HC Deb 01 July 1983 vol 44 cc826-9

11.1 am

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

I am not sure whether there is a precedent for a statement to be made from the Dispatch Box in the middle of a maiden speech and I begin by apologising to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) and saying how much I enjoyed listening to him and how much I am looking forward to continuing to listen to him as early as possible.

Together with the Minister of State, Scottish Office, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department, I represented the United Kingdom at the Council of Fisheries Ministers on 30 June. Discussion concentrated on herring quotas.

After a long and, at times, difficult discussion, nine member states were prepared to agree to arrangements for interim quotas for herring in the northern and central North sea, equivalent to two thirds of the total quotas proposed by the Commission for each member state for 1983, in order to permit fishing to continue until the next Council meeting. This would also have permitted the Council to agree to the Norwegians continuing to fish on a similar basis. Unfortunately, the Danish delegation were unable to agree and when the matter was put to the vote they invoked the Luxembourg compromise. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

That meant that no agreement on member states' quotas was possible. In those circumstances a number of member states, including the United Kingdom, felt that they could not agree to the Norwegians' continuing to fish if the member states' fishermen were prevented from doing so.

Therefore, fishermen from Norway and those member states who have used up their "interim" quotas will have to stop fishing. United Kingdom fishermen have not yet used up their quotas, though they are likely to do so soon. If so, continued opportunities to fish herring are likely to be available off the west of Scotland and we shall be in touch with the industry shortly about the possible opening dates.

The next Council meeting is scheduled for 11 July but it may be brought forward.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House to make a statement but he must understand that the industry will treat it with grave dismay, if not surprise. Can anything be done to bring the Danish Government into a more reasonable frame of mind or are we to see the common fisheries policy falling apart yet further?

How much of the United Kingdom's quota of herring is left to be fished in the northern and central North sea? What evidence does the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have of gross over-fishing of their quotas by the Dutch and Danish fishermen? Can the right hon. Gentleman satisfy the House that we have adequate policing powers to ensure that the ban on herring fishing is put into operation? Finally, will he consult the industry as a matter of great urgency, not ask it to be in touch shortly?

Mr. Jopling

First, on what can be done to obtain a more helpful attitude from the Danish Government, it is likely, as I said in my statement, that we shall be having another meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers earlier than 11 July. We must meet and use our best endeavours to persuade the Danish Government to be more helpful over this important matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked how much longer United Kingdom fishermen can continue to fish for herring in the northern and central part of the North Sea. They have some quotas left and should be able to fish for a further day or two. As I said, the next Council meeting should be held soon and, if necessary, in the long run we shall be giving urgent consideration to opening the western herring fisheries, which will give them an alternative source of herring exclusive to us.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation with the industry. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office is today meeting the Scottish fishermen who are principally concerned in this matter. We shall be taking steps to inform the other fishing interests in our country as soon as possible.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the Minister aware that it is adding insult to injury that the agreement should be held up by the Danes, who lave been regarded by United Kingdom fishermen as the main culprits of over-fishing in the past? Is he also aware that there will be the greatest objection if the stocks on the west of Scotland are to be offered as a consolation prize? Fishermen in that area will be opposed to the suggestion that their herring stocks will have to bear the brunt of the failure to reach agreement.

Mr. Jopling

The right hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the position of the west of Scotland fishery. There is general agreement over this matter. The fishery is on the point of being opened in any case and that will happen in the normal course of events.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Before putting a question to the Minister, may I respectfully submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that we should reconsider whether, when a statement is made at 11 o'clock, it should be made immediately after the hon. Member addressing the House at that hour has resumed his seat?

Have we not received a practical lesson in the consequences of relinquishing control over our sovereign fishing waters? What is the point of a common fisheries policy if we can neither fix satisfactory quotas nor enforce them when they have been fixed?

Mr. Jopling

I think that the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the fundamental distinctions about the North sea herring fisheries. The difficulty is that, when we reached agreement about common fisheries policy on 25 January, it was not possible to deal with the North sea herring fisheries because they had been closed for about six years and were reopened for the first time only a few weeks ago. Therefore, it was impossible to get agreement over total allowable catches, so we are having a repeat of the difficulties that we had at the turn of the year over the herring fisheries.

We have problems—I hope that they are only short-term problems—in setting up enforcement arrangements and settling the outstanding herring quotas. I hope that they will be dealt with, but the CFP as a whole lays the ground for a fisheries policy for the next 20 years and I am optimistic about the prospects.

It was helpful that during the night in Brussels agreement was reached among nine member states—Denmark was the only exception. That gives us grounds for cautious optimism.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if he did not resist the Danish attitude and pressures in the robust way in which he is doing, it could lead to an increase in the price of fish in shops in London and elsewhere, which would be unwelcome to our housewives?

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. We have been standing up for the interests of the British fishing industry because, by doing so, we can in the long run look after the interests of the British housewife.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House is grateful to him for coming in person to make the statement and will he answer two questions? First, will the Dutch herring fleet be allowed to continue to overfish for herring? Secondly, did the Council discuss the urgent need to provide adequate monitoring at Community level of landings in member states?

Mr. Jopling

There is evidence that, in the northern part of the North sea, certain countries have reached their quotas. If any such nation fishes in waters that come under British jurisdiction, we shall impose the law. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we have extremely efficient facilities for detecting and prosecuting those who come into British waters. The industry normally complains only about waters that are not controlled by this country.

There are moves to set up an inspectorate, as agreed in January this year. I understand that inspectors are already being recruited and I hope that they will be in post soon. The hon. Gentleman can take it from me that when individual states have achieved their quotas continued fishing by them will be illegal. If it continues, which I hope that it will not, the appropriate enforcement measures will be taken.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that part of the problem is that the Danish fishing industry is partly dependent on industrial fishing? Does that play a part in the herring fisheries?

Although the right hon. Gentleman and the House may deplore the action taken by the Danish Government under the Luxembourg compromise, will the Minister assure us that the British Government will seek to keep that compromise alive, because they may need to use it in other circumstances?

Mr. Jopling

Danish industrial fishing was dealt with in an acceptable manner in the January agreement on the CFP. During the night, the Danish Government invoked the Luxembourg compromise; we followed our traditional line of recognising the right of any member state to determine its vital national interest, and we therefore refused to take part in the vote.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

As my right hon. Friend has said that the CFP represents the initial stage of a 20-year policy, will he clarify the position on enforcement, which has been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Members for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes) and for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud)? While enforcement by national authorities of net size and the infringement of coastal fishery zones is easy, how are quotas to be enforced if we do not have an effective Commission inspectorate? Surely the efficacy of the whole regime rests on that. Will we soon have EC inspectors on our shores to monitor quotas?

Mr. Jopling

We have made extremely useful progress in the Fisheries Council on changing conservation arrangements by increasing net mesh sizes. I am confident that if they can be agreed it will be relatively easy to police them.

As I said earlier, I hope that it will not be long before the Commission's inspectorate is in operation. I have raised the issue in the past two weeks and I pressed the Commissioner this week to establish the inspectorate as urgently as possible. I hope that we shall shortly be told when the inspectors will be in post. I am not worried about having inspectors looking at our enforcement measures in the waters that we control, which are a large part of the Community fisheries. I am anxious that, as soon as possible, inspectors should be at work in other countries whose standards of enforcement do not compare with our own.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)

Is the Minister aware that the issues raised by his statement, for which we are grateful, are so grave that they cannot be dealt with adequately in a 10 or 12-minute question and answer session on the Floor of the House on a Friday morning? Is he further aware that the position in the Community is such that it threatens the whole fabric of the common fisheries policy, as well as the future livelihood of the United Kingdom herring fishery?

In those circumstances, I give notice on behalf of the Opposition that we shall seek to raise the matter, probably under Standing Order No. 10, at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Jopling

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Of course, it is his right to raise the issue under Standing Orders if he wishes; that is not a matter for me.

As I said, I expect that we shall have another Fisheries Council meeting soon. There are grounds for cautious optimism that we can get agreement on many parts of the package that the Commission has proposed for consideration by the Council. There has been no fishing in the North sea herring fishery for the past six years and that is the issue on which we are doing the basic negotiation. It is taking a little time, but I hope that we shall have another Council meeting soon. I shall not be surprised if it is arranged for the middle of next week.

One slight problem is that the Presidency changed during the night. The German President moved out of the chair and the Greek President moved in. It will take a little time for the Greek Presidency to establish itself, but I think that the need for an early meeting of the Council to resolve this difficult matter as soon as possible is well understood.

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