HC Deb 13 December 1990 vol 182 cc1162-204
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and her hon. Friends.

6.59 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the proposals described in the un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 11th December 1990 relating to Total Allowable Catches and Quotas for 1991 and its Supplementary explanatory memorandum of 12th December 1990, the proposals described in its un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum of 11th December 1990, relating to the reciprocal fisheries Agreement between the Community and Norway for 1991, European Community Document No. 9898/90 on guide prices for fishery products for 1991, and of the Government's intention to negotiate the best possible fishing opportunities for the United Kingdom fishing industry for 1991 consistent with the requirement for conservation of fishing stocks. We shall spend much of this debate discussing the fishing industry and its opportunities next year. Inevitably, our discussion will be based on scientific facts and legal and administrative arrangements. However, I should like us to start by remembering those who died yesterday in the terrible accident on the Premier off the Shetlands.

It behoves us to remember how difficult and dangerous the job of the fisherman is. Sometimes, people who live in comfortable homes and do comfortable jobs forget how difficult it is for those who work in the wind and weather—not only fishermen, but farmers. We are all aware of the farmer who went out to look after his sheep at the weekend and was left for many hours in the snow. People often forget how much fishermen and farmers give to their jobs.

The loss of the Premier serves to remind us not only of fishermen, but of the effect of their loss on the small, close-knit communities in which they live. Often the crews of such vessels are related to almost everyone living in a number of houses in small communities. I am sure that those who have been affected on this occasion have the sympathy of not only those who live some distance away, but of the other fishing communities of the United Kingdom. Even though there are occasional disagree-ments between such communities, they come together in understanding the great dangers in which they operate.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. No doubt he will be aware that today the people of Carradale buried their dead and that that community, together with those of Burghead, Lossiemouth and Hopeman, are united in their concern, as are all our maritime communities.

Has there been any communication between the Ministry and the Department of Transport about the possibility of raising the Premier from the waters in which it now lies—I understand that they are 400 ft deep? It is possible, that some, if not all, of the bodies of my constituents are still on that vessel. Obviously, it is a matter of great concern to my constituents and to the families of the dead that the bodies should be returned, if possible.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also join me in asking representatives of the press and media to allow the families in my constituency to come to grips with their grief in privacy? All of us share the deep sense of grief and loss felt by the affected communities.

Mr. Gummer

I do not always agree with the hon. Lady, but her latter request is of particular value. It is of great sadness to many of us that grief is commercialised in such circumstances. I hope that the press will treat the bereaved and the affected communities with the respect that they deserve in such sad circumstances. I hope that they will be left to grieve as they would wish rather than in full view of the rest of the country.

It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who will reply to this debate, to decide whether the Premier can be raised. I want it to be known, however, that the entire United Kingdom is extremely concerned when one of its ships is lost in such a way.

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

Will the right hon. Gentleman take note of the fact that the House has not had a sustained debate on the safety of fishing vessels since Sir Albert McQuarrie put through his private Member's Bill on safety at sea?

Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the Secretary of State for Transport the belief shared by many hon. Members that we should have an early, critical scrutiny of safety matters as they affect our fishermen in their hazardous work?

Mr. Gummer

I should be happy to consider that matter with my right hon. and learned Friend. His previous responsibilities will enable him to look at the matter from both sides. I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that there has rarely been division in the House about the safety of such vessels. I remember the all-party support that was commanded by Sir Albert McQuarrie's Bill. That Bill was worth while and has done a great deal of good, if only by highlighting the serious dangers that are present in the fishing industry.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way so often at this early stage in our proceedings.

I reinforce the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). Today, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and I received a reply to a written answer in which we asked that the new communication system to be adopted in the Clyde, which is a great step forward, be extended to other parts of the United Kingdom so that there is some liaison between submarine commanders and fishing boats. We were told that we must wait to see how the system works before it is extended. We should like to debate that issue further.

I also received a reply about transponders being fitted to fishing nets to enable submarines to detect them more easily—an idea that we have advanced for some time. The Ministry of Defence, however, said that no decision has been made about who will pay for them.

Following the sinking of the Antares, the issues raised in those questions are extremely urgent and a specific debate would give Lis the opportunity to discuss them further. I realise that the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Defence have prime responsibility for such matters, but the Minister has a general concern about the fishing industry and its safety. [HON. MEMBERS: "Briefly"] I hope that he will take up this matter on our behalf.

Mr. Gummer

I am glad, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you enabled the hon. Gentleman to continue his question. He is perfectly right that, although such matters are the responsibility of the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the territorial Departments also believe that they have a particular responsibility and concern. Although we do not have control of the legislation, it is the fishermen for whom we are responsible who are most affected by it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his complimentary support of the changes introduced by the Ministry of Defence, but I do not believe there is anything wrong in assessing how that system works before it is extended. I accept, however, that the hon. Gentleman might like to discuss it at greater length and I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friends.

The Government are sponsoring the research on transponders and I am pleased about that. The work is encouraging and we must consider how to implement the research if it proves to continue to be so encouraging. If a suitable occasion arose, my right hon. Friends and I would be happy to debate this matter. There is no bar on such a discussion and it is a matter for the Leader of the House and others.

I do not want to understate the importance of what I have already said as it provides the background against which we can discuss other matters. Tonight, however, we are specifically discussing the fishing opportunities for next year. I apologise to the House that no proposals were possible before mid-November when the latest scientific advice became available following the essential autumn surveys. We also had to conclude the third-country talks to arrive at proposals on key stocks in the North sea.

I know that the House would prefer to have such information early enough to digest it more effectively. As the Minister mainly concerned, I, too, would like to have the information earlier to prepare for the long debates that take place in the European Community. But that is not possible and I comment on my own frustration about it.

The consultations with Norway have gone through three rounds. They were completed late on 7 December, after the Commission's main total allowable catch and quota proposals were released that afternoon. Hon. Members will see the tight timetable, and I thank the Leader of the House for arranging the time for this debate, so soon after the point at which we were able to tell him that the information would be available.

We did our best to give firm figures and estimates, where necessary, in the main explanatory memorandum of 11 December. We supplied the supplementary document 24 hours later, and that completed the proposals. The House now has before it the full proposals coming before the Fisheries Council. I am grateful to the authorities of the House—the Select Committee on European Legislation and the spokesmen for the other parties—for their understanding and rapid consideration of the proposals. It is important that we have the views of the House before the Council of Fisheries Ministers meets on 19 December.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The fishermen in my constituency tell me that the failure of the Government to introduce a proper decommissioning scheme has led to the reductions. Is that true?

Mr. Gummer

I do not know whether they say that to the hon. Gentleman. If they do, even those who want a decommissioning scheme would not support that argument. It cannot be true; there is no way in which the two things could hang together in that way. There is an argument for a decommissioning scheme, although I do not accept it. But it is not based on those premises.

We shall reach a point at which we can talk about decommissioning schemes—I shall not avoid that—and I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that we conduct our debates in the House against a background in which the real decisions are bound to be made in the European Community, because fishing is done by the whole Community and the shares of the fishing quotas are worked out among us. In those circumstances, particular TACs and quotas—fishing opportunities—are based on an assessment of the scientific advice. The question of decommissioning or non-decommissioning is totally different. When we discuss it the hon. Member for Workington may wish to intervene again, and I shall be happy to give way to him.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman will agree that this is a debate of great concern to many people. We should take matters in order and, when I come to the point about which he wishes to intervene, I shall give way to him.

I wish, first, to deal with catches and catch returns. There was considerable gloom at the start of the year. The severe cuts in North sea cod and haddock quotas, which are of the greatest economic importance to our industry, were a severe blow. We also had to introduce measures to reduce effort on haddock. It is interesting to note that the majority of vessels took up not the option to use more selective gear but the option of being restricted to 92 fishing days. That is an important point in terms of trying to decide how best to deal with conservation measures.

It is worth remembering that, of the quotas of most interest to our industry, while 17 decreased in 1990, 13 were increased and 18 remained the same.

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

The right hon. Gentleman said that many had taken up the option of 92 fishing days. Does he agree that that was a scheme for chosen days, not for consecutive days of the sort that is now under discussion? The idea of expecting people to fish for 10 fixed consecutive days represents a danger, with fishermen having to make up the number in the days following. That could lead to fishermen feeling obliged to go out to sea on the nominated days, even though the weather may be bad and the conditions dangerous.

Mr. Gummer

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is a different scheme. I hope that he will agree that one problem with the choice of days is the question of effective policing. He will agree that in his part of the world there is considerable feeling among fishermen that other fishermen have perhaps not kept to the rules with quite the assiduity that he would expect.

During this year, our distant water fleet has taken the reduced quotas north of Norway, but poor catch rates in Greenland, unlike the good catches of last year, are making it impossible to take up those quotas fully—reminding us again that the artificiality of quotas is often clearly shown up by the nature of the flow of the water and the presence of the fish.

Nearer home, there has been a heavier take-up of quotas, requiring considerable management to spread the quota through the year. There have also been considerable management difficulties arising from unusual catching patterns declared by fishermen, particularly of cod and haddock.

Dr. Godman

The right hon. Gentleman referred to fishing in northern, particularly Greenland, waters. One reason for the poor take-up has been the exceptionally severe weather with the presence of ice. The two together have made matters extremely difficult for our fishermen. I appeal to the Minister—I have made this appeal before —to accept that fishermen should be in Greenland waters only if they have experience of fishing in the area. In other words, the right hon. Gentleman should try to persuade others without the necessary experience not to go into those waters.

Mr. Gummer

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. People must have track records to fish in those areas. It is difficult to be too prescriptive about such matters, but when it comes to fishing in difficult areas —I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing a difficult area, in which the reasons for not catching have included severe weather and ice—some experience of those areas is important. But how one gets experience if one is closed from an area until one has such experience is a difficulty that all must face.

We must accept that, even in unhappy situations where patterns do not appear to fit what the expectations were in the returns, fish is in considerable demand and prices have risen greatly. Up to the end of September, the value of all landings increased by 10 per cent., despite a 4 per cent. drop in volume. That is a remarkable fact. Within that total, I highlight white fish, such as cod, haddock and sole, for which there has been an increase in total value of 13 per cent., despite a fall in landings of 13 per cent. That has meant that fishermen have had a significant increase in return, over the increase in inflation. Of course, the customer has had to pay more because there has been less to buy.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Minister makes a point that we have heard often from the Government—that the revenue in terms of landings has been above that of last year. Does he accept that the costs of the industry have increased dramatically, particularly the costs of interest and boats, because of the high base rate in the last year, and, in recent months, the dramatic doubling in fuel costs because of the increase in the price of oil? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be more sensible to have income figures for the industry, as opposed to just the revenue figures which the Minister is quoting?

Mr. Gummer

The industry has had consistently, in 10 of the past 11 years, an increase in its returns over and above the rate of inflation. The hon. Gentleman cannot count the rate of inflation twice. The rate of inflation is created by a number of elements and there are many industries in which the contribution, for example, of fuel costs as a proportion of its total costs is considerably greater than that of the fishing industry.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Gummer

A simple example is the cement industry, where fuel represents 50 per cent. of its costs. It is significantly less in the fishing industry. It does not help the hon. Gentleman's case to suggest other than that. Although the fishing industry has suffered from the reduction in the amount that it can take, it has had the advantage of an increase in the price of what it has sold. Many other industries, not least farming, would envy that. We should always start with facts rather than with embroidering them.

I am surprised by the amendment tabled by the Scottish National party, because it does not seem to square with the arguments advanced by that party in the previous debate on a similar subject in this House. In that debate, the official Opposition were careful to agree that if we took the necessary tough measures for conservation they would have to have a real impact on fishermen. But the hon. Member for Moray and her hon. Friends suggested that conservation measures could be taken without their causing difficulties for the people on whom they were imposed.

The same is happening today. There is always the idea that there is a soft option, and it is always the Scottish National party which produces it. The House is tired of the attempt to buy votes today from the livelihoods of fishermen tomorrow—yet that is what the amendment suggests. It suggests conservation measures that do not restrict efforts to catch fish today while hiding from people the fact that their sons and daughters will not have fish tomorrow and that their communities will be destroyed. Both sides of the House should oppose this easy option advanced by the Scottish Nationalists. The rest of us, who are responsible for these matters, have to tell the fishing industry that, to protect jobs in the future, it will have to take some fairly tough measures now.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Does my right hon. Friend take the view that I do, that sea fishery committees paid for by local community charge payers, such as the Devon and Cornwall sea fishery committee, are of great assistance to him, bearing in mind that it is difficult to have committees of fishermen, who are at sea so much of the time, communicating to my right hon. Friend's Department local realities and problems? Will he also say a word about the cost of enforcement? In many people's view, the action of enforcement should be by the nation state, but the cost of it should fall on the Community budget.

Mr. Gummer

I agree that the sea fishery committees are of great importance. We are discussing whether we could extend their remit so that they can carry out an even more useful job in the future. The Scots do not have the same system north of the border. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland would like to look at what we do south of the border. Both parts of the United Kingdom can learn from the other. I am sure that we could learn some things from Scotland, but our system works very well.

The United Kingdom has been responsible for setting up a European Community police force for fishing and for extending it. The balance is probably about right, but I am happy to re-examine it. Some countries that used to be less than careful about obeying the law are beginning to be much more careful because of the international force for which the United Kingdom is responsible.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Far be it from me to defend the SNP, with whose members I have little in common, but the Minister makes a great mistake if he seeks to turn this serious debate into a party political broadcast—or if he tries to divide us on grounds of party.

Tough measures to reduce the fishing effort must be taken, as we all agree. But if the Minister reads the amendment he will see that it suggests that it is time we stopped the idea—the hallmark of this Government—that the only way to make progress or bring about change is to inflict pain on people. It appears that one can effect change only by suffering pain—a sort of masochism.

Mr. Foulkes

It is sadism.

Mr. Hughes

Be that as it may, the fact remains that there is unanimity among Opposition parties —many Conservative Members agree—about the necessity for a proper decommissioning scheme, and that is how I read the amendment. If that is indeed what it says, I shall support it in the Lobby.

Mr. Gummer

Nowhere does the amendment mention decommissioning —

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

What about structural support?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady can talk in vague terms of structural support, but I am talking about the amendment, in which there are seven lines—all of them meant to divide —before we reach the words "structural support".

I am making the same point as did the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). There is no need for the House to be divided on the main issues that we have to fight in the European Community.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Square mesh panels?

Mr. Gummer

I will come to them in a moment.

Once again the Scottish National party is trying to give fishermen the impression that it has a policy different from those of the Opposition or of the Government, obtainable in Europe and therefore viable in circumstances that might attract a vote or two for the SNP. That is what I object to. The House should try to produce a policy which we can fight in the Community and which will benefit all fishermen in the United Kingdom. To do that we must ensure that we table words of agreement.

Let us examine the amendment in that light. It demands that the Government … pursue a more vigorous policy in the fisheries negotiations". My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I could hardly be more vigorous than we are. Anyone in the Community would confirm that for five years the United Kingdom has exhibited more vigour than any other country, which explains why we have had a better deal than any other country.

The amendment continues by insisting on implementation of the technical conservation measures on square mesh panels agreed by fishermen". We cannot insist on those things. We have to negotiate them and get them agreed by our neighbours in the Community, which is precisely what we are doing. We are fighting for them in Europe. It is about time that the party that claims to be the European party in Scotland learnt that we do not insist —

Mr. Robert Hughes

SNP Members have changed their minds about that—the Minister is out of date.

Mr. Gummer

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman back on my side. I am an enthusiast for the European Community, but I do not go round insisting on things. We must negotiate.

The amendment continues, rejecting the discriminatory and unworkable proposals on limitation of effort proposed by the EC Claims We have already done that, so I do not see the need for the amendment. The case for doing that has been forcefully presented by the United Kingdom Government, with the support of one or two other countries, and we are likely to enjoy some success on the issue.

It would be easier if the European Community found that both sides of this House were united, as are the other countries with which we are negotiating —

Mr. Wallace

I refer to the point about technical limitations. Is the Minister saying that the United Kingdom Government will resist the Commission's proposal for a ban on fishing on 10 consecutive days in a month?

Mr. Gummer

That is not a technical, conservation measure—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It is not: it is a quota management device. I see that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, a former Opposition fisheries spokesman, agrees with me. If Members of Opposition parties cannot even get the technicalities right in a debate of this sort, it suggests that the Scottish Nationalists are much more interested in politics than they are in fishermen —

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer

I have made a serious claim and I shall continue to make it once I have given way to the hon. Gentleman, the successor to Sir Albert McQuarrie.

Mr. Salmond

I thank the Minister for finally giving way. He is digging rather a deep hole for himself. Thus far he has managed to unite the Opposition against him. He says that the amendment will not force conservation measures, but it supports technical conservation measures, a clampdown on industrial fishing and participation in the Community's structure policy. Every hon. Member except the Minister seems to know that that policy means decommissioning and lay-up schemes. How can the Minister defend his position in the face of the words in the amendment? In view of what the amendment says, why does not the Minister accept it?

Mr. Gummer

No doubt the amendment suggests that we are not supporting such things. The hon. Gentleman says in his document that we should move to the elimination of industrial fishing. That is the policy of the Government and has already been put forward. If the amendment contained only that one suggestion I would be happy to say that it was in line with our policy. I have always been opposed to industrial fishing and I have constantly battled against it. The only change in the situation is that many of the species that used to be fished industrially, such as horse mackerel, are now fished for human consumption. There has been a significant change in that respect. It is plain that the Opposition do not understand that. It is a technical matter for the fishing industry. It does not help our battle in the European Community when amendments seek to divide us rather than to support a United Kingdom policy.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Gummer

I have given way enough. If I give way any more there will be complaints that I have taken up too much time.

Mr. Foulkes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer

No, because I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Quota levels, however, are not the only preoccupation. Much of this year has been devoted by the Government and the industry to pressing for improved technical conservation measures. I very much regret that a difference of opinion between most member states and the Commission about the degree of change needed prevented the November Fisheries Council from agreeing on new measures designed particularly to help cod and haddock.

I am a great believer in conservation, but conservation does not mean producing a net that is incapable of catching fish—a proposition put forward by the Commission. We put a net behind a boat and pulled it and caught, I think, eight fish. We cannot agree to conservation measures that are not based upon conserving the jobs of fishermen as well as stocks of fish. There must be a balance and some of the Commission's propositions appear to be devised by people who do not know one end of a net or one kind of fish from another. It will be most important in the near future to secure improved selectivity of nets so that the wasteful catch of juvenile fish can be reduced to a minimum. If we are to do that, we cannot merely accept the proposals put forward by some fishermen because they will not secure that objective. We must consider square mesh nets with meshes that are larger than 80 mm so that the correct balance can be achieved. We are asking for change but it must be realistic. We must strike a balance between conservation of stocks and conservation of the industry. If stocks are improperly looked after, some species will be preyed upon by others.

Mr. Foulkes

I do not propose to raise the temperature now that it has, thankfully, been lowered. The Minister talks about conservation measures. He knows that precautionary total allowable catches apply to plaice, monkfish and megrim. There is no scientific evidence for those restrictions and no conservation is involved. The Minister gave a clear pledge that the Government would fight hard to increase the allowable catches of new species of fish being brought to the Market. Will he assure us that he will press for substantial increases in the catch of those three species?

Mr. Gummer

I give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance that where there is no scientific reason or no real concern we will press for the largest possible allowable catch. The issues must be discussed one by one. He will agree that sometimes a precautionary TAC is sensible when, in view of the evidence, that seems the best thing to do and it appears that it would be dangerous to move too far. Perhaps he also agrees that in the absence of full scientific advice it is better to take precautions than to run the risk of exhausting future stocks. As I said, the balance is important and where it is safe to do so we shall fight hard to increase catches.

Dr. Godman

The Minister said that he saw me nodding in agreement when he spoke about some fishermen not fishing for 10 consecutive days. He spoke about a system of quota management. We are all concerned about safety and this is a serious matter. Presumably fishermen would not fish for six days because the 10-day period would contain two weekends. Some fishermen may stay out in bad weather and because of the difficulties that they face they may be prepared to shoot their gear in unfavourable conditions. That is why I disagree emphatically and entirely with that 10-day proposal.

Mr. Gummer

I thought that I had made myself clear, but if I did not I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He nodded in agreement that this was a matter of quota management rather than technical conservation. That is important because those are the terms under which we negotiate and seek to get an answer. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's fears. We are looking for the maximum flexibility consistent with proper management and we shall take into account the hon. Gentleman's points.

In the case of the three species mentioned by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), we think that the precautionary total allowable catches are too low and we shall fight for a considerable increase.

The document refers to structural support and that euphemism, chosen by the hon. Member for Moray and her hon. Friends, means decommissioning. I shall now turn to fleet rationalisation. Since 1988 we have not permitted licence transfers which would increase the tonnage or horse power of our fleet. Earlier this year we extended licensing to virtually all stocks and introduced capacity aggregation. Capacity aggregation brought a little more flexibility into our licence transfer rules, but on condition that any amalgamation of licences was accompanied by a 10 per cent. reduction in fishing capacity.

Capacity aggregation also gives members of producer organisations new opportunities to rationalise the exploitation of their producer organisations' sectoral allocations. We also circulated to the industry proposals for entitlement aggregation to provide added opportunities for fleet rationalisation. We are reviewing the situation in the light of the industry's comments.

However, I emphasise that decomissioning is not the way to reduce the pressure on fish stocks and I shall try to explain why I think that that is not the case.

A case can be advanced to show that it would be nice for a considerable amount of extra money to go to the fishing industry in this way. It is perfectly reasonable to argue that case, but it is not reasonable to say that it is a sensible way to reduce pressure on stocks. It will put more money into the industry, but it will not do the job.

Even a limited decommissioning scheme would cost many millions of pounds. We could spend a great deal of money reducing the size of the fleet and make very little difference to the pressure on the stocks. If we remove tonnage from the fishing fleet, the remaining tonnage can simply fish harder so that the total effort against the stocks is not reduced. No doubt one could try to reduce that risk by targeting a decommissioning scheme at the most effective vessels, but there would still be the likelihood of decommissioning funds being recycled so that the fishing effort did not really decrease. It would be strange to use taxpayers' money in an effort to remove from our fleet the most effective vessels.

I cannot help but feel that those who continue to argue for a decommissioning scheme simply want taxpayers' money for the industry regardless of whether that expenditure will achieve worthwhile objectives. I hope that the industry will accept that a decommissioning scheme simply will not provide value for money. It must start thinking constructively about the sort of ideas that we have put before it, and I hope that at least some producer organisations will encourage their members to take advantage of the opportunities already provided by capacity aggregation.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Does not the Minister understand that capacity aggregation would open up the market for predators who would take over the small family businesses which are so important to many of our communities? Secondly, why is it that, apart from Ireland, the United Kingdom is the only country in the EC that has not introduced a decommissioning scheme? Everybody else is further down that route because they recognise that it is an important part of fisheries policy.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady cannot argue that aggregation would somehow have that effect, but decommissioning would not. Does she not think that small businesses would go in for the decommissioning scheme, and that it would not have the same effect? The hon. Lady cannot invent a system which does not mean that those who want to leave will take the money and cease to use their boats. If the hon. Lady really meant that, she would be against not only aggregation but decommissioning. As for her interesting comment that, because the rest of the Community chooses to do this, they must be right and we must be wrong, that avoids the argument. Only three countries are hitting their multi-annual guidance programme targets. The hon. Lady cannot deny that, if there were a decommissioning scheme, people would put their least effective boats in to get the money and keep their most effective boats for fishing. That will happen and, as sure as eggs is eggs, immediately afterwards the House of Commons would say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had once again wasted taxpayers' money by buying out boats that were not fishing and leaving the other boats to do the fishing.

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Does not my right hon. Friend understand that the British taxpayer is contributing to the other schemes through our contributions to the EC, and that the British taxpayer would like some of that money back here?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend must recognise that the Fontainebleau agreement means that if we extended the scheme to the United Kingdom, 70 per cent. would be paid by the EC, but we would then pay 70 per cent. of that 70 per cent. He is saying that to obtain a tiny amount of money we should do something which is wasteful and I am not prepared to do that. I am not prepared to pay 30 per cent. of taxpayers' money to start with, and 70 per cent. of that which remains, to pretend that we are doing something useful. I am prepared to stand up and say clearly that I want to spend taxpayers' money usefully, in a way which will stand up under any investigation, and I do not believe that this will.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer

No, I must get on. [Interruption.] Hon. Members cannot say that I have not given way again and again.

In examining the scientific advice on catchable quantities for next year, we must remember that we are dealing with a naturally renewable resource. It is important to remember that fishing is a hunting industry. To ensure that stocks are renewable, catches need to be managed. Managers cannot do anything about runs of poor year classes, such as we have seen for cod and haddock in the North sea, but we must try to control catches in relation to stocks.

The Government have a clear record on conservation. Fishing is no different from any other of man's industries using natural resources. We must pay attention to conservation. The Commission has taken a strict view of the scientific advice and is looking for considerable changes this year to shorten the time in which the stocks recover to better levels. We must face the fact that most stocks in Community waters have been heavily fished. This is reflected in the proposal. Among those of interest to the United Kingdom this year, we have proposals suggesting reductions in 23 quotas, proposed increases for nine and no change for 16. We must stay in line with scientific advice, but where it is possible we must temper conservation of the fish with conservation of the fishermen. That is why I answered the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley as I did.

Many of the present low catches are blamed on the TAC system itself. It is said to have failed. That is not right. A constant theme in the scientific advice is that levels of fishing have been higher than recommended TACs, whether illegal and undeclared, or higher discards than estimated. It is a fact that Ministers have been setting TACs within the levels that scientists have advised are biologically sound, but some fishermen conspire to undermine the system by misreporting, excessive discarding, or perhaps not fully declaring their catches.

Therefore, we need compliance with fishing recommendations and good catch data. We must remember that TACs provide a framework within which to manage fisheries, both in overall terms and between fishing fleets. Technical conservation measures are important to control the quality and type of fish caught, but they alone cannot achieve successful management of the stock.

That is an issue which divides hon. Members in some parts of the House from others, but it is important because of the problems that have occurred, particularly in Scotland this year, with the way in which various catches have been reported. It is no good pretending that a system is acceptable to fishermen if some parts of the country believe that other parts have said that they caught fish where they did not. We cannot hide from that. Nor will it be possible to explain to fishermen that we should take unusual reporting years into account when it comes to making arrangements elsewhere. It cannot be done because that position cannot be defended elsewhere.

I recognise that the outlook for 1991 is difficult, but it will be more difficult if we cannot get on top of such activity. Our key objective must be to obtain the highest level of quotas compatible with scientific advice and to maximise opportunities for United Kingdom fishermen. We must also aim to ensure parity of treatment throughout the Community where measures are taken to deal with particular stocks.

Secondly, we will of course invoke the Hague preference where necessary. That is likely to be necessary in the North sea for haddock and cod, and on the west coast for whiting and saithe. In the Irish sea, the Hague preference works in favour of the Irish Republic for cod, plaice and whiting.

Obviously, a balance must be struck, but we must defend our communities that depend heavily on fishing. I regret that the Commission's proposals this year contain no adjustment for the preference. I must warn the House that some member states disagree with the interpretation that the Hague preference applies. They consider that it has already been taken into account in the national allocations. We shall have to fight that extremely hard.

Thirdly, we need to secure again the flexibility to take western mackerel stock east of 4 deg. west. The substantially changed migration pattern of that stock, which now spends longer in the Norwegian exclusive zone, caused considerable difficulties between the EC and Norway in establishing a mutually acceptable arrangement for the proportion of that stock which might be taken. We are pleased that the EC-Norway agreement, as initiallised, provides for the Community to implement the flexibility if it chooses to do so. I intend to press that it does so choose.

Fourthly, we shall seek a sensible allocation of the horse mackerel TACs, particularly in the western zone, to reflect the increasing fishery for human consumption purposes to which I referred earlier. In our view, that should be given priority over the former industrial fishery. I repeat what I have always said in the House, that I do not believe in industrial fishery ever taking priority or being acceptable where there is any danger to the stock.

Fifthly, on the measures to control effort on cod and haddock in the North sea and the west of Scotland, we must accept that something needs to be done. This year's proposal is positive in that it applies to all member states concerned. We recognise that the measures as proposed by the Commission would be painful for some vessels, but at the same time recovery will not be possible without serious action. TACs are essential as a ceiling, but to keep within that ceiling we need to reduce discards to prevent misreporting and so keep catches to TAC levels. Tine Council will also be considering again proposals to improve technical conservation.

Once again, we shall have a tough time to protect the interests of the industry in our discussions. Those interests are not just about fishing this year, but about ensuring that we can fish next year and the years to come. They are not just about providing opportunities in fishing for some parts of the United Kingdom; they are also about providing opportunities for all parts of the United Kingdom. They are about trying to ensure not just that the British fishing industry has reasonable access to fishing grounds, but that we have fair access to fishing grounds.

Above all, they are about ensuring that the rules by which we have to live and upon which our future depends are equally applied, not only between the countries of the EC but between different parts of the United Kingdom.

7.49 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I congratulate the Minister on giving the House an opportunity to debate before he goes into conference next week these important proposals and their likely effect on the United Kingdom fishing industry.

I offer my sincere condolences, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), whose constituency suffered the tragic loss of the fishing vessel Premier. As she will know, a number of hon. Members represent Humberside constituencies, and I myself have lived in Humberside my whole adult life and appreciate full well the impact that the loss of a fishing boat has on a close-knit community and how it affects the many people who knew those who served on it and their families.

My party accepts that we must develop our fisheries as a sustainable resource, and in doing so we must be guided by the best scientific evidence available. However, I am concerned that some of the scientific advice behind the proposals is imprecise. Certain quotas appear to be based on assumptions, and I understand that the scientists themselves have experienced difficulty in backing up their figures with hard evidence—as one might expect in certain instances.

I am concerned also that the recommendation concerning Irish sea cod, for which a massive cut of 61 per cent. in the total allowable catch is suggested, seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the current situation in Irish sea fisheries. I hope that the Minister will make it clear to the Commission that there has been a switch of effort there to hake, particularly in the spring fishery—which is the peak time for cod. It may be that that has not been taken into account in the scientists' figures.

We all know what happened in area VII this year in terms of deliberate misreporting, and I am worried in case those inaccurate figures have been used in the calculations. I am concerned too about the further North sea cuts that are proposed. I acknowledge that some TACs will remain the same, and that there have been some small increases —particularly in respect of whiting. Nevertheless, given this year's drastic cuts in the existing quotas, does not the Minister acknowledge the importance of at least trying both to maintain the status quo and, where scientific evidence permits, to secure the best possible deal for raised quotas where fishery can be sustained?

Right hon. and hon. Members may recall that in our previous fishery debate we discussed the fact that whiting was to be allowed to be taken in greater numbers because it is a target species for industrial fisheries. I find it curious that, while such an increase is to be permitted in the North sea, there is to be a decrease in the Irish sea. If whiting is considered to be such a ferocious predator of other fish stocks, I cannot understand the logic of increasing the catch in the North sea but decreasing it in the Irish sea. I presume that the whiting in both seas share the same prey and do not have different diets simply because they are of a different size in different seas, and that whiting in the North sea are not somehow more dangerous than those elsewhere. That is the differentiation that makes people suspicious about the calculations.

Does the Minister agree that the Hague preference is a blunt instrument? I noted and appreciate his comments, but we should all prefer reasonable quotas and TACs, rather than see quotas cut back to a level at which the Hague preference must be implemented. I acknowledge also the Minister's comment that in certain cases that provision would benefit the Irish Republic at the expense of United Kingdom fishing fleets.

The proposed cuts in channel flat fish and cod TACs are also worrying. I recently spoke to fishermen in Hastings and Rye about the problems that they have, which very much mirror those of fishermen around the coast—whether north, south, east or west. I note that there could be quota swaps with the Netherlands in respect of North sea plaice to boost the number of fish available, but can the Minister give an assurance that, if swaps with other countries are arranged, they will be based on a direct cod equivalent—if that species is the subject of a swap—and not on one that will benefit other countries? That has happened in the past, particularly with the Dutch.

Will the Minister try to avoid in this year's negotiations the kind of trade-off given last year, when the Danes received 500 tonnes of cod from our allocation as part of the political wheeling and dealing? I do not underestimate the pressure on the right hon. Gentleman, but given that our own fishing fleet is so strapped for quota, it is hard to see any justification for giving away such large amounts of high-quality fish.

I am convinced from my discussions with fishermen that, in an ideal world, they would much prefer to control the conservation of fish stocks by the use of appropriate, selective gear rather than by imposed quotas. Given the research and development that is under way, it may be that in time we shall be able to move towards conservation by means of selective gear, but I share the Minister's concern that the 120 mm mesh size proposed by the Commission is far too fine, particularly for mixed fisheries, and would certainly not be sustainable for our northern fleet.

I know that some British fleets successfully use a 120 mm mesh, particularly in cod fisheries in Grimsby, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). We pay tribute to those who are going for larger, premium fish, and who fish in a way that is both sustainable and conservation friendly.

I read the reports of the trials using 120 mm and 90 mm nets, and confirm the Minister's claim that during a two-week fishing trip, only eight marketable haddock were caught using the larger net, and no whiting whatever. However, it must be said that the boat used in that trial, Heather Spring —financed by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, the Sea Fish Industry Authority, Grampian regional council, and the Scottish White Fish Producers Associaton—was a twin-rig trawl. While it is true that the 120 mm mesh net was unrealistic in terms of sustaining any sort of commercial fishery, the enormous discard rate of the 90 mm net should be noted.

In that experiment, the 90 mm net caught 693 haddock of legal size and 846 haddock that legally would have to be discarded—far more than the total legal catch. The 90 mm net caught 378 whiting of legal size, and 525 undersized whiting that would have had to be discarded. On that basis, for every 100 tonnes of fish of legal size caught, another 127 tonnes of undersized catch would have to be dumped over the side. That proportion of discards shows the real need to move towards conservation gear.

I was pleased to hear what the Minister said about industrial fishing. I do not recall hearing him make such a strong statement before. On behalf of the Opposition, I have consistently argued for an end to industrial fishing because of its unacceptable ecological impact and the by-catch that it entails. The discard rate that I have described is equally unacceptable. What is needed is a switch to the square meshed panels and conservation gear that are now being used experimentally.

We should not necessarily lock ourselves into minimum and maximum mesh size requirements. Different mesh sizes may be needed at different times of the year and in different parts of the sea—for example, in nursery areas. There is a cod box off the coast of Denmark where a 120 mm net would not be inappropriate during a period in which the cod were spawning, or considered to be vulnerable. A specific mesh size or gear type may not be the only answer to all our problems; fishermen should be able to operate with more flexibility.

We know that square-mesh panels result in a significant improvement. We have discussed the research that has been done, and the way in which such panels have been pioneered in this country. It is not clear, however, that the Commission's proposal for upper panels alone is an effective option, especially for cod fishing. It is more than possible that, if square meshes are used, both top and bottom panels should come into play to allow cod to escape from the bottom of the nets. Certainly more research is needed.

I was alarmed to read that fishermen on the east coast, who have been pioneering the trials, felt that there had been unacceptable delays in the financing and setting up of the experiments. Mr. Trumility, gear development officer at the sea fish gear development centre at the Hull technical unit, told Fishing News that the delays were due to lack of time, resources and staff. Surely the Minister agrees that, with the industry facing a crisis and under great pressure, priority should be given to such research and development. Fishermen themselves feel that they are under a constraint: their problems are not given anything like the same priority as those of agriculture. Of course agriculture too has its problems, but I feel that it is not unreasonable for the two sectors to receive equal treatment.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The problem was illustrated for me last year, when I went to see the Minister with responsibility for fishing about a constituency matter. Fishermen in my area faced bankruptcy during, and following, the inclement weather, but the Minister said that there was no money. Meanwhile, the farmers were tipping over billions. I could not work out why that was.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend is always quick to speak on behalf of his local fishermen, and he has made his point very well. When farmers are being paid to set lands aside, it is surely not unreasonable to suggest that fishermen should receive similar assistance.

Mr. Foulkes

May I give my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) some advice? If he wants to know why that is, he should count the farmers and ex-farmers on the Conservative Benches and then count the fishermen and ex-fishermen. He will find that, while there is a large number of the former, in the latter case there is a big round zero.

Mr. Gummer

As one who is neither an ex-fisherman nor an ex-farmer, may I say that I am sure that the farming industry would be happy to swap much of the support that it has received for circumstances that would have allowed its receipts to increase faster than the cost of living in nine of the past 10 years? Farming incomes have dropped sharply, and both incomes and receipts have suffered a good deal. Surely it is not unreasonable for us to help.

Mr. Morley

I do not dispute the fact that farmers have their problems, but I think that the fisheries sector deserves similar treatment. While it is true that farm incomes have been cut—although there was a slight increase in the last financial year—farmers have had their good years and their boom times; incidentally, that has happened more under a Labour Government than under the present Administration.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

My hon. Friend should also remind Conservative Members that, in the allocation of resources, share fishermen—who do very badly when the vessels are not at sea, eking out a precarious living—have been doubly maltreated by the Government. Under the new social security regime, they are effectively being denied the benefits due to them: they are paying in more and receiving less while the vessels are laid up for the Christmas season.

Mr. Morley

I understand that, following a review by the Department of Social Security, it has been decided not to change the regulations applying to share fishermen, who are indeed paying a higher stamp while receiving no extra benefits when they are unable to fish—particularly when laid up in ports by bad weather. I intend to take up the matter with the DSS, and I hope that the Government will reconsider. I do not think that such unequal treatment can be justified.

I am encouraged by news that the square mesh experiments have been carried out with nephrops, although it is too early to say what benefits will result. I also note that the EC is proposing TACs in all areas; I hope that the Minister will ensure that, if they are applied, the historical track record of those involved in the fisheries is taken into account, and that further consideration is given to the restriction of twin-rig trawls. The Minister has been very good about conservation gear and its effects, but when we have raised the problem of twin-rig trawls—particularly in the nephrops areas—he has been strangely reluctant to take steps to restrict such gear, although the fishermen are very much in favour of it.

I understand that the EC is considering changes in the horse mackerel TACs. I was glad to hear the Minister say that he would bear in mind the fact that the horse mackerel fishery has been developed for human consumption, which has been a great help to our slowly reviving pelagic fleet. Given its present market, it is a very high value-added product, and it would be a great shame if the fishery were squandered on industrial fishing. I also hope that the Minister will resist any pressure for TACs to be allocated on a national basis.

The Minister will have been waiting for Opposition Members to mention decommissioning, and I do not intend to disappoint him. We have said the same thing time and again. The Minister was not here when we last debated decommissioning, but at that time not a single hon. Member representing a fishing constituency supported the Government's refusal to provide a decommissioning scheme, and I suspect that the same will happen this time. We know very well that this country has made no progress in meeting capacity cuts in line with the multi-annual guidance programme. We have one of the worst records in the EC. The Minister said that only a few countries have met their target, but at least some have done so. The danger is that countries such as Denmark, which has a high classification and is on line with its target programme, will argue that they should be exempt from some of the technical measures because they have met their targets in line with the multi-annual guidance programme. The danger is that some of the EC proposals will be imposed upon us because we are making no progress in reducing capacity and effort.

The Minister talked about the last decommissioning scheme and I do not doubt that there was waste and abuse and that it did not meet the criteria. The Minister may not have been here when the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), told the House that it was not beyond the powers of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come forward with a decommissioning scheme that would meet the criteria that we would want to see and ensure that capacity was reduced. In terms of cost, the Minister knows that the scheme is geared towards horse power and the age of fleets. If the older and less powerful boats were taken out, that would be reflected in the overall cost because the scheme is designed to reflect age, power and catching capacity. I do not see any reason why a scheme could not be put together to ensure that boats are taken out and that effort and capacity are reduced in line with the multi-annual guidance programme without it being abused or a waste of money. I cannot accept the Minister's arguments. I do not believe that the necessary expertise is not available.

Mr. Gummer

A fisherman may have two boats, one fishing for 90 days and one for 100 days. If he takes one of those boats out, is not it possible for the other boat to fish consecutively more days so that the effort is not altered at all? The only benefit that arises is that the fisherman pockets the decommissioning money. There is no way in which the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) can suggest that we can use a decommissioning system that does not end up like that. All I am saying is that that is not a sensible way to spend taxpayers' money on reducing effort, although it may be a reasonable way to put money into the fishing industry if that is one's only aim.

Mr. Morley

With respect, that assumes that if someone is fishing for less time with one boat, he is catching fewer fish. A fisherman may catch a higher percentage of fish simply because he strikes lucky or because of the gear that he is using or the way in which he is working. It is not as simple as the Minister suggests.

How will we reduce capacity? We are not getting anywhere with the Minister's proposals. The steps that he has taken, such as licence aggregation and proposed entitlement aggregation, only scratch the surface of over-capacity. I should have been more impressed if the Minister had shown the House that some progress was being made towards reaching the targets. We know that the schemes are being used successfully in other countries, which have reduced their fleets in line with the EC regulations. Because they have reduced their fleets, they qualify for modernisation grants and can restructure their fleets to make them more efficient and modern, thereby sustaining their industry at the expense of United Kingdom taxpayers who are paying into the fund but receiving nothing from it, notwithstanding the Minister's comments about the Fontainebleau agreement.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is now showing the absurdity of the scheme. He is suggesting that we should spend money taking boats from the fleet so that there would be an opportunity to take more money to modernise the boats left in the fleet so that their effort would increase. It is nonsense. The hon. Gentleman's taxpayers and the taxpayers of every constituency would be paying for that because of the Fontainebleau agreement. The hon. Gentleman is asking for taxpayers' money to reduce the fleet without reducing the effort and then to modernise the fleet in order to increase effort. It does not make sense.

Mr. Morley

I do not accept that. Fishing boats do not stay the same for ever. Already, certain parts of United Kingdom fleets, particularly in inshore areas, are having problems with aging fleets. Fishermen, because of the tight quotas, are unable to invest in replacements. There has to be a properly managed and sustainable industry that will ensure that the fishermen can find the investment that they need. Even with a reduced fleet, there will still have to be modernisation and investment. That can be done only with restructuring and we can restructure only with a decommissioning scheme.

The Minister would have greater credibility if he could demonstrate to the House that something is happening with his policies to reduce effort and capacity. Nothing is happening, so the onus is on him. If he rejects decommissioning, he must produce a workable scheme to meet the objectives, but he has failed to do so.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

May I put a simple question to my hon. Friend? Will he press the Minister to explain why those schemes work in Europe but not here?

Mr. Morley

It is for the Minister to answer that. Other countries have not been slow in utilising the money to their advantage.

Mr. Gummer

First, we must remember that we are in Europe and that we are talking about other parts of Europe. I do not know how we shall deal with the European Community if we continue to talk like that. Secondly, the schemes do not work there either. There is no sign that effort is being reduced in other European countries. The money is being paid out but effort is not being reduced. It is not sensible for us, when we do not receive an enormous amount from Europe because of the Fontainebleau agreement, to do something that is not helpful to us and does not deal with effort.

Mr. Morley

With respect, the Minister has not demonstrated that what he is doing is helpful. The other European countries have made it clear that they are meeting their targets and are dealing with their fisheries with decommissioning as one of the management tools at their disposal. The Minister is saying that it will not work in this country but is offering no alternative. He does not have a good track record to convince me or other hon. Members of what he has achieved. If the Minister could give us an idea of how he intends to meet the targets under the multi-annual guidance programme, we should be more reassured. We are not meeting the targets and we are not reducing effort. Funds are available in the EC to help with restructuring and reducing effort and the Government should take advantage of them.

Recently, when addressing the Commission, which was pressing him about restructuring, the Fisheries Commissioner said: The Community participates in expenditure which is spent by member states. You have a right to that aid. The only problem is that as far as the British Authorities are concerned, they have not put in a request for it. I cannot pay subsidies if I am not asked to do so. That suggests that the funds are available but the Government are not applying for them.

I should like to make some positive suggestions that the Minister may wish to take with him in his negotiations. We need an overall fishing strategy. There have been problems enforcing the fishing regulations, particularly in area VII. We are all aware of the fraud that occurred there and I note—I am ready to be corrected —that there has been no prosecution of anybody involved. Given those problems, would the Minister consider compulsory fitting of transponders on all fishing vessels? That would enable fleets to be tracked and monitored through central management. It would be a great aid to the management of our fisheries. It would show where fleets are operating and would have an added safety benefit, because should a transponder stop transmitting, the position of the vessel would immediately be recorded.

Will the Minister consider involving fishermen more in decision making on conservation? I am concerned that there seems to be little close contact between the scientists, who make recommendations, and fishermen, who well know the movements of fish, their size and their spawning areas. Many times, fishermen have said that certain parts of the fishing grounds could be closed or restricted. I am aware of the programme to close certain sensitive areas, but I do not see why fishermen could not be involved more in decision making, in recommendations and in the management of their fishing grounds.

It seems that the EC does not consult fishermen closely. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) mentioned the 10-day restriction to reduce effort. He rightly said that 10 days in every month is no use because fishermen need flexibility of approach. They rely on the weather and the tides. It would be devastating, for the purpose of neat bureaucracy., for them to have to spend 10 days in every month in port and not be allowed to fish. That is not a reasonable or sensible approach. I hope that the Minister will consider it.

We all know the desperate state that the industry faces if these measures are not amended and practical steps are not taken to assist our fishermen. It is not fair for the Minister to say that fishermen will be compensated by higher fish prices. There is a limit to what processors and consumers will pay for fish. It is true to say that fish prices have increased because of the shortage, but it is wrong to assume that the price will continue to increase pro rata. It will reach a ceiling, below which fishermen will be pushed into ruin.

There is a limit to the patience of fishermen while they wait for practical measures such as a decommissioning scheme and a strong and sensible policy to manage our fisheries. I take what the Minister said. I believe that he recognises some of the problems. We certainly have a little agreement on certain parts of his approach to the negotiations, but to deal with the problems that our fishermen face we need a much stronger technical restructuring scheme, at the centre of which should be the decommissioning scheme.

I return to the original point: so far, the Minister has been unable to offer anything in place of a decommissioning scheme or any evidence that his approach is effective, is working and is dealing with the problems that fishermen all round our coasts face every day.

8.22 pm
Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside)

I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and of my right hon. Friend the Minister about the Premier. All hon. Members—the hon. Lady knows this from our discussions with her and exchanges in the past 24 hours—are sensitive to what has happened. Our thoughts and prayers go to the families of those who were so tragically involved.

Sadly, we in the north-east of Scotland are not strangers to tragedy, and that is true of fishing communities around the coasts of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the north-east of Scotland, we have also had the tragedies connected with the North sea oil industry. That underlines the fact that those who must battle with the elements for their livelihood do take special risks. Hon. Members are sensitive to those risks and join, regardless of party, in sympathy for those who have been involved in such accidents.

I must confess that I thought that we were having a question time at the beginning of the debate, which I am afraid will limit the opportunities of some hon. Members. I shall therefore do my best not to detain the House for long.

Although we welcome the explanations that my right hon. Friend the Minister always gives so lucidly on these occasions, none the less, we want the views of our parts of the United Kingdom taken into account at the negotiations. May I say quite unequivocally that I welcomed my right hon. Friend's robust defence of the United Kingdom's interests in the negotiations? Hon. Members will leave the debate heartened by what he said.

I pay tribute to the constructive, thoughtful and helpful speech of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). Many of the problems in fishing can be approached—I certainly welcomed this when I had responsibility for these matters—on a bipartisan basis, which, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged, strengthens the British negotiating position. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe certainly contributed to that.

I acknowledge what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about the fishing industry: the year turned out better than it appeared it would at the beginning. On straight financial receipts for the industry, it does look better, but I ask my right hon. Friend to remember that the results were patchy. Many of the high earnings were in the early part of the year, when many boats could not go to sea. The limited number of boats that were able to do so had good returns, but when one considers the fleet as a whole, particularly the smaller classes of vessel, one realises that we cannot be complacent about the financial position of the industry. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to consider not only the overall position of the industry but the different sectors within it—where, unfortunately, the story is not always the same.

As many hon. Members wish to speak, I shall deal only with a few specific points, the first of which is the diamond versus the square mesh net. I am delighted that we have a good debate going on this subject, because there is no doubt that we must avoid the indiscriminate slaughter of juvenile fish which occurs with the diamond mesh net. Hon. Members welcome any move towards adoption of a square mesh net, particularly in the cod end, and my right hon. Friend the Minister can rely on our wholehearted support.

My only anxiety —this is looking backwards rather than forwards—is how slow we have been to follow this up and to develop it. I am afraid that there appears to have been reluctance in certain research establishments and elsewhere to follow this through vigorously. I make the plea that we do not necessarily wait until all our experiments are completed. Let us look also at experimental and practical experience in countries such as Canada. In the course of the year, I supplied my noble Friend Lord Sanderson, who was responsible for fisheries at the Scottish Office, with much evidence, particularly from Canada. I am glad to see that it has been acted on, but let us ensure that it is acted on quickly.

I am not qualified to say which size of square mesh may be correct. All I can say is that I hope we reach a sensible compromise and that we avoid the indiscriminate slaughter of juvenile stocks, on which the future livelihood of our fishermen must depend.

The 10-day rule for the limitation of fishery effort is ridiculous. It is arbitrary, it does not take account of practical conditions in the industry, and because larger vessels can choose their time at sea much more easily than other vessels, it will, if adopted, discriminate against smaller vessels in the fleet, which none of us wants. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that that rule is dropped.

I turn to the negotiations with Norway about mackerel and herring. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister explain why the Commission recommended that the mackerel total allowable catch should be exceeded to accommodate Norway, but that the TACs for white fish recommended by scientists should be strictly complied with? That paradox should be explained. I cannot understand that proposal.

Norway is to get 28,000 tonnes more mackerel from the western stocks and is to increase its share by 4 per cent. The United Kingdom will get only 8,000 additional tonnes out of the increase. I do not believe that the result of the negotiations is fair. It discriminates against our fishermen and does not make sense in terms of a consistent policy on TACs. The same applies to North sea herring stock. Although the Norwegian share of the TAC goes down from 29 per cent. to 25 per cent., 12,500 tonnes are to be transferred from the Community to Norway. That does not make sense. The Commission must be much more resolute in negotiations with Norway.

I shall not go into the details of other TACs, because I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister has taken all those points on board. The Hague preference was hard won. Much effort was needed to get it, and I can assure my right hon. Friend of that from first-hand experience. I should hate it to be diminished in any way. I was delighted by my right hon. Friend's clear declaration. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will support him in defending it.

Structure is the most important issue. I know that my right hon. Friend will not like what I have to say, because he knows my views. My thoughts are perhaps closer to those of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe than to those of my right hon. Friend. We need a much more rigorous approach to the question of the size of the fleet and of the fishing effort. I for one would have adopted a much more rigorous licensing system than the one that the Government introduced. If we have a licensing system, it must be rigorous. I welcome the changes this year, because they are an improvement in the right direction, but we should have started with a much tighter system. That was always my belief, but, alas, a general election and a change of Government position meant that I could not follow it through.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has certain reservations about a decommissioning scheme, and he expressed them strongly this evening. It can be argued that either a more rigorous licensing scheme or a decommissioning scheme is highly interventionist, and I accept that. After all, as my right hon. Friend admitted, we are dealing with a hunting industry—moreover, one in which the resource being hunted is limited. As surely as night follows day, there must be regulation. We already have intervention. I cannot understand the reluctance to have the slightly greater degree of intervention that will be much more effective in bringing the technical and physical resources used to hunt fish more closely into gear with fish resources.

We must reduce the pressure on stocks. Although some of the measures that we have introduced are helpful, they will not bring that about in a major way. I cannot understand some of the arguments put by my right hon. Friend the Minister. Surely, if the capacity of the fishing fleet is reduced—either the more efficient or the less efficient part—the existing available catch is shared among fewer vessels and fewer fishermen and those remaining in the industry become much more viable. If, at the same time, we throw all our conservation measures overboard and decide to get rid of quotas, TACs and the rest, of course we will get more effort from the remaining capacity. But surely no one is talking about that. We keep our conservation measures, our mesh sizes for nets, our TACs and our quotas, but, by reducing capacity, we make sure that the income available to the industry is spread among fewer boats and fewer fishermen.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has spoken from the basis of his experience with company fishing vessels at Humberside, which I believe, in the light of the Public Accounts Committee's report, has scarred him. Of course, those who manage company fleets will get rid of their least efficient vessels and fish with the more efficient remaining vessels. I believe that the scheme was badly managed.

We can learn from the lessons of dealing with company fleets. But we are not talking so much about that now as about share fishermen. We are talking about a situation in which one family might own, at the most, two vessels.

Those fishermen do not have a choice. A decommissioning scheme among the share section of the fleet would take away the vessel and the ownership, and that is that—those people cannot change from one vessel to another.

Sir Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee which examined this matter. As I said in the previous fisheries debate, the report stated: We note that member states were given options as to how the EC scheme for decommissioning grants should be applied but MAFF chose to introduce a regulatory approach with provision for the automatic payment of flat rate grants. Surely we should be thinking about more flexible systems, pinpointing grant where it is needed.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening, because he makes his point having examined this matter. The schemes could be refined to reduce the capacity of our fishing fleet, which would be a proper and sensible way to proceed.

I hope that I have shown that some of the assumptions made by my right hon. Friend the Minister are wrong. They should be challenged, and I certainly challenge them. I beg my right hon. Friend to consider this matter again and not to be prejudiced because of experience of a previous scheme—that can be changed. I ask him to consider the issue in the context of the inshore fleet and of the share fishermen, because they are different.

Last but not least, I believe that the industry is prepared to discuss how to co-operate in devising and operating such a scheme. The industry has offered to do that. It would be wrong if the Minister did not take up those offers and did not move forward on the issue of decommissioning in co-operation with the industry. That is vital. That matter must be dealt with as part of our fisheries policy.

8.38 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) because I agree with nearly everything that he said. I demur on his point about the Hague preference which, as far as Grimsby is concerned, is the Hague handicap because we do not get it. The right hon. Gentleman's speech was a passionate and strong invocation of a need which has been put to Ministers by hon. Members on both sides of the House—to get something done about a decommissioning scheme. The debates fall into a comon pattern, and that demand comes across strongly. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Gentleman's strong statement.

The prospects foretold by the documents are gloomy. We are in a conservation crisis. If the cuts in TACs are implemented in full—for instance, 15 per cent. for North sea cod—it will be disastrous for the industry and for Grimsby. We are a cod port. We are also a fishing centre, a market centre and a processing centre. There are nine jobs on land for every one job at sea and those jobs depend on the catches made at sea. If there is a cut in the catch, it has a knock-on effect on the whole industry—on the processing side and on the market through which a high proportion of the fish comes. It is the best market in. the country and there is a distribution system which, in turn, supports the market. Those elements of the industry are now nearing the limit of viability. Any cut in catches, in throughput in the market and in what goes into the distribution system would have a disastrous and disproportionate effect on the industry. It would endanger the existence of the distribution system and undermine the market that is crucial to the distribution and demand for fish throughout the country. We are in a crucial situation which could have dire effects for Grimsby.

It is important to put to Ministers the concern that we all feel so strongly and passionately. I am amazed that, after the strong and passionate pleas for a decommissioning scheme that were made in each previous fishing debate, Ministers remain impervious to the argument. The Minister's defence of his failure to provide a decommissioning scheme was casuistry which might go down well in Convocation, for which it is better designed, but which cuts no ice with the fishermen because it defies common sense. If the Government were to provide a decommissioning scheme to cut the amount of effort, they would automatically provide for more effective and better conservation. That is essential.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The Minister's case was that if one reduced the size of the fleet, there would be greater fishing effort and damage to conservation. By that token, the way in which he should help to reduce fishing effort is to have grants for new-built boats to increase the size of the fleet. It does not add up.

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. If it is reduced to that ludicrous dimension, the illogicality of the Minister's argument becomes clear. It is wrong that, although on each occasion we have transmitted to him the strong demand of the industry, he has remained immune to the argument. It is also bad for our negotiating position and for the way in which the conservation measures apply to the industry. It would be ludicrous if the burden of the measures suggested by the Commission, such as the proposal for 10 consecutive closed days which would be disastrous for the industry, fell disproportionately on this country because we were lagging behind through our failure to provide a decommissioning scheme.

The Commission classifies nations participating in the common fisheries policy according to their compliance with the multi-annual guidance programme targets. Countries are classified from A to E. On that classification, we are E. Why is that? The reason is that we fail so disastrously to comply with the targets. For a long period now it has been envisaged that there should be a reduction of 2 per cent. to 3 per cent. per annum, so there should be a gradual reduction in effort. When we had a decommissioning scheme, we complied with that reduction of effort and the scheme got us within the targets. Since then, we have fallen behind. For various reasons, some of which are beyond the Minister's control—the number of quota hoppers has added to the pressures—we are 25 per cent. astray from our target.

We are the worst case in Europe. Even Spain, whose behaviour is monstrous in many respects and of whose approach I am a constant critic, is classified as D, whereas we are classified as E. Denmark, which has a good decommissioning scheme that works well and has substantially reduced the effort in a rational and predictable way, is classified as A. That puts us in a difficult position. It leads to the disproportionate application of conservation measures to this country and it isolates us from the concerted approach that fishing nations could take. Denmark may want to isolate us and place the main burden of its criticism of demand on this country because Ministers have left us exposed by their failure to introduce a proper decommissioning scheme.

This is not a question merely of the casuistry that the Minister invoked. A vital national interest is being set back by a total failure to listen to the industry and by Ministers' incompetence in administering the previous scheme.

Ministers have also brought an undesirable fate to the industry through their attitude to the type of nets used. That point has been made by the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside and has been hammered home in each previous debate. There have been discussions about square mesh nets and their advantage over diamond mesh, which pulls out of shape. However, it is important that the work on square mesh panels should not be held back. There is a suspicion that the approach of the Ministry and of some research institutions that are prejudiced about square mesh panels has held back the argument. The Government have failed to advance research in this area, so we do not know exactly what the consequences are.

I have seen research that suggests that square mesh panels may have real benefits in catching bigger and, therefore, more marketable and better fish. I have also heard fishermen argue that that does not work with cod. They argue that as cod are lazy fish, they go into the net and do not try to get out. I cannot tell the truth of those arguments. I feel instinctively, from what I have read about square mesh panels, that they would give an enormous advantage, which we should be pursuing. It is the Government's responsibility to provide the documentation and the research to tell us. We need a clear argument to put before the Commission so that we do not have something imposed on us. We should put our argument on the advantages to the Commission and we should impose it on our industry so that we are in advance of the conservation game and not lagging plaintively behind, arguing among ourselves about 90 mm, 120 mm, 110 mm, or 100 mm mesh size, which the Government are secretly urging in the negotiations.

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

The hon. Gentleman is doing less than justice to the work of British fishermen and of the Ministry. We have led research in the matter, but it has not been accepted in the Community. All the proposals put forward have a combination of diamond mesh and square mesh; the argument is whether it should be compulsory or voluntary. We believe that to get other countries to accept it, we should start with an optional approach on size. There is a genuine argument there. British fishermen have said that they want to have the option only of 80 mm square panels and a 90 mm mesh and that they want to leave the rest as it is. Entirely legally, a 90 mm square mesh panel could be introduced tomorrow morning. We must try to achieve an arrangement in the Community that will not only bring a positive gain in the conservation of fish, but will conserve the livelihood of fishermen.

The Commission's proposals will not achieve that aim. I agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that the status quo is far too wasteful, so we must agree on a formula between the two. What the fishermen have asked us to negotiate is almost impossible. We must find a middle way. We are in the lead on this and we are recognised as being in the lead.

Mr. Mitchell

I agree with the Minister that we should make a clear decision. However, that decision could have been made some time ago as the arguments have been clear for a long time. It is ludicrous that we are arguing and bickering at this stage of the process when we could have anticipated events.

The Minister mentioned the research done by the industry. It is wrong that the onus of research should be placed on organisations such as the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and on the industry itself. It should have been done at Ministry level over a period so that we could now see the advantages, impose our proposals and have a clear case. A decision is needed. We do not need endless arguments about net size or about top and bottom panels. We need to be able to say something definite, so a decision must be taken. That is where the Government have delayed and let the industry down.

As I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall turn now to my main points. From a Grimsby point of view, it is absolutely vital that the Minister resists the reduction in TACs of cod. If they are cut from 105,000 tonnes to the proposed 90,000 tonnes, it will mean the immediate invocation of the Hague preference. That would be disastrous for Grimsby and we must be safeguarded from it. It would mean that fish was effectively being taken away from us and we would be put at a disadvantage compared with the ports along the arbitrary line that the Minister defined, beginning at Flamborough head, which bears no relation to the communities which depend on Grimsby's fishing and which should be allowed to participate in the debate if the Hague preference is to be invoked. The Minister should not allow the invocation of the Hague preference because it would not only be unfair to Grimsby; it would be disastrous.

The improvement in catches given to this country under the CAP was compensation for the fishing effort that was lost in Iceland. That fishing effort was conducted by vessels from Humberside. Since then, the increased catch has been taken mainly by Scottish vessels, which have been able to establish an historic track record, which Humberside does not have. However, Scotland has other advantages, such as the 12-mile limit. It would be absolutely wrong if we were now asked to suffer, through the Hague preference, to compensate Scottish vessels. It would be wrong because of Grimsby's good conservation record. We use 120 and 110 mm mesh, which is a good efficient method of conservation. Grimsby is a cod port which catches good, large, prime fish.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Mitchell

I was involved in this argument with the hon. Gentleman in our previous debate on this and I shall not get bogged down again.

We are a conservation-proud and conservation-conscious port. Moreover, unlike the Scottish industry, we pace our catches and quotas properly and fairly throughout the year. Our fishermen do not go out to grab as much as possible, thus producing the danger of a closure simply because of greed and grabbing too early in the year. Our conservation record should be recognised. There should not be discrimination against Grimsby, such as the Hague preference would produce. We are a very good conservation port.

If conservation measures are introduced, such as the proposed 10 consecutive days in port, they should be applied on an individual track record basis, not on a blanket basis throughout the industry. An allocation allowance must be made for the mesh size that is used so that those vessels using the larger mesh size, such as those from Grimsby, are not faced with the same requirement for 10 closed consecutive days which those without the same conservation record are now to face. If that is applied to the main species, such as cod, haddock and whiling, it should exclude saithe and plaice. We need a better deal for saithe especially in relation to Norway. Ministers have neglected to take the opportunity of the improvement in those stocks in 1991. Although more will be available next year, Ministers have not achieved sufficient benefit for this country.

I remember the contempt with which we viewed horse mackerel when John Silkin came back to the House to announce that we had been given the consolation prize of an increase in the horse mackerel quota in 1978. That fish is now used for human consumption. It is therefore wrong that we should have national quotas out of which, because of their industrial fishing, the Danes will do well. That fish should be developed as a stock for human consumption.

My final point relates to discards, which are a real conservation problem. The Minister should consider seriously how to deal with this. The Scottish industry's discard record is appalling. One hears instances of vessels catching a number of boxes, but then seeing and catching a large amount of better fish and chucking the earlier inadequate fish over the side, thus adding to the discard problem. It is essential that we do something about discards. Given that discards are low in Grimsby, I suggest that all the fish that is caught should be returned and registered to quota. That would impose an effective discipline on the industry and would help us to tackle a problem that cannot be allowed to continue in such a way.

In conclusion, the prospects are poor. We need proper conservation. We need a decommissioning scheme and we need an orderly rundown in the industry in the face of the dire prospects if we are to survive in a coherent and concentrated form to inherit the better opportunties that will lie ahead.

8.55 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I join other right hon. and hon. Members in expressing sympathy, through the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), to her constituents who have lost relations in the dreadful tragedy. In the years that I have been a Member of the House, it has all too frequently been my sad duty to visit the relatives of fishermen who have been drowned. Indeed, I did so this summer. We all know the anguish that those relations go through, especially when the bodies have not been recovered from the sea. That is always an awful additional agony in such times of sadness.

In that connection, I refer to the work of an organisation that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the House, the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. I always like to visit fishermen's relations in the company of the Mission superintendent. Those of us who represent fishing constituencies know the tremendous work that that organisation does quietly and behind the scenes, especially in moments of tragedy, such as the one we mark tonight.

I make no apology for returning to an issue which has not featured greatly in the debate, although it was mentioned briefly by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I refer to the Spanish threat. All our fishermen face the possibility of the dreaded wretched quota-hoppers from Spain. We all dread the possibility that boats that are Spanish to all intents and purposes will start to come back—and some have already done so because of court rulings—in big numbers as a result of the case that starts in the European Court of Justice on 17 January.

I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench for all the work that they have done on this issue. The trouble is that the decisions so often lie with the Commission. Perhaps it is no coincidence —I make no point about it—that the Commissioner is a Spaniard. However, the outcome also lies with the decisions of the courts, both the European Court and our own. The sad fact is that we have so far lost several of the interim cases before the major case begins on 17 January. I hold firmly to the view that, whatever happens, this country and this Government must obey the rulings of the courts. I say that without equivocation, in whatever court the ruling is made.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), were good enough to meet a delegation of leaders of Cornish fishermen, which I accompanied, to talk about foreign quota-hoppers. I am sure that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend agree that there was some frank talking at that meeting. The Cornish fishermen are in the front line in facing the threat. What we cannot understand is how on earth we can have a common fisheries policy based on national quotas while foreign boats can fish against our quotas because of an accident of history and through several devices.

The essence of tonight's debate has been the pressure on our quotas. It is ludicrous and it drives a coach and horses through the common fisheries policy that foreign boats can fish against our quotas. I am afraid that if the vessels from Spain return to our waters and fish against our quotas in the numbers in which they did in the past, our industry, particularly in the south-west, will be devastated.

The pressure on quotas is already enormous. Yet the Commission says that foreign boats should be allowed to fish as though they were British boats, thereby devastating the British industry. That just does not make sense and Cornish fishermen in particular have every justification for being angry and bitter. Their livelihood is being threatened.

I pay tribute to the work done by the Government on quota-hoppers. I am delighted that the Solicitor-General himself will put the British case when the case begins in Luxembourg on 17 January. Quota-hopping by foreign boats is the greatest threat to our industry, but it takes place against the background of pressure on so many quotas—not least the pressure on quotas in the channel and the western approaches.

The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, was good enough to refer to the cuts in some quotas I reinforce what he said. I agreed with much of his speech.

If the Commission's proposals are implemented, the cuts that will be made in area VII—the waters which mainly affect the south-west—for plaice and sole will be enormous. In area Vile, part of the channel, we could face a cut in quota of almost 40 per cent. for sole. The combined effect of cuts in British total allowable catches —I should use that phrase, rather than the word quota —for plaice and sole in area VII could result in a loss of earnings of £6 million for sole and £12 million for plaice. That is big money by anyone's reckoning. Some of that could be offset by swaps with other countries and I hope that that would be the case.

In that connection—the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe drew attention to this—in certain areas it would be safe to increase the TAC and the quotas. I refer in particular to areas VIIh, VIIj and VIIk for sole. That would make a great difference and would help offset the difficulties which otherwise will undoubtedly face our fishermen.

Lastly—I, too, wish to be brief—I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in his opening remarks on deliberate misreporting. "Deliberate misreporting" is an euphemism. I have another word for it which I used in the previous debate on the matter. It is "cheating". In that debate about one month ago I said some harsh things about some Scottish fishermen. Those remarks have not been rebutted and I do not believe that they can be.

I wish to add to what I said and I do not do so with any sense of glee or pleasure. At my meeting with Ministers yesterday, certain information was given to them which had already been given to officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about a Scottish boat which landed its catch in Peterhead on 3 December. I am told that that catch was recorded as having been caught in area VII —the area of sea off south-west Ireland. It is alleged—I do not have the proof—that the catch was made some 140 miles north-east of Peterhead. I am deliberately not mentioning the boat's name because it would be unfair and irresponsible to do so under privilege when the Ministry's officials and Ministers have been given it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State for Scotland and ask him to establish where those fish were caught.

Mr. Salmond

I have told the hon. Gentleman previously that Members who represent fishing constituencies should not spend their time in debates attacking other fishing constituencies. If he has evidence, he should forward it to the appropriate authorities. Does he realise that the whole fishing industry is awash with rumours? Trawlers from the south-west of England have been spending their time fishing in the English channel and reporting that they have been on the Irish sea. Anyone can make allegations. Has the hon. Gentleman investigated those allegations or done anything about them? Is he even aware of them?

Mr. Harris

I have done precisely what the hon. Gentleman urges. I know that the information has been made available to officials and Ministers. [Interruption.] Tonight I am asking for an assurance that that information is being fully investigated with the owners and operators of that particular boat.

Mr. Wallace

The hon. Gentleman is showing his ignorance of the law.

Mr. Harris

Hon. Gentlemen are getting touchy about the subject and I can understand why.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

If the hon. Gentleman has any information of that kind, he should direct it to the office of the procurator fiscal at Peterhead. If the law has been broken, it is not for those sitting on the Treasury Bench to seek to enforce it, but for the appropriate authority in Scotland.

Mr. Harris

The information has been relayed to the Ministry and, I believe, to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland because the licence for area VIIk under which the boat operated was issued, not by the procurator fiscal, but by DAFS. Therefore, DAFS has a responsibility for ensuring that the fish were caught in that area. Unlike the hon. and learned Gentleman, I am not a lawyer, but that is why the Ministry and the Department have a direct responsibility to get to the bottom of the matter.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it would be most unfortunate if this were presented as a Scotland-England issue? Does he accept that tonight I was speaking to fishermen's representatives from the west coast of Scotland who were anxious that precisely the same point should be made in east-west terms? I hope that every hon. Member and every party will unconditionally condemn misreporting and non-reporting.

Mr. Harris

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and hon. Members who are protesting and seem to be sensitive on this issue will remember that a month ago when I raised similar cases I had the support not just of Labour Members but of a Northern Ireland Member who virtually repeated word for word the allegation that I have made.

There has undoubtedly been cheating on a massive scale. The trouble is that this is a double-edged knife. On the one hand, it exhausts more quickly quotas which would normally be fished by fishermen from the south-west and other parts of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, as my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, unless remedial steps are taken against cheating, fishermen who are cheating are building up an unfair track record for the future.

With respect to hon. Members, this is not just a matter for prosecution, but one of direct concern for the fishing departments of MAFF, DAFS and Northern Ireland. For that reason, I welcome what my right hon. Friend said. I have confidence that he will ensure that the practice of misreporting is brought to an end rapidly.

9.9 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I beg to move, in line 11, to leave out from "and" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: demands that the Government now display some commitment to this vital resource industry and pursue a more vigorous policy in the fisheries negotiations by insisting on implementation of the technical conservation measures on square mesh panels agreed by fishermen and supported by sea trials, rejecting the discriminatory and unworkable proposals on limitation of effort proposed by the EC Commission, moving away from the restriction of catches for human consumption to the elimination of industrial fishing, and recognising that the fishing industry is entitled to the structural support enjoyed by virtually every other fleet in Europe.". This debate takes place against the background of the loss of the Premier. That loss is relevant to the debate because all hon. Members should be reminded of the enormous dangers that fishermen face every time they go to sea. It also places an obligation on all of us to do whatever we can to relieve at least the economic pressures on the industry.

I was disturbed at some of the remarks of the Minister, who seemed to adopt a relatively complacent attitude to the extent of the financial problems of the fishing industry. If we had net income figures for the fishing industry, in the same way as we have for farming, they would show an altogether different picture from that of the crude revenue base on which the Minister is proceeding. Costs in the industry have escalated dramatically as a result of high interest payments and the cost of capital equipment —boats and gear. Recently fuel costs have more than doubled. At this time of year boats have to go further afield to fish and those fuel charges become an ever-increasing element of overall costs.

In the past year the economic crisis facing the industry has not lessened. It has been transported onshore and its impact is being felt through high prices in the processing sector. That has had an effect on the processing companies and their workers, many of whom earn under £100 a week. In my constituency many of those workers have not received any wage increase this year. If Ministers swapped places with fish processing workers they would realise that there is a crisis in the fishing industry and they would appreciate the economic conditions that those people face. Let us not be complacent about the extent of the financial problems.

In the light of the two fishing tragedies of recent weeks, it would be inconceivable if there was any support in the House for a system of effort limitation as it would inevitably increase the dangers faced by fishermen. A 10 consecutive day system would do just that because if boats were in port for 10 fine days there would be a greater pressure to go to sea for the remaining 20 days of the month, regardless of the weather conditions. Some people may believe that effort limitation is a valid proposal, but it would he wrong for the House to support it in this form.

Given the Minister's well-known religious interests, I hope that he understands that the proposal would trespass on the religious convictions of those who will not go to sea on Sunday. It would intefere with the fishing pattern that has been established by many of my constituents over many generations. I hope that that will be borne in mind by the Government.

We are all committed to do whatever we can to decrease the inevitable dangers faced by fishermen. At the moment pelagic species must be landed at Ullapool and I am aware of two fully laden boats that had to turn back front that port because of adverse weather conditions. I hope that Ministers will bear it in mind that if a more flexible policy was introduced for the pelagic sector it might make matters safer for fishermen.

Boats from Fraserburgh, Peterhead and elsewhere in my constituency have probably spent the past three days sheltering near Orkney against the adverse weather. If circumstances changed and they had to do 10 consecutive days—if they had overstayed their time at sea and were going into their compulsory lay-up period—they would now be faced with the prospect, having run the risk of being at sea, of having to sail directly back to their home ports to be able to start their 10 consecutive days at home. That is not a workable system and I do not believe that it will be accepted by the industry. I hope that it will be rejected out of hand in the negotiations in the Community later in the week.

I was in some confusion during the Minister's speech to know whether he was attacking the amendment because he disagreed with it or whether—as seemed to be the case later in his speech —he was attacking it because he agreed with it. He seemed to advance a bizarre series of arguments. I took comfort from that because I believe that fundamentally he could not see anything wrong with the amendment as he tried to resist it.

I will deal with the points made in the amendment so that the Minister appreciates fully what we are getting at. I have dealt with limitation of effort. Next, we are arguing for technical measures. We are on the brink of an enormous step forward in the fishing industry. The proposal for the 90 mm mesh size, with the 80 mm square mesh panel above the cod end, is greeted enthusiastically by the fishermen. It has been tested in sea trials and, as the Government are aware, the results have been dramatic in terms of discards and allowing smaller, immature fish to escape alive. There has been a 31 per cent. increase in the escape of haddock and a 46 per cent. increase in the escape of whiting. There is substantial evidence to show that that proposal would bring about what we all want—a reduction in the number of fish discarded dead into the sea. It would allow small, immature fish a chance to escape alive and in good condition. We are on the brink of a major breakthrough.

That is why it would be disappointing if the Government were about to retreat from that proposal, which is backed by scientific evidence and which Ministers have told me privately they support. They accept that it is the best way technically to manage mixed fishing in the North sea. It would be disappointing if that opportunity were lost in some fudged compromise involving the ridiculous proposal of 120 mm that has come from the European Commission.

Mr. Curry

Perhaps I might spell out the position for the hon. Gentleman; I do not want to polemicise it. We understand that the industry would prefer a 90 mm diamond with an 80 mm square panel. I tried to obtain that at the previous Fisheries Council meeting, but there was no support for it. Nor was there support for the Marin proposal. That is dead in the water, and will remain so. The Commission is now arguing for a 110 mm mesh and it will be difficult to head off a majority on that.

I will obtain the best possible deal for the fishing industry, and I wish the House to be clear about the position because I do not want to deceive anybody. The proposal that the fishermen endorse is regarded as very minimalist, and I believe that it would be difficult to obtain. Nothing stops them putting a 90 mm square panel in the existing mesh, and of course the higher one goes the better the spin-off. There is a problem over livelihood—I recognise that dilemma—and it must be dealt with.

Mr. Salmond

That intervention suggests that the Government are backing off the 90–80 formulation which has been greeted with enthusiasm by the industry. The great advantage of having a conservation measure that is backed by the industry is that it has the best possible chance of being put into practice. That is what we are on the threshold of achieving, but the Government seem to be backing off.

I understand what the Minister said about resistance among other Community members, but if he were more amenable to structural policies and a decommissioning scheme all sorts of things would become possible in the fishery negotiations. If the Minister and the Government negotiators continue to be obdurate, it is hardly surprising that they get no sympathy from other European delegates when it comes to negotiating over technical measures.

Earlier, the Minister said that he thought that the policy of low quotas had been relatively successful. I think that the policy has failed. Setting ever-lower quotas means that the industry ends up chasing its tail. Lower and lower quotas cannot work because we are setting single species quotas in a mixed fishery, so it is inevitable that one species of fish will run out before the quota of another runs out. That means that there are bound to be discards.

I know that the public finds this difficult to understand, but it is absolutely legal to discard dead fish in the North sea and it is illegal to land those fish once they have been caught. It is ridiculous, but that is the inevitable result of the present quotas. They cannot work because of their vulnerability to discarding, which is the real enemy of fishermen, of conservation and of progress in policy in the future.

I hope that Ministers will accept that the emphasis in fisheries policy must move to technical conservation measures, when they are established; but I also hope that they will agree that it is idiotic and obscene to set quota levels for fish for human consumption so low when there has been an increase in industrial fishing in the North sea. The Minister told us that he had opposed industrial fishing for a long time, so I was moved to check some statistics to see what had been the impact of his opposition on industrial catch levels in the North sea.

My statistics, for estimated trawl fishery landings from the North sea, are from the past three years and are taken from a parliamentary reply by the present Secretary of State for Scotland on 16 July this year. In 1987, 1,106,000 tonnes of industrial fishery was landed from the North sea alone. In 1988, the figure was 1,349,000 tonnes, and in 1989, 1,483,000 tonnes—mostly, as we all know, landed by Danish and Dutch fleets. So in the very years when increased pressure has been put on fisheries for human consumption, for which the quotas have been dramatically lowered, industrial fishing in the North sea has increased. If that is the result of the Minister's trenchant opposition to industrial fishing, I should have hated to see what would have happened had he not entered negotiations arguing against it.

We know from previous fishing debates that industrial fishing has never been discussed as a specific policy item at Council meetings. When will this obscenity be tackled? Millions of tonnes of small fish, pout and sand-eels, are taken from the North sea—the feed stock and foodstuff of a future fishery. Meanwhile, fish for human consumption is allowed to be taken only at levels so low as to be almost untenable.

Our amendment refers to structural measures—not only to decommissioning but to temporary lay-up measures, of which some Community countries, particularly Spain, have taken advantage. In 1987, 1988 and 1989, 50 million, 30 million and 6 million ecu —I am not sure whether hard or not—have been spent on lay-up schemes and have mostly gone to Spain. Thirty-seven million ecu, 49 million ecu and 45 million ecu respectively for the same years have gone on decommissioning, mostly to the Danes and Dutch. That amounts to a total of £150 million in structural support over these three years, of which the United Kingdom's share has been zero because of the Government's obdurate opposition to structural measures.

Regardless of the Minister's embarrassment at presiding over a failed decommissioning scheme six years ago, surely we cannot allow our fishing industry to face competition from other European fleets at such a massive and major disadvantage. By all means let us have a better decommissioning scheme than the one that sent many millions of pounds sailing up the Humber about six years ago. A common sense flexible scheme would allow some reduction in fishing capacity, some amelioration of the problem and progress towards meeting the guidance targets.

Those are the three points in the amendment, and my hon. Friends and I will force the issue to a vote. However, having heard the explanation perhaps the Minister will accept our amendment. Failing that, and given the special characteristics of this industry, I am sure that the Minister understands that hon. Members from fishing constituencies must vigorously represent this industry. We inherited the cause in our constituencies. In the winding-up speech I should like to hear some concessions to the important, positive and constructive arguments that have been advanced on behalf of fishermen.

9.26 pm
Sir Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) that hon. Members who represent fishing ports strongly support their fishermen, who play an important part in their constituencies. Time is running short, so I shall be brief.

Happily, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) is back with us for the debate. I well remember when he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) presented an agreement to the House. That was a good agreement and greatly favoured our fishing industry. Ministers are doing a first-class job in Brussels on behalf of our people. Sometimes the results have not been what we would have wished, but we are fortunate to have such competent Ministers representing us in negotiations, which my fishermen are carefully following.

Quotas have been lowered each year and are now at a critical level. I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food assure us that any further reduction in the quotas would be kept to a minimum. That is right because we must look not only to the future of the fish but to the future of fishermen and their industry.

Secondly, I was glad to hear about the positive conservation measures that have been taken by the industry. My fishermen have engaged in such experiments and I hope that their experience will be taken into account. The system of 10 consecutive days of non-fishing produces greater hardship for fishermen than the mathematical calculations suggest. Fishermen, and especially those who work on the north-east coast, have to contend with changeable and dangerous conditions and need to be able to time their fishing operations if they are to be successful. I hope that that will be taken fully into account in the negotiations. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, and I wish him well in the negotiations next week.

9.29 pm
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I extend my condolences to the bereaved families of the Premier. All of us who have many close connections with the fishing industry, through either our constituencies or families, never become inured to sadness as each winter goes by and we lose a vessel, with the disappearance of a whole crew or a part crew, as the men are washed over the side. During the bitter winter months we have a constant concern for those who sail our seas to find a living. That feeling unites all of us in the House.

When the Minister began his speech he properly paid tribute to those who have suffered. However, I regret that the memory of the combination of forces faded quickly from his mind, and when he reached the substance of his speech he appeared to have a complete lapse of memory. He seems to have forgotten that the Conservative party leadership has changed. Stridency and haranguing are out of the window. We are supposed to be having the quieter, caring approach nowadays. This criticism may appear trivial to some, but if, whenever a criticism is made or a doubt cast on something in the Minister's speech or in the technical papers, he regards that in a party political sense, he will do the fishing industry no good.

I have taken part in these debates for almost 20 years, and it has long been the tradition to seek to send the Minister to the negotiations carrying the House with him, and the Minister has almost always sought that too. It has seldom been necessary to force Divisions. Ministers have usually taken the depth and strength of feeling in criticisms with them as a bargaining point on their side, instead of discounting them as if we did not care about what happens.

I am always irritated when the Minister sits and gossips instead of listening to the debate. He should bear it in mind that we are trying to ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for our constituents and the industry. The Minister went too far when he said that we were trying to give the fishermen a soft option, trying to buy votes. That is an insult to all fishermen. Anyone who promised that quotas and TACs would be increased and that fishermen could catch all the fish that they liked would be laughed at. Anyone who thought that he could get a vote that way would be considered crazy and no one would vote for him.

It is easy to try to make the soft option, but I think that I am speaking for most hon. Members when I say that the soft option has not been put. It has been hard work to get the fishing industry to come to terms with the problems of conservation and the amount of fish being taken out of the sea. What worries me is that we are told that we must accept the scientific advice, the reduction of quotas and TACs, but the problem is that that does not seem to be working. Each year, we find reduction after reduction. I am not suggesting that reductions should not be made, and they probably will have to be accepted, but there seems to be less concentration on the scientific reasons for the lowering of the age of the stocks, and we need to know more about that aspect.

It is a bit much for the Minister to pray in aid scientific evidence in some regards, but then to acquiesce in respect of restrictions such as spending 10 consecutive days in port or on mesh sizes, when there is no scientific evidence for such measures. Nothing has been produced to show that 10 consecutive days of tie-up will work. It could be extremely dangerous to tackle the problem in that way. I am not persuaded that it is a good idea, and do not even understand how it would work. Would those 10 consecutive days run from the first of the month to the 10th of the month, or could people choose which 10 consecutive days they were? Will there have to be a 20-day gap between tie-up periods? That has not been explained, and we need to know.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to my hon. and old Friend for allowing me to intervene. May we have confirmation that those 10 consecutive days will include Saturdays and Sundays, and that they will not be 10 consecutive working days at sea, including steaming days? Will the period in fact comprise six working days plus four weekend days?

Mr. Hughes

Perhaps I should have asked my hon. Friend earlier whether weekends are included, and if there is to be some flexibility. I might have been given the right answer. We have not received an explanation from the Government.

If scientific evidence is to be used for one argument, it should be used for the other. There is overwhelming scientific evidence against using a 120 mm mesh, and to show that the fishermen's proposals can work. The Minister must put all the scientific evidence to the Commission.

I abhor cheating, as does every honest fisherman, I hope that there will be no division in the House, with people getting too touchy over allegations about Peterhead, Humberside or Cornwall fishermen. Such allegations should be done away with for ever. Fishing communities share tragedy, but when it comes to arguments about who does this or that, blame is always placed on fishermen who are 100, 200 or 300 miles away. We must stamp out cheating, and if we discover that our own constituents have been guilty of it, we must come down on them equally hard and not seek to defend them.

The Minister must address the decommissioning issue, for it is not good enough for him to say, because his Department made a mess of the previous scheme, that it was taken to the cleaners or ripped off, or whatever other phrase he chooses—and that as a consequence, there must never be another decommissioning scheme. Instead, we should learn from the lessons of the past.

One of the complaints that I received was that under the previous scheme fishermen did not receive a ha'penny. The Minister claims that the money goes back into the industry, but I do not think that that is true. It will probably go into the bankers' pockets, where it has always gone. It is problematical who will really benefit if the scheme is not properly worked out. However, if catching capacity is reduced in a strategic and planned way, that will help quota management. It must be done in that way.

Fishermen do not like regulations or planning, but they are beginning to accept that they are necessary because otherwise their livelihoods will disappear. They like even less the threat of fleet restructuring and decommissioning, with boats going out of the fishing effort in a war of attrition and bankruptcy. When he was Chancellor, the Prime Minister said, "If it ain't hurting, it ain't working." I hope to goodness that people realise that that is not the way to treat the fishing industry. We want proper restructuring and proper assessment. I also hope that, although tonight we are primarily discussing TACs, the problems facing the processors on the land will not be forgotten.

My final plea is for a day when we can discuss the industry properly, free from the pressures of time and without having to argue about TAC.

9.40 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Despite the robust comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, all the evidence available to me suggests that, for the south-west, the current fishing year has not been as good as 1989. Furthermore, if the Commission's proposals for TACs and quotas for 1991 were implemented in their existing form, there is no doubt that the south-west fishery would experience real problems, with adverse repercussions for the regional economy as well as for fishermen and ancillary activities.

The problem does not end there, however. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, in a closely knit community there is an interrelationship between fishing and other economic activities. In the far south-west, there is an interplay between tourism and fishing. One of the reasons why people go on holiday to isolated peripheral parts of the United Kingdom such as Looe, Polperro and Fowey in my constituency is the fact that the harbours are alive. There is the movement of boats, the landing of fish, the auctioning and the mending of the nets, all of which are of great interest to the visitor. If fishing were taken away, those harbours would cease to be alive.

I recognise the fundamental problems that face United Kingdom Ministers. As we all realise, fish stocks are declining; we have a surplus catching capacity, and we have to deal with overfishing in some areas. As a consequence, we must exercise restraint if we are to maintain effective conservation measures and safeguard the viability of our fishing industry.

I have three detailed points to make about the effect that the draft proposals would have, if implemented, on Devon and Cornwall. The first relates to the TACs, and United Kingdom quotas in particular, for cod, whiting, plaice and sole. The sole quota in area Vile would be reduced by 44 per cent., and the plaice quota by 18 per cent. Although the figures do not seem high in terms of tonnages, I assure the Ministers that in financial terms they represent significant reductions in value, and thus in fishermen's incomes. The suggested reductions in the whiting and cod quotas are 29 per cent. and 19 per cent. respectively.

I acknowledge that those figures are provisional; there will be negotiation at the Fisheries Council next week and there will be some room for manoeuvre in the context of quota swaps, particularly with the Dutch. Overall, however, the trend will be unfavourable if major modifications are not obtained.

That brings me to my second point—the basis of the scientific assessments for the determination of TACs. These are based on limited analytical data that are susceptible to error and variable interpretation. I hope that where there is a variation in the scientific evidence, Ministers will argue for the higher parameter.

In this debate last year I argued in support of greater flexibility in the application of quotas. Circumstances change during the course of any single fishing year. I believe that if there is ample scientific evidence and local knowledge to support an enhanced quota during the year, there should be a procedure that can be implemented without, in effect, having to renegotiate the TACs and quotas.

In the context of conservation, I wish to mention mesh types and sizes. Many hon. Members have already referred to that. South-west fishermen have long advocated larger mesh sizes. The present situation is ludicrous as many small fish are caught and, subsequently, dumped. Small fish represent not only future fish stocks and the viability of the industry but the future livelihood of our fishermen.

It would be remiss of me not to remind hon. Members and Ministers of the potential threat of competition from over 100 Spanish quota-hopping fishing vessels should the decision of the European Court go against the United Kingdom. That is a real worry to our local fishermen since the fish-catching capacity would be enhanced out of all proportion to the quantity of fish available in the south-west fishery. Such a development would have serious consequences for the south-west fishing industry.

Looe is the principal fishing port in my constituency. It supports over 50 fishing vessels—a significant increase since 1980. In the past three years alone over £1 million has been invested in landing facilities, including a fish market and a packaging scheme. Larger sums have been invested in our fishing fleet. I want that momentum to be maintained. We look to our right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to safeguard those interests in Brussels next week and in the wider European forum.

9.47 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, may I, on behalf of my hon. Friends, extend, through the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), our condolences to the families of those bereaved in the fishing tragedy yesterday? As many hon. Members have said, those of us who represent fishing constituencies know that the communities are brought together when tragedies such as this happen. I know that that will be the case in the fishing communities in my constituency. Today, we also remember the community in Carradale where my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) has been with those who are burying their dead after the tragedy last month.

This has been a vigorous debate, as it should be in the week before Ministers go to Brussels to negotiate what will effectively be the shape and structure of the fishing industry in 1991. I share the view of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) who expressed disappointment at the fact that because we were not going to line up neatly behind the Minister, he would automatically be offended and go on to a political attack. If some points seem to be uniting the Opposition and some of his hon. Friends—the eloquent and knowledgeable right. hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) shares some of the views expressed by Opposition Members—perhaps the Minister should take time to consider what we are saying. As representatives of constituencies with substantial fishing interests, we try to make it part of our business to find out what the fishermen are thinking and what their concerns are. The Minister should he in no doubt that the message that we are receiving from them is that they are not satisfied with the way in which things have been going or with some of the more controversial proposals on the table for discussion in Brussels next week.

I shall try, as briefly as possible, to go through the points that arise from the total allowable catches. The first is the agreement that was initialled last week with Norway. Every year, the precise status of that agreement is raised. Every year, Norway tries to get more western mackerel, which appears to be conceded by the Commission, but not necessarily be member states. By the time that Ministers consider it at the Council of Ministers, it is virtually a fait accompli, and on that basis they must share out the remaining stocks.

The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside made the important point that the scientific advice for North sea mackerel is that the catch should be nil. This year, the amount agreed for western mackerel is higher than the scientists' recommendation. The scientific advice has been ignored for political reasons. That should be borne in mind when Ministers use the phrase, "We must abide by the scientific advice", as a defence for other TACs.

The one saving factor, as the Minister said, is the flexibility to take some of that western mackerel east of the 4 deg. west line. My understanding is that the Community and Norway have agreed to 60,000 tonnes being taken. Last year, although it was agreed with Norway, the Council of Ministers scaled it down. Does the Minister foresee that happening again? The pelagic fishermen in my constituency hope that as 60,000 tonnes has been agreed with Norway the Community will agree to it.

On North sea cod and haddock TACs, I noted that the Minister said that, if necessary—it would appear necessary from the figures before us —the Government would invoke the Hague preference. If it is necessary to do so, they will have our support. Will it be possible to agree a TAC for North sea cod that makes it unnecessary to invoke the Hague preference? The industry feels that that would be a better way of proceeding.

If my figures for east and west catches are right, there will be an 8 per cent. reduction in the quota for saithe. I am advised that the Norwegian effort in the fishing of saithe has been considerably reduced, and the possibility of our taking up the slack that the Norwegians have allowed us would be welcome, particularly to the industry in England.

For the west coast, the Minister said that the Government would probably have to invoke the Hague preference for whiting and saithe. What is the position of the Hague preference with regard to haddock? In 1990, the west coast haddock TAC was 14,000 tonnes in area. VIa and 10,000 tonnnes in area VIb, making a total of 24,000 tonnes, but now the total for the two areas is down to 13,000 tonnes. In other words, 11,000 tonnes has been knocked off a TAC of 24,000 tonnes, which is a substantial amount. Given such variations, not least reductions, fishermen find it difficult to believe the scientific advice and wonder why it can be at one level in one year but so dramatically different the next.

The debate on mesh sizes has flowed backwards and forwards. As the Minister well knows, the industry's preference is an 80 mm square mesh panel with a 90 mm diamond mesh. The industry was pleased that the 120 mm mesh size seemed to be well and truly ruled out; there was a broad range of opinion against that. We heard something which, until this evening, the industry had not heard directly from the Government: the Parliamentary Secretary seemed to say that it is unlikely that the British Government will be able to stand by a negotiating position of the 80 mm square panel and 90 mm diamond net. That must come as a great disappointment to the industry. It may feel that the Government have not been batting as hard on this wicket as they might have reasonably been expected to. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) put it well. Because the Government have been so reluctant to go down any road towards a structured policy introducing decommissioning, the Commission has to get back at British industry in some other way, so we have no friends when we want to put forward a proposal.

By using videos and going on journeys, representatives of the industry have tried to show that this is a sensible conservation measure. I understand that it is easy in negotiations to compromise on size issues. But we are talking not just about size but about selectivity. Skippers such as Charlie Dawson, the chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, and John Garrioch from my constituency have shown that their method is more effective in reducing discards. Hon. Members agree that that, perhaps more than anything else, must be achieved. It also retains more marketable fish. The Minister should not give up on that position. He appears already, before the negotiations, to have conceded. What has he been doing since last month to win round friends from other member states? Have representatives of other nations seen the videos and the evidence which our fishermen produced? There will be great disappointment if the pass is sold before Ministers reach Brussels.

The proposal that fishermen should stay 10 consecutive days a month ashore is one of the main controversial issues of the debate. I asked the Minister what the Governmenl's position was, but his reply was not particularly clear. If I used the wrong terminology, I apologise, although I was not aware that I did. I was referring to part of the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Moray and her hon. Friends with which the Minister was dealing at the time. The amendment criticised unworkable proposals on the limitation of effort proposed by the EC Commission. That is what I thought the measure was. The Minister asked why an amendment to that effect should have to be tabled and said that he agreed. I asked him whether he opposed the idea of 10 consecutive days ashore, but did not receive a direct reply. The Minister owes it to the industry to say what the position will be. Is he in favour of the Commission proposal or not? I should willingly give way to him, but he does not seem to want to make the position clear. As hon. Members said, we are increasingly putting pressure on fishermen to fish when they would much rather stay ashore. This may not be the most sensitive of occasions on which to dwell on that point at length, but the House knows the issue.

What thought has been given to the consequences for processors? Will the Government rely on the industry sorting itself out in some way to provide a steady flow of fish during the month, or will there be a glut in some parts of the month and a shortage in others, affecting the price received by those who land the fish?

Not surprisingly, the subject of decommissioning has played a large part in the debate. Many people in the industry have told me and, no doubt, other hon. Members that they see the common fisheries policy as a whole. There are technical conservation measures in one part—a means of limiting the number of fish caught and efforts aimed at conservation. There is also a structures policy. The Government seem to adhere, no doubt rightly, to part of the policy but they totally ignore others. The United Kingdom's fishing industry has to suffer for their omissions.

The Minister argued against decommissioning and told us repeatedly that the previous decommissioning scheme was roundly criticised by the Public Accounts Committee. I understand his sensitivity because he was then one of the junior Ministers responsible for devising the scheme. As the hon. Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw), a member of the Public Accounts Committee, said, it did not rule out other effective decommissioning schemes.

We then heard the argument that a decommissioning scheme would not be effective and that we could not target it. Other European countries manage to target it. In Europe, age, horse power and tonnage are relevant factors. The younger the vessel, the bigger the horse power and the bigger the capacity, the greater is the amount received for decommissioning. The Government have been so intransigent about decommissioning that they have never entered discussions with the industry to see whether there can be effective targeting of decommissioning. I urge them to rethink their position.

We heard a novel point this evening. The Minister said that if we took some capacity out, other vessels would tend to fish harder, so no net benefit would acrue. The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside dealt with that point exceptionally well. We are talking about —

It being Ten o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings.

Mr. SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates), to put forthwith the deferred Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings on Supplementary Estimates 1990–91 (Class IV, Vote 2).