HC Deb 01 December 1992 vol 215 cc238-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

10.1 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I rise on the Adjournment. For a few seconds, I thought that those in the fishing industry watching and listening to this debate would be impressed by the amount of interest shown in the future of the haddock fishery. I am sorry that so many hon. Members are now leaving.

I hope that the Minister has been informed that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) wishes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at the end of my contribution. That is wholly appropriate, because the issues that will be raised affect the whole fishing industry round the coast of Scotland and elsewhere.

This debate takes place on a motion for the Adjournment. It reflects great shame on the Government that, at the end of a vital Fisheries Council last week, no statement was made to the House on the progress or lack of progress of that Council. There was no opportunity in Government time to debate properly the future of this vital industry. There might then have been more time and opportunity for hon. Members to make their particular contributions. I hope that the Minister will first address the question of when fishing will be accorded its proper priority in terms of the proceedings of the House to allow a variety of hon. Members representing fishing communities to put forward their views.

I hope that the Minister is under no illusions about the consequences of last Monday's abject failure. There was total failure to gain any extension or borrowing forward of the haddock quota. The consequences will be severe. If the Minister had told the House that he had tried his best, but had failed to achieve any progress in Europe, he would have been subject to a variety of criticisms, but at least he would have had an argument and a leg to start on.

What is intolerable is that the Minister and the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not even attempt to argue for the borrowing forward of the haddock quota. The fishing communities of Scotland regard that failure absolutely and utterly inexplicable.

There are three consequences. As a direct result of the Minister's failure, the industry will move from its current position of total scarcity to one of glut on 1 January, when the haddock quota will zoom up by 120 per cent. on current levels. The industry will move from famine to almost uncontrollable feast. Many industry observers do not believe that the processing sector can cope with 130,000 tonnes of haddock annually. The result of that huge increase in the haddock quota will be glut, depressed prices, and the industry's problems will immediately change as it oscillates from famine to feast.

In Committee only last week, hon. Members debated the principle of the "Hogmanay haddock". The fish are not to be caught in December, when there is a ready market and keen prices. Exactly the same fish will be available to be caught next month, when there will be a glut and depressed prices. The Minister's failure has subjected the industry to that nonsense. The Minister should reflect on the direct result of his failure—the bleak Christmas that many thousands of people in fishing communities will face as catchers and processors lay up boats and lay off workers.

One of the remarks in Standing Committee a couple of weeks ago which caused most offence was that of the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He said that there was no real need for concern because the processing industry in Scotland … has not shut up shop."—[Official Report, European Standing Committee A, 18 November 1992; c. 14.] It is extraordinary that a Fisheries Minister can be so oblivious to the problems of the fishing industry as to make such a casual remark.

At the major demonstration in Aberdeen a week past Friday, that remark was noted by fishing communities. Processors who are trying their best in very difficult conditions not to lay off workers as Christmas approaches found it offensive that the Fisheries Ministers could not even recognise the extent of the problems faced by the processing sector because of the dearth of fresh fish.

Hon. Members from fishing communities will have been advising constituents at their weekend surgeries on the problems faced by the catching sector, such as obtaining unemployment benefit, which is an extreme problem for many constituents. I should like the Minister at least to tell us that he appreciates the severity of the problems affecting thousands of families in fishing communities.

There is another consequence which, for many people looking at the long-term future of the industry, is the most severe of all. As a direct consequence of the Minister's failure not to get borrowing forward of the haddock quota at the Fisheries Council, thousands of tonnes of good-quality fish are currently being discarded dead into the North sea.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that fishing is a sustainable, renewable industry, which is badly mismanaged by the British Government, and that the fishing industry in Arbroath and throughout Scotland has every reason to feel betrayed by a Government whose policy failures will devastate families and fishing communities throughout Scotland?

Mr. Salmond

My hon. Friend's remarks are well noted. They were universally shared at the fishing rally in Aberdeen a week past Friday. Many people see as the most criminal aspect of the current fisheries mismanagement the fact that good-quality fish could be discarded dead for no useful purpose into the North sea.

I now refer to why Fisheries Ministers felt unable to take any action. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray and I met the Scottish Fisheries Minister on 21 October, when we first raised the necessity of looking for the advance on next year's quota. He wrote to us last month. He said that it would be "imprudent", in the absence of scientific advice, to borrow forward a quota which was not known. Most of us would say that that is a substantial argument, but, even before the Minister's letter reached me, the quota for next year became known, and of course it is a 120 per cent. increase on this year's quota. So the argument that the Minister presented at that stage was false.

We were told in Standing Committee that the Government could not argue for this, because it would be difficult in terms of the European negotiations. That struck me as a surprising argument, since haddock is almost completely a United Kingdom fish and, for that matter, dominatingly a Scottish fish. No one else in the European Community has a strong vested interest in the haddock quota or in stopping borrowing forward.

No doubt the Minister will say, "What about the Norwegians?" They have a huge interest in the haddock quota in the North sea, but the simple solution was to borrow forward on the west coast quota, which is 100 per cent. a United Kingdom quota and 90 per cent. a Scottish quota. In the coming year, an increase of 50 per cent. for that quota is forecast. The few thousand tonnes of haddock involved could have been borrowed forward on the west coast quota to address the current crisis in the fishing industry in Scotland, with no complications for the Norwegian negotiations.

The Minister may tell us that there is no precedent for borrowing forward within the Community. That is not so. It is only some five years since the Community rolled forward the entire fishing year, because Fisheries Ministers were not satisfied at the end of the year that we were progressing sensibly. The fishing year became 14 to 15 months. In addition, the Minister is currently negotiating a change in the common fisheries policy, or perhaps a completely new policy which proposes a multi-annual quota, so no damaging precedent would have been set if they had borrowed forward on the haddock quota.

Can the Scottish Minister tell us whether the real reason for his inability even to table the proposal last week was not given in Standing Committee by the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, when he said: The industry is fairly divided about whether it is desirable to do that."—[Official Report, European Standing Committee, 18 November 1992; c. 14.] The Scottish industry is not divided. Every section of the industry, every producer organisation, every representative organisation, and every representative voice in the processing industry had asked for the same proposal. If the industry was said to be "divided", it can only be a hint that advice was coming from elsewhere against the proposal. The Minister must be honest and tell us whether he was vetoed from putting forward the proposal by objections from elsewhere furth of Scotland.

It has been suggested by reputable voices in the fishing community that there has been a miscalculation of this year's quota which would explain the extraordinary oscillation of the haddock quota. I have tabled questions, but I hope that the Minister will address that point tonight.

Finally, I hope that the Scottish Office Minister understands that the Scottish industry is on the march, as was shown in Aberdeen a week past Friday. The Scottish industry will be on the march again a week come this Friday, at a major demonstration at the European summit in Edinburgh. The Minister should not underestimate the anger felt across the fishing communities. I hope that we will get satisfactory explanations tonight. I have never seen a more convincing argument for Scotland needing independence in Europe than the abject failure to represent our fishermen in the European Community last week.

10.13 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Do I understand that the hon. Lady has informed the Minister?

Mrs. Ewing

To my knowledge, the Minister's office was informed of my request to participate in the debate, with the agreement of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Is the Minister happy for the hon. Lady to participate in the debate?

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro)

Yes, indeed.

Mrs. Ewing

I shall be brief, because the reply from the Minister will be very important to us. In congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate, may I say that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) recognise that an Adjournment debate is no substitute for a debate in Government time.

Since the House resumed its official capacity in mid-October, we have mentioned the need for a debate on the fishing industry in Scotland at every business question time, but those requests have not been granted. They have been pushed aside, and the fishing industry and fishing communities feel offended by that attitude. From the Government's approach, one would think that the industry was not important, but it is vital to Scotland's national economy and to our local communities the length and breadth of the Scottish coastline.

A week past Friday in Aberdeen, our fishing communities showed dignity and decency as they walked in unity, whether they came from the catching or processing sides of the industry and whether they were directly or indirectly involved. They walked throught the streets of Aberdeen and asked that their voices be heard.

Given that there will be another demonstration in Edinburgh on 11 December, will the Minister at the very least ensure that the Conservative party is represented on the platform and that it makes its views heard in front of the people of Scotland and of those fishing communities? If the Government continue to treat our people with such contempt, they most certainly do not deserve any respect. Will the Minister or his Back-Bench colleagues—I notice that at least one has had the decency to turn up for this debate—at least show their faces on that occasion?

10.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro)

I am pleased to be able to reply to the debate obtained by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). Although I realise from his speech that he finds it difficult, he must accept that I take this matter as seriously as he, his colleagues from the Scottish National party and my colleagues do.

Fishing is of prime importance to Scotland. I shall explain why what happened this year has been extremely unfortunate. I know that the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult, but it is important to accept that North sea haddock has been in a distressed state for several years, yet fishing pressure has remained high.

Spawning was good in 1991; hence the great increased prospects for 1993. There will be an enhanced total allowable catch because of good spawning during the past two years, and not because the scientists got it wrong. That does not mean that we can immediately return to over-fishing. If we do, we shall return to the cycle of recent years, when there has been an extreme shortage of fish. We cannot allow unlimited fishing at present.

Let us get the facts right. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen. As he knows, in 1992, the total allowable catch of haddock was 60,000 tonnes, and we had to negotiate—with extreme difficulty—with Norway for our 42,640 tonnes quota, which was up 15 per cent. on 1991. He should bear in mind that no one else in the Community has more than 2,000 tonnes, so the haddock quota is significantly a United Kingdom tonnage.

As the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady know, we fished out that quota by November. Indeed, in some cases it was fished out by October. There were no cuts in the quota—it was fished out earlier than expected purely because fishing pressure was so high and fishing was so expert. Management of the quota is the industry's responsibility. Much of the haddock caught was small and difficult to market and, unfortunately, that helped to reduce prices in mid-summer.

I agree that the non-sector also fished out its quota, but it has to keep roughly in step with the producer organisations, if the quotas are to be fished out equally. The closure in October was not premature. By that time, we were up to 92 or 93 per cent. of the quota. Subsequently, after the fisheries had been closed, we were up to 98.4 per cent. In the Scottish Fisheries Organisation, Iandings were still coming in six weeks after the closure.

The scientific information from our Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management is that the quota will be much higher in 1993. That is good news, and we should welcome it. The total allowable catch is likely to be about 133,000 tonnes. Once again, we will need to go into detailed negotiations with Norway. I expect that we will receive between 70,000 and 80,000 tonnes of North sea haddock, which is almost double what we have this year.

Mr. Salmond


Sir Hector Monro

There is a constraint on time, so I must press on.

The quota for cod will be much the same next year, and the quota for whiting will be down slightly. Fishermen will be encouraged to know that they can begin fishing in four weeks time with a substantially increased quota.

The west coast fisheries will have an increased quota for haddock, although not so much as in the North sea, and a small increase in the quotas for cod and whiting. Broadly speaking, the prospects for next year look much better.

It is unreasonable for the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan to allege that I did not take action. I want to make that matter absolutely clear. As someone who has been preaching about Scotland in Europe for a long time, the hon. Gentleman should begin to understand how Europe works—he has no idea whatever. He thinks that he can drift to Brussels or Luxembourg, wave his arms and all the other countries will fall at his feet and accept exactly what he asks.

Mr. Salmond


Sir Hector Monro

No, the hon. Gentleman can wait until I have made further progress.

In early October, my officials foresaw the problem, and immediately commenced discussions with officials and the Council in Brussels and Luxembourg. When I raised the matter at the Council on 19 October, it was clear that no one would grant us an advance of quota, especially in the light of the reputation that we had earned during the year for the production of black fish. Nevertheless, although the council said no in October, our officials kept up the pressure and did everything possible to obtain an advance of quota, but it simply was not possible. We tried swaps and all means to obtain quota for our Scottish fishermen.

One day, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan will get to Europe in some capacity. However, he will not get very far if he does not understand how the Council of Ministers works and how the Council of Europe works generally.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I hesitate to intervene in matters of a Caledonian nature. I do not know much about haddock, cod or whatever.

Mr. Salmond

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In an Adjournment debate, is it normal for a Minister to give way to another hon. Member when he has already refused to give way to the hon. Member whose had the Adjournment debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

It is for the Minister to decide to whom to give way.

Mr. Porter

Is the Minister satisfied, not so much with the arrangements that have been made in the European Community, as with the policing of them?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a complete abuse of an Adjournment debate by a Scottish Member.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Porter

I am part of the United Kingdom Parliament. I am merely asking whether the Minister is satisfied with the policing arrangements for the quantity of fish which is taken by countries other than the United Kingdom.

Sir Hector Monro

I am certainly not satisfied. I want other countries to meet our standards in terms of policing the quota system and the days-at-sea system.

I made it quite clear to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that we had made every conceivable effort. He must bear in mind the fact that, even if there had been a chink of light, it would have meant returning to Norway to discuss the matter with the Norwegians. Whatever precedent the hon. Gentleman likes to trot out, it would not have taken us forward.

The hon. Gentleman has said some irresponsible things to the press.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister give way?

Sir Hector Monro

No, I shall not give way, as I am trying to finish my speech in four minutes.

Mr. Salmond

The Minister gave way to his hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter).

Sir Hector Monro

That was, perhaps, a mistake.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has made some irresponsible statements. The rules were absolutely clear. It is much more important to ensure that we obtain better results in 1993 than we did this year. That is what we intend to do.

In Scottish Fishing Weekly, The hon. Gentleman said that it was criminal for the Government to refuse to borrow the quota. It was absolutely impossible to do so, and he must accept that.

Mr. Salmond

indicated dissent.

Sir Hector Monro

He is shaking his head as if he were able to control the Council of Ministers in Europe. That shows how out of touch he is with the practicality in Europe.

The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) spoke in the same way when she said that the matter was equivalent to the highland clearances, which is a gross exaggeration of the present position. Nobody has tried harder than my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I. My hon. Friend knows as well as I that we have done our level best to obtain the best possible arrangments for our fishermen in Europe next year.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister give way?

Sir Hector Monro

If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish what I am saying, I shall then give way. He must accept that we made positive gains at the last Council—we obtained gains from the multi-annual guidance programme, which was reduced to 20 per cent., 15 per cent. and zero. That was a substantial improvement on the reduction in fishing that there might have been over the next four years.

We have retained the Shetland box, the Hague preference, the six and 12-mile limits. The stability issue is important relative to the quota split. We have also obtained segmentation of demersal, pelagic, and nephrops fishing. We have introduced decommissioning. Nobody was shouting louder about decommissioning than the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan 12 months ago—now we have obtained it. It is most important that the hon. Gentleman realises the positive input that we have made to help fishermen in the United Kingdom and Scotland in recent weeks.

Mr. Salmond

I have listened to the Minister's excuses, but we have had no answer to the basic question: why was the request not tabled at the Fisheries Council? When the Minister of State, Minstry of Agriculture, said on Wednesday before the Fisheries Council that the industry was divided on the issue, what exactly did he mean? Was that the real reason why the Minister did not come forward and represent Scottish fishermen as he should have done in the European Community?

Sir Hector Monro

One day—or perhaps never—the hon. Gentleman will learn a little about diplomacy in international negotiations. He must accept that some things are written down, some things are achievable and some things are not. It was absolutely impossible to obtain an advance on quota for next year. If we had obtained an advance quota, next August or September we might well have been in the same position as we are now.

The capabilities of the Scottish fishing fleet in capacity are enormous. There is no difficulty at all in catching thousands of tonnes of quota, as we have seen this year, when the fishermen put their minds to it. So I hope the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will realise that we did have a debate in which he and his hon. Friends had free range of subjects on fishing. That was in Standing Committee a fortnight ago. They made a very valuable contribution which was helpful when we went to Brussels to discuss the MAGP.

In the debate around the end of the year on the important Fisheries Council to take place later this month, we shall be coming to the announcement about the exact quotas for fishing.

Mrs. Ewing

What about the tie-up position?

Sir H. Monro

The rumours one hears about eight or ten-day tie-ups are but rumours. The hon. Lady knows what I think about them, from the debate we had two years ago. I hope very much that we are not in that position, particularly bearing in mind the very strict restrictions that we have in this country, and which we will be in a position to enforce later on if the Bill now before another place becomes law. There is a great deal ahead in terms of restrictions.

The hon. Lady must understand that, if we were not tough on fishing quotas, we would have very few fish to catch, and the fishing industry would be in decline. We are determined as a Government to see the fishing industry prosper. We shall be in that position next year and will see the fishing industry prosper, because quotas will be substantially more than they were this year. I believe that this is the right way to assist the fishing fleet. That is of the greatest importance to this Government, whatever the hon. Gentleman says about our efforts over recent months.

Lastly, I reiterate that it was simply impossible to obtain an advance quota. If it had been, we would have achieved it.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you clarify the rules on interruptions during Adjournment debates? I was certainly under the impression that no-one could interrupt a debate without the permission of the hon. Member—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.