HC Deb 07 January 2003 vol 397 cc4-8
4. Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

What plans she has to provide financial support for coastal communities affected by the reduction of fishing effort in the North sea. [89139]

8. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

if she will make a statement on the Scottish fishing industry. [89143]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

The Government are committed to protecting the interests of the UK fishing industry. A large part of the industry has depended on fish species whose stocks have been in decline, and this has necessitated some difficult decisions on future fishing effort. The decisions taken by the European Union's Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels last month will be reported to the House shortly by the fisheries Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).

The Government and the Scottish Executive are considering what help the industry may need to adjust to the new limits on fishing effort, and what additional help may he needed by fishing-dependent communities. As the hon. Gentlemen know, such decisions in Scotland are for the Scottish Executive.

Sir Archy Kirkwood

I am grateful for that important answer. Will the Secretary of State personally support an approach to Treasury Ministers to try to secure a new emergency package of short-term relief on the grounds that, over the next three to six months—the cuts will be introduced in February—trying to maintain some kind of stability in the fishing industry will be difficult until a package of decommissioning can be negotiated with it?

Mrs. Liddell

Before I reply to the hon. Gentleman, may I take the opportunity on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House, to congratulate him on his recent knighthood. All of us who have benefited from his interest in parliamentary matters have much to be grateful for. He has also comprehensively upstaged everybody who had a 30th wedding anniversary last year.

To return to the substantive point, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that at the highest levels of Government there is considerable discussion about the kind of assistance that can be given to fishing communities and how we should deal with the next six months. The new arrangements will be introduced on 1 February, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my view that it is essential that there is no posturing on these matters. There must be a serious effort to address the fishing communties' difficulties to ensure their long-term viability and to safeguard the industry for the future.

Mr. Carmichael

May I welcome everything that the right hon. Lady said about Government support for the fishing industry? I hope that she will impress on her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer the need to put money where the Government's mouth is. That money needs to go from the UK Treasury to the Scottish Executive, who can spend it in conjunction with the Scottish fishing industry not just on decommissioning, if that is considered necessary, but on other options including funded tie-up schemes.

Mrs. Liddell

On the final point, there is considerable debate about funded tie-up schemes. It is anticipated that restoring stocks to the North sea will take a considerable time. There must be serious analysis of decommissioning v. funded tie-ups, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that at the highest levels of government, considerable attention is being devoted to those matters. The situation is serious and there are no simple answers. The Government are determined to do what we can to assist the fishing communities.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the statement in The Scotsman today by George MacRae, secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association? He said: The industry has to deal with the stark reality of the result of the Brussels talks, be pragmatic and continue to work with government to improve the lot of the fishermen". Does my hon. Friend also agree that the finger-pointing and name-calling must stop? The only way that we will achieve a future for Scottish fishermen and the fish processors in my constituency is if the Government, the industry and the Scottish Executive all work together to make sure that there is a future for fishermen in Scotland.

Mrs. Liddell

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I read with great interest the comments of Mr. George MacRae this morning. He also said that while arguments about blame are inevitable to enable politicians to score points off each other, particularly in the lead-up to the 2003 elections, they will achieve nothing to help the industry. That is an extremely important point. There is a real need for people to work together to protect the fishing communities. I draw to my hon. Friend's attention the comments of Hamish Morrison, who said: The Archangel Gabriel could not have negotiated a better deal for the fishing industry.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen. North)

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the deep concern in the fishing industry, among both catchers and processors, and in their dependent communities. Will she seek urgent talks with the Prime Minister and the First Minister to consider what practical assistance can be given?

Mrs. Liddell

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Discussions are already planned not just with the Prime Minister and the First Minister, but with representatives of the fishing communities. We share Mr. MacRae's view that it is important that we all pull together to ensure the best possible outcome for the future.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am glad that the Secretary of State supports the views of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which just two days ago called for the resignation of the UK fisheries Minister. Can the Secretary of State explain how the fisheries Minister could have signed a deal that allows a fleet—the most conservation-minded fleet, fishing with 120mm mesh—nine days fishing, according to the Council regulation, while the Danish industrial fleet, fishing exactly the same waters, is allowed 23 days' fishing with hairnet mesh that destroys everything in its path? Will the proposed aid package try to protect and preserve the fishing fleet and the fishing communities that depend on it, or will it merely try to run down the industry even further than it has been run down already?

Mrs. Liddell

The hon. Gentleman does not help the cause of the fishermen. He is the man who called the European Fisheries Commissioner a thug and an ignoramus. Is that supposed to help us in our negotiations? The Danish fishing community has also been badly affected by the measures. We are well aware of the difficulties that all the North sea fishing communities face. [Interruption.] I wish the hon. Gentleman would stop posturing. It is important that we deal with the facts. All the decommissioning efforts being undertaken by the fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland have been taken into account in the negotiations. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we started off from a position where, come 1 January, we would have seen a total ban on fisheries in the North sea. [Interruption.] The proposal then was seven days of fishing per month—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a question. The Secretary of State is entitled to reply.

Mrs. Liddell

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The initial proposals were that fishing in the North sea would have been stopped as of now. The next proposal was for seven days of fishing per month. Now we have managed to negotiate 15 days. All that is a considerable improvement, but all the posturing in the world from the hon. Gentleman will not put one more fish into the North sea.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent announcement by Fullerton, a computer manufacturer in Inverclyde, of its intention to close its manufacturing base, with the loss of some 500 jobs and the consequential effect of that not only on my constituency, but on that of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), who is at this moment speaking to the unions and the management at that plant. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that those manufacturing communities that suffer job losses, such as those in Port Glasgow and Greenock, will receive the same financial support and resources afforded to those in the fishing communities?

Mrs. Liddell

My hon. Friend makes an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) is already meeting the management of another employer in the community. The Scottish Executive have announced that they will put in place the procedures that are normal in such circumstances. I share my hon. Friend's view that we should ensure that every community that is affected by unemployment is treated fairly and in a way that is sustainable for the long-term. I understand that another announcement is expected this afternoon. Commercial confidentiality prevents me from speaking about that, but I hope that the situation might prove much less bleak than people have been anticipating.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on his knighthood? We look forward to his continuing contribution in this House.

The fishing tie-up starts in approximately three weeks. Will the right hon. Lady give us some indication as to whether she believes that sufficient resources will be put into the fishing industry by the beginning of February to ensure minimum disruption to the communities? Are the Government backing the call made by Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson for compensation of £100 million from the European Community?

Mrs. Liddell

Since the conclusion of the discussions in Brussels, the Government have been very much engaged with the debate about what we can do to ensure the continuity of the fishing communities. The First Minister has met representatives of the fishing communities on a number of occasions and the Prime Minister is to meet representatives before the end of the month. I met the fisheries Minister this morning to discuss what sort of package can be made available to ensure the continuation of the fishing industry and to provide some help in the transition that is required because of these rather unfortunate times.

Mrs. Lait

There was clearly no guarantee in that answer that an arrangement will be in place by the beginning of February. However, at the end of March, there will be discussions on long-term proposals for the North sea. What part, if any, will the right hon. Lady play in those discussions? Will the Government advocate that the UK fishery should be managed nationally?

Mrs. Liddell

On the second point, no, there is no prospect of repatriating fisheries policy. Fish do not carry passports. The most important way forward for the fishing community is a common fisheries policy. Indeed, in all the debate about the fisheries industries, the successes that this Government have achieved in relation to the common fisheries policy have been completely overlooked. On the discussions that must take place in March in respect of the new system, and discussions post July, I have been in discussions with the fisheries Minister as recently as this morning on the line that the British Government should take.