters of third countries.

and the need to discount from the historic record excessive catches of human consumption species taken in the industrial fishery. The Commission has undertaken to produce revised proposals for the next Council meeting on 17–18 November, when discussion is expected to concentrate on the actual quota allocations and also, at my insistence, on the question of access. Intensive preparations for the meeting will meanwhile be undertaken by a committee consisting of senior officials from each member country.

Mr. Mason

From the statement the House will recognise that some little progress is being made towards a new common fisheries policy. We all recognise that these are small and the least controversial steps, and that the crunch has yet to come, especially on share-out and access.

Will the right hon. Gentleman briefly tell us what was achieved at the September Council meeting on fish conservation measures?

As to the possibility of a monitoring system of recording and reporting catches, will the right hon. Gentleman be prepared, in spite of the suspected deal on timing, to delay beyond 1 January 1981 any Common Market fisheries policy if a monitoring task force is not established, and, more importantly, if the catch quota forced upon him does not satisfy the industry and the will of this House?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the industry and ourselves are still deeply concerned that only 31 per cent. of the total Common Market pool catch has been offered to the United Kingdom? Our demand throughout, in the light of losses in third country waters, loss of historic rights, and what we regard as our legitimate share in the Common Market pond, has been for a 45 per cent. share. Is he still negotiating for that percentage?

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman still pressing for a 12-mile exclusive belt and a dominant preference for our fishermen in a zone from 12 to 50 miles? I warn him that the industry is still suspicious of his negotiating posture. The industry fears a sell-out and that he will compromise our proper share of fish for some exclusivity. I hope that he will be able to deny that and give us assurances that that will not happen.

Mr. Walker

With regard to the vague pronouncements that the industry fears this and the industry says that, I meet members of the industry before every fishing Council and at every fishing Council. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that both before the fishing Council and at the fishing Council the fishing industry has expressed its total confidence in and support for the manner in which my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have been negotiating this matter. I am not complaining about the right hon. Gentleman, but I object to the constant mention in the press about the industry saying this and saying that, because the people in the industry have every opportunity to say what they like to me. I therefore welcome the opportunity of making the position clear.

As for the September meeting, we agreed basically on the conservation measures, including the pout box. As the Minister of State said in reply to a parliamentary question, that was a very considerable achievement for the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Minister of State negotiated it in Denmark. Had he failed to do so, on 1 October a substantial part of the pout box would have totally disappeared because of the legal action, started by the previous Government, that we lost. By skilful negotiation, my hon. Friend the Minister of State succeeded in obtaining what the fishing industry has told me it considers to be a very good deal.

With regard to the quotas that we are trying to obtain, I have never put and never would put a percentage figure upon the total catch. because, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, various species are concerned. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in the negotiating position I am happy for as large a figure as anyone wishes to express to be expressed as our desire, because I intend in no way to weaken the negotiating position that I have. Every argument that can be used for improving the British quotas is being used and will be used.

It was agreed by the Community that we would do everything in our power to reach agreement by 1 January. The United Kingdom stands firmly behind the objective of trying to achieve agreement by 1 January. For the British fishing industry there is nothing more essential than obtaining an agreement. The longer we go before reaching an agreement, the weaker our negotiating position becomes. [Interruption.] That is a fact. I only wish that I had been negotiating this matter three years ago.

I am only too pleased that all member countries join in my view that it is right to try to reach an agreement as speedily as possible. That is why, at an informal meeting of the Ministers two days ago, we agreed a series of meetings that would speed up the process of negotiation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am pleased to be able to say that I shall again be able to call those hon. Members who have already risen.

Sir Walter Clegg

Does my right hon. Friend realise that he will have the full support of the House in enforcing conservation measures, as conservation measures without enforcement are useless?

What thought is the Council of Ministers giving to providing help to those fishermen who are made redundant through no fault of their own but simply as a result of having to leave Icelandic and other waters? On all sides we hear about help being given to miners and steel workers. What help will be given to fishermen?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, with his considerable interest in and knowledge of the industry, for the support that he has always given to our efforts to reach a successful conclusion.

The plight and difficulties of various sections of the fishing industry will be discussed in terms of what is described as the structural package for the industry. I think that, quite rightly, that comes at the end of the agenda, after we know the position on quotas and access. We shall be dealing at that time with the matter raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Beith

What discussion was there about means of safeguarding the access of inshore fishermen to the waters immediately off our coasts? Was any threat posed to that access?

Mr. Walker

No threat was posed. Obviously, we have been having bilateral talks on the question. The important agreement at the Council was that we should not discuss quotas alone. At the next meeting we shall discuss quotas, together with access. The hon. Gentle-man will agree that they are closely connected and that it is vital to discuss them together.

Mr. Wall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his very satisfactory statement is an essential prelude to the final negotiation on the common fisheries policy? Does he agree that there is now ample evidence that existing regulations are not being maintained? Will he therefore stand out for proper policing measures?

With regard to quotas and access, will there be specific proposals concerning the waters up to 12 miles and then beyond that, from 12 miles to 200 miles?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remark but, as the spokesman for the official Opposition said, the really tough and difficult part is quotas and access and not the various matters that we have so far agreed. What has been shown is that there is a desire to reach a genuine agreement between the member States.

It is essential that we have uniformity of enforcement. Although I supported the idea that each member State was responsible for enforcement within its 200-mile limit—and we have obtained that—I considered that on top of that it was essential that the Commission could see that every member State enforced the rules in the same way. That is why I am glad to say that the Commission accepted this British proposal, so that as well as being responsible within our own 200-mile limit—we know that we shall do that well—we shall have a guarantee that every other country will be made to do the same thing.

Mr. Jay

Although I realise that there have been specific quotas, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will not accept a general figure as low as 31 per cent.?

Mr. Walker

I shall not deal with overall figures. I could simply answer "Yes". All the figures suggested so far are inadequate. The maximum figure has been 31 per cent. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the nature of the various species and their importance to various fishing communities means that general figures have little substance. The easy answer is "Yes".

Mr. Warren

Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss with his colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, the resources required to enforce this opportunity—which I welcome—of looking after and policing our fishing territory? Who will pay? Will the cost be shared by the whole Community, regardless of the coastline and regardless of the 200 mile-limit waters for which they have responsibility?

Mr. Walker

I am in constant discussion with my right hon. Friend on this subject. My hon. Friend may know that I pay the operational costs involved out of my Department's budget. I pay tribute to those involved in the Royal Navy and in the Royal Air Force for the fine, remarkable job that they have done for many years.

Mr. James Johnson

In view of the Minister's earlier statement, will he make the position clear beyond peradventure? There are only two months to go. If the right hon. Gentleman does not get a settlement that suits this House by the end of the year what will our position, as a fishing nation, be?

Mr. Walker

The industry knows that it is to our advantage to obtain a good, sensible agreement. As I am negotiating, it would be absurd for me to talk about what I would do if I did not obtain a sensible agreement. I am optimistic about achieving a sensible agreement. Good progress is being made. I have no complaint about any member countries in terms of the constructive way in which they are trying to enter the talks. It is therefore right to join in the general spirit of the Council and to say that I hope that we are heading towards a sensible and satisfactory result for the United Kingdom. It would be a sad thing for the fishing industry if we did not reach one.

Sir Albert Costain

When the Minister negotiates the quota system will he bear in mind that our inshore fishermen play a great part in manning the lifeboats? When ships are in distress they do not worry about nationality. We need to keep our small fleets for that reason.

Mr. Walker

The British fishing industry performs a very important service to shipping of every description. In addition, some communities in Britain are completely dependent on the fishing industry. For a combination of national security, humanitarian and community reasons, it is important to obtain a good fishing agreement.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am sure that fishermen in my constituency will welcome the remarks made by my right hon. Friend and the progress that is being made towards a conclusion of the common fisheries policy. We are all aware that there has been a tremendous amount of cheating on the part of foreign nations within our waters. Can we be certain that the policing will be adequate, and that the penalties will be a strong enough deterrent to wipe out such cheating, which has reduced the stocks available to our fishermen?

Mr. Walker

I accept that enforcement is the key to a successful policy. I am glad that we shall be responsible for enforcement within our own 200 mile limit. I am also glad that the Commission will constantly monitor the situation to ensure that other countries enforce the regulations in the same effective way.

Sir Anthony Meyer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is wide admiration for the skill and determination that he has shown in welding together strongly felt local interests, which often conflict, into the wider national interest? It is in the national interest to have a common fisheries policy that is effectively policed and that requires a minimum of joint action by the Commission, and by the institutions of the European Community.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is a great advantage to have a European policy of conservation, policing and monitoring, because it is in the interests not only of our fishermen but of the future fishing industry of Europe. Such a policy will give long-term stability to our fishing industry and to the European fishing industry.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Front Bench, I shall call the hon. Gentleman who has been rising from the Liberal Bench, although he was not here to hear the statement, or most of the ques- tions. He has not been rising to catch my eye.

Mr. Penhaligon

Can the Minister name a nation, from those referred to by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie), that has ignored conservation laws more than the Scots have done in Cornwall in relation to mackerel?

Mr. Walker

I do not want to start a civil war.

Mr. Strang

Does the Minister intend to secure the phasing out of historic rights within the 12-mile limit? Will he assure the House that he is determined to secure a dominant preference for British fishermen within 12 miles and 50 miles?

Mr. Walker

Historic rights and access will be discussed at the next Council meeting. We are holding bilateral talks with those countries interested not only in historic rights in Britain but in other countries, such as Denmark. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not comment on the specific proposals that we shall make in relation to historic rights prior to those talks, one of which will take place later today. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our attitude to historic rights is based on conserving an effective 12-mile limit and on having an area of priority fishing beyond that limit for certain communities.