HC Deb 20 May 1981 vol 5 cc395-400 11.39 pm
Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising some points of great concern to lobster fishermen in my constituency and indeed in the Highlands generally and possibly even further afield.

As the Minister knows, the industry is going through a period of great stress. It has had a good deal of difficulty from the importation of Canadian lobsters, which the British Government are apparently unable to ban because of EEC regulations. I am not satisfied, any more than my lobster fishermen are satisfied, that enough has been done to get an EEC agreement to keep out Canadian lobsters. As anyone who has tasted it knows, the Canadian product is much coarser than the lobster in our waters. Nevertheless, despite an EEC tariff of 15 per cent. the result has been to reduce the prices to our lobster fishermen.

Even more seriously, Canadian lobsters are liable to a disease called gaffkaemia, from which our native stock is free. Thirteen per cent. of Canadian lobsters stored recently at a pond in the island of Islay were found to be infected with the disease. No one argues that it is a deadly disease to human beings. If the lobster is boiled, it is quite harmless. Nevertheless, if the disease is introduced into a pond in which live lobsters are kept it can kill them all overnight.

More seriously still, the water from that pond in Islay was circulating and being discharged back into the sea. The possibility of the disease flowing with the currents into my area, into Irish waters and possibly even into French waters is a matter of great concern to countries which hitherto have been free from gaffkaemia. There is therefore great danger to native stocks.

I have written several times to Lord Mansfield, the Scottish Office Minister responsible for fishing, but he seems to be indifferent to the situation. In agricultural matters the British Government act with commendable speed. If there is any threat of foot and mouth disease, swine fever, Colorado beetle or whatever, the Government act immediately, and it is right that they should. Why should not they give similar protection to our lobster fishermen? Lord Mansfield says that the matter is being considered, but that is useless. I urge the Government to consider taking action similar to that taken by the Norwegians, who have a certification scheme which prohibits the importation of lobsters from any area where gaffkaemia has been reported within the previous two years.

I turn to the question of the temporary financial aid that the Government have made available for fishermen. Whatever one's doubts about the way in which it was distributed, it was a very useful injection into the industry at that time.

When the previous, similar package was made in August 1980, the Scottish fishermen agreed that the smaller vessels had been badly treated. There was great anger and frustration when the same error was repeated on this occasion. Representations were made last year that the division of financial aid had been grossly unfair, but they seem to have been totally ignored. Although at that time assurances were given that those representations would be noted and considered in relation to future payments, the undertakings have been completely ignored.

I cite the examples of three boats from Harris. Boat A, which is 39 ft and 120 horsepower, attracts a grant of £1,000. Boat B, which is 49 ft and 150 horsepower, attracts a grant of £2,900. Boat C, which is 56 ft and 114 horsepower, attracts a grant of £6,700. Each of the three boats has the same number of crew. Their operating costs are about the same. The main factor causing the difference is the fuel consumption, which is related to horsepower. It will be seen from the figures that boat C, with the lowest horsepower—114—and thus the lowest fuel consumption, receives nearly seven times the grant of boat A and more than twice that of boat B, the horsepower of which is 30 per cent. greater. This is unfair to the point of absurdity. There is no excuse for the Government repeating this year the mistakes of 1980.

I strongly press the Minister to use his good offices to see whether the £3 million extra for which the fishermen have pressed can be made available for distribution among the smaller boats. Their feeling is that the smaller boats have had a raw deal, and the Scottish fishermen have taken the view that the Government's main concern is with the big English trawlers.

Another point of difficulty for the fishermen is the regulation which provides for a minimum size of carapace of 83 mm. When the extension to that size was mooted, fishermen in my constituency made representations to me and I passed them on to Lord Mansfield, who assured me that it had been done in consultation with the industry. The fishermen's organisations that are in touch with me and the Highlands and Islands Fishermen's Association were not consulted before the change was made. Lord Mansfield assured me at that time that there would be a considerable period before the new size was activated, yet it has now been brought into action.

One of my fishermen asked, with a great deal of bitterness, "Are we simply to preserve lobsters for the Spaniards to pick up in time?" There will be a loss of nearly 22p per lb. arising from the requirement of the size of carapace of the lobster that I have mentioned. The net result will be that, in order to make a living, lobster fishermen will be obliged to fish in bad and dangerous weather.

It has been put to me that the licensing of lobster fishermen and the boats should now be considered. We should get rid of part-timers. Fishing is being done by divers from the shore. That comment does not apply to seasonal fishermen and perfectly legitimate lobster fishermen.

Lord Mansfield has been asked by the Highlands and Islands Fishermen's Association for a meeting. It has been pressing him for over eight months for a meeting to take place in Inverness. I ask the Minister to pass that request to his noble Friend. There is a feeling among the lobster fishermen that their interests have been totally disregarded. These men need and deserve a more positive response.

11.48 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) for raising this subject in his Adjournment debate. Not only is the whole matter of lobster fishing very important to his constituency; it is equally important in other areas of the United Kingdom. Large numbers of lobsters are caught around the coasts of Scotland, particularly on the west coast of Scotland, and also in the North-East of England and the South-West of England.

Although I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman raises the matter specifically in connection with his constituency, he was correct in what he said in his earlier remarks—that the matter raises wider issues affecting a very much wider area of the United Kingdom.

I deal first with the right hon. Gentleman's last point. I shall pass on to my noble Friend in another place the request for a meeting to discuss these matters. I know that in any case my noble Friend will follow with interest the speech of the right hon. Gentleman this evening.

The right hon. Gentleman raised several points about the lobster fishery. I acknowledge that there is concern among all lobster fishermen in the United Kingdom about returns from lobster fishing. Over the past two years, the fishermen have seen their returns decline in real terms compared with returns in previous years. From 1975 to 1978, there was a sharp increase in prices and there was a welcome improvement in returns for the lobster fishermen.

It should be recognised that the poorer returns that have recently been experienced are largely the result of currency movements in the past two years, which have not been in our favour. As the House knows, our biggest export market is probably France. It is significant that in the past two years there has been a 35 per cent. appreciation of sterling against the franc. As a result of competition from Canada, which is also a relatively low-cost producer, and of changes in the exchange rates, there was a sharp fall in prices in the United Kingdom in 1980. On the whole, that is the result of currency changes. They have affected our exports to the French and to other European markets. In addition, they have affected the relative attractiveness of imports from Canada.

As a result of representations from the industry, we investigated the possibility of seeking protection against Canadian imports. However, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there has been a lack of EEC action over the imports. The tariff against Canadian imports was negotiated under GATT. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is a much wider trade agreement than one involving only the EEC. The tariff set under GATT was agreed as part of the multilateral trade negotiations. That is not the only influence. However, it is significant that the tariff comes under GATT and not under EEC rules.

We considered the rules of GATT to see whether anything could be done. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the anti-dumping rules are closely and carefully defined. There was no evidence to support action. It is true that Canadian prices were much lower than ours. However, the Canadian exporters were not taking a lower price for exports. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, one of the preconditions for taking action under GATT rules is that those who export into our markets must have been accepting prices lower than those prevailing within their markets. That is not the case as regards Canada.

We shall keep possible sources of action under GATT under review. We are conscious of a decline in prices and of the increased competition that our industry has had to face. In the long term, the prospects for taking action under EEC rules might be better. There is a system of reference prices for imports coming into the Community from third countries. It already applies to certain classes of white fish. So far, lobsters have not been included in that reference price system.

It is significant that under the new marketing regulations currently under consideration by the Council of Ministers there is a proposal from the Commission, which the United Kingdom Government support strongly, that lobsters should be included under the reference price system. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not support the Government in all aspects of the negotiations, but one aspect on which he supports us is in our efforts to achieve a package covering all matters such as access, quotas, conservation and so on. Marketing is one element of that package.

If there is an opportunity for improvement in marketing outside the negotiations on the common fisheries policy, I am ready to take that opportunity. However, others will ensure that the marketing element is part of the total package. Thus, to achieve the improvement which is on offer from the Commission, we want to see it in a total common fisheries package, because it is within a package that we are more likely to see an improvement. The improvement is recognised by the Commission and the Government. On the other hand, if and when the common fisheries policy is settled and marketing is an element of it, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be ready to welcome it.

I give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that in the negotiations we want to keep lobsters within the marketing regulations as part of the overall package.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall do what we can about the trading aspects.

The right hon. Gentleman raised important questions about the disease gaffkaemia. I acknowledge that it is a serious disease that causes much worry. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that we have identified a high level of infection among imports from Canada. I acknowledge the risk, but the vast majority of imports are destined for consumption and are not grown on in our waters for a time before consumption. They are generally held in tanks remote from the commercial stocks of native lobsters. I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the holding tanks in Islay. If he will give me more details, I shall be happy to pass them on to my colleagues in the Scotish Office to assess what risks there may be.

When stocks from Canada are held in inland tanks, the risk from imports to our native stocks is relatively small, although it is certainly present. The risk of infection is likely to remain at a low level as long as merchants follow the advice we have given on handling imported lobsters. We have ensured that the advice is available to them. For example, it is important that water from holding tanks that have contained imported lobsters should not be emptied directly into the sea where there are native lobster stocks. If that were done, the risk would be at its highest. Importers who handle lobsters are aware of that and are careful about it.

We are aware of the relatively high level of infection and are concerned about it. My right hon. Friends and I have, in the euphemistic words used by the right hon. Gentleman, been considering it. A number of steps could be taken, and once we have completed our study, if it is evident that action should be taken and there is scope for taking action, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall take it. I certainly do not want unnecessary risks to be taken.

In the longer term, various other steps could be taken to safeguard the health of our native stocks. The right hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that my Department has carried out a review of inshore and inland fisheries policy, which has included such matters as fish diseases, including gaffkaemia. I hope shortly to issue a consultative document that will be available to the industry and, I hope, to the right hon. Gentleman's constituents. I look forward to receiving representations from them. That is not necessarily relevant to immediate steps that may be taken, but we have certain ideas and it will be valuable for us to have the views of those directly concerned in fishing.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned our new conservation measures. Whenever we introduce conservation measures, whether increasing the mesh size for white fish or increasing the carapace length of lobsters, difficulties are caused for many commercial fishermen.

However, I ask the right hon. Gentleman and his fishermen constituents to reflect that we do not introduce such measures in order to make life more difficult for fishermen or out of stubbornness or to show how clever we are in exercising power over an industry. We introduce them only on the basis of good scientific advice, which we assess, and in the best long-term interests of fishermen.

In the short term, such measures can be expensive for fishermen, in terms of both investment in larger nets and loss of catches. I know that from my experience of the fishing industry over many years. However, the increases in the carapace length of lobsters was introduced on the recommendation of the advisory committee on fishery management of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which comprises scientists from the countries with fishing interests. Our scientists are represented and, with our good record on fisheries research, we play a leading part in the council's work.

The council's clear recommendation was that, with the exception of one area of our coast, the minimum size of lobsters should be increased in the interests of better conservation. The evidence that I saw and the scientific committee assessed suggests that although an increase in length would result in a short-term reduction in catch, it should improve and increase the yield of our lobster fisheries in the long term. That would benefit not only our fishing industry but the livelihoods of those who depend on lobster fishing.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the new measure had been introduced without sufficient consultation. There were consultations, and I am disappointed if the right hon. Gentleman feels that they were not adequate. I shall be happy to consider any evidence that he may produce—not that anything can be undone now. I am always prepared to consider whether there are any lessons that can be learnt that will help with future conservation measures. If the right hon. Gentleman feels that consultation could be more effective, I shall pass on his views to my noble Friend at the Scottish Office.

We decided to move to new minimum size for lobsters by two stages to minimise the risk of short-term losses for fishermen. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that we are not being heavy-handed and are sensitive to the livelihoods of fishermen. It is for that reason that we arranged for the change to be made over two stages.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to base decisions on future conservation measures on scientific advice—which I believe is the only proper advice on which we should base them—and after consultation, which will balance against that advice the practical experience of the people involved in fishing. We shall continue to do that in future.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the £25 million aid that we have given to fishing vessels. He said that it had been welcomed by the industry, as I know from my own contact with the industry. However, he criticised the way in which the money had been divided between the different sections of the industry. He said that undertakings that had been given after the distribution of the previous scheme had been ignored. I deny that absolutely. I acknowledge that representations were made, and that there is a feeling that more should have been done for smaller vessels. We did not ignore those representations. We considered them and, for various reasons which my noble Friend at the Scottish Office explained in the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, we were not able to meet all the representations. However, we made one change in size lengths below 35 feet. That has been welcomed by the industry, and it has helped some of the smaller vessels.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the views of Scotland have been ignored and that the distribution was weighted in favour of the big English vessels. IF he is trying to distinguish between the Scottish and English interests, I must tell him that there are more smaller 'vessels in England and Wales than in Scotland. Simply on vessel size, a larger proportion of money would have gone south of the border if weighting had been in favour of smaller vessels. In fact, that is not how I view the matter. The interests of the industry as a whole are what matter. Fishermen are fishermen, whether they are in the island of Scalpay, the Isle of Wight, Lerwick or Lowestoft. I am responsible for the interests of all fishermen, wherever they are. In the division, I tried to be fair to all their interests in all places.

We considered the distribution in relation to costs. The cost figures were provided by the industry itself, and we endeavoured to distribute the aid on the basis of those cost figures. If we had been given different cost figures, we might have reached a different basis of distribution. That is what we did last year. We looked at it again, following representations, and in preparing the current scheme we decided that a similar distribution was the fairest one for the industry.

I hope that I have covered all the matters that the right hon. Gentleman raised, and that what I have said will reassure him that we are concerned about the interests of lobster fishermen, not only in his constituency but throughout the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve o' clock.