HC Deb 30 March 1981 vol 2 cc24-31
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the EEC Council of Fisheries Ministers on 27 March, which was attended by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department, and myself.

As the House will know, this meeting was called following the discussions on fish at the European Council at the beginning of last week. However, it quickly became apparent that one delegation was not able to negotiate on the crucial question of access and that therefore there was no possibility of agreement on a comprehensive, revised common fisheries policy. In these circumstances, the President decided that it would be wrong to prolong the meeting, which ended shortly after lunch. Ministers from all member countries committed their Governments to make every endeavour to reach overall agreement this spring, and invited the Presidency to reconvene the Council as soon as the necessary preparations allowed.

The Government consider that it is vital to retain the strength of the British fishing industry. It will be known that for this purpose during the past year the Government have already provided £37 million worth of aid to the industry, and it was envisaged originally that this aid was for the period ending on 31 March.

The House will know that the Government made the decision to bring forward the review of the financial position of the industry, and the results of this review show quite clearly that markets are weak and that increasing costs and continuing uncertainty are hitting the fleet hard.

The Government have therefore decided to make further aid available to the industry to help it through the continuing uncertainty and difficulty. Twenty-five million pounds will be made available for distribution through a scheme on broadly similar lines to the fishing vessel temporary support scheme introduced last August.

By taking this action the Government will therefore again have confirmed their determination to see that the British fishing industry continues to make an important contribution to our economy and continues in readiness for taking full advantage of a common fishing policy when negotiations are completed.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, while recognising that the French have been the real culprits in blocking progress in the common fisheries policy talks, may I take it that there will be no progress at all until after the French presidential elections and that we shall have no more meetings of the Council of Fisheries Ministers for at least six weeks?

Secondly, when the Canadian cod deal with the Germans is eventually agreed, what prospects are there for United Kingdom fishermen getting fishing rights in Canadian waters?

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to clear up the criticism being levelled at his Minister of State that the hon. Gentleman has already sacrificed our demand for the 12 to 50-mile dominant preference zone?

Turning to that part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement dealing with aid, I am sure that the House and the industry will be most grateful. Without this financial assistance, all sectors of the industry—the deep-sea, middle-distance and inshore fleets—were facing widespread collapse. Many vessel owners are already up to their necks in debt, and the Minister's announcement will stave off bankruptcy. But can he say how long this aid is supposed to last, and will it go direct to the vessel owners, according to the sizes of vessels?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman consider taking steps to finance the restructuring of the British fishing fleet and not keep waiting for the eventual outcome of the common fisheries policy talks? Our competitors are already doing it—the Germans are a case in point—and once more we are slipping behind. If a deal is eventually agreed, those countries that have restructured will be best able to take advantage of it.

Mr. Walker

Obviously I cannot speak on behalf of the French Government and say when they will be prepared to discuss the detailed questions of access. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, last week I had a bilateral meeting with the French Minister and a great deal of time was spent showing him the details of our requirements in terms of access. He has promised to consider carefully the arguments that we put to him. However, the timing of the next meeting must rest, quite rightly, with the Dutch President of the Council, who is anxious to see that that meeting takes place as quickly as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman then asked about the ability of British fishermen to fish in Canadian waters. I remind him that the amount of fishing that Britain did in Canadian waters when the Government of which he was a member were responsible was very small. Alas, in one year when there was a quota the British fishing industry caught only half the quota allocated to it. The degree to which we can make demands on what is available in Canadian waters reflects somewhat our past performance in that respect.

As for the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department, I may say that I know of no person on either side of this House who more has the confidence of the fishing industry than my hon. Friend. There is nothing that he or I said in the fishing negotiations that has not been said in very close association with and with the understanding of the leaders of the fishing industry. That will continue to be the case until, finally, we obtain a satisfactory settlement to these matters.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the method of payment of the proposed aid, and whether it would go to the proprietors as well as to the crews, and so on. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the nature of the relationship between the proprietorship of a boat and its crew varies from one section of the industry to another. However, in all sections of the industry the very close association between management, proprietorship and crews is such that the aid that we are giving in this form will be of benefit to the continuation of the industry, to the continuation, therefore, of jobs, and to the continuation of appropriate rewards to all the crews concerned.

Mr. Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

Will my right hon. Friend accept from my own fishermen the very warm welcome that they give to the new aid that has been promised, which itself shows the understanding of my right hon. Friend of the problems facing the industry? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread support for the continued and very robust stand that he and the Minister of State have taken during these fishing negotiations and of the welcome that the industry will give to the statement just made by my right hon. Friend about the continued close links that he intends to have with the industry throughout all future negotiations? I hope that that will be the case.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The calculation of the degree of aid that we are providing on this occasion, which by any previous standards is very substantial, has been done on the basis of a joint assessment that we have made with the industry itself of the financial problems of the industry. I think that we can claim that the relationship between my own Department and the industry, and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and the industry, is very close and is working well to the benefit of the industry as a whole.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity afforded by the obduracy of the other members of the Council to regain a negotiating stance of an exclusive 12-mile zone and dominant preference up to 50 miles, which is approved by the whole of this House? Is he aware that, perhaps unintentionally, the apparent prevarication on that subject last week by the Prime Minister and this afternoon by him arouses anxieties on the part of fishermen?

Mr. Walker

They are political anxieties expressed by those who have no great enthusiasm for a common fisheries policy. The negotiating relationship on all matters of access between the industry and the Government is one on which we have total agreement. Every negotiating position that we have taken on access, and the position that we have put to the Council of Ministers and to the Commission, has been agreed with the fishing industry.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

I want first to add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend and his Minister of State and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on the very firm line that they took to stand still and not allow the French make them come to terms on a common fisheries policy under duress. My constituency, which is one of the largest fishing constituencies, welcomes warmly this aid to the fishing industry. It is one more example of the Government's confidence in the fishing industry. In view of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), will my right hon. Friend say how much aid has been given by this Government compared with what was given by the last Government?

Mr. Walker

In terms of the position of the industry as a whole, obviously we hope in the coming months to reach a common fisheries policy that will be the policy for the rest of this century and that will provide immense opportunities for the British fishing industry. Therefore, it is the Government's view that it is important to retain the strength of our industry if it is to take full advantage of that situation when it occurs.

The volume of aid is roughly four times what was given in most years of the previous Government and is the volume of aid that we have calculated to be necessary to sustain the fishing fleet in a viable position, so that it can take advantage of the commom fisheries policy.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the German claim that fisheries were included as part of the package covering the rebate of the United Kingdom's contribution to the EEC? The British version is that fisheries is an entirely separate issue. Which version is correct? Will the right hon. Gentleman now state the minimum requirement that the Government would regard as absolutely essential in order to safeguard the rights of our fishermen in any negotiations?

Mr. Walker

I repeat that one cannot do better than to work with the industry in order to decide a sensible position on every specific stock. It is meaningless to decide on an overall general figure without deciding what stocks are of interest to Scottish fishermen. That is what we have done.

The United Kingdom shares the German Government's disappointment about agreement last May. In May, the Heads of Government hoped that a number of issues, including fishing, would be settled by the end of 1980. The British Government warmly welcomed that declaration. They share the disappointment that, not due to any act of ours but because of the acts of others, we did not reach agreement on a common fisheries policy by the end of December.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Having spent part of the weekend with the fishermen in my constituency, I assure my right hon. Friend that the South Coast fishermen very much support his robust attitude. Is he aware that they would rather have no common fisheries policy than one that sold out our inshore waters to the French, although they would prefer one if it could be obtained on reasonable terms?

Mr. Walker

It is in the interests of all fishermenn to have a common fisheries policy, because the conservation policies that can be operated only on a European basis are essential to the future build-up of stocks. They benefit our fishermen more than any other fishermen in Europe, because we have the largest fishing industry in Europe. Therefore, if we can obtain an arrangement that is satisfactory to our fishing industry it will be to the long-term advantage of all the fishermen.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

The Minister indicated that there can be no settlement before June, at the best. Does that mean that British vessels will be left to wallow for the coming three or four months? Owners in Hull are selling their boats anywhere. In fact, British United Trawlers has put its last 10 big boats on the market. Will something be done in June or July? Is the right hon. Gentleman as optimistic as he was on the last occasion when he reported to the House?

Mr. Walker

I have not stated that June will be the earliest date. I have said that, quite rightly, the timing of the next meeting must be left to the Presidency, following soundings with the various member countries. On Friday, we urged that the meeting should be held as speedily as possible, when the Presidency judges that it has a considerable chance of success. At the Council of Ministers' meeting, the French Minister stated quite openly that he wanted carefully to consider the access position, and said that he was not willing to negotiate on it at that time. It is not only to the benefit of British fishermen to have a common fisheries agreement; it is also in the interests of French fishermen. I hope that the French Government share that viewpoint. If they do, there is no reason why, in the coming months, we should not reach a sensible agreement.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the British fishermen do not like being a charge of the public purse, even though that is necessary in view of the present crisis? Will he say something about the time scale, and the way in which the welcome aid that he has announced will be distributed? Will he confirm that in December both French and British fishermen appeared to believe that a deal was possible, and that it came as a surprise that one was not completed?

Mr. Walker

It is true that that was the feeling of British and French fishermen in December. Indeed, at the December meeting all the other members of the Council of Ministers considered that we were near to reaching agreement.

The money will be distributed quickly, and the method will be similar to the one that was used last August. Although there are detailed snags, it is a system that, in the main, is welcomed by the industry. It is speedy and effective.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I offer my support for what the Minister has achieved so far. However, on conservation, how serious has the depletion of our fishing resources become?

Mr. Walker

There has been some check on depletion in recent years. There is evidence that vital stocks, such as the herring stock, are beginning to build up. The tragedy is that once a stock has been destroyed and over-fished it takes many years to build it up again. If one were to adopt a system of free fishing everywhere I have no doubt that many stocks would quickly and substantially deteriorate.

Mr. Peter Fraser (South Ayrshire)

In view of the carping remarks made by Opposition Members, I assure my right hon. Friend that the leaders of the Scottish fishing fleets are appreciative of the fact that he has taken them along with every decision that has been made at each stage of the Brussels negotiations. Is he aware that the increased amount of aid that has been made available to the fishing fleets is not the only matter of importance? It is also important that the aid should be distributed in a way that is sensitive, and truly responds to the needs of fleets of all sizes.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his general remarks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have worked closely with the leaders of the Scottish fishing industry. Alas, there is no perfect method of distributing the aid. If it is done according to the size of ship, it adversely affects boats with different engine sizes. If it is done according to the size of the crew, it has an adverse affect on others. We have therefore concluded that the system used last August was broadly correct, and it was welcomed by most sections of the industry. It is also a speedy method of getting the financial aid to those who require it.

Mr. Joan Evans (Aberdare)

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will not be party to a package deal to sell out the fishing industry in order to obtain our EEC rebate in the future? As the CAP has worked to the disadvantage of British farmers, consumers and taxpayers, will he resist a common fisheries policy that provides the fish around our shores for the fishing vessels of our European competitors?

Mr. Walker

Obviously we have a strong case for obtaining as much fish as we possibly can for a vital and important industry. However, on the question of who the fish belong to, some people argue that the breeding grounds, as opposed to other issues, are equally important. It is not a clear, uncomplicated decision. I confirm that I shall be no party to a package that sells out the fishing industry, and I also confirm that no one in the Government would be party to such a measure.

Mr Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the Government will not accept unrestricted access in 1982 if we do not achieve a common fisheries policy this year? In view of its relevance to the Southend fishing industry, is it my right hon. Friend's aim to phase out historic rights within 12 miles, so that eventually we shall have a 12-miles exclusive zone?

Mr. Walker

Detailed points on historic rights are matters on which we are in close liaison with the industry. The industry recognises the important factors involved for the fishing industries of all countries in measuring the degree of historic rights and their importance to our industry. If we achieve agreement on a disappearance or phasing out of historic rights, it will be an improvement on anything which has existed up to the present time. I am sure that, as always, my hon. Friend will strongly welcome that.

My hon. Friend asked what would happen if there were no agreement by December 1982. The Government believe that it would then be vital, as mentioned in article 103 of the Treaty, for the Commission to present a future programme covering a common fisheries policy in Europe. In the absence of any agreement on such a programme, there is a degree of legal uncertainty about what the position would be.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been rising as well as the Opposition Front Bench spokesman before moving on to the Supply day business.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Has the Minister noticed the considerable support that he has received from both sides of the House and from representatives of the industry for his robust policy? Will he confirm, however, that there is only one possible interpretation of his earlier answers, namely, that both he and the industry have departed from the previously stated principle of a dominant preference between 12 and 50 miles? If so, how does he reconcile that with his so-called robust attitude?

Mr. Walker

Everything that I have put forward has had the agreement of the industry. If the hon. Gentleman is criticising the industry for not knowing as much about fishing as the hon Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) let him do so.

Mr. Spearing

What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by "the industry"?

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Since the industry's problems arise to a large extent from the European Community, will my right hon. friend seek to get the £25 million that this policy will cost as a partial rebate for the massive £705 million net that we put into the Community last year, rather than visit the cost on the hard-pressed taxpayer? After all, we are a Government who seek to cut public expenditure. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is the most persuasive person in being able to get the money back.

Mr. Walker

I suggest that my hon. Friend studies the history of the fishing industry. If he does, he will find that the main reason for the difficulty that faces our long-distance fleet and the industry generally has nothing to do with the Common Market. It is related to the loss of access to Icelandic waters. If my hon. Friend wants to use that argument, therefore, perhaps he will try to get some money out of Iceland.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has established beyond doubt his determination to uphold the interests of the British fishing industry against French demands for access that is no doubt as traditional and as important to them as was our access to Icelandic waters? Will he beware, however, of letting himself be boxed in by the natural enthusiasm of the spokesmen for the fishing industry, leaving himself no room for manoeuvre?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir. I have an immense respect for the manner in which the fishing industry has assisted me and collaborated with me in the negotiations. A common factor among the leaders of the fishing industry is a genuine understanding and sympathy for fishermen of other countries. Probably because they share the same dangers and hardships at sea, there is a genuine regard for other fishing communities throughout the Community. I have no complaints about the manner in which the leadership of the fishing industry has worked in close collaboration with the Government during these difficult and complex negotiations.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

May I ask my right hon. Friend about the interests of consumers of fish? Practically all the questions put to him have reflected the interests of the fishing industry, and he has constantly stressed the needs of the industry. Does he agree that the interests of those who eat fish are at least equally important? Will he explain how recent events and the stand that he has taken have affected the consumers' interests?

Mr. Walker

There was a time when British consumers devoured large quantities of herring at low prices because they were in plentiful supply and were caught in large quantities by British fishermen. A lack of conservation measures, over-fishing, and lack of coherent policing in European waters have meant the disappearance of that stock for the consumer. It is therefore very much in the interests of consumers that there should be a viable and successful fishing industry, seeking to catch increasing stocks.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I do not want in any way to detract from the Minister's achievement in securing this substantial additional tranche of temporary financial aid for the industry. May I suggest to him, however, that the last time aid was given in this form there was concern over the method of payment? It was concentrated on the vessel owners, with working fishermen, including share fishermen, receiving no direct benefit. Will some of this money go directly to fishermen who do not own vessels?

Mr. Walker

Different sections of the industry and different proprietors will be in relatively different positions. Obviously, if, but for this aid, a proprietor may go out of business, and he uses the aid to pay his capital and interest payments and stay in business, that will be in the interests of the crew. My experience of the industry is that the relationship between crews, managers and proprietors is, by the nature of the industry, very close. The manner in which the aid is distributed will vary according to different needs. It would be wrong for the Government to specify a method of distribution between capital and interest repayments and meeting overheads, and the genuine requirements of the crews. I believe, however, that in the industry as a whole there is a good relationship between managers and crews.