HL Deb 22 March 1983 vol 440 cc1011-21

3.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Restrictions on fishing, etc., by British fishing boats]:

Lord John-Mackie moved the amendment:

Page 2, line 34, at end insert ("; and no such order shall be made before the expiration of three months from the passing of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment to the Bill, I should first like to apologise for the noble Lord, Lord Saint Oswald, who has his name down to this amendment, not being here. He has a longstanding Territorial Army engagement. We all know of his interest in that and I believe we can excuse him for not being here; I hope that I can put the case as well as he would have done.

We put down this amendment because, taking a look at the history of this matter, these boats started coming to this country and being registered under a flag of convenience, in May 1980, nearly three years ago. In that time, a considerable business has been built up in the south-west of this country in particular, and in the south-west of Wales as well—particularly at Milford Haven. This business has helped southwestern boats and the businesses connected with fishing to a considerable extent.

I do not wish to delay the House long by detailing at length the help that has been given because I did so at Second Reading. But, quite frankly, if one looks at this situation one finds that it is almost equal to foreign investment. Not very long ago, I listened to the chairman of the Conservative Party defending foreign investment very well, and saying that it was something we should encourage as it brought aid to this country and often did more good than home investment. I should just like to make the point that this is foreign investment of a kind, and that the party of the noble Lord responsible for this Bill gives its blessing to this kind of aid. I believe therefore that this should be given some consideration, even though "quota hopping" and anything else that breaks the spirit of the law on fishing requires to be put right by legislation; the Government have brought in this Bill to do just that, and I am perfectly agreeable that it should be done.

Frankly, I have doubts about much of the propaganda floating about on both sides about the situation in the fishing industry. It is very difficult to get at the exact position in the fishing industry. I have done quite a bit of research into this matter, and the more research I do the more mixed up I become. But there is something to be said for giving more time to these people, and I shall come to that particular point in a moment.

One must give consideration to stopping such a large operation. It is indeed a large operation, with something like 57 boats operating. They have been established for three years, as I said earlier, and now we shall be stopping them more or less overnight—and the Government want this Bill through quickly. I gather that the Bill will be finished at the beginning of April, and in my opinion there could be many injustices caused by doing that. After all, a lot of British people are involved and a lot of British capital. Probably a lot of jobs will be at risk if something is not allowed to be done by more time being given.

When I look at the retirement of Mr. Austin Laing, which was reported in the Fishing News International, I recall that anybody who knew Mr. Laing knows how much he did for the deep sea fishing industry. When he says that in 1973–74 there were 600 deep water vessels in British and Scottish owned trawler fleets, and goes on to say, "Now I doubt if they can muster much more than 50 active trawlers", one can see what has happened in the British fishing industry. I would have thought that here was a chance to augment those 50, if, given time, they could comply with the conditions of this Bill and the conditions of the order; it is a chance to replace a lot of that fleet that has been lost. Of course, as we know, in two years' time Spain will be a member of the EEC anyway. I would have thought that this was a chance not to be missed, if these people were given time to adjust themselves to the new conditions of this Bill.

Quite frankly, I feel that this order, coming out so quickly after the Bill passes, is almost like retrospective legislation. I would say also that the whole thing is rather like import control, and I do not think the party opposite believes in import control. That is what it amounts to in some ways. I would say, therefore, that they should be given time, either to comply with the new legislation—which will not be easy because, fishing having got so much in the doldrums, it is not easy to get British or EEC fishermen to man these boats—or to be able to phase themselves out of the business in some sort of order.

The noble Lord, Lord Saint Oswald, wanted to put down an amendment to delay for six months or even a year. We argued quite a while about what would be the best way to do it. I wanted to maintain our promise from this side of the House that we would not delay the Bill. So I suggested that three months, although a very short time, might be something that the Government could accept; it is not long to delay this to give these business people some chance to adjust to the new law. I feel that three months is not at all an unreasonable time to wait before the order is laid. Quite frankly, I think it is elementary British justice to do this, and think it would do us a lot of good if we accepted this amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Croy

The amendment which the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has moved would have the effect of delaying an order laid under this Bill for three months, and I would ask, what will this achieve? I doubt whether it will do very much good for those for whom the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has been pleading the case. When the expected order comes into effect, whether in April or in May, as I certainly hope, or three months later, these ex-Spanish boats will have to modify their fishing plans. They have already had plenty of time in which to prepare for this, as I will explain.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, when he was speaking at Second Reading, stated, at column 671, that the boats based on Milford Haven, about which he was speaking—I believe there are eight—now spend about half their time fishing in the Bay of Biscay in what he described as the high seas and therefore international waters. So in future they will have to spend more time fishing in such areas. That part of their operations will not be affected by the order the Government contemplate. These fishing boats, of which there are at least 60 now registered in ports around the United Kingdom, including Scotland, are not being denied all fishing opportunities.

No one can claim that this Bill and the subsequent order are unexpected. Those who have entered into these arrangements since about 1980 have done so with their eyes open. If they have not, they have been totally insensitive or ignorant about the British fishing industry. They must have known that operations of this kind, with a brass plate in the United Kingdom, a British skipper and mate simply to meet the requirements of registration, would be stopped at any moment while the negotiations within the EEC were going on, and would certainly be stopped once agreement on a new fisheries policy had been reached. That, of course, occurred in January, but could have occurred at any time during the previous year.

Of course, I sympathise with what the noble Lord has said about providing some employment at Milford Haven. That is a particular case that he has taken up because he has been provided with facts and figures. But he did say, again on Second Reading, that there were no suitable United Kingdom fishermen there except some who were too old for the job. They were not available. Neither were there fishing boats there which could do the job. So there were neither the men nor the boats on the spot at Milford Haven. In contrast, at a number of traditional fishing ports round our coasts there is spare capacity; United Kingdom boats are under-used and British fishermen are underemployed. The reasons for this the Committee will know. There are quotas, there are bans on fishing for certain species at various times of the year in certain areas, for good reasons, because of the strain there has been on fishing stocks and the scarcity of fish. Above all, the 200-mile limit adopted internationally in 1976 has meant that all of Europe's fishing fleets are having to concentrate on waters near Europe, instead of, particularly where the British are concerned, fishing in traditional waters distant from this country and off the shores of other countries. In the past that was where most of our fish were caught.

In that connection, I would like to refer to what the noble Lord has just said about Mr. Austin Laing. I, having been involved, not in the fishing industry itself, but in its interests for nearly 30 years, of course knew Mr. Laing well. But he was in the Trawlers Federation until recently, until the 1976 extension to 200 miles meant that the various parts of the industry had to come together. So when he spoke about 600 trawlers in the past and very few now, it illustrates what I have just been saying, that it was our distant water fleet which was very much reduced as a result of these international trends. I think the noble Lord fell into the trap of thinking that every fishing boat is a trawler. That is not so. Of course, a trawler is a fishing boat.

Lord John-Mackie

May I say to the noble Lord that I was brought up in Aberdeen.

Lord Campbell of Croy

It certainly sounded as if he had fallen into that trap, because he quoted Mr. Laing as talking about trawlers, which of course was his business. But of course the inshore fleet, the fleet fishing in European waters now, is made up not only of trawlers but seine netters, herring boats, and other kinds of fishing boats as well. It is because of the very trend to which Mr. Austin Laing referred, the fact that our distant water fleet has been so much reduced, that there is unemployment in our fishing fleet as a whole, and many of those men have had to turn to the inshore fleet and fishing in those waters which are the EEC pond.

It has been abundantly clear to all who are in touch with sea fisheries that the situation was going to change as I have described. Indeed, your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities studied fisheries in 1980, and in its report entitled The EEC Fisheries Policy, published in the autumn of 1980, it reached certain conclusions. I remember this because I was a member of the sub-committee which went into this matter and also spoke in the subsequent debate in the House.

In its conclusions our Select Committee stated in the autumn of 1980 that the United Kingdom fishing industry was in grave difficulties, mainly because of the loss of catching opportunities. It also stated that in the necessary reconstruction of the United Kingdom fishing industry controlled entry to the industry was essential, because of the limited opportunities available in the foreseeable future. All this, therefore, was public knowledge in 1980. Our committee was by no means the only voice expressing these facts and conclusions. It should have been known in Milford Haven as elsewhere. Surely any additional employment in fishing should, if possible, be steered to ports where there are already British fishermen needing that employment.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, again at Second Reading, said that at Milford Haven they were having to train young men to become fishermen or bring them from other ports, and in those cases they did not stay for very long. This really does not make sense when trained United Kingdom fishermen in other ports, with their boats, are having to make do on United Kingdom quotas—those same quotas which are being eroded by these ex-Spanish boats. The additional employment required at Milford Haven, I would suggest, would be more appropriately used in other industries or services, but not in the fishing industry.

I hope the Government will not accept this amendment. Those who are operating businesses based on ex-Spanish boats must have known that it would end abruptly. If not, they have less intelligence or knowledge of the fishing industry than I credit them with. They should have had alternative fishing plans all ready to turn to, once they were to be stopped, and rightly stopped, from catching part of the United Kingdom quotas allotted within the EEC fishery limits. The health and the future of the bona fide United Kingdom fishing industry must be our first priority, where the catching opportunities in home waters are now so restricted.

3.34 p.m.

Baroness Hornsby-Smith

I should like to agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has said and assure him that we have fishermen available in the south-west who would be very happy to take out some of their laid-up trawlers. On the face of it this amendment appears to be one of tolerant reason, but on the basis of information which, quite honestly, has poured in to me over the weekend from Milford Haven and from very distinguished members of the EEC Fisheries Committee—including Mr. Battersley, who has recently come back from Spain, where he was discussing fishing in advance of the Spaniards coming into the Common Market, so I think we can take it that my information is up to date—I believe that this three months' delay is one of the most ingenious proposals that has been deployed for the Spanish ships in this whole exercise.

The United Kingdom quota for hake is just under 4,000 tonnes, and now is the season for fishing hake. If there is a three months' reprieve, the bulk of the hake fishing quota for the year will be taken up by these Spanish boats. They will reap rich pickings during the next three months, and our quota of hake for the year will be substantially taken up. Further, I am informed that fishing for hake does not provide an exclusive catch. In catching hake, one also picks up two and a half to three times as much other fish taken in the nets, all of which deprives the United Kingdom fishermen of still more of their quotas.

I understand that, according to the EEC, the Spaniards have between 120 and 140 boats licensed under the general fishing regulations. These 60 boats registered as British are over and above that number, and they are taking up our quotas of fish which are registered against the United Kingdom.

During the Second Reading debate it was alleged that the Spaniards provided considerable employment. The container trucks operated by these companies out of Milford Haven, and some from Plymouth and other south-western ports, to transport the fish over the Channel, are Spanish-registered trucks. They are driven by Spanish drivers: and the back-street office run by one of these syndicates in Milford Haven is manned by Spaniards. There is not much United Kingdom employment in that. Apart from the British skipper and mate, who are the cover for the British registration, the skilled crew is Spanish. But recently, since this matter was raised in this House last autumn, they have been taking on not local unemployed trawlermen but Job Opportunity lads, on a wholly casual basis and with no real fishing experience.

Finally, one has heard of "having your cake and eating it". If your Lordships will forgive me, I think this is the most important and revealing point of the lot—the Spanish origin and ownership of these trawlers. The duty on fish imported into Spain is 18 per cent., yet these so-called British trawlers, which should be paying that duty, are admitted to Spanish ports and charged no duty as the Spanish customs recognise these boats for what they are—Spanish trawlers.

Similarly, the Spanish trucks have their paper work done by the Spaniards in the English office. They take their catches from Britain with documents prepared by Spaniards, and they sail through Spanish customs on the border, duty free. The Spaniards cannot have their cake and eat it too. If these are British boats, they should be paying the 18 per cent. duty. They have themselves acknowledged, by not charging duty, that they do not regard these Spanish boats as United Kingdom registered.

Having taken the major part of the hake catch, plus the additional fish caught, which lessens the EEC quota of fish allocated to the United Kingdom, and having evaded the levies and landing charges which are the basic income of our inshore ports, these owners, by going in duty-free, are undercutting the local Spanish fishermen. It was ironic to have read to me a news cutting from Bilbao about the local fishermen there complaining bitterly about the advantages of loans to buy the boats and grants to pay for British registration which have been provided by the Spanish Government, and the advantages given to these boats over the inshore fishermen of Bilbao.

There is a lot of money in this poaching. The exercise was originally started up in the Channel Islands some years ago, about 1977. It proved so lucrative that it was extended to the United Kingdom, with the disastrous results that my noble friend and others have outlined. They are now beginning to invade Irish fishing waters, and the Eire Minister of Fisheries has recently announced that he is considering action similar to our own.

These trawlers are landing in Spain about 100 tonnes of fish a day from United Kingdom waters; over the year, possibly 24,000 to 30,000 tonnes of hake and other fish. This poached trade is estimated to be worth £7 million. To allow this practice to continue in a prime fishing season, such as this period of three months, is to make a nonsense of the EEC quota system. It deprives our own fishermen of catches rightfully theirs and our needy fishing ports of their main income from landing charges. Still further, it deprives the British housewife of the opportunity of cheaper fish, which only comes with good catches. If we are to have any consideration for our hard-pressed fishermen, I beg your Lordships to oppose this amendment.

3.40 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

I must say that when I first saw this amendment had been tabled I was querulous of the seemingly unholy alliance between the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, on the Opposition Front Bench and my noble friend Lord Saint Oswald from the Benches behind me. The amendment did come as something of a surprise.

I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, was very reasonable in tone but astonishing, if I may say so with the greatest of respect, for its naiveté. My noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith has explained what happens with the so-called ex-Spanish vessels which catch fish and take the catch over to Spain where it is landed in the Spanish ports free of duty, against which our own fishermen have no such facility. She is quite right. Although the Spanish vessels are now registered in the United Kingdom, the Spanish authorities still treat them as Spanish for the purpose of import duties. The fish they land in Spain is not liable to the import duty which is paid by genuine British vessels making landings in Spain. As an example, for fresh and chilled hake these duties are 5 pesetas per kilogram, from March to August each year, while for frozen hake the duties which our fishermen suffer, but which these ex-Spanish vessels do not suffer, are 23 per cent. of the value of the catch.

The debates in both Houses of Parliament have shown that there is a widespread condemnation of the activities of these ex-Spanish operators, and there has been a genuine recognition that the Government are right to take urgent action to deal with the problem. I explained on Second Reading that it has taken some 10 years of difficult and frustrating negotiations to achieve a common fisheries policy which, among other things, has provided the United Kingdom fishing industry with the certainty that quotas of various species are theirs for the taking.

Now what happens is that we have a group of people who have found a way of circumventing these arrangements by exploiting a loophole in the system. The agreement between the European Community and Spain was carefully drawn up and it provides quite deliberately for the fishing opportunities of vessels from Spain to be degressive—in other words, to get less. In 1978 there were 240 of those vessels. In 1982 they were down to 130. That is the reason why these operators have re-registered as British. It enables them to fish the quotas which ought rightly to be reserved for the genuine United Kingdom fishing industry.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, calls this foreign investment. I do not consider that to be foreign investment. He says that they are very large businesses. He is quite right. But what are those large businesses? They are large businesses basically of Spanish boats fishing in British waters and masquerading under the British name by having some brass plate companies. Everything that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said was, in fact, an argument in favour of the Bill and against his amendment.

These people are catching a very valuable species of fish which is of considerable interest to our local catchers, and if they are permitted to continue that fishing their landings will count against our quota under the common fisheries policy, provided those landings are reported. If the catches are not reported, frankly this means that the species is being plundered and not conserved. Either way, it is totally unsatisfactory.

What we are talking about here is not a change of Government policy. We are simply seeking to tighten a loophole. In any area of life or organisation if a loophole is found which enables people to defy the clear intention of legislation and of Government policy, it is the Government's duty to close the loophole as quickly as possible. Those who try to profit from a loophole are in a high risk business. They are playing for high stakes and they know that when their loophole is closed down, as well it may be, they will suffer. They are in no position to complain when that loophole is closed down.

I find it extraordinary that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, should say, "Yes, but let us close the loophole down a little bit slower, and let them have three months in which to close down this high risk business in which they are engaged." The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, says that we should give these operators time to adjust, and his amendment suggests another three months. I can assure the noble Lord that these people have had time. The main English managers, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, were warned towards the end of last year of the Government's intentions and had been given a clear indication of the proposed crewing requirements early in January. They have already had time. They have had three months. But what has happened? Nothing. They have not taken advantage of that three months. Furthermore, 10 more vessels are now either going through the re-registration procedure or have made clear their intention to do so. They are, of course, acting entirely within existing law, but they are exploiting it. The Government are quite right to ensure that that exploitation ceases as soon as possible.

My noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith referred to the problem of hake. Perhaps I may tell your Lordships that in 1982 about 3,300 tonnes were landed in the United Kingdom, largely by bona fide United Kingdom vessels, admittedly mainly as a by-catch from other fisheries. Only 200 to 300 tonnes were landed in the South-West, with the bulk coming from Scotland. We were informed that 1,100 tonnes were landed in Spain by the ex-foreign vessels. In our view it is highly likely that they landed much larger quantities which were never declared. On present estimates and based on the actual discharges by these vessels, it is assessed that a typical ex-Spanish vessel would have landed about 230 stones of hake per week. This produces a catch per year for 60 such vessels of some 4,600 tonnes, assuming that they performed equally with no laying up. It is considered that a catch of at least this magnitude was likely to have been achieved by the ex-Spanish vessels in 1982, giving an overall real catch during this year of at least 7,900 tonnes, which is 4,100 tonnes above our quota of 3,800 tonnes and more than double what should be the quota from those areas.

I just ask this of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. Does he really want, with his amendment, to aid, succour and to help those who are working and making a substantial living, sometimes, as my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith said, by employing three skippers; who know that they are doing so against the spirit of the common fisheries policy, against the interests of the United Kingdom fishermen, against the conservation of the United Kingdom and Community stocks of fish, and who are taking British fish either against our United Kingdom quota or in supplement to it by going undisclosed? Or would he prefer to support the United Kingdom fishermen? The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said, in his own words, that he wants elementary British justice. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will reject his amendment.

3.49 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

We have had three speeches, and 60 or 70 per cent. of what was said by the three people who have spoken were Second Reading speeches. The amendment is purely and simply an amendment, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has just said, to provide elementary British justice to these people who have been allowed to go on for three years in this business and have wasted a lot of money et cetera.

May I deal with one or two points that were made. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and also, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, mentioned that the action that is being taken was not unexpected and that these people have had plenty of warning. I am not sure about that. How many of us really anticipate what any Government will do, what an order will be about, and one thing and another? I doubt very much whether one can say, until a Bill is passed or an order laid, exactly what will happen.

The business of the brass plate was quoted by the three speakers. All I would say is that I have been in touch with a firm in Milford Haven which runs these boats. I have not taken only their word for it; I have quizzed people in the area by telephone. This is a firm which has been there for many, many years. It was run by the present owner's father and grandfather. It is certainly not a brass plate operation at all. I think it is a little unfair to cite this brass plate business as if it were used all the time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned that the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Saint Oswald, and I put down was an ingenious proposal. I am not quite sure what an "unholy alliance" between two noble Lords is. I may have it explained to me some day. All I can say is that the "unholy alliance" sat at a table out there and discussed the subject. We were in touch with nobody. I did not fix the date of this Bill, neither did Lord Saint Oswald. The fact that it has come today and that there are three months of the fishing season to go is purely coincidental. I thank the noble Baroness very much indeed for the compliment of suggesting that I am ingenious. That is how it was done. There was no question of thinking of the three months of the fishing season.

Baroness Hornsby-Smith

If the noble Lord reads my speech he will find that I said that the Spaniards had been ingenious. I was not casting any reflection on the noble Lord at all.

Lord John-Mackie

I am sorry about that; I thought that I was getting a compliment for being ingenious. But the noble Baroness must have thought that the Spaniards had got at me in some way or another. I do not know. But that is how the amendment was agreed upon, and there was no question of anybody getting at us with ingenious ideas or anything else.

I do not think that I shall go into all the arguments which were put on Second Reading. Our amendment is simply to provide that there should not be urgent action. I have already said that the matter has been going on for three years, and we thought another three months was not unreasonable. That is all that the amendment is doing. I would make the point—and the noble Lord stressed it very much—that there should be justice to British fishermen. All three Members who spoke went on about this. If they read my Second Reading speech they will see that I was in favour of the Bill. I interrupted the noble Lord and said I did not condone what was happening. In my short speech today I again said that quota hopping or anything else which breaks the spirit of the law requires to be put right by legislation. I agree with all that. If noble Lords had just listened carefully to what I said, they could have missed out all their Second Reading stuff and just dealt with the point whether we should give these people another three months (a) to comply with the regulations or (b) to phase out their business in reasonable time. However, I know when I am beaten.

Lord Campbell of Croy

It looks as if the noble Lord is about to withdraw the amendment, a course which I welcome. As it is a Committee stage I have another opportunity of speaking. I wish simply to deal with the point which the noble Lord made concerning what I said. I spoke at a little length today because I thought that it was important to make it absolutely clear why the people who are acting in this way with these ex-Spanish boats have had plenty of notice. They have known since they started that at any moment their operations would be stopped by the British Government. But in case it seems that I have not made that clear, even in the amount of time that I used today, I should like to reply to what the noble Lord has just said.

I would point out that they could not have failed, even if they had not seen the publicity, such as it was (and it was quite good for our Chamber) when the EEC Select Committee Fisheries Report came out in the autumn of 1980, to have seen the publicity in all the media concerning the negotiations to reach a new fisheries policy which were going on within the EEC and in which Britain was much involved over the last two years. Could they have thought that the United Kingdom was negotiating so hard in order to obtain a large quota for ex-Spanish fishing boats? Of course not. They must have known that as soon as those negotiations were ended and quotas and other arrangements had been won for the bona fide British fishing fleet, then these operations by Spanish boats would come to an end.

Lord John-Mackie

I take the noble Lord's point that this has been going on, but, as I said earlier, it is quite amazing how one thinks that things will come out differently in the end. I have not done any research, but I would bet anything that if one did research, not only on fishing but on a whole host of things on which legislation has come along, one would find that the matter had been known for a long time and very little action had been taken. I see the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, smiling as if I am right there. Very little action is taken until the legislation actually comes through. However, as I was saying, I know when I am beaten. Regretfully, I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clauses 2 to 11 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; report received.