HC Deb 14 July 1992 vol 211 cc1063-9

Amendment made: No. 13, in page 2, line 20, leave out from 'by' to end and insert 'this Act'.—[Mr. Curry.]

Order for Third Reading read.

9.34 pm
Mr. Curry

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I commend the Bill to the House. It is, above all, a Bill about the conservation of fish for British fishermen. At the heart of it is our concern for the industry's long-term future. At the moment, no one can pretend that the industry can look to the future with confidence. The reason is the great crisis with fish stocks. Wherever we look, we find difficulties.

It is a worldwide problem. We see it off New England, where fish stocks have collapsed. We see it off Iceland, where it is recommended that cod quotas be cut by 40 per cent. The Canadians have suspended cod catches for two years. Although our stocks are not at the point of collapse, they are one iota away from it.

We have the option of doing nothing. That would be politically easy for a little while, but it would end up being an impossible option. We have chosen the option of admittedly difficult action now, for the industry's benefit and long-term future.

We have a comprehensive package of measures. They include licensing down to zero and decommissioning, which the industry wants, measures to enable quotas to be more freely traded, which the industry will find advantageous and which is wanted in some areas—particularly Scotland—and provision for capacity aggregation and effort limitation.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Curry

I listened carefully throughout the debate, as I did in Committee, and now I will have my say, albeit briefly.

The Bill contains a series of measures which will benefit the industry and which it will eventually discover have served to save stocks and to ensure the industry's survival. I shall make it clear what will happen, because sometimes people tilt at windmills and are influenced by myths, not by reality. We must agree our multi-annual guidance programme. We cannot escape from that; nor can anyone else. We will reduce capacity by decommissioning, measures taken within producer organisations and capacity aggregation. Only then will we have to apply effort control. The more we pursue those other measures, the less dependent we will be on effort control—which will almost certainly be differentiated according to species and the state of the stocks.

We will apply the Bill with great flexibility. We will not prevent fishermen from catching their quota. I understand the concerns that have been expressed, but I must make it clear that we have never had to face the problem of not catching our quota. I am confident that we will never have to do so. If in the most exceptional circumstances we were to confront it, I would seek measures to guarantee that we would catch our quota.

I understand the fears about the activities of foreigners, but overwhelmingly the stocks that are important to us are subject to TACs and quotas, which means that quotas are ring-fenced for British fishermen. We are not in the business of removing the legitimate entitlement of British fishermen; we are in the business of producing a measure that will give the industry a long-term future.

I have said repeatedly that if there are no fish, there is no future. More and more effort is pursuing fewer and fewer fish. Smaller and smaller fish are being landed. Everyone goes to the quayside and says, "Look how small the fish are." If we carry on like that, we shall end up with nothing worth catching.

That is not the obligation that I have as a Minister. That is not something that I would commend to the House. I commend to the House a series of measures that will benefit the industry in the long term. I have no doubt at all that, at the moment, the industry would like to chuck me off the pier. I hope that in a few years' time it will put a statue to me on it. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.38 pm
Mr. Morley

In a few years' time, the fishermen might attach a statue to the Minister and then chuck him off the pier, for giving them this legislation. If the Bill passes in its present form—even with the slight concessions made by the Minister to buy off those of his Back Benchers who are threatening to revolt because of pressure from their constituents—it will be a serious blow to fishermen. It is not just a question of no fish, no future. Of course that is important, but there will be no future for fishermen if the Bill becomes law.

The Government are introducing a unilateral measure. In an interview, Mr. Marin, the EC Fisheries Commissioner, was asked whether he thought it sensible to force fishermen to have their boats tied up alongside a port for a large part of a season. He replied: I didn't take that decision. It was the member state itself. In my view, when it comes to choosing between economic anomalies and the destruction of part of the fleet, the choice must be demolition. That is a reference to a decommissioning scheme. Mr. Marin concluded: This at any rate is the case for Britain. There is an alternative, although it does not include a proper decommissioning scheme. This week's issue of Fishing News contains a letter of support for the fishermen's rally that took place on 7 June. The Danish Sea Fishery Association wrote: Denmark has had government and EC funded decommissioning schemes in operation since 1987, resulting in an overall reduction in Danish fishing capacity of 20 per cent. Although we do not like decommissioning we see it as necessary because only properly funded decommissioning schemes can reduce fishing effort with some form of economic compensation to fishermen. The Danish Seafishery Association, representing the Danish North Sea fishermen, therefore fully supports UK fishermen in their demonstrations against days at sea restrictions as a means of structural policy to reduce fishing capacity. The message behind that letter is that alternatives exist to tying up in port.

What some hon. Members have said today has reflected the concerns of fishermen in their constituencies genuinely and honestly, but we have not secured the changes in the Bill for which we have argued in a reasonable and constructive manner. Our only option now is to oppose the Bill's Third Reading. If Conservative Members—indeed, all hon. Members—genuinely represent their constituents' interests, they must recognise that, in its present form, the Bill does not deliver real conservation; that it discriminates against British fishermen, as opposed to their EC counterparts; and that it will ruin the British fishing industry and the many fishermen who will face bankruptcy rather than decommissioning.

9.41 pm
Mr. Harris

I opposed the Bill on Second Reading, and between then and now I have done all that I can to persuade the Government to see sense. I must acknowledge that the Government listened, especially today, but how I wish that they had listened much earlier. Indeed, I wish that today's proceedings had been postponed until the autumn, thus allowing genuine consultation with the industry.

Having had several meetings today with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I am convinced that he has made a genuine attempt to meet the deep-seated anxieties felt by many of my hon. Friends—and, more particularly, the deep-seated anger felt by our constituents. Nevertheless, I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister bluntly that I cannot vote for the Bill's Third Reading. As I said earlier in an intervention, it is unacceptable in its present form.

Because I recognise the genuine attempts that Ministers are making, however, I am prepared to give them at least the benefit of a half-doubt. I wait—and want—to see the details of the amendments that will be tabled in another place, and the commitments that will be given there. In the hope that those amendments will be constructive and will go much further than the proposals that we have discussed tonight, and in the hope—I have assurances on this—that Ministers are prepared to consult the industry before the Bill goes to another place, I shall abstain tonight. I warn the Government, however, that I retain deep-seated anxieties about the Bill, and I beg them to think again before its Committee stage in the House of Lords.

9.43 pm
Mr. Salmond

'The Minister can claim one achievement, which may be regarded as substantial: he has united the entire fishing industry. The fact that he has united it against him rather than for him is both his and the industry's misfortune.

The Bill is deeply misguided. Indeed, it was misguided to proceed with primary legislation during a consultation period: that sowed a seed of bitterness that it will take a long time to dispel. The Minister was wrong about the timing of the legislation. It was foolish to go ahead with legislation before he had received an assurance that the other member states of the European Community would introduce similar measures.

Earlier in our proceedings, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), said that the Bill is complex because all European Community legislation relating to fisheries is complex, but the irony is that this is not European Community legislation. The Government are charging ahead with a unilateral measure without thought, without consultation and without bearing in mind the arguments put forward by the fishing communities.

Most of all, the Government's attitude to the industry is wrong. They argue that the industry can have the sweetie of decommissioning only if it is prepared to accept the poisoned pill of this and other legislation. That attitude is entirely wrong, if the Government are looking for a fundamental transformation of the way in which the industry regards itself and its relations with the Government.

For all these reasons, this is a bad Bill, and the House should vote against it. The rebels on the Conservative side have been bought quite cheaply. I have not heard an assurance that there will even be a debate on the affirmative resolution on the Floor of the House, as opposed to upstairs in Committee, but the Minister may tell us about that later. The Conservative rebels have been bought off very cheaply. The legislation is unacceptable. As the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) rightly said, the proper way to deal with unacceptable legislation is to vote against it and to square our actions with our conscience.

9.45 pm
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

I suspect that I shall increase my unpopularity with the fishermen in Hastings and Rye. Unlike those hon. Members who have already spoken on Third Reading, I intend to continue to support the Government.

I have been on a very steep learning curve during the past few weeks. I appreciated being a member of the Committee, though I cannot say that I enjoyed the experience. However, during the past few weeks we managed to tease out of the Government, both collectively and separately, some useful concessions. Other hon. Members may not agree with me, but I am conscious of the fact that a number of the questions that the fishermen in Hastings and Rye asked have been answered. My fishermen may not be happy with the answers, but the fact is that their questions have been answered. We now know what is to happen in the case of the under 10 m fleet. We also know that the question of what is to happen in the case of the 10 to 17 m fleet is being taken on board. Many of the questions have been clarified.

However, two difficult problems that we cannot possibly solve tonight, or by means of the Bill, were considered during the past few weeks. They relate to a constitutional issue. The first problem concerns the unilateral nature of the Bill. The other member states of the European Community will be unaffected by it. I am somewhat reassured by the Minister's statement that he will try to ensure that the other European Community countries implement a similar policy.

The second and even broader problem concerns enforcement. The question of enforcement arises not only in the fishing industry but elsewhere. I was told last week by the chemical industry—that most European of industries—that it, too, has problems over enforcement. The Government and the nation ought to consider this issue vis-a-vis the European Community. Enforcement is the cause of the problems that we have with the other members of the European Community and with the Maastricht treaty. I should like effective and speedy efforts to be made to ensure enforcement in the fishing industry.

The common fisheries policy is the core of the problem. Until it is sorted out, we shall have to go on dealing with these difficult issues. The common fisheries policy has forced upon us an illogical and totally unfair system. I hope that, when the Minister attends the next meeting of the Fisheries Council, he will bear that point in mind.

9.49 pm
Dr. Godman

We need to conserve fish stocks, but, in considering the Bill, we are confronted with a savage irony. Not so long ago, the British Isles were surrounded by some of the richest seas in the world by way of commercially viable fishing stocks. Now, an over-large and over-powerful European Community fishing fleet is depleting the scanty stocks of United Kingdom waters. The solution should be Europewide legislation covering the policing of fishing activities not only in United Kingdom waters but throughout the common European Community territorial waters. The Bill is not the fair and decent legislation which we require.

I stick by what I said: I genuinely believe that the majority of our fishermen would accept tough policing regulations on two conditions. First, there must be a sensible decommissioning scheme. Such a scheme should have been introduced five years ago, but the Government did not have the guts to introduce it because the present Minister had his knuckles rapped over the way in which certain Hull trawler owners took him and the scheme to the cleaners in an incident involving a dozen big stern freezer trawlers. The other condition under which I believe our fishermen would accept tough policing measures would be if such measures applied equally and uniformly throughout the European Community.

I am not a lawyer, but I genuinely believe that, if the Bill is passed, it will eventually be challenged by the European Court of Justice, because it discriminates against United Kingdom fishermen in favour of fishermen from other European Community fleets. It is not a bad Bill—it is a lousy one, raddled with inconsistencies, although I appreciate the Minister's intention.

As I said in Committee, we must conserve fish stocks. There is no doubt about that, but we must do so fairly by imposing Communitywide policing regulations. We shall not achieve that aim by discriminating against our fishermen. I shall vote against the Bill, but I am sorry that so many Conservative Members have gladly and eagerly found reasons, oddly and curiously, to vote for such a mess of a Bill.

9.52 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

I shall not detain the House, because I detect a certain restlessness and anxiety to move on to the next business. However, I seek clarification from the Minister on one issue which has troubled me greatly.

The Minister will be aware from a recent Adjournment debate that I represent an inshore shellfishery where the main catches are shrimps, cockles, whelks, mussels and crustaceans in the same category. I should like a categorical assurance that the Bill will not impact too greatly on such fisheries. The idea behind the Bill is to ensure that the stocks which are currently at risk and about which we have heard so much are not wiped out.

The Minister wrote to me the other day and made it clear that the Bill would have only a minimal effect. It is an enabling measure and he will have the power to ensure that inshore fisheries are not affected too adversely. However. his letter was too vague for me to give my local fishermen an assurance that they will not be adversely affected and that their livelihood will not be stifled. I urge the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who is to respond to the debate, to reassure me. I should be extremely grateful.

A fact that has arisen from our deliberations is the complete inadequacy of the common fisheries policy. We entered into it with all the best intentions and with a view to co-operation, to conserving stock and to progressing on a workman-like and constructive basis. All that has started to look very frayed around the edges, and I wonder whether, if we had never had a common fisheries policy but instead had stuck to the 200-mile limit, the fears that fishermen are now voicing would have had any foundation.

We could have had co-operation on the high seas in the areas between the different zones. But the fisheries in the Celtic sea, the south-western approaches and the area around Norfolk and the east coast would have been entirely the purlieu of British fishermen—in the case of the celtic sea, Irish and British fishermen—and a lot of the aggro and trouble that we now face might have been avoided. Surely the time has come to look again at the whole common fisheries policy.

9.55 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor

Our proceedings on the Bill have been marked by some changes, but it seems to me somewhat strange that Parliament should have had to fight to wring a concession from the Minister allowing us to debate the details of the restrictions that the enabling Bill will allow him to introduce. It seems strange that it took an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, to persuade the Government to introduce a tribunal system to ensure a degree of justice for fishermen. It seems strange, too, that it took so long to persuade the Minister even to acknowledge that there might be some point in establishing a basis of equity as between this country's measures and those in the rest of Europe.

The fundamental point at this stage is that the principle on which the Bill rests—the restriction of days spent at sea—remains. That is the principle which led Conservative Members to rebel, or threaten to rebel, against the Bill. When push came to shove, however, those hon. Members said that they were not prepared to vote against the Bill. It seems to me that one either agrees or disagrees with what the Minister proposes: either one votes for it or one votes against it. I do not see the value of abstaining in this case. There is no third way before the House, and I deeply regret the fact that, even now that the Government have a greatly reduced majority and are vulnerable to pressure from their Back Benchers, those Back Benchers are not prepared to stand up and be counted.

9.57 pm
Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Like many hon. Members and many fishermen, I was hoping that this vessel, the Bill, would not be still afloat tonight. I have been a vociferous critic on behalf of my constituents, who still feel that it is an ill-fitted craft which will bring ill and which will have to be sunk in the Lords, as it is beyond a refit.

I am aware that many hon. Members wish to get on with the business that is to follow this debate. I understand that, but I hope that they will recognise the depth of feeling in the fishing communities around the coast of Britain. If those fishermen's fears are realised and hundreds of fishing jobs are lost, it will be of small consequence to inland constituencies where, if people eat fish, they do not really care or know whether it was caught by a Dutch, French or Spanish boat. Why should they?

One of the lessons of the great mass lobby of Parliament last Tuesday was anticipated by me and others on Second Reading: the Government and their advisers want the Bill but the men who go out in the North sea day after day, who mortgage their homes and the lives of their families to earn a living, do not. Until tonight, it was clear that the Government were not listening to the fishermen except in relation to tribunals. That was a disappointment, because, when my hon. Friend the Minister visited Lowestoft, he won deserved respect for his straight-from-the-shoulder approach, which he put in jeopardy by persisting with the Bill in the face of informed opposition.

A second lesson of that huge protest last week and the consequential media coverage is that no one is against fish conservation. That has been said many times but needs repeating. My hon. Friends are not against it. Several of them have said to me, "If it is a Bill about conservation, it must be all right. Why on earth are you rocking the boat?" Fishermen are not against conservation, either. I have yet to meet a fisherman who does not recognise the reality of declining fish stocks. Merchants see the evidence of small catches every morning on the markets. No one is against fish conservation. To suggest otherwise is to distort the truth. However, it is not enough for my hon. Friends to say that the Bill is the only medicine that the fishermen must take, even if it kills them. It is not the only medicine.

We cannot now consider other technical measures such as more net selectivity, net shape, closing sea areas and banning industrial fishing. We cannot discuss a compensation scheme which goes to the heart of the problem in a European rather than a British final solution style. We can argue only that medicine that cures the illness, but kills the patient, is too draconian. It was the draconian nature of the Bill, designed without reference back to the House, which stuck in my throat and the throat of an industry struggling in the recession like most businesses, struggling against the elements, against fewer fish and against bureaucracy gone mad.

After all, fishermen are usually paid by a share system: no catch, no pay. That, plus the other points—

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

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