HC Deb 18 April 1995 vol 258 cc19-27 3.31 pm
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

(by private notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the agreement concluded between the European Union and Canada on fishing and on the subsequent representations made by the Spanish Government to the United Kingdom.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Mr. William Waldegrave)

The British Government welcome the agreement reached on Sunday between the EU and Canada, which settles the recent conflict over fisheries in the north-west Atlantic.

After protracted negotiations between the European Commission and Canadian officials, an agreement was reached, which is being ratified by written procedure by the Council of Ministers. It will then be applied provisionally with immediate effect, pending full agreement by the contracting parties to the North-west Atlantic Fisheries Organisation.

The agreement is in four parts. The first element is a tough new control and enforcement regime for the high seas of the NAFO regulatory area. Neutral observers will be placed on board all vessels fishing in the area, with the task of monitoring compliance with all internationally agreed conservation measures. They will have powers to alert inspection vessels to any apparent infringements. When major offences are detected, the vessel will be boarded and directed into port for enforcement action. Every vessel will also be subject to exhaustive checks on returning to port. Infringements will be subject to enforcement by the flag state. That system will be complemented by the introduction of a satellite surveillance system, applicable initially to 35 per cent. of vessels in the area.

Secondly, new conservation measures for Greenland halibut will be proposed to NAFO, including a minimum size of fish—for which there is currently no provision—and tougher by-catch limits.

Thirdly, quotas have been agreed. Hon. Members will recall that a total allowable catch of 27,000 tonnes for Greenland halibut was set for the first time last year. Agreement has now been reached on the share-out of that total allowable catch for the remainder of 1995 and future years.

Finally, Canada has agreed to delete Spain and Portugal from the scope of her legislation governing international waters, and to repay the bonds lodged for release of the Estai and her master, and to return the catch or its value to the owner.

This agreement has required both sides to make important compromises. It is a victory for good sense and negotiation, the course that the British Government have been urging throughout the conflict. Reasonable quota shares have been agreed for both sides, together with control measures which will ensure that the stock is conserved and rules are respected.

Throughout the negotiations, the United Kingdom has been determined to play a full part in using its role as a member of both the EU and the Commonwealth to further a successful outcome. There have been frequent contacts between the UK and the parties directly concerned. Her Majesty's ambassador in Madrid, David Brighty, was asked to call on Carlos Westendorp, State Secretary for European Affairs, in Madrid yesterday to discuss the EU-Canada fisheries dispute. Media reports of that meeting bear little relation to what transpired. Mr. Brighty used the opportunity to make it clear that we had throughout the dispute tried to promote a negotiated settlement favourable to conservation, involving effective enforcement of rules and acceptable to both the EU and Canada. That has now been achieved.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Will the Minister convey his congratulations to the Government in Canada on securing that excellent agreement by showing courage and determination against overfishing and illegal fishing, which threatened to destroy fishing stocks? Will he further urge the Government of Spain to wake up to the fact that the fishermen of Britain, and indeed of Southend-on-Sea, consider that there will never be peace and co-operation in fishing until there are effective controls of the behaviour of irresponsible fishermen, many of whom are Spaniards, which includes illegal net sizes, false storage areas and inaccurate catch returns?

Will the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food take the message from this happy outcome that we need to be tough and determined in securing the same benefits as the Canadians have secured by their approach?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am sure that my hon. Friend meant the United Kingdom including Southend-on-Sea; there was no question of UDI in that matter.

I believe that my hon. Friend is right, and that the much tougher enforcement that has been the major gain out of the agreement that has been achieved is an achievement in itself for that fishery, but also sets a powerful precedent for other fisheries. I believe that it gives a warning to the fishermen of all nations who are tempted to breach the rules that that will not be tolerated in future in any other waters.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

Is it not the case that, if we are to avoid a diversion of further Spanish fishing effort into our own waters, not least the Irish box, we need at least to try to negotiate in Europe a far tougher new control and enforcement regime, as has been an outcome with Newfoundland? Is it not time to turn our efforts to protecting our fishermen now, following the course set by the Canadians?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is right. Her Majesty's Government will take the necessary steps this year, as they have in previous years, to enforce the law in the fisheries. Of course, most of the Irish box, as its name, would imply, is in Irish waters, and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that Irish fishery protection vessels have also been active in recent days.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the role played by the United Kingdom Government in trying to broker, as far as they could, a reasonable outcome in the dispute, which has gone on for far too long? The only way to settle it, as we have said right from the beginning, is by negotiation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a golden opportunity, now that world attention literally is focused on the problem of the overfishing of stocks, and that it is up to Heads of Government, including our Prime Minister, to take the lead in trying to obtain a sensible policy that really pays attention to conservation? Does he agree that, unless we do, we shall have a repetition, time and again, of incidents similar to those of recent weeks?

Mr. Waldegrave

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have benefited throughout from the advice of my hon. Friend, who has been sensible, wise and practical throughout. What he says now is also right. I believe that the attention of Heads of Government, of politicians and of conservation organisations throughout the world has been focused by the dispute and that we should take advantage of that to widen it. The matter is not simply about Greenland halibut. It is about the conservation of fish throughout the world's oceans.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Recalling the initial stance of the European Union five weeks ago, when the dispute began, and the words of the Fisheries Commissioner, Mrs. Bonino, that Canada was behaving as an international pirate, and recalling also that Britain, together with the other member states, backed the European Commission's stance by saying that we would have to reassess our relationships with Canada, is not the changed position of the Government and the satisfactory outcome of the negotiations a victory not only for conservation but for public opinion in this country?

Is it not a victory for the fishermen in Newlyn and elsewhere who have campaigned so vigorously against European threats against Canada and for parliamentary opinion that has been announced on a number of occasions in the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the many lessons to be learned from the dispute is the crucial importance of retaining the British veto so that we are not bound to follow European sanctions policies, carried out by qualified majority voting, which might be exercised against Canada?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition has not benefited from the sensible advice contained in the last part of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). The Leader of the Opposition is no longer in his place, but I am sure that he will study that point. As for the first part of what the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney said, a crucial moment in the dispute came when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom and, I believe, both sides of the House, made it clear that we would not allow the dispute to escalate into sanctions or action against Canada.

The dispute had to be settled by negotiation and in a way that met some of the Canadians' legitimate demands, with which we sympathise. That has been British Government policy throughout, and it has been the right policy. I believe that the generous words of thanks that we have received from the Canadian Government will find an echo in the House.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Did our ambassador in Madrid remind the Government of Spain that this House has been overwhelmingly on the side of the Canadians in the matter and that, in a traditional parliamentary democracy, Government answer to Parliament?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am sure that the ambassador certainly made that point clear. Spain is also a parliamentary democracy and also has her public opinion. Spain has the highest unemployment in the European Community. None of that is any excuse for overfishing or disobeying proper fisheries rules, but hon. Members should remember that there are also pressures on democratic politicians in Spain.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As the Minister of State has, I think, conceded in helpful and constructive letters to me, we do not know very much about either the breeding habits or the oceanic habits of fish such as turbot, bream and halibut. Before we impose quotas in future, is it not a matter of priority to set up some sort of international research organisation to study the quantities and habits of those increasingly rare fish?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the sensible things to come out of the dispute has been a proposal for joint European-Canadian research work on the stocks in the north-west Atlantic—but that only scratches the surface. There must be more international work on such matters, and we should work on a precautionary basis. There are now proposals to use the technology available for much deeper sea fishing. We must be careful about such proposals while so little is known about what happens under the ocean's surface.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

The British fishermen who met in Plymouth last Thursday were most anxious that I should convey to you, Madam Speaker, a flag presented to them by Canadian parliamentarians. I will do so at a suitable stage after Question Time.

In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend the Minister note that the west country fishermen who met in Plymouth last Thursday were of the unanimous opinion that there was no future for the British fishing industry while we remain a member of the common fisheries policy? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that it is all very well to talk about solving such problems in the name of conservation, but the reality is that a billion dead fish are being dumped back into the sea every year? Many of those fish are capable of being sold to provide meals for hungry mouths. We must stop pretending that every problem can be solved by a further conservation measure. Will my right hon. Friend and his officials take much more notice of the practical men who go down to the sea in ships and fish instead of taking so much notice of Eurocrats, bureaucrats and people with no experience of the practical and technical matters?

Mr. Waldegrave

If my hon. Friend had attended meetings—for example, in some parts of Scotland—he would have found a different answer. The industry is not united on the idea of withdrawing from the CFP; nor in real life is it practical. As other of my hon. Friends present at the same meeting said honestly to those anxious fishermen, that is not a practical proposal. I do not believe that it displays the right sort of leadership to say to people things that will not come about in real life.

We need not to scrap the common policy, but to have a common policy that works better and more efficiently, and that conserves and is enforced better. All the real anxieties and anger that I too have experienced from those fishermen arise from the fact that they know that the rules are not being properly enforced. They must be strengthened. They must not be weakened by trying to go back to an imaginary free-for-all that might be worse for conservation in the end.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

While the Minister has rightly placed strong emphasis on the importance of enforcement, will he elaborate on whether the NAFO area penalties will be translated into UK fishing industry limits? As he has said that this will be a precedent, will he advise me on whether he regards the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy as a critical factor in the intergovernmental conference in 1996? I am sure that that would be welcomed by fishing communities' representatives and by the fishing industry, from the point of view of conserving both jobs in the industry and fishing stocks?

Mr. Waldegrave

The last two items, if one is to be honest, are often in conflict. That is exactly the problem faced by Spain. She has tried to meet the problems of high unemployment in Galicia by building a huge new fishing industry to employ those unemployed people, thereby increasing her fishing power and causing problems. If fishing power is to be aligned to stocks, we cannot guarantee that every job in the fishing industry will be preserved. Anyone who makes such a guarantee is not telling the truth. It is better, therefore, to say to people, as we said to the House a few months back, "Yes, we will provide decommissioning money, so that we can get the fleet to the size that stocks can maintain in the long term." That must be the right way forward.

In a sense, the CFP is in constant renegotiation. This very year, whole new regimes for enforcement and control are under discussion. In the negotiations, we have an opportunity to consider how many fish are caught every year. We must get tougher on those quotas and on the share-out of those quotas.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Had it not been for the brave, determined and unilateral action of our Canadian friends, we would not have had the improved conservation measures that my right hon. Friend has been able to announce today. Is not the lesson that the common fisheries policy is basically a farce, as land-locked nations such as Luxembourg and Austria, Mediterranean nations such as Italy and Greece, and Baltic nations such as Sweden and Finland have a say in north-west Atlantic fisheries, which are nothing to do with them?

Mr. Waldegrave

It is ironic that, on the very day that we are welcoming the establishment in the north-west Atlantic of a common regime with much tougher enforcement, total allowable catches and agreed share-outs of quotas—exactly the mechanisms of the common fisheries policy—people should argue that that proves that there is something fundamentally awry with such a policy. The exact opposite is shown: that what is needed is common action, but common action backed by real enforcement, quotas and total allowable catches that are set at a level that stocks can, in the long term, maintain. That is what has been established for that one fishery after tough action, which we have applauded, by the Canadians and after negotiation with the European Union. We must be equally tough elsewhere.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Does the Minister accept that the only way to conserve the fishing stocks is to ensure that those who seek to break the rules in order to improve their catches do not profit from their illegal action? While the various fishery protection vessels of many different nations can catch the occasional miscreant, the answer to the problem is to ensure that nobody profits in their home ports by the sale of small fish or juvenile fish that have not yet bred, or by fishing over quota.

Is not the new agreement an opportunity for the European Union to establish some sort of universal or Europe-wide enforcement agency so that we would have British fishery inspectors operating on the north coast of Spain or in Brittany and perhaps Spanish enforcement officers operating in Newlyn in Cornwall? Would not that be one way of ensuring that those who break the rules do not profit?

Mr. Waldegrave

The House will sympathise with the thought behind the hon. Gentleman's comments. If there is a common policy, it must be enforced in a common way so that there is confidence in each of the different fishing areas that it is being enforced properly. The Commission is taking steps to strengthen its inspectorate capacity, but there is much more to be done. There is much to be done by the deployment of new technology such as satellite surveillance and so on which the European Community is developing. As I have said, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's comments in a way, but I am not sure that there would be many volunteers from the Spanish side to be deployed in Newlyn at the moment.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is just possible, to say the least, that the Spaniards might make it rather hot for our tuna fishermen when they go about their lawful business later in the year? Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking to the House that whatever resources are needed to ensure that our people can fish legally and in peace will be provided by Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Waldegrave

The same thought had occurred to me and to my hon. Friend the Minister of State. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said last week, we will deploy the necessary resources.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

I welcome the new agreement between the European Union and Canada and the new regime for the enforcement of rules. It has been suggested that that could be a precedent for that part of the Irish box into which the Spanish boats will be gaining access. As the rules are devised for enforcement in that part of the Irish box, will the Minister ensure that, in practice, they will not be more damaging to home-based boats than to boats that come from a long distance?

Mr. Waldegrave

We will certainly endeavour to meet the right hon. Gentleman's legitimate concern. We are closely in touch with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland, who, as the right hon. Gentleman must have seen, have been having their own problems in the past few days. We will need to work closely with them to ensure that there is proper enforcement and a proper exchange of information.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the settlement—game, set and match, as they say, to the Canadians, the conservationists and common sense. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, having paid so many millions of pounds to help set up the overblown Spanish fleet, British taxpayers will not now be asked for further millions of pounds to decommission part of it?

Mr. Waldegrave

The Spanish fleet is subject to the same decommissioning targets as the rest of the European Community, and that is right. I am sure that we will need to return to those in the years ahead. My hon. Friend is right that this is a good outcome and I genuinely believe that the British Government have played a key part in restraining some of the earlier rhetoric and in keeping the negotiations on the rails at a critical time. I pay tribute also to the negotiators on both sides who have made concessions to bring about a mutually satisfactory future regime.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is not the truth of the matter that there is an agreement at this time because the Canadian Government had the guts to stand up against the common fisheries policy and Spain in particular and that the British Government caved in a few weeks ago?

Mr. Waldegrave

No. The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that Canada is not a member of the European Union and is therefore not involved in the common fisheries policy. Spain took action when it saw its long-term interests threatened. That is what we will do when necessary. The hon. Gentleman may have seen that, only last month, an illegal British-registered, Spanish-owned ship was fined more than £300,000 for breaches of the fisheries regulations. Where rules are to be enforced, they will be enforced.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I congratulate the Government on the role that they played in reaching this very desirable settlement, but is it not a pity—I hope that my right hon. Friend will comment on this—that the European Community does not seem to recognise that the United Kingdom is also part of the Commonwealth and that our membership of the Commonwealth long preceded our membership of the European Community? Should not the European Community bear that in mind? Does my right hon. Friend feel that the remarks of the Fisheries Commissioner from Italy on "The World at One" today were highly partisan and extremely unhelpful, because what we have achieved through the courage of the Canadians is a real conservation policy that has some meaning and some teeth?

Mr. Waldegrave

We have said several times that less rhetoric from that quarter might have advanced matters more quickly. In such negotiations, in the end both sides have to make concessions. Both sides did so, and produced a sensible regime. I believe that it was Britain's membership of the Commonwealth, to which I referred in my statement, and our long-standing connections of friendship and trust with the Canadians which enabled us, not for the first time, to fulfil a valuable transatlantic role in the relationship between the European Union and the North American continent.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is not the lesson of this whole affair the fact that, when one has justice on one's side and one knows that everyone in the world believes that one is right, a little bit of brinkmanship does not go amiss? That is what the Canadians have been involved in. With that in mind, would not the people of Brightlingsea now like to think that the Government might adopt a more provocative stand on issues of animal welfare?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of an approach to foreign policy more usually associated with my party than with his. We shall remember his words when next we have to take tough action overseas and when Opposition Members are, as usual, saying that everything should be referred to the United Nations, that nothing should be done or that everything should be subjected to some committee or other. I accept that, when one is right, one has to take tough action, and we shall do so if necessary to protect our own fishermen.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

On the back of this agreement, what action will be taken by the European Union against illegal fishing by the Spanish off the west coast of Africa, where, of course, there are no fishery protection vessels such as those in Canada?

Mr. Waldegrave

I know, because the hon. Gentleman has referred to this before, that there have been allegations—indeed, there were further allegations in the newspapers this weekend—but I am not sure that the European Community has any legal standing in such cases. However, I shall pursue the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that these matters are, unfortunately perhaps, between the sovereign state—Spain, in this case—and the littoral state, but I shall look into it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition welcome the agreement, and does he accept that, if it is a victory for Canada, it is also a victory for the European Union because it is in the interest of the fishing communities of Canada and Europe that we should have long-term, effective conservation? As for the immediate impact on employment in Spain, will the Secretary of State say whether the common fisheries policy will restrict the opportunity that the Spanish Government have to use their own money to help cushion the effect of any cut in employment?

While it is true that British fishermen have welcomed the agreement, it is also true that they do not welcome the prospect that the Canadian Government may be able to conserve turbot stocks outwith their 200-mile exclusive economic zone more effectively than Britain will be able to conserve our fishing stocks within our economic zone, following the agreement reached by the Secretary of State at the Council of Ministers in December in respect of our western waters.

As for that agreement, will the Minister confirm that a great deal of negotiation has still to take place on the implementation of any effective conservation measures which may have to be put in place as a result of additional Spanish vessels in those western waters? If it is true that the Irish Government supported the British Government's stance on this occasion, will the Minister explain to the House why the Irish Government did not support the British Government when it came to the crunch over additional access to western waters in December?

Mr. Waldegrave

On the last point, the hon. Gentleman should perhaps address his questions to the Irish Government. That was a decision for them, not for me. On the other points that he raised, any plans that the Spanish may have for investment or subsidy in relation to their fishing communities must be submitted to the European Commission for approval, but there are structural funds of one kind or another available, as there are in some parts of the United Kingdom as well. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to say that more negotiations have to be completed. The Minister of State in my Department has been closely involved in those negotiations, which are about the regime which will be needed next year. The overall position, of course, of enforcement within our waters is exactly the same as that of the Canadians within their waters. We are responsible for enforcement within our 200–mile limit and we shall enforce rigorously. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), we shall deploy the necessary resources to enable enforcement.