HC Deb 28 October 1993 vol 230 cc960-3
3. Sir Fergus Montgomery

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what resources have been allocated for the decommissioning of surplus United Kingdom fishing vessels.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack)

A total of £25 million has been allocated for decommissioning, of which £8.4 million is to be made available in 1993–94 under the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1993.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

What measures will my hon. Friend take to ensure that the boats that have been allocated for decommissioning are taken out of service?

Mr. Jack

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in the matter. The funding for the measure will be of interest to his constituents. The order on decommissioning that we took through the House laid down in meticulous detail the arrangements for disabling a fishing boat so that it could no longer fish. People have to produce a certificate to that end before they can be paid. That should give the guarantee that my hon. Friend seeks: that boats will be stopped from fishing by decommissioning.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

It is disappointing to learn that the sum allocated for decommissioning this year is a pathetic £8.4 million. That is nothing compared with the scale of the problem. It will mean that more fishing effort will have to be taken out by days-at-sea limitations and a disproportionate sacrifice will be made by the fishermen. Why does not the Minister recognise that we are in this situation because his predecessors did not achieve the multiannual guidance targets from 1987 to 1991? It is the Department's fault and the only fair action would be for him to suspend the operation of the Sea Fish Conservation Act 1967 while proper conservation measures are imposed in agreement with the industry and to expand the decommissioning scheme.

Mr. Jack

I was almost distracted by the hon. Member's neck wear from composing a suitable reply. He seems to have reclaimed the Union flag for his own purposes. There were faults in the previous decommissioning scheme because we were removing fishing capacity at the same time as paying for new capacity and therefore increasing fishing effort. My hon. Friends who did the job before me should be congratulated on their persuasive powers over the Treasury to get a £25 million decommissioning scheme off the ground as part of a package of measures that we are putting forward to try to reduce fishing effort. I would have hoped for the hon. Gentleman's support because the end-point of the exercise is to help conserve fish stocks for the long-term good of the industry.

Mr. Harris

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) on speaking so well on behalf of his fisherman. But may I put it to the Minister that, although welcome, the £25 million for decommissioning goes nowhere near to solving the real problem of bringing effort under control? Will the Minister look with great seriousness at the constructive and extensive proposals put to him by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, because some Conservative Members, including myself, think that its proposals are a much better way to conserve fish than the wretched tie-up scheme that the Government have unfortunately put to the House.

Mr. Jack

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued lobbying on that point. He does much credit to himself and to his constituents for assiduously voicing the concerns of the fishing industry. He will know that during September I conducted detailed discussions with fishermen around our shores, including many of his constituents. He will also know that I have attached importance to what they said about conservation, but he will be aware that our proposals to reduce fishing effort are not solely dependent on decommissioning. The capacity reduction through licence aggregation and through further measures to reduce effort play their part. I assure my hon. Friend that we will look, and are looking, carefully at the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations' proposals. I wish that I could be more specific in my response, but that organisation has thrown a spanner in the works and prevented us from announcing our views quickly because of its court case.

Mr. John D. Taylor

The Minister will know from his recent visit to Portavogie in Strangford that some 16 vessels in our 100-strong fleet are to be decommissioned. How does one decommission a fishing vessel?

Mr. Jack

I was aware from my visit, which was very successful and useful, of some of the difficulties that Northern Ireland's fishermen anticipated with decommissioning. Those of us who have seen in the national press some sad photographs of the disposal of timber boats will realise that the decommissioning process has begun. I understand the impact on some of the fishermen and have talked to some of them, but, as far as I am aware, the practical problems of decommissioning boats in the ports of Northern Ireland appear to have been resolved.

Mr. Ward

I thank my hon. Friend for listening to the fishermen—especially those from Poole—during the long recess. He will, therefore, be aware of the chaos caused by uncertainty, so will he come to a conclusion as quickly as he can? Above all, will he assure the fishermen on the south coast that our continental partners are just as rigorous in enforcing the regulations as his inspectors?

Mr. Jack

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a very important point. I recently visited Commissioner Paleokrassas to put exactly that point to him. I said that if enforcement is not perceived to be effective by all fishermen throughout the Community, there will be no credibility for the common fisheries policy. He appreciated that and I think that he is going to make some useful proposals to ensure that when the new control regulation comes into force on 1 January, enforcement can be seen to be effective throughout the Community.

Mr. Tyler

Is the Minister aware that among fishermen in the south-west in particular, he and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench are now referred to as the little, little arid large show, for the obvious reason that the Minister is continually recycling the script of his predecessors? When will he and his colleagues listen to the industry, to the people in the south-west and to the Select Committee on Agriculture and, in particular, to what they have to say about the size of the decommissioning budget, the tie-up provisions and days at sea? When will he listen to his own district inspector from whom I have received a copy of the following recommendation—[interruption.] I am not permitted to read it, but it states that the only thing to be done with the days-at-sea provisions is to abandon them. When will the Minister listen to his own officials?

Mr. Jack

That is an illustration of why the Liberal party should be decommissioned—it is utterly bankrupt and bereft of individual thought about fishing policy. The best that it can do is get its hands on stolen goods, a personal communication from a fishing inspector to officials in my Department. If that is the sum total of Liberal fisheries policy, let it be broadcast throughout the south-west.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are on target to achieve a 5 to 6 per cent. reduction in fleet capacity? Will the rules of the scheme be changed to target specific sectors where conservation is essential?

Mr. Jack

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Certainly, the results from the first tranche of decommissioning have been very encouraging. The spread of boats was good throughout the major fishing areas, in particular the demersal, beam and pelagic vessels. We have said, however, that we shall learn the lessons from the first decommissioning exercise to ascertain whether the eligibility rules have to be adjusted to meet exactly the point at the centre of my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. McGrady

First, may I thank the Minister for visiting South Down where he had what I hope was a fruitful dialogue with the fishermen there. However, after the consultation period, he must realise that the fishing industry as a whole has rejected the days-at-sea scheme because it is wholly impractical and uneconomic for fishermen to contend with and certainly it does not deal with the depletion of fishing stocks. Will he therefore take on board the suggestions made and introduce a new licensing scheme, enhance the decommissioning scheme and introduce new tactical conservation measures?

Mr. Jack

I hope that the fishing industry will look positively on the announcement that we are to make as a result of the consultations. I have taken the matter seriously. I bothered to go round to major fishing centres, including the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We have Community obligations in terms of effort reduction, which we must meet. We have introduced a programme. We have said that we will try to modify the days-at-sea programme under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992. I promise that we are looking carefully at the proposals that have been made by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

Mr. Morley

Will the Minister confirm that his Department has taken out an injunction to prevent the publication of a letter from one of his inspectors in the south-west, Mr. C. R. George, who wrote that his staff felt that deep down there is a feeling that the legislation is so ill-conceived and so unpopular that it will not be workable? It went on to say that he felt——

Madam Speaker

Order. I have just cautioned one hon. Member. Quoting is not allowed at Question Time.

Mr. Morley

I was not quoting directly, but I will certainly follow your guidance, Madam Speaker.

The conclusion of the inspector was that, in its present form, the days-at-sea legislation should be abandoned. Is not it the case that the Minister has received detailed and excellent proposals for alternative schemes and ways of managing our fish stocks from the fishing organisations? Will he give those proposals careful consideration, act on them and abandon the legislation, which his staff feel is unworkable?

Mr. Jack

I am really disappointed that the hon. Gentleman, whom I have always regarded as an honourable Member of the House, should be fingering that stolen document. It was an internal document from a member of our fishing inspectorate. I was aware of that. So seriously did I take those remarks that I invited the inspector together with the other inspectors to a meeting. I listened carefully to what they had to say. The point at issue is that the particular document concerned was written months ago, before we had started the exercise of consultation with the industry. The inspector had a view; we have taken it into account. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait to see the results.

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