HL Deb 03 August 1971 vol 323 cc1091-9

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the White Fish (Inshore Vessels) and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme 1971 be approved. The Scheme before your Lordships to-day provides for the payment of operating subsidies to the inshore and herring fleets for the twelve months from August 1 next. The Scheme covers white fish vessels under 80 ft. in length and all herring vessels, although almost all of the latter are also under 80 ft. The Government propose that for a further year the subsidy rates now payable should remain unchanged. In the review on which we based this decision, account was taken of profitability in 1970, when average profits, before depreciation, showed a further healthy increase of about 30 per cent. compared to 1969. Earnings in 1970 from white fish and herring catches for the vessels concerned by the Scheme were £22.8 million: an increase of £3.5 million over 1969. Since the beginning of this year, earnings have continued to rise, and at present stand about 24 per cent. higher than the same period of last year.

In the Government's view, the industry is generally in a very healthy state financially, and it is our policy to try to ensure that this continues. I therefore suggest to your Lordships that the subsidy settlement is a generous one, and I commend it to your Lordships. The Scheme itself, apart from some very minor drafting changes, is in the same form as that approved by your Lordships a year ago. I beg to move.

Moved, That the White Fish (Inshore Vessels) and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme 1971, be approved.—(Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.)

7.16 p.m.


My Lords, it has been the custom for as long as I can remember that when we came to deal with fish Orders of this kind—and those who were Members of another place will confirm this—we regarded it as an opportunity for saying something about the fishing industry in general. This was the Order on which we always"hung our hats ". The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, replying to the debate in the other place on this particular Order, said that it provided an opportunity of discussing everything about the fishing industry. I do not propose to discuss everything; but there are certain points arising from it. First, as to the health of the industry: one is delighted to note that it is doing so well, that the foundation which one had some hand in laying has provided the results which the noble Baroness was able to announce one year later. I was grateful to her for the most recent figures that she gave. I was glad that she left out of her remarks something put in by the Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who, in introducing the Order into the other place, said that the industry has done rather well and"we are leaving them with the money ". He issued a kind of warning that the Government might not be so generous next year. All I can say is that these words take away a little of the gilt from the ginger bread. Let us consider that matter next year. If the industry has not done well in the concluding part of this year perhaps it will come back and ask for additions.

It is good to know that the industry is in a fairly healthy condition, but there are one or two things worrying those concerned at the moment. First, the industry would like to know what its position is going to be if we go in the Common Market because subsidies play a considerable part in its net earnings. I think it is true to say that without the subsidies the industry would have been in a very nearly impossible position. Obviously, if this change into a wider market is going to take place, the industry would want to know what is going to be its position vis-à-vis subsidies. Secondly, the industry has been troubled, I think unnecessarily, about the extent of fishing limits. Under the new agreement, as I understand it, the present limit up to six miles is the strict preserve of the British fishing fleets; no one can come inside that 6-mile limit. Between 6 miles and 12 miles there are certain countries with historical fishing rights who, even at the present time, can come in and fish. If any alteration is going to be made, perhaps the noble Baroness might spell out just what other countries may be entitled to come inside this band in addition to those which at present enjoy that right.

A third problem has been raised recently. It is the announcement by Iceland that she proposes to extend her fishing limits to 50 miles. I do not want to say anything which would cause any trouble about this proposal, because it is only a short time ago since I had the privilege of visiting Iceland as the guest of the Government and met a warm and kindly welcome from the people there. When we remember the troubles we faced together in time of war, we are grateful for the friendship that existed between the two countries. But if they are proposing to extend their limits to 50 miles, this will have grave repercussions on our fishing industry. It is not good enough for people to claim limits for themselves without thinking of the repercussions that will follow. Our distant water fleet depends on fishing grounds in that band, and if changes are going to take place it means that the distant water fleet will have to concentrate on the fishing grounds which are already available to us and the situation will become more and more difficult for the industry as a whole, because of the intrusion of the distant water fleet into the grounds used by the middle water and even near water fleets. So this proposal does not fill the fishermen with great happiness.

One or two points arise from such a decision. These limits are fixed by the Law of the Sea Conference and I understand that the next conference is not due until 1973. I should think that the decisions made at the last Law of the Sea Conference were binding on all the countries concerned, but it would be as well if the noble Baroness could say to-night that it is the view of the Government that that decision is binding and that any proposed changes to be made before 1973 should be challenged at the International Court. It is difficult for an industry like the fishing industry to plan its future and the building of boats if it does not know what fishing grounds are going to be available to it. This is a repercussion which can have disastrous effects not only on the fishing industry as such but also on boat builders and all the ancillary industries. While we are all glad to know that the industry has done so well over the past 12 months, we must not shut our eyes to what is worrying it at present.

Though this is not in the Order, I was glad to hear announced only to-day by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food an increase of £400,000 in the grants to the distant water fleet. I have no objection to this. They do a very good job of work. But even with all the success they have had over the past 12 months, it seems that the Government have had to provide another £400,000 in subsidies and, as I know from my experience in the Ministry and certainly from my experience of the Treasury, the fishermen would not get that increase if the Minister had not put up a very concrete case. If the noble Baroness could reply to these points, we should all be grateful to her.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, I have always been told that there are not quite the same strict rules of order in your Lordships' House as can be found in another place, and on this Order, which is limited to the white fish and herring industry subsidies for next year, we have given ourselves an opportunity of what I think is a useful discussion on some of the main problems which are before the fishing industry as a whole. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, for having welcomed the Order. I should also like to pay tribute to the fact that he was responsible for the foundations of the successful operations, the results of which have been given to the House tonight.

The noble Lord asked me four main questions. The first is: what is the position of the fishing industry under the Common Market regulations and what is the position of subsidies? This is a very important point. It is true that there is nothing yet definite, because the E.E.C. still has to agree on the forms of the Community subsidies to the fishing industry. On the other hand, at the moment it appears unlikely that the United Kingdom would be able to continue the operating subsidies, either for the inshore or the deep-sea fleets, after entry into the E.E.C. That is as we see it at present, but if we did abolish the subsidies we could raise fishermen's incomes in two main ways: first, by increasing grants and loans for vessels and equipment or by price support for minimum prices, while not necessarily increasing the prevailing market prices, which would cut out low prices owing to glut conditions and would give compensation under such conditions. Thus fishermen's average earnings might be expected to be at a higher level.

The noble Lord also asked about fishing limits and said, quite rightly, that there is a good deal of confusion about them. There is considerable confusion in the public mind. It is not realised that the United Kingdom has a 12-mile limit, which was agreed at the 1964 Fisheries Convention and which reserves to the United Kingdom all waters within 12 miles measured from base lines. As the noble Lord will know, as the base lines were drawn on the West side of the Long Isle, this has the effect in practice of including within our exclusive limits a greater area than might at first be supposed. Following the 1964 Fisheries Conference, the United Kingdom granted a number of specific rights to other countries who, as the noble Lord said, base their claims on historic rights. This was fishing for certain species of fish in defined areas between the 6-mile and 12-mile belt; and because these concessions exist around our coast there has grown up a kind of notion in the public mind of an exclusive 6-mile limit.

The noble Lord asked which countries would be likely to come in, were we to allow fishing between the 6-mile and the 12-mile belts beyond those members already fishing there, who are Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Eire, and whose rights are in perpetuity. There is also Norway, which has rights up to 1984. The noble Lord, Lord Hoy, will recall that Norway did not sign the 1964 Convention. The country which would be most interested in being able to join us in fishing between the 6-mile and the 12-mile limit would be Denmark. I do not think that Italy or Luxembourg would be very interested in this method of fishing.

But we did not ask for an exclusive 12-mile limit, because it would diminish the rights of the Community countries who have already got rights between the 6-mile and the 12-mile limit. If we look to the status quo as a permanent solution, this would imply a measure of discrimination between those who have already the right to fish in the 6-mile and the 12-mile belt and, for example. Denmark, the country most likely to wish to have that right. That is why we put forward a compromise proposal and suggested that the only satisfactory way of resolving the Community's fishery problem, as an enlarged Community, is to restrict fishing in waters within our 6-mile limit, as measured from the base lines, to vessels belonging to the ports from which these waters are now being fished—in other words, our own vessels—and that therefore we would consider opening the 6-mile to 12-mile fishing limits to those countries who apply to join the European Community.

The noble Lord asked me about Iceland. I must say that I am glad he has raised this question, even if it does refer particularly to the deep water fleet, because it is an important matter to our fishing industry. As the noble Lord has said the Icelandic Government has announced its intention of extending its limits up to 50 miles by September, 1972. The noble Lord asked me to give the Government's position on this matter. I would say quite categorically that we consider that to extend fishery limits beyond 12 miles is contrary to international law and is also contrary to the 1961 Agreement, which first of all said that we should have consultation and at least six months' notice, and that if no agreement was reached then, we should bring the matter to the International Court. At the moment, we have made our position on this matter quite clear through our Ambassador in Iceland, and we are trying hard to clarify the position.

The noble Lord mentioned the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference in 1973, and that brings back memories of when the noble Lord and myself were members of the Council of Europe at Strasbourg. We raised the question of fishing limits, and I think there were few countries on the Continent at the time who realised the importance of fishing to some of the nations represented round that conference table. We have a preparatory committee at work at the moment in Geneva, and it is here that we shall hope to get the preliminary statement of Iceland's position, when we shall of course make our own position absolutely clear. On this point I would say that in 1970 the distant water fleet took off Iceland about £12 million worth of fish from the waters in that region: the corresponding Scottish figure is considerably less, but it is also of great significance to us namely, £750,000.

Lastly the noble Lord mentioned the fact that he had seen on the tape—and I think he must have had word of this before—




All I can say to the noble Lord is——


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but the tape apparently had more information than your Lordships' House. I had to go out and get it from the tape.


My Lords, I think it was probably because it was in answer to a Written Question which should have become available at six o'clock in another place. It is quite true that my right honourable friends have decided to make a change in the deep sea subsidy arrangements for the two years commencing August 1 of this year, which will have the effect of increasing the operating subsidy by £400,000, subject to the existing maximum of £4 million in any 12 months' period. There are considerable details as to this, but I do not think at this hour the House would wish me to go into them. The position in the deep water fleet, as the noble Lord knows well, is that these subsidies are payable for three years at a time, while the subsidies which are before the House and we are now discussing are reviewed every year. Therefore, I would return the House to the Order which is before us, and hope that your Lordships will approve it.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask her two questions? She has given us some interesting facts on the limits to the fishing, but I believe that one of the things that concerns the public at large is the type of fishing, and in particular the mesh of the nets used by a number of Continental countries which will come within the area. Will there be any restriction on these? Furthermore, there is concern about the amount of poaching and illegal fishing at night around our coast. I wonder whether anything further will be done to try to improve our fishery protection.


My Lords, in answer to my noble friend's first question, as to the limitation of net size and the type of fishing, this of course is subject to the international agreements on this matter to which we are a party. On the second question, about trying to contain poaching, I cannot at this moment give any indication that we are about to start on a large building programme of more fishery protection vessels. However, I would say that we are well aware of the necessity not only of trying to contain poaching through our own fleet, but also with the help of the Royal Navy.

On Question, Motion agreed to.