HC Deb 20 December 1989 vol 164 cc474-90 11.15 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I chose the broader subject of the United Kingdom fishing industry for debate rather than concentrate on particular crisis areas, because I hoped that that would allow right hon. and hon. Members from other parts of the country to reflect the concerns and wide geographical interest that were evident not only in last week's debate on the fishing industry but when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his statement earlier today, responses to which were made by right hon. and hon. Members representing constituencies in Cornwall, Northern Ireland, the south of England, north-west Scotland and the east coast, as well as by myself.

I thought that it would be useful, following the meeting of the European Council of Fisheries Ministers, to have a debate in addition to a statement so that the House can discuss critical issues that were the subject of negotiations at the Council. I hoped that such a debate would allow right hon. and hon. Members to flush out the Government's proposals for the industry's future.

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), for attending this debate. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could have taken place in the middle of the night and that the Minister might have already spent the two previous nights negotiating. I understand that he managed a reasonable amount of sleep last night, but spent all Monday night at the negotiating table.

It will not be surprising if the debate focuses on the outcome of the Council's meeting and on the other matters that the Minister mentioned in his statement this afternoon. When the House debated fishing last Thursday, there was broad agreement that Ministers should go to Brussels with the object of negotiating the maximum total allowable catches consistent with the scientific advice that the European Commission had received.

We knew that that would not be an easy task, because, for some reason still unexplained, the Commission, in its bilateral negotiations with Norway, initialled an agreement that set TACs for haddock and cod in particular at levels below those recommended by scientists.

Many right hon. and hon. Members, and particularly those representing fishing constituencies, know that, while it is difficult to persuade fishermen to observe TACs based on scientific recommendations, it is almost impossible to persuade them to observe TACs founded on some unexplained negotiating position adopted by the Fisheries Commissioner, Mr. Marin.

Fishermen will inevitably question the basis on which many scientific recommendations are made, and it is important not always to accept such advice as holy writ. Nevertheless, there is overriding concern to comply with such advice. There is genuine concern that haddock stocks in the North sea are reaching a critically low level, and the people working in the industry recognise more than anyone else that its future depends on taking a responsible attitude to conservation today.

I believe that the team representing the United Kingdom's interests achieved what was, in the circumstances, the best possible deal on TACs. As I said in response to this afternoon's statement, I feel that credit should be paid where it is due. The Minister, however, would be one of the first to recognise that the deal, although it was the best possible, was not a good one. The TAC for North sea cod, haddock and whiting in 1990 will be 110,000 tonnes, compared with 155,000 in 1989. That is a substantial cut, especially in view of the drastic reduction in the 1989 TAC from that of 1988.

I do not want to be accused of carping, as another hon. Member was this afternoon by the Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food—I do not know whether the pun was intended—but, as Mr. Speaker invited us to leave the detailed questions until this evening, I should like to deal with some now. I understand that, following the Ministers' success in invoking the Hague preference, the United Kingdom allocation of the North sea haddock TAC of 50,000 tonnes will be 36,300 tonnes. Prior to the negotiations, the Scottish Fishermen's Federation had estimated that, if the Hague preference was successfully invoked, the United Kingdom share would amount to some 38,800 tonnes. Can the Minister explain the apparent shortfall of 2,500 tonnes? Hon. Members may say, "What is 2,500 tonnes?", but with our TACs as low as they are it becomes a significant amount.

Can the Minister tell us whether the 50,000-tonne TAC includes an allocation to Norway of a 3,000-tonne by-catch? If it does, can he explain why that is much the same as the 1989 figure? As a proportion of the total allowable catch, the by-catch figure was much lower in the current year. Why, when the TAC has been so drastically cut back, has the haddock by-catch not been similarly cut?

Perhaps the Minister can also tell us why, although there was a reduction in the industrial by-catch of whiting amounting to some 20,000 tonnes, the whiting by-catch—which I understand to be 50,000 tonnes—is so much higher than the 20,000-tonne allowance for the current calendar year. I think that all hon. Members would agree that most fishermen fish for produce that will end up on the consumer's table, not for industrial purposes, and it is a source of mystery to many that the by-catch has shot up so much.

As for pelagic species, I welcome the flexibility that resulted from negotiations on mackerel in north Scottish waters, which will give much-needed help to the industry. That was, I think, one of the toughest parts of the negotiation, and a very satisfactory outcome was achieved—although I understand that again the TAC is lower. The Minister shakes his head: I welcome that reassurance.

This year, after many years of pressing, Lerwick in Shetland was given limited designation as a transhipment port for a certain amount of mackerel in September-October. That amount was used up very quickly, and it will come as no surprise to the Minister or to his Scottish Office counterpart that we shall try for more.

As some of the stocks are caught towards the east, it makes good sense, not only in commercial terms but in safety terms, for boats to go to the nearest port—which in many cases is Lerwick—rather than undertaking the longer and, in adverse weather, more hazardous journey to Ullapool.

The Commission conceded a 29 per cent. share of North sea herring to Norway when, if the current allocation agreement was followed, having regard to the spawning stock biomass, the share should have been only 25 per cent. This seems to have slipped through. I question the apparent generosity to Norway, which does not seem to have been explained. Why do negotiations have to be concertina-ed into a short time at the end of every year? The Norwegians can always hold a gun to the Commission's head because they know that it has to present proposals to the Council of Ministers in the second or third week in December. This year, some unsatisfactory arrangements were made which I am glad are to be renegotiated. Is it not possible for the negotiations with Norway to start earlier, so that we do not have this crisis period every year?

In his statement this afternoon, the Minister did not say anything about precautionary TACs on the north-west coast of Scotland for monkfish, megrim and plaice. They are based not on any scientific case, but on historical fishing. It is claimed that, for a number of species, not least monkfish, the status quo is unrealistic. The value of monkfish is great, and if the fleet is denied opportunities to fish for haddock or cod in the North sea, it might get some compensation by fishing for monkfish on the west coast. I should be interested to hear what negotiations there were on precautionary TACs. There will be disappointment that no great increase, if any, has been announced.

The sacrifices that are demanded of our fishermen in the next year as a result of these drastic reductions will be for naught if the vast volume of dead cod and haddock, especially juveniles, are thrown back into the sea after the TACs have been fully fished. Discard is a subject which everyone in the industry to whom I have talked recently has mentioned. They are no longer allowed to fish for haddock, but it is inevitable that, if they are fishing for other white fish species, they will catch a large volume of haddock which they are obliged to throw back into the sea, although dead. That seems almost counter-productive to establishing conservation by TACs.

If TACs are to be effective as conservation measures, they must be backed up by others. I welcome the Minister's announcement today that the Commission has committed itself to produce proposals for further technical conservation measures by the middle of next year. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation can claim to have set the ball rolling. It has given a responsible lead with a package of measures which it proposed much earlier in the year. Every opportunity should be taken to build on that co-operative approach. I should be interested to hear what kind of conservation measures were considered at the Brussels meeting.

There should be tougher and simpler enforcement rules to give proper effect to TACs. We must ensure that there is adequate funding of fishery protection vessels. Can any of the measures that have been proposed be introduced by the Government for United Kingdom waters ahead of agreement with our Community partners? It may be that we can make some advances towards more effective conservation, at least in local waters.

All those who know the industry accept, and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food repeated today, that conservation measures are tough. They are not easy, but the industry accepts the need for them and has put forward measures only after considerable negotiation. Nevertheless, they have been proposed by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation with support from the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisation. The Government should build on that spirit of co-operation in the industry.

Another suggestion which was not made by the industry but which may be worth considering is the possibility of identifying areas where spawning grounds or juvenile stocks predominate where it would be possible to have a closed season during some parts of the year. That would be bound to cause some controversy. Last week, I asked one fisherman whether it was a worthwhile measure, and he said, "If you propose it, all hell will break loose. You will be roundly criticised, but those who criticise you will go home and say, 'That guy is talking sense.'" Proposals to close off fishing grounds are always controversial, but, given the crisis in some North sea stocks, we must consider such possibilities.

Measures to conserve stocks will be defeated if there is too much capacity chasing limited stocks. The only effective solution is to reduce capacity through a decommissioning scheme. I have had no other suggestion which can meet the scale of the present problem. Many people recognise that decommissioning is the only way to achieve a significant reduction.

Clearly there will be a reduction in fishing opportunity. In return for a worthwhile success in getting the Commission to drop the two measures it had proposed for the management of our national fishing quotas, the United Kingdom Government have been asked to submit by the end of January proposals regarding the management of the reduced quotas and methods to reduce the fishing effort. I would welcome from the Minister a timetable of negotiation with the industry and proposals for meeting that requirement from the Commission. Undoubtedly, he will need the co-operation of the industry, but how does he expect to get it, considering that this afternoon's statement slammed the door on the proposal that the industry has supported for so long?

The statement said nothing about a temporary lay-off scheme, although that may have been included in the blanket dismissal of any form of subsidy. In the past, a temporary lay-off scheme has not been considered a particularly suitable or effective way of solving the industry's problems, not least because of the strict rules that have to be met and the relatively small sums of money provided for complying with the requirements. At present, almost anything would be welcome to ease the financial burden that inevitably will fall even harder on the industry. As other countries have managed to top up their decommissioning grants, is it possible for the Government to top up temporary lay-off schemes and make them financially worthwhile to implement and give boats over 18 m long at least some temporary respite?

Last week, the Secretary of State for Scotland poured cold water on the idea of a decommissioning scheme by quoting the criticisms of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. He asked how it would reduce the amount of fishing effort? In its 1987 report the National Audit Office questioned whether the removal of vessels under the earlier scheme did anything to relieve the difficulties of the fishing quotas that were under pressure. It would be difficult to target a scheme properly, as it is difficult in such circumstances for the Government to intervene effectively and precisely in an industry with so many active participants".—[Official Report, 14 December 1989; Vol. 163, col. 1246.] This afternoon the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food again used the excuse of the PAC as a reason why decommissioning might be inappropriate.

In fact, the report of the PAC made it clear that the PAC did not actually reject all decommissioning grants but, rather, noted that member states in 1986–87 were given options as to how the decommissioning scheme should be introduced. The report said: MAFF decided to introduce a regulatory approach, with provision for the automatic payment of a flat-rate grant. It is clear that this was exploited by some owners, and grants were paid in several instances at a level which exceeded the unlicensed value of the vessel … We consider that in drawing up the decommissioning scheme, the Agricultural Departments could have made much better use of the flexibility allowed by the relevant European Community directive. As a result, in our view the scheme was grossly expensive for what it achieved. But in its next conclusion—in the section of its report which I quoted in the debate last Thursday—it said that it saw some future use for decommissioning grants. It made it clear that it was objecting not so much to the principle of decommissioning as to the manner of operation of the decommissioning grant scheme introduced by MAFF in 1986.

One readily appreciates why the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, having been involved as Minister of State at that time, does not want to get his knuckles rapped twice. While such personal feelings may be understandable, they should not stand in the way of easing the process of restructuring so that the industry can cope with the much reduced fishing opportunities that are about to occur.

In an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr.Kirkwood) in November, the Minister of State, Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), referred to the criticisms of the previous scheme by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and then made the telling remark although my view is that those criticisms could be met".—[Official Report, 21 November 1989; Vol. 162, c. 112.] If the Scottish Office believed that the criticisms could be met, one would have hoped that it could have persuaded its counterpart at MAFF that they could be met. It is clear that it failed in that task, so that effectively MAFF vetoed a scheme that the Scottish Office must have thought was viable.

Another criticism of the National Audit Office and the PAC was about the difficulty of targeting those to whom the scheme should apply. How should it be targeted? What discussions have the Departments had with the industry in recent months, when the industry had expressed its willingness to have a decommissioning scheme? Have discussions taken place to see how that could be effectively targeted without leading to some of the more efficient and newer vessels being taken out? Many other EC countries operate decommissioning schemes. Has MAFF considered those examples with a view to seeing how they might be implemented here?

If we are not to have decommissioning—which would seem to be the outcome of today's ministerial statement—what shall be have? How far will the steps announced this afternoon go towards meeting the targets set under the multi-annual guidance programme? No steps appear to have been taken in that direction, and that is regrettable.

We appreciate that MAFF is hooked on a licence aggregation scheme. I have no objection to that, because such a scheme has a part to play in the overall licensing system, but the Minister is kidding himself if he thinks that that will make a significant contribution to reducing the capacity of the fleet. How does he see the reduction in the fleet size being managed? The fear must be that it will not be managed at all.

Will the Minister expand on what was said in this afternoon's statement to the effect that, with the exception of grant aid for essential safety improvements, vessel grant aid will be restricted to those cases where it is needed to back up European Community grant aid? It is my understanding—I shall willingly accept correction if I am wrong—that European grant aid was given if a project was already in receipt of national aid. I may have misinterpreted what was said, and any elucidation of it will be most welcome. It appears, however, that the cart was being put in front of the horse, and effectively all forms of grant aid were being cut off. I shall welcome correction if that is not the position.

What is being suggested could have serious implications for the boat building industry. That is of considerable concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), as many of her constituents have jobs at the shipbuilding yard at Campbeltown.

Other parts of this afternoon's statement suggest that the industry will be obliged seriously to reduce its fishing activity, yet there has been no suggestion of financial underpinning. When farmers were expected to accept milk quotas or to take the set-aside scheme, some compensation was payable.

We tend to talk generally about the fishing industry, but in many parts of the country, especially Scotland, including my constituency, the "industry" means individual boats and very small businesses. Individual skippers and crews have directly to provide for their families. They are to be subjected to high interest rates and fewer catching opportunities with which to generate an income to meet household expenses and payments on their boats.

The Government seem to be cutting the industry adrift, as it were. Onshore processing workers, workers in the boat building industry, skippers and crews, and fishing communities generally are about to take the full blast of free market forces. If that is the position, it will be a haphazard way of deciding who will be around when, as we hope, stocks are built up again and there are greater catching opportunities.

The way in which the Government seem to be asking the industry to go provides no guarantee for the future security of the industry, let alone its future prosperity. The Government have a responsibility. The licensing scheme which they introduced in the mid-1980s failed. It did not keep a check on the expansion of the industry. They were warned by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and by official Opposition Members, of the likely outcome of the scheme. The Government presided over the building of new boats and helped to fund their construction at a time when fishermen were being told that things were looking good for the fishing of haddock. Only two years have passed since the scientists were recommending an increase in the total allowable catch for haddock.

Ministers cannot run away from their responsibilities. It is important that we take every opportunity to pursue them to ascertain exactly what they are proposing to assist an industry that is facing a crisis. I acknowledge again the efforts that were made at Brussels successfully to negotiate a better TAC than looked possible at one stage, but that was only one part of the package by which we said that Ministers would be judged. On the critical part of the package—the restructuring of the industry—they have said nothing. It would appear that they are abdicating their responsibilities in that regard.

11.43 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am pleased to be able to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). He is to be congratulated on his tenacity in keeping us in our places at this hour of the night to debate the fishing industry. I am sure that the Minister and the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), the Opposition spokesman, will agree that it is a trying time for the industry in all its various manifestations.

We are in a hopeless mess: it is difficult not to be pessimistic about what is happening and what will happen over the next 12 months. We must, however, be as positive as we can. I think that my hon. Friend was right when he said—I echo his sentiment—that the ministerial team deserves credit for the advances that it managed to achieve against the terms of the scientific advice. No one should under-estimate, however, the uncertainties and the difficulties that the industry will face.

The catching industry will experience difficulties with the reduction in TACs. The Minister is aware that I am concerned about haddock and cod quotas; fishing against a quota of 36,000 tonnes will be a dire prospect next year. Although the catching industry will experience difficulties, those experienced by the processing industry will often be greater. It will have to cast its sights ahead over the coming years and, like everyone else, put together investment plans for capital machinery. It will experience economic problems such as exchange rates and interest rates, which will put it at a disadvantage compared with its competitors in the European Community.

I do not know what can be done to assist the processing industry—the Government have no proposals. I recognise that the Minister lends a ready ear to problems. Indeed, his ear is chewed every time he visits a quayside in Britain. I do not envy him his task. Quayside markets are not only damp and wet, but it cannot be nice to get one's ear bitten off by people who are genuinely worried about their future livelihoods. But at least he has it in his power to give them some hope of help from the Government. The Government must recognise by now that they need help, if they did not know it previously. The processing industry must be given urgent consideration.

One of the most frequent arguments that the processing industry makes to me—I realise that against scientific advice this may be difficult—is that, if it had a rolling programme of TACs—if it knew, plus or minus 10, 15 or 20 per cent. over three or five years, what raw materials would be available for it to process—it could have more confidence when making investment decisions for the future. At present, all it has is a lottery.

The processing side of the herring industry became extinct under the seven-year closure, and it was impossible to revive it within a short period. The lesson to be drawn from that is that the processing industry must be given special consideration in the difficult and testing year ahead.

I have a constituent who has an interest in the boat building industry—the Minister kindly granted me an audience when we went into the detail of this earlier in the year. I have his interests very much at heart and in mind because he is a prominent member of the Conservative party; he therefore deserves special attention. I say that slightly facetiously, but his substantial boat building company is in the port of Eyemouth. He is an important employer and his company provides an important service to the fleet not only in building boats but in refitting, refurbishing and reconditioning them. His prospects for orders are bleak.

I am disappointed by the Government's news that there is not to be a decommissioning scheme. If they had been more visionary, they could easily have produced a scheme that would not have exposed them to the kind of criticism that they received when they last produced such a scheme. It was subject to abuse. A figure of £45 million for the decommissioning scheme has been bandied about, and of course some of that money could come from Community funds. That £45 million is not an insignificant sum, it is substantial. I do not under-estimate the difficulties involved in finding such a sum, particularly when we consider the budgets available to the Ministry at the moment.

If the Minister had gone back to the Treasury and argued for fresh money—even if it was not as much as £45 million—he could have made substantial progress in taking some of the capacity out of the fleet. That would have offered some hope to boat builders, because they could then have taken on orders to build new boats equipped to carry out their tasks properly. At the same time, the decommissioning scheme could take capacity from the fleet, and we could move more readily towards the multi-annual guidance programme targets for 1992.

My stalwart Conservative constituent will regret the bad news. I will have much sympathy with him when I tell him that bad news; it will give me no great pleasure to tell him that the Government could have done much more. No doubt my stalwart Conservative constituent will tell me the same thing, but time will tell.

I want to refer tot the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland about conservation. A package of conservation measures should have been put together some time ago. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has been arguing for months, if not years, for the elements of a scheme which could have been up and running. I agree with my hon. Friend that that would not have been a painless scheme. It would have caused heartache and it would have been difficult to persuade the industry to accept it. However, we have lost much valuable time. There are opportunities and scope for Government action on conservation. The Government will be derelict in their duty if they do not move quickly in that direction.

I am worried that, in the financial crises facing the industry in the short term, we may lose the valuable benefits derived from the share fishermen's scheme—a system of share fishing that is unique to Scotland. I know that the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are aware of the problems with that scheme. There is some constructive tension—I believe that that is the phrase—between the lead Ministry in England and the Scottish Office. I believe that the Minister recognises that share fishing in Scotland is a unique scheme which may be damaged by default if the Government make proposals inimical to its continued prosperity.

The Government should consider very carefully what the Department of Social Security is doing to the income available to some of the members of the share fishing crews. Earlier today, I reminded the Leader of the House that the new change in unemployment benefit for part-time workers will have a severe financial effect on such crews. If a boat is tied up for servicing or because of inclement weather for four or five of the six-day benefit week and then it goes out and the crew earn more than £43 on a one day in the week trip, they will be denied benefit for the rest of that benefit week. That will prejudice them to the tune of £53.10 per crew member. One need not be a genius to work out that it is much easier to lie in bed for the sixth day and collect the £56.10 unemployment benefit than to go down to the sea in ships, do business in big and deep waters and then return to find oneself deprived of five of six days unemployment benefit.

The share fishery and other parts of the United Kingdom fishing industry have always constructively relied upon that system—they have not abused it—to support their income when boats have been laid up. The Government have under-estimated the impact of that change. Technical as it may sound, it will have a fundamental impact on available income.

When I first saw the social security regulations, I thought that share fishermen were exempt, because special provisions were deliberately and properly made for the industry. I am now told that that is not the case and that it will suffer as much as everyone else. It is not a matter of getting better lay-up schemes and trying to get compensation to the industry in other ways: we must be careful that the new regulations do not cause unforeseen and untoward difficulties.

The Government must quickly come forward with some ideas about the future for the catching sector, as well as for processing and boat building. I understand the Government's general free-market philosophy. The Minister would not have any difficulty persuading me about certain aspects of a mixed economy, free market and so on as they apply to the economy generally. However, my experience as a constituency Member is that there will be little stability in the fishing industry either now or over the next two or three years. It is a serious business for coastal communities that depend on fishing to generate a large part of their income. Fishing is a way of life. If the fishing industry goes down, it will be the equivalent of the Ravenscraig steel closure in Scotland.

The Government cannot wash their hands of the matter and stand back and let the market sort out the mess. If they do, they will be culpable of criminal neglect. There are available methods, but they will cost money. The Government must go to the Treasury and argue for the extra money. If not, the coastal communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods will simply never forgive them.

11.56 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

The hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) outlined in great detail and very knowledgeably the problems being faced by their local communities, not only on the catching side but on the production and shipbuilding sides of the industry. Whole communities rely on the fishing industry, particularly in the parts of the world that those hon. Members represent. They have made many points with which I do not disagree, but I shall explore some of the issues that they have raised.

To be fair to the Minister, I recognise that the Government have had difficult negotiations in Brussels. I accept also that the maximum that we could expect the Government to negotiate is up to scientifically agreed levels. It is irresponsible to argue that there is a magic figure and that, in some way, we can exceed quotas. If we do not accept the best scientific advice available, there will be no fisheries.

It is important that we should know what steps the Government intend to take to ensure consistency of supply to the processing side of the industry. We need stability in the industry. When the fleet faces severely reduced quotas, we must ensure that consistency of supply is maintained. If we cannot maintain our supply from our own home fleet, we may have to look to third countries to make up the shortfall in raw materials. As the Minister is aware, that involves import tariffs. I should be grateful if the Minister would outline whether ways in which shortfalls of supply could be overcome were discussed in Brussels.

Like previous contributors, I am amazed that the Government are using a free market approach to decommissioning. At the height of advocating this free-market approach, the Government were giving out decommissioning grants as well as grants for building and improvements. As has rightly been said, the report of the Public Accounts Committee was not necessarily critical of the concept of decommissioning grants, but it rightly criticised the way in which the scheme was run, without any kind of targeting, planning or structure. I shall deal with the detail of that in a moment and suggest how it could be made to work better.

Conservation measures are vital. I should be interested to hear what was discussed at Brussels. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations have made some helpful suggestions to assist the industry to get out of the crisis facing it at present, and I very much hope that they are taken seriously. Some of those suggestions have related to an increase in mesh size and to experiments with square mesh. I understand that a derogation has been given to the president of the NFO to experiment with square mesh with fishing nets that have a smaller mesh size than the 90 mm minimum.

The question of spawning grounds is worthy of consideration. Indeed, I discussed this with the Minister, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who informed me that, on the basis of the scientific advice that he had received, restricting the catching of spawning fish would not necessarily improve the breeding stocks. While I do not want to quibble with the scientific advice that the right hon. Gentleman has received, by instinct I feel that, if there could be some restriction on fishing in spawning grounds when fish are spawning, that must be to the advantage of the stocks. I hope that the Minister will consider the scientific research that has been carried out on this.

I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the package of measures put forward by the fishermen themselves, which includes the limitation of extensions on nets to a 6 m maximum. They also suggest that the diameter of cod ends should be reduced to prevent the killing of juvenile fish and suggest placing restrictions on the nets currently carried on board trawlers. They suggest making it an offence to carry nets of a different mesh size, and also a one-net rule to help to enforce conservation measures.

I should like to extend those suggestions and to ask the Minister to consider a regional fisheries policy, whereby there would be some protection for local fisheries, taking into account traditional and historic rights. I accept that, historically, fishermen have moved around the country to different fishing grounds, but some small comunities rely very heavily on their local fishing. I hope that some thought will be given to protecting them from the knock-on effects which might arise if the large east coast trawlers were unable to fish for white fish and moved to other fishing grounds or even switched to other types of fishing. I am thinking of prawn fishing and of the possible effects on the west coast traditional fishermen.

I should also be grateful if the Minister would give some thought to the way in which the quotas are allocated and managed within the United Kingdom. I noticed from the current issue of Fishing News that Aberdeen's producer organisation managed to keep its fleet fishing right up to the year end by allocating its quota among all the boats in the organisation, divided across the year. In Scottish terms, Aberdeen seems to have been successful in managing its fishing quotas. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from the way in which it has done that.

Will the Minister consider suspending the licences of those fishermen who persistently break their quota allocation? I was interested to note that there is a court case in Scotland at the moment in which some fishing boat owners who do not belong to producer organisations are claiming as a defence that they cannot be prosecuted in a criminal court for exceeding the quota limits because those fishermen who belong to producer organisations are not prosecuted criminally but are disciplined within the PO. I hope that he will comment on that and give an assurance that an anomaly will not arise whereby people get away with ignoring the quota rules.

The unacceptable discard rate of some fisheries is a cause for concern. It is tragic that some of the discard is haddock, which must be dumped back dead into the sea because the quota has been exhausted. Has any thought been given to organising the quotas to prevent that?

Norway has came out of the negotiations very well, increasing its total allowable catch by 2 per cent., while our fleets are suffering substantial cuts in Norwegian waters. I am concerned about the large proportion of whiting that has been transferred to industrial fishing, especially by the Danes. I have severe doubts about the justification for industrial fishing. I wonder whether it is a good use of the fish for industrial processing, especially whiting which can be used for human consumption.

Policing is important to ensure that our restrictions and regulations are obeyed. The number of boats that DAFS has available for policing has been cut from five to four. I hope that the Government are taking seriously the need to ensure strict policing of the quotas and to prevent the significant abuses which I do not think anyone would deny have occurred.

I can well understand why the Government are wary of a decommissioning scheme; there is no doubt that the previous scheme was abused. Some 50 per cent. of the money paid out in that scheme went to just 15 ships, the average payment to each being about £500,000. Some of those ships were put back into fishing to qualify for the 100-day minimum fishing time required for a decommissioning grant. Some companies even bought redundant trawlers so that they could apply for a decommissioning grant.

I do not doubt that the previous decommissioning scheme was a failure. It was abused and, most importantly, all the money went to the trawler owners and not a penny to the deck hands and crew. If we are to consider decommissioning schemes, as I believe that we must, I hope that they will include compensation for crew who do not have shares in the boat.

In the past we have provided substantial funds for redundant steel workers, although I accept that that was partly paid for from EEC funds. However, we have also provided substantial funds for redundant dockers, for which no EEC funding was available. That was financed by the Government. In addition, there have been substantial payments in the farming industry, such as for set-aside schemes and various other forms of compensation. There is no reason why the fishing industry cannot be assisted by decommissioning grants and support during its present difficulties. However, I recognise that there is still a need for some grants for modernisation in certain parts of the country where the fleet is aging and where there is not the overcapacity which exists elsewhere.

The failure of the previous decommissioning grant lay in trying to operate an interventionist policy in a free market system. We cannot have both. Because of the restrictions under which the fishing community must operate, there must be some structure, planning, intervention and assistance. If we do not give the industry that assistance, there will be no industry left and the many people who rely on it will be thrown on the scrap heap. Yet with a little thought, support, intervention and planning, we can ensure that our fishing industry gets through this difficult period and prospers. I hope that the quotas, the conservation measures and the other structures will begin to work and that we shall once again have a thriving and prosperous industry.

12.9 am

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

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for the moderate and balanced way in which they spoke. This is a serious subject. None of us is unaware of the gravity of the problems facing the fishing fleet in all parts of the United Kingdom. It is only reasonable that we should discuss these matters with the seriousness and intelligence shown tonight.

When the ministerial team negotiates, it does so for all parts of the United Kingdom and is conscious of the needs of all parts of the United Kingdom. While there may be debate on policy, as in all spheres, we present a solid front for the United Kingdom at negotiations. When we came out of the negotiations, we reported to representatives of fishermen from all parts of the United Kingdom who were in Brussels. Like the hon. Gentleman, who had the grace to say so, they recognised that the deal that we obtained was the best possible.

We set out our priorities to the House before we went into the negotiations. They were to increase the total allowable catches to the levels that are regarded as the best buy, as it were, by the International Council for Exploration of the Seas. It gives a range of possibilities and then recommends a best buy. The best buy was to combine fishing opportunity with conservation. To a large extent, we achieved that aim although we did not quite do so on cod or whiting, we succeeded on haddock. That was a significant negotiating achievement.

We achieved an underpinning of relative stability. That is important both in principle and materially. We were most anxious that, as in the past, the taking of cod from Greenland should be exclusively a British and German fishery. We did not want the fisheries policy to be fractured by a departure from that tradition. That was a difficult negotiation, because some member states felt that they had historic rights in those waters and would have liked to get back into that fishery.

As hon. Gentlemen have said, we succeeded in having the Hague preference applied to haddock. The amount that that represents is 36,280 tonnes. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was almost exactly right in his estimate of the amount that would be made available to the United Kingdom by that application.

We also achieved some flexibility on western mackerel. There was no cut in the TAC. The amount that we can fish in the North sea was slightly reduced from last year's amount.

We came home with many of the principal elements on our shopping list but, as hon. Gentlemen have said, that is the beginning, not the end of the problem. The fact that we managed to push up the quotas and TACs simply means that we have reduced the scale of the problem that would have existed had the original proposals been adopted.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked me for some specific responses, which I shall seek to give. He said that full application of the Hague preference would have represented about 38,000 tonnes of haddock. In fact, we were able to obtain the same proportion as last year. That was the incremental amount that came to use from the Hague preference. We should have liked a larger amount, but we obtained as much as possible. The truth is that we obtained the same percentage as last year.

We managed to reduce the by-catch to Norway to 13 per cent. The original proposals would have left us with a rather higher figure. An allocation will go to other countries, too. The whiting by-catch takes account of the ICES estimates. The 1989 allowances had understated the amount of whiting taken in industrial fisheries.

We were not happy with certain elements, such as the fact that the Norwegian take of North sea herring was 29 per cent. It became clear in the negotiations that we would not win on that, and we had to accept it.

In Brussels we defined the precautionary total allowable catches, TACs, analytical or non-analytical total allowable catches. Some of them have a bit of science involved—for example, those relating to Channel cod. We did our best to push up those TACs where we thought we were justified. We did not get as much as we wanted, but we got some way towards what we were seeking. We cannot disregard the precautionary TACs; that would be the wrong route to follow. Our aim, as in other matters, is to produce a better science so that we can estimate the fisheries that are available.

A number of Ministers have begun to get worried about the technical conservation measures. That anxiety was not apparent at previous meetings. They share our belief that such measures should be at the top of the agenda. A high-level group, effectively senior officials from the member states, will get together quickly and it will produce its recommendations by the middle of the year. Those recommendations will come to the Council in the form of proposals by the end of July. I suppose, being realistic about the way in which the Community works, the proposals will form part of a package discussed at the end of 1990. If accepted, the date for application of the package may be the middle of 1991. That is a realistic assessment of the timetable for introducing a new series of conservation measures. To suggest their earlier introduction would be over-optimistic.

We have produced a consultation paper, which is with the industry now and which is largely based on its recommendations. Hon. Members have already said that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation has had considerable input in that paper, as has the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, which represents other parts of the country. The key is to get better selective fishing and selective gear. It is worth reminding the House that the 90 mm nets have been in operation for a year only. Those nets are rather like string shopping bags: when they get heavy, the meshes tend to close. It is also important to consider square mesh. Certain technical problems associated with the physical operation of that mesh will be studied at our laboratories in Aberdeen.

It is also important to consider the role of the extension piece and, as the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said, to study the meshes round the cod end. We need to study the selectivity of the gear carried on board. In other words, we must try to make the quotas fit the catch more effectively and to introduce much greater selectivity in the fishery.

We are committed by the agreement to a cut in haddock fishing. We shall contact the industry as soon as we can after the Christmas holiday to discuss the best way to proceed. One possibility is to restrict the number of days at sea. We shall discuss that with the industry and we shall keep an open mind. We would not want to close down the entire fleet for X days per month because, as hon. Members have already said, we must remember the processing industry for which continuity of supply is essential. It is important that the industry should be able to satisfy consumer demand.

Hon. Members have mentioned the decommissioning scheme, and it is important to spell out why we thought it was not the right course to follow. A decommissioning scheme takes out capacity and does not necessarily reduce fishing effort. One of the problems is that more and more fishing effort is made in chasing fewer fish. It is not simply a case of heeding the Public Accounts Committee's criticism of the previous scheme. We could have devised a scheme to overcome at least some of the problems earmarked by the Public Accounts Committee, but we did not feel that it would be value for money but would prove expensive for the amount of tonnage removed.

Another important factor is that we are still in the process of finding out how big the fleet is. The registration process is not complete and we are not yet certain of the fate of the famous quota hoppers. There are 20,000 tonnes of quota hoppers in suspended animation because we do not have the definitive European Court ruling. They could be knocked off our registers if, as we hope, we win the final ruling on quota hopping. We are in contact with Brussels about the implications of our decisions. We firmly hope that Brussels will understand our approach.

We believe that the answer lies in much better management. As I have said in my meetings around the country, if I had absolute truth at my disposal, I would be an archbishop, not a Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful for that. We are talking to the fishermen about various ideas we have—including capacity aggregation and entitlement aggregation—to see whether they will work. We need to explore the notion of individually transferable quotas to enable the fisherman to take more decisions about his investment capacity and requirement. Technical conservation is essential to this debate.

It has been said that we are launching the fisheries and the fleet on to market forces. We spend £18 million a year on fisheries protection and control, £15 million a year on marine fisheries research, and in the past five financial years we spent £56 million in grant aid on vessels and El7 million on decommissioning. That must be stacked up against a landings value of £400 million. Therefore, the amount of public money involved in the fishing industry, in relation to its gross domestic product, is considerable. There is no fear of the industry being thrown exclusively to market forces. The Government believe that market forces have a role to play, alongside the support which the Government give and the framework which the European Community inevitably provides for fisheries management.

Subject to the Commission's approval, under the aids provision of article 92 of the treaty, we shall introduce a new grant aid scheme that will provide grants at a rate of 30 per cent. for all essential safety improvements. "Essential" means improvements necessary to comply with Department of Transport safety regulations. The back-up grants, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred, will be at the 10 per cent. level necessary to provide the national grant element needed to secure the EC grants for modernisation and construction. There is nothing new about that; we already have the same arrangement for fish farming. When the fisherman succeeds in obtaining a Community grant, we will ensure that the complementary national grant is still provided.

Mr. Morley

Does the Minister accept that one of the objections put forward by the fishermen to the fact that the Ministry will not consider decommissioning grants is that a considerable amount of public money has been made available for modernisation and construction in the past? I realise that the construction element has been dramatically reduced, but what is wrong with the case for switching some of that money to decommissioning, bearing in mind the relevant point made by the Minister that a scheme could be constructed to get round some of his valid objections?

Mr. Curry

When we looked at the amount of money involved and what we are likely to get for it, we decided that this did not provide good value for money. We accept that the absence of a decommissioning scheme means that we shall have to look to the longer term with regard to targets. Every other decommissioning scheme proposed would also have failed to reach those targets which are fuzzy because of the uncertainties about the number of boats on the register and the quota hoppers. I am confident that we will be able to negotiate an effective target and that the measures mentioned in today's statement, which will be unveiled when we consider our consultations with the industry, will bring us into line to achieve those targets.

Mr. Wallace

It is clearly important that the fleet does not ossify. While it is necessary to take out some capacity, it is also important to have an up-to-date fleet. I am worried lest the 10 per cent. national grant, supplemented by the FEOGA grant, should lead to difficulties. Thanks to the efficiency of the Ministry and of DAFS, the national grant comes through quickly, but grants from the EC often take a considerable time to arrive. The implications for debt repayments and interest payments are obvious. I am concerned that what the Minister proposes will not allow the fleet to develop, with damaging effects on boat buildings and on the long-term age profile of the fleet.

Mr. Curry

We are willing to examine any proposals to accelerate the arrival of grants from the Community on time. The wheels of the Community, like the wheels of God, grind rather slowly. Preoccupation with avoiding fraud has tended to pile bureaucracy on to the system; that is the difficulty.

If fishermen are allowed to take more of their investment decisions themselves and to decide how to handle their capacity more effectively, the way is cleared for a much more effective rationalisation of the structure of the fleet. We shall be discussing these ideas with the industry over the coming months.

This week, the Council of Ministers agreed to regulations that will provide aid for the marketing and processing of fishery and aquaculture products, and fisheries Departments will be drawing up a sectoral programme to provide a framework to set priorities for aspects of processing. Thus, there will be aid for this sector. I can understand the wish for stable supplies. While the idea of a rolling total allowable catch is attractive, it has drawbacks because the recruitment of young fish to the fishery can vary enormously from year to year. While stocks are low, fisheries are relying on single-year classes; a rolling TAC would require setting TACs at low levels and not taking advantage of the years of relative plenty. I can see the attractions of the scheme, and if people come forward with valid ideas we are prepared to look at them, but we shall need to be seriously persuaded before we go down this route.

It is, of course, generally accepted that the fleet is too big. It is therefore difficult to see how we could encourage more boat building. The fleet will have to go through a period of rationalisation and we hope to harness market forces, in association with other elements that I have described, to improve quota management arrangements and speed up this process. If we can loosen the quota management regime and remove some of the restrictions on fishermen, we expect that successful fishermen will want to build new boats with new confidence—some of them, perhaps, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. No doubt that will be, as he said, to the benefit of the Conservative party if the gentleman that he cited is such a dedicated follower of the Government.

I hope that I have covered most of the points raised tonight. We have two major priorities to help to get the fishing fleet in shape. First, we need a real policy on conservation. We are beginning to see a genuine earnestness about putting one in place, and we shall do all that we can to propel and encourage it, and to participate fully in the elaboration of these programmes.

At the same time, we need sensible and constructive quota management arrangements. I believe that we are in a position to start freeing up the system, which will enable that management to be much more effective. Finally, we need sensible proposals from the European Community, representing an intelligent balance between fishing opportunities and the interests of conservation. That balance was not present at the beginning of our negotiations; it exists today and I hope that the lessons to be learned from the negotiations will be useful in future years so that, when we debate the fishing industry, we shall be able to say that it went through a period of great difficulty, that we recognise that we are a long way from the end of the road, but that a rational policy will facilitate a long-term future for an industry which, as all hon. Members have said, is vital to our coastal communities.