HC Deb 10 March 1993 vol 220 cc939-47 3.32 pm
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the disruption caused by French and British fishermen.

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

French fishermen started their disruptive action, in protest at third-country imports, two to three weeks ago. They quickly turned to indiscriminate action against supplies coming into France from all sources, including the United Kingdom. On 21 February, they turned back a Brittany Ferries boat trying to enter Roscoff. On 23 February, they ran riot at Rungis market, causing £2.5 million of damage. There followed a series of violent actions in French ports against lorries carrying fish from Britain and the premises of importers dealing in fish from Britain. The rioting has continued, most recently at Nantes.

I and my ministerial colleagues have been in constant touch with the French to protest at that action and to ask them to bring the offenders to book, to ensure compensation and to restore free trade. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has personally raised the matter twice at Foreign Affairs Councils. My Department has been repeatedly in touch with the French, both directly and through the embassy in Paris.

At the end of last week, we succeeded in securing undertakings from the French that they would protect consignments of fish and shellfish sent by ferry from the United Kingdom to French ports. We are giving notice of those consignments. Fishermen are invited to contact our fisheries officers at their own ports to give that notice, which is telexed to the embassy in Paris and then communicated to the prefect so that he can ensure that he has sufficient forces available to protect those consignments. We have set up that mechanism, which is now working. Twenty-seven requests were made on Monday and a small number yesterday.

I believe that the arrangements would be effective, on the basis of experience we had in working in a similar fashion when problems arose over trade in lamb some years ago. Hon. Members will know that we are not entirely innocent in the matter of dealing with problems of this sort. Ministers will continue to follow the situation daily and will not hesitate to intervene. It is utterly repugnant to see the wilful and malicious destruction of food. Fish is a living and finite resource. There is a market for it, and the destruction of a resource on which livelihoods depend is stupid and morally offensive.

Unfortunately, a few British fishermen have now started action of the same kind. This action has not been sponsored by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, to whose chief executive I spoke a few moments ago to confirm that fact. Incidents occurred on 8 March in Peterhead, where Scottish fishermen boarded a Russian vessel and poured diesel oil on cod, and in Grimsby, where local fishermen held up a lorry carrying fish landed in Wales by a French vessel and prevented it from being put on the market. It is worth recording that some of the fish destroyed by French fishermen was landed in Britain by French vessels and trucked to France.

In Milford Haven this morning, local fishermen attacked a local consignment of French cod as it was being brought to land. I totally condemn this action also. There is no earthly purpose in our reading the riot act to the French Government, as we have done, about action of this kind if we then see it in the United Kingdom also. The same rules apply for everybody.

We shall do all we can to see that the law enforcement authorities in this country act firmly when fishermen attempt to take the laws into their own hands, and we shall keep up the strongest pressure on the French to do the same. These incidents raise questions of law and order, but there is also an economic aspect. There is certainly a problem on the fish market. There are several causes. One part of the problem is certainly imports—notably, imports of Russian cod. The Russian fleet is fishing much closer to home because currency uncertainty in the former Soviet Union makes it unprofitable to carry fish over long distances, and there is considerable barter for fish that the Russian market needs.

A second element, which we must not overlook, is the large volume of landing by our own fleet in February. This is a matter that fishermen, notably through the producer organisations, must tackle. Indeed, we have been talking to the producer organisations about means of addressing some of these problems. It is important that catches be phased, and it is important to market fish of the quality that consumers want.

The Community has taken steps to deal with the problem of imports. Minimum import prices for cod and a short list of other species were brought into effect on 26 February. Those prices are at the same level as the withdrawal prices that exist to ensure fairer prices to our own producers. In fact, they are analogous to measures that we took some time ago to protect the Scottish farm salmon market against imports from Norway.

I believe that this is an appropriate and measured response to what is still an unclear situation. I know that there are those who would like us to tighten up on imports to an even greater extent. The House must be aware that such measures, while they might be welcome to fishermen, affect the interests of processors, who import large quantities of cod and similar species every year from outside the Community. I must, of course, balance the interests of fishermen against those of importers, processors and consumers.

The Fisheries Council will meet in Brussels next week. Ministers there will look at all the issues involved and will consider what further action might be taken. We do not want a fish war, which would cause loss to everybody. We must assume our responsibility to prevent such a war, and we shall hold the French Government to theirs.

Dr. Strang

Does the Minister accept that the current level of quayside fish prices is destroying livelihoods and jobs on the catching side of the industry? Will he acknowledge the frustration felt by fishermen when, after days at sea, they land fish on the quayside only to have it withdrawn from the market to be turned into animal feed at prices that are inadequate to cover their costs and give them an income for their labour? Is he aware that that frustration turns to anger when the fishermen believe that their traditional markets are being lost to imports at prices that are hopelessly uneconomic?

To understand the frustrations of the industry is in no way to condone illegal protest action. I should be surprised if the House were not united in deploring the incident at Peterhead, when diesel oil was poured on to fish in a Russian trawler. Such actions do not help the industry; they set it back by undermining public support for the cause. But surely the Minister must recognise that no industry is as tightly controlled by Government as the fishing industry. It is Governments who share out the fish in the sea. It is Governments who set the quotas and determine the conservation measures. Therefore, it is surely right that fishermen look to Government to resolve the crisis.

To that end, I wish to put several constructive points to the Minister. First, will he carry out an investigation into fish prices in the shops, which do not reflect the sharp drop in fish prices on the quayside? Is it the fish merchant or is it the supermarket and the shop which are buying cheap and selling dear?

Secondly, will the Minister set aside the review of the function of the Sea Fish Industry Authority and ask it to commence a major fish promotion campaign? It must be in the interests of consumers and of the industry to encourage an increase in consumption of this healthy food.

Will the Minister accept that the autonomous tariff quotas set by the EC for fish imports and due to come into operation on 1 April have been set too high? I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says about the interests of the fish processors, but we must recognise that we have a crisis in quayside prices.

The Minister must appreciate that the minimum import arrangements introduced by the European Commission two weeks ago are not working, largely because Russian fish, as a result of the declaration of fraudulent weights, are being imported at prices well below the reference prices set by the Commission.

I welcome the response that the Minister has received from the French Government, but does he agree that the French action had a severe effect on the British market because it prevented the movement of fish to destinations not only in France but throughout Europe? Because of the damage that has been done to the British market, will he closely monitor the situation to ensure that the action by the French Government is effective?

Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that this is one more example of too many boats chasing too few fish, and that we want a much enlarged decommissioning scheme?

Finally, will the Minister convene a summit of all the interests in the British fishing industry, including the catchers and the processors, to see whether they can agree some collective action which will help to resolve the crisis?

Mr. Curry

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the essential distinction between law and order issues and economic issues. It is important to distinguish between the two. He said that the House would condemn the breaches of law and order, and I am sure that that is the case and it is proper that that should be so.

A large amount of imports come in frozen block form into the processing industry. Less comes in in fresh form, and that predominantly goes to the catering trade.

We have considered the level of prices. It was this Government who asked the Commission to convene the meeting which led to the minimum import prices. We have supplied information on the level and we shall continue to furnish that to Brussels.

If further action is needed, the Government will not hesitate to sponsor that action. For example, we must examine whether minimum import prices should apply to Alaskan pollock, which is one of the substitute cod species. That matter will no doubt be before the Council next week.

We reviewed recently the question of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. It has sufficient resources to pursue an advertising campaign. That is a matter for the industry, and the leaders of the catching industry are represented on the authority's council.

Autonomous tariff quotas will be finally decided at the Council next week. There was an agreement in anticipation of the economic area coming into effect, but it had not come into effect because of the Swiss vote. Therefore, we have some provisional arrangements in place. We would like somewhat lower quantities for haddock, for which we think there is not a case for a quota, and for cod. We must remember, though, that there are also catching opportunities—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will be aware of that. As part of that arrangement, roughly 10,000 tonnes of cod are available, largely for the Humberside fleet, in north Norway. We must ensure that, because it is an important element.

Minimum import prices have barely got under way. We will monitor them closely. Our authorities have instructions to enforce them effectively. The French action had the effects to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which is why we took firm action. It affected also ordinary fishermen who wanted to land their fish directly in France, because there is a lot of direct landing in overseas ports.

It was not just that there were too many boats chasing too few fish. The quotas were very large, many boats were tied up because of very bad weather in January, and there was a lot of fishing activity at the end of that month—simultaneous landings, which did nothing for the market place situation. I am constantly in touch will all elements of the industry—with part of it yet again tomorrow.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Before I call any other hon. Members, may I say that I am seeking very brief questions and very brief answers. I shall not allow this private notice question to run for very long.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I welcome the Government's efforts in respect of France and their representations to the French Government. Although we cannot condone law breaking—I make it clear to the Minister that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation condemns the incidents at Peterhead—there is undoubtedly a problem with market instability. Do the Government have the information and data on which to base a judgment as to the cause of the trouble?

Mr. Curry

The problem has three causes—imports that are difficult to tie down, probably coming from the former Soviet Union; a large amount of fish caught by British fishermen on the market; and some consumer reaction after a number of years in which very high fish prices obtained in the United Kingdom.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

While I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that the few fishermen who sunk to the level of the French in adopting particular tactics unfortunately damaged the justice—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What is wrong with it?

Mr. Harris

Everything is wrong with it?

Although those fishermen damaged the justice of their cause, is my hon. Friend the Minister aware of the deep anger and frustration felt by the whole industry in this deplorable situation in which exports to France are being blocked? Has my hon. Friend the Minister considered with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General taking a case against France to the European Court of Justice to uphold the principles of the single European market?

Mr. Curry

We will explore all opportunities to uphold the principles of the single European market. At the moment I am concerned to provide redress for those who have suffered injustice, and the right for trade for those who want to trade.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

No one condones violence, but the problem in Grimsby was caused neither by violence nor by the destruction of fish. It was caused by the justified anger of British fishermen at seeing French vessels catch fish in British waters and then bring it on to the British market, while Grimsby fishermen were denied access to the French market. The price problem is caused by imports, not reference prices. It cannot be tackled by reference prices; it can only be tackled by dealing with Russian imports as a matter of dumping.

Does the Minister accept that the common fisheries policy must be based on two principles—access to markets, which is now threatened by the French, and a level playing field? Now that the French Government are to give £36.8 million in aid to the French industry, will the Minister get that aid stopped or provide similar aid to the British industry to prevent it from going bankrupt?

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman knows that the House will shortly consider a statutory instrument that will make available £25 million for decommissioning.

It is not purely a question of imports. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have received letters from a number of his constituents who are very concerned about the prospect of increasing import prices because of the importance to the processing industry. There is a balance to be struck.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson (Aberdeen, South)

My hon. Friend the Minister said in his statement that the same rules must apply throughout the Community. Is he aware that that is not enough? They must not only apply

Mr. Curry

Yes. I am not able to send in the SAS, but there are times when I think that it would do a very good job—and not against British fishermen.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

It is generally agreed that we should feel angry with the French and with our own people—whoever they are—for damaging fish. Does the Minister realise, however, that we are in almost exactly the position in which we feared we would find ourselves when we were discussing the common fisheries policy last year? The problem is the sudden increase in the quota as against the two months at the end of the year when no fishing was allowed.

Will the Minister follow up the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang)? There must be round table discussions between the catching side and the processors to bring order and regulation into the market; otherwise we shall stagger on, month after month, with the fishermen feeling angry that they cannot obtain the prices that they want and the merchants falling out with them because they think that they are on the opposite side. In fact, they are all part of the same industry. Will the Minister get them together and thrash out the matter?

Mr. Curry

As the hon. Gentleman will know, some fishing went on at the end of last year, even if it was "black" fishing. I am already having discussions with the producer organisations, and I shall continue to do so. When I find an opportunity to get all sides together to try to reach a sensible arrangement, I shall do that as well, provided that it will protect trade.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the fishermen of Poole are frustrated by, first, the inability of the French Government to enforce the law, and, secondly, the ability of our Government to impose conservation measures that are not observed on the continent? They see French fishermen catching fish off Poole which can be delivered in Cherbourg, while they are not allowed to land similar catches. No wonder there is a problem. Can we get it sorted out once and for all?

Mr. Curry

No restrictions currently apply to British fishermen in regard to days at sea. There is a free market in fish; the problem is getting that over to the French. I entirely understand the anger of British fishermen, including fishermen in Poole. The question is how they should express that anger.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

No one condones the destruction of fish, but does the Minister accept that he has a responsibility for the current destabilisation of the fish market? Does he understand the desperation of people who spend long periods at sea and then find that they cannot obtain a price on the quayside for the fish they have caught? Is it not ludicrous that good-quality fresh fish is being used for fishmeal, while imports that are often of poor quality are dominating the market? What will the Minister do about it?

Mr. Curry

It is patently nonsense to say that I should not have come back with a doubling of the haddock quota. The industry wanted that. As I have said, there is a problem of imports in the market place, but that is not the whole problem. We must strike a balance between the interests of all who are involved in the industry, and that is what we are trying to do. It is simply naive to suppose that a magic wand can be waved to make everyone agree on a course of action. There are conflicts in the industry, but we must achieve a balance: that is what politics is about.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I support what my hon. Friend has said, particularly what he said about low fish prices. That is illustrated by the number of firms that have gone bankrupt recently in my port of Fleetwood. What still needs to be done to implement the decommissioning schemes as soon as possible?

Mr. Curry

The statutory instruments implementing the decommissioning schemes and relating to days at sea will be laid before the House in due course. I do not think that my hon. Friend will have too long to wait.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

The Minister will appreciate the fear that is felt by some of the most hard-working people in our community at a time when their livelihood is being taken away and they have no chance of alternative employment. As for the question of exports to France and beyond, is there any means of compensating our fishermen for the financial losses that they have experienced, and may continue to experience until the French Government are prepared to act? Perhaps the French should be asked to compensate our fishermen.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: the French should be asked to do that. I am asking the present Government, and I shall ask the next.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), does my hon. Friend accept that Kent fishermen now feel that insult has been added to injury? Not only are they denied access to foreign ports; the fish that are being landed here, undermining the domestic market, are sometimes part of an illegal quota caught by foreign ships off British shores. Will my hon. Friend commend the work of the fisheries protection fleet, and will he ensure that action will be taken in every complaint that the fleet brings to the Ministry?

Mr. Curry

I confirm absolutely that we get very good service indeed from the fisheries protection fleet and we benefit from the fleet's experience of where to look when it is looking for offenders.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Violence is wrong, but when considering how this problem affects Wales, will the Minister bear in mind the very serious unemployment there and the fact that there is no alternative work for these people? Does not the Minister know that the closure of defence establishments in Pembroke means that local people feel that what jobs there are should be protected? Will he bear that in mind when he considers the problem?

Mr. Curry

I am aware that fishing is an activity that goes well beyond the catching sector and that a large number of jobs are involved onshore and in the coastal communities. I wish to make sure that all those people are able to pursue their livelihoods in peace and freedom.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Is the Minister aware that I represent the largest number of shell fishermen in Britain—those on the south Devon coast? Is he also aware that many crab ships have been turned back at Roscoff and that there are tens of thousands of pounds worth of crabs rotting on the sea bed because they have had to be jettisoned? Is he further aware that a number of crab fishermen are losing their livelihoods and that one or two of them may even be going bankrupt? What does the Minister intend to do to make sure that that does not happen? What does he intend to do to get the money out of the French?

Mr. Curry

We shall take every action that we can to get the money out of the French. The important point is that that trade should resume as soon as possible. We cannot, however, send our police force over to France to do that, whatever our inclinations may be. The French have got to assert authority. I shall be taking up that matter with the Government who are in power now and with whatever Government may succeed them.

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

May I emphasise the point that was made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie)—that the vast majority of Scottish fishermen deeply deplore the illegal action of a very small number of men in Peterhead? We do not even know if all those men are fishermen, so let us not condemn Scottish fishermen out of hand.

The problem, surely, is the common fisheries policy, which has always been the poor relation of the common agricultural policy, and the fact that there are flagrant violations of the CFP rules by French fishermen and others, with the collusion of their Governments. Only when all European Community fishermen adhere to the rules shall we have a sensible CFP. Does the Minister not agree that that is the message that he should be taking to the Council next week?

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman knows that I was very careful indeed not to suggest at any point that fishermen as a whole were behind, supported or condoned this action. I repeat that I do not believe that that is the case. It would be stupid if that were to be the case. It is equally true that there are certain strains of lawlessness and law breaking in sections of the fishing community right across the European Community. They are doing someone else out of a job, whether it is by "black" fishing, or illegal fishing, or misreporting, or blocking trade. None of that is any good for people's livelihoods or for the long-term future of the fishing industry.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

When my hon. Friend meets his French counterparts and the fisheries Ministers next week, will he add to his long list of complaints that of the landing and sale in French ports of undersized fish? That has long frustrated the fishermen of Hastings and Rye and has added to the anger they feel about the instability of the market for fish.

Mr. Curry

I shall certainly do that, though my hon. Friend will appreciate that my French opposite number is somewhat difficult to get hold of at the moment as he is campaigning. However, when I have a French fisheries Minister to talk these matters over with for some time, I shall certainly raise that issue.

Mr. Skinner

Has not the Minister got a cheek to attack those fishermen in Britain who destroyed fish in order to try to protect their own livelihoods when he, as a Minister, along with the rest of them, has destroyed during the past 14 years millions of tonnes of food because of the common agricultural policy? If he really wants to take on the French, why does he not tell his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to tell them that the French are not going to sell electricity to Britain and that we are going to cut the interconnector and save six British pits? That is the way to deal with them.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman has ranged rather widely, but for people who depend on fish to destroy fish, which is a living resource, is a pretty perverse form of self-preservation.

Mr. Gallie (Ayr)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the illegal actions of the French fishermen follow the illegal actions of French farmers and French lorry drivers? Although I welcome his comments about compensation for fishermen after recent events, will he consider the compensation claims made by hauliers and farmers last summer, or even before?

Mr. Curry

Yes, I shall certainly do that. I realise that it is a problem that goes wider than fisheries alone.

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