HC Deb 15 December 1983 vol 50 cc1163-8

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

12. Sir Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress has been made in the Council of Fisheries Ministers towards agreement for total overall catch in 1984.

3.34 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jopling)

I am pleased to report that the Council of Fisheries Ministers reached agreement on a series of important decisions which resolve the main outstanding problems affecting the common fisheries policy and started discussion of the total allowable catches and quotas for 1984—[Interruption.]

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we wait a few minutes so that we can hear the Minister better?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Would right hon. and hon. Gentlemen withdraw as speedily and as quietly as possible?

Mr. Jopling

I have been asked to start again.

I am pleased to report that the Council of Fisheries Ministers reached agreement on a series of important decisions which resolve the main outstanding problems affecting the common fisheries policy and started discussion of the total allowable catches and quotas for 1984.

First, the Council at last agreed on the percentage allocations of North sea herring, a matter which has been the subject of long and difficult negotiations at no fewer than six Council meetings since June. The settlement reached was very satisfactory from the United Kingdom point of view: at a total availability of 155,000 tonnes, which is about the level expected in 1984, the United Kingdom will obtain 24.15 per cent. of the total, after allocating the fixed quantity of 7,100 tonnes to Belgium; while at a level of 251,000 tonnes we will obtain 23 per cent., after allocating 6,000 tonnes to Belgium. These shares are well in excess of the United Kingdom's share of the historic catches which averaged only about 16 per cent. between 1960 and 1976. Throughout the negotiations on this difficult subject I have stayed in close touch with representatives of the industry and I am grateful for the strong and sensible support which they have given me. I am happy to say that they welcomed the settlement reached.

At my request the commission is approaching the Norwegians today to seek to establish arrangements which will permit fishing for herring in the North sea to commence as early as possible in 1984.

The Council also endorsed the agreement between the Community and Norway on total allowable catches and shares of the joint stocks other than herring and on reciprocal fishing rights. There is some concern about the level of the total allowable catches for North sea white fish stocks. We had previously managed to obtain larger transfers of cod from the Norwegians, but, again at my request, the Commission has undertaken urgently to discuss with the Norwegians increased availability of North sea cod.

The Council went on to agree on total allowable catches and quotas for 1983, including a number of improvements which we securred in the negotiations on stocks of interest to our fishermen.

There was a preliminary discussion of the Commission's proposals for total allowable catches and quotas for 1984 in which I raised a number of points of concern to the United Kingdom. The Council will resume discussion of these proposals at its next meeting in January. For the month of January the Council agreed that fishing should continue on the basis of a rollover of the 1983 quotas as modified by the agreement with Norway.

Lastly, the Community's agreement with Canada was approved by the Council. This provides for some fishing opportunities for the United Kingdom in Canadian waters and for fair and effective trade arrangements which adequately protect our catches and processors.

This was a very important meeting on fisheries. The last piece of the common fisheries policy jigsaw is now in place and we are already into discussions of the 1984 total allowable catches. There is now every prospect of developing its effectiveness and providing a secure and stable basis for the fishing industry in future.

Sir Michael Shaw

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he deserves the congratulations not only of the whole House but of the whole of the British fishing industry on the hard and constructive work that he has carried out on their behalf? Is he further aware that by his hard work he has shown that agreement can be reached so as to bring about a fair and constructive future for the fishing industry? Will he give an assurance that, having got thus far, he will continue to spare no effort to ensure that the agreement on the 1984 quotas and the implementation of the agreement that has been won will be carried through?

Mr. Jopling

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his most generous words. I can give him an undertaking that we shall begin as soon as possible to continue the work which was started yesterday.

With regard to the 1984 quotas, one helpful thing is that we have already discussed them within a few days of the Commission, publishing them. I shall seek to get them put into effect as soon as possible.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

The Minister will be aware of the concern that his ominous words on North sea white fish will cause in the industry. Is he aware of the dependence of the Grimsby fishing industry on North sea cod? Is he further aware of the disastrous effect that any reduction in North sea cod catches would have on the Grimsby fishing industry, which has already been hard hit? Will he undertake to ensure that there will be no reduction in our North sea cod catches? Failing that, what steps is he preparing for compensation, financial or otherwise, for the industry, which will suffer badly if those catches are reduced?

Mr. Jopling

I am well aware of the problems which still arise regarding North sea cod stocks. The scientists' original proposal for that stock which was produced some weeks ago, was 182,000 tonnes. I put immediate pressure on the Commission to do whatever was possible to persuade the scientists to increase their estimates and to arrange transfers with Norway. As a consequence, the figure has been increased to 215,000 tonnes, but I am still not satisfied, which is why, at my request yesterday, the Commission today began further discussions with Norway to increase the figure.

Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)

I add my congratulations to the Minister on achieving at last a sensible common fisheries policy. Will he use his influence on the EC to initiate swap deals with other countries, which could save what remains of the deep-water fleet?

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I am conscious of the difficulties and of the great reductions which have occurred in the deep-water fleet, especially in Hull, in which my hon. Friend takes a close interest, and the Commission shall do what it can. I have already referred to the Canadian arrangements, and yesterday we discussed the position of west Greenland, in which we have an interest. I shall pursue all those opportunities when I can.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Were any agreements made or did any discussions take place at the meeting to ensure that under the policy in future there will not be gross overfishing? The Danes did that in recent years, and the German Government gave approval to their trawlers to fish for herring when there was a ban on it in the North sea.

Mr. Jopling

The right hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an important matter. Our conservation measures are already in operation and we are increasing Community supervision of the inspectorate of fisheries. Therefore, we are bearing in mind the problems of overfishing. I hope that in future we shall see less overfishing than in the past.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

I congratulate the Minister on his victory at the Council of Ministers; it was well received by the Scottish fishermen's organisations, which have been trying desperately to achieve one. My right hon. Friend achieved excellent success on herring, and he is right to say that we now have the highest TAC figure that we have had since the 1960s, except for 1964. When my right hon. Friend attends the discussions on 31 January about the six other species, will he endeavour to agree the total quotas on an annual basis rather than in spasmodic deals, such as have taken place in the past? That way fishermen will know how much they can catch during a year.

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words. I agree with him that it is important to give fishermen as much warning as possible. Yesterday they asked me to do my utmost to open the herring fishery talks as soon as possible after 1 January and not to wait until the middle of the year. Therefore, I am glad that the Commission is starting talks immediately with that in mind.

In the 1960s, when the total herring catch was about 150,000 tonnes, the United Kingdom's share was about 18 per cent. We have negotiated 23 per cent. for the future, which is very satisfactory.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

I understood the Minister to say that he had asked scientists to upgrade the estimate of the TAC in cod. Why does he employ scientists, if he will not accept their advice?

Mr. Jopling

As a farmer, the hon. Gentleman will know that science is not always precise when one is talking about natural sciences. We have often asked scientists to reconsider their estimates and to agree to increase their original figures, and I am glad that on this occasion they did so.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

May I add my thanks to my right hon. Friend for the efforts that he is making with regard to North sea cod, which is so desperately important to Bridlington? He will no doubt be aware that, as a result of opening up the North sea to herring fishing, the area between six and 12 miles off the coast of Bridlington will be open to French herring fishermen for the first time in living memory. What efforts will the Government make to ensure that the French fish only for herring, not for other species, and do not damage the fixed gear of British fishing boats?

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words. The best thing to do is to see how we get on, and if we find any evidence of abuses of the rules in the area close to my hon. Friend's constituency, I hope that he and I will discuss it and I will take appropriate action.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that, although agreements had been reached between the Community and Norway, those agreements were for all species except herring. Will he assure the House that in 1984 we shall not he in a position similar to that of 1983, when Norwegian herring boats were allowed to continue to fish in the North sea while the British fleet was kept inshore? Has there been a subdivision of the quotas in areas IVa, IVb and IVc of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea?

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman may recall that the reason why we had difficulty with Norwegian herring fishing in 1983 was that we had not agreed on other stocks. As we now have an agreement on other stocks, I ant much more hopeful that the difficulty will not recur.

Sir Walter Clegg (Wyre)

May I wish my right hon. Friend well in settling the 1984 quotas? Does he believe that we have sufficient capacity to take advantage of the herring quota?

Mr. Jopling

It is interesting that my hon. Friend should say that, because I told the fishermen yesterday that, having negotiated those generous quantities of herring out of the North sea, they had jolly well better catch them.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If, as the Minister says, and as his Tory friends agreed, this is a great victory for Britain, by how much will fish be cheaper in the shops?

Mr. Jopling

With the publicity being given by the hon. Gentleman to the quality of British fish, I hope that our fishermen will be able to catch more. Many boats are now being built, which I hope means that Britain will fish right up to its quotas. If there is plenty of fish in the shops——

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Jopling

—I hope that that will have a satisfactory effect on prices.

Mr. John Spence (Ryedale)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the policing of the agreement causes considerable concern? Is he satisfied that we have sufficient resources adequately to police the agreement? Does he agree that policing and conservation are vital to the inshore fishermen of the east coast?

Mr. Jopling

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of policing and conservation. I have already said that conservation measures are now in effect, and I hope that they will have a satisfactory influence on stocks in the years ahead. The inspectorate of inspectors is beginning to start work, and all 13 inspectors employed by the Commission will soon be in post. I am a little disappointed by the progress in providing logbooks to all fishing boats, but I hope that it will happen as soon as possible.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Whitstable in my constituency has a relatively large inshore fishing fleet? Does the agreement on the total catch cover the disputes that have arisen in the past among Belgian, French and British inshore fishermen in the Channel regarding poaching with beam trawlers, and can he give an assurance to the fishermen of my constituency?

Mr. Jopling

We have examined the problems of beam trawling. In discussing the 1984 quotas and catches yesterday, I drew the Council's special attention to some of the stocks and TACs proposed for the English channel, and suggested that they should be reconsidered, because I believe that the quotas were too low in the light of scientific evidence.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The Minister will no doubt be aware that there will be some relief that the seventh attempt to break the deadlock on herring has finally ended in agreement, even though the figures agreed yesterday seem to be precisely the same as those that were on the table in October this year. Will the Minister acknowledge that even the share of 24.15 per cent. that he quoted, is well below the demands of the industry for 34 per cent. of the herring catch? Will he also acknowledge that it was the wise management and political decisions of the previous Labour Government that made sure that there was any herring left for a share to be agreed on?

On white fish, does the Minister understand that some of us find it hard to swallow that this "magnificant victory", a fortnight before the end of the year, was on the 1983 total allowable catches? That is hardly a magnificant victory, especially as the issue will be reopened again on 31 January next year, when we again begin the rounds of deciding the 1984 catches. Will not the proposition that will be discussed then be that our North sea cod share will be cut by 18 per cent., and that our North sea haddock share will be cut by 7 per cent? Far from the industry being very satisfied and pleased with the agreements, it is arguing that the cost to the fleet, if these proposals go through, will be £18 million.

We went through the whole of 1983 with stopgap solutions from one Fisheries Council meeting to another and we shall go through the whole of 1984 on the same basis of stopgap solutions, because that is what happened yesterday with white fish.

This is not good enough, and once the fishing industry realises what is happening to it, the fine words of congratulation from the Minister's hon. Friends will turn into salt in their mouths—[HON. MEMBERS: "Absolute nonsense."]—and they will regret them.

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer. He said that the figures agreed yesterday for the North sea herring were the same as those that were on the table a few weeks ago. That is not strictly true. There are important changes in the figures, and it is on the basis on those small but vital changes that we got our deal.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the progress that his party made when it was in power. If we had continued to have the same success in settling the common fisheries policy that his party had when it was in power and trying to settle the common fisheries policy, we should still be floundering about.

Let me put the hon. Gentleman right by making an important distinction in another matter. He said that the industry was looking for a higher figure than the one at which we have settled. There is a crucial difference, in that those higher figures were on the basis of a lower total allowable catch of about 87,000 tonnes, when we are now talking about 150,000 tonnes, where the Hague preference does not operate. That is why the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

The hon. Gentleman is utterly wrong on another point. He said that the agreement that we made on herring yesterday will mean that we have to start all over again shortly.

Mr. Hughes

I said white fish.

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman should understand that the agreement that we made yesterday on herring will have staying power for the years ahead and there will be no renegotiation of the keys that we arranged yesterday.

As to white fish, I understand the difficulties, but there is no escaping the fact that, because of overfishing of cod, the amount that we can catch will have to come down from the level of the past few years. If we continue at the same level as before, we shall ruin the stock. Is that what the hon. Gentleman wants? He knows enough about fishing to know that that would be a fatal and foolish thing to do.

Mr. Hughes


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry, but this is an extension of Question Time and we have had a good run on it.

Mr. Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We still have two points of order, business questions, and a guillotined debate.

Mr. Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not right for the Minister to put words into my mouth about herring that I did not say. I was referring to white fish being up for renegotiation.

Mr. Jopling

I am sorry if I have put wrong words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth, but I was firmly of the view that he was talking about the herring agreement that we reached yesterday.

Mr. Speaker

I have received notice of two points of order, which I propose to take now.