HC Deb 28 July 1983 vol 46 cc1346-54 4.24 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jopling)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers on July 25 and 26.

With the Minister of State at the Scottish Office and my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department, I represented the United Kingdom.

Once again the Council could not agree about the allocation of quotas for North sea herring and I greatly regret that it proved to be impossible to settle other parts of the package, including the proposed arrangements on structures, in the absence of agreement on herring. The methods of determining quotas for herring will be discussed further by officials before the next meeting of the Council on 3 October.

The Council also refused to confirm the Community's fishing agreement with Norway but the Council did agree, by a qualified majority, to permit the Norwegians to extend their interim fishing for North sea herring to two thirds of their proposed allocation of 31,000 tonnes. I voted against this proposal. The considerations were finely balanced. I attach great importance to our fishing relations with Norway and would certainly not wish in any way to harm them. There are also very important advantages for our fishing fleet in the maintenance of the agreement with Norway. I nevertheless conclude that I should not support an arrangement which permitted Norwegian fishermen to fish for North sea herring when United Kingdom fishermen were not able to do so.

Finally, in my statement on the previous Council meeting I was asked about the possibility of extending controls over foreign klondikers. I am glad to say that my right hon. Friends and I are laying an order before Parliament today which will extend to foreign vessels the arrangements which currently apply to British pelagic vessels transshipping their catch to klondikers within our fishery limits.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

The Minister has held his present position for about one month and, because of his predecessors's actions, has been forced to accept two humiliating experiences. He is now beginning to call it Canossa rather than Brussels.

Has not this deal angered British fishermen, especially Scottish and Shields fishermen, more than any previous one? The original deal, which was made in January, was supported by the fishermen and they assured me today that they supported it on the basis that the Government promised them they would fight like hell to get a good agreement. The Government have failed.

The Minister said that he did not support the proposition but did not use his veto. Some opposition that is. The Danes, who will benefit from it, used the veto three times in the two sets of discussions. We, who will suffer most, learn that our representative did not use the veto. It is a humiliating capitulation. The anger in the north-east of Scotland, Shields and Shetland reflects that.

In the mid-1960s we were fishing 1 million tonnes of herring in the North sea. It was industrial over-fishing, most notably by the Danes, and purse-net fishing by the Norwegians which slaughtered the stocks and brought about the introduction of a ban. We, who honour the principle of conservation, have had to pick up the tab. The Danes, who have been over-fishing this year, were given extra cod and mackerel by the Norwegians and, in compensation, we gave the Norwegians a good quota. We, who gave that quota because of Danish action, must now suffer again. They now have an extra 9.000 tonnes of fish. What a bizarre and ludicrous situation we have. They are fishing in our waters just outside the 12-mile limit—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I should not he too sure of that.

Mr. Buchan

I hope that they are fishing outside the 12-mile limit—and we can stand on Rattray head and see Norwegian fishermen taking out our fish, and our fishermen are not allowed to fish. It is ludicrous, bizarre and humiliating.

I hope that the Minister will go back to the negotiating table. This time he should take the veto with him and use it. I do not single out the Norwegians for blame, except for their over-fishing in the past. I blame the Danes, but, above all, I blame the Government for reaching an agreement in January without having settled these basic issues.

Will Britain be able to protect its fishing quotas? Hon. Members may remember that a fortnight ago the Minister assured me that we could control over-fishing by klondikers. He has now had to admit that he was wrong and that the Government are bringing in an order on policing after the damage has been done. I have just left the Vote Office and I can tell the House that the order is still not in front of us, at the very last syllable of recorded time, with the House rising tomorrow. It is a disgraceful affair.

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman moved from the Whips' Office, because it is easier to look after sheep than it is to look after fish. I feel sorry for the right hon. Gentleman, who has had to pick up the tab, but he had better retrieve his reputation and return Britain to the position achieved under the so-called superb agreement which his predecessor said would last for 20 years. However, six months later, it is in pieces, and Britain must suffer for it.

Mr. Jopling

We have heard the usual display of extravagant language by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). I am sorry that he has not taken the trouble to consider everything that he said. He has condemned the Government because, he says, they did not settle the herring arrangement in January, but he has been around for long enough to know that herring fishing in the northern and middle parts of the North sea was banned for the previous six years, so we could not make that agreement in January. Everyone knew that, because there was no fishing, an agreement would have: to be postponed.

The hon. Gentleman condemned me for failing to get an agreement on herring. I could have helped to reach an agreement on herring—I cannot say what others might have done—but there was nothing on offer in Brussels this week that would have been satisfactory to our fishermen. If I had made an agreement just for the sake of making one, that would not have been in the interests of British fishermen. The order relating to klondikers will be laid before the House today.

The use of the veto was, as I said earlier, a fine judgment, since a breakdown in fishing relations with Norway could have implications for our fishermen who fish in Norwegian waters. The matter was not clear cut, and I could claim no vital national interest to justify the use of the Luxembourg disclaimer.

It is worth explaining to the hon. Gentleman that there are two sides to the argument. I do not wish Norwegian fishermen to fish for herring in the northern and middle parts of the North sea. That is why I voted against the proposal, although it has been allowed. If we had continued to stop Norway fishing for herring in that part of the North sea, Norway would undoubtedly have taken retaliatory action.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Britain has the right to fish for about 5,500 tonnes of white fish in the waters around northern Norway. That fishery affects especially Grimsby, Lowestoft and other ports on the east coast. At least 100 British vessels can now continue to fish for white fish in the southern Norwegian sector because Norway has been allowed to fish for herring. The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that it was a black and white decision, but he is wrong. Many of our fishermen will be glad that Norway will continue to fish—to put it in perspective, it is only another 9,000 tonnes of herring — for the remaining part of its interim quota, because it means that many of them can continue to fish for white fish in Norwegian waters.

Sir Walter Clegg (Wyre)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us believe that the Danes are abusing the Luxembourg disclaimer by using the veto constantly, which is unhelpful, while at the same time they are continuing to over-fish, which is deplorable?

Mr. Jopling

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a serious problem. Some states use the Luxembourg disclaimer much too often, which is not within the spirit of the Community. As the House knows, under both Governments the United Kingdom has used the Luxembourg disclaimer very infrequently. It would have been wrong to use it on an issue of this sort. One could not have claimed logically that it was vital to British interests, and we would have been mistaken to use it in the circumstances.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Is not the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has been forced to make to the House this afternoon further proof of the fatal consequences of transferring control over our fishery waters to the Community, which will result in continuing loss to our fishing industry and which will bedevil our relations with other fishing countries with which we should be making mutually advantageous agreements?

Mr. Jopling

It is a great mistake for the right hon. Gentleman to talk in those terms. If we can settle the outstanding and difficult problem of North sea herring fishing, and if we can add to the agreement made by my predecessor earlier this year proper policing powers, which are already under way and which I believe will become effective during next year, we shall then have the opportunity to have a managed fishery in European waters which can be shared out and be a fruitful product for us all.

The right hon. Gentleman should remember what the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) said a few moments ago about the way in which fisheries were ruined by over-fishing, when there were no controls, by selfish people who take no notice of long-term conservation. As the common fisheries policy evolves, provided that we persevere and get over our immediate difficulties, we shall have a well-managed fishery which will bring prosperity to all of us.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his statement will give considerable comfort to the fishermen in the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and to the fishermen in my constituency? Should not the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) recognise that hon. Members on both sides of the House must take into account, as does my right hon. Friend, the interests of the white fishing industry? As a result of his statement, at least the door is being kept open. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the attitude of the hon. Member for Paisley, South brings no comfort either to his hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby or to me?

Mr. Jopling

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will not mind if I quote from a letter that he wrote to me on 6 July, speaking for Grimsby, in which he said: We have only one paramount aim at the moment and that is to allow the Norwegians to continue to fish for herring because if they are stopped as they now have been there is a real danger of retaliation against British fishing in Norwegian waters and that is now at its seasonal peak. The hon. Gentleman continued: It is also reasonable that the Norwegians be given a second interim quota. That is what happened. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why I voted against its happening. However, we must realise that this is a balanced judgment. It is not one-sided, nor is all of it a minus to British fisheries, and we should recognise it as such.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

As I have been quoted, perhaps the Minister will permit me to second my own remarks in the sense that the real problem is not Norway. It would be unreasonable if the Norwegians suffered because of a dispute in which they were not involved. Indeed, we depend on reciprocal catches in Norwegian waters, which could be threatened by this disagreement. The real problem is, first, Danish over-fishing and, secondly, a complete inability of Common Market institutions to handle such delicate matters as fishing quotas and the national interests that are involved. As the Market is now deadlocked by the Danes, why does not the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to assert the national interest by imposing on Danish and Norwegian fishermen in British waters the same kind of reporting and control arrangements for any species as are imposed on our vessels in Norwegian waters?

Mr. Jopling

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises the advantage to his constituents of the fact that the Norwegian fisheries will continue to be open to them. He condemned Danish over-fishing and so do I. It is for that reason that I take every opportunity to press the Commission to bring its policing arrangements, the use of the logbooks and so on, into effect as soon as it can be arranged. This is hugely important, and we shall do everything we can to press it.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will take no cognisance of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that the Norwegians and Danes should be stopped from fishing in British waters, because the retaliation effect on our demersal fleet would be catastrophic.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I said the reverse.

Mr. McQuarrie

There is considerable anger in my constituency, which has traditionally fished for herring, over the fact that the Norwegians have been given a further 8,500 tonnes. I understand that that is because the demersal fleet is to be allowed to continue to fish in Norwegian waters. I also understand that the demersal fleet was prepared to come back to shore if it meant that the Norwegians would be prevented from obtaining that 8,500 tonnes. When fishing opens on 1 October, will the British fleet be allowed to fish a minimum quota of 21,000 tonnes in the North sea?

Mr. Jopling

I can perfectly understand that my hon. Friend's herring fishing constituents are extremely cross over the fact that the Norwegians will be allowed to continue to fish for about 9,000 tonnes. It was for that reason that we voted against the proposal. As to the position after 1 October, I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the southern part of the North sea. As fishing took place there last year, that will continue on a roll-over basis from 1 October. I cannot confirm precisely that our own fishermen will be allowed 21,000 tonnes, but I can confirm that we shall have 31 per cent. of that fishery. The figure mentioned by my hon. Friend is, I think, based on the total allowable catch for last year of 68,000 tonnes. There is a possibility that the total allowable catch will be somewhat reduced, but I assure him that our 31 per cent. share will remain intact. The total catch may be reduced for conservation reasons. That has yet to be made absolutely clear, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would not quarrel with that.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

If the Minister is so properly in favour of maintaining good fishery relations with Norway, and is therefore in favour of the 31,000 tonnes allocation, why did he vote against a limit of two thirds? The only reason one can think of is that it is virtually impossible to monitor, and many people suspect that it will be much exceeded. Indeed, the Minister said during questions that it would be about a year or so before proper policing arrangements could be introduced.

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman possibly misunderstands the basis of the 31,000 tonnes allocation for Norway, which has been proposed but not confirmed by the Council of Ministers. There are three parts—first, compensation for over-fishing by Community fishermen in the past; secondly, a repayment of a swap arrangement which has been carried on in previous years; and, thirdly, it is partly, but only a small part, an allocation of herring to Norway. On over-fishing and the repayment of the swap, we shall have to repay that this year, next year or some time. By allowing the Norwegians to continue to fish now we shall repay a debt that will not recur next year. In a sense that will be got out of the way and Norway will need a very much smaller allocation next year if we have repaid that one-off debt.

As to the veto — I say this in reply to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), whom I did not properly answer—we shall always hold ourselves in readiness to use it when important national interests arise. On this occasion we took a judgment that they did not, hence we did not use it.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Was any further consideration given to the proposal to extend the south-west fishery mackerel box and the associated introduction of stricter conservation measures? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is increasing anxiety in the south-west about the delay in introducing these sensible measures?

Mr. Jopling

We would very much have liked to have a continuing discussion on conservation measures, especially the mackerel box off the south-west of England. We pressed hard for the discussions to extend to those issues, to the remaining TACs and quotas and to other conservation measures. As it was not possible to reach agreement on the herring fishery in the North sea, I fear that we were prevented from moving to those other matters on which there was a basis for agreement and on which we could have reached agreement. I very much regret that the activities of one state stopped us moving to those matters.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does not the Minister accept that his statement displays the total inadequacy of the agreement reached in January? While some hon. Members might take comfort from the fact that the interests of the white fish fleet have been protected this time and that the penalty for the Government's failure has been paid by the herring fishermen, in three months or six months it will be the other way round and we shall then see whether the right hon. Gentleman quotes Grimsby letters with such grace and favour. Is he not aware that the deal cooked up in January was just as bad as the one cooked up before we joined? Its only purpose was to paper over the cracks until the election was passed. The fishermen are now paying for it and the Government have disgraced themselves, as we always said they would.

Mr. Jopling

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been. The deal reached in January was a gigantic step forward in getting ourselves a common fisheries policy that will be of great benefit to the Community in years to come.

Mr. Robert Hughes

indicated dissent.

Mr. Jopling

Admittedly, the process of reaching a deal is long and difficult. If hon. Members are saying that we ought to accept solutions and arrangements that are basically unsatisfactory to this country, I am sorry, but I am not prepared to do so. Even if it takes a long time, the House will expect us to go battling on until we can get a satisfactory deal.

Mr. John Spence (Ryedale)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about not accepting unsatisfactory deals. We have heard much about the major ports in the questions on my right hon. Friend's statement, and I wish to say something about the smaller ports, such as Filey in my constituency. The fishermen's jobs there are as important to them as individuals as the jobs of fishermen in major ports. Over-fishing and conservation are of major importance to the livelihoods of my constituents. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not be carried away by quotas, to the exclusion of the admirable work that he and his predecessor have done on conservation. Conservation is the key to the livelihood of all our fishermen, whether they come from major or minor ports, and is essential to Filey's continued employment and prosperity.

Mr. Jopling

As one who has often fished off the cob at Filey, with great success, I know what my hon. Friend means, and I have every sympathy with it. We have the small ports in mind and are therefore pursuing conservation measures in all our waters round our coasts, to look after the smaller ports in particular. My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of conservation.

As a result of the common fisheries policy hammered out last January, our fishermen in small ports have had a greater opportunity to fish in the waters close to our ports than for years and the access for our fishermen has been dramatically improved. This is just one of the ways in which the common fisheries policy is a great bonus and a great step forward.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Is the Minister aware of the utter outrage that Scottish fishermen feel at the prospect of seeing Norwegian boats fishing for herring in what should be Scottish waters, and of the anger that they feel at the weak way in which the Government have handled the negotiations? Will the Minister explain why, on balance, he found it necessary to vote against the Norwegians being able to fish, but then refused to apply the veto? If it was necessary to vote in other circumstances to prevent the Norwegians from fishing, why did the Minister not apply the national interest principle and use the veto? Was he trying to defend the English white fisheries in deep waters at the expense of Scottish fishermen?

Mr. Jopling

I can understand the outrage of which the hon. Gentleman speaks, but we did not apply the so-called veto because—

Mr. Robert Hughes

"So-called" veto now, is it?

Mr. Jopling

—we did not regard this matter as one of vital national interest. As a nation, we have used that vital national interest on very few occasions in the years since we joined.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Too few.

Mr. Jopling

On this occasion, to have used the veto for a matter that concerned the comparatively small amount of about 9,000 tonnes of herring when there were strong arguments on both sides would have been wrong. As I said in my statement, it was a fine judgment. My judgment was that this was not a sufficiently important national interest for us to use that drastic measure which has been so seldom used in the past.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As the Minister has shown that there are serious and urgent problems of widespread over-fishing, the absence of Community policing, a lack of agreement on quotas and foreign vessels fishing in United Kingdom waters from which British vessels are excluded, when will the Council meet again?

Secondly, the fishermen from Southend are just as important as the others mentioned, so will my right hon. Friend tell them what our fall-back position is if his optimism proves unfounded and the whole thing collapses into a messy shambles? In other words, what do we do if everything goes wrong with the common fisheries policy?

Mr. Jopling

My hon. Friend should not talk about over-fishing. Since the common fisheries policy was agreed in January there has not been evidence of dramatic over-fishing, and my hon. Friend is wrong to talk in those terms.

Mr. Taylor

That was the information last week of the Dutch.

Mr. Jopling

We should be a little careful about making such allegations which in many cases it is not possible to substantiate.

As I said in my statement, the Council will be meeting again on 3 October. I hope that it will then be possible to come to an agreement over herring fisheries in the north and middle parts of the North sea. We shall do our utmost to get a deal, but it will only be one that we think is satisfactory.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Can the Minister confirm that, for the south-west, this statement means that there will be no mackerel box and a continuation of over-fishing? If present trends continue, how long will it be before mackerel becomes an endangered species?

Mr. Jopling

It is true that there has been a delay in the creation of the institution of the mackerel box in the south-west of England, but there will not be unlimited over-fishing. The same quotas for last year will continue to be effective and we shall do everything that we can to get agreements on these matters when we meet again.

Mr. Buchan

It is extraordinary to say that we should not talk about over-fishing. The whole reason for the ban on fishing for herring in the North sea which we are supposed to be implementing is that we are over-fishing.

The Minister tells us that no national interest was involved, but the Danes apparently felt that there was. They threatened to use the veto, and then used it. The right hon. Gentleman did not even threaten to use it. The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) seemed surprised at the Minister's action, but the Minister said in reply that he voted against the proposal. The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes is right—either the Minister was for it or he was against it. The worst of all possible postures was to vote against and then to let the proposal through by not using the veto, or even the threat of the veto. The only reason why he opposed the proposal, as far as we can see, was so that he could come to the House and say, "Look, I opposed it. Look how strong the Government have been." However, this is further evidence of the Government's weakness and irresolution.

Four specific questions have to be asked about this statement. The Minister talked about the situation in the southern North sea when the herring season opens there in October. Has not the right hon. Gentleman got it wrong when he refers to us having a 31 per cent. quota of the rollover 40,000 tonnes? Is it not the case that the roll-over would mean 68,000 tonnes with a 31 per cent. quota? There would be a hell of a lot more fish if it did.

Secondly, can we accept the Minister's guarantee, his pledge, that that quota will remain intact when we have seen the other quotas bust ever since January? Thirdly, are 60 Norwegian boats fishing off the north-west of Shetland, having been told by the Norwegian Government that they can move into the North sea to resume herring fishing?

Fourthly, did we initially press for a 30 per cent. quota, was the Commission's proposal initially 28 per cent., and was that then reduced to 23.5 per cent.? Did the Minister make it clear at Brussels this week that if the total allowable catch was increased, far from our quota being increased along with it, because this would give a bigger proportion that could be allowable for Britain our quota would be reduced to 15 per cent?

The House is faced with an intolerable position. In any other circumstances I should be pressing for the Adjournment of the House so that we could debate this issue. Instead of doing so, I can only reiterate the feeling of the fishing industry, and both sides of the House, that this is yet another sell-out, another capitulation along the lines which we warned the Minister about in January when the Government boasted of a superb 20 years' agreement.

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman would not be himself—whether he is going on holiday or not—if he did not use the familiar extravagant language that he has used over the years. Our quota last year for the area in the southern part of the North sea was 31 per cent. of last year's total catch of 68,000 tonnes. There is a possibility that, for various reasons, that will be reduced to 40,000 tonnes this year as a total allowable catch for everybody, but our quota of 31 per cent. will remain.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Norwegian trawlers fishing for herring in the North sea. They are allowed to do that, as I explained earlier. It is quite legal. Much of it is a one-off repayment for what has happened in the past. Next year the Norwegians will not need to claim a tonnage for that reason. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that a report was produced before the Council of Ministers, following the meeting of the group of experts, suggesting that we should have a lower percentage of herring in the northern and middle parts of the North sea than was originally proposed by the Commission. We opposed that strongly. Indeed, the French and Belgians joined us in saying that that report was not a basis for discussion. As a consequence of the pressure that we brought to bear, the report was not pursued.

Mr. Buchan

Further to that—

Mr. Speaker

Time is getting on.

Mr. Buchan

Will our share of the total allowable catch be reduced to 15 per cent.—half of our original demand?

Mr. Jopling

There was speculation in the report about what might happen if the total allowable catch over the years increased because of the success of conservation. That was no surprise to us, and it has always been understood by us and by fishermen. It demonstrated that inbuilt adjustments would cause our percentage to decrease. The figure that was proposed was another reason why we were united in saying that the report was not a matter for discussion.