HL Deb 26 January 1983 vol 438 cc258-63

3.11 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull rose to call attention to the need for development plans to encourage a strong home fishing industry in the context of the common fisheries policy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. The subject of the fishing industry has cropped up almost monthly for almost as long as I can remember, in the form of statements of little progress on the Brussels negotiations, but it is a strange fact that the industry has not actually been examined in the form of a debate for some time. I feel somewhat of an intruder, or a dogfish, entering the subject, compared with the long-time fishing heavyweights of the House. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy watched over the Scottish interests of nearly two decades; and there are also the twin kinsmen opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, and the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. I am sorry to say that the undisputed champion. the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, is unable to take part today.

My connection with the industry stems from having the luck to be involved with the Royal National Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen. It is a charity which is a century old, and it has 21 mission centres around our coasts and in our ports. It is a chastening experience to visit the centres and to learn from the dedicated superintendents, who look after the welfare of the fisherfolk and their families, of the almost regular tragedies and accidents at sea, of the fortitude of the families, and of the uncertainties of employment. It is also a revealing insight into the calibre and resilience of the men who have perhaps one of the toughest and most hazardous jobs that one could name.

It is a strange quirk of timing that this short debate should coincide with the long-awaited final Statement on the conclusion of the common fisheries policy, which my noble friend will be repeating this afternoon. Whether we shall be able to grasp the full significance and intricacies of the agreement, I have my doubts, except perhaps on what terms the Danes finally settled.

The significance of reaching an agreement for the industry is clearly momentous. Seven years of uncertainty have sapped its direction and its confidence in its future, and it is to be hoped that the agreement will prove to be the turning point in what is now a sadly depleted fishing fleet. For the Government, the marathon negotiations must stand as a record in recent times. There have been years of bitter discussion, fervent protection of national waters, ardent preservation of historic rights, intransigent attitudes over quotas, and even a phoney fish war, culminating in the arrest of a Danish MEP, masquerading as a fisherman, in a boat filled with more seasick members of the press than fish. It was encouraging to see that the dubious political lead that that member gave was not followed by the Danish fishermen themselves.

Without anticipating what will be set out in the Statement that my noble friend is to repeat, I would say that I regarded it as a remarkable tribute to his right honourable friend to hear in a radio interview yesterday two leaders from both the Scottish and the English fishing federations each stating that he thought that the agreement was a good and fair deal for the industry. It is a far cry from the shouts and accusations of "treachery" and "sell-out" hurled at various Ministers over the last tortuous three years. The industry's reaction to the agreement must be a reward in itself; and I hope that it proves to be.

There having been won the security of what one hopes will be a long-term framework in which, one trusts. the industry can plan its future, there arises the question: how is the industry placed today to meet the immediate challenge, as well as to build up for a healthy future? Does it have the capability and resources now to maximise the fishing rights reserved in the agreement, the quotas, and the access to waters? As my noble friend well knows, and as indeed the House knows, the truth is that the fishing industry is split between the inshore boats, earning a fair living, and deep-water boats—the company-owned or skipper-owned boats—which are the main thrust of the fleet and which are facing very severe financial hardship.

The numbers of deep-water boats have been rapidly depleted in the last 10 years, not just because of the loss of the Icelandic waters but also because the price of fish and the support price of fish fell well below the running costs of the most efficient of the companies. In 1973 there were registered and in service 500 boats of over 100 feet in length. In 1981 the total was down to half that number, and by the end of 1982 the figure had dwindled to fewer than 100. In 1971 the freezer fleet consisted of 127 boats. Twelve years later there were only 20 boats operating, and the most modern have been sold off. Following two receiverships just last week, there are now only 16 boats operating.

On top of those gloomy figures, we see that the average age of our deep-water fleet is over 28 years, while across the water our friends seem to be enjoying a period in which they are expanding their fleets. Further—and I think that this is equally important —our net imports of fish are running at over £100 million a year. None of that will be news to my noble friend, for the industry keeps him well informed of its plight. Nor would I charge him, or his department, with standing idly by, since over the last three years the Government have thrown a lifeline to the industry in the form of support grants averaging just under £20 million a year.

But the question now is: what of the immediate future? It is one thing to bring back a good agreement from Brussels; it is another to make certain that our industry has the capability to take up the fish quotas in the agreement. It is one thing to remove uncertainty and to provide a framework for a long-term future; It is another to survive the short-term decline in order to gain the benefits of the long-term plan. It is one thing to take up the Community grants for modernising one's fleet, but unless the short-term climate changes, or is safeguarded, owners may be tempted to opt for the decommissioning grants and get out.

I understand that the Government are in the process of producing a discussion document for the industry, as to its future size and capability. I hope that when he winds up my noble friend will have something to say as to when the document will be available. Perhaps he could couple that information with what proposals the Government have in mind to assist the Sea Fish Industry Authority in its drive to improve the home marketing of British trawler fish. It is an area which I believe few would disagree could be vastly improved.

Improvements in presentation, grading, quality control and continuity of supply would surely help to bring back the popularity of fish to the British housewife. which has sunk, per capita, to an all-time low. I believe that it is urgent work which would greatly assist the industry, and any Government support would be money well spent.

The withdrawal prices or support prices for fish is another cause which I hope the Government will pursue. The present Community payment bears little relation to the normal operating costs of a reasonably efficient trawler company. It is well below those costs, and for some reason it is kept there. Perhaps this is a matter that will be dealt with in the Statement that my noble friend is to repeat; but, if not, I hope that he will support the pressure to raise the support prices.

In a debate of this kind a general recognition by my noble friend that Her Majesty's Government recognise the short-term problems that remain with the industry and will continue to support it to secure the long-term future is perhaps of most value to the industry. I hope that my noble friend will be able to say something in that vein.

Perhaps the most vital aspect of the practical working of the common fisheries policy lies in the policing of the waters, for unless there is adequate supervision, the whole quota system will become a meaningless nonsense, and the high hopes of conservation control will be dashed. The duties of our own fisheries protection fleet will, one assumes. be considerably increased, and I hope that my noble friend will have the time to confirm that the fleet will be strengthened to meet those extra duties. Perhaps also he will advise us what the British scientific studies are showing and what arrangements are being made to monitor the fish stocks in our waters. I suspect that other noble Lords will be pursuing with my noble friend what arrangements are being made in third-country waters, notably, the Faroes and Norwegian waters.

Finally, I should like to draw the attention of my noble friend to the splendid part that six of our trawler fleet played in the recent Falklands war. As I understand it, they carried out a role of minesweeping duties as well as assisting troop movements. All these vessels, I was glad to see, have returned safely to their home ports. It perhaps emphasises that a strong fishing industry not only has a valuable commercial role to play in our economy but also has a strategic potential in times of national crisis. The waters around the Falkland Islands are, as the Shackleton Report emphasised, a potentially very rich source of fish, notably squid, which is very saleable in Japan. Last year I noticed a report that the Polish fishing fleet had fished 130 tonnes of squid in the Falkland waters—I assume before March.

It would be a splendid move if the Falklands government could see their way to invite the British industry to advise, direct, manage and expand the fishing in these waters. I hope that my noble friend will consider this. Our fishing industry was in the past a great industry. Today, hopefully, is the moment when the tide will turn from decline to growth and prosperity. I await with keen interest my noble friend's statement and what other noble Lords have to say. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My lords, I can imagine no more suitable and appropriate day for my noble friend Lord Kinnoull to have raised this particular subject. I dare say that it may well have been fortuitous but, in view of what we are going to hear from my noble friend within a matter off moments, I think that the whole House must be deeply grateful that we are holding this debate on this particular day. I listened to him with very deep appreciation when he referred to the decline in the number of trawlers of the deep sea fleet. It is to my mind, nothing short of tragedy to one who visited Hull 10 years ago to see the harbour full of trawlers ready to go to sea, to go and see what there is at Hull today.

The same departments in Scotland and England administer two very great industries, agriculture and fishing. No one who has held responsibility, as I have been privileged to do, in one of those departments, can fail to have won an enormous admiration and respect for those who indulge in fishing, but the basic responsibilities of these two industries are profoundly different. We all know and all applaud the spectacular achievements of the farming industry in increasing both production and productivity. These views were well voiced in all quarters of the House on Monday night. But, when it comes to fishing, applause for efficiency to my mind is tinged with some misgiving; because what some people very justifiably claim to be really 100 per cent. efficient methods of fishing make one wonder what is going to happen to the stocks.

I found it immensely difficult not to encourage those, who 10 years ago, wanted to fish with beam trawlers. The beam trawler, which was in those days confined, at any rate in this country, to the port of Brixham, is, to use an agricultural metaphor, something like a very heavy agricultural harrow which so disturbs the seabed that nothing can escape. I think that today it is difficult not to encourage those who man the purse seiners or who go in for pair trawling. All these methods are highly efficient. Certainly, 10 years ago, when beam trawling was done extensively by the Belgians and the French, there were considerable cries from our own industry that great dangers awaited us if we continued to use them. I think that the conflict still exists, and must exist, between promoting technical and economic efficiency and the risk of depleting our fish stocks. Of one thing I am quite certain: in no circumstances would the efficiency with which each country did its fishing be a good yardstick for agreement among EEC member states on how much fish they were allowed to catch.

We are waiting with keen anticipation to hear what my noble friend is going to say about the agreement. I am going to be bold enough to anticipate that he is going to tell us that the extremely skilful negotiations by his right honourable friend the Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland and by Mr. Buchanan-Smith have been successful. But one thing worries me. One may get agreements on the size of mesh, on closed areas, on quotas for each country, all, let us say, with conservation in view. But will each country enforce these measures properly and uniformly? Is there the will in each country to do so? Because if there are disparities in standards of enforcement, then consid- erable disruption is almost bound to follow and therefore continued vigilance will be required. I would just say to noble Lords that I can well imagine that after the long, long period of negotiation on fisheries business a certain weariness may well come over all those involved once the common fisheries policy is a reality. There may well be a desire to forget about it. I think that would be totally disastrous, particularly for the United Kingdom.

May I conclude with a word on marketing. We debated agricultural marketing two evenings ago, and the particular statute included fish other than sea fish. I referred a few minutes ago to fishing and agriculture being under the same departmental umbrella. Indeed, the Treaty of Rome treats fisheries as part of agriculture. Now my noble friend in his speech referred to this particular, that practically every branch of agricultural produce is supported by an intervention price. Can I ask my noble friend whether that applies to fish, and, if so, are the relative levels at which intervention or withdrawal operates comparable? Very broadly speaking, the price of agricultural intervention is related to the costs incurred by a reasonably efficient farmer. There is no more vague description than that. I could not use a more general term than "a reasonably efficient farmer". But can one say the same thing about those who catch fish? I have a suspicion—I hope my noble friend will be able to dispel it—that one cannot say this. As I bracket the fisherman with the hill shepherd as the salt of the earth, I shall very much regret it if my noble friend has to confirm that I am right.