HC Deb 14 July 1994 vol 246 cc1200-26 5.15 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack)

I beg to move, That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1994 (S.I., 1994, No. 1568), a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th June, be approved. It has become something of a modest tradition that, whenever I rise to speak on fishing matters, others seek to intervene to make their points. I shall be happy to give way to right hon. and hon. Members during the course of my remarks, provided that they will do me the courtesy of not attacking me at the end of the debate if there is not sufficient time for their own contributions.

Commercial fishing is an important industry. Last year, landings in the United Kingdom and abroad were worth £517 million. Its activities help to support our coastal communities through the direct provision of employment and indirectly, through processing, harbour and related industries. That income also helps to maintain the infrastructure and sheer attractiveness of many of our coastal areas.

Everyone connected with the fishing industry knows that its long-term future and viability are closely linked to the need to achieve a proper balance between the fishing effort represented by our current fleet and stocks of fish in the sea. The problem was brought home most graphically to me when I prepared recently for a Radio 4 interview on the state of fish stocks in the North sea. Probed by the interviewer, I was able to tell him that over the last decade the spawning stock of cod had dropped 58 per cent. and catch levels by 40 per cent., while fishing effort remained about the same. That emphasises all too clearly the problems that we face with all the main white fish stocks.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Does my hon. Friend have any comment to make on press reports of European Commission proposals, particularly in relation to Spain and Portugal? All sorts of disturbing stories are flying around.

Mr. Jack

My hon. Friend anticipates my further comments on control of fishing effort. Only today we received by fax from Brussels detailed information on the Commission's proposals. Those details were presented to a technical committee meeting in Brussels this morning. Some comment has been premature, to say the least, and ill informed. I am an assiduous reader of Fishing News, and draw my hon. Friend's attention to a most statesmanlike and considered comment by Mr. Bob Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. Fishing News reported that he was concerned at the proposals but stressed that as yet no detailed document had been issued. Caution was necessary until the full details and their likely effects could be evaluated, although the likelihood of an across the board days at sea regime being introduced had been foreshadowed at the April Council meeting on Spanish access. I think that that is a very proper stance. Mr. Allan was right to caution us against jumping to conclusions: these are very early days.

The proposals respond to the wider issue of the control of the effort represented by the Spanish fishing fleet in the light of the removal, under the accession treaty, of the basic and periodic list system. They cover waters from the Shetland islands all the way around the western approaches, including the area known as the Irish box, and through to the English channel. They constitute a comprehensive package, but we shall want to examine them in the utmost detail. To that end, we have already arranged a meeting with the industry next Thursday, 21 July. It is unlikely that the Fisheries Council will discuss the matter in detail until its meeting on 23 November, so everyone will have ample opportunity to consider it.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Will all the papers be available to hon. Members representing maritime constituencies? These matters are of great concern to us all, and we should like to study them in detail before making our own responses.

May I ask the Minister, in his meetings with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation or any other organisation representing the industry, to ensure a faster response than that given by the federation in September 1993 in regard to reducing the fishing effort? In fact, no official response has yet been received.

Mr. Jack

I apologise for that. I have certainly done my best to keep the Scottish industry informed of developments. I assure the hon. Lady, and other hon. Members with fishing constituencies, that I shall be happy to discuss the proposals once we have had an opportunity to study them in depth. My door will be open. It is important for the proposals to be properly understood; when hon. Members have had time to consider them, they will be able to register their views on how their constituents will be affected with me and with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for agriculture and the environment.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

The Minister said that he would meet representatives of the industry next Thursday. There is currently great concern in the port of Portavogie, which the Minister visited last year, about the reported decisions being made in Brussels. As the Minister said, these are still only proposals and we do not know the details, but can he assure me that the Northern Ireland fishing industry will be represented at that meeting as its representatives were clearly not aware of it when I spoke to them today?

Mr. Jack

At this very early stage, I shall be discussing the proposals with my officials. Representatives of the industry are not coming to see me yet, but I am sure that they will want to come and knock on my door—which, as always, will be opened with pleasure. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, however, and I shall ensure that the views of Northern Ireland fishermen are taken into account.

I am, of course, aware that the proposals are as important to people north of the border as they are to those south of the border, and to all who fish the waters of the western approaches. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the door has been kept firmly shut in the past, certainly in regard to Spain and Portugal and the North sea. That has caused concern to many hon. Members, and the change of policy is, in its own way, good news.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my hon. Friend give an assurance which I am certain he can give easily? Fishermen in the south-west fear that Portugal and Spain will always do better than Britain. Will my hon. Friend ensure that our industry in the south-west is properly protected?

Mr. Jack

My right hon. Friend has raised an important aspect of the whole question of effort control. Ours are Community-wide proposals, which will apply to all member states with rights to fish in the waters concerned. Underlying that issue is the question of enforcement. I am acutely aware of the sensitivities aroused, especially in the south-west, by the many reports of rule-breaking by other Community states. I give my hon. Friend this undertaking: along with the Commissioner, I will continue to press the point that, unless we have credible, uniform enforcement of the common fisheries policy, the policy itself will not be credible.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

The Minister gave us a categorical assurance that Spanish vessels would not be allowed into the North sea. Does that mean that they will not be able to fish for either pressure or non-pressure stocks? The Minister's approach has been to concede the principle of full Spanish accession before the details have been worked out; from a negotiating point of view, that is barmy.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman made that point to me yesterday, with a smile on his face, when he came to see my right hon. Friend the Minister and me. I pointed out to him that when we discussed the point in the December Fisheries Council it was as a result of the United Kingdom's stalwart stand that the original Commission proposal was not implemented. That would have been a blank-cheque approach: it would have removed all controls. We did not have an iota of detailed information about what would have replaced the present measures to control access to waters around our shores. If it were not for the United Kingdom, we would not now be considering an excellent effort-controlling measure.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) can smile as much as he likes, but the accession treaty has made it absolutely clear that at the end of 1995 the area known as the Irish box would go. To do nothing about that would have been a dereliction of duty. The hon. Gentleman should know me better. I felt that it was very important for us to press on to secure an agreement on the principles, which would then guide the Commission in working out the details before there could be any backsliding to weaken the controls that had been proposed to deal with the effort represented by the Spanish fleet.

This is a very sensitive matter. I think that we obtained an extremely good deal in the end, and I am glad to say that the United Kingdom took the lead in obtaining it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The debate seems to be going very wide of the scheme and the provision of grants for the decommissioning of vessels. Someone will have to explain to me very convincingly how the exchange that has just taken place relates to that subject.

Mr. Jack

The measures clearly relate to the way in which the remaining fishing effort of the fleet will be deployed after the decommissioning scheme has had its effect. I think that hon. Members have been probing to find out how that effort would be controlled, and how those fishing around our shores would interact with other Community members. Part of the proposals relate to the achievement of Community-wide effort reduction programmes within what is known as the multi-annual guidance programme.

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

I assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my intervention relates directly to decommissioning. I give you my word on that. I have some experience of the industry.

As a fishing nation, we are badly adrift in terms of our multi-annual guidance programme. Given that the measure by which it is defined—a reduction in fleet tonnage and power—is so crude, what progress has been made in Brussels to arrive at a sensible and effective measure of fishing capacity? Surely the Minister agrees that a reduction in tonnage and power does not necessarily lead to a reduction in fishing capacity.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman may have got his terminology slightly mixed up. We are talking about controlling fishing effort, which has a direct relationship with both the capacity of a vessel and its power. That is the formula to which the multi-annual guidance programme refers. We do not take a single approach to the controlling of effort: other measures are involved, which I shall outline shortly.

I highlighted earlier the difficulties involving cod stock and the rest of the whitefish stocks in the North sea and I made the point that it was a Community-wide problem. With that in mind, the Government sought in 1993 to introduce a series of measures to help to reduce the fishing effort of our fleet and to meet our share of the Community-wide reduction programme—the multi-annual guidance programme. A key part of the MAGP was the £25 million decommissioning scheme, with which hon. Members will be familiar from the debate on 7 July last year.

At that time, we made it clear that the scheme would be introduced over a three-year period so that we could closely monitor its results and, if necessary, adjust the qualifying criteria to ensure that the money available removed the maximum amount of effort possible, moved us towards meeting Community sectoral effort reduction targets and gave good value for money to the taxpayer. It is perhaps worth reflecting that in addition to the decommissioning scheme the Government spend on the industry some £16 million a year on fisheries research, about £12 million on vessel safety, grants for processing and port improvements, and a further £22 million on enforcement.

Mrs. Ewing

In the context of decommissioning, is it not true that only £11 million of the £500 million allocated for decommissioning schemes in the European Union between 1987 and 1992 has been taken up by the Government? How will they square that circle? If we are to have a decommissioning scheme, it must be effective to meet the requirements of the MAGP.

Mr. Jack

I hope that my remarks on this matter will illustrate clearly to the hon. Lady that we have an effective scheme, that we want to spend our total of £25 million, and that the scheme will—with other measures—make a significant contribution towards meeting our target.

Even with that in mind, the last time that decommissioning was debated in the House, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) chastised me for the size of our decommissioning scheme and went on to try to outbid me. I noted at the time, however, that he broke the Labour party's first and only commandment—"Thou shalt not give any promise"—by making his outbidding a firm spending commitment. In so doing, he merely illustrated the Opposition view that every problem can be solved with money. That is classic short-termism and does not face the need to address, as the Government have addressed, the importance of having a package of measures designed to benefit stocks in the long term by further reducing fishing effort. Our effort reduction package deals with the current structural problems and helps to conserve fish stocks now and in the future. The package comprises technical conservation measures, licence penalties and decommissioning.

The industry has presented some useful suggestions on technical conservation. We have evaluated them and are now discussing them with the European Commission. It is our hope that those measures can contribute to achieving our MAGP target. In addition, we have a system of licence penalties whereby capacity must be given up whenever existing licences are transferred or aggregated—for example, by an owner who wishes to license a new, more powerful vessel. The industry has asked us to reconsider improving the scheme's operation and we have agreed to do so.

Decommissioning lies at the heart of our effort reduction policy. So far, the 1993–94 scheme has removed 135 vessels, about 4,800 tonnes of capacity, at a cost of £7.8 million. In a recent announcement, we made it clear that we now wished to deploy the remainder of our £25 million. The scheme represents the next step along that path for the year 1994–95. A total of £8.9 million will be available, a sum which incorporates the underspend on the 1993–94 scheme. The rules of that round will be familiar because the scheme is closely based on the successful 1993 scheme which, by using a tendering system, enabled us to remove the maximum amount of active capacity with the available funds.

In a nutshell, the scheme provides for owners of eligible vessels to submit tenders for the amount of decommissioning grant for which they would be prepared to scrap their vessel and surrender its licences. Details of the scheme were made public on 15 June and the closing date for applications is 15 August 1994. Applications will be ranked in terms of pounds-per-vessel-capacity unit. Successful applicants must submit proof of scrapping, deregistration and surrender of all licences in respect of a vessel before 1 March 1995.

The main criteria for determining eligibility have not changed. Vessels must be United Kingdom registered and licensed, more than 10 metres in overall length, more than 10 years old and seaworthy. We want to target active vessels, so we have also retained the requirement that vessels must have spent at least 100 days at sea on fishing trips in each of the past two years.

We considered carefully whether the scheme should be more precisely targeted—for example, by confining it to trawlers or beam trawlers—but we concluded that that would be too restrictive. There is a new requirement, however, that vessels applying should hold a full pressure-stock licence, thus focusing the scheme on vessels that fish the most vulnerable stocks. Moreover, the 100 days at sea on fishing trips must have been spent in Community waters. The aim is to exclude vessels fishing primarily in distant waters where pressure on the stocks is less intense.

We are excluding vessels which were successful in the 1993 tender but were not scrapped. We included a warning to that effect in the 1993 explanatory leaflet to discourage withdrawals, and the current scheme implements that rule.

Application forms are available in local fishery offices and have already been sent to fishermen known to be interested in the scheme. We look forward to a keen response with realistic bids which will enable the 1994 scheme to be as successful and effective as the 1993 scheme in making a useful contribution to conserving stocks and achieving our MAGP targets.

Hon. Members will recall that the first round of decommissioning was linked to our proposals for days-at-sea restrictions, as the latter were intended to constrain the effort of the fleet which remained—a point which, I am glad to say, was acknowledged by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mrs. Ewing

Is not the average decommissioning grant about £60,000, so that by the time vessel owners have paid scrapping charges and other charges, and settled taxation bills, many of them are left with nothing? Is the Minister satisfied that the amount of money being provided for decommissioning is sufficient to meet the needs of our fleet? Can he tell us what other aspects of effort limitation have been used by other European Union countries, as all of them seem to have used decommissioning to meet the MAGP target?

Mr. Jack

On the figure that the hon. Lady quoted, it is misleading to look at average amounts per vessel because the size range is substantial. When we opened the doors last time, 433 vessels applied under the scheme, which showed that people thought it was effective. I believe that 134 vessels were ultimately decommissioned with the first tranche of money. We have since tried to refine the scheme and to focus it more carefully.

With regard to other European Union states, the Netherlands has relied on a days-at-sea scheme to assist in meeting its targets while others have put more weight on decommissioning to remove tonnage. The hon. Lady will note that I placed clear emphasis on the question of controlling effort, particularly that of the remainder of the fleet. Other Community countries have omitted to emphasise that aspect—perhaps to their cost. The effectiveness of the decommissioning scheme is determined not just by the capacity that is taken out, but by what the remaining capacity will do.

Hon. Members will recall that we suspended the introduction of our effort reduction measure—the days-at-sea policy—because the judicial review case of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations was referred to the European Court of Justice. We always made it clear, however, that we wanted the decommissioning scheme to provide real long-term benefits to the fishing industry. The scheme will not achieve that if remaining vessels increase their fishing effort and thus undermine the impact of decommissioning. That would be unwelcome to the fishing industry and also to the taxpayers, who will want to know that expenditure is being used effectively and provides good value for money.

The industry claim that the current fleet is already fishing flat out. If that is the case, in spite of decommissioning, effort should not increase. As decommissioning progresses, we intend to monitor the fishing effort of the remaining fleet. We shall not want to be heavy handed about it, but if effort increases we shall have to take suitable effort-control measures to deal with the situation. I hope that the industry will collectively exercise restraint and so make the use of such controls unnecessary in the context of this scheme. My wish is to see a healthy, successful and responsible fishing industry. It cannot have a healthy and successful future without taking responsibility, and that includes ensuring that fishing effort does not increase.

I know from my discussions with industry representatives and with individual fishermen that they are willing to contribute to conservation and to achieving our Community targets. We are also working with the industry in other ways—for example, to improve the marketing of fish in order to improve returns. All of the measures that I have outlined are important factors in developing the long-term viability of the industry.

I look forward to continuing to work with the fishing industry, trying to chart our way through what can sometimes seem the difficult and detailed waters of complex Community schemes.

Dr. Godman

Does the Minister agree that if effort limitation is to be effective as a conservation tool there has to be a rough balance between the size of the fleet and stocks? How far are we from achieving such an objective?

Mr. Jack

We are some way from achieving it. I wish that we were further along that road, but it took us some time carefully to think through the question of controlling the effort of the remainder of the fleet. I have listened carefully to hon. Members with constituency fishing interests and to the industry. I had hoped that, in view of my emphasis on how we intended to deal with the remainder of the effort during this period of decommissioning, the hon. Gentleman would have understood that I have tried very hard to take to heart the messages that the industry has sent to me.

I also made it clear that we have a package of measures, such as licence aggregation. The industry has asked us about how that element of our effort reduction programme can be improved and I look forward to receiving its proposals on that subject. The hon. Gentleman will also know that we are actively evaluating technical conservation measures which the industry has sensibly put to us. They are in what could be called the appraisal stage. Once we ascertain how the decommissioning scheme, as it is now constituted, progresses, we can be clearer about the distance between that sum total of effort reduction and the target that we have to meet. The targets are now legally binding in the Community. We want to achieve those targets; if there is a gap, we shall have to examine other ways of doing so.

I hope that we are back on the right road, especially with the decommissioning scheme. We have made our intentions clear, and I commend the scheme to the House.

5.42 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

We welcome the fact that we at least have an announcement to the effect that the second phase of the decommissioning scheme is going ahead. We also welcome the fact that the underspend from the first year's round of decommissioning has been included in the global sum. The Minister will appreciate that we have pressed him on that issue several times. We are glad to learn that the money has not been lost, but has been kept within the funds available.

Our only regret is that the scheme is still the same inadequate scheme and part of an inadequate fisheries policy, as the Minister will know from his contact with the industry. The Minister told us that he reads Fishing News assiduously, so I am sure that he read the editorial entitled "Bankruptcy of Ideas", which states: The resurrection of the decommissioning scheme is welcome but it falls woefully short of the positive policy for which the industry has been waiting. Some will now be able to go ahead and leave the industry, but those who want to stay—the vast majority—still have not a clue as to where the industry is going. That causes serious problems in terms of planning and investment and confidence in the industry—problems which one or two hon. Members have made clear to the Minister.

There is also a problem with meeting the targets set by the multi-annual guidance programme. I shall refer to that in due course, because that is the underlying issue in the matching of fishing effort to available fish stocks. We now know that the first round of decommissioning took out approximately 2.2 per cent. of fleet capacity. Even with the measures that the Minister has outlined, such as licence aggregation, we are looking at a reduction of only about 7 per cent. by 1996, when, under European Community law, the Government have to meet a target reduction in the region of 20 per cent., as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) rightly said.

Our failure has already been criticised by the Commission in its report on the MAGP targets. It stated that figures show this country"— the United Kingdom— significantly outside the intermediate objective for 1993. It is, therefore, clear that, even now, we are nowhere near meeting our targets.

Although we need effort limitation—the Labour party has always made it clear that it recognises that that must go hand in glove with decommissioning—we need a much more generous and effective decommissioning scheme if we are to make progress towards meeting our MAGP by 1996. Of the £7.5 million spent on decommissioning last year, approximately £5 million was clawed back by the Government under the Fontainebleau agreement and, of course, fishermen paid tax on the money that they received. It is, therefore, a very minor scheme. The overall sum that the Government make available to the industry and to the primary sector in general can hardly be regarded as generous.

The failure to make progress in fleet reduction and give a clear policy lead has severe consequences for the whole United Kingdom industry in denying the UK structural aid to modernise its fishing fleet, which is aging rapidly. Again, the Minister is well aware of that issue. We are simply storing up problems for the future, as is mentioned in the Commission's proposals.

The UK's fishing fleet is being put at a severe disadvantage in the European Union. As has been said, in the six years to 1992, the European Union made £250 million available for decommissioning, but it was paid to other member states. Of the total of around £500 million, including construction and modernisation grants, about £11 million has so far come to the United Kingdom.

The fact that we have done so badly in getting a share of the available pot of money is a national decision, not a European Union decision. The Minister knows that. When I met the previous Fisheries Commissioner, Mr. Marin, he told me that he had repeatedly pressed the Minister's predecessors to bid for decommissioning funds because he recognised that, by not introducing a decommissioning scheme some years ago, we were building up to the problems that we now face.

The problem for the United Kingdom fleet is made worse by the Commission's proposals, although I admit that they are only proposals and we need to examine them in detail. However, if the Commission is taking on board the Government's ideas, which include a days-at-sea restriction, the logical conclusion—the introduction of standard vessel fishing days to replace the Irish box—has severe implications for the British fleet because if we have not made progress towards meeting our MAGP targets, our fleet will be far more restricted than that of other member states so that we can meet our targets. The same restrictions will not be applied to Spain and Portugal. They will be free to fish because they are nearer to meeting their targets.

Mr. Jack

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman mentioned investment in new vessels and where the money came from. He will be aware that, under the terms of the Fontainebleau agreement, the cost to the UK is something like 71 per cent. of any modernisation schemes. Will he outline in detail his own proposals? How much would he spend; on what would he spend it; and how would he judge the criteria for such schemes?

Mr. Morley

I shall be happy to answer that question. Indeed, I intend to deal with it in my proposals.

There is also the hypothetical situation—where we shall be in some years' time. I shall tell the Minister how we would find the funding for the schemes now. There are a number of ways of doing that.

The total decommissioning scheme is spread over three years; we have already had one of those years. The Labour party sees no reason why the total amount of money cannot be put into one year's allocation to achieve a greater reduction in the fleet rather than spreading it over three years. What is the point of prolonging the agony? It would make more sense to remove the overcapacity as quickly as possible rather than spreading the money over another two years.

Of course, the money has to be found within the global Government budget and I am happy to give the Minister a few pointers. For example, the Labour party could have found £350 million that has been wasted on management consultants—and their cars—in the national health service. We could have saved the £700 million that has been spent on British Rail privatisation and consultancies and the £500 million spent on the outside consultancies that saved only £10 million for the Government.

We could also have saved £3 million on the parents charter, which was sent to every house in the country whether or not any children lived there. We could have saved £500 million on the national curriculum scheme that was abandoned after being introduced. There is certainly a few bob there that a Labour Government could have saved, to put into a more effective decommissioning scheme. If the Minister would like a bit more advice on where to find the money, I should be only too pleased to give him some, although I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would call me to order if I did.

Mr. Jack

I have added up those sums and have reached £2 billion in firm commitments from the hon. Gentleman to spend on the fishing industry. I look forward to hearing what the Labour Treasury spokesman says about that.

Mr. Morley

Now we can see how Conservative central office reach all those ludicrous figures that Conservative Members sometimes throw at the Labour party.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will not two thirds of the money that this country spends on decommissioning probably be recovered from the Commission, anyway?

Mr. Morley

That is right. In all fairness and all seriousness, the £25 million being made available is a tiny sum. It certainly compares badly with the £3 billion a year spent on the agricultural sector. I appreciate that that is paid under European regulations, some of which are outside the Government's control. But when the question of the imbalance has been raised before, the Government's response is that farmers are used to such subsidies, so they are okay for the agricultural sector, but not for the fishing sector.

Moreover, presumably the Government put into their budget a sum for enforcing the days-at-sea measures, which will not have been used because of the delay caused by the court case. I should have thought that there were a few million pounds there, too—a budget that has already been committed and could have gone into the overall pool for the decommissioning scheme. So a fair bit of money could be found within existing budgets this year to enlarge the scheme and make it more effective.

The EC proposals will indeed have a severe effect on what will happen in the areas outside the Irish box, such as the south-western approaches. As I said, there is a threat of a new Spanish armada and we need more details of how the proposals will work. Certainly, we will examine them closely and consider the implications for the industry. We need a strong policy framework within which the industry can work—one that will give it stability and enable it to plan ahead.

I hope that the Minister will take into account the developments that the Opposition would like to see. First, the whole programme should be rolled into one year to try to enlarge the scheme, increase decommissioning and reduce the effort faster than the proposals suggest. We also want a far more effective decommissioning scheme, with more resources going into it—and I believe that those resources could be found.

The scheme should be more carefully targeted. The Minister touched on that subject, but it needs to be considered on a sectoral basis, where the pressure is. We also want more details about how the scheme is being monitored to evaluate its effectiveness.

There should be a stronger emphasis on the social dimension of restructuring. Of course the scheme is about decommissioning, but it does not benefit all the crews of the boats concerned. We want effective use of regional funding and the proposed PESCA programme, which the Minister has discussed with us. It is a modest programme, but it can be directed towards fishing communities and thus benefit a wider group of people.

We must consider again the disposal of decommissioned boats. As the Minister will know, I have written to him on behalf of a potential buyer from Sri Lanka, who has a firm and positive offer to buy decommissioned boats from the United Kingdom and take them to Sri Lanka. He is also prepared to obtain assurances from the Sri Lankan Government that those boats will not find their way back into the European Union fleet. I accept that we must take such possibilities into consideration, but there are ways of ensuring that the boats do not find their way back into the fleet—not least the fact that they need licences.

Approximately £8,000 of the money that owners get for decommissioning is spent on scrapping. If we could find a workable scheme, that would be to the advantage of all concerned. I hope that the Minister will consider the idea.

Mr. Jack

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. Of course I shall reply to his letter. However, I have raised the question of disposal of vessels through third world countries with the Overseas Development Administration, and there are genuine practical problems involved. So far, in spite of searching quite hard, I have not yet come up with a practical scheme that satisfies all the criteria—not least the logistics of getting vessels there. Many owners, in scrapping vessels, take certain equipment out to release additional sums. On the final point about the cost, that is of course tax allowable.

Mrs. Ewing

Only 25 per cent.

Mr. Morley

Yes; 25 per cent. is tax allowable, I think. I take the Minister's point; those are serious issues, but the people behind the scheme are convinced that they can satisfy the criteria. The fact that some of the more high-tech equipment in the boats will be stripped out is not necessarily a disadvantage in low-tech fishing industries in developing countries.

We also want a proper fund, through the European Union, for an early retirement scheme in the fishing industry. I know that the Commission has considered the idea and I believe that such an arrangement would be of benefit to the overall scheme.

As a matter of urgency, the Commission should be pressed to act on a proposal from the United Kingdom fishermen's associations—the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations—to react to their detailed and sensible proposals for technical conservation measures and their suggestions on how those can be built into effort limitation and taken into account. Many of us are surprised that it has taken so long to receive a response from the Commission.

There has been far too much delay and indecision on fishing in this country. We need a stronger policy. The present approach seems to encourage decommissioning by bankruptcy. That is the implication of leaving the issue for so long and not having an adequate scheme. We need stronger action to build a secure and sustainable fishing industry and a modern and prosperous fleet. The present Government approach will achieve neither of those ends.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I see that six hon. Members wish to catch my eye, arid we have precisely 61 minutes left for the debate.

5.59 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

For the reason that you have given, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be especially brief—and I shall surprise the Minister by starting with warm congratulations. I have not always congratulated either him or his predecessor on the conduct of fisheries policy, especially over the vexed question of days-at-sea, but now I say thank you most sincerely to my hon. Friend for adopting what I consider is now the correct approach to the Government's relationship with the industry.

The Minister said that his door was always open and, as proof of that, he has agreed to see some representatives of the industry from the south-west next Tuesday on the vexed question of the monkfish quota. I have no doubt that, at that meeting, we shall also want to probe the whole issue of the proposed days-at-sea restrictions scheme, which has come, albeit in outline and preliminary form, from Brussels. I shall return to that.

My hon. Friend's attitude was summed up in his speech. If I correctly interpreted it, the latter part especially marks something of a change of approach by the Government on the vexed question of trying to bring about a better balance between fishing capacity on one hand and availability of stocks on the other. That, of course, is the central issue that has bedevilled fisheries policy for many years.

I am not sure whether I am interpreting my hon. Friend's words correctly, but I wonder what his attitude is now to the previous national days-at-sea restrictions scheme. Is he putting it completely on one side and, if so, I wonder whether he would go one step further and give a pledge that that legislation may be repealed, so that the case before the European Court could be dropped. That would be a very positive step forward in the light of his remarks, especially towards the end of his speech.

My hon. Friend said that decommissioning was at the heart of the Government's policy. That brings me to the scheme and the motion before the House. As my hon. Friend knows, I share the view of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), that the decommissioning scheme is welcome, but that £25 million over three years is not sufficient. I was one of the Conservative Members who, for many years, pressed Her Majesty's Government to reintroduce a decommissioning scheme and I was delighted when that happened, albeit as part of a wider package. However, I still believe that £25 million is not sufficient, given the scale of the problem and the difficulty of meeting our multi-annual guidance programme.

My hon. Friend is right to chide the Opposition about where the money will come from and where the increase in the funding is to be found. I do not think that the Treasury will sanction an increase above £25 million. Unfortunately, that is the reality of the situation facing us, especially in the current public expenditure climate. However, I refuse to believe that, in the quite significant budget of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, there is not some scope—I shall develop the point—for increasing the £25 million allocation. I am sure that some more money could be found in the budget of the Department.

The Government must find that extra money because of the plight facing the industry. All of us who have fishing constituencies know the difficulties that fishermen face. I find that the most worrying aspect of the whole situation is when fishermen come to me and say, "David, we are being forced to cheat." They would not admit that before, but they are saying it now. To make a living, they are being forced to cheat through illegal landings and black fish. That is very worrying indeed and the fishermen do not like doing it.

I know of a number of people in my constituency who, because of the pressures that they are under and because of the particular pressure of having to cheat in order to survive, want to leave the industry. That is very sad. We must enable people who want to leave the industry to do so with honour and, indeed, with some financial recompense before the restrictions being imposed on them by Europe, and by our own Government for very good reasons, are implemented. Therefore, I earnestly urge my hon. Friend and other members of the Government to look again at the whole question of the adequacy—in my opinion, the inadequacy—of the allocation of £25 million and to bring about an increase.

I was very pleased to hear what my hon. Friend said about the topic of the day: the European Commission proposals—as he explained to the occupant of the Chair earlier, they are linked with the motion—which were publicised, probably in a truncated and, possibly, in an inaccurate form, last night and again this morning. Again, I welcome his words of caution that we should wait and see the details. I will certainly do that before passing final judgment, but I view what we already know of those proposals with hefty scepticism.

I opposed our unilateral days-at-sea restrictions and I shall also need much convincing over the European measures, for the central issue is the difficulty of enforcing such a system. We all know of the fears of the fishermen and their right to hold those fears. To put it succinctly, they fear that if such restrictions are ever introduced, they will be enforced on our fishermen, whereas the Spanish fishermen in particular, who are the biggest threat that we face in the south-west, will escape, because we all know that the enforcement of measures on fishermen in Spain is just a joke. We have seen it in all sorts of forms of so-called conservation measures. They are just not applied to the Spaniards, and they are not applied in any great degree, if I may say in passing, to many of the French fishermen either. That is, of course, the weakness of the common fisheries policy and I am afraid that it may be the weakness of the proposals from Europe.

However, I take comfort from my hon. Friend's comments on that matter and I know him well enough to know that he will be scrutinising the proposals with great care and that he will not go along with anything which is to the detriment of our own fishing fleet or which would treat our fleet unfairly.

I shall conclude my remarks, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I welcome what, as I said, I sense is a completely new approach by the Government and by my hon. Friend in particular. I urge him to listen with the greatest care, as he has done already, to the sensible measures being put forward by the industry. In proposing its alternative conservation measures—the technical measures to which my hon. Friend referred—the industry has made considerable advances. It has not gone for soft options, but has put forward measures which would hurt the industry because it knows that a certain amount of pain is necessary to bring about that absolutely essential balance.

One thing is certain: if any conservation scheme is to succeed, it must have the acquiescence of the industry. The scheme must not have the total opposition of the industry. A scheme has a far better chance of succeeding if it has been put forward in outline form, at least, by the industry than if it is imposed on the industry. I welcome the whole tone of my hon. Friend's remarks and I hope that, indeed, the industry can look forward to a better and a more secure future in co-operation with Her Majesty's Government.

6.7 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I hope that I will not embarrass my near neighbour in Cornwall, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), by agreeing with so much of what he has said. I shall not reiterate the points, because we are obviously tied for time, but I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the hon. Gentleman's point about the repeal of the Sea Fish Conservation Act 1967. There would be a real sea-change in the atmosphere in the industry if the Government showed that that Act is behind them and that they would be prepared to look again at the technical conservation measures.

The Minister rightly outlined the context of the scheme. He outlined the conservation shortfall in meeting multi-annual guidance programme targets, especially in the United Kingdom, though not exclusively so, the economic state of our industry compared with the fishing fleets in competitor countries in the European Union, the extent of support from other member states for the industry, which is extremely relevant in the context of not only decommissioning but the whole package of support, and the new developments overnight in Brussels, which we have heard about briefly and which are extremely relevant.

Finally, he rightly paid a great deal of attention, as did the hon. Member for St. Ives, to discrepancies in implementation, monitoring and control. We all know that the United Kingdom has one of the worst shortfalls in meeting targets, though other member states are in a similar position.

I was struck by the engaging honesty of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is in his place, in the Scottish Grand Committee earlier this week. He said: we reckon that the decommissioning scheme will take 2.2 per cent. to 2.5 per cent. over the three years, so it is not a very significant amount. If things go well, and depending on how the scheme works out in detail, it may be 8 per cent. or 9 per cent. That is of course a long way from our 19 per cent. target. I suspect that that engaging honesty may be something to do with a Minister who is becoming somewhat demob happy. Later in the discussion in the Scottish Grand Committee, he said: Let me answer first the questions about fishing. I accept that it is not easy to determine at this stage how we can meet our multi-annual guidance programme targets…As I said, we might take out 2.5 per cent. or 3 per cent. a year and set the figure at 8 per cent. over three years. With the penalties on licensed transfers and aggregations, we hope to get to about 5 per cent. over the same period. That is extraordinarily vague. It is honestly vague, but it does not alter the fact that we are a long way off the targets that the Government say that they are aiming for.

In the Committee, much play was made of the scale of investment in decommissioning, and how much was coming from the British taxpayer. As hon. Members have said, the decommissioning scheme amounts to £25 million gross over three years. It is calculated that 17.5 per cent. will be drawn down from Brussels under the arrangements to which the Minister has referred. So to some extent, that £25 million is bogus. It is further reduced by the tax take.

In the Standing Committee that considered the Finance Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) sought to exempt the payments from all tax penalties, but the penalties remain and the clawback in tax is considerable. The net figure for this scheme is probably only about £2 million a year. It is minuscule, I agree with what the hon. Member for St. Ives said about that.

In the Scottish Grand Committee on Tuesday the Minister admitted: the money has been wrung from the Treasury after a great deal of pressure and I have been blunt with the fishing industry that there will be no likelihood of an extension of that £25 million in the current three-year period.—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 12 July 1994; c. 10–37.] That does not explain why the money cannot be found from within MAFF's budget, notably from the budget for the days-at-sea provisions, which would have been considerable.

What is so significant about the Minister's confession is that it was the Treasury which designed the policy so that there was no assessment of the industry's actual needs. There was no equation in terms of conservation targets. There was no attempt to match up to the MAGP requirements. Most important, there was no overall value-for-money strategy. It is the mad axeman of the Treasury all over again.

The opposition to days-at-sea made it clear that, from Newlyn to Lerwick, fishermen have been, and continue to be, on the brink of economic collapse. Decommissioning in those circumstances can only be part of a larger package. Even if it were more generous, it would not be enough on its own. Decommissioning men, for example, involves huge social and economic costs in fragile economies all round our coastline, in Cornwall as in the north of Scotland. As the take-up shows, it is not sufficient in itself to achieve a dramatic reduction in the take.

Decommissioning by decrepitude in vessels is probably what the Government have in mind. It is more likely to happen than decommissioning by generous support. As I said earlier, the Minister was right to see the decommissioning package within the overall package that other member states make available to their fishing fleets. I take the example of Spain, for the obvious reason that in the south-west our fishermen find themselves in direct competition with Spanish fishermen.

For permanent decommissioning of vessels from 1987 to 1992, Spanish fishermen received 80.46 million ecu. That is discounting any cash that they received from their national Government. For temporary lay-up, they received 36.12 million ecu. In addition to that, for new vessel construction during that period, Spanish fishermen received 66.38 million ecu and for vessel modernisation they received 38.64 million ecu. That is a total of 220 million ecu from the European Union, or European Community as it then was; from the European taxpayers; from us. During that period, under only the vessel construction and modernisation programmes—because we did not have decommissioning—all that our industry obtained in draw-down from the European Community was a paltry 15 million ecu. That is a critical part of the equation that the Minister must face. One cannot divorce the decommissioning sum from the rest of the programme.

Is it any wonder that our fishermen throughout the United Kingdom believe that their competitors benefit from huge subsidy, paid for as much by United Kingdom taxpayers as anyone else, to outfish us in our traditional waters with our money? It is worth noting that, during the same period, 72 new boats were given subsidy for construction in Spain, while only two achieved that in the United Kingdom.

I do not wish to refer at length to the proposals that we heard about overnight, but it is important to identify that the western approaches and Irish box proposals seem at least to put a question mark against some of the pledges that the Minister made early in the year.

The House will recall that the Minister gave us four pledges. The first was that the North sea would be excluded. As we understand it—so far, so good—it is. Secondly, relative stability would be a principle right across the policy. Much will depend on enforcement, but we hope that that is in place. Thirdly, no extra effort would be involved in the proposals. We have to hope that that will be so. Critically, the proposals that we have heard about overnight fly in the face of the fourth pledge that we were given about the integrity of the Irish box. As we understand it, it is to be substantially modified and reduced to reflect only area 7b. If that happens, it will be damaging to the interests of west country fishermen.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of building an edifice with no foundation. We have been cautioned that these are a first set of proposals. The regulation on which the measures draw defines clearly the Irish box as an area of particular sensitivity. One of the matters that we shall want to look at is just that proposal. The proposals are a first shot. If the hon. Gentleman knows anything about negotiating within the Community, he will realise that there is still a great deal of discussion to go The reservations and fears of all fishermen whose waters are affected by the proposals, some of which he expresses clearly, will be fully taken into account.

Mr. Tyler

It is precisely because I understand the process of negotiation that I am strengthening the Minister's arm for the coming fight. I hope that he will go to the discussions with a reminder to his colleagues that hon. Members throughout the House intend to hold him to his pledges. We wish to see an Irish box that has the integrity that the Minister has given an undertaking to fight for. That brings me to the other point that I want to draw to the Minister's attention.

We understand that the new concept of standard vessels days, which looks very much like days-at-sea in a different guise, will be administered and monitored on a multi-national basis. For the reasons that the hon. Member for St. Ives gave, we do not believe that the proposal that has apparently come from the Commission that the scheme should be administered by the Government of member states would be anything like sufficient to ensure the right level of enforcement. Subsidiarity on this matter would cause acute anxiety among many other member states.

The crux of this debate and of the scheme is that for many of us, however welcome the decommissioning scheme is, it is but one block in the foundations of a substantial strategy for the industry. It is not a strategy in itself. It will not meet even the immediate conservation targets. It will not secure long-term targets without even more vigorous MAGP requirements being set, perhaps in the comparatively near future. It will not offset the failure to invest structural funds—European funds, not merely British funds—in the modernisation of our fleet. It will not put the United Kingdom fleet on an even keel to meet new competition.

In reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland, the Minister said: Currently we are moving towards our targets via decommissioning and licence penalties. We are also having discussions with the Commission on the possible contribution to effort reduction from technical conservation measures."—[Official Report, 7 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 280–81.] Significantly, the Government are not having discussions with the industry on the substance of the proposals. That is regrettable.

The Minister referred in glowing terms to Fishing News, which we all read with great interest. I shall simply add an extra paragraph from its leader on the subject of the decommissioning scheme. It says: The inescapable conclusion is that the government is bereft of ideas beyond that of squeezing large chunks of the Industry into bankruptcy, and that it hopes (knows perhaps?) that forthcoming EU measures will do its dirty work for it. At present, there is no strategy for fishing. There is no strategy to meet the conservation targets. There are real fears of effort limitation by the back door. Whatever is the maritime equivalent of an uneven playing field is what we now have in the fishing industry, and we will suffer from it.

6.20 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

This is not the occasion for a wide-ranging speech on the fishing industry in the United Kingdom, so I shall make three brief points on behalf of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

First, I welcome the measures proposed by the Minister. As he well knows, there was a good uptake in the first year of the decommissioning scheme in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel in Northern Ireland. I must quickly add that I fear that the uptake on this occasion will not be so good because, obviously, those who were in dire circumstances were keen to take advantage of the scheme in the first year, whereas there are no people in such dire circumstances now, so there is a serious possibility that less interest will be shown in it.

Secondly, there is a relaxed attitude in Portavogie and our other fishing ports in Northern Ireland about the arrangements for Spain and Portugal. The Minister will understand that. The fishermen in Northern Ireland do not have the anxiety that other fishermen in the United Kingdom will understandably have.

Thirdly, while we do not have the details of the news from Brussels tonight, none the less we have some information which one feels is accurate and which, if it is accurate, is most alarming for the United Kingdom fishing industry in the Irish sea. As I understand it, the Commission proposes that there should be a restriction within the Irish sea of 8,270 days at sea for the entire United Kingdom fishing fleet. In practical terms, that would mean that only about 80 United Kingdom fishing vessels will be allowed to fish in the Irish sea.

At present, we have 400 United Kingdom vessels in the Irish sea, 240 of which come from Northern Ireland. If the proposal advances to a conclusion, the number of United Kingdom vessels will be reduced from 400 to only 80. That would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, where 2,000 people are employed in the fishing industry in the rural parts of County Down alone.

Mr. Jack

It is early days, but I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the Commission has confirmed that its effort control proposals under the permit scheme and the arrangements to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded will not prevent quotas from being taken. We must examine the detail, but I think that that reassurance is important to fishermen, who are anxious to know whether they can prosecute the stocks to which they are entitled.

Mr. Taylor

I very much welcome that intervention. I shall conclude on this subject. As the Minister said, there is understandable anxiety about the reports which have come out in the first 24 hours. They must be clarified and explained—not that I like using the word "clarification" in Northern Irish politics these days.

Today's news has caused alarm and concern within the fleet based in Portavogie. The resentment—I ask the Minister to pay attention to this point—is made worse by the further news that, whereas the United Kingdom fleet in the Irish sea is being given only 8,270 days at sea, the southern Irish fleet is being given more than 11,000 days. That distortion in favour of the southern Irish fleet seems to arise from the exercise of the Hague preference based on cod quotas.

Effectively, the Republic of Ireland, with only 120 boats in the Irish sea, gets 11,000 days at sea, whereas the United Kingdom, with 400 vessels in the Irish sea, gets only 8,270 days. The fishermen do not understand that. I hope that the Minister will carry out his promise to meet the Northern Ireland fishing industry. Certainly, I will be keen to go with him, and hopefully support him, in getting the proposals amended in Brussels.

6.25 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

The Minister gave his usual energetic and ebullient display—a characteristic for which he is becoming known in the industry—of making something out of nothing. The fact is that our fishing industry is in decline and severe financial difficulties, its market receipts are not at a level to keep it profitable, investment is being frightened away and the Minister is hanging all sorts of threats over it, such as Spanish accession and all the long-term possibilities of restriction of effort. That is the state of the industry on one side.

On the other side, frankly, the Government do not have a policy on fishing. The policy they had, to which they attached all the importance they could, has effectively been shot from under them, and they have not developed a new policy to replace it. It is desperately urgent that the Government develop a policy on fishing to give the industry the confidence it needs to sustain itself through to the better future which must lie ahead, despite the effective limitation of effort.

The problem is that the Government's policy was a twin track one. The first part of the policy was decommissioning—the scheme is part of that policy. However, it was too little, too late. The scheme was not adequate, and it came in much too late. To reduce the effort, the decommissioning scheme was coupled with the days-at-sea limitation, on which the Government set their heart and to which they devoted all their efforts. That is the second half of the policy. Effectively, it has been shot from under them. They will not concede that the policy is dead. They want to hang on to a policy which cannot work. Even if the European Court rules in their favour, the policy cannot come in for well over a year—certainly not early enough to have any substantial effect on the effort.

As I told the Minister yesterday, the Government's days-at-sea policy is essentially necrophilia—the more dead it is, the more they love it. They must admit that it is a goner. It will not work. It should never have been introduced, because it is a monstrous measure—it is unfair and unreasonable. Only officials in their ivory towers apportioning catches as though they could deal with things in that sort of rational way could develop it. The Minister should not have introduced the policy, and he should now concede that it is dead.

When the Minister concedes that the policy is dead, it will become clear that the present decommissioning scheme is too small; it must be increased. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations has suggested £40 million as a decommissioning scheme. I would put the figure higher. It is clear that the thinking behind the Commission's previous report is that we must have a bigger decommissioning scheme.

It is wrong for the Minister to quibble about where Labour would get the money to pay for the scheme. Most of the money comes from Europe in any case. If we recognise that the days-at-sea limitation, with all the attendant framework of regulation and supervision, is going, that would save about £6 million to £7 million—I do not know the exact figure. The Minister could take the first step by bringing forward all the decommissioning money in one splurge to put some money into the industry, because that is what it desperately needs.

Other European countries are in a much healthier position, vis-a-vis their multi-annual guidance programme targets, simply because they brought forward and implemented earlier bigger and better decommissioning schemes, coupled with rational restructuring of the industry.

Between 1987 and 1992, £250 million of European funds, to which we contributed, were spent by all the other countries on decommissioning their vessels. That is why they are in a much better position than we are. That is why we must go down the road they have shown us, which the Minister, or his predecessors in the Department, should have taken some years ago.

Now, we have been forced down it and the Minister should say, "I'm sorry, we got it wrong. We tried the twin-track approach. One track won't work and we must therefore place more emphasis on the decommissioning scheme." As the Minister's hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) suggested, the Minister should drop the policy. He should withdraw it. Let us have a reconciliation with the industry, which will be adamantly opposed to it, even if the policy ever comes back.

The Government should introduce a decommissioning scheme. They should couple it with a restructuring plan to bring finance for new building into the industry. We have an aging fleet. Some vessels are 25 or 30 years old and the industry desperately needs new vessels, as does the construction side of the industry, which will be decimated if the present lack of building continues.

The Minister should stop the slump—stop foreign flag ships buying licences and their use by other nations. He should show some confidence in the industry, so that it can get other outside finance. The Minister should recognise that there must be new build, which need not necessarily increase the effort as it can be carefully structured so as to ensure that it does not do so. He should couple that with a proper decommissioning scheme.

The Minister should go ahead with the technical conservation measures suggested to him by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations. There was some good cheer yesterday. He said that he accepted those recommendations, which cheered me up, and that he was putting them to the Commission, which is very good. It is a learning process, and I hope that it will continue, as it is so welcome. We must approach the conservation of stocks through such effective technical measures, as it is much the best way to do so.

If the Minister does all those things, will we be able to reduce effort on the scale that is necessary? We need a 19 per cent. reduction. With decommissioning, we have so far achieved 2.2 per cent. If we spend all the money, it will probably result in a 6 per cent. reduction in effort. What will the conservation measures achieve—a 3 or 4 per cent. reduction? Perhaps the Minister can give us an estimate. Decommissioning and conservation will together add up to a 10 per cent. reduction in effort, which leaves 9 per cent. of the reduction that we must achieve by December 1996 outstanding. That is a 9 per cent. gap—half the reduction.

I fear that the Government are placing their hopes on a Europewide reduction of effort through a limitation on days at sea. Perhaps I have too suspicious a mind, but Ministers could be thinking that there will be such a limitation and that it will save their bacon. That will save them from having to introduce an unpopular measure. They might think,"We'll get away with reducing effort in that way."

The proposals for the alternative for the Irish box seem to envisage some limitation on days at sea on that basis, which is what makes me think that those proposals might be the thin end of the wedge for a European scheme. If that is the Minister's view, I hope that he will come clean.

A European limitation of effort will hit this country disproportionately hard. Our deficit is greater than that of the other fishing nations. If the European Community, rather than the Government, introduce such a scheme, it will bear most heavily on this country. Secondly, a Europewide limitation on days at sea will reduce British effort to allow Spanish effort in. We shall all be making some sacrifices as a consequence of the decision to allow the Spanish full accession to the common fisheries policy five years early.

As we have heard in every speech in this debate, hon. Members do not trust the regimes in other European countries to administer restrictions. There is a difficulty in Spain, because of the problem of Basque separatism. The Spanish central Government dare not bear down too heavily on the regional administration, which is financing much reconstruction.

Mrs. Ewing

That is good coming from Grimsby.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Lady would like a similar regime in Scotland. Everyone knows that the Spanish are not going to enforce what is necessary on the Basques.

A European days-at-sea limitation will not work, and it will not save the Minister's bacon. He has to do something. He must produce a British national policy along the lines I have suggested. He was wrong to mutter as he did in his speech that, unless the industry behaves responsibly, the Government will have to return to limitation of effort.

Having been defeated on his original policy, it is his responsibility to go back to the industry and say, "We want to work out a national plan for fishing with you." He should tell the industry that the Government want to develop a new industry, which can inherit the future, and that they want to work together to restructure the industry to ensure its survival as an effective, efficient and well-organised fishing force.

6.35 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I must, of necessity, be extremely brief, so I shall not rehearse some of the arguments that I mentioned in interventions on the Minister.

The fishing industry is a critical industry in Scotland in particular, and it is important in my constituency. Debates on the fishing industry seem, however, consistently to be downgraded. I do not mean any criticism of the important statement that had to be made earlier today. Obviously, defence is also a major issue in my constituency and in Scotland.

There is a feeling, however, that we debate the fishing industry either late at night or in short debates. The Government must study our mechanisms for considering the issue, especially since the common fisheries policy is of great importance as we look forward from the Maastricht developments to the accession of four additional states, although not all of those will be fishing nations.

We are working in a policy vacuum. The Minister mentioned the vagueness of the present proposals, said that we are moving forward to a Fisheries Council, said that he would then report back, and so forth. That leaves the industry in a state of uncertainty.

If we are to consider the framework regulations that the Commission is developing in Brussels, we need clear Government guidance on how they will relate those regulations back to the industry and to its representatives in this House—Members with maritime constituencies—and how they will ensure that clear guidance is given on how any agreement reached will be monitored, controlled and honoured.

The key issue and centrepiece of the whole debate is a policy on fishing effort. Decommissioning is a part of that policy. Spanish accession, the North sea, the Irish box and the maintenance of relative stability are all fundamentally important to this great industry, which we all respect so much.

If we achieve a level fishing playing field within the European Union for all our fishing communities—perhaps that is not the correct analogy when we are talking about fishing—I want clear guidance from the Minister on how the Government will ensure that such agreements are monitored, controlled and honoured exactly.

For fishermen in my constituency, one of the most important issues is that they feel that they are not on a level playing field. Can we have some more details? I know that the Minister wants to jump to the Dispatch Box, but perhaps, in light of the time available, he will cover that question in his closing speech or in a letter.

On the recommendations made by people in the British industry, there are differences between the Scottish and British industries. Can I have clarification of whether the Scottish Office is considering the serious recommendations, relating to square mesh panels, made by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation? The recommendations being made by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations are not compatible with the species which are caught in the North sea.

The PESCA scheme is very important, because at the moment there is no guarantee that crewmen will have any share in the decommissioning, and it is often dependent on the owner's attitude. Will the Government ensure that any pressure which comes to bear on the PESCA funds ensures that our crewmen will be treated the same as crewmen elsewhere within the European Union, because it seems that every other member state is pushing in that direction?

Is there any way in which Ministers can reduce the bureaucracy which fishermen have to face? It seems that, every time they turn around, there are more and more regulations and forms to fill in. That is a part of the irritation which is felt towards the common fisheries policy and towards the Government's regulations. May we have some guidance on how that can be reduced?

6.40 pm
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

It seems that we in the fishing industry suffer from the law of diminishing returns. The more we shout that we need more time for a debate on the industry, the less time we get. I do not want to waste time on that, as fortunately the industry is not in an absolutely immediate crisis.

We welcome the scheme so far as it goes. The fact that we have argued that it is not enough and that we are 50 per cent. under the multi-annual guidance programme target is not a matter of mathematical certainties or equations. The longer that we do not meet the target, and there is no obvious way of making the target, the more likely it is as we approach 1996 that even greater effort limitation will be forced upon us. Prices will become more severe, and we do not know how that will be met.

In view of the time, I shall be extremely brief. The Minister said that the Government will be monitoring the fleet's fishing effort and that it would not be done with a heavy hand. But the opposite of a heavy hand is not necessarily a light touch. We need a clear explanation as to how that monitoring will take place. A balance must be struck between the bureaucratic rules and proper effective monitoring. The Minister must try to strike that balance.

I want to emphasise, as the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) did, the importance of the PESCA scheme and of looking at compensation for crewmen who have lost their jobs. Will the Minister have a word with his colleagues in the Department of Employment which is currently running a voluntary scheme for trawlermen who have lost their jobs?

The Department says that someone can qualify for compensation only if he has had two years' continuous employment with the same employer. In Aberdeen in particular—I know that similar things happened elsewhere in the country—all trawlermen were employed by the Aberdeen Fish Vessel Association, and one could not get a job unless one was registered. The association told the crewmen on which boats to sail. If they transgressed, there were subsequent disciplinary proceedings which were jointly operated by the owners and the trade unions.

The Department of Employment is saying that that association is now an agency and, since it is an agency, the men do not qualify. In going for the PESCA scheme, and after having a word with the Department of Employment, the Minister should not be too rigid. These people have had their livelihoods taken away and there is no prospect that they will be restored. I ask the Minister to please go for the PESCA scheme and to look at the way in which the rules are applied. He must ensure that the Government apply compassion and flexibility because that is necessary for people who have served the industry well.

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

I shall be very brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I pointed out earlier, if effort limitation is to be effective as a conservation tool, the fleet must be in some kind of rough balance with the sustainability of stocks. To believe that effort limitation, even when it is based on a permanent system, equals capacity reduction—this is the point that I made to Minister, who claimed that I had my terms mixed up—flies in the face of history and experience.

Applying effort restrictions while the fleet is well over capacity will lead inevitably to hardship and, in many cases, to bankruptcy. That is the fact of the matter, especially where I come from where we have an aging fleet. The communities, as the Minister well knows, are utterly dependent upon the fishing industry, and the industry is part and parcel of the culture of the communities.

Effort restrictions do nothing to produce an efficient and well-balanced United Kingdom fishing fleet, and the Minister must face up to that. In my view, we need an effective and larger decommissioning scheme to achieve that rough balance, but I think that we are a long way from that.

I have mentioned the multi-annual guidance programme criteria that the Minister used, and those relate to a reduction in the fleet's tonnage and its horsepower. I believe that the European Community is attempting to arrive at a scheme by which we can measure fishing capacity. That is an enormously difficult task, but, in the long run, it is better than the crude criteria which underpin the MAGP.

The decommissioning scheme must allow for the renewal and reinvigorating of aging fleets. Many of the fleets from the Western isles and from some of the fishing communities near where I live, such as Campbeltown, Tarbert and Greenock, have very old boats. The fleets need to be replenished and the scheme must allow for the rebuilding of the fleets.

I have been given strict instructions to sit down at a specific moment, and I sometimes obey orders; not always, but sometimes.

We must look at the people who crew the vessels. Fishing, as the Minister has said on a number of occasions, is the toughest and harshest occupation in the United Kingdom. It is much too tough an occupation for me. I tried it as a kid of 15 and I happily acknowledge that it needed only one north Atlantic gale to put me ashore for ever. I have been to sea since, but I am always glad that it is not my occupation.

I have brothers who work on trawlers so perhaps I should declare an interest. It is important that the crewmen are protected along with the skipper-owners of fishing vessels. As the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and my hon. and old Friend for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said—[Interruption.] These men, their families and their communities must be protected. It seems to me that representing a maritime constituency—[Interruption.] I could do without this heckling from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Hughes

My apologies.

Dr. Godman

I represent a maritime constituency which has been helped to some extent by European Community structural funds to aid those areas suffering because of declining industries. For example, the Renaval programme assisted constituencies such as mine which have suffered from the decline in the shipbuilding industry. Why should not there be a similar scheme for fishing communities?

Why should not there be a scheme which allows for compensation to be paid to the men who crew the vessels? That should be a part of the European Union scheme for giving protection to those communities. In many of those scattered communities, such as Portavadie—or even Grimsby—and some of the other communities which my colleagues and I represent north of the border, there are very few alternatives for those men who have been put ashore, perhaps permanently. The men must be looked after and the scheme must allow for refreshing the fleet. An aging fleet is no good to anyone as it presents additional safety hazards to the men who crew the vessels. The decommissioning scheme must not obstruct the renewing of those fleets.

6.49 pm
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

May I sum up the debate briefly and pick up a few points that hon. Members have made?

In an intervention in the Minister's speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) asked for an assurance that the Spaniards would not gain access to precious and non-precious stocks in the North sea. Will the Minister deal with that matter when he winds up?

In his speech, the Minister said that, if necessary, the Government would take measures to monitor the fishing effort of the remaining fleet after decommissioning. Given that they wish to restrict the efforts of the remaining fleet, how will they go about that with no days-at-sea scheme?

On the question of how we shall meet the shortfall of what the present decommissioning scheme takes out, the Minister spoke about capacity, aggregation and conservation measures. But how does he propose to fill that gap? In the Scottish Grand Committee the other day, the Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), said that over the next three years the scheme would take out 2.2 to 2.5 per cent. and that, on a good day—when have the Government had a good day in the past few years?—it would take out 8 per cent. That still leaves 11 per cent. As the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) said, the Government are being extraordinarily vague. That point must be clarified.

The Government keep mentioning £25 million. In the Scottish Grand Committee the Minister was pressed on that matter and I said that the Government would recover approximately £17.5 million from Brussels, leaving a net bill for the Exchequer of £7.5 million. That amount will be further reduced by the taxation paid by fishermen in the form of decommissioning grants. Ultimately, therefore, the total sum could be £5 million, which is small beer by any means and shows that the Government are not considering the matter seriously. More resources are definitely needed.

The Minister mentioned the Commission. At what stage are the Government's discussions with the Commission about substituting conservation measures for days at sea? The industry feels that the Government are getting nowhere with that issue and that the Minister hopes that this scheme will fill in part of the multi-annual guidance programme gap. If that is true, the Government's argument does not hold because, to date, the Commission has not said that it will accept conservation measures as part of effort reduction. How, then, will the Government make up the shortfall in effort reduction? Will it be made up by extra restrictions on the United Kingdom fleet? Is that the Government's secret agenda? Do they want the Commission to do their dirty work so that they do not get their hands dirty?

The days-at-sea measure is currently being examined in court. If I may draw an analogy, the Government have just one golf club—one policy—on this matter. While the court case prevails, they should discuss a range of measures with the industry and decide how to proceed. It will be another year before we know the outcome of the court case, so it is inadequate for the Government to have no alternative strategy in the meantime. One can only conclude that their policy is to let the British fleet fade away while our modernised rivals wait over the horizon to take up the fishing opportunities which the Government, because they lack a decommissioning policy, are in danger of denying our fishermen.

It is also inadequate for the Government to wait for the Commission to rescue them. They spout anti-European rhetoric, yet they wait for the European Community to rescue them. They should be up front with the industry and discuss a range of measures to show that they are concerned about the matter. That is the least that they should offer while we accept the measure on offer tonight.

6.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro)

I agree with the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) that it is sad that we do not have more time to debate fishing. All hon. Members have had to curtail their speeches, as I will in summing up the debate. However, I shall try to answer a number of points that were raised.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) for welcoming unreservedly our decommissioning proposals. They are a valuable step forward and I am glad that we are continuing the decommissioning scheme for this year and next. At least it is clear to fishermen that there are two decommissioning tranches to apply for. Given the number of applications for the last scheme, which will finish in April, I have every confidence that there will be a number of applications and that those will be distributed fairly throughout the country, as they were last time. Each area has a fair amount of decommissioning. It is unfortunate that fishermen must destroy boats but that step is definitely necessary because, all too frequently in the past, if boats were not destroyed they somehow worked their way back into the fishing fleet.

Throughout the debate Opposition Members have uttered their usual cry that the Government are not doing enough and have implied that they would spend their way out of the problem. No one was more emphatic about that than the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who said, "£40 million? No, higher still. Spend, spend, spend." If Governments took that attitude whenever a problem arose and simply bought their way out, it would result in higher inflation, higher interest rates and, inevitably, higher unemployment. One must look at the overall picture before demanding huge sums of money from the Treasury. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) was kicking to touch when he was challenged about the total to which he has committed the Labour party, but I shall not push him on that as I am sure that it was slightly tongue in cheek.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) asked about the PESCA scheme. We are anxious to proceed with that scheme and I shall take up the point that he raised with the Department of Employment. If a misunderstanding or failure has occurred within the agency for training, we shall endeavour to help and improve the situation.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House spoke of the uncertainty that has been thrown into the pool by the Commission's announcement today. We were all surprised that it was made today. We have officials discussing the matter in Brussels and shall make an announcement as soon as we can. However, it is wrong to create fears and despondency before the matter has even been discussed and before we have consulted the industry. Fisheries Councils will take place in September and November, when the matter is likely to be discussed in detail. It is wrong to think that a decision has been taken today in Europe; it has not. They are simply proposals that we must consider in much greater detail.

We have continuing discussions with the fishing industry. I am glad to have such discussions as often as possible with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. The constructive views of the federation are extremely valuable when we have discussions in Europe. Its representatives and those of its English counterparts usually attend the meetings and we are able to speak to them while discussions are going on in the chamber.

I am glad that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) read what I had to say in the Scottish Grand Committee yesterday. Perhaps my addition was not very obvious to him, but 2.2 per cent. a year for three years is not far away from about 7 per cent., plus the percentage that we hope to obtain from licensing. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that it is very approximate, because it is the closest that we can get. One does not know how many boats will come forward this year for decommissioning. One cannot possibly tell to within half a per cent. the amount that we shall be able to take out of effort this year until we have—

It being Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [11 July]

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1994 (S.I., 1994, No. 1568), a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th June, be approved.