HC Deb 04 March 1993 vol 220 cc556-62

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

10 pm

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

I shall take the point of order, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the time that he takes will be taken out of the Adjournment debate.

Mr. Marlow

I understand that many hon. Members are here on a three-line Whip. It is Maastricht business on a Thursday, and we had expected a vote. Have the Government told you why there has not been a vote this evening?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman's expectations are clearly not always fulfilled.

10.1 pm

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

I first thank Madam Speaker. I am extremely grateful that she called this debate tonight. I also compliment her on assisting me last week to raise the issue of 23 February and for giving me the chance to highlight the matter with the Prime Minister. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being here to reply tonight. We are talking not only about fishing or agriculture, both of which are involved, but about a serious disruption to trade with France and with the rest of Europe.

There has been serious interference with our road hauliers. They have tight schedules, and they depend on high rates of vehicle utilisation. That has been disrupted. Our electronic, pharmaceutical and mechanical engineering industries have made late deliveries, and there has been serious disruption. Orders have been lost. That is why it is fitting that the Minister responsible for Scottish industry is here to respond to the debate. He has a good reputation as a great champion of talking up Scottish causes. I hope that he will enhance that reputation tonight.

We are not talking only about Scottish interests. Every producer and every distributor in the United Kingdom who exports and who wishes to take up the European challenge is affected by what has been happening in France in recent years.

The specific incident that brings about the debate is one in which £10,000-worth of Clyde-caught fish was destroyed in a French market. The fish was not for sale in France, but was in transit to German markets. Diesel was spread over it, and it was thrown around the French marketplace. That is disgraceful.

For the company in my constituency, Scotprime Sea Foods, it meant a considerable loss of cash. It also meant that the company failed to meet a customer's order. Perhaps in cash terms that will be made up by their insurers, but the company's reputation will be damaged if it fails to fulfil the customer's requirements.

There is now a fear of repetition, and that leads to another problem. The insurers now refuse to insure that company's produce in transit. That is shameful. How can a small company such as this self-insure? It is enough to wipe it out if there is no cash compensation and no protection from the insurer.

What does it mean to that company? Can it stop trading? It cannot really do so, because the produce keeps coming in. Its suppliers, the Ayrshire fishermen and others, still bring in their catches. That story is common, from the salmon and scallop exporters in the Orkneys to the lobster fishermen and exporters in Cornwall, right through the United Kingdom.

What are the other consequences? Scotprime lost three clients in particular in short order. On 26 February, it was informed by a customer in south-west France that its daily requirement was cancelled for six days. The cost of the loss of exports was £1,500 to £2,000 per day on that contract. That is not a lot perhaps in national terms, but it is a lot to a small firm such as Scotprime.

A southern German client, too, cancelled the weekly delivery; some £10,000 a week was lost. Client No. 3, a Boulogne customer, cancelled an £8,000 order for Saturday 27 February. That was very serious indeed for a small company. This cannot be allowed to be ignored.

Spanish orders were under threat, but, to its credit, the company rescheduled and re-routed. It cost more, but it fulfilled the order.

This is not the first time that Scotprime has suffered in this way. At the end of June or the beginning of July last year, during the lorry drivers' dispute, the company had a lorry trapped for over a week. The cost to it was £30,000. It sought compensation with Euro-Commission assistance. It was informed that it was the responsibility of the Government of France. I wrote to the Prime Minister, and my right hon. Friend replied: The French Government does not intend to pay compensation"; no violence was done to lorries or loads. That is absolutely shameful. There was further advice for hauliers to claim through the French courts. That would have taken years to accomplish, and was totally impracticable.

Last week in the House, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, when I raised the problems, that officials had already protested. He expected the French Government to pay compensation and safeguard free trade and bring the perpetrators to justice.

I welcomed that statement, but what happened thereafter? Five fishermen were arrested; 500 protested. The five were released and, to my knowledge, they remain uncharged. There was £2.5 million-worth of damage at Rungis market, and no charges have been laid. The Euro-Commissioner has been approached. I have letters from the MEP for the south of Scotland, Alex Smith, demanding redress. What has been the response to date?

There have been promises from the Euro-Commission that minimum price support will be increased and paid to the French fishermen. Vandalism and violence are rewarded, not penalised, in France, it would appear—and with the European Commission's approval. That, once again, is shameful.

There have been other instances. Last week, a ferry was diverted and Brittany Ferries' Roscoff service was cancelled for two days for fear of attack by French fishermen.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

The disasters which my hon. Friend is describing are still happening. Is he aware that a British lorry which was travelling by ferry from Poole last night suffered £35,000-worth of damage by French fishermen in the port of Cherbourg, while the French police stood by and watched? Does he agree that that disgraceful state of affairs is simply continuing?

Mr. Gallie

I suggest that that sort of thing has been going on for many weeks and, indeed, years. It is disgraceful.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

My hon. Friend mentioned the disruption to the ferries to Roscoff and other ports. Does he appreciate that that disrupts the sale of fish from the south-west of England and Scotland? Only this week, one of the Newlyn fish merchants warned me that he will have to lay off all his staff if the disruption continues for any length of time.

Mr. Gallie

I appreciate the point which my hon. Friend makes. I sympathise with him and recognise the issues which he has identified.

I shall raise another case in which I think fishermen in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) were involved. Last year, British fishermen had their nets cut by French fishermen. To be honest, that equates with acts of piracy.

I recognise the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). We are battling for Rosyth at present. If Rosyth had a maintenance contract for servicing fleet vessels to a greater extent, perhaps we could have sent a gunboat to sort out the problem. Instead, we send letters to the European Commissioners, which does a fat lot of good.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I simply want to record the Labour party's support for the argument which the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) is making so clearly on behalf of his constituents and the way in which they have been affected. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will press the Minister on the matter.

How much longer must we tolerate such intolerable behaviour towards United Kingdom produce being exported legally within the single European market? How much longer will the French Government allow this sort of anarchy to continue?

Mr. Gallie

I identify totally with the helpful point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Instead of examining the affairs of a good, honest computer company located near the boundaries of my constituency, it would be much more appropriate and better for the Commissioner to examine the actions in France and the objectives of the European ideal.

The problem relates not simply to French fishermen. French farmers have also been at it. Since 1986, they have been attacking and hijacking British agricultural exports. Between June 1990 and February 1992, 16 cases were reported of British lamb—some of it was prime Scottish lamb—being hijacked.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

In the south-west, in my constituency of Tiverton, one of my main producers of sheep has suffered the same fate, with animals being burned in the streets of France. It is an absolute disgrace.

Mr. Gallie

I sympathise and agree with my hon. Friend. It is not simply farmers, fishermen and industrialists in the United Kingdom. The problem has grown because people in Spain, Italy, Holland and Belgium have suffered in the same way as in France. Something must be done.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

I would not like the hon. Gentleman to overlook the fact that Northern Ireland greatly depends on exporting its agricultural produce. The same thing has happened to lorryloads of Northern Ireland lamb being transported into France. It is time that this entire catalogue of assault on British produce and producers was presented to the European Court for action if necessary.

Mr. Gallie

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I said that all parts of the United Kingdom had suffered. Northern Ireland is every bit as much a part of the United Kingdom as Wales, Scotland or England. I take the hon. Gentleman's comments as they were given, and accept the points he made. If I reach the end of my speech in the not too distant future, I will address the hon. Gentleman's point about what should happen.

Once again, the French farmers have caused much disruption. Instead of being punished, they have been rewarded. In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: On 31 August the French Government announced a package of national aid, costing some £120 million, giving immediate help to livestock farmers".—[Official Report, 15 October 1990; Vol. 177, c. 760.] That followed a period of disruption. Once again, that was shameful.

At the end of November 1992, further action was threatened by French farmers. It was cancelled. On that occasion, the French Government promised to veto the general agreement on tariffs and trade oilseed agreement. The threat of violence seemed to work again. Surely that is not what the treaty of Rome or the Single European Act is about.

Last July, a haulier in my constituency, W. and J. Wallace, was trapped for two days in France. He lost a further four days getting out of France on a routine trip. The problem that time was the French lorry drivers. They saw the advantages to the farmers and fishermen and they rolled it over. They decided to follow their example. The French Government recognised the protest and that violence could pay off. They withdrew their proposals to impose regulations on those lorry drivers. Again, that is shameful.

The Road Hauliers Association in the United Kingdom currently has outstanding claims amounting to £325,000 against the French Government for the disruption during June and July last year. The largest claim is for some £27,000, but the figure does not include claims of less than £2,500. The members of that association are small business men. Their assets are their lorries. They need to achieve a high rate of utilisation of their vehicles. They lost two weeks of that utilisation, representing 4 per cent. of their operating time. They cannot afford that. I remind the House that the compensation still has not been paid or acknowledged by the French Government.

What actions are required now? France should be made to comply with articles 30 and 34 of the treaty of Rome to allow freedom of movement of goods within the Community. France must guarantee the safety of our lorry drivers, their vehicles and their cargo. France must compensate those who have lost so much in the past 12 months. It must bring to justice those who have created such mayhem. If it does not, the European Commission must act to ensure that it does. If it lacks the stomach to do so, the British Government must uphold the spirit of the Common Market. They, not the victims, must take the matter to the European Court or the International Court of Justice. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree.

10.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Tor Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), first, on obtaining this Adjournment debate and, secondly, on what the House will agree was an excellent speech. He has raised an issue of particular importance in his constituency, but, as the attendance of hon. Members on both sides attests, it is a matter of great concern to other areas, including the south coast of England. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), in relation to Northern Ireland, have emphasised that, and I see that my hon. Friend is supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) and for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch). I shall not waste the time of the House by remarking on the absence of the Scottish National party—indeed, I am reminded of the Liberal Democrats—from this debate.

This is a matter of great concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr is right when he says that it is not limited to the fishing industry but is a matter of grave concern on more general grounds.

My hon. Friend first raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 23 February. My right hon. Friend confirmed that we were leaving the French Government in absolutely no doubt that we expect them to act to safeguard free trade, to pay compensation when losses have occurred and to bring the perpetrators to book.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the vandalism that has taken place, first in Roscoff and then in Paris, is totally unacceptable. We have made this plain to the French Government, who have recognised their duty to ensure freedom to trade within the single market. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, that is the fundamental factor which underlines the purpose of having a single market.

I give my hon. Friend the assurance that the United Kingdom Government have been in touch with the French authorities since these difficulties started. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs spoke to the French Foreign Minister on 24 February to impress upon him the seriousness of the situation and to ask the French authorities to restore public order and allow the resumption of free trade in fish and fish products. My hon. Friend the Fisheries Minister has similarly been in touch with his ministerial counterpart.

Our Paris embassy has been in regular touch with the appropriate authorities in France. Our own Fisheries Department officials, including the Scottish Office's fisheries secretary, met their French opposite numbers today in London, and again made very clear to the French Government how seriously we view recent developments

Our officials made it clear, in particular, that they were carefully monitoring continuing incidents perpetrated by French fishermen and, as my hon. Friend has told the House, that these are quite unacceptable. They made the point that the cost to the British fishing industry is not restricted to particular cargoes of fish which have been damaged or denied access to the French market, but extends also to all those other fishermen and fish merchants who are unable to send fish to France because they are afraid of the consequences, or because their insurers will not cover them, or for other reasons related to the present disorder among French fishermen.

The French Fisheries Ministry has taken on board these complaints, and noted in particular that further instability in the British fish market—which is a clear and likely consequence of the French actions—is itself likely further to damage the market and prices in France.

In particular, we have asked the French Government to establish, without delay, arrangements to assure the safety of lorries and cargoes from the United Kingdom, where notice of their arrival is given. I can tell the House that the initial response of the French Government to this request has been encouraging, and I very much hope that such arrangements can be put in place quickly.

Mr. Morley

I appreciate the action which the Minister has been outlining about what the Government has done about this problem, but, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), this has been going on for some time, and there have been many such incidents. I wonder whether he would comment on that. If the French Government take no action to protect our exports, our Government should refer the matter to the European Court and seek appropriate redress, because the French are in breach of the Single European Act.

Mr. Stewart

We need quick redress, and that is what we intend to get from the French Government. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with that. If that were not to happen, we might need to have recourse to the European institutions, but I hope that the French Government will ensure the safe passage of our exports.

My hon. Friend mentioned compensation. Companies affected by the disturbance in Paris who wish to seek compensation should write initially to the local police at Rungis to seek a police statement of the incident. This can then be followed up with claims to the local prefecture. My officials of the Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department at Pentland house in Edinburgh would be happy to provide details and advice to Scottish businesses which believe they have a claim to compensation. Similar arrangements apply regarding the trouble at Roscoff.

I know that many companies have been disappointed that they have not received compensation for losses incurred during the strike by French lorry drivers last year to which my hon. Friend referred, but initial soundings with the French Government suggest that it may be easier to obtain compensation over the recent incidents.

My hon. Friend expressed particular concern about the destruction of a consignment of fish from Scotprime Sea Foods at the Rungis market in Paris. I know that Scotprime has an excellent record in exporting Scottish produce. This was recognised last year by its receiving the Queen's award for export achievement. That was a fine performance by a company in Ayrshire which was established only a few years ago.

I appreciate that exports to France, and through France, are of particular importance to Scotprime. The recent actions of French fishermen are a problem that the company should not have to face, and must be particularly unwelcome after last year's difficulties during the French lorry drivers' strike. Although I know that efforts are still being made by various organisations to secure compensation for losses incurred during that strike, regrettably such efforts have been unsuccessful so far.

In the few minutes that remain, may I bring the House up to date? Unquestionably, the situation in France continues to cause grave concern. As was mentioned earlier in the debate, there was a further incident last night at Cherbourg. Early reports suggest that the fish involved had been landed into Scotland by French fishermen and were being transported to France by an English company. French fishermen were therefore destroying fish which had been caught against their own quota. The value of the fish has been estimated at £55,000. Some French fishermen seem to be totally out of control, and the French Government must act to restore order.

Scottish industry has an enviable record in exporting to Europe. Fishing is no exception. Indeed, fishing and fish farming are not only in a dominant position within the United Kingdom but are recognised as major players in the European scene. I hope that Scottish businesses will continue to take the initiative in exporting fish to the French market. I congratulate my hon. Friend and give him the assurance that the Government will do everything possible to protect their right to do so.

Mr. Harris

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he take a point that was brought out by the Cherbourg incident? British exporters are afraid to use British transport because it is immediately set upon by the thugs in France.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the assurance that we have from the French Government about convoying will be of assistance in meeting the legitimate concerns to which my hon. Friend refers.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.