HL Deb 18 January 1983 vol 437 cc1355-9

7.38 p.m.

Earl Ferrers rose to move, That the scheme laid before the House on 1st December 1982 be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this scheme provides for the fishing industry. Your Lordships will be aware of the exceptional circumstances with which our fishing fleet has had to contend; in particular, the difficulties within the European Community over reaching a satisfactory common fisheries policy have unfortunately but inevitably created a climate of uncertainty in the industry.

The Government have been conscious of this problem, and of the need to help the industry to continue to operate effectively while the negotiations proceed. The Government made special payments to the industry of £17 million in 1980 and £25 million in 1981. After a review of the costs and earnings in the industry, the Government concluded that further special aid of £15 million should be provided for 1982. The aid was announced by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 27th October, and the statutory instrument was laid before Parliament on 1st December, It came into effect on the following day.

The scheme reflects closely the arrangements used to distribute the special payments made in 1980 and 1981. It provides for a single payment to the owners of each commercial fishing vessel which was registered in the United Kingdom fleet and available for fishing on 27th October. The scheme seeks to ensure that only vessels genuinely in the commercial fleet receive the aid, although there is provision for payment to an owner who was replacing a vessel and so had no active vessel at the crucial date.

One specific change from previous practice has been made to take account of the concern in the industry about certain vessels re-registered in our fleet, especially from Spain. The Government are taking measures to tighten the conditions for access to our fleet with the aim of permitting only genuinely British vessels to be accepted as being part of the fleet. Meanwhile, this scheme requires that in order to be eligible for aid any vessel must be crewed as to at least 75 per cent. by persons ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom. This condition should exclude from eligibility those vessels about which concern has been expressed.

The rate of payment under the scheme depends on the length of the vessel. In response to the views of the inshore sector of the industry we have increased the share of the total payments allocated to vessels of under 60 feet in length. While it is important to ensure that the larger vessels continue to receive a fair share of the aid, we have been able to set the rates for the smaller boats at about 8 per cent. higher than a direct conversion of last year's rates would have implied.

My Lords, this scheme has been welcomed by the fishing industry. It reflects the Government's continuing commitment to the wellbeing of the fleet. I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 1st December 1982 be approved.—(Earl Ferrers.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I am sure the fishing industry are bound to be delighted with £15 million, and I think they deserve it. They have been in an uncertain state since all the argument started in the EEC. They are an industry that we have got to keep going, and I think this is the right way to do it.

There are three points that I should like to ask the noble Earl. The first one may be slightly facetious. Why the 27th October? Why not just seven months? That date is a Tuesday, if I remember rightly. It seems strange to finish the thing in the middle of the week.

In paragraph 8 it says that under the scheme no grant shall be made to any fishing vessel unless in the opinion of the appropriate Minister at least 75 per cent. of the vessel's crew were ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom on that day. How can he have an opinion about 75 per cent.? It is either 75 per cent. or it is not 75 per cent. What happens if there is a crew of three? How do you get 75 per cent. of a crew of three, or a crew of two? I just wonder how you solve that one.

The other point is that the noble Earl mentioned that the Government have altered the payments downwards, making them greater towards the smaller vessels. I do not know if my calculations are correct, but if you look at the figures you find that in the payments the bigger boats have 20 times the cash potential. If you take a 200-ft, boat, it has 20 times the potential of a 50-ft, boat as far as cash is concerned, but in size it has only four times the potential. It must have been an interesting exercise, deciding the amount of payment to the various sizes of boat. I wonder if the noble Earl could expand on that. Apart from those comments, we welcome the scheme and give it our support.

7.44 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend for explaining the purposes of this order and for showing how these financial payments are going to fit into the programme of payments to fishing vessels over the last two to three years which has helped the fishing industry through a difficult period while the new Common Fisheries Policy for the EEC was being negotiated.

I should like to ask questions about one point concerning paragraph 8 and the question of Spanish vessels which have registered as British vessels in this country. My noble friend said that paragraph 8 was aimed to exclude them, but I wonder whether he could provide more information. There was an article in Lloyd's List on the 4th of this month, only a few days ago, which stated that there were no less than 60 of these Spanish fishing vessels registered at various ports in the United Kingdom, and it specified the ports and numbers of vessels. I would remind your Lordships that provided these vessels and the companies which own them meet various requirements, there is no legal reason why they should not operate, or there has not been in the past. For example, I understand that each vessel has to have a British skipper and a British mate. They have to meet the requirements of registration, such as having a United Kingdom company with its base in this country. I understand that they have been paying their United Kingdom taxes correctly.

The exclusion which paragraph 8 appears to make is one based on the percentage of the crew. As the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, pointed out, it is that 75 per cent. of the vessel's crew on a certain date should be ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom. It is left to the Minister's opinion, and I would be perfectly ready to leave it at that myself, given that there could be approximations connected with the numbers of the crew and dividing men into bits. What I should like to ask is whether the Government and my noble friend can give an assurance that all 60 of these vessels will be excluded from these payments.

I would remind your Lordships that the existence of these vessels fishing as United Kingdom vessels has caused great resentment among the British fishing industry, because they have got round all the agreements about the quota of fish to be caught by Spanish fishing vessels, Spain not being a member of the EEC, within the 200-mile limit of the EEC. I do not need to remind my noble friend that the whole question of agreement within the EEC is difficult enough, but when one then has these additional boats, which are to all intents and purposes Spanish and not British, coming in, it naturally causes a great deal of resentment. I spoke on this in your Lordships' House and your Lordships' Select Committee on a number of occasions when I was a member of the sub-committee concerning enlargement of the EEC, and therefore concerning Spain's application.

When Spain becomes a member the whole question of the Spanish fishing fleet and how that will fit into the Common Fisheries Policy is one that will need to be negotiated. But that this should be happening now, that 60 Spanish vessels should be able to fish as if they were United Kingdom vessels, is indeed something which causes resentment. That any of them should actually receive subsidy from the Government in addition, that they should actually get financial assistance under an order such as this, really would rub salt into the wounds. So I sincerely hope that my noble friend will be able to assure us that not one of these vessels will be able to qualify for these payments. As this order is drafted at the moment, should any of these vessels be employing some British crew in addition to the skipper and mate, who I understand they have to employ anyway, they might be able to get round paragraph 8.

I am afraid I have not been able to give my noble friend notice of this question. I have only recently flown from Scotland, the House having resumed only yesterday, and have myself been much involved in today's business, the Committee stage of the Scottish Bill. I nonetheless hope that my noble friend will be able to give me an assurance about this matter this evening.

7.50 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful for the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, was puzzled about why 27th October was the date specified. That is the date on which my right honourable friend made the announcement of the intention to pay aid and it is quite appropriate to make the basis for qualifying for aid the date which he used for the announcement. That is the reason why 27th October was chosen.

The noble Lord is also very worried about the difficulties that the rule about 75 per cent. of the crew being British will bring. I do not think that the noble Lord need be quite so worried about that because it is really a simple question of mathematics. He asked what would happen if there were only two people on the boat. In that case if one were British that would be 50 per cent. British. That would be ruled out. What happens if there are three chaps on the boat? If two are British, 66 per cent. will be British. In other words, that is under 75 per cent., so that will be ruled out. If there are four on the boat, I leave the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, to make his own mathematical calculations. I do not think that there is great difficulty there.

My noble friend Lord Campbell quite rightly referred to the anxiety created about the Spanish vessels re-registering as British. We are urgently considering legislative changes to overcome this problem with the Secretary of State for Trade. The Commission is also looking into this but in the meantime everything possible is being done to ensure that ex-foreign vessels comply with United Kingdom laws. As a result of that, a number of these prosecutions have been made recently and others are pending. Our decision to refuse aid to these vessels is an earnest of our intentions. We are confident that the rules will keep out the 60 vessels from benefit under the scheme. Of course I cannot give a guarantee that that will be so because it all depends on what happens when applications come forward, but the intention of the scheme and the intention of the way in which it is drafted is that they would not be eligible for benefit.

Lord Campbell of Croy

Before my noble friend sits down, may I ask whether that means that the Government are confident that, on a particular day, a day in the past which is the qualifying day for 75 per cent. of the crew being normally resident in the United Kingdom, in all the 60 vessels at least 75 per cent. of the crew were normally resident in Britain?

Earl Ferrers

What I said I was confident about was that the scheme, which includes the requirement, among other things, for 75 per cent. of the crew to have been British on that particular date, and all the other things which had to apply on that particular day, will result in those 60 vessels not being applicable for grant.

On Question, Motion agreed to.