HC Deb 09 July 1997 vol 297 cc872-94

11 am

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

This is the first fisheries debate of the new Parliament. I am pleased to be introducing it, and I welcome the new Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), to his place. When he and I were both in opposition, we often bemoaned the lack of time allocated to this important industry. It was not just the number but the duration of such debates that made it difficult for all hon. Members with fishing interests to contribute. Now that he is in a position of absolute power—or relative power, anyway—I am sure that he will respond by saying that he will do his bit to ensure that hon. Members representing fishing constituencies around the coastline have more opportunities to debate the fishing industry in this Parliament than they had in the previous one.

I shall direct my remarks to quota hopping, because that is the first parliamentary opportunity since the statement on the Amsterdam summit to consider the Government's claims of achievements at that meeting in detail, and to find out what progress the Minister thinks has been made since then and what hopes he has for resolving this long-running and bitter issue.

The House will forgive me if I begin my remarks by making a couple of constituency points related to the fishing industry. I pay tribute to J. D. Buchan, who died at the weekend. He was the former chairman of the Peterhead harbour board. John was a very special man, and was a dominating influence on the development of Peterhead harbour. He was involved in the fishing industry for fully three quarters of a century, and had his skipper's ticket before the second world war, which took him into service with the Royal Navy.

J. D. was gilled with enormous vision in all the many activities that he undertook in the fishing industry. He will be sorely missed by his family and his wide circle of friends. As a Member of Parliament, I shall miss him for the wise advice and encouragement that he gave me in the past 10 years. I should have greatly wished to be at his funeral in Peterhead today to bid him farewell, but I know that he would have insisted that I be here in my place to debate the future of the industry that was his life and work.

I shall also to refer to a company in my constituency. International Fish Canners, which is the last canning facility in the whole of the United Kingdom. I received a fax yesterday from its managing director, Mr. Michael Clark, who wrote: I am the Managing Director of the last remaining fish canning plant in the UK, based in … Fraserburgh. It is one of the key components in our group of family owned companies in the fishing industry, centred in North-East Scotland. The business was acquired in 1990 from Norwegian ownership and, since then, we have put substantial investment in to the plant and have achieved considerable success in building the business up, both in the UK and, more critically, in export markets all over the world. Our success led to us creating an additional evening shift of workers some 18 months ago, but regrettably, we have now had to lay off that shift. With the Government's recent decision to hand over control of interest rate policy to the Bank of England, and that body's well-known obsession with inflation, we can only see the pound strengthening further. This will inevitably have further drastic effects on businesses such as ours. Not only does it effect our ability to export, but it also makes it much easier for foreign companies to dominate the UK market. We feel it is time everyone woke up to the implications of that.

Mr. Clark draws attention to the direct impact of the present strength of sterling on jobs in the processing sector. The Minister will be well aware that the catching sector of the industry is highly vulnerable and sensitive to high interest rates. I hope that he will express some concern and tell us what representations he will make to Treasury Ministers about this severe combination of potentially high real interest rates and an extremely high value of sterling, and its impact on the catching and processing sectors of the industry.

I hope that the Minister will forgive me for making those two constituency points at the outset of my remarks. I shall keep my speech brief, because many hon. Members from fishing constituencies are present and may wish to speak. As I said, I often bemoaned the fact that not everyone had the opportunity to contribute to debates so, although this is an involved issue with a long history, I shall try to set an example.

It is sometimes said that we have ended up with 25 per cent. of UK tonnage in Spanish and Dutch hands because individual fishermen have sold their licences to Spanish and Dutch influences. There is an element of truth in that—some licences have been sold, especially in recent years—but the House should remember where the key responsibility lies for strategic building up, particularly of the Spanish interest in the UK fishing fleet.

The licences of about 90 elderly trawlers were initially acquired by Spanish interests. The trawlers were allowed into the "non" sector—not the producer organisations sector—and from there they built up their track record of quota, and have emerged as a significant and often dominating influence in the UK fishing fleet. The key responsibility did not lie with the individual fishermen who haphazardly or for selfish reasons sold their individual licences, but with the Ministry that allowed the licences of elderly, and in many cases, non-fishing, trawlers to be bought or acquired and a strategic interest in the fishing fleet to be built up.

If the Minister acknowledges that key point on the line of responsibility, he must acknowledge the successor Government's responsibility to deal with the problem. It is a matter of public policy, and mistakes were made that allowed strong strategic interests to threaten the livelihoods of Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish fishermen.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Is it not fair to point out that, as it is impossible for British citizens who own licences to discriminate against nationals of other countries, they have no means by which to refuse to sell their licences to a potential owner in another European Union country? That would go against the spirit of the treaty of Rome.

Mr. Salmond

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about that. When a private individual sells a licence—or a house for that matter—what he does is for him to decide. He is right to say that there are non-discrimination clauses for public policy, but not for private decisions made by individuals.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be interested in my next point, because it brings us forward in time to the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. That Act was the most significant attempt to deal with this problem. The then Government acted on the beneficial ownership of the flagships and tried to head off the developing problem. I was on the Committee considering that legislation and, as a relatively new Member of Parliament, I moved an amendment to extend to the crews of fishing vessels the powers that the Government were seeking to give those with beneficial ownership. The amendment tried to ensure that crews had an economic interest—the Minister will recognise that phrase—in the boats on which they were fishing.

The then Government told us that there was nothing to worry about—that everything was in hand. Clauses that they were tabling would deal with the issue; my amendments—which were supported by the Labour spokesperson on the Committee—were not only unnecessary, but troublesome in their intent. Several legal cases and many millions of pounds later, we are now reaping the dividend from that Government's arrogance.

I do not know what Opposition Front Benchers will say in this morning's debate, but I suspect that they will not dwell too much on the history of the problem, which is littered with foolish decisions and subsequent inactivity. It would be reasonable for the Fisheries Minister to allocate to them a large measure of responsibility for the present position. Nevertheless, regardless of how that position evolved, responsibility for finding a way out of it now falls on the Minister.

As I have said, the history is important, but some recent history might also concentrate the Minister's mind. I was interested to note that, on his return from the Amsterdam summit, the Prime Minister apparently ruled out as ludicrous any treaty amendments or changes in legislation, because, as he put it, they were not supported by any other European Union Government. That was not quite the message that the Labour party was conveying to the fishing industry before the general election, when it was still in opposition.

On 14 March this year, Fishing News reported on a meeting between the Foreign Secretary and fishing interests at the Scottish Labour party conference in Inverness. The first paragraph states: A Labour Government would have more chance of getting the treaty changes at the intergovernmental conference (IGC) to end quota hopping than would the present Government, because it has a better relationship with the European Union and fewer disputes to resolve. I see that some Labour Members think that that is true, but it seems that "more chance" actually meant "no chance" when the Prime Minister returned from the IGC. According to his analysis, any treaty change was out of the question—although that was not the analysis of the Foreign Secretary when he spoke to fishermen before the election.

Writing to the Scottish Fishermen's Federation before the election, the Prime Minister said that he "would not rule out" blocking the IGC in order to resolve the issue effectively and properly. That contrasts sharply with the words of the Minister of Agriculture after the election. On 13 May, he told The Scotsman: Quota hopping is not a major issue at the intergovernmental conference. Before the election, the Prime Minister was saying that he would not rule out blocking action to halt the IGC; after the election, a Minister in his Cabinet was saying that it was not a major issue at the intergovernmental conference. Before the election, the Foreign Secretary was saying that a Labour Government would have more opportunity to resolve the issue, because of their better relationship with our European partners; after the election, the Prime Minister told the House that effective treaty change was out of the question, because it lacked support.

Because of the Spanish Government's determination on a number of fisheries issues—particularly the issue of accelerated access to western waters—they have managed, over the past few years, to secure unanimity on issues on which they should certainly not have been supported, because they made those issues their main or sole objective at intergovernmental conferences on European Council meetings.

The British Government had a range of objectives at the IGC. They had an objective on immigration and border controls, and they had the objective of stopping the embryo development of the European defence policy—I do not know why, and the Prime Minister said that he had achieved a major triumph in that regard when he returned from the conference. The House is entitled to ask why the Foreign Secretary was not as good as his word. Why did he not concentrate on the resolution of this long-running problem at the conference, rather than scattering the Government's objectives across a range of issues?

Following the IGC, there was a celebrated exchange of letters with the President of the European Commission. The first word from Amsterdam was that the Government had achieved another extraordinary victory. There was no doubt in the minds of the spin doctors that the Prime Minister had triumphed yet again over foes both foreign and domestic. The Prime Minister was rather more guarded when he came to the House on 18 June. He said that modest progress had been made. Today's debate will, I hope, reveal a lesson: we do not win on spin. Real victories must be based on substance—not just on good public relations, but on legislative or substantive change.

The obligation is fairly and squarely on the Government. The Fisheries Minister was an earnest and effective spokesperson in opposition. He and I have attended more fisheries debates than we care to remember. He was genuine and sincere in his attitude to the industry—but he is now responsible for that industry, and for telling the House today that the new licence obligations that will, or could be, placed on quota-hopping boats will be effective. That is now the policy, not a substantive change in legislation.

I note from the European brief on sea fishing that was issued last week that the President of the Commission has written not only to the Prime Minister, but to the Spanish Foreign Minister. According to the brief, Writing to the Spanish Foreign Minister, he"— the President, that is— emphasised that his support was for measures which secured a real economic link between fishing vessels and their flag state. This did not necessitate changes or waivers to the European Union treaty. The suggestions that minimum landing requirements or crew residency requirements were optional means vessel operators might use to prove economic links with their flag state, but the UK cannot impose"— according to the President— a landing requirement in isolation on vessels flying the British flag. The Spanish Foreign Minister, in reply, has intimated that Spain might turn again to the European Court of Justice if it feels its rights are being weakened, Let me crystallise the essential difficulty. If the measures that are taken are effective enough to achieve the objective of removing the flag boats, or "hassling" them off the UK register, they will be open to challenge in the European courts. If they are not effective, of course, they will not be challenged, but we shall be no further forward. That brings us back to the question of whether a treaty change is necessary to secure the position.

I have a number of specific questions to ask the Minister. First, if the new obligations on licence requirements do not achieve their objective of removing the flag boats within a reasonable time scale, does the Minister rule out seeking a treaty change in further negotiations at further IGCs on Council meetings? Secondly, will the Minister give an undertaking that, until we can evaluate the success or otherwise of efforts to remove the flag boats from the UK register, the 30 per cent. capacity reduction will not be implemented? As he will appreciate, if that 30 per cent. fell on the 75 per cent. tonnage that remains in Scottish, English, Northern Irish and Welsh hands, the impact on our domestic fishing communities would be very severe.

Thirdly, will the Minister guarantee that funds will be available to decommission quota-hopping boats? Will funds be available to offer incentives to flush out the quota hoppers from the UK industry? Fourthly, what balance does the Minister expect to achieve between decommissioning or effort limitation in the flags-of-convenience fleet and those in the domestic fishing fleet? What would be a satisfactory percentage reduction in either fleet, from his point of view?

As the Minister knows from parliamentary questions and conversations, I have supported the view of the Mallaig and North-West Fishing Association that many, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of flagged vessels have not met the Marine Safety Agency's regulations and courses on safety certification. Can he update the House on the progress of implementing measures on those vessels that would most certainly be implemented on domestic vessels? If any of my constituents, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) or those of any hon. Member in a fishing constituency were so flagrantly in breach of MSA certification, I am certain that the agency would come down on them like a ton of bricks and stop their fishing effort forthwith. I understand, that in the past few weeks, the MSA's attitude has changed. Perhaps the Minister could update us on the success or otherwise of implementing effective changes in terms of coming down on flags of convenience boats.

I accept that the Minister is not responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. That responsibility lies heavily on the Conservative party. The Minister and I and other hon. Members with fishing constituencies have rightly been severely critical of the Conservative Government's attitude over a long time. I hope that, in government, the Minister will live up to the views that he held in opposition.

I understand from the Prime Minister that the difference between the present Government and their predecessors relates to trust. The fishing communities are by no means convinced by the deal that was sealed in Amsterdam and the exchange of letters. They are looking to see whether their trust in the new Minister and Government is justified. For that to happen, there must be effective measures backed by real action, and we could start with a strong speech by the Minister today, in which he must convince the House that the measures agreed at Amsterdam will be more effective than past attempts.

11.21 am
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central)

This is my first speech in the new Parliament after being between seats for the past five years. People continually ask me what changes I have noticed in the House since I returned. Fishing debates used to take place late on cold, wet November or December evenings. It is a pleasant change to be here on a sunny July morning for such a debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing the debate. Fishing is an important matter not only for those who have fishing constituencies but because fish is widely consumed, an aspect of the industry that is rarely attended to. Fish is a healthy food, and we want to increase consumption of it.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan rightly focused on the issue of quota hoppers, which concerns us all. However, it is only one of the problems that the industry faces. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the problems, and it is accepted throughout the industry and by those who have interests in it. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation sent a joint letter to the new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 24 June. It baldly stated:

There is no dispute that the previous Government repeatedly failed to take steps to halt the expansion of the flags of convenience fleet. That is certainly accepted by Labour Members, and is a major cause of the problem. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the run-up to the recent intergovernmental conference. From where he sits in the House, he will make what he can of that. It was interesting to note that he did not attack the package that was secured at Amsterdam but spoke about its implementation and asked what the Government would do if what had been achieved at Amsterdam did not meet the problem and was ineffective in tackling quota hoppers.

During my years in opposition, we were utterly frustrated by the way that the Conservative Government tackled the problem of quota hoppers. There was always much publicity before the annual fishing debate, which as I have said was usually held in November or December, about how hard the Government were batting for us in Europe. It was said that, in discussions with the Norwegians, the cutlass would be taken out, and there was a meeting in Brussels. However, rarely was anything achieved. There was tremendous frustration because all the positive measures that we knew were being implemented in other European countries, such as decommissioning, adjustments to tackle and proper conservation measures, were never accepted here because they cost money, which seemed to be the bottom line.

We never seemed to make any progress. The Government always returned from Brussels with a meek acceptance of the deal on the table, and there was never any real sign of batting for Britain. The mess that we are in is a direct consequence of the way that the Conservative Government over 18 years failed to fight properly for the fishing industry.

Like, I hope, all those who are not Conservatives, I was extremely sceptical about Conservative pre-election claims on how they would hold the IGC to ransom. That is probably not the word that they used, but it was certainly the implication. It was said that there would be no deal at Amsterdam unless quota hopping was dealt with. Those of us who saw over the past couple of decades how the Conservatives manifestly failed to deal with the real problems were sceptical about that claim. That electioneering had a significant effect on the industry because it raised expectation.

In the light of what was achieved over the past 18 years and what has been achieved in the first few weeks of a Labour Government, there should have been much greater acceptance of what was achieved in Amsterdam. It is the first positive move by a Government on behalf of fishing in that time. The pre-election hype has certainly affected the view of what was achieved in Amsterdam. Of course there will be difficulties in the implementation of that agreement, and no one can guarantee that there will not be a legal challenge by Spanish or Dutch fishing interests. My understanding of the agreement between the President of the Commission and the Prime Minister is that letters have been exchanged in such a way and in such terms as to attempt to pre-empt any legal argument. There has been an attempt to clarify the legal position so that, if a case is taken to the European Court, our position will be strengthened.

It is important to implement all the steps that have been announced by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan rightly reminded the House of his strenuous efforts to ensure that the safety regulations are properly applied and implemented. That has been an issue in these debates over the past 10 years. There was an apparent reluctance by the Conservative Government properly to police safety in the North sea. I have been greatly concerned about safety there in the context of the oil and gas industry. There was an overflow because many old fishing boats became safety vessels and we were aware of the quality of those boats and the problems that they faced. There must be a firm commitment properly to apply safety regulations. Enforcement must be common throughout the UK fleet and among the flagged-out vessels.

Another area of enforcement that has caused me much concern is the "black fish" that are distorting some of the economics of the North sea. My major constituency interest is not so much in catching as in processing and in the activities of fish merchants. More than 3,000 jobs in Aberdeen city, many of them in small companies, depend on the sale and treatment of fish. The information that I have is that the Scottish Office, through its fisheries inspectorate, is extremely rigorous in checking fish that comes into the Aberdeen and Peterhead markets, ensuring that it comes from legitimate catches, that it is properly recorded and that there is no opportunity for black fish to get on to the market. Allegations were made to me by some of my constituents that there was no similar treatment at English ports, particularly in Grimsby.

I tabled a couple of parliamentary questions to find out just how severe the checks were. I was told by the Scottish Office that the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency checked 1,670 overland consignments of fish to the Aberdeen and Peterhead markets in the 12 months to May 1997, and was told by MAFF that, in the same period, only 14 overland consignments to the Grimsby market were checked.

That is a serious discrepancy. It backs up my constituents' allegations that MAFF in England and Wales is not doing the job that Scottish officials are doing to try to eradicate the problem of black fish. That is consistent with the lax treatment of the safety rules on fisheries vessels. I hope that the Minister can ensure that all those procedures will be tightened, because, unless we tackle all those problems—including black fish and fish conservation in the North sea—we shall face serious difficulties.

When I was attending those fisheries debates in the House, I was conscious that, perhaps like the farmers, fishermen and fishing interests were always crying wolf. Every year, we were facing another crisis and another disaster. As the years rolled by, the same message came across and the same language was used, yet the industry survived and moved on, although perhaps slightly altered.

Things have changed. Not only do we have a change of Government, but there is pressure, particularly from environmental interest groups, which include all of us now. Over the next few years, there will be serious changes in the industry. The whole issue of food safety and of the environmental protection of our natural resources means that the industry will face serious challenges as it moves into the next millennium.

Through my own relationships with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, I know that there has been a change in the way in which the dialogue is conducted. Although it is critical of the deal that was struck at Amsterdam, and I understand its reasons for that, it is engaging constructively with Government to try to find a way forward. I like to think that that is because it knows that it has a Government who want to listen.

The fish merchants are taking the same view, and I have regular meetings with the Aberdeen Fish Curers and Merchants Association Ltd. in my constituency. The association has recently introduced a conservation policy, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Again, it is the beginning of a recognition of how serious the industry is threatened by these other problems. As I say, I think that that recognition is shared by all of us. It is important that the industry begins to speak in a different way and in a different language.

I know that some sections of the industry use a different tone. We are all concerned about some of the language that we hear from certain sections, which seem to take a more fundamentalist Eurosceptic line, but I make a plea to the whole industry that it is time that it pulled together to recognise that there are common problems and issues, on which the industry should be looking to find a common voice.

I was pleased with the response of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to the deal struck at Amsterdam. He announced that there would be a summit of fishing interests. I hope that that will be taken as an opportunity to come together to find a common voice. The industry relies not just on fish catchers and fish merchants, but on consumers. I know that there are economic and practical difficulties in the sectors of the industry coming together to find a common voice, but it is in all their interests that they should do so.

11.36 am
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

May I, first, welcome the new Fisheries Minister to his new post? He was an extremely conscientious Opposition spokesman, and I have no doubt he will be an extremely conscientious Fisheries Minister, although he may already have discovered not just the complexities of the issue in government but the constraints on any Minister as a consequence of collective responsibility and of actions by the Foreign Office and the Treasury. We have seen some of that since Amsterdam. It was a great privilege to be the Fisheries Minister, and I rise in the debate not out of any sense of self-justification but because it is important to place some comments on the record. The somewhat partial view of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) should to a certain extent be challenged.

The UK has always had an extremely liberal regime—for understandable policy reasons—for foreign merchant marine registering on our Register of Shipping. There were good reasons for that. We wanted to maintain a large merchant marine. It encouraged employment by our merchant navy and ensured better safety standards. However, it meant that, in the mid-1980s, when decommissioning was introduced as a policy throughout the European Union to restrict catches in Community waters, it was easier for foreign nationals to register their vessels over here, effectively as UK vessels. Then, as we know, they were successful in purchasing licences from UK fishermen. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, under international law, they were UK-registered boats with UK-held licences.

As soon as that was recognised, the House and the Government sought to take steps to deal with it in the merchant shipping legislation of the late 1980s. Clearly Parliament thought that that legislation was effective and sought to enforce it as effective legislation. What we could not have anticipated—I do not think that Westminster could ever have reasonably anticipated this—was the attitude and approach of the European Court of Justice. In the Factortame case, it struck down that legislation on the basis that it was contrary to Community law and that it failed appropriately to give sufficient weight—

Mr. Salmond

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Baldry

I will give way in a second. I see the hon. Gentleman. Let me finish just this part of my speech.

The court believed that the legislation failed to give appropriate weight to the concept of the single market and that it was thus contrary to Community law.

The court misdirected itself, because fishing is the only area in the EU where we have national quotas, and it must make sense, if there are national quotas, for those to be for the benefit of the fishermen of that nation. If there is going to be a UK fishing quota, it must be for the benefit of UK fishermen.

One of the things that the House cannot get away from is that it is crazy for a substantial part of the UK fishing quota to be in the hands of foreign fishermen. That was clearly something on which action had to be taken. Before I tell the House what action we sought to take, I happily give way to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan.

Mr. Salmond

The House probably wants to concentrate on where we are now, without going too much into the past—

Mr. Baldry

The hon. Gentleman did it too.

Mr. Salmond

The hon. Gentleman is right. I did lay out the history of the matter; but, if he considers the Committee proceedings on the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, he will find that whether the Government's attempt to deal with the issue would fall foul of the European Court was thoroughly debated. Indeed, amendments were moved by me and the Labour party to strengthen the crews and residential requirements. The previous Government argued that those amendments would fall foul of the court which, in the light of what happened, was ironic.

Mr. Baldry

I share one piece of advice with the new Fisheries Minister. He can guarantee that the Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, who have never had—and who are never likely to have—the responsibility of government, are always blessed with the benefit of both hindsight and foresight. That is a characteristic of all fishing debates. I, too, want to deal with the present and the future, but it is important to work out how we got here.

Following the Factortame case, it was clear to everyone that the only way in which we would make substantial progress on quota hoppers was by treaty changes. The most convenient—and only—opportunity for treaty changes was at the intergovernmental conference. That is why we made it clear that we would not allow the IGC to conclude until the issue had been resolved.

The quota licences could not simply be confiscated, as they had been acquired legitimately, but it was our view that once our Community colleagues appreciated that we would not allow the IGC to conclude until the matter had been resolved—the then Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary made that clear—they would start to negotiate on ways in which those licences could be decommissioned, on compensation and on how we could move forward. We made that clear in the run-up to the general election and at the Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg.

The Labour party in opposition sought to give support to our approach and, at the time of the Fisheries Council, the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, said that the Labour party would consider not allowing the IGC to conclude. He gave the impression that he was taking a similar approach. That approach lasted until 1 May, when the Labour party changed its tune. Effectively, what was achieved in Amsterdam was no more than a restatement of the existing law. The exchange of letters is no more than what existed before 1 May. If Labour Members believe that something new was achieved at Amsterdam, they have been misled.

The fishing industry is now in the worst of all possible worlds. Unless the Minister tells the House today that the Treasury will give substantial new money to the MAFF public spending line for decommissioning, the Government will shortly have no alternative but to introduce a very tough effort control system and a tough days-at-sea policy. No one with any understanding of this issue believes that the measures that will arise from decisions at Amsterdam will have any effect on quota hoppers. There will be no reduction in the number of existing quota hoppers, and there is nothing to prevent further quota hoppers from coming on to the United Kingdom register.

Given the decisions taken at Luxembourg about reducing the catching capacity in the European Community—they apply equally to the United Kingdom as elsewhere—the future for the United Kingdom fishing industry is extremely bleak. As I understand it, there will be very little extra money for decommissioning and, as I have said, we are about to see tough policies on effort control and days at sea. The frustration is that such policies would bear down on those parts of the industry which are effective, profitable and competitive.

My shoulders are broad, and I am prepared to be judged by the fishing industry for my stewardship as Minister. I think that the industry's judgment may be kinder than the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan sought to give on the industry's behalf. We can say beyond peradventure that the Government have failed the fishing industry lamentably. There was an opportunity at Amsterdam, probably the only one this decade, to really sort out the problem of quota hoppers. That opportunity was missed and the fishing industry will pay the price for decades to come.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The hon. Gentleman talked about his stewardship and mentioned the Luxembourg Council of Ministers, which was probably his last major involvement as Minister. In the run-up to that meeting, it had been expected—indeed, Ministers had said it—that Ministers would try to put together a blocking minority to stop multi-annual guidance programme IV going through. That did not happen, despite the fact that we had the support of the French. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us why the expectation of a blocking minority was not fulfilled?

Mr. Baldry

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will find any reference to my putting forward such a proposition in any debate or in notes of any meeting that I held with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation or the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations. It was always clear to me that it would be possible for the Commission to buy off sufficient other member states for it to be impractical to put together a blocking minority.

I made it clear to the NFFO and to the SFF that our policy was that over a quarter of the United Kingdom fleet was in the hands of quota hoppers and that, if we could sort out that problem at the IGC, we would then have some leverage and could meet our decommissioning targets. No one ever pretended that that would be cost-free, but we had to ensure that our colleagues in Europe recognised that we were serious. I believe that they did recognise that the Conservative Government were serious, but the election intervened before we had an opportunity to implement our policy.

I fear that the United Kingdom fishing industry will pay dearly for what happened at Amsterdam. Nothing can hide the fact that it was a missed opportunity. I predict that, come the December fisheries debate, or even before then, the new Minister will have to come to the House and announce a strict days-at-sea policy. It will be interesting at that time to see whether all those Labour Members who cheered the Prime Minister on his return from Amsterdam are prepared to go into the Lobby to support the Government in introducing that policy, which will be a direct consequence of their lamentable failure to capitalise on the opportunity they had at Amsterdam.

11.46 am
Mrs. Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) on his second maiden speech. It was different from a normal maiden speech, but it showed a great depth of knowledge of the fishing industry.

It is a great privilege to deliver my maiden speech as the first ever Labour Member of Parliament for Ayr and the first woman Member for the Ayr constituency. However, I am not the first woman to have carried the Labour standard for Ayr. In the past we have had excellent candidates in Jenny Auld and Jean McFadden. Several male Labour candidates in Ayr have gone on to serve as Members in other constituencies. They include the late Willie Ross, former Secretary of State for Scotland, Alex Eadie and Jim Craigen. Since I live in my constituency, both my immediate predecessors were my constituency Members of Parliament.

Phil Gallie and I were light years apart on almost every political issue, but I have no hesitation in praising his record as a hard-working Member on behalf of all his constituents. He was gracious and courteous during the election campaign and was particularly gracious in defeat on the night of 1 May. His predecessor had a somewhat different style from Phil Gallie. He was George Younger, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Defence, now Lord Younger of Prestwick. He may enjoy Prestwick as a title, but I enjoy Prestwick as my family home. In a short time, thousands of others will be desperate to become temporary residents of the Ayr constituency, albeit for only a few days, as we host the British open golf championships at Troon. I might have a spare room available if anyone is interested.

My constituency has golf courses, 15 miles of sandy beaches and lovely countryside, which are all important, but there is a great deal more to it than that. Prestwick is home to British Aerospace, which is going through a difficult period with the announcement of an end to the production of the Jetstream aircraft, which will lead to 380 redundancies. It is also the home of the air traffic control centre which the Government have recently confirmed as the new Scottish centre, securing 700 highly skilled jobs. There is also Prestwick airport, where freight and passenger traffic is forecast to grow considerably over the next few years. Not many hon. Members can get from their homes to the nearest airport in less than five minutes, but I have that advantage.

The other towns in the constituency include Ayr, which is a major shopping centre and the location for the South Ayrshire council, now happily under Labour control. It is both a seaside and a fishing town and it has a fine racecourse. In 1913, suffragettes burned the grandstand to the ground in support of votes for women. During the election, I went to the races with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I backed a horse called Shadow Leader, ridden by a jockey called Osborne. It won and the grandstand survived.

The constituency also includes the town of Troon. It is not just a seaside and golfing resort: it is home to Ailsa Shipbuilders. Fishing, too, remains an important local industry. Since my predecessor made his maiden speech on the same subject, the local fish market has been transferred from Ayr to Troon.

Wherever we go in the towns and villages of the constituency, we are never far away from the links with Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, who was born in Ayr. Thanks to the Boundary Commission, his birthplace is now in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes).

One of the first things I had to do after the election was give up my job, after 13 years in the voluntary sector, with Kilmarnock and Loudoun women's aid. Voluntary work often goes unrecognised, so, with the indulgence of the House, I want to pay tribute to all the women who work to support abused women and their children.

When people ask me, as has happened frequently over the past few weeks, "Why did you decide to become an MP?"—a question that many hon. Members may ask themselves from time to time—I replied, "I was too small and too old to become a firefighter." However, now that my hon. Friend the Scottish Office Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution has announced a relaxation of the rules on height and age qualifications for the fire service, I may reconsider in five years' time.

I suppose that being a Member of Parliament is not so very different from being a firefighter. We need a head for the commanding heights of the economy; we have to deal with all the burning issues of the day; and our constituents look on us as an extension of the emergency services, to be contacted in a crisis—although they cannot yet reach us on 999.

By tradition, maiden speeches are non-controversial. However, I must say that during the short time that I have been here, one feature that I have noticed is that the fishing industry is among the most contentious subjects. There are long-term and seemingly intractable problems, and I get an impression of an indigenous industry in a state of low morale. It is therefore to be welcomed that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture, have sought to deal with the problems with a sense of urgency and suggested summit talks with the leaders of the United Kingdom fishing industry—something that was not characterised by the previous Government, as was illustrated by the somewhat defensive speech of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), a former Fisheries Minister.

My constituency is illustrative of the fact that the industry does not start and finish with fishing vessels—it includes related industries such as fish processing, which employs many people in Ayr. I pay tribute to the all-party fisheries group. In the short time that I have been involved, I have been impressed by the commitment of all hon. Members with a fishing interest to working towards building a positive future for the industry. I have also been impressed by their strongly held views and depth of knowledge.

I thank the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for securing this debate this morning and thereby enabling me and other new Members to further our knowledge of and interest in the fishing industry. Most of my hon. Friends have been able to pepper their maiden speeches with anecdotes from their first few weeks in Parliament. However, as I am making my speech after many of my colleagues have made theirs, most of my best stories have already been told. New Labour still believes in the common ownership of a good story. Perhaps that is no bad thing, as many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate and I am interested in hearing their speeches.

I shall end my speech by saying how proud I am to have been allowed the indulgence of the House to make my maiden speech as the first ever Labour Member of Parliament for the Ayr constituency.

11.54 am
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr (Mrs. Osborne) on her maiden speech. She spoke of her constituency with great pride and the House is left in no doubt that she will be a bonny fighter for the Ayr constituency in the years to come. The House will also appreciate her generous tribute to her predecessor, Phil Gallie.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on obtaining this debate, which he opened by congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), on having achieved absolute power. Later in his speech, the hon. Gentleman qualified that remark by pointing out that the Minister has responsibility for the fishing industry. I must point out that, while he has that responsibility, he has very little authority with which to discharge it. As we all know, in these matters competence rests with the European Union, not with the Westminster Parliament. That is wholly unsatisfactory to many of us, and it is a negation of parliamentary democracy.

On 23 July 1996, when the Minister was the Opposition spokesman, he said about the common resource aspect of the common fisheries policy: We must deal with that issue and remove that term from the CFP. Those were brave words. Later, he said: We believe that the CFP should be radically reformed to allow us far greater autonomy and national control of fishing waters within our country's limits."—[Official Report, European Standing Committee A, 23 July 1996; c. 24–25.] It would be reasonable to suppose that by "our country's limits", the hon. Gentleman was referring to the 200-mile zone established by the last Labour Government under the Fishery Limits Act 1976.

All that was 12 months ago. As the hon. Gentleman must realise, the only significant change in the interim was not, as I shall show, to the CFP, but the fact that he has become the hapless Minister responsible for fisheries. Nothing else has changed. Ample evidence of that is contained in the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, on 17 June.

In spite of all the huffing and puffing in opposition—something to which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan referred—and in spite of all the heady rhetoric post Amsterdam, the reality is that, as is made clear in the opening paragraph of Santer's letter, we are where we always were: on course for the eventual and total realisation of Council regulation No. 101/76, which lays down a common structure for the fishing industry. It is not a structure for national fishing industries, but a structure for a European fishing industry, fishing in European waters and catching European fish. In other words, it is the old cry of equal access to a common resource.

Time does not permit an exhaustive analysis of the President's letter, so I shall confine myself to the first paragraph, in which he says, inter alia: The Common Fisheries Policy … provides for the conservation and management of fisheries resources throughout the European Community". That simply confirms what many of us have long known: each member state has ceded exclusive competence for Fisheries to the European Union.

The same sentence in Santer's letter continues: to assure the long-term development of the fishing industry". It mentions the EU fishing industry, in the singular, but not the fishing industries, in the plural, of individual member states.

In his letter, Mr. Santer went on to mention the well-being of fisheries-dependent communities", but that is simply a recitation of article 9 of Council regulation No. 101/76. He also mentions "the interests of consumers", which is referred to in article 1 as the "general economy".

The so-called "special letter" does not provide any new safeguards or concessions. It simply restates something that I and others already know but which successive Governments have refused to realise: in 2002, we will reach the end of the current discriminatory transitional period, at which point part 1 of article 2 of 101/76 will come into full effect:

Rules applied by each Member State in respect of fishing in the maritime waters coming under its sovereignty or within its jurisdiction shall not lead to differences in treatment of other Member States. Member States shall ensure in particular equal conditions of access to and use of the fishing grounds situated in the waters referred to in the preceding subparagraph for all fishing vessels flying the flag of a Member State and registered in Community territory. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) said, the Prime Minister achieved nothing at Amsterdam, and Mr. Santer's letter tells us precisely nothing that we did not already know. All the exchange of letters confirms is that Parliament has given away the nation's greatest renewable resource. The Government, for all Ministers' rhetoric and messianic zeal, have failed to defend a vital national interest.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gill

I am on my peroration now; I am so sorry.

The brave new Labour Government went to Amsterdam but, on fisheries and other issues, they went belly up.

12.1 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

I thank the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for providing this opportunity to debate quota hopping, which is a major issue in Lowestoft, in my constituency. Fishermen undoubtedly want those lost quotas returned and feel that they have suffered from the effects of multi-annual guidance programme IV before it has even been introduced. There is also no doubt that, during the general election, fishermen counted on recovery of those quotas to enable them to deal with forthcoming fishing reductions. One can therefore understand the disappointment that they must feel.

All hon. Members realise that the problem facing the Government is how to get the quotas back. As has already been said, one cannot confiscate something that has been bought legally. We can try to buy the quotas back, but other countries will not sell them, and that is the significant point. Of all European Union member states, only the United Kingdom has a serious problem with quota hopping. I asked fishermen in Lowestoft, "Can't you retaliate and hop on other people's quotas?" They replied, "You just try. You can't—they're not for sale." That is the problem. We should be asking how we got into that situation.

There was no support for a protocol in the lead-up to Amsterdam. I believe that both the previous and the current Governments had either to make the best of a bad situation or to block the intergovernmental conference, thereby probably quitting the European Union altogether. I know many fishermen who would like to leave the EU, but that will not happen, because, as we know, it would be a complete disaster for most other UK industries.

I am sure that most of my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party would accept those consequences of leaving the EU. Let us suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine that, on 1 May 1997, the Scottish nationalists swept to power in Scotland and achieved their aim of independence in Europe. I am sure that, at the IGC, they would not have wished to leave the EU because of the fishing issue.

Mr. Salmond

There is a difference between blocking an intergovernmental conference and leaving the European Union. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the number of times that the Spanish Government have blocked intergovernmental conferences or Council of Europe meetings to gain advantage for their fishing industry. Does he appreciate the distinction?

Mr. Blizzard

There may be a distinction. I believe, however, that—because of the history of the previous Government's attitude to Europe and the almost total breakdown in our relationship with our European partners—the type of obstruction that was considered would have had serious consequences for our membership of the EU and for progress in other policy spheres. The new Government have made the best of the situation in which they found themselves. Statements have been made on this subject, and I hope that more fish will be landed in British ports and that more jobs will be available on those boats for British fishermen.

Mr. Steen

As I am the vice-chairman of the all-party group on fisheries, and have the second largest port in England and Wales in my constituency, may I ask the hon. Gentleman a question? Is he aware that my fishermen say that, despite Amsterdam, no more fish will be landed in British ports than are currently landed? They say also that those landed fish will not go into British fish markets and the British fish industry but will be packed on a lorry and sent to Spain or to Holland. That is not much of an achievement, is it?

Mr. Blizzard

In Lowestoft, there is a trawler—which is a Lowestoft trawler with a Lowestoft company—that, purely and simply, is a quota hopper. It does not land any fish in the port of Lowestoft, although it is registered there. Proper enforcement of the agreement reached in those letters will require that that ship lands a significant proportion of its catch in the United Kingdom. It therefore seems reasonable to have every hope that the ship will land its catch either in the port of Lowestoft or in another UK port. The ship is fishing the same fishing fields off Lowestoft that it fished before it became a quota hopper.

Lowestoft fishermen also want proper regulation of quota hoppers and for quota hoppers to be as severely inspected as the British fleet. The Government have said that they will achieve that objective, and they have started to do so, as I am sure fishermen will appreciate.

We must also achieve an agreement between scientists and fishermen on what stocks are in the sea. I speak to scientists, who tell me one thing, and to fishermen, who tell me something else. Both groups are adamant that they are right, but they cannot both be right. I am pleased, however, that we have made some progress in Lowestoft in getting the two sides together and finding a means by which they can agree what can safely be caught to sustain stocks.

I agree with other hon. Members that there is a fundamental contradiction between the principles of the single market and the entire basis of the common fisheries policy, which is fixing member states' allocations. The contradiction should have been dealt with at the beginning, when the common fisheries policy was drawn up, but it was not. Why was the contradiction not discovered then? It should also have been dealt with in the most recent review of the common fisheries policy, but it was not. The previous Government have told us nothing about what happened.

We must examine those issues in preparing for the next review of the common fisheries policy, when, I think all hon. Members will agree, there will have to be radical reform. It is painfully obvious that the common fisheries policy has not worked, because it has not conserved fish. People in my constituency, like people across the UK, become very angry when they see the spectacle of fishermen throwing back dead fish, which they have to do if they are not to become criminals in their daily work. The public are outraged about such waste.

As we work towards a new agreement, we will have to accomplish some crucial goals. We will have to ensure that, in implementing MAGP IV, fish markets can survive. If our fish market in Lowestoft collapses, for example, our entire fishing industry will collapse. It is therefore essential to maintain the markets. I look forward to the Government supporting our fishing industry and working with it, as the Spanish, Dutch and other Governments have clearly done. Such support is why their fishing industries are strong and why we have inherited a situation in which our industry is weak.

12.9 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr (Mrs. Osborne) on her maiden speech. It is good that she chose to make it on the subject of fisheries, which used to be something of a minority interest in the House, which meant that debates On it took place late at night. The hon. Lady spoke with clarity, humour and commitment, although she appeared to announce her possible resignation four years from now; we shall have to wait to see whether her appreciation of the House improves as the years go by.

I have very pleasant memories of Ayr. My wife and I stayed in a bed and breakfast there; when the landlady asked whether I wanted one egg or two—

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

This is irrelevant.

Mr. Curry

I am merely following the courtesies of the House, as I am sure the hon. Lady understands. I said that I would have two eggs, and my wife said that she would have the same, but the landlady said that that was only for gentlemen.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary and I will find some common ground. We have frequently faced each other across the Dispatch Box and often found ourselves in agreement. He will find, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) and I found, that dealing with issues in practice is a great deal less easy than speculating on how they might be dealt with in theory.

Fishing is a difficult industry and a difficult environment. My concern is that the Government are seeking to tackle the problem of quota hopping with measures that could have little effect in practice and could well be unsustainable in law. My fear is that licence conditions will simply not do the trick—we know, because we tried them. That is the history of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 and the Factortame case, to which reference has already been made.

The alternative approach is not easy. I do not pretend for a minute that the business of treaty amendment will be obtained easily or at the first attempt, but I am disappointed that the Government appear to have written it off without even giving it a serious outing at summit level, despite remarks made by various representatives of the Labour party in the run-up to the election. Also, the Government's proposals are so tentative in construction and legality that it is not surprising that the industry regards them as showing a lack of commitment.

We have first to examine the practical utility of the measures. Three new licence conditions are proposed, which the letter from the President of the Commission to the Prime Minister suggests are either/or, not cumulative. That is the interpretation that has to be put on that letter. The first measure is the requirement to land 50 per cent. of a catch in the United Kingdom. Of course, there is already a category A pressure stock licence condition concerning visiting conditions if less than 50 per cent. is landed. The second is the requirement for the majority of a crew to reside in the UK, and the third is the requirement that most fishing trips should start from the UK.

Mr. Steen

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Curry

Very quickly.

Mr. Steen

Is my right hon. Friend aware of another letter from Jacques Santer to the Spanish Government in which he said that any country that did not want to land fish in another country did not have to do so?

Mr. Curry

I assure my hon. Friend that I was going to refer to that letter.

We have to be careful about the first of the proposed conditions—that 50 per cent. of a catch should be landed in the UK—and must ask to what extent it will affect British fishermen, because Scottish pelagic fleets land in Holland and Norway, and English east coast vessels land in Holland. There is no point trying to introduce measures that are designed to catch quota hoppers but end up causing difficulty for our own vessels. Also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said, products can be shipped practically straight from the dockside on refrigerated lorries to onward overseas destinations, thus bringing precious little local benefit.

As for starting journeys from the UK, I wonder what practical impact that would have. I suspect that many quota hoppers would simply clock in at Milford Haven as they went past and that that would count as having started their journey from the UK. If the conditions are to be more rigorous, and if there is to be more substance to them, the Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt spell it out when he responds to the debate.

The only condition that might yield some interest is the residence requirement—I suspect that it is intended to give British vessels a let-out. If it stood alone, it might produce some useful pressure but, even then, verification and control present obvious difficulties.

Do the Government envisage further conditions—for example, a requirement that vessels be inspected as they leave fishing grounds when they are under British registration? The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) asked the relevant question whether the Government intend to reinforce the proposals with decommissioning measures aimed at quota hoppers, thus introducing the carrot and the stick.

I am concerned about the legality of what is proposed. When in government, we had the experience of trying to deal with the problem by introducing legislation but then running foul of international law in doing so. That is bound to be a preoccupation.

We have a tale of several letters. The Prime Minister set out measures to demonstrate that quotas are contributing substantial economic benefits to populations dependent on fisheries … in the flag states". He asked the Commission to look constructively at and give its opinions on any draft UK measures in respect of the three conditions.

Jacques Santer's response was very guarded. He stated: With regard to the measures designed to get economic benefits for populations dependent on fisheries and related industries I should clarify that such measures may imply— that is a curious word in this context— requirements to be met on an alternative basis and concerning, inter alia". and he then mentioned the three conditions. He signed off by saying that the Commission remain ready to further clarity our view on possible measures which your Government may envisage in this respect. If that is a sort of "come hither" message, it does not seem to burn with the unrequited passion attributed to it.

Even that letter, however, got Mr. Santer into a certain amount of trouble. This brings us to the third letter—that from the Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr. Abel Matutes, to Mr. Santer on 19 June. It comprises five pages of fairly indignant protest. For example, he stated:

during the IGC the Commission representative supported my country's position, presented in various memoranda, where we stressed among other things that to place any restriction on the activity of any Community-registered vessel, such as an obligation to unload or for the crew to reside in the flag country, was incompatible with the Treaty and with jurisprudence. In the meeting of 30 September 1996, the Commission representative stated that he followed the line agreed in the College of Commissioners. Moreover, even the British request for amendments to the Treaty was expressly based on the impossibility of introducing the desired restrictions with the existing acquis communautaire. The Spanish Minister gave a detailed analysis of the judgment of the European Court of Justice in the Jaderow case, one of the celebrated cases in fisheries history. He continued: From this it follows that a member state, on fixing the way in which it will use its quota, in accordance with Art 5 part 2 of Regulation 170/83, cannot demand that catches or parts thereof should be unloaded in its own ports, He quoted extensively from the judgment and argued that any conditions with which the British Prime Minister returned from Amsterdam would be very difficult to reconcile with European law. Jacques Santer then replied in the terms presented to the House by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. That seems to leave a very thin thread linking the proposed measures with effective control of quota hoppers.

I hold no brief for the Spanish. We faced the same difficulties, and the Minister will come back to the House with the next batch of measures before long, but I am entitled to share the view of the fishing industry that the Government's proposals are likely to come under intense legal scrutiny and could well fall foul of the treaty as interpreted by the European Court of Justice. That would take us back to square one.

I seriously doubt that the Government's proposals have the legs to finish the course, but I hope that they do. I do not want the Government to fail. We have tried to crack the problem for many years, and I have bitter experience of trying to make things work.

Does it matter if the proposals do not work? Yes, it does. First, it matters because we have all been looking for a way to enshrine the spirit of the 1983 agreement by adding nationality criteria to beneficial ownership—in other words, to reconcile the treaty provisions on free trade and the movement of people and capital with the concept of fishing for the benefit of coastal communities in the flag state.

Secondly, it matters because the new multi-annual guidance programme, or fleet limitation exercise, is upon us. It is crucial that it should take account of the problem of quota hoppers, and I want to know from the Parliamentary Secretary whether he intends to proceed with it if it is demonstrated that the formula will not deliver the benefits he seeks from it. It is a complicated MAGP, and I look forward to his coming back to the House and explaining how he will make effort control and days at sea work. If that is the route that he goes down, it will be a trip down a nostalgic byway, which many hon. Members will remember, having been through that debate before.

I hope that the Government's proposals—minimalist though they are—will work. I hope that the statements about the involvement of local communities will have substance. I hope that the element in the agreement about better enforcement will be given effect. However, I have the right to doubt seriously whether the proposals are more than the tiniest incremental improvement, which may well be challenged. I wish the Government luck, but I suspect that the Minister will be back to tell us that this attempt did not work and what is to be the next wheeze.

12.19 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for providing the House with this opportunity to discuss in depth the issue of flag-of-convenience vessels, together with the Government's action to address the issue. He is right to say that, in the past, we have made common cause in arguing that we should have more time for debating fisheries. Fishing is an important industry in this country and there are many hon. Members from fishing areas who want to make their points.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's constituents and also with his comments about the effects on exports of the high pound. That is an issue for my colleagues in the Treasury, but they are well aware of the effects on exports of the high pound and of high inflation. It is ironic that the pound is so high, because people see this country as having sound fiscal management under the present Government. Nevertheless, there were measures in the Budget designed to reduce the pound's value, although it may be some time before they take effect, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is aware of the issue.

The importance of this subject is borne out by the large number of hon. Members who have participated in the debate. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), who has made a welcome return to the House. We value his knowledge, especially of the processing sector, and the fact that he plays an active role as secretary of the all-party fisheries group. The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) outlined the previous Government's position. He was fair, albeit somewhat selective in his use of historical quotes. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mrs. Osborne) made a maiden speech which was witty, informative and, with offers of racing tips and accommodation for golf tournaments, extremely generous. We welcome her valuable contribution to the debate.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) is always consistent in debates such as this—he may be consistently wrong, but he is certainly consistent and he is a long-standing contributor. He made an important point about equal access. I am on record as saying that equal access is not valid in relation to the modern common fisheries policy; in addition, it is not now relevant, given that relative stability has now been accepted by the Commission and all the other member states. We should move away from it, and the review in 2002 will give us an opportunity to do so. I, too, have been consistent and I have not changed my position on equal access.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) was one of the first Members of Parliament I saw as Fisheries Minister, which shows that he is a great champion of his fishing port. I take his comments on behalf of his fishermen very seriously indeed.

I shall try to respond to the points raised in the debate, but that will be difficult to do in just 10 minutes.

Flags of convenience are important in relation to quota hopping. The issue has been raised many times both inside and outside the House, but it has been somewhat distorted and, in some cases, used as a stick to beat the European Union by people who have agendas other than the interests of the fishing industry. Over the years, that has damaged the United Kingdom's interests and our fishing industry. To some extent, the fishing industry has been misled, for example, in respect of the protocol and the intergovernmental conference.

The previous Government's position on the IGC and the protocol was entirely bogus, as events have proved. Whether or not that action would have worked can be seen in the Government's position on the beef war. They threatened all sorts of non-co-operation, but in the end they made no progress toward getting the beef ban lifted. The same would have been true in respect of the IGC. It is true to say that, in opposition, Labour party spokespeople did not rule out the approach advocated by the Government. It would have been wrong for us to do so, because it is sensible to consider all approaches and any way to make progress. Of course, in opposition we were not in possession of the full details of our chances of making progress in that way.

Mr. Salmond

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, expectations were raised. The hon. Gentleman says that nothing was ruled out, but the industry feels that certain obligations were undertaken. The Government have chosen to go down the road of the protocol and licence conditions, but the industry is sceptical about the efficacy of that approach. Given that raising of expectations before the election, does the hon. Gentleman accept the obligation? The route chosen by the Government will have to bear fruit, or the industry and many Members of Parliament will be very disappointed indeed.

Mr. Morley

I do accept that point. We made it clear that we would not rule out any approach; what we were concerned about was making some progress. We believe that the route we have taken has delivered some improvements, to which I shall refer.

When we examined the facts and calculated the chances of our obtaining a protocol, it became clear that it was not a realistic option. As hon. Members, especially former members of the Government, know only too well, a protocol in the IGC would have needed the unanimous agreement of every single member state. It was clear to us that at least two member states—Spain and Holland, which both have an interest in quota hopping—were certainly not going to agree to any protocol that would have a meaningful effect on dealing with quota hoppers. It was not, therefore, a runner. We made it clear that we would explore all the various routes.

Mr. Gill

Will the Parliamentary Secretary give way on that point?

Mr. Morley

Yes, but very briefly, because I want to respond to some of the points raised.

Mr. Gill

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the protocol could have been obtained if the Government had held up the progress of the whole intergovernmental conference? That was my point, which he has avoided answering.

Mr. Morley

Absolutely not—I will come to it in a moment.

Unanimous agreement was needed, but it was clear that it would not be forthcoming. We wanted to look at other ways of tackling the issue. I should make it clear that, even under the Government's proposals, the protocol would not, in itself, have removed a single quota hopper or retained any quota to the UK fishing industry, because the quota hoppers were the legal owners of their quota.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)


Mr. Morley

I cannot give way—I must make progress and time is extremely limited.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made a very intelligent contribution, but I disagree with him on whether licence conditions would be effective. I do not believe that they have been properly tried. We are applying licence conditions that are far more effective than previous ones, whereby quota hoppers had the choice of either landing 50 per cent. of their catch at a UK port or calling into a UK port, eight times a year for a minimum of eight hours. Of course, they opted for the lesser requirement, and the system was not effective.

We believe that what we propose is effective. We also believe that it is legally enforceable, because we have the President of the Commission's interpretation. The Commission—the guardian of the treaties—took legal advice, and the fact that that advice was put in writing by the President of the Commission is important and will count for a lot in any future legal dispute over interpretation.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan asked whether MAGP IV could be used if we felt that no progress was being made with licence conditions. MAGP IV is a separate issue; it is about sustainability and the proper management of our fish stocks. It is not credible or realistic to say that we will not implement MAGP IV if we do not see any progress. It is also a weak lever, because, when the previous Government said that they would not implement MAGP IV, grants for safety improvements and modernisation were stopped and we were unable to access decommissioning grants. We were not in a strong position. It was not a strong bargaining point. We cannot use funds for decommissioning in a discriminatory way, but we do not rule out a targeted decommissioning scheme. We shall be only too happy to discuss that with the industry.

No central record is kept that would tell us how many fishermen comply with the safety training regulations. The database of the Sea Fish Industry Authority includes only fishermen who have completed courses run by a member of the Group Training Association. Many fishermen will have undertaken training from other approved training providers. The onus for complying with the regulations rests on individuals and on the skippers and owners of vessels.

The Marine Safety Agency monitors compliance with the regulations during inspections of registered vessels. If any of the crew members do not comply with the regulations, the skipper, the owner of the vessel and the individual concerned can be prosecuted—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)