HC Deb 11 March 1981 vol 1000 cc885-90
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 EEC Council of Fisheries Ministers held in Brussels on 10 March. 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.

The Council had before it new Commission proposals on various issues including access. On this aspect they were very disappointing, both regarding the 12-mile limit and the need for fishing plans outside 12 miles. I made it quite clear that they were wholly unacceptable to the United Kingdom.

Late in the evening the Dutch President produced a new compromise on access and on quotas. On quotas it differed little from the proposal already made by the Commission which I have acknowledged to be a basis for discussion. On access, it represented some improvement on the Commission's proposals for the area inside 12 miles. However, early on the morning of 11 March it became clear that agreement was not possible and the meeting was concluded. The Council is scheduled to meet again on 6–7 April.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that report, though, as he implied, it is very disappointing. No doubt French intransigence is mainly responsible. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are getting worried that a common fisheries policy will not now be determined on its merits and that there is a danger that it will get caught up in trade-offs in the agricultural price review and possibly in the next summit meeting? What assurance can he give the House that that will not be so?

Secondly, it is right that the right hon. Gentleman stands firm on proposals for the North-East Coast, the Irish Sea, North-West Scotland and the Shetland box. Reassurances on those points will be appreciated. Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those with whom he is negotiating must understand that in the talks the United Kingdom must regain much of what it has lost for British fishermen? Our deep-sea fleet has been slashed and therefore our salvation as a fishing nation depends not only on conservation and fair total allowable catches, which will help our deep-sea fleet, but on a coastal belt of 12 miles exclusivity and dominant preference for our fishermen up to 50 miles.

Finally, the whole industry and Parliament are agreed on those objectives. The Fisheries Council might as well understand that we stand four square behind the Minister in achieving that sort of future for our fishermen.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that there is no question of any fishing settlement being traded off against any other topic. The industry knows that, and I think that my colleagues in the Council of Ministers are well aware of that fact.

I believe that there is a European fishing policy to be agreed which is advantageous not just to our fishermen but to the fishermen of Europe as a whole. Unless we can obtain conservation measures on a sensible and rational basis over all European waters, it will not be in the interests of fishermen throughout the Community.

Naturally, I understand the pressures on other member States, all of which have demands from their fishing industries, some of which they feel conflict with the demands that we consider essential. But the United Kingdom has the biggest fishing industry in Europe and our industry has suffered more from the loss of third country waters than has any other. Our industry is essential. The right hon. Gentleman knows from his many contacts in the industry that no one has worked more closely with the industry in every step of the negotiations than I have.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Now that the Minister has met with this not unexpected degree of recalcitrance, will he take the opportunity to establish the line agreed repeatedly by both sides of the House and of which the House has just been reminded by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason)?

Mr. Walker

I have maintained throughout a line which I believe would have the support of the House, and, what is more, every step that I have taken in the negotiations has had the support of the industry.

Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that he will have the united support of the fishing industry and its congratulations in refusing to surrender to the French demand to fish up to British beaches? Can he tell us to what extent our other European partners supported the British stand yesterday?

Mr. Walker

Obviously there are various diverse national interests among other member countries. Some countries have no interest in matters that are important to our fishing industry, but I think that there is an understanding. In fairness to the Dutch President, who endeavoured to make a movement from the Commission's proposals, which were totally unacceptable and in no way recognised the basic requirements and needs of our industry, I cannot complain about a lack of understanding and support at yesterday's meeting. I hope that, as a result of that, we shall move towards a settlement at future meetings.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the apparent attitude of the French makes it abundantly clear that there can be no settlement of the fisheries policy that would not be a monstrous betrayal of our fishermen? Since, under the Treaty, member countries are allowed to plead an overriding national interest, will the Minister now break off negotiations and say that we shall resume the status quo?

Mr. Walker

I remember the right hon. Gentleman making similar noises about the impossibility, because of French intransigence, of reaching an agreement on lamb. I am glad that we reached an agreement which is much to the benefit of Scottish lamb producers and which they applauded. It shows that, with patience and determination, one eventually gets what one wants.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

Is my right hon, Friend aware that the fishing industry in general will welcome the tremendous stand that he is taking in endeavouring to get completion of the common fisheries policy? The industry will also welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has chosen to come into the Chamber to listen to the statement. She has consistently said that fishing will not be traded off against anything in the Common Market. As long as that stands, the fishermen will be totally behind my right hon. Friend in his efforts to get an agreed common fisheries policy.

Mr. Walker

The Government have been totally united.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

That makes a change.

Mr. Walker

I also appreciate the support from both sides of the House. There is a genuine consensus on the importance to the future of our industry of a sensible and sane fishing agreement. I hope that eventually we shall obtain that.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Is the Minister aware that the problems of the industry are so appalling that we simply cannot go on having meetings in Europe month after month and coming back to say"No progress"? How can the impasse be broken except by surrender?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman has a great interest in these topics and he will know how, in the past year, the Government have provided double the aid to the industry that has been given in recent years. More recently, we brought forward the review of the financial problems of the industry. That was our suggestion and was not done on the basis of demands from the industry. The Government have shown throughout a considerable understanding of the problems created for the industry. There will certainly not be any agreement on the basis of surrender. I believe that there will eventually be an agreement in the interests of our industry.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Did my right hon. Friend note that the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), did not include the South-West in the areas to which special protection must be given? As it is the area most vulnerable to crossChannel marauding, I ask my my right hon. Friend to pay particular attention to the needs of the South-West.

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend is right. This is a longestablished and important industry. As my hon. Friend is aware, the talks in which the Minister of State and I have taken part with the industry show our detailed interest in the problems of the fishermen. I assure my hon. Friend that when a solution is eventually reached it will take firmly into consideration the problems of fishermen in the South-West.

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

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Liberal Party strongly supports his refusal of the terms on offer at the meeting? Is he also aware that there is concern in Northumberland about what will happen between the six-mile and 12-mile limit and his attitude to the various claims made? Are these claims confined to herring, or do they extend to demersal species? If they do, will he make sure that they make no further progress?

Mr. Walker

The proposals of the Commission, which were totally unacceptable, included every historic right that had ever been thought of. It moved to one concerning pre-accession rights. One of the problems in the North-East is herring, but I have no doubt that we can come to a satisfactory agreement on that topic with the Germans and the Dutch, who have an interest. The demands that we make will be totally in keeping with what I know are the views of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that until agreement is reached foreign vessels that trespass in our waters, including French vessels, will be arrested, prosecuted and, we trust, convicted and punished?

Mr. Walker

Quite correctly, in terms of the supervision of our waters, any breakages of agreements and legal positions are duly taken up by the appropriate authorities irrespective of the flag that the ship flies. That has meant a number of arrests of vessels of overseas countries. A totally impartial surveillance of our seas in accordance with the law will continue.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I support fully the firmness of the Minister at this meeting, but will he indicate, in view of the critical condition of the industry, for which he does not bear full responsibility, whether there is any possibility of bilateral discussions resolving some of the areas of disagreement prior to the monthly meetings? If he is able to identify the road blocks, he may be able to remove them.

Mr. Walker

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that no one has tried harder than we have tried in bilateral talks. We have had bilateral discussions with most member States and identified our differences with most of them. We have had a series of bilateral talks with France that resulted in progress in a number of spheres. I hope that a greater understanding will be shown of the realistic requirements of our industry, which I do not think are a breach of the requirements of the French industry, which I am perfectly willing to understand. I hope that as a result of bilateral talks and other diplomatic efforts progress can be made. I am only sorry that proposals suddenly coming forward from the Commission should be rather out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that, while there is admiration for his patience and perseverance in the negotiations, there is also an increasing frustration with the Commission and the Council of Ministers over failure to reach agreement? In view of that failure to reach agreement, can my right hon. Friend say when he hopes to be able to announce the results of his bringing forward the review of the problems of the industry?

Mr. Walker

I can assure my hon. Friend that at 3.30 am today my right hon. Friend and I had a keen sense of this frustration and impatience. We endeavoured to restrain that feeling and will continue to do so until a settlement is reached. I cannot predict any specific time because I cannot speak for Ministers of other nations.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Is the Minister fully aware of the black mood of despair in all our fishing ports, not least Hull where a meeting took place last weekend? The right hon. Gentleman deserves thethanks of the House for his efforts. We are all behind him. Does he honestly believe that, even after the French elections are over, there is any sign whatever of a settlement with the French Minister before the end of the calendar year? Is this possible?

Mr. Walker

Yes, I think it is possible. I personally believe that the genuine requirements of the French fishing industry are not contradictory to the demands and requirements of the British fishing industry. I think, therefore, that there is a basis of agreement so far as the two countries are concerned. That is why I shall continue to pursue this particular course. It is in recognition of the current difficulties of the fishing industry that the Government took the decision to review the current financial scene ahead of time.

Mr. David Myles (Banff)

While this delay continues, will my right hon. Friend take urgent steps to correct the internal problems within the industry especially in marketing and co-operation involving all sectors of the industry?

Mr. Walker

Talks on internal marketing are going on between the five marketing advisers I appointed and the fishing industry. As my hon. Friend knows, we have set up a joint working party with the industry to look into all the allegations of illegal and irresponsible dumping of imports in this country. I hope that the result of those two measures will help.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

Is the Minister aware that, having given way all along the line, the only objective on which he can now stand firm is the 12-mile exclusive zone? If he adds to that a Scottish or an Ireland box, he is in danger of dissipating the pathetic amount of negotiating capital with which the Prime Minister has left him and also dividing the industries of Scotland and England. Among the vessels excluded from any such box will be Humberside vessels. The effort will fall back disproportionately on the waters traditionally fished by Grimsby fishermen.

Mr. Walker

I find it extraordinary that, in almost all these exchanges, the hon. Gentleman is totally out of keeping with everyone else and always comes up with lines with which the fishing industry in Grimsby disagrees.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. If hon. Members are brief, I shall call those who have been rising in their places.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the attitude he has taken so far in the talks. May I remind him that, while our own deep-sea fleet has been declining in tonnage, the fleets of many of our partners in the EEC have been expanding? Is he further aware that the prosperity of our deep-sea fleet in Britain is of great relevance to many inland parts of the country in relation to engines and much of the equipment supplied to trawlers?

Mr. Walker

The fishing industry—long, medium and short distance—is a major industry of this country. As an island race with the biggest fishing interests in Europe, it is vital that we reach an agreement that is sensible for that industry.

Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)

Does the Minister agree that it is a wish rather than a hope on his part that we shall achieve any success with the French in these long-drawn-out negotiations? While he is wishing, the British fishing industry is fast disappearing. Will he, therefore, take positive action now to save what is left of our fishing industry by our taking unilateral action and saying to hell with the EEC?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman's views on the EEC are well known and traditional. I heard those interventions week after week when we were discussing lamb. I know that the hon. Gentleman now rejoices at the cheap lamb and the good rewards for British producers that came out of that scheme. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman enjoying similar benefits when we negotiate a fishing agreement.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

The House and the country will have great admiration for my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in their difficult negotiations in Europe. When next involved in discussions, will he draw the attention of his colleagues in Europe to the unsatisfactory situation that these protracted negotiations are creating in the feeling towards Europe within Britain? This is a matter of growing and great concern.

Mr. Walker

I assure my hon. Friend that I have plenty of opportunity of drawing the attention of my colleagues to no end of matters. The effect on the attitude in Britain toward Europe is one of them. I shall do what he requests.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

In view of a male unemployment rate in Bridlington of 20 per cent., is my right hon. Friend aware of how important for that port it is to achieve an exclusive zone? Is he also aware that, while my fishermen support him strongly in his efforts, they feel that it is vitally important for their interests that the exclusive zone be taken southwards from Flamborough Head at least as far as Spurn Head?

Mr. Walker

As my hon. Friend knows, we have been in close consultation with the fishermen of Bridlington. We shall continue to do so until agreement is reached.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Since, despite his valiant efforts, we have still to achieve a common fisheries policy, will my right hon. Friend say what advantage such a policy would have over the United Kingdom having the same sort of fisheries policy as Iceland, together with common conservation policies with the rest of our European partners?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir. Understandably we can best obtain rational common conservation policies, which can be genuinely enforced, if we have a common fishing policy. Our fishermen are agreed on that, even if my hon. Friend is not.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is the Minister aware that the breakdown of the talks, combined with the continued desperate economic plight of the industry, only adds to the fishermen's frustration—a frustration which manifested itself in the recent Scottish fishermen's blockade? Will he assure the House that he will make a statement later this month announcing national measures to help the industry financially and to tackle the problem of cheap imports?

Mr. Walker

We are currently talking to the industry about the financial position. As soon as the talks are completed and the details agreed, I shall make a statement to the House.