HC Deb 28 July 1981 vol 9 cc983-92 3.30 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I wish to make a statement about the Council of Fisheries Ministers' meeting which took place yesterday.

Under the Presidency of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I represented the United Kingdom at the meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers in Brussels yesterday.

The main issue before the Council was the reopening of the herring fisheries at the West of Scotland and in the southern North Sea, as recommended by the scientists. The Council had before it a Commission proposal which, in the most important area, that of the West of Scotland fishery, would allocate to the United Kingdom 67 per cent. of the total EEC catch. However, after prolonged discussion it was not possible to reach an agreement on those proposals, even on an interim basis, because of objections from four member States—Belgium, Denmark, France and Ireland.

In those circumstances, I insisted on the vital necessity of the Commission effectively monitoring the fishery to ensure that the total allowable catch recommended by the scientists would not be exceeded. Agreement was reached that catch reports should be made twice weekly to the Commission by the member countries fishing in the area concerned. The information obtained will be circulated to member States so that we will be able to monitor the situation and ensure that the fishery is closed as soon as the proposed total allowable catch has been taken. We are arranging for the surveillance of the area involved by both ships and aircraft to be intensified.

I am glad to report that we have persuaded the Commission to ban until the end of November imports of cod fillets into the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic at prices below the Community reference price, thereby eliminating imports at unduly low prices. That is an important step towards the more effective operation of the marketing system. It will also make it easier to take action in future to ensure the proper observation of the reference prices.

The next Council will take place at the end of September, when it is agreed that an attempt will be made to negotiate a comprehensive fishing policy.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

I am sure that the House will be grateful to the Minister for that progress reoort. It is pleasing to note that some progress has been made on the price control of cod fillets. On the main issue of the lifting of the herring ban, will the Minister answer the charge by the leader of the Scottish Fishing Federation, Gilbert Buchan, that the decision has created a disastrous position and that, because of the Commission's dictatorial attitude, the herring stocks will soon be destroyed?

The power of the Commission is of major constitutional and legal importance. It has trampled roughshod over the advice of the United Kingdom chairman and that of the Council of Ministers. It has declared not only that the herring ban should be lifted but that the Commission's figures for total allowable catches should be forced upon national States. Is not the Minister aware that the Commission ruling means that there will be a free-for-all in the herring zones? Further, there will not be the controlled opening that was desired by the Scottish and other British fishermen. How will the Commission, which made the decision, stop over-fishing by national fleets? How does the Commission answer the charge that the past four years of conservation will be ruined and that the sacrifices made by our fishermen will be in vain?

Above all, did not the Commission provocatively defy the chairman and the Fisheries Council? Is not that a most serious position? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is the legal position and the power of the Commission vis-á-vis the Government?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming what is happening in relation to markets. On the fundamental question of the opening of the herring fishery, I made it absolutely clear at the Council of Ministers yesterday that what happened was not in the best interests of the orderly opening of the fishery. However, given that we had the scientific advice that the fishery should be opened, and therefore must be opened on that basis which is the same as for other fisheries, our objective was to ensure that the fishery should be conducted in the most orderly way possible.

It is true that the leader of the Scottish industry has expressed considerable concern about that matter. However, it is wrong to exaggerate the position. We have taken considerable steps to ensure that the fishery is conducted in an orderly fashion. We have instituted a system of monitoring which is already agreed, which has the full power of law in the Community, and which the Commission has said it will enforce—if need be using the power of the courts.

We are increasing surveillance by both aircraft and surface craft in the area of the fishery to ensure that the rules are observed. Once the total allowable catch is reached, the fishery can be closed. In that way we shall avoid the over-fishing to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of the legal competence of the Commission. It made a declaration that it believed it had the power and the legal competence to enforce what it was doing. We and a number of other member States questioned that competence and, even more significant, it was questioned by the legal services of the Council of Ministers. In the event of the fishery requiring to be shut, as it will be once the total allowable catch has been reached, it will be within the competence of those member States whose waters are affected to ensure that.

Mr. Mason

Do I understand from the Minister's reply that, despite the fact that the Commission was advised by the chairman of the council and that the British had made their standpoint, the Commission has overruled us and that the Minister is prepared to give way? What is he prepared to do to challenge the Commission's ruling?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The right hon. Gentleman would do well to look at the whole legal background to the issue. The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) took national measures. However, when the European Court reached decisions on the measures—conveniently after the right hon. Gentleman had left office—it was found that a number of them were illegal.

The basis of the decision of the European Court was The Hague agreement of 1976. It was signed by the Opposition, who conceded that Commission approval must be sought for national conservation measures and that the residual national rights to take national action would be terminated after certain Community decisions had been taken. That was the millstone which the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and other hon. Members put around the neck of the United Kingdom Government.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)


Mr. Speaker

Mr. John Silkin. [Interruption.] Order. I am aware that I am calling in succession two Members from the same side. [Horn. MEMBERS: "The right hon. Gentleman is Shadow Leader of the House".] I know that he is Shadow Leader of the House. I do not want a private conversation taking place. I shall make up for the fact that I have called two Opposition Members and then say how long questions on this statement will run.

Mr. Silkin

I rose, Mr. Speaker, only because my name had been mentioned. I should happily have been quiet otherwise.

The right hon. Gentleman had better consult his memory, his calendar and his dates. He will find that The Hague agreement was not negotiated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. By agreement, the agreement was due to lapse—

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Walker)

What about collective responsibility?

Mr. Silkin

That is true. I am not excusing that, but it is irrelevant to what the right hon. Gentleman has said. That accounts for his ignorance of the subject.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The law is the law. I thoroughly recommend the right hon. Gentleman to read annex 6 of The Hague agreement. Conservative Members in particular know the views of Opposition Members about collective responsibility. I should ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he did or did not agree to the action of the right hon. Member for Devonport in relation to The Hague agreement.

Mr. Silkin

I had read annex 6 before the right hon. Gentleman was born. The fact is that the whole of The Hague agreement had no relevance whatsoever to national measures.

Mr. Peter Walker

The right hon. Gentleman did not agree with it.

Mr. Silkin

Of course, I did not agree with it, but, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, collective responsibility is collective responsibility. I agreed with The Hague agreement with the vehemence with which the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food supports the Prime Minister.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I took the precaution today of reading the relevant parts of The Hague agreement. I suggest that my memory is more accurate than that of the right hon. Gentleman. It is strange that he hid from the House at that time his attitudes towards this agreement, which was signed on behalf of the Government of the United Kingdom and which is the background to the negotiations which my right hon. Friends and I now have to conduct.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow 25 minutes for questions on the statement. hope that hon. Members will be to the point and that we shall have brief answers which are also to the point so that I can call as many hon. Members as possible.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

Coming to the present day, after the interesting remembrances of things past., can my right hon. Friend say whether, in present circumstances, the Government have any intention of availing themselves of the rights open to them under the Treaty to test the legality of the Commission's position in the European Court of Justice?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

That matter will arise only if the Commission takes action in the way it said it might. What is much more important at present is the orderly conduct of the fishery. We believe that, for the reasons I have given, that is possible.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

When is it expected that decisions will be taken and announced on the reopening of the Mull and Mourne fisheries and on the herring fishery in the Irish Sea generally?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The proposals in relation to all the areas mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman were included in the scientific recommendations before the Council. Therefore, fishing will take place in those areas later this year. Some seasonal fishing has already started. Fishing in the Mourne will take place at the normal tin-le later this year.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the Minister aware that the fishermen in the area concerned, many of whom I represent, regard what has appeared as a spineless surrender and a sell-out of their interests? Is he also aware that the Government are now obliged to stand on overriding national interests, as the French have done on many occasions? There is no confidence in talk about catch reports and monitoring, which proved completely fraudulent last time the fishery was open. If the Government do not protect that fishing with the help of Royal Navy cruisers, the fisheries and fishing communities in the West of Scotland, will be destroyed.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Before the right hon. Gentleman indulges in such rhetoric, I suggest that he consults the leaders of the fishermen, who were present in Brussels yesterday, regarding the conduct of negotiations by my right hon. Friend and myself. I believe that he will find that they are not in sympathy with his remarks. I would have more respect for the right hon. Gentleman's, views if he showed greater interest in the fishing industry than in party politics.

Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is tragic for the herring catchers and processors that almost three years of crippling sacrifices could be put at risk by this act of madness by the European Commission and some of our EEC partners? Can he see any grounds for believing that perhaps the lessons of this fiasco will concentrate the mind of the European Commission and bring it towards a speedy settlement of the CFP?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

It was possible yesterday for an agreement to have been reached on a much more orderly opening of the fishery. I regret that other countries did not agree to that. However, given the situation in which we are now placed, I believe in the measures which are available to us so that the sacrifice made by our fishermen in the last three years will not be put at naught and wasted and so that the fishery will be closed when the total allowable catch is reached.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Was it not an act of infantile irresponsibility by the Commission to embark on a free-for-all which it cannot accurately monitor and which it does not have the means of enforcing? How can we now say to fishermen in areas such as Northumberland and the East Coast of Scotland that they cannot catch North Sea herring while there is a free-for-all for boats from all over Europe, including Norway, which are fishing for herring elsewhere in the North Sea?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman normally takes a responsible attitude towards fishery matters. I am surprised that he says that there will be a free-for-all. I have said only that this is a less orderly way of opening the fishery than I would have liked. We already follow these practices for many other of our fisheries. I have not heard the hon. Gentleman use the same phrases for them. I suggest that he reflects on the position before he comments further.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Were the proposals agreed by the Council of Ministers or were they imposed on the Council of Ministers by the Commission? If they were imposed by the Commission and the right hon. Gentleman was unable to veto them, does not that put the whole of our membership of the EEC in a different light?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

It does not. The proposals before us were not agreed or imposed. Once the scientific recommendation for the opening of the fishery has been made and considered by the Council of Ministers in relation to every other fishery, it is possible for fishing to take place. What was at question yesterday was the conduct of the fishery once it was open. That is what we negotiated yesterday.

Sir Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

Leaving aside the continuous hostile attitude towards the Common Market by certain hon. Members, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on doing his best to preserve the fish stocks in the North Sea? Taking the area as a whole, what proportion of the total allowable catch will be allocated to British fishermen? Is he satisfied that once foreigners have completed their quota they will stop fishing? He will remember what happened in Norway two years ago.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

In the main part of the North Sea there is a recommendation of a nil total allowable catch, so no fishing will take place in that area. Only three areas are concerned. The main one is off the North-West of Scotland, where the Commission's proposal for the United Kingdom share was 67 per cent., which reflects our historic record in that area. The total allowable catch is on a smaller scale in the Irish Sea and there is a small catch off the South-West of England and in the southern part of the North Sea.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Whether the Minister calls it a free-for-all or indulges in semantics about a less orderly opening of the fishery, is it not a fact that it is totally impractical to monitor the number of herring caught from the fishery? How will it be possible for vessels to report twice weekly? That information has to go to member Governments and, from member Governments to the Commission and then the Commission has to circulate other member Governments about what has happened. How long does the right hon. Gentleman think the fishery can stand before it is wiped out? Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the proposals are totally disastrous and that the herring will be wiped out before the Government have any idea how many herring have been caught?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman forgets that this system already operates for other fisheries. One current example is the North-East mackerel fishery, which both last year and this year has been conducted on this basis and has been closed when the total allowable catch was reached.

Sir Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the monitoring of herring fishing in the Irish Sea? Is he aware that, unless at the next meeting to which he referred we make substantial progress towards a common fisheries policy, the industry will want the British Government on their own to start restructuring our own fleet?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Events in Brussels this week have indicated the urgency of obtaining an overall comprehensive common fisheries policy. Dealing on an ad hoc basis such as this is not as satisfactory as achieving an overall policy. I and my right hon. Friends will lose no opportunity to bring home to our colleagues the necessity of that and I hope that we shall be able to do so in the autumn.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

With the appalling consequences of the failure to agree to go ahead without let or hindrance by national Governments, how long does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the herring will survive? In what circumstances will the Government be able to take the Commission to court?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman should not use phrases such as "without let or hindrance". Elements of control are involved—elements in relation to the Commission and elements in relation to our own control and surveillance. Therefore, when the total allowable catch is reached, it will be possible to close the fishery.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Is not this a typical example of the callous and cynical attitude of our Gallic or Gaullist partners in the EEC? Is not the right hon. Gentleman now helpless? Will he give a pledge that he will do his best to call into any port available anyone who is caught poaching, particularly anyone in French vessels?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to enforce our conservation measures regardless of the nationality of the fishermen. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Denmark, Ireland and Belgium, as well as France, refused to agree. However, it is also significant that other major countries such as Germany and Holland were prepared to agree to the proposals that were before us yesterday.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Will my right hon. Friend refresh his memory about the unanimous report on the British fishing industry of the old Expenditure Committee, and in particular its following recommendations: first, that there should be a ban on transhipment because a limited catch cannot be controlled if it is not landed for checking; secondly, that it is notorious that the French do not attempt to enforce such quotas—there is ample evidence of that; thirdly, that the country in whose 50-mile limit the fishery takes place should be the enforcing and reporting agency? Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that when herring are slaughtered mackerel are subsequently raped?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

As my hon. Friend knows I have paid particular attention to the recommendations of the Select Committee of which he is a member. He will also know that, although we have not gone as far as the Committee recommended, we have taken powers in the Fisheries Act, which became law a few weeks ago, to control the transhipment of fish and that during the coming mackerel season there will be more effective control of transhipment.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

How on earth will the Commission, the British Government, scientists or anyone else be able to monitor or control herring catches when we all know that huge catches were made during the ban? If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that we no longer have the power to enforce national conservation measures to stop what is going on, and that he knew that as a result of The Hague agreement, why did the 1979 Conservative Party manifesto promise national conservation measures and why did not the right hon. Gentleman negotiate a retention of those measures as part of the final settlement?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Not unsurprisingly, the hon. Gentleman glosses over the facts. He will be aware that on several occasions there have been prosecutions for the illegal fishing of herring—as recently as within the last three weeks. Therefore, it is utterly wrong to say that there has been indiscriminate illegal herring fishing. That shows the shallowness of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Given the unsatisfactory background with which my right hon. Friend must cope, will he remind the other Governments in the Council of Ministers that the way in which this policing, in which the Commission has faith, takes place will very much affect the credibility with which any Community policing might be regarded in a future CFP? What arrangements have been made to ensure that the British processing industry will be able to cope with herring catches'?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

On my hon. Friend's second point, we will be in touch with all the different representative organisations that have an interest in the herring fishery. I agree with my hon. Friend's first point. I made all these points at yesterday's council meeting, but my hon. Friend has made them rather more eloquently today.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is no point in talking about enforcement measures when seized catches are sold back to the person who caught them at about a quarter of their value? Will he now give an undertaking that, whatever agreement is reached on a CFP in September—if, indeed, one is reached—the Government will not give a solemn undertaking to abide by it until the House has had the opportunity to debate it and form a judgment upon it?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

As the hon. Gentleman knows, prior to Council meetings we have given every opportunity to debate fisheries matters. As he knows perfectly well, it is inappropriate to comment on decisions of the courts, but, as he also knows from his membership of the Standing Committee on the Fisheries Bill, the penalties available to the courts are extremely severe.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

I congratulate my three right hon. Friends on their brilliant performance in Brussels yesterday in the interests of the British fishing industry. That view was conveyed to me by members of the fishing industry who went to Brussels. Even though they were unsuccessful, it was a brilliant performance. As a large quantity of herring will now come on to the market, will my right hon. Friend ensure that measures are taken to encourage consumers to eat herring to prevent this important species—

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Another brilliant performance.

Mr. McQuarrie

One would expect such a comment from the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that this valuable species will not be used for fish meal at a later date?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I know that my hon. Friend keeps in close touch with the leaders of the fishing industry, not least because of his constituency interest. I hope that he will also educate the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), who does not seem to keep in such close touch. I endorse my hon. Friend's hope that the British public will avail themselves of the opportunity to eat herring. It is one of the best fish available, and I shall be setting my own example by eating it in the coming months.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

What proportion of the total allowable catch does the right hon. Gentleman expect to be caught by British fishermen? Does he really believe in catch reports, be they from France, the Netherlands or even Aberdeen?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

As I have said, the Commission proposal is 67 per cent. I shall do all I can to ensure that British fishermen get their proper share of the fishery.

Mr. Alex Pollock (Moray and Nairn)

In the light of the failure of the Council of Ministers to reach agreement and the lack of a veto on the Commission's proposals, does my right hon. Friend accept that a dangerous power vacuum has been exposed in Europe? Does he further accept that if the Commission is entitled to act as it claims there may well be a case for an urgent look at the structure of Community regulations prior to any serious progress towards a CFP?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Obviously we want to examine more closely yesterday's declaration by the Commission. It is significant that not only the United Kingdom but other member States and the legal advisers to the Council of Ministers itself are questioning it. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall take an active part in any discussions on the matter.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

Some Opposition Members appreciate the Government's difficult position in the negotiations. The figure of 67 per cent. does not seem unreasonable, but does not the Minister accept that he will have the backing of the whole House in questioning the doubtful legality of the Commission's action on this decision? It is in everyone's interest to get off to a good start at the first attempt to control any species.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I pay particular attention to what he says, because of his practical experience of what was involved in the negotiations. We shall stand up for the interests of the United Kingdom as regards any question about the Commission's legal competence in relation to this matter or anything else. I very much regret that the fishery could not be opened on a more orderly basis. I believe that it was possible, and to some extent the Community has failed in not being able to do that.

Mr. David Myles (Banff)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a cautious welcome for his vigorous declaration that this fishery will be properly monitored? Will he assure us that this will be so and that we shall pull out all the stops to ensure that we exercise all possible control?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. British fishermen, and particularly Scottish fishermen, have made a sacrifice over the past three years in order to see the stock recover. In no way will the British Government stand aside and allow over-fishing beyond what the scientists have recommended.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

What happened to the proposal that the right hon. Gentleman said he would make for the issuing of licences allowing people to fish, in order to protect the traditional interests, particularly of the West Coast Scottish fishermen? Why was not the right hon. Gentleman able to use the veto in the discussions as the matter is of vital interest to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said earlier, he would know that the veto could not be used. I have explained the procedure for opening a fishery—a procedure that was followed by the Labour Government as well as by this Government. My right hon. Friends and I are in close touch with the representatives of the fishermen as to the more precise conduct of this fishery.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

I appreciate the difficulties, but does not my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to get an eventual agreement is by the most rigorous and strong enforcement action? Will he assure the House that every step will be taken to ensure that this is done?

Mr. Buchan-Smith

I have the utmost respect for the ability of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the fishery protection service of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland, which have a proven record in protecting our fishing interests. The Government will give them all the support that they can.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

Despite what the Minister has said, is it not absolutely clear that a free-for-all is involved here, and that since there are no national quotas, but only a total quota, there is no guarantee that British fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland, for example, will get 67 per cent. or any other percentage?

Did the Council of Ministers agree to the opening of the fishery or not? It is completely unprecedented for any fishery to be reopened without a decision by the Council of Ministers. That decision should not have been taken without the British Minister exercising his veto. If the decision was taken instead by the Commission, against the wishes of Ministers, is this not a serious arrogation of power by the Commission? If the Commission can do that in respect of this fishery without successful legal challenge, what prospect is there of a satisfactory common fisheries policy, when the Commission can impose a policy against the wishes of British Ministers and, indeed, of all Ministers? Is it not essential, not only for this fishery but for our general negotiating position, that the Commission's attempt to exercise power in this matter should be successfully challenged?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge and experience of these matters, should speak as he does. As he should be aware, the legal position is not one of the fishery's being open or closed; it is one of recommendations on an amount of fish to be caught. The amount is changed every year. It changed in the years when the right hon. Gentleman was at the Scottish Office and had responsibility for these matters. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman gets together with his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) to discuss the realities. The right hon. Gentleman does no service to his previous experience in these matters or to the fishing industry by making the exaggerated claims that he does.

Mr. Milan

Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the questions that I put to him? The matter has nothing to do with recommendations by scientists or anyone else. The closing and opening of fisheries are matters for the Council of Ministers, not for the scientists or the Commission. As soon as Ministers allow the Commission to make that kind of decision, there is no real control over policy, and the chances of bringing about a common fisheries policy satisfactory from a United Kingdom point of view are shattered.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

As I said a moment ago, this is not a matter on which any individual country has a veto in the Council of Ministers in relation to the total allowable catch. No amount of words from the right hon. Gentleman can cover the give-away by the Government of whom he was a member, who took away the United Kingdom Government's ability to take national conservation measures on this matter or anything else.