HC Deb 01 December 1988 vol 142 cc902-28

5.4 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

I beg to move:

That this House takes note of the Commission's amended proposals on total allowable catches and quotas for 1989 described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 30th November 1988, European Community Document No. 9312/88 on total allowable catches and quotas for 1989, the Commission proposal on the 1989 Reciprocal Fisheries Agreement with Norway described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 23rd November 1988, the Commission proposal on mesh sizes described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 30th November 1988, European Community Document No. 9185/88 on fishery guide prices and of the Government's intention to negotiate the best possible fishing opportunities for the United Kingdom fishing industry for 1989 consistent with the requirements of conservation of stocks. We are grateful, as on previous occasions, to the Select Committee on European Legislation for its consideration of documents referred to in the motion. I am sorry that complete proposals were not available for its meeting on 23 November, but we were able to provide these For consideration at its meeting yesterday. I realise that the Committee and the House have been asked to address the fisheries opportunities for 1989 with only short notice of the Commission's full proposals. I agree that that is unsatisfactory. With advice from the scientists delayed until the autumn surveys, and the December Council of Fisheries Ministers meeting having been brought forward, we have all been squeezed. That explains the short notice. This is, however, a very important debate, and we thought it right to have it in good time to enable us to take full account of the views of the House in our preparations for the Council of Fisheries Ministers meeting next week.

First, let me report to the House the outcome of the Community's annual consultations with Norway which concluded in the early hours of this morning. The details of this are in an explanatory memorandum which was placed in the Vote Office earlier today. Briefly the agreement confirms the Commission's proposals for total allowable catches of North sea cod and haddock. Which are jointly managed with Norway. It modifies the Commission's proposals to reduce the TAC for western mackerel by 20 per cent. to a 12.7 per cent. reduction, but a reciprocal cut in Norway's own quota has been achieved. Importantly, Norway has agreed to flexibility in catching the western mackerel stock east of 4 deg west to which I will refer later. Our herring opportunities will be slightly greater than last year. Our quota for cod in north Norway will, however, be almost halved under the agreement because of the state of the stocks but our distant water fleet can look forward to increased opportunities off west Greenland. I shall return to some of these matters later.

1988 has been a mixed year for the United Kingdom fishing industry, and one not without its difficulties. The total value of landings during the first three quarters of the year was 5 per cent. lower than in the same period in 1987, but that was a record year. Fishermen are fully aware that the fisheries management decisions are certainly not the only reason for that slight decline. In some cases, the fish, for purely biological reasons, have not always been sufficiently plentiful for legitimate quota opportunities to be fully exploited. And there have been cases where the industry itself has found it difficult to manage its own sectoral quotas to the satisfaction of all those directly involved.

During this year we have seen cuts in quotas of cod at north Norway and Svalbard, although that has not unduly fettered the industry as there is still some quota left to take. We have found the quota for Channel cod inadequate but have not been able to take anywhere near the quota for North sea haddock because of the state of the stock.

There are, however, plus points. We achieved a change in the minimum landing size for nephrops which has helped the west of Scotland and northern Irish industries without adversely affecting the North sea. We have changed the price arrangements for herring so that the withdrawal system can operate and carry-over premia obtained. We have secured a ceiling on expenditure on the costly tuna regime. We see on 1 January 1989 the final step to the introduction of a 90 mm mesh size in the North sea, which should assist conservation of the stocks.

The main purpose of this debate, however, is to look to the future and in particular the prospects for 1989. The Commission's proposals present a clear picture of what these might be. I do appreciate that in some respects these are a cause for concern.

As I have often stated, not least on the last occasion that we debated fisheries, the Government are firmly committed to the conservation and efficient management of all the fish stocks on which our industry depends. We must ensure that short-term gains do not imperil the longer-term viability of the industry, and that point cannot be repeated too often because it is of such importance for the long-term stability and prosperity of our industry.

The Commission's proposals on total allowable catches where available reflect the objective advice of international scientists. Where sufficient scientific data is not yet available, less stringent though equally important precautionary TACs are recommended. These are designed to reflect the needs of the industry provided that the level of effort by the fishermen shows no significant growth.

The TACs for the main whitefish stocks in the North sea are, as I have already said, subject to agreement with Norway during the annual consultations. The Commission and Norway in provisionally fixing the TACs for 1989 have had very much in mind the scientific advice which seeks a general cut in mortality rates for these stocks of 20 per cent. This approach is necessary in order to improve the exploitation pattern in the North sea for what is essentially a mixed fishery. The proposal is intended to have the very desirable effect of minimising the quantity of discards, particularly in the whiting and the hard-pressed haddock fishery.

The proposed TAC for North sea cod is 124,000 tonnes and for haddock 68,000 tonnes. These proposals reflect the fact that we are heavily dependent upon individual year classes and a poor year class spells serious consequences for quotas. The spawning stock biomasses are at unprecedentedly low levels. The Government are well aware that both these proposals will present the fishing industry with severe cuts in their fishing opportunities and this is an issue which we will be examining with particular care in the Council meeting. However, we shall have to take proper account of the biological imperatives. We must ensure that we do not settle for short-term gains which will make the long-term losses even greater. The possibility of the collapse of those important fisheries might be at stake and we must bear that in mind and probe it particularly closely.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

Many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate which has now been truncated. It might be better if I did not give way and allowed my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to respond to the points that have been raised.

Mr. Wallace


Mr. MacGregor

If I gave way once, I would have to give way again. It is probably better that I do not give way in view of the shortness of time.

Mr. Wallace

The right hon. Gentleman is frit.

Mr. MacGregor

No, not at all. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to as many of the points that he can in the short time available.

For saithe and whiting where the proposed TACs are only very marginally different from last year at 170,000 tonnes and 115,000 tonnes respectively, the fisheries will be less restrictive, whilst for plaice the proposal is to retain the current TAC level of 175,000 tonnes. For North sea sole, which is not jointly managed with Norway, the Commission is proposing a TAC of 14,000 tonnes, as in 1988. In addition, given the close relationship between sole and plaice fisheries, the plaice TAC is recommended at a level which would require conservation measures to protect the associated sole fishery. On Monday the Commission therefore presented proposals for both a restriction of the size of beam trawlers in the North sea and an increase in minimum mesh size for the first six months of the year. I am aware that that is causing concern and we are urgently examining the likely impact on our industry in order to strike a balance between the difficulties that it might present to our industry against the long-term gain of healthy sole stock levels. As on previous occasions, we shall be exploring the possibility of enhancing our quota through a swap with another member state.

We are disappointed that the Commission proposal for a precautionary TAC for Channel cod is no higher than this year's original TAC, prior to the upward adjustment made subsequently which we pressed for and achieved at the October Council meeting. We shall be pressing the Commission for a more realistic approach to such precautionary TACs. I am pleased, however, that the precautionary TAC for plaice in the Channel has been increased.

On the north-west coast of the United Kingdom the proposals are for a slight decrease in quotas of haddock, saithe, hake and anglerfish, which reflect mainly the annual variations in stocks that we have to expect with biological and environmental factors.

One of the most intractable problems facing the Community and Norway in recent years has concerned western mackerel. The House will be familiar with the difficulties which our own industry has faced in not being able to pursue the shoals as they have crossed the 4 deg west line from the western area into the North sea. It was with considerable disappointment that, notwithstanding the fact that the Commission negotiated the principle of flexibility with Norway a year ago, the Council failed last December, in spite of our considerable efforts, to agree to the implementing of this technical solution to a major Community problem.

In the interim, the difficulties have not gone away. If anything, they have increased. I therefore welcome the fact that the Commission has been able to negotiate again the principle of flexibility with Norway. The package this year is somewhat more comprehensive than formerly in that the Commission has now agreed with Norway to recommend to the Council that the autonomously determined western mackerel TAC should be set at a limit which will reduce the level of catches. That, however, is in line with scientific data available for this important stock. It is helpful therefore that the Commission has also been able to negotiate a more restrictive level of Norwegian catches in its exclusive zone north of 62 deg and that both parties are agreed on the desirability of protecting that stock.

At the Council last June when we found no support for flexibility around 4 deg west we warned that we would be raising the matter again. We did that strongly in October pointing out that the problem, far from going away, was, if anything, deepening and a solution had to be found. That prepared the way for the consultations with Norway and strengthened the Commission's resolve to secure the principle of flexibility. At the Council meeting next week we shall be pressing very strongly for the principle of flexibility around the 4 deg line to be implemented. I think that it is fair to say that with our unceasing efforts the Commission and other member states are very much more alive this year to the necessity to resolve this important technical problem.

Finally, on pelagic opportunities, I wish briefly to mention herring in the North sea. For 1989, scientific advice suggests a cautious policy in respect of the level of TAC. Consequently, the Commission has agreed with Norway that for 1989 that should be set at 514,000 tonnes. This should enable the spawning stock biomass to recover from current levels. In those circumstances, the Commission has again agreed the zonal attachment for Norway should be 29 per cent., representing 149,000 tonnes. However, the level of transfers by the Community to Norway will he considerably down on the 1988 figure of 53,000 tonnes to 17,000 tonnes, thus enabling opportunities for United Kingdom fishermen to be slightly above current levels.

Of course, once the TACs and United Kingdom quotas have been agreed, we have to decide on their allocation among our fishermen. For the main North sea and west of Scotland stocks, that involves allocations both to those producer organisations which have taken on quota management responsibilities, and to other fishermen in the so-called non-sector. We shall be aiming to better last year's timetable and, provided that we get the necessary information from the industry, we expect to notify interim allocations at the end of January.

We have also continued our strenuous efforts to deal with the quota hopper problem. The Merchant Shipping Act 1988 provides for new tighter registration arrangements for fishing vessels. I am glad to say that those arrangements came into effect today. They require that vessels on our fishing vessel register should be predominantly owned and controlled by British citizens resident in this country. I fully share the strong concern that has been felt in this House and among our fishermen on this issue, and I know that the new arrangements have been welcomed by our fishermen.

At the same time we have continued to defend vigorously the licensing conditions which we introduced to regulate the crewing and operations of fishing vessels with United Kingdom licences. The Advocate-General's recent advice to the European Court in the Agegate and Jaderow cases has been encouraging and we now await the court's decisions.

In addition to our national measures, we have also pressed for Community action. I am very pleased that the October Fisheries Council agreed new control measures which will allow us to require other member states to report to us on a vessel-by-vessel basis landings there by United Kingdom vessels and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the vigorous efforts that he made to achieve this. These measures were originally set out in document 4893/88 which is amongst those under discussion in the debate today.

The proposals for guide prices for 1989 were agreed at the Council on 28 November following the advice of the Scrutiny Committee that this debate need not hold up adoption. I am very pleased that we have been able to secure a seasonal price for herring which, coupled with the facility to use carryover premium for herring which we secured earlier this year, means that our industry now has a real chance to take advantage of the market support arrangements. The House may recall that the Community have had three reports on the herring market, the third of which is mentioned in the motion, which addressed the problem of herring marketing. That has been of particular concern, I know, to our pelagic fleet in Scotland. I am sure that the measures that we have now secured should give them a firm base on which to build. Other changes were comparatively minor, generally 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. difference or no change. From the comments that we have had from the fishing industry these prices would seem satisfactory.

To sum up, I recognise that this will not be an easy year for some of our fishing industry. Opportunities will be more limited, because of the position of the stocks. Nevertheless, by making the most of the swap mechanism, we hope to maximise usable opportunities to our industry. Let us remember that overall the common fisheries policy is serving us well as the value of landings has increased by 50 per cent. between 1983 and 1987 with only minor fluctuations in the tonnages landed.

Looking to the future, strong measures taken now on TACs should ensure better TACs in the future. We in the Community must also continue to develop sensible ideas on technical conservation measures which are complementary to TACs.

Mr. Archie Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

In fairness I said that I was not going to give way. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. This is their main opportunity in the year and it is important that they should have the chance to express their views. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will respond at the end. We shall both be at the important Council meeting and I shall be listening throughout the debate.

All this can be done within the framework of the common fisheries policy, to which we are fully committed. I shall listen carefully to the arguments and my hon. Friend and I shall be reflecting on all the points made during the debate.

I can assure the House that my colleagues and I will do all that we can at next week's Council to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for our industry within biologically safe limits so that we also preserve its future prosperity. I hope that that approach will have the support of the House.

5.20 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Here we are yet again at the tail end of the year—I almost said at the tail end of the bank—debating total allowable catches and quotas for the new year. I have a great deal of sympathy with the Select Committee on European Legislation which noted that

late publication by the Commission of its fisheries proposals is a perennial problem and reiterates the concern it expressed last year about this and the prejudicial effect on the chances for proper Parliamentary scrutiny. That is a significant problem for the House. Here we are, four weeks from the end of the year, and we are just debating the proposals for TACs. That is no way to manage an ice-cream cart, let alone an industry which gives employment to 120,000 people, many of whom live in remote constituencies.

Most of our 17,000 fishermen are facing a bleak—not an uneasy—new year with some of these TACs. In May this year, speaking at the annual general meeting of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, the Minister said: The Common fisheries policy has brought the British fishing industry stability and prosperity … under the CFP the industry can look to the future with confidence. Not many of them can look to the near future with any confidence.

The Minister has repeated today that the CFP appears to be working fairly well, but British fishermen are much less sanguine than he appears to think. White fish prices are down. They continue to decline and here we are facing a savage cut in certain quotas.

I feel deeply sorry for our fishermen. We cannot blame them for some of the hostility that they are now displaying towards the CFP. Among fishermen, the CFP commands the growing disrespect and lack of trust that many of our farmers show towards the common agricultural policy.

One stark example of that anger and distrust has been expressed recently by the English Channel fishermen who depend largely upon cod, but, unlike the French, are denied reasonable and fair access to the stock. I think that I am correct in saying that the French share of that particular cod quota is 76 per cent., while our fishermen are given a miserly 8.3 per cent.

The British fishermen suffered a closure of the Channel cod fishery in the middle of April. It was opened for two weeks in October and, I am pleased to be able to say, thanks to the prompt delivery of the press release from the Ministry, it was reopened yesterday at 2400 hours.

That two-weeks fishing effort was damaged, as many other cod fisheries were damaged, by the supply of Icelandic cod, principally to the Humberside markets. Fishermen in England and Scotland have sufferd from those Icelandic supplies. Is it the case, as many fishermen allege, that supplies are coming in from Iceland below the reference price? If so, it is a disgrace.

There is no way that the French will agree to any revision of the share of the cod fishery catch. They will defend the CFP with all the charm that they display in their defence of the CAP. However, changes should be made to give our Channel fishermen a better deal. We should also be demanding a better deal for fishermen throughout the United Kingdom.

Following the Minister's excellent lead, let me hurry along without too many interventions to talk about the proposed TACs for 1989. First, trying to be even-handed in what I have to say about TACs and quotas, I am pleased that the United Kingdom vessels will be able to harvest 2,700 tonnes of west Greenland cod. I should declare a family interest since I have a brother who is the mate of a freezer trawler and that may give him some employment. Naturally, I am pleased about that, but why he wants to go fishing in those dreadful waters God alone knows.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

The hon. Gentleman has a better paid job.

Dr. Godman

I am the fair-weather fisherman in the family.

As the Parliamentary Secretary says, that figure, in one of these infernal numberless documents, represents an increase of about 200 per cent. Will he give an assurance that that Greenland catch will be equitably shared among those vessels which have the safety provisions to fish those harsh waters? There should be a fair share of that Greenland catch.

Another sensible proposal referred to by the Minister and contained in another of the documents is the introduction, for the first half of 1989, of a mesh size of 120 mm for the beam trawlers. Despite the problems to which the Minister referred, that is a good proposal and it should enable the growth of the depleted spawning stock.

There is precious little else to commend in the documents. For those fishermen who harvest North sea haddock and cod, the prospects are exceedingly bleak. As Mr. Robert Allen, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, has recently observed:

There is no doubt that the latest scientific advice about the state of the North Sea haddock and cod fisheries is extremely pessimistic and, as fishermen with a vital stake in the future well-being of these stocks, we have to take cognizance of this and be prepared to discuss the relevant conservation issues in proper and reasoned consultation with our scientists. Mr. Richard Banks of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisation has also expressed serious reservations about the proposed TACs. It appears that the United Kingdom fleet faces the dismal prospect of a fishing quota of 46,000 tonnes of haddock compared with 128,000 tonnes in the current year, and for 55,000 tonnes of cod compared with this year's total of 71,000 tonnes. Those are wild and dismal fluctuations from one year to another, which is unscientific.

Fishermen must adhere to the needs of fisheries management and must listen to what the scientists have to say. Our fishermen acknowledge the need to do so and are not as avaricious as, for example, Japanese whalers. They will listen to scientists' warnings and predictions, but sometimes I think of such utterances and statements as being as elegant, accurate and precise as an old side-trawler staggering and wallowing through the Pentland Firth in a force eight gale. I believe that is how such statements are viewed by many fishermen.

Scientific assessments of the state of valuable fishing stocks should be examined in a tough-minded and realistic way. Current scientific dependence on precautionary TACs are an example of what I mean. They are based on guesswork and not on rigorous analysis of the fishing stocks. Again I quote Mr. Allen: If there is no change in the proposed agreement terms on cod and haddock, the Scottish white fish fleet will be faced with the prospect of a prolonged programme of tie-ups in 1989. Both the SSF and the NFFO have expressed fears that a drastic reduction in the domestic catch will encourage Icelanders to send even more fish to the United Kingdom. That view is shared by the Grampian regional council. A letter from its chief executive that I received yesterday informs me: With the threatened serious reduction in home supplies of fresh fish in 1989 the case for better control of Icelandic imports appears overwhelming. The Council trust that Government will be able to secure a formula, in collaboration with the EEC, which allows in sufficient supplies to keep the processing industry active, but at a price that does not further depress the earnings of the British catching fleet. I say to the Minister who will be winding up this debate that, as part of such a formula, it might be worth while examining with the Icelandic Government the possibility of resuming British fishing activity in Icelandic waters. I know the Icelanders well, and as they are overwhelmingly dependent on fish, I have the idea that they will refuse to discuss such an innovation. However, raising the subject will at least show them that the House and the Government are deeply concerned about Icelandic imports and their effect on the livelihoods not only of fishermen but of those working in ancillary industries.

I do not want to keep the Minister too busy, but I have another question to ask. I remind him that, in agriculture, overproduction has led to a plethora of remedies, one of which is the set-aside scheme. With their savage cuts in the fishing effort, it seems that the Government are agreeing to a fishing set-aside scheme. Are they currently considering proposals for a fisheries set-aside? If so, fishermen should surely receive the same sympathy that is extended to hard-pressed farmers; why should fishermen be treated differently? Do the Government have any such proposals —I nearly said, on the stocks?

In truth, too many fishermen are pursuing too few fish. That is acknowledged throughout the Community, with the exception of the French and the Spanish. Recently, it was conceded by the Danish fisheries Minister, Lars Gammelgaard, in a speech he made in Esbjerg, that The Danish fishing fleet is too large in relation to the amount of fish it is permitted to catch. That problem is shared throughout the Community. He added that at the beginning of 1987, fishing vessel tonnage amounted to 136,000 gross registered tonnage but it had since been reduced to about 127,000 GRT at present, and predicted a fall by the end of 1989 to 117,000 GRT. That is very different from the British experience.

In that regard, the British Government failed to act decisively. In the task of matching the fishing fleet's capacity to the viability of the fish stock, they have been incompetent.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Godman

No, I shall follow the Minister's exemplary lead.

How will the Government meet their obligations to the multi-annual guidance programme for 1987–91? Is it not the case that, in the absence of a fair and reasonable decommissioning scheme, the United Kingdom fishing fleet will remain at its present level? In his latest annual report, the chairman of the Sea Fish Industry Authority comments: Expansion was the 1987 theme for the UK fleet. By the end of December it had 1,951 vessels of 40 ft and over. Elsewhere in the same report, he observed: Ageing continued to be a problem, with more vessels crossing the 26-year-old threshold. At 646 boats, this total increased by 68. Almost two-thirds of Northern Ireland's boats were in this category. That means that instead of there being a noticeable reduction in the fleet's capacity there has been an increase. We are heading in the wrong direction.

Is it not the case that, if the Government are to honour their obligations, they must implement a reduction in fleet capacity in excess of 11 per cent. before the end of 1991? If so, how will it be achieved—by natural wastage, or by tying up ships because of the savage TAC reductions?

We supported the Merchant Shipping Act 1984 which sought, among other things, to reduce the number of Spanish-based vessels fishing under United Kingdom quotas. We were happy to support the Secretary of State in that respect, but unfortunately that sensible Act has been challenged in the European Court and certain sections may have to be repealed. In addition to removing vessels that are not engaged in fishing, the Government must reintroduce a decommissioning scheme.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

On decommissioning grants, is my hon. Friend aware that when those grants were given before they were given exclusively to owners and that the fishermen who served on the vessels received nothing? There has been pressure on the Government to provide some form of compensation; one is only talking about 3,000 or so individuals. Does my hon. Friend agree that some cases have been outstanding for five or six years and have not been heard by the courts? There is terrific concern and a feeling of betrayal—certainly in the port of Hull. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good thing for the Minister, with his new responsibilities, to talk to his counterpart in the Department of Employment and ascertain whether a political decision can be made to solve a problem that has existed for many years?

Dr. Godman

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Of course, he is absolutely right: the trawler owners who received decommissioning grants did fantastically well out of them. The owner of the Pict received over £500,000, in addition to the £500,000 or so that he received in construction grant. The owners laughed all the way to the bank, but the fishermen were treated very badly.

In the short run, the Government must do all in their power to mitigate the appalling effects of the severe reductions in the 1989 North sea catch figures for haddock and cod. The Minister must reduce the effects of the cuts by referring to The Hague preference, which limits the reductions imposed on United Kingdom fishermen if they lead to social and financial difficulties. The imposition of The Hague preference in regard to haddock should mean that the TAC should not go below 60,000 tonnes for United Kingdom fishermen. Even that is an appalling reduction, but I think that the industry would survive such a drastic measure, and I should be grateful for such a commitment from the Minister.

I hope that the clearing banks involved in the fishing industry will act sensibly and sympathetically towards their fishermen clients, who do not need harassment from the banks at this time.

The industry itself has offered radical solutions to the problems bedevilling the Government and the catching sector. They include the acceptance of a tighter licensing scheme which would involve the licensing of all bona fide fishing vessels, including those with an overall length of less than 10 metres. The Government must also reintroduce a fair and reasonable decommissioning scheme that will encourage older fishermen with aging vessels to leave the industry in a sensible way. They deserve no less from the Government and from the House.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

There is a great deal of interest in the motion, and in the best interests of all concerned I hope that hon. Members will respond to my appeal for short speeches.

5.42 pm
Sir Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

I will do my best to follow your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is only fair to all those who wish to speak.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has said about the worries that beset our fishermen. That is not surprising, because they are well known and I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's knowledgeable interest in the subject.

Our views are voiced out of concern for the fishermen. I speak on behalf of the inshore fishing fleet of Scarborough and Whitby. Despite all the worries, there is still a great respect for my right hon. Friend the Minister, and an understanding that he is doing his best in very difficult circumstances. My local fishermen are also grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for having taken the trouble to meet them personally as soon as he took office. That was much appreciated.

My hon. Friend will have discovered the deep concern that was felt, particularly about North sea cod quotas. In 1985 the quota was 250,000 tonnes; last year it was 160,000, and this year the Commission's proposed quota —as recommended by the international scientists—was down to 124,000, a further drop of some 22.5 per cent. That is bound to create serious difficulties, which I hope will not be made worse by late announcements of quotas for the various parts of the country. I know that that will depend on how quickly the figures are available.

That latest quota reduction will cause my local fishermen real hardship. I have always said, and I still believe, that the Community agreement had to be reached: even if we had not been in the Community there would still have had to be an agreement with the countries bordering on the North sea. But, having reached that good agreement at the outset, we must ask whether the quota system is working. Many fishermen feel that it is not, and that unfairnesses are creeping in. I do not think that there are any deliberate unfairnesses, but the exact methods of calculation must be explained as fully as possible so that there are no more mysteries about the results.

The truth is that there are simply not enough fish in the North sea for everyone to catch as many as they want, but perhaps we can find a close season for spawning. I understand that there are difficulties, but we finally managed to arrange a close season and a ban on herring fishing off the Yorkshire coast. More particularly, is it not possible to find a close area for the "nurseries" so that the young fish can grow and there is a better catch in the long run? That idea seems to have a good deal of support among local fishermen.

Are other factors, perhaps environmental or biological, involved in the absence of sufficient fish? I have made some inquiries, and I do not believe that there are enough facts to make that theory believable. One or two fishermen, however, have raised it in connection with the quality of fish that they are catching.

I know that the Minister is doing his best despite great difficulties, and I hope that the local fishermen will find that they can pull through despite the new and greater restriction imposed on them. If quotas are reduced and fishermen's livelihoods are made more difficult, it is even more important that the conditions under which they fish and the port facilities should be the very best that can be made available.

If fishermen are obliged to catch fewer fish, it is important that the fish that they are allowed to catch should be of the highest quality that can command the highest price. The port and handling facilities, the arrangements with the processors and the marketing of fish should be brought completely up to date. Scarborough and Whitby want all the help that they can get. They are going through a difficult time.

I wish my right hon. Friend every success in the negotiations. Our good wishes go with him. I hope that he will fight as strenuously as I know he has fought in the past to ensure that further quotas are obtained for those who fish for cod in the North sea.

5.51 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I welcome the opportunity of this debate in advance of the meeting of the Council of Ministers which is to be held on 12 December. It will help the Minister to understand how anxious hon. Members on both sides of the House are about the drastic cuts in the total allowable catch, particularly those for cod and haddock. I had thought that the presence of the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Treasury Bench showed that at last he had begun to take an interest in the fishing industry, but unfortunately he has gone.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wallace

No, I do not intend to give way.

These cuts in the total allowable catch, particularly of haddock, in Scotland will have a devastating effect on the economy and on the communities who live around the Scottish coast. It will have as devastating an effect on those communities as, for example, the redundancies that have been announced at Bishopton. That is the relative scale of the problem. It is regrettable that the Scottish Office Minister who usually answers questions about fishery matters in this House has not bothered to turn up for the debate.

I have already referred to the savage reductions in the TAC, particularly of haddock, which could lead to a £40 million withdrawal of income from the fishing industry. Many people might argue that the fishing industry is overreaching itself and that it does not have the interests of conservation at heart. Fishermen realise, however— perhaps more than anybody else—how important conservation is to the long-term interests of the industry. They know that tomorrow's short-term easy gain jeopardises the long-term benefits to the industry.

It is also important to point out that the TAC for haddock in all but one of the last five years has been no higher than that recommended by the scientists, and that in none of those years has the catch been higher than the TAC. When it was announced last year that there was to be an increase in the TAC for haddock, many people in the fishing industry queried the wisdom of that increase. Therefore, they have every right, when such a savage decrease is announced, to query its wisdom also.

There is something very wrong with the way in which the TACs are set. Such wild fluctuations from one year to another do not allow the industry to develop against a stable background. For that reason the Minister must grasp the importance and seriousness of the proposals, particularly those relating to haddock and cod. Their effects will be serious. Boats could be laid up, with devastating implications for the communities concerned. There will be a knock-on effect on the fish processing industry. The industry stands to lose £40 million on its haddock catch, but the loss of income to the processing side of the industry could be very much more and that would also affect the fishing communities.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) asked about The Hague preference. When I sought to intervene during the Minister's speech, that was the very point that I intended to put to him. It would have been useful if the Minister could have told us whether he intends to raise the question of The Hague preference when he goes to the Council of Ministers' meeting on 12 December.

Mr. Donald Thompson

The Hague preference was raised at the last meeting of the Council of Ministers. It will be raised again at the next meeting. I shall deal with that matter in my speech.

Mr. Wallace

I am grateful to the Minister for making that clear. It is useful to know that The Hague preference will be raised by Her Majesty's Government at the meeting on 12 December.

I understand that The Hague preference sets a bottom line limit of 60,000 tonnes of haddock. If the agreed amount for the whole of the North sea, shared between the EEC and Norway, is 68,000 tonnes and Norway gets its share, and if we allow for any industrial by-catch, that leaves about 1,500 tonnes to be shared among all the other EEC countries. That being the case, is the Minister able to deliver on The Hague preference? If he is not prepared to give the House an assurance that he can deliver on The Hague preference, is he prepared to say that he is willing to open up again the agreement on the 68,000 tonnes between the EEC and Norway and to renegotiate that amount? We must know the answer to that question if the fishing industry is to be reassured. Even 60,000 tonnes represents a very serious decrease in the total allowable catch for the current year. It will put enormous strains on the industry.

The Minister may say that he will seek a mid-year review. I suppose that that would be better than nothing, but it would still put enormous strains on the industry. It would have to look forward to working during the first six months under tight constraints and with no Teal expectation of an increase. We want more than just the possibility of a mid-year review.

The Minister referred to fishing for mackerel east of 4 deg west. He knows that that is important to my constituency. He referred to the agreement that has been reached with the Norwegians and to the number of occasions on which Her Majesty's Government had suggested at Council of Ministers' meetings that there should be flexibility. He also said that an agreement had been reached with Norway for the forthcoming year. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will say why he thinks that there will be even greater prospects in 1989 of the United Kingdom being able to achieve agreement with her EEC partners on flexibility.

I have received representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) about the cod quota for the United Kingdom as it affects fishermen in Devon and Cornwall, particularly those who can fish only inshore. They feel that the United Kingdom quota should be increased to take account of the fishing needs of that area. I should welcome the Minister's comments on that point.

When does the Minister expect a decision on the current licensing review? If the fishing industry is expected to reduce its capacity this year by 16 per cent., by how much more is the industry to be asked to reduce its capacity by the EEC to take account of lower total allowable catches? That fear must be in the hearts and minds of those who are engaged in the fishing industry. This Bench and the industry never had much confidence in the previous licensing system as an effective means of conservation. I look forward to the Parliamentary Secretary saying when we can expect an announcement about the Government's proposals for a future licensing system.

The Minister showed remarkable complacency. It cannot be denied that in recent years the income of the fishing industry has gone up, but the Minister cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the common fisheries policy is working well when in 1988 the haddock TAC shoots up, and in 1989 it shoots down. Something is fundamentally wrong, and it is sheer complacency for the Minister to say that all is well.

6 pm

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

The purpose of the debate, coming just before the annual meeting of the Fisheries Council, is really to gauge the feeling of fishermen around our coasts. I follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) quite often, and I am always struck by the fact that there is almost a uniformity of opinion among fishermen, he they from my part of the world in the far south-west of the United Kingdom or from his part of the world in Orkney and Shetland. Let me acknowledge straight away that fishermen in the south-west do not face the cuts that face fishermen in the North sea. However, one has to recognise that cuts or pressures on one species or one area often have a knock-on effect on other species and in other areas.

Although in his concluding remarks the hon. Gentleman was somewhat critical of my right hon. Friend, no Minister, whatever his attitude—and we have an excellent Minister in my right hon. Friend—can create fish when there are no fish. We all have to acknowledge that the catching capacity of the United Kingdom fleet has increased dramatically, as have the catching capacities of the fleets of other nations in the European Community. Unfortunately, fish stocks in general have not increased by anything like the same amount, and in some species stocks have decreased. That is a problem we face today.

Because of those factors there has undoubtedly been a marked change in attitudes expressed in the debate and the attitudes of fishermen in the past few years. In the past couple of years this debate has been quite optimistic. Everyone has recognised that the fishing fleet has done pretty well. In the past 12 months, there has been a change in mood.

A couple of weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was good enough to come to a Committee Room and meet representatives of fishermen of Devon and Cornwall and hon. Members representing Devon and Cornwall. I am sure that it was clear to him that a change of mood has taken place this year. I am glad to say that he is coming to Newlyn in my constituency on Monday and I believe that he is going on to Brixham in Devon later that day. The fishermen there will have an opportunity to tell my hon. Friend exactly what they feel. I suspect that the Minister will have a robust meeting because the mood has changed and the unease which existed perhaps even a year ago has now given way to deep disquiet, and, among some fishermen, to anger.

The concern of those fishing the waters off south-west Cornwall and Devon has centred largely on cod, which appears to be in some abundance. The quotas are not fixed on precise scientific evidence or data—although I share the views of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about some of the attitudes of scientists. However, the cod quota is certainly based on a precautionary TAC. The evidence faced by the fishermen does not bear out the thinking behind that precautionary TAC and the quotas that stem from it.

For historical reasons, the United Kingdom quota for cod in the Channel is very low compared with the extremely large French quota, and that is a constant source of anger. There is nothing worse for a fisherman than to catch fish, sometimes by accident, and because the quota has been exceeded or because a stop has been put on catching, to have to throw those fish back. I believe that that is one of the main sources of anger felt by many fishermen in Devon and Cornwall today.

If one word can sum up the hopes of many fishermen in Cornwall and Devon, it is "flexibility". We do not like it, but we realise that it is difficult to get larger increases in quota. We have had a small increase this year and we hope that the Minister will press for a larger quota for Channel cod in particular. I was a Member of the European Parliament for five years and am aware of the constraints involved for any Minister in negotiating quotas with our partners in the European Community. Frankly, sometimes there has to be horse trading, and that cannot always be easy.

I am convinced that better management of the existing quota for cod in the Channel is not only possible but absolutely necessary and that there is a greater need for flexibility in the management of that quota. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider that point.

Time is pressing, so I shall mention just a couple of other issues. First, the mackerel box fortunately has not been a great matter of contention between me, as an hon. Member representing the south-west, and Scottish Members, as it has been in the past. Without trying to provoke a row, I must say as gently and as nicely as I can that I utterly reject the views of one Scottish fisherman reported in Fishing News who claimed that the mackerel box, the conservation area for mackerel off the south-west coast, was a political box. It is not. It is a genuine conservation measure to safeguard and protect the juvenile mackerel which are found off the south-west coast.

Frankly, I should like some relaxation of the box if, and only if, that were possible within the framework of conservation. I am dreadfully conscious that the few processors in the south-west are feeling the very marked effect of the box on their activities. If it were possible to have a small local fishery without driving a coach and horses through the conservation aspects of the box, nothing would give me greater pleasure than for a local fishery to be opened, but we cannot afford to have the Klondikers back in the box servicing a bigger fishery, as that would be a dreadful mistake.

I now turn to a theme which I have raised in every fisheries debate since I entered the House and at every opportunity in the European Parliament—the scourge and the scandal of the Spanish flag of convenience. I am very pleased indeed that, as my right hon. Friend has said, on this very day the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 comes into force. We hope that its provisions will deal once and for all with the scandal, and will result in the Spanish boats being taken off our register so that they no longer fish against our quotas to the detriment of our own fishermen. I hope and pray that that will be the outcome of that piece of legislation.

However, putting legislation on the statute book is not enough. It also requires application to ensure that the legislation is implemented. My earnest plea to my right hon. Friend, and through him to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport who has the duty of implementing that legislation, is that strenuous attempts should be made to rid our register of the Spanish boats which have caused so much harm to our fishing industry. How we have put up with it for so long is really beyond my comprehension. If he gets rid of the boats, in a year of uncertainty, disquiet and even anger among our fishermen, that will be one really positive step forward.

The Minister has a difficult task at the Fisheries Council. I know that he will fight for British fishermen. He knows that behind him is the feeling in the industry that I have tried to describe, and I urge him to remember that when he attends the Fisheries Council meeting.

6.10 pm
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

I shall focus on one area in the interaction between the Government and the Commission—one that belies the claim in the motion that the Government will negotiate fishing opportunities consistent with the requirements of conservation of stocks. I refer to the Government's failure to prevent the moratorium on FEOGA assistance for the construction of fishing vessels in the United Kingdom. If we are to develop fishing opportunities consistent with the conservation of stocks, we should think about building up fleets that are undercapitalised, work with old and small boats and pursue stocks that could withstand larger catches. They are not pressure stocks. One example of that is the fleet in my constituency, and the same is true of many areas in the west of Scotland. The moratorium has hit such fleets especially hard and unfairly.

I say "unfairly" because the moratorium was a consequence of the general catching overcapacity of the United Kingdom fleet this year. The fleet in the Western Isles does not contribute to that overcapacity. It pursues nethrops, lobsters and crabs, which could easily withstand an expansion of catching capacity. Stocks of lobsters and crabs would benefit from more catching capacity. It is unfair that those fleets should have been so affected, and the responsibility for it lies squarely with the Government.

Earlier this year I visited Brussels to talk to people in the fisheries directorate of the European Commission to discover the thinking behind the moratorium and to see whether an exception could be made for the boats that do not affect overall capacity. That was impossible, but the clear message that I received was that the moratorium had been imposed reluctantly. It was imposed because of the Government's failure to meet the capacity agreement that they had reached, and their clear failure to give any practical signs that they were serious about resolving the problem of overcapacity.

An important short-term measure could be the introduction of decommissioning grants. The EC would be more than helpful in setting up a scheme. It is not good enough for the Government to decline to consider their introduction on the basis that the previous scheme was not used and did not work well. The failure of the earlier scheme was entirely the fault of the Government, and the use of the failure as an excuse not to proceed with the scheme now greatly compounds the Government's overall failings.

The Government's responsibility is clear. The problems have hit many fishermen who, using their limited capital, have made plans to develop their boats and fleets, with the assistance of the EC. The Government's failure to resolve the problem has cut their legs from under them. It is incumbent on the Government to pursue all possible solutions to the problems, especially of the fishermen who were caught out this year.

May I make one suggestion in relation to fishermen who had applied for FEOGA assistance this year but who were not even considered for such assistance? Some of them were on their last application for FEOGA assistance, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to urge upon the EC the possibility of fishermen whose cases were not heard this year having their applications rolled over into next year. Those fishermen do not pursue pressure stocks and work with small boats. They desperately need the capital. It is not fair that their applications, whose merits have not been heard because of the Government's failure to resolve the problem, should fall by the wayside.

I apologise to the Front Bench spokesmen for the fact that I shall not be here for the closing speeches because I must be elsewhere. I hope to return to the Chamber later tonight.

6.18 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I support the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) in saying that we cannot allow the problem of fishermen's compensation to go away. I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to do what he can to persuade his colleagues in the Department of Employment to consider these matters once the latest court cases have been dealt with.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that a difficult year lies ahead and that we must take every opportunity to use the facilities that are available to our fishermen.

The extensive documents involved in the proposals make for difficult reading and illustrate one of my main points: that too many bureaucratic regulations have a detrimental effect on our fishermen. I urge my hon. Friends to call for greater simplicity and a more straightforward approach. I hope that my plea is heard not only by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but in Brussels.

There is little doubt that complications in obtaining licences and transferring licences from one vessel to another, to say nothing of their intrinsic value, regardless of which vessel they are attached to, make life difficult for skippers and vessel owners. Therefore, I should like to see flexibility in the interpretation of the regulations and their enactment to take into account the difficult position in which individual fishermen find themselves.

In that context, I thank my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the way in which he recently dealt with a problem arising from the transfer of a licence from one vessel to that of a fisherman in Fleetwood in my constituency. The solution was satisfactory, and it was a correct interpretation of the regulations used sensibly.

I thank my hon. Friend also for taking the time recently to visit Fleetwood and to see at first hand the state of the fishing industry in that port today compared with what it was like many years ago. There is little doubt that, on the west coast and elsewhere, the industry needs all the support it can get from his Department to ensure that it remains viable within the context of the European community's fishing regime.

During his visit, my hon. Friend was interested in the initiatives that had been shown by the local council—the Wyre borough council—in setting up the fish dock management company, which is already taking steps to make the port of Fleetwood a better port and, in particular, improve facilities in the Channel. Another initiative is being taken by the council and by Associated British Ports to widen the scope of activities in the port of Fleetwood, in particular to build a marina.

I am keen to see at least one scheme that is already on the drawing board go ahead as soon as possible. The borough council and I want a scheme to be chosen that has in mind the interests of the fishing industry. Such a development has potential not only further to improve navigation and port facilities but to reduce the cost base of fishing activities out of that port—that is important—and, in so doing, make fishermen operating out of Fleetwood more able to compete with fishing fleets from countries abroad. There is little doubt that such developments will result in more employment both within the industry and elsewhere in the local community.

I stress the importance of one aspect, and that is stability within the quota system, as far as that is possible, bearing in mind the points that my right hon. Friend the Minister made earlier. Obviously, fishermen recognise the need for restraints on their activities to maintain fish stocks. They find it hard to understand the wide fluctuations that take place in their quotas almost from month to month. Additionally, the lateness in the year when provisional quotas are turned into firm quotas causes hardship.

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary knows, as late as September, the 1988 provisional quota for one skipper in my constituency was reduced by nearly 20 per cent., which effectively meant that he had to stop fishing. I sincerely hope that, in future, we can avoid that circumstance.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is taking such a close interest in fishing activities in Fleetwood and elsewhere. I urge him to continue to fight for simple, understandable regulations based on relatively stable, flexibly enforced quotas.

6.23 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am sorry that the Minister is no longer in the Chamber, as the burden of my remarks about the financial state of the fishing industry would leave him under no misapprehension at all. The Parliamentary Secretary will have to act as a substitute for the time being. I, too, detected a note of substantial complacency in the opening speech.

Fishing income depends on four factors: quantities, prices, interest rates and fuel costs. Already, two of those four vital factors are extremely adverse for the industry. I refer to the high level of interest rates and the low level of prices. My constituency has the largest concentration of white fish landings in Europe, never mind the United Kingdom.

I have a bundle of letters addressed to the Prime Minister. For the benefit of the Parliamentary Secretary, I shall read extracts from two of them. All constituents' letters are important, but those letters are particularly important because they say something not only about the financial state of the industry but about the character of the industry in Scotland. Our fishing industry is not composed of a small number of people or companies with extremely large boats. The fish-catching industry in Scotland is composed of small family-run businesses, share ownership, and people who work for those businesses.

One letter is from a young skipper's wife in Fraserburgh, who writes: The industry merits recognition but we feel that it has largely been neglected. What will happen when our men can no longer meet their bank interest payments and the banks start to repossess the boats, which no one will want to buy because they are no longer viable? The N.E."— of Scotland— will be left with a fleet of useless vessels and our livelihood will be gone. I won't go into lengthy personal details, but suffice to say that because my husband is struggling to maintain his bank interest payments on the boat I am not receiving enough to manage my household accounts etc. The fishing is the only way of life we know and there is little else in Fraserburgh for our men to do. We don't want to be wealthy, all we want is to be able again to manage. I have another letter from a group of fishermen's wives in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing): Our husbands are hunters—hunters of vital food supplies to a nation, hunters who must work in dangerous conditions and who must leave the comfort of their homes and the company of their families for long periods with the knowledge now that even 16 days at sea no longer secures even a living wage. There are many other examples in my correspondence. I shall take the liberty of sending that correspondence to the Parliamentary Secretary.

I refer to small businesses that are already facing extremely adverse economic circumstances in the last six months of this year. They involve people who have invested and modernised and are now facing penal interest rates. We cannot blame the Parliamentary Secretary for the misguided policies that are pursued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but we should have the answer to the questions. What possible benefit can there be for the United Kingdom economy to have interest rates at a level that will bankrupt vital fishing businesses? What possible merit can there be in driving out share-owned fishing businesses?

The focal point of the correspondence that I have received is Icelandic imports. People in the fishing industry strongly believe that such imports are undermining prices in the home market and are coming in at below reference prices. The research that I have been able to do suggests that the central problem is the grading system. Surely it must be looked at by the Parliamentary Secretary. Even in my limited research, I have been able to uncover examples of imported fish presently coming in at under reference prices. Therefore, it is with some surprise that I see no sign of Government action.

According to the Sea Fish Industry Authority's trade bulletin, the latest figures were released in September. That is a scandal. How can the Government possibly monitor developments in fish imports if the latest statistics are two months old? In imports of frozen fish from non-EEC countries there are three categories, one of cod and two of saithe, for which the average price quoted in the bulletin is lower than the reference price.

For example, the average price of other cod is £709 a tonne. The reference price is £869 a tonne. What is the Parliamentary Secretary going to do about this? Why is he not invoking the countervailing measures that are open to him, or going to the Commission to ask for countervailing action against these imports? Even on this dated evidence —there is every reason to believe that things have deteriorated since—imports are undermining the home market.

I take it that the Government realise that, if effective action against non-EEC imports is not taken, as is allowed in the Commission regulations, we face the prospect, with the quotas announced in these documents, of having the home-produced product further compressed, with the price not responding because of the flood of imports from Iceland and elsewhere. That would be the most serious position of all for the fishing industry.

I repeat the question asked by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The Iceland Government and people have every right to conserve their natural resources as they see fit, but it is for our Government, and other EEC Governments, to monitor and protect against the penetration into the EEC market from Icelandic imports. The Icelandic Government cannot have the bun and the penny. They cannot both secure their own natural resource and demand complete access to EEC markets. What will the Parliamentary Secretary do about the clear evidence that Icelandic imports are undermining the home market and are the cause of the collapse in prices that we have seen over the past three months?

As a means of control of fishery, the TACs are an extremely blunt instrument, as blunt as interest rates as a means of controlling the national economy. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has made a number of strong points to me and other Members, but one of the strongest is that we have enforced the recommended quotas for the past five years for both cod and haddock, and that on only one occasion—and that marginal—have the landings exceeded those quotas, imposed as a result of the original scientific advice given to the Community. Why is it, then, if TACs are an effective way to manage fishing stocks, that we now face a crisis in cod and a disaster in haddock?

To set TACs impossibly low risks the danger of a perverse effect because of the likelihood of increasing the number of discards. The Government will have to re-examine the management of fisheries to see whether TACs by themselves are effectively controlling fishing. Surely the fishing industry has to be controlled by effective management of capacity and the enforcement of protection for the spawning stock. It is not adequate for the Government to say that, just because the last decommissioning scheme was a national scandal, that is a reason not to have another. That is a reason for having a fair and honest decommissioning scheme and not repeating the mistakes of a few years ago.

The main point for Scottish Members in this debate is the dramatic and catastrophic decline suggested for the haddock TAC. I am sure that even the Parliamentary Secretary needs no reminding—if he did need reminding he would have to cope with the lack of a Minister from the Scottish Office to give him that reminder—that haddock is the mainstay of the Scottish fleet. It is the dominant species both by quality and by value. The proposed cut of 62 per cent. will strike at the heart of the Scottish fishing industry.

I have been looking at the Community documents and the documents presented to the House on this subject, because I, too, am interested in the "Hague resolutions" and what practical effect they can have on our difficulties. What is interesting is not just the meeting in The Hague in late October 1976, or the Council resolutions published on 3 November that year, but what was said to the House of Commons in the explanatory memorandum that was presented with these EEC documents.

The Foreign Office was negotiating the rights of Scottish and other United Kingdom fisheries, and it was painting a reassuring picture. The House of Commons was assured that the need to maintain the level of employment and income in coastal regions which are economically disadvantaged and largely dependent on fishing was one of the three main thrusts of the embryo common fisheries policy, which was being discussed. It was made clear that the vital needs of fishing communities in Ireland, northern Britain, and Greenland would be protected in the application of the common fisheries policy. It was also made clear that the Commission was thinking of further assistance to fishing regions, such as money from the European Investment Bank, or from the regional fund or the social fund. That is money that, incidentally, the north-east of Scotland has long been deprived of because of the Government's own regional policy.

It was said that the vital needs of northern Britain would be protected in the application of the common fisheries policy. We want to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary how these vital needs will be protected and whether the "Hague preference" and commitment will be redeemed. What does it mean in practice? Does it mean that the first 60,000 tonnes will be available for northern Britain to fish as part of the haddock quota? What guarantee has the House that that is his aim and intention, and that he intends to secure that 60,000 tonnes when he goes to the negotiations in Brussels? Will he give us a guarantee that, if that 60,000 tonnes is not forthcoming, he will renegotiate what has already been negotiated? As has been pointed out, even 60,000 tonnes would be a disastrously low figure for the Scottish fleet.

It is ironic that, only a few months ago, the Secretary of State was making a speech in Europe on Saturday 7 May, which was headed: CFP brings stability and prosperity". The fishing industry in Scotland, and the documents that we are discussing, do not promise stability and prosperity. The talk in the fishing industry in Scotland is of viability and survival. I suggest that the Secretary of State changes not only his speechwriter but the method by which, and the vigour with which, he pursues the defence of Scottish fishing interests in Brussels. I welcome the Minister back to our proceedings. Unless we hear from the Parliamentary Secretary that he will take positive and fighting action to defend the vital needs of the Scottish fishing industry, we shall have no hesitation in dividing the House on these documents.

6.37 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

It is not my intention to speak on many of the technical issues raised in the debate, which have been dealt with adequately by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and by many other hon. Members representing constituencies all over the United Kingdom. It is appropriate that I speak as a woman representing a fishing constituency, because my hon. Friend read out letters from the wives of many of our skippers and fishermen in Banff and Buchan and Moray. Many of these people are my personal friends, while others are constituents whom I do not know. This much I do know: they are women who are committed to the work that their husbands undertake. They are aware of the dangers and adversity that they face. They are not people who complain. It shows the depths of concern within our communities that the wives of our fishermen are at the stage of writing to the Prime Minister to state their views and to ask for assistance.

The fishing industry is not composed of people who belong to a breed of moaners. The fishermen do not come begging, time after time, for assistance. They are men who work against adversity. They are used to the difficulties of the industry, but the situation is now so critical that positive action to assist our communities is necessary. The fishermen in my constituency have put it to me firmly that they see the situation now as being worse than that which preceded the famous blockade in the 1970s in the north-east of Scotland. That surely must bring home to the Minister the strength of feeling among our people.

When women write to us, they are conscious of the investment made in the fishing industry by individuals, families and shareholders in our small communities. Boats now cost well into six figures; in some cases, it costs £1 million to buy a new boat. Mention is made of the possibility of tying up some of those boats, but the men cannot afford to tie up their boats because they are staring financial ruin in the face. They have to keep working to pay the interest and to ensure that the boat can continue to go to sea.

Many of the fathers in my constituency are now being asked for advice by their sons who want to follow in the family tradition of owning a boat, going to sea and making their living through the fishing industry. Those fathers are now placed in the impossible position of saying, "I would not advise you at this stage to contemplate coming into the fishing industry" because everything seems to be loaded against them. Prices have plummeted and it is now possible that we shall not have catches that make it worthwhile going to sea. There have been problems with licences and lack of grants for our fishermen. The whole quota situation needs to be reconsidered because of the difficulties experienced. That is the atmosphere in our small fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland and I am sure that it is reflected in other such communities round the coast.

Those communities need people to fight on their behalf. They deserve people arguing on their behalf at the Commission in Brussels. It is not good enough to say that The Hague preference will be put on the table. We want to know what kind of a muscle will be used to ensure that it is implemented. Here I echo the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan that we need a satisfactory response and, if we do not receive one, we shall press the matter to a Division.

We do not want to see the heart torn out of our communities. It is a matter not just of loss of jobs and earnings, but of the heart being torn out of our communities. We need action now and I hope that the Minister will argue most effectively on behalf of those women and fishermen.

6.41 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson)

It has been a very good debate this evening and I have listened with interest to every word. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) apologises for being absent, as does the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

I work closely with my noble Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Where is he?

Mr. Thompson

He is in the other House.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

He does not exist.

Mr. Thompson

Let us get on with the debate. It is very important. The noble Lord spends a great deal of time and energy explaining the problems and advantages of Scotland to my right hon. Friend and myself. I resent the attacks made upon him, but will not take the matter further. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) started with a fierce attack, but I shall not comment on that further as I do not want to stray from the issue.

I wish to say a few words about the great wodge of papers that hon. Members have collected from the Vote Office. The figures are still emerging and Opposition Members have been telling us tonight that we must change the figures in those documents. The Scrutiny Committee has been most generous in its acceptance of the documents at the last minute so that this debate could take place in an orderly and proper manner. The Committee's generosity was also displayed when it referred in one of the documents to the helpful information given by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

That leads me to thank all hon. Members for their understanding of our desire to provide the documents so that they can make relevant and informed speeches, as they have done. That would not have been possible without a great deal of hard work and dedication from my officials and those of the Scottish Office who have brought these documents to our notice very quickly.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to Channel cod and Icelandic fish, as did many other hon. Members. He asked about Greenland cod and whether we would do all we could to catch our total quota. I can assure him that we shall do our best to catch our total quota of Greenland cod this year, although we have not done so every year.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned scientific advice, as did other hon. Members. The scientific advice is the best advice that we have. As many hon. Members have said, the problem is that, in some respects, the advice fluctuates greatly. That does not give us a proper basis upon which to build an industry.

I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan and for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) who read us letters from their constituents. Those people may doubt the wisdom of scientific advice, but that advice, the quotas and the TACs are intended to protect not only the fishermen and their families, but their children's future.

As I have visited various fishing communities throughout the country, I have been impressed by the way in which various fishery committees and fishermen ask for greater conservation measures. I shall continue to visit those communities and, if I am invited by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, I shall come to Scotland too. I know that I shall be welcomed when I do. In Scarborough, for example, they are requesting a three-month moratorium on cod fishing. They also suggested an extension of boxes in which people could not fish, so that there could be conservation in the first three months of the year.

Mr. Salmond

The Minister is missing the point about the administration of the fishery by quotas alone. Surely, if he accepts that the scientific advice has by and large been followed over the past five years, that shows that the advice could not have been accurate during that time. The burden of managing the fishery cannot rest on quotas alone. Why do the Government refuse, for example, to introduce a decommissioning scheme?

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman has made his point twice. I shall not say that I was coming to it because I was in the middle of dealing with it, saying that there were other matters that we must consider, such as net sizes. The net size has been increased from 1 January 1988, but many fishermen contend that it has not been increased.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman wanted me to answer his questions, but I shall give way to him.

Mr. Kirkwood

The Minister appears to be arguing reasonable academic cases that will have to be addressed in the longer term. Everyone understands that, but he appears to have missed the point that there is no time left for some of those fishermen, particularly those fishing for haddock in constituencies such as mine, because they will not survive next year to take advantage of those decommissioning schemes.

Mr. Thompson

I intend to deal with decommissioning schemes and the money that we have spent over the past six years in commissioning and bringing the fleet up to date.

In response to the question by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, I see no possibility at present of a set-aside scheme for fisheries. Quotas have gained the same sort of value in the hands of fishermen as have milk quotas in the hands of farmers. That means that the chance for decommissioning is most precarious. It will be difficult to draw up a sensible decommissioning scheme while, in many parts of the United Kingdom, licences are changing hands at inflated prices.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) spoke about the licensing of vessels under 10m and I expected to hear more demands for their licensing. However, as soon as we license them—they seem to catch a small proportion of our fish—we immediately give a value to that licence, which would make it more difficult to introduce a decommissioning scheme.

Dr. Godman

Might it be the case that the measures outlined in the Ministry's consultation paper will ensure only that fishing capacity will stay around its present level? Is it the case that, by the end of 1991, the Government will have to bring about a reduction in the fleet of about 11 per cent.?

Mr. Thompson

It is right to bring about a reduction in the fleet of about 11 per cent. It is right to say that the only countries that are tackling the job at present are Denmark and Portugal. Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 we have given parliamentary time to tackling the job. The register has started today and we have had a favourable initial decision from the Advocate General which gives us hope that the policy will work. The quota-hoppers will then leave the fleet and we shall start to reduce it. We have held consultations and we must find positive ways to reduce capacity.

Before hon. Members become too impatient, I shall deal with The Hague convention. They will be pleased to know that we managed to raise the matter of The Hague convention at the last Council meeting in Belgium. [Interruption.] Let me get three sentences together. We did so under difficult circumstances. I understand the great anxieties of the people who want to fish at the same levels as last year.

Mr. Kirkwood

At viable levels.

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman asked for 60,000 tonnes—that is 22,000 tonnes less than last year. That is a viable level. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write that down, I shall read it out.

Mr. Home Robertson

I am intervening in case anybody feels it necessary to alter Hansard's record. There has been a spot of bother about that recently. Is the Minister talking about The Hague preference or The Hague convention? The two are very different.

Mr. Thompson

I am talking about The Hague preference. I shall fight for The Hague preference. We started to fight for it at the last Council meeting. I fully understand the importance that hon. Members give to the preference.

Mr. Salmond

What does the Minister mean by fighting for The Hague preference? Is he telling the House that he will accept nothing less than 60,000 tonnes of haddock and will he invoke The Hague preference to achieve that? If not, what will he do?

Mr. Thompson

I shall not tell the House how I intend to proceed. If I tell the House, I tell the Germans, Dutch, Danes, French and Italians how I intend to proceed. I have given hon. Members the assurances that they were seeking on this matter.

Mr. Wallace

I am not asking the Minister how he will go about the negotiations. I seek an assurance that at least 60,000 tonnes of haddock will be made available and that that will be the bottom line.

Mr. Thompson

I cannot give an absolute assurance.

Mr. Wallace

What is the status of the preference then?

Mr. Thompson

I shall argue about the status of the preference. The Hague preference must be argued about.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does the Minister understand that there is confusion among our sister European nations about our position? Haddock is an essential national resource in terms of the common fisheries policy for Scotland and the United Kingdom. We do not seem to be fighting our corner. If we did fight for a TAC for haddock, we should get support for that. From the Minister's tone this evening, I have the impression that he has no stomach for a fight.

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his insinuations. I realise the value of the haddock stock and our European colleagues realise its value to us. We need a balance on all stocks throughout the United Kingdom. It has taken a year's hard negotiation to maintain the 4 deg west provision. I know of the difference between last year's quota and this year's.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister speculate on how the fisheries Minister of an independent Scottish Government might treat The Hague preference and the Scottish fishing industry's vital need for haddock? Would such a person treat it as a vital matter, or with the Minister's casual attitude?

Mr. Thompson

That is a hypothetical question.

Dr. Godman

This is a serious question. I must have an assurance on the supply of fish from Iceland and The Hague preference. The Minister must assure the House that the Icelanders will not be able to exploit a reduction in the domestic catch of cod.

Mr. Thompson

I reiterate that the question put by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was a hypothetical question.

The United Kingdom delegation, with my noble Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office sitting next to me, will fight as hard as anybody for Scottish rights. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow gave the House some figures about Icelandic cod. There are various technical difficulties about the figures and they must be seen over a period of time. If he sends me them, I shall look at them carefully.

We have no evidence to date that imports from Iceland were below the levels. It will be difficult to negotiate with the Icelanders about fish because their livelihood depends wholly on it.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 150, Noes 37.

Division No. 5] [7 pm
Alexander, Richard Gorst, John
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Gow, Ian
Amess, David Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Amos, Alan Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Arbuthnot, James Gregory, Conal
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Ground, Patrick
Atkins, Robert Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Atkinson, David Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Hampson, Dr Keith
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Hanley, Jeremy
Batiste, Spencer Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Harris, David
Benyon, W. Haselhurst, Alan
Bevan, David Gilroy Hayward, Robert
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Heathcoat-Amory, David
Boswell, Tim Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hind, Kenneth
Brazier, Julian Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Browne, John (Winchester) Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Burt, Alistair Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Carrington, Matthew Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Cash, William Irvine, Michael
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Irving, Charles
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Jack, Michael
Cope, Rt Hon John Janman, Tim
Couchman, James Jessel, Toby
Cran, James Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Currie, Mrs Edwina Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Davis, David (Boothferry) King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Dorrell, Stephen King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Dover, Den Knapman, Roger
Dunn, Bob Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Durant, Tony Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Emery, Sir Peter Knowles, Michael
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Lawrence, Ivan
Favell, Tony Lightbown, David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lilley, Peter
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Fishburn, John Dudley Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman McCrindle, Robert
Fox, Sir Marcus MacGregor, Rt Hon John
French, Douglas Maclean, David
Fry, Peter McLoughlin, Patrick
Gill, Christopher McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael
Malins, Humfrey Sims, Roger
Mans, Keith Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Speller, Tony
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Stanbrook, Ivor
Mates, Michael Stern, Michael
Maude, Hon Francis Stevens, Lewis
Mitchell, Sir David Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Moate, Roger Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Morrison, Sir Charles Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester) Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Needham, Richard Temple-Morris, Peter
Neubert, Michael Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Thorne, Neil
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Thornton, Malcolm
Page, Richard Viggers, Peter
Paice, James Waddington, Rt Hon David
Patnick, Irvine Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Portillo, Michael Wheeler, John
Powell, William (Corby) Widdecombe, Ann
Raffan, Keith Wiggin, Jerry
Redwood, John Wilkinson, John
Rossi, Sir Hugh Wood, Timothy
Sackville, Hon Tom Yeo, Tim
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Tellers for the Ayes:
Shelton, William (Streatham) Mr. Kenneth Carlisle and
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Mr. Michael Fallon.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Commission's amended proposals on total allowable catches and quotas for 1989 described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 30th November 1988, European Community Document No. 9312/88 on total allowable catches and quotas for 1989, the Commission proposal on the 1989 Reciprocal Fisheries Agreement with Norway described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 23rd November 1988, the Commission proposal on mesh sizes described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 30th November 1988, European Community Document No. 9185/88 on fishery guide prices and of the Government's intention to negotiate the best possible fishing opportunities for the United Kingdom fishing industry for 1989 consistent with the requirements of conservation of stocks.—[Mr. MacGregor.]

It being Seven o'clock, and there being private business set down by THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 7 (time for taking private business), further proceeding stood postponed.