HC Deb 05 June 1992 vol 208 cc1104-10

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

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

This Adjournment debate is about the King's Lynn fishing fleet. It is no exaggeration to say that it faces a crisis. At this time of the year, the main catch is the brown shrimp, and the price for brown shrimp has collapsed catastrophically. The other day some fishermen told me that, whereas a year ago, a kilo of brown shrimp fetched £3.26, last month it was fetching 65p. I went to a meeting of the local fishermen and one explained to me in detail the impact of this. A year ago, a fisherman in a medium-sized vessel was bringing back gross roughly £1,000 worth of brown shrimps. Two weeks ago, he was bringing back approximately £150 worth. It simply is not worth their while going out to fish for brown shrimps.

The problem has been brought about largely through flooding of the market in Holland, the main outlet for brown shrimps, as a result of excessive fishing by, to some extent, the Danish vessels but by other continental vessels as well in their inshore fisheries. The vessels fishing in the inshore waters of the continent were previously fishing in the North sea for white fish and in other high seas fisheries that have been greatly depleted and in some places closed. The vessels have been redeployed and they are fishing inshore. As a result, the brown shrimp market has been flooded and the price has collapsed.

I am not asking the Government to try to rig the market; I am not asking for intervention on that scale. However, I feel that there must be a mechanism to enable EC Fisheries Ministers to get together to create a structure that will ensure that the level of fishing will be restricted when there has been an excessive amount of fishing of one stock and the market has been flooded. That could probably be ensured by a voluntary ban. The Fisheries Ministers should have some form of early-warning system so that they can anticipate such problems, which can have devastating consequences for local fisheries. It should be put in place over the next few months so that we can, I hope, prevent a similar problem from arising in future. There should be a mechanism that allows the Ministers to act in unison.

There are many fishermen at King's Lynn who would normally be able to redeploy themselves elsewhere, but it so happens that the cockle fishery, which in previous years has been successful, is partly closed. There has been a voluntary ban and the fishing is restricted to three days. That prevents redeployment to that stock.

In many instances the lives of the fishermen will be devastated. Many of them have borrowed heavily. Many have mortgages and many have taken out loans for their vessels. Their situation is grim indeed. I have heard of many fishermen who will have their homes and boats repossessed. I know that there cannot be any immediate solution to their plight, but I hope that we can learn a lesson from what has happened. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to take a lead in Europe to ensure that the lesson can be learnt and that an appropriate mechanism can be put in place that will enable Ministers to take action when their experts and their own intelligence tells them that a serious problem is building up.

Why is it that the main outlet for brown shrimps that are caught in the Wash and in places such as Morecambe bay is Holland? Why is it that there are no significant outlets in this country? Why is it that the brown shrimp has not been better marketed as a British product? It is of high quality and it could be attractive to many consumers. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that in future the Sea Fish Industry Authority places much greater emphasis on the Wash shell fishery, and especially on the marketing of the brown shrimp.

Why is it that the Sea Fish Industry Authority, which is a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food quango, has not devoted sufficient energy to undertaking research into the brown shrimp? There must be many potential outlets throughout the country. Why is it that the main outlet is the continent? One reason is that the Lynn fishermen have locked themselves into contracts with several wholesalers who are supplying the Dutch market. That obviously puts the fishermen in a vulnerable position. I should like the Sea Fish Industry Authority, with the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Minister, to examine carefully whether the Ministry can usefully engage in market intelligence and research so that we can increase the number of outlets for the brown shrimp.

The local fishermen have told me that quite a few of the owners of vessels that were previously fishing for white fish have taken up miscellaneous species licences. That licence enables vessels to fish in inshore waters for crabs and shrimps, which are vulnerable and special.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister of State to consider carefully the introduction of a specific, dedicated licensing system covering crabs and shrimps. That would make a good deal of sense. Many vessels that previously operated in the white fish areas of the North sea and in other high seas have a miscellaneous species licence and are fishing inshore. A new licensing scheme for shrimps and crabs—which would, incidentally, be welcomed by the crab fishermen of Cromer, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell)—would send a signal that the Government really cared. That would be important to improving morale in these difficult times.

I am aware that Lynn fishermen have not sufficiently spoken with one voice in the past. Fishermen are by nature extremely independent. The Lynn fishing fleet comprises 127 vessels and many families there have been involved in the industry for generations. It is an important part of Lynn's tradition and is a significant employer. It also creates many jobs in ancillary industries.

Fishing is more than just a part of our heritage and tradition. It is also a crucial part of our local economy. However, to get Lynn fishermen to speak with one voice has always been difficult. I welcome the establishment recently of a fishermen's informal co-operative, which can represent the community in meetings with myself or with our Member of the European Parliament, Paul Howell. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister met members of that co-operative when he visited my constituency last year, and they were able to tell him of their concerns.

We must move one stage further and think in terms of establishing a producers' organisation. That would cost money and require a degree of commitment by the fishermen that has not been seen before. That might be difficult to achieve in the current climate, because a producers' organisation is set up under statute and entails a levy on the fishermen concerned. However, the fish stocks in question would be subject to a withdrawal system, and the result could be a form of the intervention buying that occurs when the price of a commodity completely collapses.

I do not suggest that a producers' association would have solved the problems that currently confront Lynn fishermen, but it might have made them less severe; some good might have come out of it. Above all, Lynn fishermen would have been able to speak with one voice and to get across their message more effectively.

What can the Department do to help Lynn fishermen to establish a producers' organisation, if that is what they want? As their Member of Parliament, I shall be urging them to do just that.

Some fishermen in my constituency are facing a personal crisis. They risk losing their homes, businesses and vessels. They cannot redeploy to another fishery and many are heavily in debt. Some can tough it out because they have not borrowed too heavily, have other business interests or have some financial fat on the bone. Others, through no fault of their own, are the victims of circumstance and will have to leave the industry.

Rather than be hounded out of their homes and having their boats repossessed, they could leave the industry with dignity if they were eligible for a decommissioning grant. On Monday, the House will debate the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill, which I wholeheartedly welcome. One of its strands is enabling legislation to establish a decommissioning scheme. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on securing £25 million from the Treasury for the purpose, but I urge him to consider extending the scheme to inshore fisheries.

The scheme will be restricted to vessels of not less than 10 m in length, which would cover roughly half those in King's Lynn fleet. It seems likely that the scheme will be confined to high seas fisheries, but I urge my hon. Friend to consider extending it to places such as the Wash so that at least some Lynn fishermen could leave the industry with dignity.

That would, of course, be a last resort. Those who leave the industry do so for good, in many cases departing from a family tradition going back for many generations. The move would not meet with a great deal of support from many fishermen, but some, at least, could make use of it.

A strategy must be worked out for the long-term management of the Wash shell fishery, which is a tremendous asset. As I have said, many jobs depend on it; it is part of a thriving local economy. In the past, however, our policy has been too hit-and-miss. There has not been enough planning or direction and, in many respects, there has not been enough research.

I am particularly concerned about the mussel fishery. It is one of the main winter fisheries, especially for men operating "lays"—marine allotments—but there has been no significant spatfall since 1986. As a result, there has been no recruitment to stocks since that date and the landings of mussels at King's Lynn have been seriously depleted. In 1989, 3,500 tonnes, valued at £450,000, were landed; in 1991, the figure was 800 tonnes.

We need more research into this phenomenon. I believe that the lack of recruitment is due to natural causes, but it is just one example of the crucial need for an overall study of the Wash to assess its potential, analyse its problems, examine the marketing and all forms of research into each of the fish stocks in question and—above all—give the fishermen some direction. At present they are very demoralised.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give careful consideration to whether his Department can take a lead so that at least we can have some blueprint. A study could be commissioned, perhaps not by his Department but by some other agency, to consider every aspect of the Wash shell fishery, go through all the problems and, in particular, show fishermen the way forward. Thai might give them some hope at a time when their morale is at rock bottom and enable them to plan for the future.

My hon. Friend has been extremely helpful. He has been down to King's Lynn and he has always said that his door is ajar for the Lynn fishermen and me to go through and meet him. I should, however, be very grateful if a comprehensive study of the Wash could be carried out to assess the problems.

I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend has to say. Let me again put on record my deep gratitude for the interest that he has taken.

2.47 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry)

I recall with pleasure my visit to King's Lynn in July last year—particularly my visit to Mr. Williamson's factory and the seminar organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), where I met many of the King's Lynn fishermen. I remember that the discussions that we had then covered decommissioning and the relaying of the mussel beds, and I shall have more to say about that shortly.

I recognise the difficulties experienced by the King's Lynn fishermen, who have been faced with a considerable drop in the price of shrimps—although I believe that there has been a slight recovery in the price of the smaller sizes in the past couple of weeks. It is a very real problem. It is especially difficult for fishermen who have invested heavily in new boats and equipment to supply Dutch buyers for the continental market, and who must get reasonable returns from the market in order to service loans.

In this case, the underlying problem—perhaps exceptionally—is not the depletion of stocks. Rather, it is the fact that the market is considerably over-supplied. That has occurred mainly because of a significant increase in fishing for this species by Danish fishing fleets. There also seems to have been some fall-off in continental demand for the brown shrimp. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a pity that the United Kingdom consumer has no particularly liking for this small, sweet-tasting fish.

My officials have spoken to the Sea Fish Industry Authority about the difficulties of marketing. The authority would be pleased to discuss with the fishermen ways in which it might be able to advise or co-operate in the development of techniques. Representatives of the fishing industry sit on the authority and are able to draw attention to the matter; but we have done so in any case, so that point has been noted. It was an extremely sensible one.

It is essentially a marketing problem. We hope that: the situation will improve somewhat when the Danish boats turn their attention to other species. I understand the wish of the fishermen to co-operate in order to do whatever is possible to limit the effects of the downward pressures on price. My hon. Friend mentioned the idea of forming a producers' organisation. The Community's rules on the marketing of fishery products provide for groups of fishermen to form themselves voluntarily into producers' organisations which, if they have the formal recognition of the Government, have certain powers and responsibilities towards their members.

Certain criteria have to be met. It may help if I spell them out. The basic requirements are that the organisation must be formed on the producers' own initiative; that membership is confined to producers and must be voluntary; that the organisation must have a written constitution and be a viable legal entity within the terms of the Companies Acts or the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts. Finally, they must have "sufficient economic activity", which broadly means meeting certain annual landing figures, depending on the species. It seems likely that Lynn fishermen could meet these requirements, but we should have to look at it carefully. We have available a detailed note about setting up a producers' organisation and I have arranged for a copy to be sent to my hon. Friend.

One of the responsibilities of a producers' organisation is the obligation to introduce common production and marketing rules, with the aim of providing product quality and—of particular significance to the Lynn fishermen—adapting the volume of supply to market requirements.

Among the powers exercisable by a producers' organisation is the ability to set an autonomous withdrawal price, which means that the producers' organisation can pre-determine a price which, if it is not met at auction sale, leads to the withdrawal of fish from sale and to compensation for the fishermen. The fact that that compensation is paid for by a levy on sales imposed by the producers' organisation means that the levies collected when prices are good help the fishermen when prices are poor.

It is possible, instead, for a producers' organisation to apply a Community-agreed withdrawal price. Prices are set annually for a number of species. In this case, the producers' organisation can be compensated from Community funds, but, in the jargon of the Community, these withdrawal arrangements are "degressive". That means that as more fish are withdrawn from the market the withdrawal price decreases. This is a very sensible arrangement which is designed to prevent fishing simply for intervention purposes. It is a pity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it does not apply to more of the agricultural regimes.

The Community withdrawal scheme is intended to help fishermen in cases where there is a sudden and substantial drop in price and provides relief over a relatively short period. To set up a producer organisation would take time and would not, as my hon. Friend recognises, provide instant relief for the King's Lynn fishermen. However, it might be a way for local fishermen to exercise greater control in future over the market. My officials will be pleased to meet fishermen's representatives for further discussions, if they wish to pursue the matter. My hon. Friend said that my door is ajar. My door is usually open. It is fully open to fishermen, because I realise the difficult circumstances that they face.

My hon. Friend also mentioned our newly announced arrangements for decommissioning. As he knows, we are at present consulting the industry on the details of a package to reduce fishing effort and to conserve fish stocks. One of the elements in the package is a decommissioning scheme. The precise eligibility requirements have not yet been finalised and are subject to consultation with the industry. Nevertheless, it is clear that there will not be scope to include vessels of 10 m and under because the amount of money available for decommissioning is limited. The scheme will aim to take out vessels which represent best value for money in terms of the fishing effort removed from the fleet.

Community rules also mean that we would attract no Community reimbursement for the smaller vessels. I note, however, that rather more than half of the fishing vessels normally based in the Wash are over 10 m in length and it is possible, therefore, that some of them would be eligible to apply for decommissioning grants. We must, however, design the scheme to get the best value for money and take out those boats that represent the heaviest effort against the most vulnerable fisheries.

My hon. Friend asked about the possibility of separate licences for crabs and for shrimps. I am afraid that I really do not think that that is a runner. The problem is one of marketing and there is no reason for using the licensing system, which is primarily for conservation purposes, in the current situation.

As my hon. Friend said, a further possibility might be to improve the local fishery for other species, such as mussels, and I understand that the fishermen are looking at the chances of improving the depleted mussel supplies, possibly by finding offshore beds that could supply young shellfish for growing on. My hon. Friend mentioned the new Wash fishery order which is designed to give local interests powers to safeguard future stocks, and we are working with the Eastern sea fisheries joint committee to introduce the order in the summer. My hon. Friend also referred to a research study on the Wash and I want to stress that Ministry scientists at our fisheries laboratory at Lowestoft are already helping the Eastern sea fisheries joint committee in that project. Only yesterday they were able to supply the committee with two different types of dredgers for use in the search for offshore mussel beds and for the recovery of young brood stock for relaying in the Wash.

Another possibility would be to explore opportunities for fresh markets, although I recognise that contractual arrangements with Dutch buyers may not make that easy. I have already mentioned to my hon. Friend the fact that the United Kingdom Association of Frozen Food Producers might be able to put the fishermen in touch with other markets and I am sure that the Shellfish Association of Great Britain would also be as helpful as it is possible to be in these difficult circumstances.

I understand the problems currently faced by the Wash fishermen. Curing the problems must ultimately depend on co-operation between the various fishermen who supply the continental markets and their buyers, to bring supply into better balance with demand. But we can certainly help with advice on setting up producer organisations and in the ways that I have tried to outline.

I know that my hon. Friend is assiduous in bringing to our attention the problems that his constituents face, and I fully recognise their gravity. I give him my absolute assurance that we shall do our utmost to be of assistance where we have the means to do so. I look forward to the next occasion on which I can visit my hon. Friend's constituency and meet those fishermen.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o'clock.