HL Deb 19 January 1978 vol 388 cc227-32

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels on the 16th, 17th and 18th January on fisheries. The Statement is as follows:

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I represented the United Kingdom at this meeting of the Council to consider proposals put forward by the Commission for a definitive Common Fisheries Policy. Perhaps I should remind the House that the Government have three essential requirements: a preferential position for our fishermen within 50 miles; adequate and properly enforced conservation measures; and acceptable quotas.

"I believe that further progress has been made towards an agreed solution. In particular the Commission have now put forward proposals on quotas which the Government could regard as a basis of discussion if sufficient progress could be made on the crucial issue of preferential access. There was considerable opposition to my demands on this question on the basis that they were contrary to the Treaty of Accession. Nevertheless the Council are now willing to consider whether our demands can be met by means of fishing plans. That is an important advance and I believe also that not too much separates us from our partners on the important question of conservation measures.

"I reiterated that the acceptability of any measures so far proposed will depend not only on the content of the proposals looked at by themselves but also on the nature of the final package when it can be seen as a whole. My right honourable friend and I have not, therefore, agreed to any part of the proposals so far examined. The position of the Government on them is entirely reserved and our judgment of their acceptability must depend first on what can be achieved on coastal preference—which is now the most difficult single issue—and then on the balance between the different parts of any possible overall package.

"Despite the difficulties which may well lie ahead I believe that progress is being made. There is now time for a pause for reflection and the Council will then meet again in Brussels on 30th January to make a further effort towards reaching final agreement."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, we thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for repeating the Statement being made in another place. I will try to comment very briefly for two reasons; first, because the negotiations have now become even more complex. In that context, the subjects of the Statement require close study. Secondly, I will try to comment because there was a debate on these matters in your Lordships' House in the last week before the Recess. In that debate the great importance of these negotiations for both the British fishermen and the British consumers was emphasised. From this Bench we stated that coastal preference was a most difficult issue. Surely it is right that the Government have not accepted the proposals put forward this week by the EEC Commission but have fully reserved the United Kingdom position until that matter is resolved.

The Government should keep in mind that a simple quota system is highly suspect among British fishermen, and it is no longer fully trusted. It is difficult to monitor and enforce. I would put this question to the noble Lord: what progress is being made with a system of licensing vessels? This would involve numbers, areas and periods of time. This is a much easier system to control; for example, by observations from aircraft.

On the need for conservation, we agree that this is essential. It is not simple, though. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and I have in previous debates spoken about the mobility of fish, the peregrinations of stocks from the waters off the coast of one country to another, most inconveniently from within one country's fishing, limits to within those of another. One cannot be precise in referring to particular stocks as belonging to particular countries; for example, "Britain's fish" or "France's fish", as I very recently heard in a broadcast. None the less, in these negotiations we urge the Government to impress upon the Commission and the fellow members of the EEC that at any given time as much as 60 per cent. of the fish in the EEC pond are in an area bounded by the United Kingdom 200-mile fishing limit or median line. This country therefore is more involved than any other member of the EEC in preserving stocks generally. The interests of United Kingdom fishermen should be given special consideration in the negotiations now continuing.


My Lords, we on these Benches should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. We also welcome the three essentials which are being demanded. It is understandable that the French do not approve of this because, unfortunately, they have already eradicated most of the fish from their side of the Channel. There was one point which was not mentioned, and that is the net size with regard to conservation and over-fishing. It surely would be a good thing if there could be severer penalties for the infringements of using small mesh nets. Regarding the 12-mile limit as opposed to the 50-mile limit, I think I am right in saying that it is vital for the fishermen in the United Kingdom that some national conservation areas should be decreed. If we look back in history there have been very few international agreements regarding fish and whales throughout the world that have ever succeeded. It is no good the scientists saying that there are more fish because local fishermen will not agree with them.

There are two points that I should like to ask the noble Lord. Would he consider banning any vessel over 60 ft. or 20 metres long from inside the 12-mile limit? Would he bear in mind that, if and when Spain and Portugal join the EEC, the number of 100-ton fishing boats will be more than doubled? We think that the right honourable gentleman, the Minister, is right to reserve his position at the moment and we sincerely hope that he will stick to his guns. We wish him well on January 30th.


My Lords, I would only say to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, that we are very grateful for his Statement. During the past 25 years we have witnessed the destruction of a great industry—the herring fishing industry—in this country at the hands of Continental Europe through ruthless over-fishing of immature stocks for industrial purposes. This country is not prepared to see a similar fate befall the whole of our fishing industry. This country will not tolerate it. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said the other day—and I agree with him—although he did not repeat it this afternoon, that a quota system is really no go. It is not trusted; in practice, it does not work.

All I want to say to your Lordships this afternoon is that I believe this country is absolutely solid on this question. The country is not prepared to see the destruction of our whole fishing industry, and that is what I think the Continental countries of Europe, having destroyed their own, are now hell-bent on doing. Therefore, I would say to the noble Lord that whatever steps Her Majesty's Government think necessary to take to prevent this, even if it should involve the threat of our withdrawal altogether from the European Economic Community, they will have unanimous support, regardless of Party, from the nation as a whole, to preserve our fishing industry.


My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken for the support that they have given—


My Lords, may I say something before the noble Lord replies? I understand from the Statement that it is at least likely—perhaps even probable—that agreement will be reached on the two vital matters of conservation and quotas. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, said it was impossible. I gather that that is not the view of the Government. The Government think agreement is likely and I hope that, as a result of further talks, agreement will be reached. It seems that it may be. If it is reached, is it really reasonable for us to insist in all respects always on a 50-mile limit? Is not the 50-mile limit negotiable, too, in the circumstances? Why must we have precisely a 50-mile limit if agreement is reached on the other vital points? I should like an answer to that question.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken for the support that they have given to the Government's position and to the attitude that we have assumed. The Government are naturally aiming to reach a friendly agreement with our Community partners, and they will do all they can to find a solution. But I must emphasise that we have not changed our position on the three essential points of adequate quotas, good conservation and a coastal access preference.

I mentioned in the Statement which I repeated the question of "fishing plans" and, as this is a new term which has not been fully reported and has indeed been misinterpreted in some quarters in the Press, it might be useful if I developed that a little. The Government are prepared to explore whether our essential need for a coastal access preference could be met by means of these fishing plans. This is not a change of position, as I have seen reported—though that has not been said in this House; nor, in view of your Lordships' knowledge of these matters, did I expect it would be—since we have always been willing to explore alternative methods of achieving our essential objectives.

What do "fishing plans" mean? These comprise all aspects of the fishing situation: that is, the area to be covered, the number and size of boats, the type of fishing gear and the amount of fish to be taken, all considered together as one plan. So the two essential points are exclusive access out to 12 miles, after allowing a reasonable period for existing rights to be brought to an end, and a preferential position for British boats between 12 and 50 miles.

With regard to quotas, the United Kingdom's position is entirely reserved, as the Statement says, until we can see more clearly what arrangements it may be possible to agree on coastal belts. We cannot even make a proper judgment of the present quota proposals. They cannot be considered in isolation but only as part of a whole agreement. Nevertheless, we believe that the quota proposals are a step forward and would provide a basis for further negotiation.

The noble Lord, Lord Boothby—I am very glad that he spoke, as he usually does, on these matters—mentioned the Treaty of Accession. Of course, we did not negotiate that ourselves, but the Government are quite certain that the Treaty of Accession does not prevent the Council from changing the Common Fisheries Policy by agreement. However, it does protect the rights of other Member States inside 12 miles until changes can be agreed. As I said, I am grateful to noble Lords for their support. There is another meeting of the Council in Brussels on Friday week and I will see that Parliament is kept informed.