HC Deb 18 May 1981 vol 5 cc95-104 9.21 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community documents Nos. 11626/80 and corrigendum 1 on the social aspects of the Community sea fishing sector, 4884/81, 5361/81 on quotas, 5304/81, 5360/81, 5362/81, 6021/81 on total allowable catches and surveillance zones, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's unnumbered memoranda of 9 February 1981 on quotas, of 28 April 1981 on Swedish registered vessels fishing in the waters of member states of the European Community and of 11 May 1981 on Faroese fishing in the waters of member States of the European Community; endorses the view that social measures, particularly in relation to working conditions and remuneration, are best left to the discretion of national authorities, and supports the Government's aim of securing an early comprehensive settlement on a satisfactory revised common fisheries policy. My speech could be rather shorter than the motion, though I expect it to take slightly longer. I hope that I shall have the opportunity later to catch the eye of the Chair to reply to any points that are raised.

I should like to deal first with the document on social matters, No. 11626/80 and corrigendum 1, because that is likely to come up for discussion on 9 June in the Social Affairs Council. Therefore, in some respects it has more immediate relevance than some of the others that are very important, as it comes up first for discussion.

The document, which covers a number of items, starting with the important matter of training, is in two parts. The part that deals with matters of training, being in the form of a draft resolution, is simply an expression of the Council's intentions. The remaining parts of the document are an expression of the Commission's views. I make that distinction, because it helps in understanding the relevance of the document.

The main purpose of the first part is to try to increase and improve vocational training for fishermen. If it were adopted, the draft resolution would have little effect on practice in the United Kingdom, because we already have the Fisheries Training Council, which was established nearly three years ago, in November 1978. Training is already available. Both the industry and the unions are represented on the council.

I pay tribute to the work of the council, but what is significant about its work is that it already has set up 12 training associations in all parts of the United Kingdom. By the end of this year it hopes to set up a further six so that all the main fishing areas of the United Kingdom will be covered by training associations. This is a means by which, with the co-operation of the different parts of the industry, we are setting an example to the rest of Europe.

The document deals with the question of employment. It calls on the Governments of the Community to seek to balance the supply and demand for labour in the fishing industry. That is not easy to do in that sector or in other sectors, however much one expresses it as an objective. This is an area which, in the United Kingdom, we already have the extremely active agencies of the Department of Employment. There are many unemployed fishermen in relation to the number of vacancies, but it is of considerable significance that last year the agents of the Department of Employment were instrumental in placing 1,219 fishermen in jobs. That shows how the United Kingdom is already active in this sphere.

The document goes on to deal with matters of health and safety. Fundamentally, those are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. The document deals with such matters as construction, equipment standards, promotion of safety, avoidance of accidents and co-ordination of rescue.

This is a sphere in which the United Kingdom Government and different Departments and various international agencies, such as the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation, are active. Our concern is to avoid duplication by yet another body. Where one has over-duplication and multiplication, what may start as reasonable and sensible objectives can be hindered by too much activity by too many different bodies.

The document on social matters deals with the working conditions of fishermen. It is significant that the conclusion of that section of the document is that it is not appropriate for Community intervention involving industrial relations in an industry so diverse as the fishing industry. We agree with that point of view. We think that it would be better left to the individual member Governments of the Community.

In relation to earlier proposals about working conditions fear was expressed among our share fishermen that that could become an interference with the practice of share fishermen. We would view that extremely seriously. It is interesting that, following representations made by the United Kingdom Government and our industry, the proposals from the Community have been revised. Those fears can be laid to rest. There can be no question of threatening the future of share fishermen. We would ensure that there would be no threat.

We are dealing with most important matters. This document and our policy on it have been communicated to the fishing industry for its comments. The catching organisations support the line that we are taking. We have had no objections from any of the other organisations that have been made aware of the document and the United Kingdom Government's policies.

I turn to what is probably much more at the heart of the debate, and it is a very important aspect. It concerns, of course, a common fisheries policy generally. Our last main debate on this was on 26 November 1980, when we discussed EEC documents. However, there have been a number of other occasions when the matter has been raised in the House because my right hon. Friend has reported to the House after each Council meeting—in December, January, February and then the following two occasions on which we met in March. At the same time, we have had opportunities to discuss many of these other matters in other contexts, not least on the Fisheries Bill. But, specifically on documents from the Community, this is the first opportunity for a debate that we have had since November, and I welcome it.

As my right hon. Friend described on 18 December after the Council of Ministers meeting, we got very close to agreement in the Council on a possible common fisheries policy. At that time, however, agreement was not possible because of the inflexibility of the French Government. As the House knows from statements made to the House by my right hon. Friend following subsequent Council meetings, the French attitude has not changed significantly since.

That brought us to the meeting of 27 March, at which it became clear to the Presidency of the Council and its members that it was unlikely that further progress could be made on a common fisheries policy until after the French election. The Presidency of the Council proposed at the meeting on 27 March that he would reconvene the Council only when necessary preparations could be made and it was clear that there were better prospects for progress. The way that events have moved following the election in France and with the change of Government, clearly this will mean progress being delayed still futher, although we shall of course press at the appropriate stage for the earliest possible reconvening of the Council to get a satisfactory solution.

Equally, I must tell the House that it would be very foolish to reconvene the Council to discuss a common fisheries policy until we were clearer about the attitude of the French Government and when we could be sure that the necessary preparations had been done. To go into a council without the necessary preparations being done would not help and could make matters more difficult.

For the purposes of this debate, therefore, I simply make it clear that the Government's objectives remain as we have stated them previously. I emphasise again that it is essential that we obtain a comprehensive settlement in which we see agreement on the different elements contained in that settlement. Some of them hang together. Some items can be dealt with on an individual basis. But broadly there are certain elements which are central to a renegotiated common fisheries policy, and it is important that those are brought together in a comprehensive settlement.

Basically, they affect matters of access, quotas, conservation and, last, but not least in this short catalogue, the very important question of policing. Unless we make sure, especially in respect of quotas and conservation, that we have effective policing on a Community basis, as events have unfortunately shown hitherto what may be agreed on a less formal basis is very much less likely to be effective.

the documents before the House deal with a number of these matters. Perhaps the most important one is No. 5361/81 concerning basic regulation for a common fisheries policy. It deals with conservation, total allowable catches and quotas, and these three items are covered by separate proposals.

On quotas, the document lays down certain principles on which catch quotas should be calculated. But what gives me cause for concern is that the document only lays down the principles as applying up to 1982. The principles for years after that are left open for further discussion. that is very unsatisfactory. If there are to be principles—there are principles in any calculation of quotas—it is important that when these quotas are agreed there should be some staying power, some continuity, in their basis. That is particularly important to the industry, because no business or industry can go into the future without some certainty about the framework within which it will have to work.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Surely the hon. Gentleman is being totally unrealistic if he expects principles to be accepted beyond 1982, when the new common fisheries policy is yet to be agreed. The one depends upon the other.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to know that that is what the whole operation is about—to agree these principles. I am sure that he would agree that to have this for just a two-year basis would be unsatisfactory. We are seeking agreement for a greater distance into the future in order to give the industry a greater degree of certainty.

This basic regulation deals also with the temporary continuation of the various access derogations agreed under the Treaty of Accession. It also deals with the question of a licensing system to regulate certain coastal fisheries. In both respects, when dealing with questions of access, we do not believe that the proposals meet the needs of the United Kingdom. Before they can be acceptable, particularly in relation to the two important matters of access, this document will need substantial revision.

Documents Nos. 5304/81 and 6021/81 deal with total allowable catches. These follow, basically, scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. With one exception, the proposals are broadly acceptable to the United Kingdom. The one exception is certain proposals for a limited TAC for herring in the North Sea. This is not based on scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. For that reason, it is not acceptable.

Document No. 4884/81 deals with the matter of quotas. We have had previous papers in relation to quotas. This one deals simply with quotas on a global basis. It gives no indication of how those quotas will be divided up on a stock-by-stock basis. Not having such a division makes it impossible to assess the implications of those quota proposals for the United Kingdom fishing industry. It is, therefore, impossible to take a view on those proposals at present. By a "stock-by-stock basis" I mean the areas in which the fish are caught, the kind of fish, and so on, because that is the only way in which one can properly assess the value to our industry of those quota proposals.

Document No. 5362/81 deals with fishing plans. It is of particular interest since it deals with the very important matter of preference outside an exclusive zone. The Commission's proposals are confined simply to a zone off the North of Scotland. They simply describe it as a zone in which there might be some special form of surveillance. In respect of the extent of cover and the kind of surveillance—I use the word "surveillance" advisedly rather than "control", which there must be in areas if we are to have fishing plans, and which was an integral part of the Commission's discussion papers on this matter al an earlier stage—we believe that this document, as it stands, is insufficient and unsatisfactory.

On general matters, there is the question of conservation. Document No. 5360/81 simply brings together a number of technical measures which previously appeared in other documents. Broadly, they are based on scientific advice. With the exception of some details in relation to herring by-catches, they are acceptable to us.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the Minister explain what appears to be a puzzling contradiction in document No. 5360? The document purports to be concerned with conservation measures that have hitherto been appendices to the decisions on total allowable catches. Nevertheless, article 7 of the appended document deals with non-allowable fishing for herring. Article 7(2) prohibits fishing for herring in 1981 off the East Coast of Northern Ireland. As this matter is apparently still open for decision in the context of the 1981 season, why should an article that gives a blank negative be attached to proposals dealing with the general principles of conservation?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

With the agreement of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I shall consider that issue and deal with it at a later stage in the debate. I am grateful to him for drawing it to my attention. If there is an apparent contradiction I should like to consider it further.

There remain the unnumbered memoranda on fishing by the Farces and Sweden, which are basically the external arrangements. In general and in a technical sense these documents, as the explanatory memoranda explain—we do not yet have the full text—are satisfactory in outline and in principle. However, we are concerned about the level of reciprocal quotas that the European Community has negotiated with the Faroe Islands and Sweden. These arrangements give certain access to waters of third countries for fishing purposes and give to the Faroe Islands fishermen and the Swedish fishermen opportunities to fish in waters of member States of the Community. We believe that the balance is unfair with Faroe. Anyone who has any experience of fishing off the Faroe Islands will know that the Faroe Islands Government have put certain restrictions on access to certain areas. These restrictions have made it difficult for British fisherman to catch their quotas. We are concerned about the attitude of the Faroese Government towards salmon conservation, which is an item of especial importance.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Is my hon. Friend able to give an assurance that the rather special and long tradition of line fishing off Faroe is being taken into account in the negotiations?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am aware of that issue. Some of my hon. Friend's constituents have written to Ministers on that very matter. That is something that we shall bear in mind. At present there is no agreement and no fishing taking place. I cannot say what the answer will be because there is no current agreement.

The feature that worries us about the Swedish agreement is the North Sea herring quota of 1,000 tonnes for Sweden. It is premature to offer a quota to Sweden when there is not a Community agreement on the herring fishery.

I have endeavoured to deal fairly swiftly with the documents before us. I am certain that a number of questions remain unanswered. There are matters of great importance contained in the social documents and those on the common fisheries policy. The social documents are relevant because they will shortly be discussed in Europe. It will be helpful to have the endorsement of the House. I am sure that the House will regret that more progress has not been made in recent weeks on the common fisheries policy. It is now clear that progress has been hindered by one Government. I hope that once that Government take over full responsibilities we shall be able to take up the negotiations again in a way that is satisfactory to the United Kingdom fishing industry.

I assure the House, as I have done on previous occasions, that in future negotiations, as in the past, we shall continue to stand up for the interests of our industry. The Government certainly understand that, in the face of this uncertainty and the trading difficulties with regard to prices and so on that our fishermen have faced, our industry has continued to go through a difficult and trying period.

I believe that the Government have shown proof that our concern is a matter not of words but of deeds. As the House knows, we have provided £25 million in aid to the industry this year, on top of the extra £17 milllion that we provided last year. That is proof not only of our concern for the industry during a period of uncertainty while negotiations take place, but of our appreciation of the difficulties that the industry has faced on the trading front. When negotiations on the common fisheries policy resume, we shall continue to stand up for the industry and for the United Kingdom—with the support, I hope, of all Members of the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that the debate will finish at 11.30 and that a considerable number of hon. Members appear to have a great interest in this subject.

9.46 pm
Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

The Minister of State was right to warn the House of his worries about the changes taking place in France. This debate takes place shortly after the election of a new French President. The House may have thought that President Giscard d'Estaing was tough on the British, but President Mitterand has already made it crystal clear on French national television that in his view his predecessor was too soft on British fishermen. We must heed that warning, as it may have serious implications in the furtherance of our form of a common fisheries policy. I am certain that it will threaten any early agreement that we may have had in mind.

First, as the Minister indicated, there is no planned series of Fisheries Council meetings. Secondly, when the meetings resume, there will be greater opposition to any restriction on French vessels within our 12-mile limit after 31 December 1982. The new French President has made that absolutely clear. The battle for historic rights and the battle of the beaches therefore have still to be fought in the Fisheries Council meetings. Thirdly, France is not prepared to accept access restrictions in our waters outside the 12 miles.

I believe that the new, tougher attitude will result in the rejection of our proposals for preference areas—the 12 to 50-mile dominant preference zone for United Kingdom fishermen, the Shetland box and restrictions on the size of vessels within the boxes—not to mention the 10-year review that the French seek. Would not it also be politic for the French to frustrate as well as to object to some of our main proposals so that no real progress could be made towards a common fisheries policy during Britain's chairmanship of the Council? All those things are now possible with the tougher words issued by the new French President on fishery matters.

If those tactics succeed, I believe that pressure will then be brought to bear to force the United Kingdom to agree to a piecemeal approach to a common fisheries policy instead of negotiating a package. No doubt other fishing nations, sickened by interminable arguments, may well press for that, leaving aside the question of French access to our beaches in the meantime. In the end, with no United Kingdom leverage left, we should have all the other fishing nations against us on access, and in that event we should really be in the dock. It will be a difficult time once again for the United Kingdom fisheries Ministers, and the intransigence of the French will certainly play its part.

Ministerial resolve on the agreed package for our fishermen—agreed by the industry and this House—will therefore still be necessary. Above all, if delay still looks inevitable—the Minister has indicated that that is certainly possible—Her Majesty's Government must serve notice on the French and the rest of the Council that our industry and our marine resources will be protected, that we shall not see them raped, that conservation will be one of the paramount concerns, and that enforcement will be carried out.

Among the batch of Common Market fisheries documents before the House, I should like to refer first to the bilateral agreements. There is, as the Minister mentioned, the Faroese arrangement—a reciprocal agreement about quotas between the Common Market and the Faroese—which allows the Faroese quotas within Community waters and is supposed to grant similar rights for Common Market vessels in Faroese waters.

In practice, that is not so. The Faroese are able to make the maximum use of their quotas in Common Market waters, but they make it difficult for Common Market vessels—and in particular those of the United Kingdom, the nearest country—to catch the quotas allocated to them. This is because of Faroese conservation policy. That policy is sometimes for quite respectable and understandable reasons, but in practice the Faroese fish their quota and we cannot fish ours. Therefore, I agree with the Government that there should be no deal until a better balance has been struck.

There is also some concern about salmon. Until about 10 years ago, the Faroese had a very small salmon-netting industry which had only a very insignificant effect on the United Kingdom industry, even though it is clearly established that the fish caught in Faroese waters are heading for United Kingdom waters to spawn. There has in recent years been a sudden and very big increase in the quantities netted, and the Faroese have apparently announced their intentions to catch as much as 1,000 tonnes next year.

That is a great quantity of salmon, and there is clear evidence that catches on that scale will have a damaging effect on the amount of salmon reaching United Kingdom waters to spawn. An unprecedented increase on that scale is contrary to the provisions of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, and some attempt is being made in that quarter to get controls on the Faroese salmon catch. Particularly when the salmon question is taken into account, there can be no question but that the whole deal is balanced too much in favour of the Faroese.

Another concern is that of threats to the herring stock, especially in relation to the North Sea. There is pressure on the Government from the United Kingdom fishing industry to open that area. That pressure has increased since it became known that the Dutch have apparently told the commission that from 1 June they intend to catch 7,500 tonnes of herring from the North Sea in an area immediately off the Dutch coast.

The proposal for a bilateral deal with Sweden, as suggested in these Common Market documents, will therefore cause further concern, because it can only increase pressure on that stock. If it is in the mind of the Minister that reopening should take place, it must be closely controlled and on a basis that satisfies us that this vulnerable herring stock has a chance to survive.

Bilateral deals—with Canada on cod, Sweden on herring, and the quota deals with the Faroese—invariably favour the third countries rather than the United Kingdom. This is an area of EEC fisheries negotiation in which we have to be constantly vigilant. Time and again we have warned the Government about the unfavourable balance that we get in these bilateral agreements.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would equally fairly say that the completed bilateral agreement with Norway has been welcomed by our industry.

Mr. Mason

Yes. That is one in a batch. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I warned him about Guinea-Bissau and some of the bilateral agreements that we made about a year ago which were most favourable to Third world countries, but not to the United Kingdom.

Another concern relates to the contents of the paper dealing with the regulations of fishing activities in a coastal zone, especially the United Kingdom's proposal of a Shetland box with a view to giving Orkney and Shetland a preferential fishing zone. We have some local differences to sort out on the sizes of vessels in this proposed zone, but, that apart, we must defend our coastal belt and preferential zone proposals. Therefore, it is right that the Government should be critical of the Commission's proposals on the interests of coastal fishermen. The Commission's ideas are not in line with ours.

The Minister spent some time on the major paper before the House on the social aspects in the Community's sea fishing sector. This is a major paper for reform and harmonisation covering all social aspects of the sea fishing industry. It is a typical Common Market effort to harmonise all fishing fleets and their industries on forms of vocational training, employment, safety and health at work, and working conditions. It is laudable, but it will obviously be a long haul. There are many differences among the member States, some so great and the industry as a whole so backward that we might encourage the Commission in this general endeavour.

I agree with the Minister that in training we are abreast of most countries and, with the increasing involvement of the Sea Fisheries Training Council, we have the necessary machinery and industrial and employee involvement to develop our training requirements and to share with other Common Market fishing nations the knowledge and skills of our industry. At this stage, as the Minister suggested, the industry is conservative in its outlook and sees no need to do so. However, if progress on this score is made by the Commission, although it may take time, bearing in mind the anger with and the frustrations of the Common Market's fisheries policy as a whole, there will be benefits for all Common Market fishermen in co-operation on education and vocational training for sea fishermen.

One fault is that the resolution covers such a wide area. With 11 separate areas of training requirements, it tends to overwhelm national Governments and their fishing industries. But the general thrust of the social aspects of the paper is right, covering employment, safety and health at work and working conditions, although in the United Kingdom many Departments other than the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are involved—for example, the Departments of Trade and Employment and the Treasury. When one considers that under "working conditions", holidays, pay, pensions, various benefits, bonuses and hours of work are involved, the unions and employers and the Government and the docks boards would not be ready for what they would term Common Market interference on such a scale.

The Government must face the fact that in our own fishing industry the demand by crews for a better deal is growing. The Transport and General Workers Union's booklet "Fishing, A Way Forward" spells out many of those demands. We dealt at length with those demands on Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill.

At present, the system of payment of skippers and crews works in such a way that part of the payment goes to the boat and part to the skipper and crew. With the depression in the industry and that system, the crews now feel that they are doing badly and getting a relatively small share of the limited total share-out. Therefore, they are getting restive. The result is a greater movement towards unionisation and a feeling that if they become more unionised they will get formal rules about their share of the value of the catch—their entitlement—and improve their position in relation to that of the skippers.

The recent payment of Government subsidies is likely to boost that trend. Payment to vessels, which in turn means the skippers, will cause frustration and anger. It has done so in the past and will do so on this occasion, when companies and skippers have not been wholly fair and when the crews have been denied their compensation. In Scotland, there are already rumbles from men with small boats because they fear that they will get a raw deal.

Therefore, the Government and the new fish industry authority have a major job to do in order to bring about the aims of some of the requirements laid down in the paper on social aspects. It is a matter of immediate urgency to save what remains of our fishing fleets. Never before has the industry been in such a parlous state. It is in a deplorable economic condition. The deep sea fleet is being crippled beyond repair, and the inshore fleets were allowed to flounder without any Government protection against the flood of cheap fish imports which, in effect, laid up their vessels. Indeed, those fishermen were better off on the dole.

In the wake of this temporary stop-gap aid the Minister addressed fishermen in Lowestoft on 9 May and said: At a time when every penny of public expenditure has to be scrutinised and justified the very fact that this year and last this Government has provided more money than the previous Administration provided during its entire five-year span speaks for itself. But why is money needed to prop up the fishing industry? The Government's policies have persistently driven it to the wall. Some companies have even been driven to bankruptcy. One need only consider the strength of sterling, high interest charges, cheap imports, high fuel costs and the fact that there are no positive monetary compensatory amounts for fishing as there are for agriculture.

Indeed, the Government's monetarist policies are directly responsible for strangling the British fishing industry. There is nothing to boast about in giving such piecemeal aid. It is appalling to see the deep-sea fleets rusting at the quaysides. Time after time our inshore fishermen, particularly in Scotland, have gone on strike, blocking the ports and trying to stop blacked fish imports. Sometimes crews prefer the dole. Representations have been made to No. 10. In the wake of that almost constant uproar, the Government are forced to offer a subsidy—a short-term alleviation—time and again.

How long will it be before the same cycle is gone through again if progress towards a common fisheries policy is delayed yet again? To save the industry, something more positive and immediate is needed. The Minister and the Government must go for higher official withdrawal prices and must help to curb the tide of cheap fish imports. There is a need for sensible minimum entry price. Why cannot the Government think of the possibility of export rebates to take care of seasonal surpluses, diverting the surplus from fishmeal production to human consumption in the less-developed countries? Why cannot the MCAs—the positive monetary compensatory amounts—be extended to fisheries, just as they are extended to agriculture? Under the Treaty of Rome, fisheries are covered by the umbrella of agriculture. Why not try to match the fuel subsidies of our main competitors? That would also help. As most of our competitors are doing, we should consider a restructuring scheme for the British fishing fleets.

The industry must be given hope. A restructuring scheme involving payment or compensation would help. Some redundant catching capacity could be retired, laying-up premiums could be paid and investment could be made in new vessels in accordance with the types of fleet best suited to the changed circumstances. Surely, such action would be better than periodically offering a crutch for this crippled industry to hobble on, as it does now.

In the next round of talks we do not want any back-door dealing or the bypassing of Parliament. We all fear that the Minister is weakening. The Clayton interview in The Times and articles in Fishing News in which the Minister says "We must give way" give us fear. The Minister knows the resolution of the House. We are keen to establish conservation measures and enforcement of conservation areas. We still press for our exclusive coastal belt of 12 miles, our 12 to 50-mile preferential fishing area for United Kingdom fishermen, and a total allowable catch of 45 per cent.

Suspicion is rife in the House that the Minister is beginning to weaken, especially on the 12-mile belt and the preferential zone. We warn him that he will not be let off lightly if the unanimous desire of the House is ignored. If he stands by our agreed package, he will continue to have our support. He has a unanimously agreed mandate. If he stands by it, he will have our support. We hope that he will. We now have to wait for the next round of talks. The Minister will be on test further.