HL Deb 18 December 1975 vol 366 cc1586-605

12.8 p.m.

Lord STRABOLGI rose to move, That the White Fish and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) (No. 3) Scheme 1975, laid before the House on 20th November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to provide for payment of aid to the fishing industry for the final quarter of this year. I told the House when we debated this subject on 21st October that the Government would be laying a further order to complete the aid arrangements announced by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 29th July. Your Lordships will observe that the Order before us today covering the period October to December 1975 only, is No. 3 in calendar sequence. Perhaps it would help if I briefly describe circumstances leading up to it.

The year opened with the fleet in the grip of an adverse costs to earnings situation. Given the new pattern of costs, dominated of course by fuel, and likely changes in the future pattern of fishing, some alteration in the fleet was both inevitable and right. But the pace of change was gathering an unhealthy momentum which, if not arrested, could have led to permanent structural damage. It was decided, therefore, to give a temporary aid, for six months only, to allow the industry—and I use the term in the widest sense—time to adjust to the changed circumstances. Subsequently, it became apparent that adjustment was occurring more slowly than anticipated. The catching sector began to rationalise its operations, particularly by the removal from service of a number of old, high cost vessels. However, prices at port auctions, which really hold the key to economic and operational stability, had not recovered significantly from levels to which they had descended 12 months previously. The Government therefore decided that the circumstances justified continuation of aid.

On 29th July the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced that aid would be continued until—but only until—the end of the year. But, to ensure that resources were adapted to need, bearing in mind of course the changeable nature of the industry, the level of aid was fixed initially for the July to September quarter only, leaving the final period to be settled later. The order before us is necessary to implement the arrangement announced by the Minister on 23rd October for the final quarter of the year. Noble Lords will be aware that the daily rates of aid applicable to all but the two smallest categories of vessel have been reduced.

I should like to say a few words about this. At the end of June this year, earnings for the fleet as a whole were 15 per cent. down on the corresponding period last year. This was a material factor in the decision taken at that time to continue the aid temporarily. Of course, bearing in mind the reductions which have occurred, particularly in the deep sea sector, a reduction in overall earnings might be expected. Yet during the quarter ended 30th September, earnings were 1.6 per cent. higher than the same quarter last year; this from a smaller fleet. It implies improving unit efficiency, and in that sense the industry can be seen to have used the breathing space afforded by the temporary aid to adjust operations to the changed circumstances. As there were no reasons apparent in October why this recovery should not continue, we took the view that the reduced level of aid for the final quarter was consistent with the needs of the situation and the orderly phasing out of the temporary arrangements in line with stated intentions. More recently fuel prices have been increased, adding to the industry's cost burdens. This is a factor, which is also being examined by the Government.

To return to the Order, I should say that we have also reduced the number of qualifying days from 30 and 43 for inshore and deep sea vessels to 20 and 30 respectively. This should be helpful, in view of the usual interruption to fishing caused by the weather at this time. For this final quarter we have set aside the sum of£1 million being additional to the sums of £6¼ million made avail able for the first half year and £2¼ million for the third quarter. It is misleading of course to take the final period in isolation. It is necessary to look back at what we set out to do, and balance the aid given over the year as a whole against the objective and the results achieved. Our aim has been to ensure that during a difficult time our fishing fleet is preserved in a situation where it will be ready to meet opportunities which arise.

On the marketing side we have sought to protect returns. We succeeded in persuading the Community to introduce for the first time reference prices for imports of frozen fish products, which protect the whole Community market from undercutting, by unduly low priced Third Country imports. This protection is now a permanent feature of ours and those of our Community partners' markets. It is encouraging to note prices are now showing response to market factors. Quayside prices for the main species generally began to turn upwards by mid summer and have since shown steady improvement over those ruling in the corresponding period last year. More over, fish prices are influenced by the price of other protein sources which may be expected to rise next year.

My Lords, as well as the temporary financial aid we are considering today, which benefits the sector catching about 90 per cent. of our white fish and herring, account must be taken of an extensive continuous programme of help to the fishing industry. Because these aids are of an on-going nature they sometimes tend to be taken for granted, but this should not be allowed to obscure their purpose or value. They include the provision of grants and loans for vessel construction and improvement; aid for the improvement of fishery harbours and shore based facilities; research and development, carried out directly by the Government, or by the White Fish Authority and Herring Industry Board, and expert scientific support for the industry.

My Lords, in conclusion, I wish to say that the Government are fully aware of the problems still facing the industry, and despite the financial problems entailed, have matched their concern with effective action. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the White Fish and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) (No. 3) Scheme 1975, laid before the House on 20th November, be approved.—(Lord Strabolgi.)

12.15 p.m.


My Lords, I see that other noble Lords wish to take part in the debate, but I think it would be convenient if I spoke at this stage. First, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for having explained the purposes of this order. I know that he takes a particular interest in the fishing industry and its prospects, although he is not in the Department. This is the third scheme this year, as the noble Lord told us, and it is to cover the last quarter. As he mentioned, less money is allocated— £1 million for the three months. But this is for the current period which, I remind your Lordships, ends in two weeks' time, and the Government have made it clear that they do not intend to renew the scheme. They are assuming—and this was confirmed by the noble Lord in his remarks—that the fortunes of the fishing industry will improve. But this depends upon world conditions: markets, prices, costs, and especially the actions of other nations, in particular Iceland on which I shall say a few words in a moment.

Our principal criticism is that there appears to be no consistent policy and these schemes have followed each other as day to day expedients. This has meant that throughout this year fishermen have faced great uncertainty because these schemes have been introduced towards the end of each period to which they referred, and during the period the fishermen did not know whether or not they were to get support. Can the Government now give us an assurance that they will provide further support if, contrary to their expectations, the fishing industry again finds itself in serious difficulties? It is subject to external factors—world conditions, as I have mentioned—not to labour disputes at home, or strikes, or industrial troubles of that kind.

The figure of £1 million for this scheme is a drop in the ocean as compared with the many millions we have been discussing in recent days in relation to other industries. This industry also provides food at reasonable prices which is needed for British housewives. I wish to summarise briefly the causes of the difficulties, as follows. First, the crisis this year followed the sharp increase in the cost of fuel oil, and this is about to go up again. Secondly, there was a substantial reduction in the American market for fish, and that caused a worldwide situation. It meant that Norway and Iceland tried to get rid of their surplus fish on the British market, thereby depressing the price of fish for British fishermen. Thirdly, the herring industry has perhaps been the worst hit of all. Herring is always a mysterious fish, and scientists find it difficult to follow its habits, but I think that the fishermen are right in believing that this situation is largely due to over-fishing by the fleets that indulge in herring fishing.

The North-East Atlantic Commission's quota system has been brought in to try to control the stocks of herring, but as yet that does not appear to have been good enough to ensure stocks for the future. The Government apparently see signs of improvement, and I agree that there are indications that parts of the industry have been doing better in recent weeks. But there is no guarantee that this will last. Therefore, although we all hope that it will, and that the improvement will spread, I ask the Government to keep their minds open about again coming forward with a scheme should it be necessary.

One of the most worrying symptoms is that last September it was reported that 40 per cent. of those fishermen who had obtained loans for buying their boats were behind with their payments. That, I think, is much larger than it has ever been before, because, on the whole, fishermen are reliable and meticulous about the payments on the loans which they receive.

Now I should like to turn to conservation and the wishes of various nations to extend control over fishing beyond the present 12-mile internationally-recognised fishing limits. As your Lordships know, there is a world Conference on the Law of the Sea continuing, and virtually all the nations in the world, including the land-locked nations, are taking part again in the session which is to start in March. But there are so many subjects being considered by that conference—and rightly so, because they are related—that it is difficult for the urgent fishing matters to be settled. For example, there are navigation rights, in which this country is very much concerned; there is pollution; and, also, besides the questions of oil and gas in continental shelves, there is the question of deep-sea mining, especially beyond the continental shelves. That is perhaps the most important problem for the future, the most important matter to be settled; but as a result of this the urgent question of fishing limits and conservation schemes is being held up.

We do know, however, that there is a very large consensus, a virtual agreement, among the 130-odd nations taking part, upon a 200-mile economic zone. So we know that that is virtually agreed, but it cannot be made the subject of a treaty because of these other important subjects, which will take a time to deal with. It seems to me unlikely that the next session of the Law of the Sea Conference, beginning in March, will reach world agreement on a 200-mile economic zone, much as we should welcome that. I therefore ask the Government to look at the proposal I made in a debate this summer for the North-East Atlantic area. It would be for a regional fisheries agreement and would be based on conservation, and any new zones or limits would be consistent with the expected 200-mile economic zone, when that was later agreed on a world-wide basis. It would be an agreement covering fisheries only, and it would conform with what has already virtually been agreed but is being delayed.

The fishing industry, as I have described, has been passing through a desperately difficult time, and immediate measures are necessary to stop fish stocks being seriously depleted. This follows, I should remind the House, the period 1970 to 1973, when the inshore industry was enjoying the greatest prosperity it has ever known; and I hope the House will not consider me immodest if I mention incidentally that it was the time when I was the sponsoring Minister in Scotland. I mention that because it was also the period when it was possible to remove the operating subsidies. I cannot remember any objection or dissent from the fishing industry when the operating subsidies were removed at that time, because they were doing so well. But, of course, we, as indeed, no doubt, were Ministers on the opposite Bench, were very ready—and we made it clear that we would bring in schemes if world conditions suddenly changed that situation.

Now I come to the refusal of Iceland to renew the previous agreement or to conclude a reasonable new agreement—and this has aggravated the situation for our fishermen. The Government are right to support our trawler men in continuing to fish lawfully in the high seas, but I am sorry to say that there are some in this country who support Iceland in her claim. In particular, members of the Scottish Nationalist Party, the SNP, seeking favour with the inshore fishermen, are in fact performing a disservice to the whole British industry when they support Iceland's unilateral claim and criticise the work of the Royal Navy and the RAF in helping our vessels. Such a policy, if adopted by Britain, would rebound on Scottish boats which fish in the area and off the Faroes and off Norway. Moreover, unilateral extension of fishing limits by Iceland, if it were accepted, would force our large trawlers back to fish round our own coasts, so making fishing greatly more difficult for our inshore fleets. So it cannot be in the Scottish interest—in fact, it is against Scottish interests—and is a very parochial, misinformed view, for the SNP to be supporting the Icelandic claim to 200 miles.

Now the Icelandic Government stubbornly refuse to negotiate except on the basis of their derisory offer. To end this dispute it seems there must be mediation of some kind. The International Court has already rejected Iceland's arguments. What is needed now, I suggest, is an independent scientific assessment of the conservation measures needed in the seas round Iceland, and I would ask the Government: Have they considered a form of international mediation based on such anassessment? Both Britain and Ice land are agreed that conservation is necessary; the difference is in the amounts of fish that can be caught annually. We have a common interest in that conservation, but the area in question is the high seas. The North-East Atlantic Commission have demonstrated that agreement on conservation can be reached among nations without individual States claiming, unilaterally, rights over those high seas beyond the present accepted 12-mile fishing limit. Can the noble Lord tell us the latest situation, both where our trawlers are fishing and also on the prospects of negotiations with Iceland?

My Lords, some days ago I asked a Question on the Icelandic dispute, and in a supplementary inquired whether the British trawlers had been told by the Government to observe, within the 50-mile area, the terms of the three-year agreement which expired last November; that is to say, whether we were still working within the terms of the previous agreement. Of course, that agreement also specified named vessels and areas to be fished in at different parts of the year. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us, in so far as the vessels can fish without Icelandic interference. whether we are trying to continue within the terms of the last agreement.

My Lords, we retain sanctions in this dispute. Iceland wants concessions by way of landing fish in Britain and also on import duties in exporting fish to the EEC, and I hope that the Government will stand firm as regards the concessions which Iceland is demanding in these respects until we get a reasonable agreement.

My Lords, the fishing industry realises that a new agreement will mean allowing the catching of fewer fish. I think that is accepted by the industry; but not the drastic reduction on which the Icelandic Government is now insisting. When the 200-mile economic zone is eventually adopted universally, it will require phasing out by all coastal States, not the immediate prohibition of all fishing by foreign vessels; and I am sure there will also be agreements that fishermen of other countries will be able to continue on their traditional fishing grounds, no doubt in return for advantages granted, either in fisheries or in other fields. What are the Government doing to prepare for the changes which we can see coming with the 200-mile zone? It means that the nature of the British industry is having to change. Have the Government yet formulated a policy on this? Are they pursuing the question of fishing for blue whiting and other fish which live in deeper waters and which have not previously been fished for on any scale? Are the Government having discussions with the industry on such research, and also on other changes which may be necessary?

Perhaps I could also just mention the very important matter of the EEC common fisheries policy. The present ten year agreement virtually continues the 12 mile situation that there was before this country joined the EEC. That continues until 1983. I make that point because there has been a lot of misinformed reporting in the Press that the year is 1982. In fact it runs to the beginning of 1983. The bringing in of the 200 mile economic zone completely changes the basis of that ten year agreement, and the ten year agreement was concluded knowing there would be great changes, and giving the opportunity for negotiations in the meantime. I would ask the Government how far the process of working out new arrangements or adapting the Common Fisheries Policy has reached. Although there is plenty of time, I believe the sooner that this is tackled, the better.

My last point refers to the comment which has been made by the Statutory Instruments Committee. I raise this because it has only been made within the past two or three days and since this matter was discussed in another place. The Statutory Instruments Committee is a Joint Committee of both Houses. They drew attention to this Scheme on the ground that the purport of the Scheme was not clear on one point. They said: It is not clear from the wording whether a period of 24 hours from, for example, noon on one day to noon on the next should be counted as one day, two days or not at all. That throws doubt on the wording of the Scheme, and the Committee consider it unfortunate that the Ministry have followed a precedent which is ambiguous in meaning and consider the meaning should have been clarified in the present Scheme. So, apart from the purpose of this Scheme it is necessary to draw attention to this comment which has been made since discussion took place in another place. I ask the Minister whether he can comment for the Government on any action they arc going to take upon that criticism by the Statutory Instruments Committee.

12.32 p.m.


My Lords, it was my intention to intervene when my noble friend the Minister was coming to the end of his observations, but when I saw the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, about to rise, naturally I yielded to him because it was appropriate that the Opposition should express some opinion on this Order, which, although it appears to be of limited provision, financially and otherwise, is of the utmost importance. I assume that the definition of "white fish" includes cod, and it occurred to me that the Minister, in submitting the scheme, might have made some reference to events on the perimeter of Iceland, but probably he thought that this was not the occasion; I can understand that. But the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has taken most of the words out of my mouth in what he said about the general position of the fishing industry. If I enter any caveat at all, it is about his remark that when he occupied a Departmental position and had some responsibility for the fishing industry he acted with good will, generosity and efficiency and so everything in the garden was lovely—if I could use a rather strange metaphor about the fishing industry.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. In fact, I simply said that I might be immodest but it was incidental that I happened to be in that situation; I made no claim to the qualities which the noble Lord suggested.


My Lords, I accept every word of what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has said. Ever since I can remember—I will explain the reason why in a moment—there has been considerable turbulence in the fishing industry, particularly in that section of the industry which is in deep sea fishing. Why do I remember, my Lords? It is because many years ago one of my tasks—not altogether self imposed—was to seek to organise fisher men. I frequently visited Hull, Grimsby, Barry Dock, Cardiff, Fleetwood and other parts of the country associated with fishing interests, and met with some measure of success. But there were interventions of a political character and and so I departed from the fishing arena to the "fishing" that occupies one in the political field. That is my explanation.

What surprises me is that the Government have not exhibited much greater interest in the fishing industry; but in deed that applies to successive Governments. Fishing has been one of the Cinderella industries, despite the fact that we have relied for our foodstuffs very largely on the protein which the fishermen provide. For some time there have been subsidies, and they are to be retained and possibly increased. I do not think that the Government have been over-generous in this matter at all. I venture the opinion that before very long much more money will be required to keep the fishing industry alive. In-shore fishing has been subjected to great hazards and difficulties over the years. There have been frequent complaints; there have been many deputations to Parliament, to Members in another place and possibly to Members of your Lordships' House. From time to time there are still difficulties concerned with infiltration, trawling by those who have no right to intervene, and so on.

I do not think your Lordships would care for a prolonged debate on this subject on this occasion. Perhaps after Christmas it may be desirable to have a debate because of the circumstances. I will confine myself now to two points. The first is about the Law of the Sea Conference. We have read about this affair for a long time, and now it has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that they may come to an agreement about the 200-mile limit. I am trying to think of the language which would be appropriate regarding the noble Lord's observations about a 200-mile limit. I can imagine the infiltration which will take place, the illegal trawling and all the negotiations and legal arguments which will develop regarding the 200-mile limit. It is impossible to set a limit of any kind even with a 12-mile limit there have been innumerable discussions and difficulties over the years. It would happen if we had a 50-mile limit; so if we have a 200-mile limit it will be even more difficult.

I should like to come to my second point, which is about the EEC. It seems that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was not enthusiastic but generous in what he said about the EEC in this matter. When one considers that the West Germans came to an agreement with Iceland simultaneously with the United Kingdom's seeking to come to an agreement with them, but we failed and had to resort to naval action, it does not seem to me that the unity we expected from the EEC has developed as was anticipated. One might have thought that the West German Government would have sought the aid of the United Kingdom Government so that negotiations should be, though not of universal or completely EEC character, at any rate of a kind indicating that the United Kingdom was not isolated in such a matter. It makes one wonder whether there is any real unity in the EEC when it comes to a problem of this character.

I should like to congratulate—and I am sure I express the view of all Members of your Lordships' House—all those deep-sea fishermen of Grimsby, Hull, afraid. All these prices keep going up week by week. I notice that my noble reference in the Press the other day that, somewhat reluctantly, it had been agreed that captains of these trawlers might take some liquid refreshment on board with them. Hitherto this had been avoided because of possible difficulties that might be caused thereafter. When I read this passage I recalled a conversation I had many years ago with the late Captain Boon who was Commodore of the old Anchor Line. I apologised to him on one occasion when practically all the stoke-hold members of the crew—this was in the coal-burning days and there were probably about 150 men in the stokehold—were drunk; I apologised for what had happened. He said that he could never understand how anyone should go to sea sober. There is something to be said for that, and certainly it applies to the men who man the deep-sea trawlers. They need all the liquor they can lay their hands on, and I should like to express my utmost admiration to them. At the same time, I should like to express my appreciation of the Royal Navy men who have had imposed upon them the most difficult and unpleasant task of being on the verge of engaging in hostilities of a limited character with a country which is associated with us in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. What could be more unpleasant?

Perhaps on a future occasion we may be given the opportunity to discuss this at greater length, but at the moment I will confine myself to agreeing with what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has said. I hope that my noble friend, if not now then at some future time, on behalf of the Government will enter into more detail on the matters to which reference has been made.


My Lords, now that the Sex Discrimination Bill is on the Statute Book, perhaps I might he pardoned if I try to speak like a housewife. Because of the imminence of the lunch hour—when I expect there will be fish on the menu—I shall be very brief. In my household we live very largely on fish, and whether the shop ping is done by my wife or myself we find that the price is creeping up: mackerel one week, herring the next week, whiting the next week, and Dover sole—a very rare purchase these days, I am afraid. All these prices keep going up week by week. I notice that my noble friend in his introductory speech made some reference to prices and I gather from his remarks that we are to expect prices to rise still further. I welcome this subsidy, and indeed any aid which can be given to those heroic men, particularly those who brave the rigours of the North Sea. I do not think we can do too much for them.

I have a statistical turn of mind and from time to time I read those little passages in the business pages, where they give the landing prices for fish. One thing that strikes me is the enormous gap between the landing prices which the trawler owners obtain and the prices that we pay in the fish shops. This might not be the occasion for my noble friend to inquire into the matter, but I hope that he will remind his right honourable friend Mrs. Shirley Williams of this huge gap and ask whether she will investigate it.

12.46 p.m.

Lord HOY

My Lords, it is not my intention to detain your Lordships for more than two or three minutes. The last question raised by my noble friend has existed within the fishing industry throughout all the years I was attached to it and for long before that. No one could ever find a satisfactory explanation of the difference between the landing price and the retail price. Perhaps someone else might have another try at it, because I think that it is a matter which could have a greater effect than most people might think. Ultimately it is possible that people will be restrained from eating fish, not because they dislike it—on the contrary, they like it very much—but as prices keep going up and up obviously there comes a barrier which even those of us who are interested in the industry's welfare cannot break down.

Iceland has been mentioned. I would agree with my noble friend Lord Shinwell that this is not the time to go into a full exploration of the fishing industry. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, raised the matter but I think it would be much better to deal with this in a general debate rather than in the limited way we are dealing with it today. Half a dozen years ago I had the privilege of paying an official visit to Iceland and spent a week there, enjoying the hospitality, the warmth and friendship of the people. A lot of useful information was exchanged between the two Governments Obviously, it is a matter of great personal regret to me—and I am sure that every Member of Parliament, whether of this House or of another place, will share this regret—that we should find ourselves in dispute with Iceland today. I remember the first case which went to the Inter national Court at The Hague, in which judgment was given in favour of Iceland. This was accepted by Britain, although we perhaps did not like it. The trouble now arises because this dispute has gone to the Court and the Court have decided in favour of Britain, so that Iceland is Row saying: "We don't like that Court in any case". But you cannot have an International Court just to give you favourable decisions. You have to face the realities of the situation, and this is what Iceland has not done.

I do not think it does any good to the fishing industry of this country for us to try and tell them not to behave in this way—no good at all—because, after all, if every country is going to decide to alter its lines unilaterally, we are going to finish up with the world in a state of chaos that can only get worse over the years. So all the countries concerned must meet, even though that will take a little time. But I am hoping that the new conference will at least take a decision which is suitable to the fishing interests of every country in the world. When that is done, we can get rid of this dispute which I know is abhorred by the Government, as well as by every one else.

May I make another point on the Scheme? It used to be my job to introduce far too many orders, and it was always rather late in the day before subsidies were fixed under them. I do not think there is any mystery about the reason, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, will agree. One has to see what happens over a period of three months and then apportion the available cash according to the results. It is true that when results are good every Government want to get rid of some part of the subsidy which they are paying, and when the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, dealt with these matters he said that as the industry had been a little more successful he would cut the subsidy. Nobody objected, because subsidies are there to be used if necessary; and if they are not necessary the subsidies arc not paid.

Apparently, on this occasion market prices, have been improving, but the industry is still going through a very difficult period and costs will keep on increasing. The industry has no control over costs and neither have the Government; let us be quite fair and honest about that. If those who supply us with oil put up the price, then either we do without it or we pay the increased price; and if we pay it industry as a whole, including the fishing industry, has to meet the new charge. But inasmuch as that is happening, we are entitled to say to the Government: "Keep this in mind and do not say that this is the end", because it may well be that as a consequence of actions around Ice land the economy of the industry will be somewhat upset and it will then be necessary for the Government to make further adjustments and further rules, plans and orders to meet the need.

I also want to pay my tribute to the men of the industry, with whom I have been associated for so long, and to add my humble word of praise to the people in the Navy who are doing a: very difficult job indeed, because no one likes quarrelling with a friend.

12.53 p.m.


My Lords, before I reply in detail, I should like to associate myself with the tributes paid to the industry by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and my noble friends Lord Shinwell and Lord Hoy. Everything they said was absolutely right and the Government are very conscious of the valuable and important work that our fishermen do under very difficult conditions. For many years between the wars, my father was a Member for Kingston upon-Hull, and I knew very well from an early age as a boy—in fact, as children we used to spend some time with the Humber pilots and we went out to sea with them—the wonderful work that the fishermen do and, as I said, the Government are very conscious of the importance of the industry.

The debate has ranged fairly wide but, of course, the problems of the industry are very much before us at the moment. I should like to say how much I appreciate the constructive approach of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and I shall do my best to answer the various questions that he raised. First, there is the question of the fishery limits which I shall deal with generally; and then there is the matter of Iceland which I shall deal with later.

The question of fishery limits cannot be fully resolved until after the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference has completed its discussions. It is simply not feasible to have temporary or local extensions of limits in the meantime, and no sector of the industry would achieve any significant protection by trawl-free zones or the like. If, however, other countries seek to extend their limits against us, the Government have stressed that the interests of United Kingdom fishermen will be safeguarded. The other question affecting our future resources is that of common access to the waters of the Community, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. Here the Government have made it clear that there must be an amendment of the existing access provisions of the Common Fisheries Policy. This is, of course, a highly complex issue and we expect to have hard and detailed discussions on the basis of the Community's proposals.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, spoke about regional agreements and I believe he raised these earlier when a previous order came before the House. The Government's stated aim is to seek international agreement on limits through the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference which, as your Lordships know, is to meet again in New York in March. If the conference does not reach agreement, the Government recognise that steps may have to be taken to safeguard United Kingdom interests. Since so many nations fish in the waters which would become the United Kingdom's extended zone, the achievement of regional agree ments—which could be made only after discussion with all the nations concerned —would present considerable difficulties and they are not thought to be feasible. Furthermore, account would also have to be taken of the interests of other members of the Community. Fortunately, though, my Lords, there already exists a voluntary agreement for restricting catches under the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. Quotas offer the best protection for the stock, and will continue to do so no matter what limits regime is settled by the Law of the Sea Conference or by the Common Fisheries Policy.

I should like now to turn to Iceland which I believe was raised by all noble Lords. I do not wish to discuss the point in detail today for, as noble Lords will readily appreciate, the question of mediation would equally be a matter for the Icelandic Government. But my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has stressed the anxiety of the United Kingdom Government to examine any possibilities which may assist the reaching of a satisfactory conclusion to this unfortunate affair. I shall certainly ensure that what has been said is brought to my right honourable friend's attention.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, also asked under what agreement our fishermen are working at present. In order to maintain a good atmosphere for the possible resumption of negotiations, Her Majesty's Government asked the fishing industry to continue to abide substantially by the terms of the interim agreement after its expiry on 13th November. So far, the industry has been able to take adequate catches on these terms, but our future attitude will be governed by the need to safeguard the livelihood of the industry in carrying out its legal right to fish on the high seas, consistent of course with the requirements of conservation.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, asked an interesting question about the blue whiting. During the past few years, a number of exploratory voyages have been carried out to assess the size of stocks of blue whiting and other species. The results of these explorations have been made fully available to the industry and I am glad to say that further voyages are to take place next year, some under the auspices of the Highlands and Islands Development Board. While these fisheries are not yet being undertaken on a commercial basis, much information is being acquired in the meantime.

My noble friend Lord Shinwell mentioned how strange it was that West Germany should have reached agreement with Iceland at the same time as we failed to do so. I believe that the West Germans are interested mainly in saithe and redfish, and not so much interested in cod which forms the basis of the British fisheries in Iceland and where the size of stocks are at issue between our two Governments. My noble friend Lord Leather land asked about prices, and this subject was also referred to by my noble friend Lord Hoy. I am glad to say that the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection have been looking at this and they are expected to report in the near future.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, complained about the hand-to-mouth basis of aid. One recognises of course as a general point that uncertainty can be damaging, but to criticise these arrangements on that basis is, I would submit, to ignore the purpose and the essentially temporary nature of this aid. The criticism implies that lack of advance information about the precise amount of aid which would be given for the final quarter for this year created crucial problems of management. Valuable though this aid has been, for many it represents perhaps 3 to 4 per cent. of their earnings, and it is the view of the Government that vital management decisions would be based on other considerations. Having decided in principle that the giving of aid was right, clearly the Government had a duty to ensure as best they could that the level of aid was relevant to the changing circumstances. That is the situation at the moment, but the Government are very conscious of the problems facing the industry, and this matter is continually under review.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, raised the question of the Report of the Statutory Instruments Committee. I seem to have been under fire from all sides of the House including noble Lords behind me, in front of me and the Statutory Instruments Committee of your Lordships. As the House will hear from the Report of the Committee, the Joint Committee considers that ambiguity exists between the concept of "an eligible day" in Article 8 of the order and sub-paragraph (b) thereof, which provides for abatement of aid in respect of each period of 24 hours during a voyage which is spent in any port. The offending section repeats a provision precedented without previous criticism by the Joint Committee, although they were perfectly entitled to make a criticism they did not make earlier in schemes of a similar type going back to 1965.

I can assure noble Lords that application in principle of the 24-hour rule has not caused administrative or operational difficulties. The industry understands full well from consistent practice that if a voyage is broken by any continuous period of more than 24 hours in port one day's subsidy is deducted from the overall total of subsidy days otherwise attributable to the voyage as a whole. It is not my impression that the Joint Committee is arguing that the scheme is defective; more that it, and by definition its predecessors, could have been improved. If the need arises in future to prepare further schemes of this type the Committee's point will be borne fully in mind. We are well appraised of what they have said. We think that the Committee has fulfilled an important public duty in bringing this matter to the attention of this House.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I take this opportunity of saying that while some of his replies have not been as favourable as I might have hoped, I thank him for being able to reply to so many of the points raised, particularly by me. This was not a debate on fishing, but he will agree that it was a timely moment before the Recess to consider some of the very serious matters that are affecting the industry. I am grateful for his answering so many points.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. In conclusion, I should like to say that the special aid that the Government have provided over the year as a whole represented in our view an important form of assistance and has, I think, demonstrated our commitment to the maintenance of a healthy and efficient fishing industry. As I have said, the matter will be kept continually under review.

On Question, Motion agreed to.