HC Deb 16 December 1986 vol 107 cc1157-78 10.27 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the proposals by the Commission of the European Communities set out in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's two unnumbered explanatory memoranda of 10th December 1986 on 1987 total allowable catches and quotas, and in the Ministry's unnumbered explanatory memorandum of 9th December 1986 on the EC-Norway fisheries agreement; of European Community Document No. 10549/86 on 1987 fish guide prices; and of the Government's intention to seek improvements in the proposed arrangements for the benefit of the United Kingdom fishing industry consistent with the requirements of conservation of fish stocks. Before I deal with the detailed proposals before the House this evening I should like, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, to make one or two more general remarks.

First, we should see the coming negotiations on total allowable catches and quotas against the general background of the common fisheries policy and the developments over recent years. There is no doubt that over the past few years the United Kingdom's fishing industry—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members kindly leave the Chamber quietly, please?

Mr. Gummer

There is no doubt that over the past few years there has been a considerable improvement in the state of the United Kingdom's fishing industry which went through a difficult time, not least because of the closing of its traditional fishing grounds in Iceland and elsewhere for the far distant fleet.

Prices obtained by fishermen are now higher than ever, thanks partly to a buoyant demand for fish in our increasingly health-conscious society, while the price of oil, which is one of the industry's main costs, is down. Increasing interest is being shown in the construction and modernisation of fishing vessels, and that is surely a sign that the industry is in good heart. I am not suggesting that there are not still considerable problems, and we have some major problems of restructuring, but the truth is that there is a degree of confidence in the fishing industry which is greater than it has been for some years.

The common fisheries policy is in good shape and some considerable improvements and changes have taken place, not least because of the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister during the six months of the British presidency. We are now able to say that Britain's influence on the common fisheries policy has brought about major changes, all in the direction of conservation, which we could not have expected had we looked forward from July when we took over the presidency.

I remind the House that we now have an effective method of Community policing and that the Community can close fisheries where over-fishing has taken place, countries which have not obeyed the law up to now are beginning to take very much tougher measures. Both the Dutch and the Danish Ministers have had to take measures which we in Britain have taken for granted for years. Now the Danes and the Dutch have to bring home those measures to their fishermen.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the conservation measures proposed by the Community could considerably harm Scottish fishermen, who have consistently kept to their quota targets? If other countries in the EEC continue to break the targets, Scottish fishermen will be greatly penalised.

Mr. Gummer

In the past there was some justification for the argument that British fishermen, in general, as well as Scottish fishermen in particular, obeyed the rules perhaps more clearly than did other countries. I am impressed by the number of countries which have considerably improved their rules about fishing. I have already mentioned the measures taken by the Dutch Minister. The Dutch are now firm about the way in which their fishermen keep to the rules, and at long last the Danes have taken steps to implement the rules.

Given the improvement throughout the Community, my hon. Friend will agree that it is important to have rules that can be obeyed. We must be able to make people pay for over-fishing, and my hon. Friend will know that if a country over-fishes, and as a result has to close its fishery, it will have to pay back that surplus fish in the succeeding year to countries which have not been able to take their full catch. That is crucial and will deal with the problem we all know about—that our total allowable catches and quotas have been less than they ought to be because other countries have been taking too much fish. Because of that we had to have lower quotas. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that things will now be much better as a result of our hard fight.

The first three documents mentioned in the motion before the House were recommended last week by the Select Committee on European Legislation for the consideration of the House. At this time of year there is always a problem about the timetable, and last year we were unable to have the debate before the Fisheries Council meeting. The Council meets tomorrow to deal with TACs and quotas.

We cannot start negotiations with third countries until we have the full scientific evidence and recommendations on the amount of fish that will be available. We cannot accept that evidence any earlier, because if we did it would not be up to date and sufficiently accurate. We then have to negotiate with third countries, especially with Norway, in whose waters there are a great deal of the fish that we take, and we have to do that before we know how much will be available to divide among the fishermen of the Community.

I should like to thank the Select Committee on European Legislation, because it accepted the problems, met the deadlines and was prepared to make its decisions and investigations on inadequate information. It was the best that we could do, but the Select Committee was willing to accept that, and I am sure the House will agree that there is no way of doing it better without impairing our ability to make the right decisions for our fishermen. If that is the choice, we must put our fishermen first. We must accept that the debate has to take place speedily and that we must embark on the necessary research and read the papers rapidly.

Despite the evidence of rush in the procedure, the Government believe that it is preferable from the point of view of the House to have the opportunity to debate the Commission's proposals before they are discussed within the European Community, and those discussions will start tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and I shall be advancing the United Kingdom's case and fighting for British fishermen over the next two days, and we welcome the opportunity to learn what the House feels about the various proposals that are before us. As three nights have passed since I slept because we have been discussing agriculture in the Community, I hope that the House will forgive me if I am not as quick off the mark as usual if 1 am asked questions while going through the proposals.

The procedure last year was not ideal and we have tried to improve it this year. I am sorry that everyone has been asked to do things more quickly than any of us would like. I am disappointed, as I know the whole House will be, by the proposed levels of total allowable catch for the main white fish stocks in the North sea. The TACs have emerged since the Commission's consultation with Norway. Last year I had to be extremely critical of the way in which the Commission entered into consultations with Norway. I had personally to introduce the issue into the debate because I believed that the Commission had carried on its negotiations with little discussion with the British Government or any other Government. If we are to have that sort of negotiation, it will not help.

This year there has been dramatic reform. I can make no complaint about the way in which the negotiations have been carried out or the way in which we have been kept informed. I think the House will want to know that the new Portuguese Commissioner and his staff are clearly determined to do their job well. I say that because occasionally we find ourselves criticising those who deal with Common Market matters. The new Commissioner has been extremely helpful, and likewise he was helpful to the fishermen of England and Scotland during his visit to Britain. That has been his approach since he has learnt something about our problems.

It is disappointing that the stocks have proved less resilient than we had hoped for, and the need for firmer management and conservation measures in protecting the future viability of the fisheries has become imperative. I know that I shall carry the House with me when I say that we must put conservation first. The problem is that there is no doubt that in the past we have allowed ourselves to be gulled by the argument that if we set a higher total allowable catch than that urged by the scientists, there will be more fish to share out among the member states and everyone will feel better. Feeling better, however, they go to fish the fish, and the fish are not there. That is an unacceptable way in which to run a common fisheries policy. The policy is a great success because we make decisions fairly among ourselves, rather than hitting one another over the head with a marlin spike to enforce individual wishes. We must be honest with one another.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is worrying. For North sea cod, the proposed total allowable catch for next year is down from 170,000 tonnes, which was a difficult figure last year, to only 125,000 tonnes. That is the highest tonnage that the international scientists have been prepared to envisage. It would be possible for the United Kingdom to argue that the British fishing fleet could not manage on 125,000 tonnes, but I not prepared to advance that argument. If I did so, I would be saying to our fishermen, and to their children, that we are not prepared to protect their future, when we have the clearest evidence that we should do so. I am prepared to consider the evidence in the best possible light, but not with rose-tinted spectacles. I shall consider it in the best way that can be envisaged, but it would not be proper for us to try to push up the TAC. If we did so, we would be denying our fishermen a future, and the same would apply to their children.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

My right hon. Friend was helpful with a recent problem affecting some small fishermen along the south coast. As he examines this difficult matter, will he consider the possibility of trying to find some flexibility for smaller fishermen, who cannot readily move to waters with a wider variety of catch, for example, by allowing exemptions for boats of 10 m and less? That might help to meet some of the problems that are peculiar to smaller fishermen.

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks on the question of cod on the south coast. I have found that the most difficult thing in the job of trying to look after the fisheries in the United Kingdom is that every section of the fisheries industry has a different interest. The problem is that it is not a sort of homogenous family to which one can say, "All right, you have got that lot." There are all sorts of perfectly reasonable arguments between fishermen about natural historic waters, the size of boats, their need to get a certain catch to make larger boats viable — all those issues. Another problem is that of the quality of fish. Those who produce the best quality of certain kinds of fish in one area are different from those who produce the best quality in other areas.

I promise my hon. Friend that I shall continue to try to get the balance right. We are looking carefully again at the way in which we manage the quota referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall). There is a great worry about that quota. We got it right every year before now. This is the first year that we have got it wrong. In future, it may never be like it was this year. If we change the system, we may find that we do not catch the cod that we could have caught from these much lower total allowable catches, that is a worrying thing. I shall certainly examine the point that my hon. Friend raised.

The fishermen would prefer us to get it right by being tough this year rather than continuing to have a declining biomass and smaller and smaller year classes. We have secured an increase—although it is not a big enough one—in the minimum mesh size for the North sea next year to 85 mm. The Commission has proposed a seasonal closure in the German bight in the first and last quarters of 1987 to protect the young cod. We shall support that proposal, although we must recognise that difficulty that it will entail for the industries of some other member states:

Last year I warned that we got the TAC for cod wrong. I fought against it being as high for Britain as it was last year because I thought that it would cause damage. I am afraid that my worst fears have turned out to be right. In the case of North sea haddock, I am less happy with the scientists' recommendation. It seems that it is difficult to accept that, last year, we could have 239,000 tonnes and this year we can have 120,000 tonnes. On the surface, I find that recommendation difficult. Like all those of us who are not scientists, I cannot say that I can guess better than scientists can.

I intend to support the Commission in the slightly more optimistic figure that it has suggested of 140,000 tonnes. That figure is agreed with Norway. We thought that it could be a little more, but that would be a matter of non-scientists trying to find an answer. We shall try to secure a review of the TAC early in the year, so that if a real and practical view of the scientists' ability to forecast enables us to be a bit more helpful, that is what we shall do.

I do not honestly think that I should go further than that. If I do, I should cast into doubt the whole of the conservation proposals and measures. We have been the leaders in Europe for the conservation of the fishing stocks. We have the greatest interest in conservation because we have the largest amount of stocks. We did an extremely good deal when it came to the sharing out of fish stocks. Therefore, we need to remember that conservation does us more good than any other country in the European Community. Even those among us who do not share my enthusiasm for the Common Market can at least share a kind of patriotism that will enable us to be on the same side on this occasion.

The proposed TAC for North Sea saithe is also down to 170,000 tonnes. Again, the need for restraint is clear in the interests of future conservation. In this case, it is probable that the figures are not wrong.

The whiting TAC has been held at the present level, and plaice is due for a further reduction. I have to support that. It has been largely the depredations of the Dutch that have put us into this position. I have had a long series of talks with the Dutch Minister in what are referred to as the margins of the Agriculture Council, which has been sitting for 90 hours, so there are fair margins in which to have a chat. He has made valiant efforts to make a change. He admits that there are real problems because of the over-provision of boats in Holland, about which we warned the Dutch. We told them that if they did that, they would end up with far too large a fleet, with far too little to catch. It is not the Minister who made those decisions. He has taken some brave and tough decisions himself, and as a result is extremely unpopular among his fishermen. He has not been in the fishing Ministry very long, and his fishermen appear to want to make sure that he will not be there much longer. It is nice to see a Minister who is unpopular for the right reasons. I hope that it will happen to more of us, on those matters anyway. We must be pretty tough about the plaice. We are reaping the damage done by others, but they are putting their house in order, and we must support them in what they do.

North sea sole is not a joint stock. The Commission proposes that we should follow the full rigour of the scientific advice by cutting the TAC, which was reduced last year, in half, from 20,000 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes. I must mention my interest, in the sense that, as the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I know only too well the problems that too low a sole quota could pose for our fishermen. My family knows too well that I do not pick from Aldeburgh and Felixtowe the sole that I would like to choose. I cannot believe that we should take lightly the danger for that stock, although we shall reconsider whether there is any possibility of even the slightest increase in that quota.

I am sorry that it takes a moment or two to do this quick Cook's tour of our fishing areas. I now move across the North sea to area VI, the west of Scotland. The Commission proposes reductions in the TACs for cod, haddock, anglerfish and megrim, which are all important to our fishermen, although the scientific basis for those changes is not as clear cut as in the North sea. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay), will be anxious to pursue any opportunities for adjustment in the proposals. He will start off the negotiations tomorrow, and I shall join him after the agriculture statement tomorrow afternoon. The two of us expect to go through the night. One of the things that we shall work closely on is what we can do in that area, where there is some room for manoeuvre, but we must be careful to do it in a way that does not undermine our position on other matters.

In area VII. I am particularly aware of the importance of the sole and plaice stocks to our fishermen in the west and south-west. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) has pointed that out to me regularly. I have been to that area four or five times since I have been responsible for fisheries. What had to be done has been clear to me. I am glad to see that the combined United Kingdom quotas proposed for sole and plaice are up, by only 65 tonnes and 70 tonnes respectively, but that is a sufficient amount. At least it is better to go in that direction. There may be some scope for further upward adjustments on individual stocks. The precautionary TACs proposed on angler fish and megrim are down. We shall do all that we can to improve availability. The proposed TAC for cod is down, despite the evidence that this year's limit was unduly restrictive of effort in all member states. We shall look for some easement. It looks as if we have been a little over-cautious. Therefore, I hope that we can do something better there.

I am pleased at the sizeable increase in the TAC on hake, and therefore also in our quota, which will be welcome, not only for our own use. On occasion we have found that hake is also liked by others, and we are able to do the sort of deal that helps our fishermen on that front.

The stocks in areas VI and VII have been subject to quota for the first time this year following enlargement, particularly nephrops and pollack. We are still feeling our way. The allocation of quotas last year was on a provisional basis only. We aim to ensure as far as possible that our fishermen's needs are covered fully.

Western mackerel is a fishery of major importance to our pelagic sector. Rather surprisingly, the Commission has proposed a reduction in the present availability to a level below that recommended by the scientists. I believe in conservation but not in masochism. It would be better to try to do something about this. The problem is that there is clearly over-fishing by certain member states, and it continues despite the efforts of some Governments. This is a control problem. I want to improve control rather than say that the amount available to our fishermen must be cut.

I am sorry that this has been so rapid a tour of the fishing grounds. No doubt some hon. Members found that I was not able to mention their particular fishing interests. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will answer the points that are raised.

Changes in the guide prices for the 1987 marketing year have been recommended for our consideration by the Select Committee. That is a separate matter. The Commission's proposals are in three parts, but only the first is of interest to the United Kingdom, because it covers the species caught by our fleet; for example, cod, haddock, herring and mackerel. The proposals are broadly neutral, suggesting for most species increases in the range of zero to 2 per cent., although there is a proposed reduction of 10 per cent. for herring. The proposals take account of the Community's budgetary problems, the overall reduction in inflation rates and the consequences of green rate changes, from which all member states will benefit next year, except Germany and the Netherlands. The proposal for herring reflects the increased availability of this species on the world market and the significant increases in the available catch next year.

There are, of course, difficulties in obtaining agreement on prices for a wide range of fish species, but it is important that we should do so, so that the new guide prices can be brought into operation on 1 January. It should be possible to finalise an agreement close to the Commission's original proposal at tomorrow's Council meeting.

All is not right, and we shall have to take very tough decisions on some matters. They must be taken wherever the scientific evidence is clear. The great achievement of the past six months and, indeed, of the whole common fisheries policy, is that we now have a forum in which these decisions can be made in a sensible and civilised manner to protect the future of our fishermen and their sons and daughters.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

When the right hon. Gentleman goes to the next exhausting round of meetings, starting tomorrow, will he take on board the concern about the sensitive areas definition and the fear, especially in areas such as the north-east of England, which are depressed by any economic standards, that boat grants will be substantially lower than in areas such as the west of Scotland as a result of the discussions that have taken place?

Mr. Gummer

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. My hon. Friends from the south-west have made it to me, and the hon. Gentleman's colleagues from the north-east have said the same. It is a fact of life that, if an area is designated as needing special help and is given special help, others not so designated find themselves at a disadvantage. I understand the problems. We shall consider ways to help areas that might be unduly hurt by the comparison. The situation is difficult. The hon. Gentleman will know that national rivalries and histories are involved, not the least of which is the fact that the English fleet suffered most from the ending of the availability of the cod fishery off Iceland. It has taken longer for the English fleet to begin to find a new place for itself, and therefore it finds it difficult to accept occasions of this sort. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who, of course, has a particular interest in Scotland, will agree that there are particular problems of this kind.

10.53 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Labour Members are glad that we have the opportunity to debate these matters before they are finally negotiated in the Fisheries Council, unlike last year. I appreciate the Minister's comments about having to rush his consideration of these matters, but it has been of concern to all of us and to the industry that we are embarking on this debate without having seen the documents, which were only received by the industry on Friday. That made consideration difficult, and I hope that we have as much information as possible in future.

Mr. Gummer

indicated assent.

Mr. Randall

I appreciate the Minister's agreement.

There is a general feeling in the industry that 1986 has been quite a good year. The drop in oil prices reduced operating costs, and the firm prices of fish in the market place meant that incomes were high. However, there is still a substantial problem of indebtedness in the industry, especially in England and Wales, where many of the fishing vessels are antiquated and under-engined and do not compare in efficiency with part of the Scottish fleet or with some of the fleets of our European partners.

Mr. McQuarrie

Although the hon. Gentleman says that there are problems only in Wales, he will no doubt accept that the same problems apply to Scottish fishermen. They have had to replace their old vessels so that they can catch fish in our difficult seas.

Mr. Randall

I am interested in that intervention, but I referred to part of the Scottish fleet. Although there has been considerably greater investment in total in Scotland compared with England and Wales, I understand that parts of the Scottish fleet still need investment and still have inefficient and old vessels.

However, the point is that poor profitability has led in general to under-investment and to unacceptable levels of inefficiency. Further massive strides need to be made by the industry in the marketing and quality control of fish. In 1986, only a small percentage of the total amount of fresh fish was sold in supermarkets. I believe that there is immense scope for enhancing the marketing and sale of fresh fish. The sale of pelagic species, however, and particularly of herring, could have been more successful in terms of income if outlets other than the monopolistic eastern European klondykers had been available to the industry.

In 1986, there has been more optimism and higher morale in the industry. However, the industry believes that the quotas that the Government have negotiated for 1987 will have a very damaging effect because of their severity. I noted carefully what the Minister said about conservation. However, that is what the industry is saying, and it is important that we should put on record what those involved feel. The question of severity applies in particular to cod and haddock, because there will be cuts of 25 and 30 per cent. respectively for the 1987 quotas. As a result of the cuts, the loss of income to the industry has been estimated at about £40 million for 1987.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is unable to attend the debate, but he has expressed serious concern about the impact on the fishermen of Great Grimsby, and in particular about the simultaneous effect of the cuts in the cod and haddock quotas, which are the main white fish sources. He believes that the industry should be financially compensated by the Government because of the severity involved.

The core of the common fisheries policy is fishery management and enforcement. As we all know, the policy has been in operation since early 1983. However, if it is to be successful, seasonal closures of some fisheries may be necessary to ensure that juvenile species or stocks are not damaged. Moreover, control over mesh size must be enforced. I understand that the French are still not doing that satisfactorily, and I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that member states should do more to stop such abuse.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the Dutch. We know that in practice they are still landing more than their allocated quotas and that must be cut out. The Irish could also do more on enforcement. I understand that in some sectors the United Kingdom fishery protection personnel spend more time boarding British vessels than boarding vessels of all the other EEC countries put together. I would like the Minister to explain why he is permitting this behaviour while abuses by other member states still take place.

In relative terms, I understand that the efforts and resources provided by the other member states in enforcement is not as great as that provided by the United Kingdom. Are not these shortfalls in resources accounting, at least to some extent, for the breakdown of the quota system? I also understand that the Commission has produced a paper that highlights some of the enforcement problems associated with the common fisheries policy, and provides information on what needs concentrated attention. Will the Minister tell us more about this and about what he expects to ensue from it?

In addition, a set of control regulations, to which the Minister did not refer, which deal with matters such as overfishing and quotas was recently agreed. What worries me about this system is that, if certain unscrupulous people or member states purposely break quotas, innocent people as well as the guilty can be penalised and lose their livelihoods. I would appreciate it if the Minister would comment on what I believe to be a serious matter. It is wrong to have a system that creates such anomalies.

A notable characteristic of the common fisheries policy are the substantial fluctuations that we get in the annual quotas. This year is no exception. We have had big reductions in cod, haddock and other species. This is clearly undesirable for the industry and could make investment programmes difficult to implement. I do not want to take the time of the House analysing all the reasons for these large quota fluctuations. However, the methods of the marine scientists in assessing fish stock levels are regarded as imprecise, as an art rather than a science. It should be added that the quality of estimates and research is related to the amount of resources. Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient resources are being devoted to this work?

The fishing industry is concerned that the marine scientists have not yet been able to complete their work on haddock levels and have had to produce a temporary quota for 1987. As the Minister has pointed out, this will be reviewed in May. Does the Minister have any views about stabilising total allowable catches? The industry has suggested that consideration should be given to setting TACs for three years rather than one, and that variations should not exceed 20 per cent. I would welcome the Ministers' comments on these points.

The United Kingdom quota for the important species of cod has been reduced from 76,000 tonnes for 1986 to 55,000 tonnes for the coming year. This is a cut of about 25 per cent. in the United Kingdom fishing quota. In 1986, the industry was unable to make up all its quota because of over-fishing and hence poor catch rates. The fish were just not there to be caught. The industry seems to have accepted that the TACs for 1987 will have to come down, but the total EEC TAC of 125,000 tonnes for 1987 compared with 170,000 tonnes for 1986 is regarded by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations as being too severe for the industry to cope with. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation also supports that view.

I believe that the industry is anxious to appear responsible, but it believes that another 10,000 tonnes of cod could be added to the United Kingdom 1987 quota without imposing unreasonable strain on the quota management regime. The NFFO believes that the proposed quota will force fishermen to break their quotas, which could result in discarded fish, which is bad for conservation and entails a loss of income to the fishermen.

I would welcome the Minister's comments on the common sense of increasing the quota by 10,000 tonnes, although I noted what the Minister of State said about conservation. I understand that the marine scientists proposed to Fisheries Ministers a partial—I think six-month—closure of the Heligoland and German Bight fishery for conservation of cod during the spawning period. Why was that important recommendation rejected?

As for haddock, there is considerable alarm in the industry that there is to be a cut in quota of about 30 per cent. for 1987. The total TAC will drop from about 230,000 tonnes for 1986 to about 140,000 tonnes for 1987. The United Kingdom quota will drop from about 151,000 tonnes to about 101,000 tonnes. The industry feels that there is a much stronger case for increasing the quota for haddock as stocks are regarded as stronger than was estimated, especially as the scientists admitted that they made an error when estimating the number of juvenile fish in 1983.

The industry will lose a substantial amount of income as a result of the cod and haddock quota reductions because the prices for those species are so high. That will create difficulty for the industry in the coming year.

I understand that it has been agreed that the scientists will carry out the review of haddock stocks in May to see whether the TAC can be increased. Why can it not be done now? I should like an explanation from the Minister. That would enable fishermen to plan their fishing for the year much more effectively, whereas a change in May will introduce special difficulties.

Does the Minister accept the case for relaxing the haddock quota by about 20,000 tonnes? Is that not specially desirable, bearing in mind the fact that the cod quota has been cut? Perhaps he will tell us why he appeared to be taking such a strong line on that species.

The quota for saithe has been reduced from 20,300 tonnes in 1986 to 16,200 tonnes for 1987. Why? Does the Minister realise that saithe is an important home water species for the larger vessels from ports such as Aberdeen, Fleetwood and Hull? Fishermen in those areas will be hard hit by the quota reduction.

Plaice and sole quotas are also being reduced. I have been led to believe that there is a reduction in sole catches because of the uncontrolled development of the Dutch beamer fleet. What is the Minister doing about the relaxed enforcement by the Dutch Government of quotas on that species? Although discussions with the Dutch are taking place, I believe that much more progress must be made. Perhaps, when he is sleeping tonight, the Minister of State will dream how he will deal with the problem of the Dutch.

The pelagic fishermen seem not too unhappy with the herring deal. Norway will have about 55,000 tonnes from European Community waters, but the industry is concerned at a footnote which makes it clear that a further 10,000 tonnes of herring could be allocated to Norway. That could push the Norwegian share up to 65,000 tonnes, which would be unacceptable to the United Kingdom industry. Will the Minister clarify what that footnote is about and what the Norwegian tonnage of herring will be? Will it be 55,000 or 65,000? I should like a detailed response on that.

The United Kingdom fishing industry has been worried that during the past 18 months there has been sharp increase in the number of ex-Spanish vessels on the United Kingdom shipping register. It is estimated that by the end of the year there will be 90 such vessels. The Spanish have been fishing mainly for hake, a species in which until recently the United Kingdom showed little interest. But now the position has changed and United Kingdom fishermen want to exploit those quotas themselves. Clearly, there is a clash of interest.

Under the common agricultural policy, quotas are allocated to a particular country on the assumption that they will benefit that country. Under the present arrangement, nominal ownership of those vessels is with the United Kingdom, but beneficial ownership is with the Spaniards. In other words, the fish is being landed for Spanish markets and the United Kingdom industry is not benefiting from it It has been reported that one of the United Kingdom companies operating Spanish fishing vessels is taking the Government to court on this matter. I am not sure whether the matter is sub judice, but I would welcome the Minister telling us exactly what the Government policy is on this important matter because it affects the use of United Kingdom quotas.

An important squid fishery is the Falklands. The major problem of overfishing comes from the considerable presence of Eastern European fishermen. Licences were due to be allocated from 12 December. Will the Minister tell us what progress is being made and what the plans are for policing? [Interruption.] I accept that that may not be in the document, but Rockall squid fishery is, and when talking about squid fishing, one cannot separate one fishery from another.

Many people in the industry are worried about exploiting that fishery, but at the same time they are concerned about security. It will impede investment if we cannot be sure that the Royal Navy will lend a hand if times get tough. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the Navy is on station?

It is encouraging to see fish being promoted as a health food. That is good news. But with the proposed cuts in quotas, especially in cod and haddock, it seems likely that fish prices could rise unacceptably through shortages. Does the Minister agree that those shortages in species could dampen the demand for fish, impeding the promotional work that has been going on? I would welcome the Minister's comments on that important point.

11.13 pm
Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Because of the shortage of time, I propose to deal with only one of the unnumbered documents which relates to the proposal for a Council regulation, fixing for certain fish stock and groups of fish stocks occurring in the Commission fishing zone, provisional total allowable catches for 1987; the provisional share of those TACs available to the Community; the allocation of the share between member states in quotas; and the conditions under which TACs may be fished.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been widely accepted by the fishermen in my constituency and the rest of Scotland as being sympathetic to their cause. He will lose that respect if he is not seen to be fighting for the fishermen when he attends the Fisheries Council meeting tomorrow. The Government successfully secured the common fisheries policy in 1983 and that was hailed by the fishing industry as the greatest step forward for many years. The industry went from strength to strength, and rightly so when we consider the hazards that the fishermen have to face. However, we are now taking steps backward instead of forward on the security that the common fisheries policy was meant to maintain.

We have to consider tonight a number of EEC documents that are mind-boggling. There are also certain documents of which we have been asked only to take note but there is no real security for the fishermen because the Council of Ministers has not finalised the decisions.

I sincerely hope that the Minister who, as he has said, has not slept for three nights because of the CAP discussions in Brussels and who is to return to Brussels tomorrow to discuss the very important matter of the TACs for 1987, will read these speeches before he departs and learn of the serious concern of the fishermen of the north-east of Scotland, and especially of those in my constituency, at the proposals which can only do immeasurable damage to their livelihoods.

I want to consider the two species to which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) referred, which are the mainstay of the fishermen in my constituency and which are liable to suffer in the proposals before the Community.

The first of these is haddock. The scientists say that they over-estimated the 1983 catch very heavily—by as much as 70 per cent. That, as we would all accept, was a gross error. They had to adjust downwards as a result. The scientists reached the conclusion that the haddock catch for 1986 would be no more than 140,000 tonnes for the whole Community. The same scientists have set the TAC for the Community and Norway at 230,000 tonnes. They say that on their estimates, the total TAC caught by the Community fishermen will be 140,000 tonnes,. That is absolute nonsense when we consider the facts. The United Kingdom fishing fleet alone will catch about 140,000 tonnes before the end of 1986. In addition, the Danes have 23,000 tonnes of haddock and have now stopped fishing because that is their allowable quota. On top of that, the Norwegians, French, Dutch and Germans have all been catching the quota to give a TAC of 230,000 tonnes. It is obvious that, as usual, the scientists have got it wrong.

The Scottish fishermen cannot deal as the position stands because that would mean a loss in catching of something like 45,000 tonnes. They have always been accused of going to Brussels seeking a rise in the TAC. Last year it was not the fishermen from Scotland or the United Kingdom who wanted a rise in TAC. It was the scientists who fixed the TAC in the upward direction. Naturally, the fishermen accepted that.

That only highlights once more that the scientists got it wrong. Why is that the scientists can get away with a TAC reduction of some 50 per cent. when the fishermen cannot accept that level of fishing as being sufficient to gain their livelihood? That is no way in which to run an industry. A cut of some 50 per cent. in normal production in any industry would cause serious problems. That industry could not hope to succeed. No one could hope to continue to run such an industry. Why has no one asked the fishermen what they think? At the end of the day, who goes out to fish? The scientists do not go out, looking into scientific registers. The fishermen go out into the deep waters. They know where the catch is to be found. Why do the scientists continually fail to ask the fishermen to give them their views on this matter?

Although I am aware that the massive cut will be resisted by the fishermen, they are the first to admit that conservation must be securely considered. I am sure, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West has said, that if a realistic figure such as 160,000 tonnes was proposed for the TAC for the Community, the Scottish fishermen would be prepared to go along with it. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend who is to reply, since my right hon. Friend has left us to get some sleep so that he can bring pressure on the Council tomorrow morning, will be able to tell the United Kingdom fishermen that they will accept that we require a TAC of 160,000 tonnes. I hope that that will be my right hon. Friend's objective when he goes to Brussels tomorrow along with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

The second species I want to deal with is cod. The TAC for the current year for the Community is 170,000 tonnes. The deal proposed for 1987 by the Community is 125,000 tonnes. The 170,000 tonnes included not only the Community, but Norway. The original recommendation made by the scientists was 150,000. However, the scientists are now proposing 125,000 tonnes.

It is recognised that cod, the jewel in the crown of the fishing industry, the species of which the fishermen endeavour to catch as much as possible, has now been decimated in its quota. It is recognised by the fishing industry that there must be conservation. However, I do not consider that it is realistic to ask the fishermen to accept a cut of 45,000 tonnes in that species, which is already difficult to catch because there is so little of it. I am sure that the fishermen would be prepared to go along with a TAC of 135,000 tonnes, which is only a 10,000 tonnes increase. I must ask my hon. Friend to tell the House that that will be his resolve and the resolve of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State when they go to Brussels tomorrow.

There is a precedent for that request. In the eleventh-hour negotiations last year, the North sea plaice TAC was increased by 10,000 tonnes to suit the Dutch. In those circumstances my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend have a weapon they can use in getting the best cod deal for the United Kingdom fishermen, which will guarantee that they will be able to earn a living, or at least part of a living, so long as they are able to fish that species.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland addressed the Scottish Fish Merchants' Federation in Aberdeen last Friday about the processing industry. That industry will suffer very severely if the cuts are imposed by the EEC when the decision is made tomorrow. My hon. Friend said: The successes of the catching sector should provide opportunities for the processing sector … There has been a great deal of press publicity about the probable cuts in the total allowable catches next year for white fish, and particularly for haddock. It is understandable that the industry should be concerned, particularly the processing sector where there is anxiety about the possible employment consequences. In a constituency such as mine, were there is a large number of processing industries, my hon. Friend has to take cognisance of his own words. There is considerable concern because there will be a considerable loss of fish coming on to the markets in my constituency and other constituencies in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. We are not only talking about the fisherman, but the fishing industry as a whole, especially the processing part of the industry.

My hon. Friend then went on to say: The white fish stocks—indeed all the fish stocks—are vital to the Scottish industry and they must be protected to ensure a continuing and flourishing fishing industry. Is that not exactly what we intended in the 1983 common fisheries policy? That was intended to secure the safety of the fishing and processing industries for the foreseeable future.

Concern has been expressed about the haddock TAC. The scientists said that the TAC for 1987 should be 120,000 tonnes. That figure has now been increased by 20,000 tonnes. A TAC for 1987 of 140,000 tonnes is significantly greater than the TAC for 1986. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that everybody recognised that the TAC for 1986 was too high and that catches would fall far short of it.

I said earlier that there is no way in which the Community's TAC of 230,000 tonnes will not be reached. The Scottish fishing industry will certainly reach the TAC figure of 140,000 tonnes.

My hon. Friend said:

The TAC will be reviewed in the middle of next year, in the light of the final catch figures for 1986. It may be possible to increase the TAC, if the stock at that time seem healthier than the scientists currently fear. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West rightly asked why the scientists should be allowed to decide in the spring of 1987 whether the TAC should be increased. Why should not the TAC be increased now? Why should the scientists be allowed to dominate this decision? The fishermen should be consulted. From time immemorial the scientists have always got it wrong. They got it wrong last year; they got it wrong this year. Let us make sure that they do not get it wrong next year, to the detriment of fishermen in the whole of the United Kingdom, but in particular to the detriment of Scottish fishermen.

11.26 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

This debate, before the final decision is taken, is to be welcomed. The Ministers who will be representing United Kingdom interests tomorrow will therefore be fully aware of the views of right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House.

The TAC has dominated the debate so far, in particular the white fish TAC. The explanatory memorandum points out that for the main white fish stocks in the North sea the proposed TACs, and consequently the United Kingdom quotas, will be substantially lower than in 1986. Reference has already been made to the TAC for cod and haddock.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was sceptical about the scientific information upon which the TAC for 1987 has been based. The justification for such a low TAC is that in earlier years it was overestimated. We cannot therefore be entirely satisfied that the scientific prognosis for 1987 is right. The great variation between the 1986 TAC, particularly for haddock, and the proposed 1987 TAC is causing considerable concern. The Minister said that some time next year he would try to secure a review of the TAC. However, the Opposition believe that he should try to do something about it now, so that fishermen may have some confidence about the 1987 TAC.

There should be no more than a 10 to 15 per cent. change in the TAC from one year to another. Scottish fishing merchants have said that there ought to be a flexible five-year plan that leads to much narrower tolerances from one year to another. That is an important point. That is particularly important when planning for those parts of the country that have a sectoral quota. A change as large as that proposed for 1987 could put strains on parts of country, including my constituency, with a sectoral quota.

As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) rightly pointed out, we should not lose sight of the implications of a much reduced TAC for the processing industry. That industry is important in providing employment around our coasts. Onshore jobs are important, and, clearly, if the volume of the catch is to be considerably reduced in 1987 it will have implications for the processing industry and the continuity of employment for those who find valuable work in such industries. Therefore, I urge the Under-Secretary of State to convey to his right hon. Friend the Minister that we hope that they will be pressing for an increase of at least some 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes more, particularly on the haddock quota.

The amount of white fish that we have been allowed obviously has something to do with a trade-off with Norway, and has certain implications for the amount of herring that will be caught next year. The Minister of State was right to say that he was far more satisfied, as I am sure the House is, with the way that negotiations with Norway have proceeded this year compared with last year. Considerable dissatisfaction was expressed last year with the powers that the European Commission assumed to agree a deal with Norway. That has not been the case this year and for that we are glad.

The agreement has been heralded as one which, on the face of it, would appear to say that this year 29 per cent. of the North sea herring stocks will be fished by Norway. Whereas last year the 40 per cent. agreement gave rise to considerable criticism within the industry, the new agreement would, at first glance, appear to be a remarkable improvement. However, in many respects it is a question of fiddling with figures. As I understand the position, the 29 per cent. is a figure based on the areas 4A, B and C in the North sea, and it is rare that the Norwegian vessels would fish in the southern North sea. If one takes what has been allowed to Norway from areas 4A and B, that goes up to 32 per cent. of the stocks. If one then takes the extra 50,000 tonnes which have been allocated to Norway, that brings the figure back up to 40 per cent. — the figure which caused so much controversy last year.

It may well be that the overall basis of the agreement for future years is a relatively satisfactory one, but we should not lose sight of the fact that what it appears will happen in 1987 is really no better than what we had to put up with in 1986.

I hope that the Minister will say something about the efforts that have been made by the Sea Fish Industry Authority to promote the marketing of herring. The consumer clearly lost the taste for herring during the years when the herring fishery was closed. I cannot understand why, because I like herring. But there is still much to be done to promote the marketing of herring and I should like to hear what is being done to achieve that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has mentioned the recent proposals for grants for boat building. As I recall, in the preamble to the legislation on the common fisheries policy the European Community said that it would have particular regard to the more peripheral areas of the Community where the fishing industry was of considerable importance in providing employment. I make no bones about it: the proposals that have emanated from the EC are welcome in my constituency. At a time when my constituency is having to face up to some of the impact, particularly on employment, of the downturn of the oil industry, that boost is welcome.

I can understand the disappointment of my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who has an important fishing industry operating out of Eyemouth. Other hon. Members such as the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull constituencies have fishing industries. We are conscious that the great fishing ports of Grimsby and Hull, which were great when I was doing geography at school, no longer have the fishing industry wealth that they once had. Those areas need support and no doubt will look to the Government to provide it.

While one would welcome any sign that those areas could continue to rely on a considerable measure of national support, we would not like to see national measures being used to neutralise what are clearly the objectives of the Community in supporting peripheral areas. I am sure that those two paths can quite consistently be followed.

The Minister has fishing interests in his constituency and will know that there can be considerable delay in the payment of EEC grants to fishermen. Often, the national grant is welcome because of the speed with which it is processed. However welcome the increased grant from the EEC, the fact that it sometimes takes a long time to come through means that those depending on it have to pay considerable interest charges. I am sure that the Minister must have been asked by fishermen in his constituency whether anything could be done to speed up the processing of these grants. If that could be done, their value would be even greater than the amount of the increase in the grants.

The motion talks about conservation and I should like to raise a small but important point which is of interest to those who fish in the North sea. I understand that all EEC vessels—of course, that includes all United Kingdom vessels—are obliged to have a calibration graph for the measurement of stocks. Norwegian boats are not required to have such calibrated tanks. Our vessels fishing Norwegian waters are obliged to abide by the Norwegian regulations. Can the Minister tell us whether any moves are being considered in the EEC to oblige Norwegian vessels to comply with the stringent regulations laid on our vessels?

My final point is about the review of pelagic licensing. I think that in October 1985 I asked the Minister when we could expect a report or statement on the outcome of the review. He said that he hoped the report would be available by Cristmas. That was Christmas 1985 and we are within days of Christmas 1986 and still waiting for that report. It is important for those in the industry and for people engaged in the fishing boat building industry to have that report. They would like to see the position clarified because it is important for continuity of ordering. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when the outcome of the review is likely to be announced.

The common fisheries policy is one of the success stories of the EEC. We can all find things to criticise and point to areas which could be improved, but the policy has brought some stability, and that is welcome. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said, the great fluctuations being foreshadowed for 1987 shake that stability to a considerable extent. I should be grateful if the Minister in his negotiations tomorrow can do anything to retrieve something of the position. If he can do that, he will have our support.

11.40 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I welcome the comments that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State made in responding to an intervention about the need to maintain a balance between the interests of fishermen using different sizes of vessels. I want to speak briefly in support of the concept of split quotas or a reserved part of quotas for inshore fishermen, especially those who use vessels that are shorter than 10 m.

Bodies such as Southern Commercial Fishermen, which represent family fishermen using small inshore vessels in the Solent and the south coast area, tell me how their members could have been faced with virtual disaster had the emergency restrictions on cod fishing not been able to be lifted because of arrangements with our friends in Ireland. At that stage virtually no cod had been taken by inshore fishermen in the area.

Inshore fishermen are perhaps the most concerned about the conservation of stocks. They are family fishermen and they wish to see stocks conserved from one generation to the next. They have been faced over the years with damage to their income in the Solent area from dredging, oil spillage and seismic surveys. They are now faced with the threat of reduced quotas. The time may arrive when the quotas are taken by larger vessels before the opportunity for catches ever arises for the inshore fishermen in the central southern part of England.

It is important that the Ministry takes on board the needs of the inshore fishermen in the area. When they invest in new vessels or equipment, it is often their virtual life savings that are involved. When they are faced with the threat of a reduction in the minimum size of bass to be caught and changes in mesh sizes, there is an enormous threat to their family incomes. Whatever the quotas may be — I am sure that inshore fishermen accept quota limits as much as anyone else—it is important that the inshore fishermen get a fair share. Whatever the size of the quota, there should be a reserved share available to them.

11.42 pm
Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I shall be brief because I know that others want to make contributions.

I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths). I, too, speak on behalf of inshore fishermen. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will know that I made representations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food following meetings with local fishermen in my constituency on 21 November. Their concerns were precisely those that affect the Solent fishermen. I sought by way of an intervention in my right hon. Friend's speech to urge upon him the case for considering exemptions for those operating with boats of 10 m or less. I did so because under the present arrangements it is the fact that there are no controls over the smaller boats, but if we run into problems with our quota the operators of these boats will be faced at the year end with the destruction of their businesses and livelihoods.

Surely that cannot be justified, and that is why I was urging exemption across the board for the inshore fishermen. They cannot go out into the wider waters where there is a greater variety of catch to make up the cod which is crucial to them. That is my sole point, and it is one that I understand my right hon. Friend will consider further. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to say that he recognises my concern, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), who raised the matter on an Adjournment debate, and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins), along with many others who represent constituencies along the south coast. Some of them are in their places and hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

11.44 pm
Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

In Hastings and Rye we like catching fish, and we do not like cod bans that are imposed with 72 hours' notice. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who I fully understand cannot be with us at this moment, and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is to reply, that in the late 20th century we should be able to see the statistics of the cod catch developing and those of any other catch, note what is happening and not inflict upon men who have devoted their lives to fishing—I am delighted to say that in my constituency there is a growing and thriving industry—an abrupt and worrying ban on the fishing of cod. I have written to my right hon. Friend. After a month I eagerly await a reply. Can we hope that this type of ban will not abruptly be inflicted upon us again? It is not only unfair but it is unreasonable and totally unnecessary.

The beamers have departed. We welcome that departure, but we still have another problem, and that is the gravel deposits off the coast of Sussex. Those gravel deposits have been there since before the time of William the Conqueror and before my family landed at Hastings. I do not like the occasional forays into those gravel deposits. Whenever somebody applies to dig them out, officials from the Department of the Environment and other people come forward. They adjudicate and pontificate — perhaps they pontificate and then adjudicate — and come up with the answer, "No, you cannot dig them out."

Will the Minister kindly instruct the foreigners—as we in Sussex call them, no matter where they come from—who want to dig out those gravel deposits, to stop? There is no scientific evidence against our belief that the area is the spawning ground for our plaice and cod, which provide Dover sole and Dover plaice—in other words, our fish and chips. Will the Ministry do something that will convince the Department of the Environment to stop these occasional forays into the gravel deposits?

I wish to make two points of praise that I think are not heard in the House as often as they should be. First, the Royal Navy does a wonderful job in fishery protection. We should wholeheartedly praise the Royal Navy and record the appreciation of all those around the coast of the British Isles for the job that it does. In the heyday of our attempts to negotiate sensible limits within the Common Market, we used to criticise the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy chaps do a super job in all weathers.

People such as coxswain Joe Martin and his crew in Hastings must also be praised. In all weathers they protect our fishermen all around the coast. They do wonderful work for the people who go to sea in their ships in all weathers. We should praise and acknowledge them at this time.

11.47 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Human nature being what it is, it is perhaps in the nature of this debate that we tend to concentrate on our fears and on what has gone wrong. Therefore, perhaps I should break a little with tradition and put on record that about 10 days ago, the record for landing the most valuable catch in Newlyn, the main port in my constituency was broken twice in the same day. Not all is gloom in the fishing industry—far from it.

I shall now refer to my concerns and my fears. First, the subject of sensitive areas has been referred to. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister tell us the basis for the designation of such sensitive areas? The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) correctly referred to the emphasis that is supposed to have been placed on peripherality. Cornwall has been excluded. Is that as a result of what is known as the Hague agreement? Incidentally, that agreement was entered into by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) when he was Foreign Secretary.

I shall approach the next topic with some sensitivity, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is to reply on behalf of the Government. Last week I read a story in Fishing News under the headline Pursers to head for south-west". I do not wish to stir up controversy at this late hour of the night, particularly because of at least one person who is listening to the debate. Nevertheless, I delicately suggest that it might be just as well for the Government to ensure that factory ships are not stationed at Falmouth, because it is inside the mackerel box. I do not wish to suggest that our friends from northern waters would dare to fish in the mackerel box, it being a conservation area, but the temptation might be a little too strong if they have to steam through that box to take landings to factory ships. Policing will be difficult in those circumstances. Therefore, I say, please, no factory ships at Falmouth, but if our friends from Scotland come down and fish outside the box, of course they can do so.

I hurriedly pass on to something that we can all make common cause on—the Spanish threat, which has been mentioned in the debate. It is real, and growing. In a parliamentary answer on 25 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave me what he reckoned were the latest figures on the number of Spanish boats. I regard them as Spanish boats—they are the boats that either have been transferred to our register, or, according to a new phrase that seems to have entered the language, they are ex-United Kingdom vessels on the register that

are beneficially owned by Spanish interests."—[Official Report, 25, November 1986; Vol. 106, c. 184.] According to my right hon. Friend, the latest figure is that there are now 73 such boats, compared with 54 a year ago—an increase of 19. Like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), my information is that the number is larger than that. Perhaps some of them are still being transferred. The number is increasing. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that probably by the end of the year there will be about 100 of those vessels. It is a scandal that we have allowed this threat to grow. It must end. I shall go on fighting this issue until the Government bring it to an end.

11.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John MacKay)

We have had, as is usual, an interesting debate on fisheries. It has ranged more widely than the documents before us. I assure my hon. Friends and Opposition Members that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I will read carefully what they have said on those other matters. I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me if I concentrate on the matters that my right hon. Friend and I have to discuss in Brussels tomorrow. I hope that the outcome of the Fisheries Council will be as successful from the British point of view as the outcome of the Agriculture Council over the past days has been for British farming.

I think that the right place to start is with the problem of the cod and haddock TACs. Undoubtedly, the industry is concerned about the reduction proposed by the scientists and the Commission in the TACs for those two most important white fish stocks in the North sea. It is well worth reminding the House that the scientists advised a figure of 120,000 tonnes. In the negotiations with Norway, we reached a figure of 140,000 tonnes, 20,000 tonnes above the figure recommended by the scientists.

I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie), and I well understand his plea that we should try to find another 20,000 tonnes, but one has to be cautious about that. My hon. Friend quoted my speech in Aberdeen last Friday, but I noticed that he did not quote the end of it, which was also reported, when I said that Ministers had to be careful that we did not put quotas on fish that meant that the fishermen lived now and paid later. It is not just next year's fishing that has to be protected, but fishing and jobs in the years after that.

I say to hon. Members who mentioned the matter that my right hon. Friend and I are well aware of the problem, but we have to take not just next year but the longer term into view. We have agreed that a review will be carried out as early as possible next year, but we have to wait for the final 1986 catch details, which will not be known for some time.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan that 140,000 tonnes is out of the ordinary. In fact, it is above the level of the landings in three years this decade—1980, 1981 and 1984. My hon. Friend may be right when he tells me that landing this year will be up to the quota level, but that just underlines the importance of waiting before we move any further from the scientists' advice until we have this year's final figure. There will be no one more pleased than me if, when that evidence comes before us, we can move this important quota up to 165,000 tonnes, or as near as we can get to it.

I think that everyone agrees that the stock of North Sea cod is under pressure. The fishermen have explained the argument about haddock to me, but there is little argument about cod. The 125,000 tonnes agreed with Norway was the maximum figure that the scientists were prepared to allow. Although we shall consider the details in the Fisheries Council, it would be unfair to everyone to suggest that, just because it would be nice to come back with more fish, we should do so. As I said, the dangers for the following years are considerable.

There was no reference to the following point, but I shall mention it now. We need only look back to see what happened to herring in the North sea. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) said that the market and the taste were lost. Although we now have a good amount of herring, we have lost much of the British market. That reminds us of the danger of overfishing and how quickly the stock can decrease if the pressure becomes too great. That goes to the point about why we cannot plan three or five years ahead.

I was asked why the saithe TAC has decreased. This reflects the scientific advice that fishing mortality is at its highest level since 1970 and has led to a low level of spawning stock. Obviously, that is serious.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) mentioned other possible means of conservation and drew my attention in particular to the German bight closure. He asked why the idea had been rejected. It has not been rejected. We are supporting it, but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, it would mean considerable difficulties for other member states. I cannot promise the House that we shall achieve that aim, but it has not been rejected at this stage. I am sure that everyone fully recognises the difficulties.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the proposals by the Commission of the European Communities set out in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's two unnumbered explanatory memoranda of 10th December 1986 on 1987 total allowable catches and quotas, and in the Ministry's unnumbered explanatory memorandum of 9th December 1986 on the EC-Norway fisheries agreement; of European Community Document No. 10549/86 on 1987 fish guide prices; and of the Government's intention to seek improvements in the proposed arrangements for the benefit of the United Kingdom fishing industry consistent with the requirements of conservation of fish stocks.