HC Deb 10 January 1995 vol 252 cc21-31 3.30 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

(by private notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make a statement on the outcome of the European Fisheries Council meeting in Brussels on 22 December.

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

I represented the United Kingdom at the Fisheries Council on 19, 20 and, after a break, 22 December, assisted by my hon. Friend the Minister of State in my Department, my hon. and noble Friends the Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland and my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The main issue before the Council was a package of proposals designed to implement the integration of Spanish and Portuguese fishing into the common fisheries policy. The House will recall that discussions took place against the background that, under the terms of Spanish and Portuguese accession, which was supported by all parties in the House at the time, no special restrictions could apply to Spanish fishing in the so-called Irish box after 1995.

After lengthy discussions, the Council agreed that from 1 January 1996 Spanish vessels would continue to be totally excluded from the Irish sea and the Bristol channel. In addition, Spanish vessel numbers in that part of the box west of Scotland would be severely limited and, overall, the number of Spanish vessels fishing within the box could not exceed 40 at any one time. The Irish box thus continues as a special control area. The agreement does not have any effect on the existing exclusion of Spanish vessels from the North sea nor, indeed, on the principle of so-called relative stability for national quotas. Nothing in the deal that was agreed causes British fishermen to lose quota nor Spanish fishermen in total to gain any.

The Council rejected, at our insistence, the Commission's proposed over-bureaucratic effort control proposals, which had been widely criticised in the House. It was also agreed that member states would play the major role in defining how their fleets' effort should be controlled in the relevant sea areas, though with safeguards to prevent abuse. Given the position against which I had to negotiate, those agreements represented significant achievements. Nevertheless, since the Council felt unable to accept the exclusion of Spanish vessels from the celtic sea also, I decided to abstain on the final proposal, which was, therefore, adopted by qualified majority. Fisheries departments will be consulting the industry closely about the arrangements for implementing the agreement.

The Council also reached agreement on 1995 total allowable catches and quotas. The 1994 TACs for the North sea stocks jointly managed with Norway were rolled forward for three months to allow time for discussions with Norway. For the remaining stocks, the Commission proposed wide-ranging cuts in TACs. In a number of cases, it was possible for the Council to agree slightly higher TACs than the Commission had proposed. Those increases raised the value of our fleet's 1995 quotas by about £14 million at today's prices, compared with the Commission's original proposals.

I fully understand the anxieties being expressed in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere. He and his constituents will know the background against which the negotiations took place. I shall not try to pretend to the House that the final agreement was ideal, but we achieved most of our realistic negotiating objectives. At the beginning of the negotiations we were faced with a package which, although it might have been imposed on us, could not have been defended in the House. We achieved an outcome which, although less good than I would have wanted, is far better than many people inside or outside the industry predicted.

Mr. Harris

Does my right hon. Friend really appreciate the depth of justifiable anger felt on behalf of fishermen, especially in the south-west and in my constituency, about the way in which other member states and the Commission apparently ganged up against the United Kingdom in that final vote? Having fought so hard and so well on behalf of those fishermen, why on earth did he abstain rather than vote against this wretched package? Can he now hold out any hope of a compensatory package to those fishermen, especially one that would increase the amount of decommissioning money, because they surely deserve better than the deal that they got at the end of those Brussels talks?

Mr. Waldegrave

I and my hon. Friend the Minister of State genuinely understand the frustration and, in some cases, the anger of my hon. Friend's constituents. I think that my hon. Friend would confirm that, whatever is agreed, they are often driven by the fact that, although the agreements might be tolerable, they suspect and believe that Spanish fishermen do not keep to them, which is another matter.

I accept that this was a fine judgment. Faced with the fact that the other member states were giving us more things that we wanted right up to the end of the negotiations, especially on Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are also important in this matter, it was right to recognise the fact that we had come a very long way from the initial package. If I had voted against, it would have sent a signal that there was no point trying to provide reasonable benefits for the British in a negotiation of that kind because we would vote against it anyway. That was the reason why I did it. Having got the majority of what we wanted—although not all—it was right for me to take the position that I did.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Why has not the Minister admitted that the deal is a disaster for our fishing communities and represents a wholesale failure by the Government? Will he admit that he failed to meet the Government's negotiating aims, as set out by the Minister of State in October 1993, when he said that it was the Government's objective that Spanish and Portuguese fishing activities should be confined as closely as possible to their current pattern and that there should be no access to the Irish box? Will he confirm that the stocks in question are under immense pressure and that there should be less and not more fishing effort to conserve them? The fishing areas to which Spanish vessels will have new access stretch from the south-west of England right up to the north of Scotland and take in most of the Irish box. Will he acknowledge that those stocks are crucial to communities such as Newlyn and Falmouth in the south-west and to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

Cannot the Minister understand that it is no use him coming here—I address this remark to his hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), too—and saying that he was outvoted? The Government have had since 1985, when the Spanish terms of accession were agreed, to secure support in Europe for a just deal. He needed only to secure the support of two other member states, including a large one such as Germany or Italy, to block that deal. While the Government may have accepted the agreement, the Labour party has not. Alongside the fishing communities, we shall campaign against it.

Mr. Waldegrave

I remind the hon. Gentleman of two matters. First, between 1974 and 1979, when he was responsible for these matters, and before the days of qualified majority voting, the Labour party achieved no change whatever in the common fisheries policy. We had to wait until my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Walker achieved improvements in 1982, so the hon. Gentleman should be a little careful. Secondly, he seems temporarily to have forgotten that he supported accession. The Labour spokesman at the time, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), said: The Opposition do not welcome accession blindly, ignorantly or oblivious of the difficulties and anxieties."—[Official Report, 10 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 883.] They knew exactly what it meant and they supported it. The hon. Gentleman now conveniently forgets that fact in a burst of rhetoric.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that stocks are under pressure—certain stocks are—and we shall hear from Sir Crispin Tickell's panel next week on that matter. Incidentally, the panel argues strongly for the maintenance and improvement of a common fisheries policy to manage stocks properly. The original position that we faced would have been intolerable. In entering the negotiations, my hon. Friend and I set out the maximalist position. If the hon. Gentleman negotiates by setting out in public his bottom line first, that is presumably why he and his hon. Friends achieved no improvements whatever when they were negotiating.

Although less good than I would ideally have liked, the deal maintains an Irish box and discrimination against Spanish fishermen. It has not, therefore, been welcomed in Spanish fishing communities, who know that they got much less than they wanted.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

My right hon. Friend will understand the concern always expressed about enforcing the rules. At the outcome of the Fisheries Council, what steps is he taking to ensure that Spanish fishermen play by the rules?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is on to the real issues, compared with the rhetoric that we heard from the Opposition Front Bench. The fact that a Commission inspectorate exists is another result of a British initiative under my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Walker. We obtained from the Commission the great improvement that the Spanish must now report back annually to the Council of Ministers to account for themselves. That will make a big difference. We must look at enforcement arrangements in Britain because another gain that we made was that coastal states have prime responsibility for enforcement off their shores. We shall therefore have the duty and right to do that, and we must ensure that we do it properly.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is the Minister aware that his excuse to the House this afternoon for not voting against a deal which he admits is unsatisfactory will baffle fishermen in the south-west, who feel betrayed, because it has given the wrong message that the British Government do not take that issue seriously? Having said that the deal discriminates against a group of fishermen around the western and south-western coasts, does he accept that it is now time to introduce a package for a modernisation and decommissioning scheme so that we invest in that industry in order to compete against the Spanish? The Spanish Government have invested vast quantities of our money in just such a scheme in their industry.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is right about decommissioning. We have a considerable package and, once we are near the end of the expenditure which we presently have in hand, we shall review it to see whether it is adequate. We shall return to that matter in due course because we have obligations to meet by the end of 1996. I have already told my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) why, although it may have been a pleasing and cheap gesture to vote against, it would not have been in the best interests of fishermen in this country if, having won considerable concessions, we still decided to play to the gallery at home without acknowledging that we had won benefits. That is not a good way of negotiating for the future and would have been shortsighted and irresponsible.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson (Aberdeen, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, despite speculation and scaremongering to the contrary, he has reinforced the position that Spanish fishing vessels will not be allowed into the vital fisheries of the North sea? Does he agree that that is yet another example of the fact that Scotland's interests are best served by being a full and equal partner in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is hugely important to the British—perhaps in particular to the Scottish, but also to the English fishing industry and that in Northern Ireland—for the North sea ban on the Spaniards to continue, and it will. We now have them excluded from the Irish sea, the North sea and the Bristol channel. There is a continuance of the Irish box. That is why so many commentators in the Spanish fishing areas, who are doubtless under the same sort of pressures as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, are saying—and I quote from one—that this was state terrorism against the Basque fishermen by the Spanish", who had conceded so much to the British.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Will the Minister confirm that Scottish fishermen's organisations have already seen notices stating that they might incur further effort limitation as a result of the package? Does not he understand the anger of hard-pressed Scottish fishermen who will have to further limit their fishing simply to allow for Spanish access? Will he at least say that there will not be any effort limitation within the 12-mile limit because the Spanish will not be given access within that limit and that, therefore, it would not make sense to have effort limitation there?

Mr. Waldegrave

I can confirm that, on the 12-mile limit, another improvement on the original CFP which was won by the Government, there is no change. There is no extra effort limitation if there is no increase in effort. That seemed to be a reasonable position for us to take, and it is a huge improvement over the original proposals, which would have tangled everybody in bureaucracy all the time irrespective of whether there was an increase in effort. The arrangements that we made whereby fishing in the Scottish part, the northern part, of the Irish box is limited to the proportion of quota that can be caught there by Spanish fishermen is a great improvement for Scotland. It is another of the benefits that we obtained in the last hour or two of the negotiations and which influenced my final decision.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. Friend go further than the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) about the method of control? Will he make it clear that the Navy will look further at the ways in which control can be carried forward? Will he ensure that there are negotiations with local fishermen to determine methods by which that control can be carried out? Fishermen are mainly concerned that there will be cheating by the other side.

Mr. Waldegrave

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is one of their principal concerns. In taking forward the mechanisms of what has to be carried through, it is absolutely essential that we consult the industry closely. If necessary, we shall also look at the effort that we expend via the Royal Navy on enforcement because that is a vital part of the package.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I congratulate the Minister on his ability, with his fine All Souls brain, to put the Spanish case so much better than they could when he returned from the Council. Will he will now turn that same intellectual subtlety to the problem of how Spanish vessels can be added to the already over-large fleets which are pressing on the shrinking stock in that area without some subsequent reduction in British effort?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is the only Opposition Member who has the right to say what he has been saying because he was the only Opposition Member to argue against accession, on fisheries grounds, at the time. The other Member who raised the issue at the time is now the distinguished diarist of The Times, Mr. Matthew Parris.

No increase in fishing effort is involved: there is no increase whatever in quotas. Under accession, the Spanish had the right to complete access to all the waters without discrimination. They have not got that, and it caused the Spanish newspaper El Mundo to state that it is a long way from the full participation in the CFP sought by the Spanish Government. In the end, a Solomon's solution has been reached, which might be acceptable if González had not 'sold' the idea of Spain's access to all the Community fisheries as something which would not be foresworn. He has foresworn it.

The agreement was a compromise which was not wholly satisfactory to us. I should have liked more, but against the background, which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) knows well, it was a pretty good deal.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)

Is it not clear that the House is now beginning fully to understand the difficulties that arise when European Union decisions are resolved by majority voting? Does my right hon. Friend agree that at the intergovernmental conference in 1996 there must be a clear statement of British policy that the present scope of majority voting will not be extended?

Mr. Waldegrave

There is a paradox here, is there not? We were keen on majority voting to establish the single market, which is a huge benefit to Britain. Incidentally, it also benefits British fishing. My right hon. Friend knows much better than I do that huge amounts of the fish landed at Newlyn go to Spain. Some £100 million worth goes there at much higher prices than would be available to our fishermen if our market was enclosed.

There are two sides to the question. The single market works in favour of our fishermen, in terms of the prices that they obtain and access to markets to sell their fish. I am not saying that the common fisheries policy has not meant costs for them, but Community membership has overall benefits for them.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Does the Minister accept that fishermen in south-west England and Wales will greet with disbelief his claim that there will be no long-term impact on quota? If 40 Spanish vessels per day are allowed into parts of the Irish box, there will clearly be a significant decrease in stocks.

Will the Minister recognise that one of the reasons why our European partners did not support Britain was our total failure in the past to meet the requirements of our multi-annual guidance programme by cutting our own fishing effort? Will he recognise that one way in which to deal with the long-term problem is to institute an increased decommissioning programme in south-west England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We have not yet reached the end of the decommissioning period, and we shall review it to ensure that we make the necessary progress. We have already committed considerable sums.

If we had not limited the number of ships with access to the Irish box to 40, the full 220 ships in the Spanish fleet—or whatever the figure is—could have been there. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that we have made considerable gains. If we had adopted a policy of simply standing back, vetoing everything and not taking part in negotiations, our fishermen might have faced the position that I have described.

If we had started from a completely different point—if the voting system had been completely different, and if our history since 1972 had been completely different—I would doubtless have been able to come back with something else. I believe, however, that—confronted with the existing position—I secured two thirds or more of what was a rationally possible objective for any negotiation: much more than was secured by any of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) between 1974 and 1979, when no changes whatever were made in the common fisheries policy.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the relief felt in Fleetwood at the continued exclusion of Spanish vessels from the Irish sea. Does he agree, however, that the important point is that quotas have not changed? He managed to achieve an increase in our enforcement around our coasts. That holds out the best prospect of keeping fishing effort within the stocks available round those coasts, rather than providing some vessels with specific access to particular seas.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is the point that I do not think the hon. Member for Pembroke took on board. Quotas—overall controls on the amount of fish caught—are a crucial aspect, as is making those quotas stick.

Once a common fisheries policy was established, it was at least theoretically inevitable that there would be free movement of fishing boats throughout the waters. Although we have limited that in relation to Spain, what matters is that proper quotas, properly policed, exist to protect fish stocks. We shall have to do better in future, and provide a better and better policed common fisheries policy.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does the Minister accept that it is disingenuous to pretend that we shall be able to police the arrangements better than the Commission has policed them in the past? The Minister was not prepared to make a clear commitment in the House today in terms of money and resources for precisely that job. His shameful capitulation will wipe out many fishing groups—not only individual fishermen, but individual companies in the south-west—and they will be unable to accept what he has said. If they do not accept the arrangements, anarchy will follow. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to take responsibility.

Mr. Waldegrave

I hope that, in her search for soundbites and rhetoric, the hon. Lady will consider this. The Labour Government did not have to face qualified majority voting, and they got zilch: they got absolutely nothing. I think that it is irresponsible to talk as the hon. Lady did.

Apart from the rhetoric, however, the hon. Lady is on to a real point: policing is crucial. We are now talking about what will happen at the beginning of 1996, and we shall consider the resources that we have and the need for enforcement over the next 12 months.

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Does not my right hon. Friend recognise that everything that he has said in his statement reinforces the view that the common fisheries policy has failed and that, instead of worrying about the position we started from, we should ditch it as soon as possible and start to regain the sovereignty of the seas?

Mr. Waldegrave

In all these issues, one of the least satisfactory things is to raise expectations that cannot be met. None of the main parties in the House—not the Labour party, of which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) is a member, nor the Liberal party—is committed to the destruction of the common fisheries policy, involving, I guess, withdrawal from the European Community, although the separate party below the Gangway may be committed to that. That is not a plausible thing to offer to people. What it is plausible to offer to people is a better CFP that is better policed. If we did not have the CFP, we would have to invent co-operation with our neighbours to protect fish stocks because fish stocks do not stop at lines drawn on maps. One must protect them co-operatively and one must have co-operative policing arrangements, which are beginning to be developed under the aegis of the European Commission and under the national enforcement arrangements of the riparian states—countries that have coastal waters.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I do not know whether the Minister has read the report of the debate in the European Standing Committee where concerns were expressed about the location and the number of fisheries protection vessels. Will he introduce to the House specific proposals, because we have vague talk at the moment, on how this country will take responsibility and beef up its fisheries protection vessels? Although they do a good job, there are not enough of them. Will he consult the fisheries organisations which, as we did in Committee, expressed concerns about the location of those vessels? They do not think that they cover the fisheries properly.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Member is on to the real point. We shall of course consult the industry organisations and we have been consulting them throughout. Many of their leaders were present in Brussels during the long negotiation period, and very boring it must be have been for them, too. We shall consider whether the effort expended by our admirable fisheries protection vessels is adequate. We have 12 months to do that and we shall discuss the matter both with the industry and with the Royal Navy.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his success in keeping Spanish fishing boats out of the North sea is warmly welcomed by fishermen in Essex and on the east coast? Does he accept that the criticism levied by the Spanish press at their own Ministers is perhaps a better tribute to his negotiating stance than some of the comments made by Labour Members?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. One of the Spanish fishing leaders said of his Government: If they were going to give up like this there was no need to go to Brussels to negotiate. I thought they were going to be firm this time, that they were going to defend our fishing industry to the hilt as the President of the Government Felipe González promised, even to the extent of vetoing the enlargement of the EU. That is not what happened. Galician fishermen spoke in exactly the same terms. They considered the outcome to be unacceptable and the discrimination against the Spanish fleet in relation to the Irish box to be intolerable. What my hon. Friend says is therefore right. Some of the perception of this matter depends on from which side of the water one looks at it.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

On behalf of the fishermen of Newham—[interruption.] Did the Secretary of State hear the item on the "Today" programme this morning about illegal fishing by European Union boats off the west African coast? What steps is he taking to end that practice? When does he think that the fishermen of Europe will understand that, if they overfish, they will kill off not only fish stocks but their jobs as well?

Mr. Waldegrave

I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. At one time, I compared this matter with arguments in the wild west of America about who was going to shoot the last buffalo. There will not be any fish unless there is proper conservation of stocks. I heard the item to which the hon. Member referred and I shall discuss with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for fisheries whether the British can make some specific contribution to the issue.

Sir James Kilfedder (North Down)

There is no doubt that fishermen are demoralised and angry. Will the Government therefore introduce generous decommissioning proposals?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is right that we must have an adequate decommissioning programme. We have money in the budget for that. The grants are being taken up and we shall consider the matter before the end of the period because we have to meet obligations by the end of 1996. We shall reconsider the programme to see whether it needs any additions.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

May I add my voice to those who are calling for much tougher monitoring of the activities of the Spanish fleet generally? May I encourage my right hon. Friend to ignore completely the comments from the Liberal Democrats, whose policy is that every decision in Europe should be made by qualified majority voting? We would have decisions such as this imposed on us week after week.

Mr. Waldegrave

It is a little rum to be criticised by Liberal Democrat spokesmen when one is outvoted on something because we know that they want to abolish the veto in the places where it remains. That seems very eccentric and my hon. Friend is on to a strong point. He is also on to a strong point, as others have been, in relation to the policing of all this and the problem of history, which is something that has had to be faced by not only our fishermen, but I think that there will be reports from Canadian and Norwegian fishing waters about the behaviour of some of the Spanish trawlers. That is the real problem to add to the agreement and that is why we must look at enforcement properly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why should the Minister expect anybody to believe that the Government can police the seas when they cannot police the prisons?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am tempted to say that the matter of fisheries protection is in the hands of the Royal Navy.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there was considerable relief in Bridlington that he managed to negotiate to keep the Spaniards out of the North sea? We are grateful for that. Does he also accept that the present policy has failed because we have had quotas year after year and, if the policy had succeeded, fish stocks would have been recovering? Could there be a reason other than overfishing for the declining stocks in the North sea? Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is likely that there is a connection between the enormous increase in the seal population and the reduction in the stocks of cod? Is my right hon. Friend prepared to consider starting culling and putting the interests of the fishermen before those of the animal rights brigade?

Mr. Waldegrave

We have to stand on the scientific advice in these matters or we are lost. The main issues in the North sea have been overfishing—there is no question about that—and the need to keep a careful eye on the sea's pollution status, which I believe is now improving but which has probably contributed to the damage in the past. At the end of the day, we cannot get away from the fact that, as in the catastrophic situation that occurred off Newfoundland, overfishing has usually been the cause of a collapse of the fish stocks.