HL Deb 27 October 1987 vol 489 cc487-97

7.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden)

My Lords, I beg to move, That the scheme laid before the House on 3rd July be approved. With your Lordships' permission, it would be convenient to discuss the three instruments together.

In December last year the Council of Fisheries' Ministers agreed Council Regulation 4028/86 which continues with some modification previous measures to restructure the European Community's fishing fleet and provide for continuing financial assistance towards fish farming. The new regulation will run for a period of 10 years, although it will be reviewed after five years. The council regulation sets out the conditions under which member states may give financial assistance to the sea fish and fish farming industries and also provides for additional contributions from Community funds. These three instruments will bring EC regulation into effect in the United Kingdom and I would like to say a few words about each of them.

The most important scheme in terms of the proposed level of expenditure is the fishing vessels grants scheme. This scheme will extend earlier arrangements under which the fisheries Ministers are able to grant aid the construction and modernisation of fishing vessels. Our objective under this new scheme is to promote the modernisation of our fishing fleet, with particular emphasis on those vessels which make up our inshore and middle water fishing capacity, because the continuing prosperity of our fishing communities depends crucially upon this sector of the fleet. But there is a limited amount of fish to be caught so we have to ensure that modernisation does not significantly increase fishing capacity. We therefore have to tread a difficult path between bringing our fleet up to date on the one hand and holding down overall capacity on the other.

Perhaps I may briefly explain how fisheries Ministers propose to do this. First, we shall continue to use our licensing system to ensure that we do not introduce new vessels to catch fish stock which are already under pressure; and, secondly, we shall be giving priority within the limited funds available to those applicants who undertake to withdraw a vessel from the fleet when a new one is introduced. Under the new scheme it is also proposed to reduce the grant rate for vessels larger than 33 metres in length to 10 per cent. and to restrict the maximum grant payable in respect of any vessel to £250,000. This will enable the maximum number of applicants to benefit from the available funds and is consistent with our wish to discourage any increase in fleet capacity through the introduction of large new vessels.

Apart from the larger vessels, the new scheme involves a higher rate of grant than its predecessor. The grant will be 30 per cent.—the maximum allowed by the council regulation—rather than the 25 per cent. under the earlier scheme. We made this change in order to compensate for the reduction from 25 per cent. to 20 per cent. in the available grant from Community funds. The potential overall maximum grant in most areas will therefore remain at 50 per cent.

The exception is the provision for higher grant rates for Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland. The council regulation stipulates that, in view of the particular problems of their fleets, successful applicants from Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland should receive additional assistance from Brussels some 15 percentage points higher than that available elsewhere. This will amount to grants from Community sources of 35 per cent. compared with 20 per cent. The Government support the underlying idea and consider it appropriate to allow the full rates of grant from both United Kingdom and Community funds to applications concerning vessels below 24 metres in length from these areas. These inshore vessels fish only local waters and their efforts bring direct benefit to the local economies. Larger vessels, on the other hand, operate more widely and could fish the same areas as vessels from England, Wales and other areas of Scotland which would not have benefited from the higher rates of Community grant. We have therefore introduced an abatement of 10 per cent. in the national grant rate for those Scottish and Northern Ireland vessels between 24 and 33 metres in length which receive a European Community grant. Their advantage is thus reduced to 5 percentage points compared with the 15 per cent. advantage available to the inshore fleet.

The Government are hoping to spend some £50 million on this scheme over the next five years. Demand for vessel construction and modernisation nevertheless seems likely to be greater than the available funds so it has been necessary to introduce a system of priorities for the allocation of awards. These have been agreed with the industry and preference is being given to applications concerned with urgent modernisation, replacement of vessels lost at sea and the replacement of vessels over 15 years of age, particularly where another vessel is withdrawn from the fleet.

The fishing industry has benefited from a capital grant scheme for many years and the continued availability of these grants has helped the fleet to adapt to the new opportunities available under the common fisheries policy and served to encourage the rejuvenation of the fleet to help it to operate safely and efficiently. Over the three years from 1984 to 1986 United Kingdom fishermen benefited from some £23.5million in grants, and almost £11.5million in loans, plus a further £22.5 million of Community funding. This new scheme will allow the process to continue.

The second instrument, the Fishing Vessels (Financial Assistance) Scheme 1987, is designed to encourage vessel owners to investigate new fishing opportunities. Again its provisions reflect Community Regulation 4028/86. The scheme makes grants available towards the cost of approved exploratory voyages both to waters outside the Community and to waters of the member states where no Community legislation applies. The grants are restricted to vessels of 18 metres and above. Grants will also be available for joint ventures with non-member countries which involve the temporary transfer of vessels to third country waters. In the case of exploratory voyages, the Community will pay 20 per cent. of the approved costs and the Government 10 per cent. For joint ventures the grant will vary according to the size of the vessel and the time it is away. Payments from Community funds under this scheme will be matched by the Government

Your Lordships are no doubt aware that the Council regulation also provides for the continuation of grants for the decommissioning or laying-up of fishing vessels but we shall not be continuing with these measures in the United Kingdom. The earlier three-year decommissioning scheme successfully achieved a radical reshaping of the fleet and we feel that the limited resources we have available should be directed towards the construction and modernisation of fishing vessels; and although we shall not be carrying on with the laying-up grant scheme because it attracted little interest in the United Kingdom apart from a few instances in Northern Ireland, I would not rule out the possibility of introducing such a scheme if such a step should prove to be necessary later on.

The final instrument is the Fish Farming (Financial Assistance) Scheme 1987. This scheme provides fish farmers in Great Britain with a national grant rate of up to 10 per cent. to enable them to qualify for Community aid under Council Regulation 4028/86. This Community measure continues the previous arrangements under which the Commission could provide capital grants towards projects concerned with the construction, equipment, modernisation or extension of fish or shellfish farming units utilising salt, brackish or fresh water. The scheme does not extend to Northern Ireland where national backing is available from other sources. It also amends the Fish Farming (Financial Assistance) Scheme 1984 so that grants may be paid under that scheme in respect of projects approved by the Commission in December 1986 under Regulation 3733/85. The 1984 scheme had only provided for back-up grants to be paid on fish farming projects approved by the Commission up to 31st December 1985.

Regulation 4028/86 also provides assistance, for the first time, towards projects outside the Mediterranean area concerned with measures to protect and develop coastal fisheries resources. Such measures may involve action to protect spawning or breeding grounds or to establish an environment attractive to fish and shellfish; for example, through providing artificial reefs or barriers.

This package of three schemes will enable our sea fish and fish farming industries to continue the important process of modernisation and development and benefit from significant levels of financial aid available from Community funds. As such, these schemes form an important part of our fisheries policy and I am pleased to be able to commend them to your Lordships and seek your approval of them.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 3rd July be approved. [1st Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Sanderson of Bowden.)

7.45 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I am not sure of this but I think that this is the first time that the noble Lord has moved instruments in front of us and I think that maybe it is the first time that he has been at the Dispatch Box. Anyway, we wish him well and I hope to be quizzing him on perhaps more controversial matters than these.

I take the instruments in their numerical order and I should like to say a word about fish farming first. This is a big industry, as the noble Lord said, and it is growing, and growing with the help of grants. I understand that the grants are different in some areas. You can undertake fish farming inland, and some people feel that the inland areas, or the lowland areas, are not getting the same grants as the West of Scotland where most of the fish farming takes place. I wonder whether the Minister would care to comment on this.

There are always murmurings, and there have certainly been murmurings lately that fish farming, particularly for salmon, is being overdone. The animal lovers are suggesting that they are frankly becoming like broilers or like battery egg production. Neither of the two noble Lords is here tonight but I am sure that they will not object to my mentioning a discussion which I heard between them quite recently. The noble Lords, Lord Forte and Lord Sieff, were having a discussion as to whether farmed fish was as good as wild fish, particularly when it was smoked. It was quite interesting. The noble Lord, Lord Forte, said that he would not have any of the farmed stock in his hotels, and the noble Lord, Lord Sieff, was quite adamant that it was as good, if not better.

I met a fish farmer who put an interesting point to me. He said there was no stress in the killing of the fish from a fish farm but there was naturally considerable stress in line fishing and in net fishing of salmon. There was stress there, and that had an effect on the quality of the flesh. I happen to know that that is the case when killing animals, particularly cattle. One wants to kill them quietly and without any stress, and any old-fashioned butcher will tell you that that is essential if you want to have good meat. I just thought that I would make this point.

I understand that the Crown Commissioners have almost complete control of the leasing of the foreshore and the seabed for this purpose and that sometimes they are a little sticky about it. Would the noble Lord care to comment on that?

Now I move to the main grants order, No. 1135. This continues the present grants and makes some increases, mainly, as the noble Lord pointed out, from 25 per cent. to 30 per cent., and naturally this is welcomed by everybody in the fishing industry in both countries and of course in Northern Ireland as well. The maximum is £250,000. May I ask the noble Lord whether that is the same as before? If it is the same as before, it is no use putting up the size of the grants and then fixing the maximum. That is not going to help somebody who is going for the maximum. I wonder whether he could help me there?

It is excellent that the work has to be done in the member state's country. This will help our shipbuilding industry, which is badly in need of more work. the point has been put to me that there are rather long delays in servicing applications. I know that this can happen in agriculture, and having to wait months and months after you have made a plan to do something is most frustrating. I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to mention that.

I think that the noble Lord mentioned—and I was going to ask him this—that the decommissioning grant has been stopped. I gather that this is mostly because there were too many malpractices. This seems a pity, because of course it helps the situation if people want to go out and decommission a boat.

The one fear—and I think the noble Lord mentioned it—is the question of overfishing. The more efficient you make a boat the more likely it is to catch more fish, and the more boats that are made more efficient then the more fish that are caught. That brings me to the next order, No. 1136, which is to entice people with grant for boats over 18 metres to go further afield and find fresh fishing grounds. This would help the situation.

I do not know but I cannot imagine, considering the amount of fishing that goes on—particularly from Spain, where they go all round the world, and all the other fishing—that there are new areas of fishing to be got, but perhaps the noble Lord has ideas as to where he would suggest that they should go. Certainly it would help our fishing boats over that size. We welcome these orders subject to the points that I have made.

I should like to make a further point which is perhaps not related to this matter. We are developing a tremendous amount of recreational work, particularly in marinas and suchlike. At the present moment the fishermen of Swanage are worried that the area in which they moor their boats and where their work is being done will be swamped by a marina. Does this come within the noble Lord's area? I see that he is shaking his head. The point had been raised by several fishermen from that area. No doubt it will come under some other body. I should like to keep it in the noble Lord's mind in case he can give any help to fishermen in those areas.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, as usual my noble kinsman has said many of the things that I was going to say, but that will not stop me, as the Minister will be glad to hear, repeating them.

Dealing first with the order relating to fish farming, as I understand the matter we are giving a grant of 10 per cent. towards certain improvements. Can the Minister say how much the EC grant will be in addition to this? I do not think that is mentioned in the order but it will be interesting to know.

The point raised by my noble kinsman is relevant to the expansion of this industry. Nowadays when one travels round the beautiful areas of the west coast one sees large nets, enclosures and evidence of fish farming everywhere. There must be a point where this will be counter-productive to employment in the area if it spoils the tourist industry. It is a point that one should bear in mind. Perhaps this is not altogether relevant to the order, but I believe that the fish farming industry has done enormously well. It has been of great benefit to many areas, particularly those in the west. Might government assistance not be better directed towards marketing so that the industry does not run into the surplus problems which so many growing industries run into?

I have tasted farm salmon. I am not sure whether there is a difference in stress if one is killed one way or another. Either way I want to avoid it, but my noble kinsman may have a point as regards the lack of stress. These points may not be relevant to the order but they are relevant to the industry so perhaps the Minister could comment.

The same appears to be happening as regards the order for improvement and acquisition of fishing vessels. I assume from the order and from what the Minister said that we shall not grant-aid any more purse netting because that system could catch every fish in creation in a very short time. I approve of the direction of the order in that aid will go to the smaller boats. That will keep employment in the areas where it is needed. I shall be glad if the Minister will confirm that purse netting will not be grant-aided. A maximum of £250,000 still produces a boat with a pretty fair catching power. As I understand it, a boat will cost in the region of £1 million. In spite of the depreciation of money, that still appears to me to be a fair amount.

The other order is very interesting. As I understand the matter, the grants for joint ventures and exploration grants will be restricted to boats above 18 metres. Will the Minister say where he expects them to go and how the fish will be marketed? I think that assistance in marketing is more important than the finding of fish. I also welcome these orders, and for once I approve of what the government are doing.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I should like to add my welcome of the orders to that of the two noble Lords who have spoken. I do not pretend to be informed in detail about shell fishing or salmon fishing. I believe that this is one of the most important growth industries in Scotland today and is of far-reaching importance to the economy of the whole country.

I should like to raise one point which has been raised with me. It is a curious situation that the Crown Commissioners give permission for people to farm. That seems to me to be outside what one normally expects the Crown Commissioners to be engaged in. I am sure that they are admirable people but I sometimes wonder whether they are equipped to know the local conditions in certain parts of Scotland.

I should like to know what is the relationship between the Scottish Office and the Crown Commissioners or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Is this the right way to deal with that part of salmon fishing development which is absolutely essential? I am given to understand that the Crown Commissioners have complete control of the bottom of the sea—to use a commonplace expression—for 12 miles out from low water. That control was never conceived in the original formation of the Crown Commissioners and I wonder whether this relationship is right.

To my mind the importance of the matter is that that is something which the crofters could do. The local people on the spot should have an opportunity of doing it, and the best way of achieving it is that they should have the opportunity immediately opposite their crofts. Is that matter being considered or are the Crown Commissioners dealing with a rotation as people make their application? I believe that this is an important matter and I should be grateful if the noble Lord could explain the situation today.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, for his kind wishes. This is not the first time that I have stood at the Dispatch Box, but it is the first time I have answered a series of questions with so many notes and it is difficult to check up on all of them.

I am pleased that all noble Lords who have spoken have generally welcomed what the Government are doing in this regard. Most of the discussion has been about fish farming and I should like to underline the importance that the Government attach to the whole of the fish farming industry. Noble Lords will understand that as a Minister at the Scottish Office I have an interest particularly in the growth and expansion of salmon fish farming in Northern Scotland and the islands.

I should like to deal first with the Crown Estates Commissioners because the noble Lords, Lord John-Mackie and Lord Mackie of Benshie, and the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, have mentioned their role. As has been surmised, their role is that they have control below the low watermark in coastal waters. The position of cages in the sea falls outwith the scope of planning controls because the courts have held that planning authorities' jurisdiction does not extend below the low watermark.

At present most seabed developments require a lease from the Crown Estate Commissioners as owners of the seabed. Applications for such leases are subject to a consultative procedure which ensures that the views of interested bodies are taken into account. Any developments on land associated with proposed sea-based fish farm developments are subject to normal planning controls. After much discussion in the earlier days, and moving rather faster than walking speed, we have had to consult with the Crown Estate Commissioners. Since October 1986 there has been a change in the way they deal with these consultative procedures. For instance, advertisements about such applications now have to appear in local papers and there has to be a 45-day statutory notice period before any action is taken.

Implicit in what has been said is the question of whether the Government should extend planning control to sea fish farms, which I think is the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. We have considered this matter very carefully on a number of occasions and proposals have been made to extend planning controls to sea fish farms, but we have always concluded that planning legislation is an inappropriate framework for exercising control of sea based developments, and extension of the planning function to territorial waters would have to embrace both development plan-making and development control; moreover, the preparation of a comprehensive sea use plan would have very considerable resource implications that would involve many authorities.

As regards development on land, the question arises of whether it is for local authorities to prepare and operate policies governing fish farm development. In fact we are watching this development very closely at the moment because, as has been made clear by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, who will understand that I am wearing my hat as the person responsible for tourism in Scotland, I see that as something that has to be kept under review. We will discuss at any time with any party the question of the extension of that vital industry. What we have to be very careful not to do is to stop it in its tracks. That is why the Government have taken that line about planning on the seabed.

I shall answer the various points that have been raised, but not necessarily in the order in which they came to me. It is perfectly true that there are variations in grant. I should like to give the House the position as it is at the moment. So far as grants under this order are concerned the normal situation as regards fish farms—and we are talking about normal circumstances—is that over the 10-year period the maximum grant is 25 per cent., with the exception of the West of Scotland where it has now been reduced from 50 per cent. to 40 per cent.

However, there are limitations on the applications. An application below £32,000 will not be considered in the overall capital expenditure, nor will one be considered above £1.1 million for a basic fish farm. However, if it is a hatchery and growing area for spawning, the amount considered in total goes up to £1.9 million. I hope I make myself clear on that matter since I was asked about what was happening to the actual figures for grants. I might add that over the past few years the area which has been most affected is the Highlands and Islands. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, perhaps things have been better up there than they have in other parts of the country. I shall not disagree with him. Nevertheless the problems in those areas are perhaps much greater than those in some other parts of the country.

There is one area that the Government are discussing with the Commission and on which we are making some progress; namely, trout farming. It is not so easy to get what we want from the Commission, simply because the tonnage of trout in the European Community is more or less in balance whereas for salmon it is by no means in balance, but we are moving up quite sharply.

The question was raised about the figure of £250,000 being now a ceiling grant. It is not the same as before. There was no ceiling before. Every fishing vessel was looked at on its own merits to see whether it should receive a grant. We have brought this measure in quite deliberately to try to spread the amount of money for the reasons that I gave in my speech.

As regards the long delays, I have no doubt that your Lordships are aware that in June there was a general election, which played havoc with the timescale in relation to this matter of fishing vessels. One of the most difficult exercises has been to keep the shipbuilders, particularly those in places like Campbeltown, happy until we were able to process the grants. That has now been accomplished for this year. The sum of £17.5 million has gone in grants for fishing vessels. I am pleased to say that the requirements in most of the requests that have been made have been carried through. Certainly all the priority categories have been dealt with. I accept the point about long delays. I should have hoped that under normal conditions such delays would not have occurred but the general election intervened and that was the cause.

The Sea Fish Industries Authority, which is responsible for the issue and administration of these grants, worked extremely hard during August and by the end of August we were reaching the position in which the priorities were being considered and issued. I was asked where on earth one could go and look for fish. The scheme that I am outlining gives assistance to those who want to go further away to see if there are fish. Interest has been shown by one particular fishing company to go to the Falklands area to see whether, either by themselves or in co-operation perhaps with the Japanese, there may be business there. We are very keen on promoting that for the simple reason that the European Community now includes Spain, which, as your Lordships know, has a very large fishing industry and there will be constant and increasing pressure on stocks, so that we have to look absolutely everywhere. This instrument encourages people to go further away.

So far as concerns Swanage, as well as marinas, the leisure industry and the like, again wearing my tourist office hat, I have divided responsibilities but I have to admit that that is a responsibility of the Department of Transport. I shall be happy to pass on your Lordships' comments to my noble friend who deals in this House with matters in that area.

I think that I have given to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, the figures relating to grants. The maximum grant in fish farming is normally 25 per cent; it is 40 per cent. in the West of Scotland. I think I have answered the question concerning the problems of the Crown Estate Commissioners particularly in relation to the tourist industry.

The noble Lord mentioned one matter relating to purse-seiners and asked whether the grants would be available for them. My reply is yes, because the scheme does not distinguish between the types of vessels that are eligible for grant aid. However, the 10 per cent. rate of grant for vessels over 33 metres in length, together with the maximum grant ceiling of £250,000, should ensure that a disproportionate amount of the limited funds available is not absorbed by such vessels, nor will it be possible to have topping-up grants to get round that matter and have more money put into the vessel. I take quite clearly the point made by the noble Lord and see the thrust of his argument. In the general context of my remarks about trying to ensure that the fleet that we are encouraging will not increase the capacity, particularly in such areas as purse-seiners, that is very much in the mind of the Government.

I think that answers the questions that were put to me and it only remains for me to commend the instruments to the House in due course.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he comment on the need to help in marketing?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, it is perfectly true that there is help for marketing. I have not looked through the papers to see exactly what it is. I am very keen on this issue. We are moving quite well in this area. From my discussions with the salmon fish farmers of the Shetlands it appears that they have taken on board the fact they have a year before the Norwegians come into the market again and perhaps give them more competition. What is perhaps more important is that, as the noble Lord will have noticed over the past week, the fish farmers in Scotland have combined with others under the aegis of Food From Britain but with their own slant to go ahead with marketing in a big way.

The noble Lord is right to point this out. The Government give every possible encouragement to marketing. It is clear that the speed with which the industry has grown brings in its train problems, one of which is to be able to sell fish at a good price. As the noble Lord will know, with salmon at £4,000 per tonne and an increasing turnover for salmon fish farmers, the business is a substantial one. The attitude of the Government and of the industry is to concentrate attention very much on marketing. Any help that we can give, we will.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, suppose that there is competition for one stretch of seashore between a local organisation and a large company, what sort of rules exist for deciding which should benefit? I believe it is important that local people should have some degree of priority. Can the noble Lord enlighten us a little on this?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I can do no more than pass on the comments of the noble Earl to the Crown Estate Commissioners. In the case of salmon fish farming, there is a mixture of small and large. In Shetland, it is all small and there are very few sizeable companies. It is useful, however, to have a balance between the big and the small. One has only to go to Fort William and see what is happening with the marine harvest development and the obvious advantages to the economy, employment and so forth to realise that the subsidiaries of Unilever must exist along with the small people.

I am happy to pass on the comments. To my knowledge there is no batting order in regard to applications. Everything is considered on its merits at the time that planning permission is sought. Given the implication of the noble Earl that the small men should have a very good crack of the whip in respect to planning, I am happy to write to the Crown Estate Commissioners along these lines.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, given that the Crown Commissioners deal with the seabed and the foreshore and the local authority with the land, to whom would one go first if one wished to start fish farming? It is a problem. You can be turned down by one and be given permission by the other. What liaison is there between the Crown Commissioners and the local councils to ensure that there is a joint effort in granting planning permission?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, we are discussing two matters here. In the case of the seabed and salmon fish farming, one deals with the Crown Estate Commissioners. On the land, where the problem arises because one may need storage facilities, one deals with the local authority. The common denominator in the case of the Highlands area is the Highlands and Islands Development Board. That body assists with grants. Discussions have to take place. There are two different situations here, and that leads to the occasional problem. I assure the House that it is not easy.

On Question, Motion agreed to.