HC Deb 18 July 1995 vol 263 cc1513-37 7.21 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry)

I beg to move, That the Fishing Vessels (Safety Improvements) (Grants) Scheme 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 1609), dated 28th June 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th June, be approved.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I understand that with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motion: That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 1610), dated 4th July 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved.

Mr. Baldry

This is the first occasion on which I have opened a debate on fisheries since moving to my new position as Minister with responsibility for fisheries. I am glad to take over that important responsibility from my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). He gained a lofty reputation for the care and skill that he devoted to the interests of the fishing industry and I hope to sustain that standard during my tenure in office. I also hope to maintain close contact with the industry and with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have particular interests in the fishing industry.

I appreciate that the industry faces some challenges and I recognise that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about their constituents who are involved in the industry. Fishing is an important industry, which makes an important contribution to the economy of the coastal areas around fishing ports. It is also a hazardous industry, and we all respect the fishermen who go out in all weather to bring in the much needed catches.

I am glad that today's debate gives me an early opportunity to hear the views of right hon. and hon. Members at first hand. It also has the more immediate value of allowing me to introduce the 1995–96 decommissioning scheme. The importance of decommissioning is very clear. Yesterday I had my first meeting with the fishing industry when I visited Grimsby and met representatives of the national fishing organisations from all over the country. They are in no doubt that overcapacity lies at the root of many of the industry's problems.

Striking a better balance between capacity, the quotas and other fishing opportunities will make our industry more efficient and viable. The need to tackle overcapacity is also recognised in our obligations under the European Union multi-annual guidance programme targets. The decommissioning schemes that have been in place for the past two years—and which will continue for three more years—are designed to make a key contribution to achieving the targets.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I welcome the new Minister to his post and I offer him an early opportunity to make a name for himself. He will have noticed from the scheme that one part of the decommissioning proposals excludes shell fishermen from taking advantage of the new scheme. Does he concede that that exclusion might have the perverse effect of encouraging shell fishermen to diversify into whitefish stocks in order to qualify for the next decommissioning tranche? That is a possible, if not probable, outcome of the measure that is before us. Will the Minister re-examine that aspect of the scheme, bearing in mind the fact that, as he is new to his post, he will be willing to listen and consult about such matters?

Mr. Baldry

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. As he knows, the multi-annual guidance programme was divided into 10 segments. We have met our obligations under some of those segments, including the nephrops and shellfish segment. I am conscious of the fact that vessels could move between different segments and that each year we will have to examine the various segments and take measures that are appropriate in that year. But we have met our obligations for the nephrops segment and, as I shall explain in greater detail later, it would not be sensible to spend money on a segment when we have already met our commitments in that regard.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

That is an extremely important point in the debate. The Minister must accept—I think that he has accepted it implicitly—that the nephrops prawn fishery is interchangeable with some of the pressurised whitefish stocks. Although he is unable to make any changes because the orders for the 1995 scheme cannot be amended, did I detect a slight opening of the door with regard to a change in the exemption for 1996?

Mr. Baldry

That was both implicit and explicit in what I said. Each year one has to gauge the progress that one has made in relation to the scheme. At present, we have met our commitments for the nephrops segment and so this year it does not make sense to spend money on that segment. The hon. Gentleman and I cannot predict what might happen in future and therefore one must respond to matters as they develop year after year.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members on the Minister's appearance at the Dispatch Box in his new role. I hope that he will visit the inshore fishermen at Hastings and Rye.

My hon. Friend may be aware that most of the vessels in the Hastings fleet are smaller than 10 m. According to the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, there is an 11.7 per cent. overcapacity in that sector. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether he has any proposals to assist vessels that are smaller than 10 m?

Mr. Baldry

We are assisting those vessels that are set out in the scheme. There is a finite amount of money; I am sure that that is self-evident. We must use that money as best we can to take out capacity where we believe that that can best be achieved. That is why the scheme is described in its current terms. My hon. Friend can rest assured that I look forward to visiting Hastings and meeting with industry representatives to hear the problems of the inshore fishermen and to consider whether any more assistance can be provided for them.

Decommissioning is not a cheap option and we must ensure that we get good value for what we spend. The MAGP target requires a 19 per cent. reduction in the base line set for 1991. We initially committed £25 million to decommissioning. The first two schemes have shown that we can achieve worthwhile reductions in capacity. So far, we have taken out 297 vessels, representing more than 10,000 tonnes or 4.6 per cent. of the fleet.

This year, and for the next two years, we will increase the amount available each year by 50 per cent. to £12 million. That should increase the impact of the scheme substantially and the licence aggregation penalties should contribute further to the target. We are also looking carefully at the accuracy of the fleet register to ensure that it represents active fishing vessels. With all of those contributions, I am sure that we will make good—and, I hope, faster—progress towards the MAGP targets.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Can the Minister assure the House that with the additional money for decommissioning, the MAGP for 1996 will be met? If not, what is he going to do about it? If we do not meet those targets, which are to be enforced by the EU, the British fishing industry will face a disaster in 1996—it will have to make sudden and massive reductions.

Mr. Baldry

It is premature to speculate about the position that we will reach. Our determination to make good progress is demonstrated by the increase in funds from £25 million to £53 million—significant sums of money. But we need at the same time to be ready to back up the fleet reduction with the necessary controls and quota management measures. Quotas must be managed effectively, along with the various technical conservation measures on gear types, net sizes, minimum landing sizes, closed areas and so on. There must also be proper enforcement so that fishermen of all member states comply with these rules. I already know from my conversations with the industry the justifiable strength of feeling that there need to be uniform standards for all. Progress has been made on that, and I aim to ensure that we keep up the pressure to make further headway.

An important aspect of decommissioning is that we want it to contribute to a reduction in fishing effort. It is the reduction in effort which in future years will bring dividends for our fishermen, with increased fish stocks and the potential for bigger quotas. For that reason, we shall continue to monitor the fishing effort of the fleet remaining after decommissioning. If it became evident that the effort was increasing, and so undoing the benefits of decommissioning, we would need to take action to contain effort. We made that clear when we introduced the 1994–95 scheme; and the signs so far are that there has been a real reduction in effort.

The 1995–96 scheme is similar to its predecessors in providing for a tendering system to ensure best value for money and in continuing the requirements for permanent scrapping and the surrender of licences. The main criteria for eligibility are also unchanged; that is to say, vessels must be seaworthy, over 10 m in overall length, over 10 years old and, of course, UK-registered and licensed.

We retain the requirement that vessels must have spent at least 100 days at sea on fishing trips in each of the past two years. This ensures that we are spending money decommissioning vessels which are genuinely active. There is little point in taking out vessels which scarcely fish. In calculating days fishing, we have provided for account to be taken of fishing in Norwegian waters south of 62 deg north. That reflects the wishes of the industry and is reasonable, given that such fishing is, in effect, on a par with fishing in Community waters. Distant-water fishing remains excluded because the distant-water fleet has already achieved its MAGP target.

We have reviewed the licence eligibility for this year's scheme in the light of changes to the licensing regime introduced earlier this year. Instead of a requirement to hold a full pressure stock licence, we have decided to widen eligibility to vessels holding most other whitefish licences. That reflects the fact that some of these stocks, which were not considered to be full pressure stocks, are now facing difficulties—reinforcing the need for a reduction in fishing effort.

An important part of securing good value from this scheme is to ensure that it is correctly targeted on the right segments of the fleet. For the setting of MAGP targets, the fleet is divided into 10 distinct segments. Some segments of the fleet either have achieved or can be expected to achieve the targets without further intervention. The distant-water fleet and the under-10 m vessel segment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) mentioned, were excluded from eligibility last year for this reason. Because the target for nephrops vessels has also now been met we have decided that they too should be excluded from this year's scheme. It would not be right to use funds from this scheme to decommission vessels in a segment that has already achieved its target.

The Government do, however, recognise that there are particular structural problems in Northern Ireland, where over 50 per cent. of the fleet consists of nephrops vessels and over 50 per cent. of these are more than 30 years of age. In view of these structural problems, my noble Friend Baroness Denton, the Northern Ireland Fisheries Minister, is proposing to introduce a separate Northern Ireland scheme with the objective of tackling the particular structural problems in the Northern Irish nephrops fleet. Details will be announced as soon as the scheme has been finalised.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Will the Minister also consider the Western Isles and west coast nephrops fleet, which has a profile very similar to that of the Northern Irish fleet, being heavily dominated by the nephrops fisheries? The majority of the boats are over 30 years of age. As the Government have recognised that the nephrops fleet has met its targets, would it not be right and sensible now to introduce a scheme allowing for the modernisation of that fleet?

Mr. Baldry

It is entirely understandable that the hon. Gentleman should argue that case on behalf of his constituents. I have to consider the fact that there is a finite sum of money, which has to be used as effectively as possible. The simple fact is that in respect of certain segments—under-10 m, distant-water and nephrops fleets—we have met the requirements; and I could not therefore justify spending more money on those segments.

As I have said, my noble Friend intends to implement a separate Northern Ireland scheme that reflects the structural problems of its fleet.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I join others in congratulating the Minister on his appointment. I hope that we will have many brisk exchanges across the Floor of the House. I welcome what he has just said about Northern Ireland. While I am by no means hostile to the claims of the Scottish fishermen and their representatives here in this House, I would like to thank the Minister and his noble Friend for their efforts. Given the special problems of Northern Ireland, slightly different as they are from those just referred to, we are most grateful. It will give great encouragement to, and be much appreciated by, the hard-working fishermen of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Baldry

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments. I hope too that we will maintain a brisk dialogue. I hope that throughout the House there will be great understanding of an industry that faces a great many challenges that we want to try to meet together.

For each of the 1993 and 1994 schemes we made it clear that once a vessel had been accepted for decommissioning, we would expect decommissioning to go ahead. If a vessel owner failed to stand by the commitment, the vessel would be excluded from the next scheme. This rule was adopted to discourage speculative bids which were in practice unlikely to be carried through. Too many such bids would disrupt the scheme and make it difficult to manage.

We are continuing with this rule. However, after one year's exclusion from the scheme we think it right to allow a vessel to be re-entered. This is to take account of the fact that circumstances can change. A vessel might, for example, have a new owner, or business circumstances could be quite different. This means that a vessel which was accepted for decommissioning in 1993 but was withdrawn from the scheme can now be entered again in 1995. This provision will affect only a few cases, but I hope that it will be seen as a useful sign of our wish to be flexible.

I should like to say a word about the implications of the increased amount available for decommissioning this year. We have £12 million, and we intend that it should enable a substantially increased number of vessels to be decommissioned. The tendering system that we have used is well understood by fishermen and we have seen that it can give good value for money. We shall be looking at the bids carefully this year and will not accept bids unless they give good value. If necessary, we reserve the right to spend less than the full amount available. The residue could then be used for a second tender later in the year.

I am sure we will get a good response, with competitive bids. But we have the option to have a second round if that seems likely to give better value. The closing date for applications is 8 September 1995 and application forms will soon be available in local fishery offices.

I now turn to the second scheme, concerning fishing vessel safety grants. Safety at sea is a matter of deep concern to all who are involved with the fishing industry. It is a hazardous industry and I am pleased that we have a grant scheme which can help somewhat towards ensuring the safety of fishermen.

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

Will the Minister confirm that, under the terms of the grants scheme, an owner of a vessel can purchase survival suits for all the members of his crew or crews, and that the grant will cover the total cost of such a purchase? I am not talking here about survival suits that can be worn while fishermen go about their work, but about those suits in which, following the foundering or capsizing of a vessel, men can survive for several hours. I want to say something about this later, but I seek an assurance from the Minister that the safety improvements grants scheme will allow for the purchase of such essential safety equipment.

Mr. Baldry

The grant is available for equipment which is necessary in order to obtain the safety certificate. I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's point, but one must understand the genesis of the scheme.

The new scheme replaces the 1993 scheme and applies to fishing vessels which have to obtain a Department of Transport safety certificate under the Fishing Vessel (Safety Provisions) Rules 1975. The new scheme follows the 1993 scheme in that grant will be available for meeting the requirements of the Department of Transport's safety certificate which applies to vessels with a registered length of 12 m or over. Grant will be available for equipment which is necessary to obtain the safety certificate. That includes life rafts, UHF radios, rockets, flares and radio beacons which broadcast the position of a vessel if it founders. Those are all important for safety although I do not pretend that it is an exclusive list.

The Marine Safety Agency continues to investigate practical solutions to the problems of effective in-water thermal protection for fishermen in the event of falls overboard or evacuation. In connection with falls overboard, the Marine Safety Agency has established a minimum specification for a constant-wear buoyancy aid which, in conjunction with other measures, will improve a fisherman's chances of survival until a recovery from the water. The agency is at present conducting trials of such aids, but it is not necessary to have such aids to fulfil the requirements of the safety certificate. For those reasons, the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no.

The scheme has been modified so that items such as engines and structural work will no longer be eligible for assistance. Those are not safety requirements in the usual sense. One needs to understand that this is a grant with a specific focus. It seeks to ensure that vessels meet the requirements of the Department of Transport's safety certificate.

Dr. Godman

The Minister himself said that the safety of our fishermen is an important matter and I readily take his point that the primary responsibility for the occupational safety of our fishermen lies with the Department of Transport. But despite his regrettable answer, fishing vessels from certain other member states of the European Union are not allowed to put to sea unless they carry a survival suit for each member of the crew. Surely that is what we should be aiming for in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Baldry

When I met representatives of the industry yesterday I made it clear that I hoped that we would meet at regular intervals. When I was in the Department of the Environment and had responsibility, among other things, for the construction industry, I had meetings with its representatives every three weeks and sometimes more often. During the course of those meetings we regularly discussed a range of subjects. I have no doubt that one of the subjects that the industry will wish to discuss with me is safety in all its aspects.

I make no specific response to the hon. Gentleman's point, but there is a broader aspect. One of the points representatives of the industry made to me yesterday is that they are concerned about the weight of regulation that is bearing down on the industry. The temptation to take the totality of all the regulations of every other EU member state and say that they should apply in the United Kingdom would place an intolerable burden on the industry.

If there are concerns about aspects of safety, of course it is important to consider them. But within the context of the scheme and the money that is being made available, I am sure that the House and the industry will welcome the extra money for safety targeted at the specific purpose of ensuring that vessels meet the requirements of the Department of Transport's safety certificate.

Mr. Ainger

I accept that the scheme concerns vessels of more than 12 m, but the Minister will know that the industry is concerned about vessels of under 12 m. In letters that I exchanged with his predecessor, the impression was that the Government were considering that and recognised that there was a problem in that area. Can he assure the House that he will continue to consider the matter and possibly bring forward a scheme to assist vessels of under 12 m?

Mr. Baldry

The 1975 safety code does not require significant safety measures for vessels under 12 m. Once the new safety code for those vessels is finalised, of course I shall consider carefully whether there are any implications for the safety grant scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the industry will be reassured by that.

Grant rates are unchanged. Vessels between 12 m and 33 m will receive 30 per cent. and those above 33 m, 10 per cent. In due course, some of those eligible under the present national scheme will be able instead to receive EC grant for safety work under the Fisheries and Aquaculture Structures (Grants) Regulations 1995 which will implement the European Commission's financial instrument for fisheries guidance. Those regulations will provide EC grant for exactly the same purposes as the national safety improvement scheme.

I hope to make an announcement about the EC grants as soon as the detailed financial and administrative arrangements have been finalised. However, until the EC scheme is launched all applications will be considered for grant under the motion that we are discussing today. That means that we can thereby avoid any delay in providing assistance to the industry for safety works. The scheme will operate until the end of 1999. It demonstrates the Government's commitment to make fishing a safer occupation for all those who take considerable risk to supply us with fish for our tables.

I hope that the House will agree that the two schemes represent useful measures providing real benefits for fishermen and the fishing industry. They demonstrate the Government's commitment to the fishing industry and our desire to put it on a sounder and safer footing for the future. I commend the motions to the House.

7.47 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I, too, welcome the Minister to his first debate on the fishing industry. I am sure that, from the representations that he will already have had from the industry and those Members who represent fishing interests, he will be aware of the problems that the industry has been facing. As a new Minister with a new team, he has an opportunity to take a fresh look at some of those problems, and I hope that he does so.

The Opposition clearly support the way in which the instrument dealing with the safety grant is structured. In particular, I endorse the sensible points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about flotation suits. With his family connections with the industry, he will know of their importance, and of the risks that fishermen take.

It is strange that flotation suits made by British companies are exported to Canada because it is compulsory for Canadian fishing boats to have such equipment, yet apparently such equipment is not eligible for grant under the scheme. I am glad that the Minister says that the matter is being considered, but the issue has been raised for a number of years now. I wonder how long it takes to make a decision. I should say, for the record, that the company that makes the suits is in Scunthorpe, so I have an interest.

The Minister must be aware of the years of delay that elapsed before the introduction of the scheme. To be fair, hon. Members on both sides of the House have pressed the Minister about the need for a decommissioning scheme at a time when the fishing fleets of other member states have benefited from such schemes. I believe that it all goes back to the mistakes that were made in the decommissioning of the Humber deep-sea fleet. The trauma that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) seems to have suffered as a result of those mistakes has pervaded the Ministry, and has made the introduction of a scheme difficult.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I think my hon. Friend will agree that the Government and the fishing industry would not be in their present position if the Government had listened earlier to our advocacy of a decommissioning scheme. The Minister will be able to avoid numerous problems now if he listens to our further proposal that the scheme should pay compensation to fishermen who lose their jobs—for they will be out of work as surely as the fishing vessels. We also propose that the money should become not just a dole or burial grant to make room for Spanish vessels, but a means of restructuring the industry to make it more efficient and effective.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend has made his points consistently for many years, and previous Ministers would have done well to listen to them.

The Government's increase in the decommissioning grant followed the risk of a rebellion in January. That was the most expensive vote in the House for some time, but the money was welcome as far as it went. Nevertheless, having accepted the arguments about the need for the decommissioning scheme to make progress, the Government would surely have done better to accelerate the provision of existing funds rather than spreading them over a number of years, in order to make progress in the reduction of fleet capacity and the meeting of multi-annual guidance programme targets.

I wish to raise four important points. The first is the one I have just made about the need to accelerate the scheme. The Minister's reference to the possibility of a second round if money is available this year is welcome, but I feel that, in future, the scheme should be front-loaded to provide the money as quickly as possible. Secondly, the scheme should be linked with structural aid for communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out. Thirdly, the effect on the boat-building sector should be recognised; and, fourthly, the rules should be reviewed.

The lack of progress has been mentioned several times to the Minister. Our fishing fleet has been at a severe disadvantage as a result of the delay. Our fleet is aging, and while we remain so far from our MAGP targets, no grants for rebuilding are available from the European Commission—hence the problems facing the shipbuilding industry.

Figures provided by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation show how far we have fallen behind in the utilisation of European structural grants. The federation points out that, since the beginning of decommissioning, Spain has received £208 million and France £55.3 million, while United Kingdom fleets have received£19.15 million—2.8 per cent. of the total.

That is a very small amount. It hardly puts our country's interests first, and it certainly does not demonstrate that the Government put those interests at the heart of Europe. Other countries are getting a far better deal, mainly because they are not so slow in making their contribution to European grants, and because they have been less negative about working within the European Union.

Secondly, we must recognise the effect of decommissioning on communities that depend on the fishing industry, such as in Northern Ireland, parts of Scotland and, indeed, Grimsby. Decommissioning affects not just direct but indirect employment, especially in the fishery supply industry. There are schemes such as Pesca, but that is a modest programme.

There are also schemes such as objective 1 and objective 5b. As the Minister will know from his time in the Department of the Environment, however, those schemes depend on contributions from local government—and, in the present circumstances, local government finances are far too tight. I know that the Minister has received representations from local authorities about that.

The Commission has proposed socio-economic measures that would allow early retirement schemes for fishermen, but the Government's response has been very negative. The Minister should recognise that fishing crews of decommissioned boats should be given support.

That brings me to my third point: the effect on boat building. I know that the Minister has recieved representations from the boat-building industry, and I urge him to pay careful attention to them. I believe that there is a case for a "scrap-and-build" scheme within the licence aggregation policy, which aims to reduce capacity. The industry is willing to discuss the possibility of such a scheme. I hope that the Minister recognises the pressure on that industry, and the fact that many parts of industry depend on it for jobs. I particularly hope that he will reconsider the rule that requires scrapping of vessels.

As I have said in previous debates, there is a demand for decommissioned boats, particularly in developing countries. I have told the Ministry that private interests in Sri Lanka are willing to enter into a scheme to obtain such boats; I also know that aid agencies in Mozambique would be willing to use them as part of an overseas aid programme. That could involve refitting in boat yards, and provide jobs as part of an Overseas Development Administration scheme.

I see no logic in scrapping the boats. As the Minister knows, now that the licensing schemes are in place, there is little chance of decommissioned boats returning to the fleet and causing the problems with which scrapping is intended to deal. I shall write to the Minister again, so that he can consult the ODA about whether such a scheme is feasible.

Fourthly, a number of concerns have been expressed about the rules of application of the scheme. I shall concentrate on one, which involves the use of fleet segmentation and the exclusion of nephrops trawlers in the current round. That has been raised by Conservative Members. The logic is very shaky; it is based on the use of segmentation as an adminstrative tool.

The Minister must be aware that most boats involved in nephrops fishing are involved in a mixed fishery. Northern Ireland and the Western Isles have particular problems. I welcome the fact that a special scheme is being considered for Northern Ireland, but the Minister should also consider the Western Isles, where 90 per cent. of the fleet is involved in nephrops fishing. Why should the whitefish and nephrops sectors not be combined? The two types of boat tend to be involved in the same fishery.

The Minister should also reconsider the one-year cut-off for the reference period, which is unduly restrictive. Many of the boats have been fishing for whitefish over a three-year period. Such an approach would encourage nephrops boats to pursue whitefish fisheries even more, just as a form of guarantee.

If the Ministry accepts that the nephrops sector has reached its targets under the European Union rules, should not that sector reapply for building grants and restructuring aid? If he is still excluding that sector from grant applications, there is no logic in excluding it from applying for the decommissioning scheme. I hope that he gives some thought to that as well.

The whole point of decommissioning can be seen only as part of an overall fishing strategy. The problem is that this Government do not seem to have such a strategy. What we have within the common fisheries policy is deeply flawed and does not enjoy the fishing industry's support, as I am sure the Minister will have heard.

The time is well overdue for a fundamental review of the CFP. Labour Members are fully committed to that, although we will continue to argue not only for a generous, effective and efficient decommissioning scheme, but for an overall strategy that guarantees a sustainable fishing industry and the future of our fishing communities around our coast, because nothing less will be acceptable.

8 pm

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I join others in welcoming not just my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but other Ministers who have taken over responsibility for fishing in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. In doing so, I pay tribute, as I did at Question Time the other day, to the previous Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who did a marvellous job in transforming relationships between the Government and the industry, especially by his open-door policy, and by the way in which he did his utmost to rebuild relationships between Whitehall and fishermen's organisations.

I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro).

Mr. Baldry

Our right hon. Friend.

Mr. Harris

I beg his pardon. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries. It is nice to see him back on the Back Benches. I am sure that in some ways he is relieved to be here, and I look forward to his taking part again, as he always did in the past, in fishing debates.

There has been a change in personnel outside Whitehall. The chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, Mr. Richard Banks, has left that post. I am sure that I speak for all the English Members in saying how much we value all the help he gave us, and that we welcome his successor, Mr. Barrie Deas, to that important post.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Minister of State say that yesterday he visited the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations. Again I speak for all Members who have the honour to represent fishing constituencies and ports when I say that we all lean heavily on fishing organisations and the NFFO, and I am sure that Scottish colleagues do likewise with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. If there are common threads running through our speeches, perhaps, sparing their blushes, some of those threads have been spun by those fishing organisations.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am especially grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech, and I endorse what he said not just about the Minister, but about the change of personnel in the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations. In view of the hon. Member's previous trenchant criticisms of the tie-up provision that still hangs over the industry, does he agree that the best possible compliment that the new Minister could pay to the NFFO would be permanently to remove that sword of Damocles from over its head?

Mr. Harris

Yes. I said just as much at Question Time last week, when I told my hon. Friend—I followed this up in private discussions with him last week—that that was what I personally thought should happen.

The first of the statutory instruments before us today relates to safety improvement grants. After receiving representations from Elizabeth Stevenson, secretary of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, I wrote to the Minister's predecessor about one aspect of the statutory instrument: the exclusion for grant purposes of any work done on fishing boats of a structural nature.

I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend said on that point, but I ask him to reconsider it, bearing in mind the fact that some structural work is directly related to safety measures. I refer especially to such fixtures on boats as shelter decks, wheelhouses and other structural aspects of a vessel which enhance the safety of the vessel and the fishermen who sail it.

Of course, our main attention tonight must be on the second statutory instrument, relating to decommissioning. I agree with what the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said, when he briefly reviewed the history of the decommissioning issue. I well remember the campaign that hon. Members on both sides of the House fought, joining forces.

I remember in particular the contributions in that regard of the late Alick Buchanan-Smith. We urged, pressed and kicked the Government on that issue, because those who represent fishing constituencies all recognised that decommissioning had a vital role to play in trying to achieve the essential balance between capacity and availability of stocks.

Of course, decommissioning is not the complete answer, and it is certainly not a panacea. No magic wand can be waved that will suddenly make all the deep-seated problems of the industry disappear. There are dangers in too much reliance on decommissioning. If some boats are taken out without controls on the fishing effort of those that are left in the industry, we will be back to square one, but decommissioning is an essential component in a package of measures, and I am delighted that, belatedly, the Government have recognised that. Perhaps it took the threat or, in my case, the actual event of a revolt on these Benches, to bring about an increase in the amount of money available for the decommissioning scheme.

The decommissioning scheme brings certain problems, and I support the points that have been made by the Opposition spokesman and that will no doubt be made by others on the exclusion of the prawn boats. The Minister must reconsider that, and the segmented approach. I understand the reasons that he has given, but frankly, I am not convinced by them.

The points about the unfortunate effect in recent years on the boat-building industry are valid. Perhaps the question of an aging fleet is the most important. In some parts of the country, including some ports in the south-west, the fleet is geriatric, as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, know, because you are no stranger to some of those fishing ports, particularly the Barbican. The way in which our fleet has aged is extremely worrying. While controlling capacity, we must find a sensible way of improving the age profile of the fleet. That is essential.

We must never lose sight of one reason why we are in this mess. I am afraid that it goes back to that constant refrain that I have voiced in the House, as have many others: the diabolical way in which Spain has transferred so many vessels to our register. We hope to meet in large measure our multi-annual guidance programme when we remove those vessels from our register through the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. By the perverse judgment of the European Court of Justice, many of them have returned. To a large degree, that sabotaged our attempt to reduce the capacity of the fleet.

Is it not ironic that the figures which have already been mentioned reveal that, from 1987 to 1993, Spain one way or another—through construction, modernisation or decommissioning grants—received £208 million, whereas the United Kingdom fleet received a paltry £19 million, yet so much of our trouble has been caused by boats from Spain?

I also endorse what the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said about the Government's insistence that vessels should be scrapped. About a fortnight ago, I was pleased to attend a ceremony at Land's End at which one decommissioned boat—the Confide—was preserved, albeit on land, as a fishing exhibition. I hope that it will play its part in stimulating further the tremendous interest that exists—thank goodness—in the fishing industry.

However, I am sure that we could save many more vessels. I was saddened that my request for a vessel from Penzance to be saved was rejected. It could have been used to train youngsters under the auspices of no less a person than the Bishop of Truro. I do not think that he was going to skipper it himself, but the Church's Fund for Social Responsibility in Cornwall would have made good use of it. Sadly, the request was denied, and the vessel had to be destroyed.

I always understood that the scrapping of vessels was done at the insistence of the Commission itself and to meet the requirements of the scheme. However, I was told today by Mr. Bob Allan from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation that that is not the case. If he is right—I am sure he must be—one has to ask why on earth we are following a policy that is different from that of other member states. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point. I am sure that we could make sensible use of some of these vessels without their returning to the fleet.

I conclude my remarks at this point, because many other hon. Members wish to speak. I welcome the increased money for decommissioning, but urge Ministers to consider the various points that have already emerged in today's debate and which will no doubt be reinforced. I also endorse what the Opposition spokesman said about finding a better way to provide security for what remains of the fishing industry. In that regard, I warmly welcome the review that the previous Minister started, which I know is being continued under the present Minister—the review of the common fisheries policy and our attitude to it.

8.12 pm
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I, too, welcome the two new Ministers to their posts. I especially congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) on his first ministerial post.

When the two new Ministers come to deal with the fishing industry, they will find that there has never been such disenchantment with the common fisheries policy. There is a ground swell of antagonism and distrust. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South will know that many sections of the industry are arguing very strongly that we should have nothing more to do with the CFP, that we should simply get out and take back control of our industry.

In the fishing debate earlier this year, I recall saying that the above suggestion was not feasible, although I appreciate that it makes it very difficult for Ministers to tackle the problems of the industry when there is such division in it, about the CFP at least. Fishermen are crying out for some new lead and some new policies.

The fact that two new Ministers are now at the Dispatch Box—one from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and one from the Scottish Office—means that there is the possibility of a fresh approach and some new thinking. Some might say that that is rather naive on my part. I am certainly not saying that all previous Government thinking is to be cast aside, but I think that there is the possibility of a fresh approach. The Minister of State certainly showed that he was willing to listen. He said that although we have to accept or reject the current statutory instruments, they were not set in stone and could perhaps be changed. I therefore join those who welcome the new decommissioning scheme, as far as it goes.

It is clear that there are problems with the way in which the scheme is formulated. Anyone who speaks to those working in the fishing industry will know that individual sectors have different problems. This is beginning to sound like a tea party at which we all congratulate Ministers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Invite them over."] I think that some of my hon. Friends behind me are getting worried and might put their jovial interventions in a different light when they come to speak.

The Minister of State said that in his previous job he regularly met representatives of the construction industry and hopes in his new job to meet representatives of the fishing industry. In doing so, I hope that he will meet not only our good friends in the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations but people from the trade unions who represent workers in the industry.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that there are probably now more jobs on land in the processing and production side than there are at sea. The processing side of the industry should be involved in any discussions. Some of us have been working for many years to put an end to the age-old antagonism between those who caught the fish and those who bought the fish, and the two sides now work more closely together. We need to foster not only the interests of one sector of the industry but the best interests of the whole industry.

The Minister said that he would reconsider the exclusion of the nephrops fleet from the decommissioning scheme, which is to be welcomed. I do not want to get involved in a welter of self-congratulation, but there is no doubt that Back Benchers of all parties—I pay a special tribute to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) in this regard—compelled the Government to accept a decommissioning scheme.

Mr. Baldry

I would not want my earlier comments to be taken as more of a concession than they were. In response to several interventions from Scottish Members, I said that of course it was true that vessels could move into nephrops fishery and that if sufficient moved that the nephrops target was in doubt, we could include nephrops vessels in the scheme in later years. My point was that the scheme would have to examined year on year, not that I was going to review the decision that this statutory instrument is set for this year.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for bringing me back to the harsh truths of reality. I am sorry if I gave the impression that I expected the current proposal to be changed. I of course accept that we have to take it as it stands, but the Minister said that this scheme is for this year, that next year he would examine the circumstances again and that the point made about the nephrops fleet might be taken into account. Incidentally, I welcome the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Front Bench and to his new post. We shall await with bated breath the Minister's conclusions, but I take at face value his comment that these matters will be re-examined.

Although decommissioning is valuable, one of the phrases used this afternoon—I forget by whom exactly, but I think that it was a member of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation—was that we should be thinking beyond decommissioning. That is a good way to put it. We need to do exactly that and bring some stability to the industry so that fishermen know where they stand. The problem is that we have gone from crisis to crisis, not knowing where we were going from one year to the next. If the decommissioning scheme enables us to get a better look at the future, it will be valuable.

It has been pointed out that the difficulty with the decommissioning scheme is that it is a scrapping scheme to get vessels taken out of service. It was suggested that it would be valuable if decommissioned vessels could be allowed to go elsewhere, either to serve some useful purpose outside the fishing industry or to go to Mozambique or Sri Lanka, for example, where they would be useful. The Government seem to think that if all the vessels were taken to Sri Lanka or Mozambique for decommissioning, they would somehow find their way back into the UK fishing fleet, which is beyond any reason.

We need a scrap-and-build policy. Since there has not been decommissioning and because we have not met the multi-annual guidance programme, no grants have been available to build new vessels for a very long time indeed. The fleet is aging. While I welcome the marine safety grant scheme, an unsound or old vessel can be unsafe despite the fact that it has modern radar, or whatever equipment is needed, attached to it.

We should look at a scrap-and-build policy because to compete and be a viable industry in future, even with a limited fishing effort, vessels have to be up to date. We know that other countries are modernising their fleet like there is no tomorrow and we will be left with a fleet under such tremendous pressure that it will not be able to do the job that it wants: catch fish in reasonable numbers and at a reasonable price.

These matters spread beyond the fishing fleet itself and into the fishing communities. Since the Minister made the point in his press release, I would expect him to say in his winding-up speech how valuable the Pesca scheme is in aiding the fishing communities. We are told that the £1.1 million going to the north-east of Scotland will have to be matched by £1.1 million from local authority funds. When the authorities asked the Government about that, the Government said that the authorities already had that money, which is very odd because the local authority grants were finally settled before the announcement of the Pesca scheme. How could the local communities or the Government predict the scheme—with a crystal ball? I hope that the Government will consider that carefully.

I want to raise with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland the Government's attitude to the socio-economic measures brought forward by the European Commission. The Government's behaviour in this matter is the worst possible example of holding in national hands a policy with which they disagree in Europe. Many people in the fishing industry want control of their own affairs with as much leeway as possible in European Union policy, yet the Government say that they will vote against the Commission's proposals to allow for early retirement of fishermen and lump sums to be paid to fishermen who lose their jobs, and that even if they are outvoted and the proposals go through under majority voting, they intend to do absolutely nothing about the proposals and will not implement them.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will take a much more robust attitude. I hope that he will say that there are people in desperate trouble. He will have had, as I have had, since we occasionally exchange constituents' letters—constituents do not always know which constituency they are in—many letters from trawlermen who have had difficulty getting money out of the Department of Employment's ex gratia scheme. He will know, therefore, of the hardship of people who have lost their jobs in the trawling industry. That hardship will be mirrored—indeed it is already being matched—by those who lose their jobs because of decommissioning and the reduction of fishing effort. He will therefore bring experience to his post and he should be much more sympathetic towards the socio-economic measures.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will not rest on some nationalistic idea—I had better not use the word nationalistic in relation to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South. I hope that he will have much less of a national interest factor and recognise that some European Union proposals are good and that we ought to implement them. This short debate has given us the opportunity to say which parts of the Government's policy we agree with and which parts we wish to see an advance on. I hope that the Government will realise that, provided that they take an open approach to their responsibilities, they will have our support. If they do not, they know perfectly well that they will have to face the wrath of this House, and it will not be pleasant.

8.24 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I welcome both the new Fisheries Ministers. I am slightly disappointed that the Scottish Under-Secretary is the junior of the two again, and I hope that the Fisheries Ministers from other Departments will not take advantage of their hon. Friend's inexperience. That hope relates to two matters: first to the European negotiations at which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) might well be the only Scottish representative. In the last six months of last year, the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who is a very experienced Member of the House, represented Scotland on three occasions—the only three occasions on which Scotland was directly represented by Scottish Office Ministers out of a total of 48 Council meetings.

Secondly, during a number of years, Scottish Office civil servants, Opposition Members and even a few rebel Conservatives, as we have heard earlier, were advocating a policy of decommissioning which was frustrated and halted by what I thought were the largely personal prejudices of the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, based on his unfortunate experiences in his early ministerial career over the previous decommissioning scheme. We are now paying the price, as has become evident in this debate, for those wasted years.

I took a careful note of what one of the fisheries representatives said to me in the briefing earlier this afternoon. He said that the fishing industry is still wallowing in the broken water of do nothing years". I understand that the statistics which have been quoted to Ministers from Opposition and Government Members were supplied to the Scottish Fishermen's Federation by my colleague in the European Parliament, Winnie Ewing, the Member of the European Parliament for the Highlands and Islands. I am sure that my hon. Friend in the European Parliament will be delighted that the statistics have been put to such good use in this debate.

They are shameful statistics from a European and United Kingdom point of view. Of total funding from 1987 to 1993, 2.8 per cent. has come to the UK, in contrast to the huge amounts, as the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) rightly said, which have gone to the Spanish fleet. The UK fleet has been at a substantial competitive disadvantage over that period as funds have gone elsewhere. Not only that, of course, but the lack of a decommissioning scheme in those years has imbalanced the whole fisheries policy so that funds are nowhere near the targets for MAGP or anything else—not just because of the flags of convenience vessels, although they were important, but because of the failure of policy and the failure to act.

The points made in this debate are very important and interrelate with the two schemes before us this evening. If there is a combination of older fishing vessels and probably younger skippers, since that is the trend in the industry at the moment, going into deeper waters, there is a key safety consideration. The lack of reinvestment in the fishing fleet means that the average age of the vessels is increasing. Ten years ago, the average age of UK vessels, especially Scottish fishing vessels, was much less than the European average. Now it is greater than the European average. We have one of the older fleets in the EU and that raises implications for safety in fishing as well as for the competitiveness of our industry compared to others.

We have about five member companies in the British Boatbuilders Association, of which only two are currently building boats. The arguments for a scrap-and-build policy are very important. It is not a question, as the Minister seems to think in following his predecessors by saying, that we cannot have a decommissioning policy on one hand and a reinvestment policy on the other. That is exactly the policy being pursued in our competitor countries across the Union. If we do not have such a policy, the Government will be putting our fishing vessels at a grievous disadvantage compared to the other fishing fleets. I am sure that the Minister would like to change that policy direction in his first days in the post.

I shall make three brief points to amplify some of the detail in the debate. The case made by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) was very good. Given the legacy of the lack of a decommissioning scheme in the crucial years of the 1980s, there surely would be a good argument for a catch-up policy to accelerate the commitment in the early years of the scheme to try to get back to something like the targets that we have to meet. That policy option must be available to the Minister and surely should be one for careful consideration. Should the scheme be front-loaded to catch up and try to redeem some of the mistakes of the past?

The Minister has qualified the flexibility that he seemed to show earlier in the debate. His point about the nephrops fishery does not stand up to a moment's serious examination. There has already been an increasing shift in capacity into the nephrops fishery in the North sea from the Fladen fishery in the current year. The two fisheries are heavily interrelated. The idiocy of the regulations is shown if one compares a nephrops fisherman with a scalloper. If a scalloper had a pressured stock licence, he would be eligible for the terms of the decommissioning scheme. Yet if that person qualified for decommissioning, he would not put any whitefish back into the pool to be available for the other fishermen who are under such pressure from quotas at present. A prawner boat would put whitefish back into the pool, yet that prawner is excluded from taking advantage of the decommissioning scheme.

We must understand the interrelationship between the fisheries. One cannot close off one option and expect that the position will stay still; closing off one option has an impact on the other cross-fisheries. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider being more flexible as quickly as possible. If he does not, he will find that there is more effort in the nephrops fishery, and that the situation has changed again for next year. I hope that he will pay attention to that point.

The Minister's immediate predecessor, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), in a fairly critical fishing vote which was closely contested in the House, made a declaration to his hon. Friends on the Back Benches. He said that he would not stand for fishermen from Scotland or England being put at a competitive disadvantage to other European fleets with the onset of fisheries regulation. Even now in the decommissioning scheme, that is happening. We have heard of the scrap-and-build policy which is available to fishermen across the Community, but not to fishermen here.

We have had examples of boats for alternative use. I am grateful to Bill Farquhar from the Macduff shipyard for giving me an example. The Jean de la Lune was chosen to lead the parade of sail in the recent tall ships festival in Leith. It was actually a converted French fishing boat which had been commissioned out of the fishing fleet. Given the experience of the early 1980s, I can understand ministerial caution on this aspect. I am, however, certain that the Scottish Office inspectorate and the MAFF inspectorate are quite capable of telling the difference between a tall ship with sails and a working fishing boat. Some flexibility in this aspect would bring us into line with our European colleagues and would generate some much-needed work for our hard-pressed boatyards.

I hope that the Minister will look at boat building as an issue in itself. For many of us from the western approaches of Scotland and from the north-east corner of Scotland, fishing is a dominant part of our communities. In one village in my constituency, 65 per cent. of employment is generated by the fishing industry. I hope that the Minister understands why we cannot tolerate our fishermen, in what are hard times anyway, being placed at a competitive disadvantage to other European fleets. Although we welcome the decommissioning scheme, we ask that some effort is made by the new ministerial team to redress the errors of the past and to allow our fishermen the support to which they are entitled.

8.33 pm
Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

I shall concentrate on decommissioning. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has already flagged up the issue. Before the Government belatedly and rather grudgingly introduced the decommissioning scheme, I advocated that there should be such a scheme. Like other hon. Members, I recall that the entire House was in favour of the scheme, with the exception of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who opposed it. I felt that if we had to obey multi-annual guidance programme rules, which were bizarre enough at the outset, the whole scheme seemed superficially appealing, especially if 70 per cent. of the grants were recoverable from Europe. In other words, the Community was giving us back our own money. What I advocated was a whole industry scheme, which we have not got.

The miners got £35,000 a man; we do not have anything like such a scheme, which compensates all parts of the industry. There could be a trickle-down effect if boat owners pay some money to ships' crews, to land staff, to fish merchants and, yes, to boat builders as well—in other words, to the whole industry. However, it is the owners who have had the investment and the risks, so, realistically, that is not very likely to happen. What happens to the other men whose jobs are destroyed when boat owners take decommissioning grants? Not only are they directly out of work, but their likelihood of further work is reduced because the fleet in a port becomes smaller. It is a vicious circle.

So the whole nightmare of the common fisheries policy, with all its hideous consequences, goes on, using taxpayers' money to put people out of work so that our competitors can better fish us out of more work. That is exactly how people perceive the problem in the ports.

To come this year with a new tranche of decommissioning and to claim that it is the solution would be laughable if it was not tragic. As a result of previous shortfalls, unattached licence entitlements and an attempt to fine-tune the system bureaucratically, we are left, in the words of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, with a collection of contradictions and anomalies. Almost every boundary in fleet segmentation is open to challenge on grounds of illogicality, inequality and irrelevance. One cannot fine-tune a leviathan. The idea that one can part-buy out an allegedly excess fleet pushes out any idea that fish stock shortages can be addressed by some other method. The mechanism has become untouchable, just as the grotesque concept that all fish stocks are a common resource open to all has become untouchable.

Decommissioning, like all aspects of the CFP, is not succeeding. If the fleet is reduced by 4.5 per cent. tonnage while the actual tonnage goes up by 3.3 per cent., that is hardly success. Discards remain a problem and quotas are becoming a blunt instrument that cannot legally leave a man making a living in most cases. So what do we do? Should we scrap the CFP and start again? Oh no, we just come up with some more schemes and mechanisms to destroy the market in a naturally renewable resource.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister of State to his new job. However, he faces a task that he cannot win. He already knows that the fishing industry has more regulation than the nuclear industry and that most of it is unnecessary. If he does not take steps deliberately to swap fish out of Lowestoft, as his predecessor did, I look forward to working with him. I have submitted a paper to his CFP review panel on how we can negotiate reform of the CFP by negotiating to leave it. My hon. Friend has not ruled out that option for consideration, yet his parliamentary answers, one given to me only yesterday, are sticking to the old line of, "All is well and just one more tinkering and we'll be there."

My hon. Friend the Minister says that international co-operation on conservation management is essential. I agree; we can all agree on that. However, the CFP is not an example of good international co-operation. The scheme tonight is just another piece in the whole discredited policy, and because it is not a whole industry scheme, if it is put to the vote, I could not in all conscience vote for it.

8.37 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I shall be brief because I know that the Minister needs at least nine or 10 minutes for the wind-up; that is right and proper. The schemes should be approved, but in so saying, I hope that the Minister—I accept that the tone in which he opened the debate was sympathetic, which is much to be welcomed in view of his new responsibilities—will not take it from the tone of the debate, in which I have concurred with just about everything that has been said on both sides about some of the wider issues, that these matters are not urgent and important.

I shall concentrate on the shorter-term question of the nephrops fishery, which is an immediate and urgent matter for re-examination, for the reasons that have been explained. In the longer term, we shall look for reconsideration of the historically negative view that the Government have taken of decommissioning schemes and some of the wider European Union schemes.

My local fishing industry believes that it has paid a high price as a result of that historically negative attitude. That attitude has left us, as has been said, with a fishing industry that is short on the construction, modernisation and commissioning grants that have been available to our competitors. I, too, think that it is a scandal that the Spanish fishermen have pocketed £208 million to rebuild their fleet while we have receipts of a mere £19 million—only 2.8 per cent. of the total funds available. That means that, inevitably, our fleet cannot stay safe, modern and competitive. I hope that the Minister and the new ministerial team will consider that as a matter of urgency.

There is one thing that I want the Minister and his team to consider more than anything else, although I know that it will be difficult to try to persuade the Treasury. I want them to bring forward some of the money, because £12 million over three years is not nearly as useful as releasing the money in one block, so that it can be drawn down as necessary to provide the essential cash flow for the scrap-and-build policies and for the yards that are suffering difficulties.

The nephrops fishery is important too, and I hope that the Minister will undertake to meet some of us with individual local concerns in the course of his reconsideration. If the 1995 scheme is ruled out because the schemes are unamendable, I hope that he will see his way clear to listening carefully to the representations by Members with legitimate concerns.

I have a plea from the Eyemouth and District Fishermen's Association, saying: many boats have gone to the prawn fishing over the past two years due to the shortage of white fish inshore and the poor prices. I am sure that that is right. There is suspicion that the figures that formed the basis of the decisions that Ministers have taken on the 1995 scheme may be out of date. Indeed, I believe that the decisions were based on 1993 figures. There is evidence that over the past two years there has been a substantial shift to nephrops out of whitefish pressure stocks, and that is a matter of real concern.

What has been said about the development of the Fladen grounds persuades me that there has been a substantial change, and that, too, needs to be considered as a matter of urgency. I also hope that, over the next year or two, when the wider issues concerning some of the elements of the scheme—such as the fact that we do not allow decommissioning to take place when boats go out of European Union waters, or when boats have been taken out of the fishing capacity—are being considered, urgent attention will be paid to those problems.

Better provision for decommissioning, together with rebuilding grants paid for with EU funds and even-handed access to Community assistance, are essential if the United Kingdom fishing fleet is to remain viable and competitive in Europe.

8.41 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)

I begin by paying tribute to the work done in his three years as the Minister responsible for Scottish fisheries by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). Everyone involved in the industry will agree that he was indeed a doughty fighter, and I am aware that his combination of experience mixed with guile will make him a difficult act to follow. I also thank hon. Members for their kind remarks about my appointment.

We have had a useful debate. Decommissioning is an issue of great importance to the fishing industry, not least because it forms a crucial part of the Government's strategy for tackling the problems that we currently face—principally the fact that too many boats are chasing too few fish.

We are not alone in that. The problem is widespread. Within the European Union, we are addressing it by setting targets for the reduction of fishing effort, so everyone in Europe is heading for the same goal. We are committed to meeting the targets, and decommissioning will help us towards that goal. As is equally important, it will help us to achieve a more secure future for the fishing industry, which is what I believe all hon. Members who took part in the debate want.

It is surely right that we should be prepared to make sacrifices today to secure longer-term prosperity. That is why in January the Government announced a further £28 million for decommissioning over the next three years. To respond to a question asked by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), my hon. Friend the Minister of State said that £.12 million would be available each year for the next three years, not £12 million overall for the next three years.

The 1995 scheme represents an attempt to achieve a better balance between the number of fishing vessels and the number of fish. Some hon. Members have said that we should be prepared to provide more money overall, but that would require savings to be found elsewhere, and suggestions for that were rather thin on the ground during the debate. I hope and believe that we have the balance about right; £12 million of taxpayers' money this year and in each of the next two years is a significant and realistic contribution from public funds.

As has been said, that is only one part of the Government's on-going financial commitment to the fishing industry. We are spending large sums on monitoring fish stocks and on enforcing regulations, both of which we do in order to protect fishermen's incomes. We have also committed about £10 million to help with development at three Scottish fishing harbours, and there is the Pesca money, which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) mentioned. I can tell him that it is not only local authorities that can come up with the matching funds. Others can come in too, notably local enterprise companies. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that in Grampian we have been able to secure the lion's share of the Pesca money.

Some hon. Members have said that we should be prepared to fix a higher level of compensation for vessel owners. However, the scheme is designed neither to provide social security nor to facilitate reinvestment. We ask fishermen to tell us how much they need to buy themselves out of the industry, and each person gives us a figure. We pick those that offer the best value for money so as to achieve the maximum reduction in capacity at the minimum cost.

Some people—such as the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald)—have criticised us for excluding nephrops. Of course, I recognise that there will be disappointment for vessel owners who would have liked to apply for decommissioning grants this year. But the bottom line is that we have met, and indeed exceeded, our European target for reducing capacity in the prawn fishery. We have reached that position because so many nephrops boats were successful in earlier rounds.

It would not be sensible—

Mr. Macdonald

I accept what the Minister is saying, at least with regard to area VI, but is not the logic of that that the fishery should now become eligible for reinvestment and rebuilding grants? If that is happening in the Northern Ireland fishery, will the Minister examine the case and find out whether the same terms could be applied to the west coast fishery?

Mr. Robertson

I shall come back to that, but Northern Ireland is a special case.

It would not be sensible or right to divert funds to achieve more decommissioning in the nephrops sector generally when other sectors are still so far short of their targets. For example, the important demersal trawling segment still has to be reduced by 17 per cent. to meet its multi-annual guidance programme target, while the beam trawler segment has to face a reduction of more than 35 per cent. to meet its target.

During the debate on the decommissioning scheme last year, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) suggested that the scheme should be more carefully targeted. He said that the scheme needs to be considered on a sectoral basis, where the pressure is."—[Official Report, 14 July 1995; Vol. 246, c. 1209.] I find it odd that now he is criticising us for being more focused and considering quite carefully how best we can meet our MAGP targets.

It would be wrong for the Government to continue to reduce nephrops fishing capacity in a general way. Equally, we must have regard to the local impact of our decision to withdraw grants for decommissioning nephrops boats. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the position of the fleet in Northern Ireland requires more careful thought. The industry in Northern Ireland is in greater difficulty than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, with about half the fleet, which is much older than fleets elsewhere, in the nephrops sector. As my hon. Friend also said, the Government have concluded that Northern Ireland warrants special treatment to help with the process of restructuring.

However, I make it clear to the House that I listen to what the industry says. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has suggested that because some whitefish vessels may move into the nephrops sector, the MAGP target for nephrops may not be met next year. I give the House a firm commitment that we shall review all the eligibility criteria next year in the light of vessel movements between sectors, and of the current round of decommissioning.

I assure hon. Members that if the MAGP target for nephrops is not met next year, the Government will be prepared to reintroduce those species into the scheme. I want hon. Members on both sides of the House to be clear that the exclusion of nephrops vessels this year in no way sets a precedent for 1996. If the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and his hon. Friends want to come to see me this time next year, when we sit down to prepare the initiative, of course my door will be open.

We should not allow the industry to wither on the vine. The Government share the industry's concern that its future profitability should lead to healthy reinvestment in modern vessels. Some hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, have said that we should reintroduce a scrap-and-build scheme aimed at ensuring that the age profile of the fleet does not become distorted. I fear that we cannot contemplate such a move while we are so far adrift from our capacity targets. To encourage investment now would increase rather than reduce our fishing effort.

However, I share hon. Members' concern that unsafe vessels should not be forced to sea by economic circumstances, placing the lives of their crews at risk.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Most of us want to see the introduction of a scrap-and-build policy because of the importance of making our fleet competitive. But if the Government are ruling that out totally, would it be possible to abolish the scrap-only policy and allow our boatyards to convert decommissioned vessels into, for example, pleasure boats, which provide employment in many coastal communities?

Mr. Robertson

On my first day as a Minister, I said to the industry what I shall say to the hon. Lady now—my door will be open for anyone to come in with constructive proposals for the future of the fishing industry and the fishing fleet. If the hon. Lady wants to come and see me with some of her constituents who are involved in the industry, she will find that my door is open.

We are committed to assisting in improvements to the safety of the fleet, and I commend to the House not just the decommissioning scheme, which will take out some of the older boats, but the safety improvement grants scheme, which will help upgrade the facilities of those that remain.

In conclusion, we have covered much ground in the debate. Some see the common fisheries policy as the source of all our ills, but there is no doubt that we would in any circumstances need to agree with our neighbours to share the common resources of the sea or the necessary means to avoid their decimation. Our targets are, I believe, equitable, and the costs of achieving them are borne in part by the EU. The Government are committed to working towards a more financially stable and secure fishing industry. I believe that the two schemes before the House will make a substantial contribution to that end, and I commend them both to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Fishing Vessels (Safety Improvements) (Grants) Scheme 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 1609), dated 28th June 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th June, be approved.

Resolved, That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 1610), dated 4th July 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved.—[Mr. Burns.]