HL Deb 09 February 1984 vol 447 cc1326-31

7.17 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that the Fishing Vessels (Financial Assistance) Scheme 1983 be approved.

This statutory instrument provides for grants to promote the adaptation of the fishing fleet to take best advantage of our future fishing opportunities. I know that the House has followed closely the negotiations on the European Community's common fisheries policy, which were successfully completed last year. The decisions reached in that negotiation have set down a framework, including national quota shares of fish stocks, conservation regulations and enforcement mechanisms, which provide the broad context within which our industry will be able to plan and operate for a generation ahead.

We have always recognised that one of the key elements of the fisheries policy must be measures to ensure that the fleet is well fitted to take the opportunities which are available to encourage the fishing industry to restructure the fleet.

The relevant Community legislation was approved by the Council of Ministers on 4th October and this statutory instrument is the evidence that we have taken immediate action to ensure that the industry is able to take full advantage of the grants offered by the Community.

Our policy for the structure of the fleet has three elements, two of which are the subject of the statutory instrument we are debating this evening. The two elements covered by this order are to reduce fishing capacity, either permanently or temporarily, where necessary; and to help the industry to investigate new fishing opportunities. The third element is the important aspect of encouraging the modernisation of the fleet. I shall just say a few words about that, but it is not part of the order.

The instrument provides for the reduction of capacity by means of decommissioning grants and laying up subsidies. The aim of the decommissioning grants is to assist the process of necessary structural change by encouraging the owners of vessels which, for one reason or another, are not viable in current circumstances, to remove these vessels permanently from the fishing fleet.

Laying-up grants will be available for owners who fish their vessels for fewer days than in the past. The payment will be based on the cost or insured value of the vessel and will depend on how much the vessel owner is prepared to reduce his time spent at sea. This should be an important source of help for owners of vessels which have a long-term future in the fleet, but for which current fishing opportunities are limited.

Grants for exploratory voyages will be available to encourage vessel owners to investigate potential new fishing opportunities. They will apply for vessels of 24 metres and above and are designed to make up the expected financial deficit of an approved voyage. They will be available for approved projects both within and outside the Community's 200-mile fishing limits.

There are also grants for joint ventures involving the transfer of vessels to fish in waters off countries of West Africa and in the Mediterranean basin. The grant will vary with the tonnage of the vessel and the length of time it is away from Community waters. The terms of all these four grants generally reflect the terms of the Community legislation, which enables the Government to reclaim from Community funds 50 per cent. of payments made.

We have however widened the eligibility rules of the Community legislation, at the industry's request, to include vessels down to 10 metres in length and of any age under the decommissioning and laying-up grants. Payments for these smaller and older vessels will be financed completely from national funds. The grants provided for by the statutory instrument will be open for applications until 1986, and the Government will be seeking financial provision of £27.1 million. If the full provision is taken up as provided in our estimates, about £12 million of this sum should be reimbursable from the Community.

May I end by saying a word about grants to modernise the fleet, even though they are not part of this order. These are a most important element of the Government's structural policy, and are already in place. The legislation approved by the Council of Ministers in October included grants from the European Commission for the construction and improvement of vessels of nine to 33 metres in length; and we intend to maintain alongside that scheme our own national grants which are administered by the Sea Fish Industry Authority. Both these schemes will assist owners to replace old vessels and improve their existing vessels, in order to fish economically and effectively.

The effect of these grant schemes should be to enable the industry to achieve a better balance between fishing capacity and fishing opportunities. I should emphasise that adaptation must come about as a result of the decisions of individual vessel owners; it is they who will determine the future shape of the fleet, operating within the parameters of the common fisheries policy and the necessary management measures following from it. However, while it is not an appropriate role for government to determine the precise structure of the fleet, it is a proper function for the Government to assist the industry in its process of adaptation.

We believe that the measures in this statutory instrument will indeed enable the fishing industry to adapt, and thereby strengthen its long-term future yet further. I commend the instrument to your Lordships, and beg to move.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 20th December be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we are obliged to the noble Lord for putting down this instrument today and also for saying a word about the structure of the industry as well, although that is outside this particular instrument. We are glad that it is proceeding, and I am sure that it will do a lot to restructure the industry and help our fishermen. We were talking earlier about grants to farmers, and we get a lot of stick for receiving these grants. I am glad that fishermen do not seem to get that stick because they do a hard job, often a dangerous one, and I am sure that the British public does not begrudge them the grant they receive.

Perhaps I may look at the instrument for a moment. The laying-off grant, which is the first portion of the scheme, takes a boat out of use for a stated time based on the number of days it has been fishing during that period in the year. The instrument goes into great detail about how this will be carried out, the payment and everything else. If it is a small boat with a crew of three, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether there is anything to be done for the crew. Would they be given a share of any of the laying-off grants?

The other matter concerns the cost, and how it is checked. As we all know, there are difficulties in these schemes, and the cost of such a scheme is something that can be criticised if it is not properly checked to see that the payments are correct.

Then, I think "decommissioning" is a dreadful word. I am sure the noble Lord could have found a better one. Nevertheless, the decommissioning grant is there, and it is a pity that these boats have to go out of action. But they are probably idle, perhaps rotting, and the skippers and the crews do not know what to do. It is good for them to get some money into their hands, perhaps to start off on something different. But, again, does any redundancy payment go to the crews?—because they will be losing their jobs completely, not just for a certain time, as in the laying-off period.

There is another point. It is not difficult to disguise a boat. Under the regulations a boat can leave the country, it can be scrapped, transferred to a third country or assigned, to a purpose other than fishing for profit in Community waters". I would think that this would need to be policed very carefully, particularly as a vessel could go out of fishing, could be disguised and could come back into fishing at a future date. I shall be glad to hear what the noble Lord says there.

This will be the most expensive part of the scheme, looking at the payments system, where a 50-tonne vessel at £400 a tonne will receive £20,000. I do not know how this was assessed, and whether that is the correct figure, but it seems a high figure, particularly as the boat does not have to be scrapped. The owner can sell it or do what he wishes.

The other two parts of the scheme, the exploratory voyage and the joint venture grants, are interesting grants and should be encouraged. The formula for payment is intriguing. One has to look at this instrument, then go to the legislation contents—I forget what number it is—find the section there and make calculations. I hope that the fishermen will work their way through all these regulations to find how much they will be paid. I found it difficult to follow them.

However, as the noble Lord said, this is a scheme to try to reduce over-production and to help those people who, through no fault of their own, have to go out of fishing; and it is also to help in these joint ventures and exploratory fishing voyages to find better fishing areas or improved fishing ideas, and so on. Together with the noble Lord, we very much commend the order to the House.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reception of this order. I am also grateful to him for giving me notice of the questions he intended to ask. The noble Lord first asked me about whether any provision was made for redundancy payments for the crews of boats which are decommissioned or laid up. There is no provision for Community finance under the common fisheries policy package for payments to men who are laid off. Therefore, if this was to be provided for, it would have to be a purely national measure. I am aware that this is a point which concerned honourable and right honourable Members of another place when the order was debated recently. I should like to draw to the attention of my right honourable friend the fact that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has repeated the point this evening. I ought to add to that that I am really talking here about decommissioning. I think that, so far as laying up is concerned, that is a slightly different matter and ought to be a matter, I should have thought, which would be a subject of the contract between the owner and the crews; because laying up could be for a comparatively temporary time.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I was about to ask the noble Lord—and I think he mentioned the fact that £12 million of the £27.1 million would be likely to come back from the Commission£whether the national government could use that money for redundancy payments?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think that here again I ought to draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend that the noble Lord has said that. That is supposed to be, of course, the FEOGA reimbursement for these grants, and would not be supposed to be for that particular purpose. I do not think I can go any further on this point this evening except to acknowledge that it is a point which has troubled Members of another place and that clearly is of concern to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord also asked me how both the decommissioning and the laying-up grants would be placed. I would say that checks on the eligibility of applications are made by the Fisheries Department's inspectors of sea fisheries using their local records of vessels, together with documentary evidence and personal visits, if necessary, to inspect vessels. This procedure would enable departments, for example, to monitor the laying up of a vessel. From his experience as a Minister, the noble Lord may be familiar with this procedure. There are controls in the administrative procedures for the decommissioning grants to prevent vessels from returning to fishing. First of all, if a vessel is not to be physically scrapped, it will be a condition of approving the grant that the fishing capability of the vessel should be removed, for example, by destroying fishing gear and machinery on the vessel. Secondly, the vessel will lose its licence to fish if it is to be decommissioned. Thirdly, if despite these controls, as the noble Lord has suggested, a vessel is found to have returned to fishing, then the grant paid can be recovered under the scheme. In case of fraud, prosecution of the owner may be appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, further asked me about the costs of the decommissioning grant and said that he felt that when we were talking about £400 for each gross registered ton we were talking about a lot of money. Because the noble Lord was good enough to give me notice of this, I thought that he might like a couple of examples of how it will work out in practice. For a small commercial vessel of 40 feet the grant might be of the order of £10,000—not, perhaps, such a large sum to be ending a career in fishing. For an 80 foot vessel, for instance, employing, say, six men, the payment, I would guess, would be of the order of £40,000—and I am talking about decommissioning grant.

Finally, the noble Lord referred to the grants for exploratory voyages. I am sorry that it was difficult to find one's way round the papers which are relevant. I am advised that it is not legally correct to repeat the terms of a European Community regulation in a statutory instrument. This is why the reference is made in the statutory instrument to a document which I know the noble Lord tried to get and which I think he did get just before we started the debate.

May I say that the main rules of the exploratory voyage scheme are these. First of all, vessels must be over 24 metres long (that is to say, 80 feet). Secondly, the exploratory voyage must be at least 30 fishing days in one or two trips; and, thirdly, the grant will be the actual financial deficit on the voyage up to a maximum of the estimated loss which was approved before the voyage began. The Government say, before the voyage begins: "That is your estimated loss. We will underwrite you to that ceiling and if the actual loss is even higher than that then that actual, extra loss would have to be stood by the owner".

I hope that that reply answers the questions which the noble Lord asked me. If I may say so, I think that the noble Lord and I join in one thing. We appreciate the difficulties which the fishing fleet around our shores has had to face; that it is quite right that these grants should be made and that it is quite right that the United Kingdom Government should implement these grants quickly. That, through this statutory instrument, is what they are doing.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.36 until 8 p.m.]