HL Deb 25 October 1989 vol 511 cc1448-64

7.10 p.m.

Viscount Davidson rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, this order gives effect to an interim order of the President of the European Court of Justice made on 10th October 1989. The interim order by the court requires the United Kingdom to suspend until judgment in the main proceedings the application of the British nationality requirements for registration of certain British fishing vessels set out in Section 14(1), (2) and (7) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. The affected fishing vessels are those which were fishing under the British flag up to 31st March 1989 with a licence granted under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967.

The court order is in restricted terms. It requires the United Kingdom to suspend the application of the British nationality requirement as a condition for the registration of fishing vessels as British fishing vessels to the extent that, at present, the owners, charterers, managers and operators of such vessels must be either: British nationals, or in the case of a company, have at least 75 per cent. of its shares legally and beneficially owned by British nationals and at least 75 per cent. of its directors as British nationals.

The benefit of the court's order is restricted to nationals of the European Community. It does not affect the requirement that such persons must be resident and domiciled in the United Kingdom. Moreover it does not affect the requirement that the vessels should be managed and their operations directed and controlled from within the United Kingdom. We do not know how many additional fishing vessels will now become eligible for registration on the United Kingdom fishing vessel register. That will depend on how many have been ineligible for registration by reason only of the nationality requirements that are changed by this order.

It may help if I fill in some of the background here. Part II of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 introduced a new register of British fishing vessels. The main intention of this register was to restrict sea fishing rights so that the fishing quotas granted to the United Kingdom under the common fisheries policy benefited the genuine United Kingdom fishing fleet and the British communities dependent upon fishing. There were at the time a large number of fishing vessels which were fishing against the United Kingdom quotas, operating largely out of Spanish ports and which had only a nominal British connection.

The fishing vessel register came into full effect on 1st April 1989, but vessels could transfer to it from old registers on or after 1st December 1988. Since then the overwhelming proportion of the United Kingdom fishing fleet numbering more than 10,000 vessels has been registered in circumstances where my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been satisfied that they comply with the requirements of the Act. One hundred and twenty-one have been refused registration primarily because they have not been able to demonstrate that beneficial ownership is British or that the vessels are managed, directed and controlled from the United Kingdom.

In the meantime the European Commission on 10th August 1989 instituted an action under Article 169 of the EC treaty alleging that the United Kingdom had, in its imposition of the nationality requirement in Sections 13 and 14 of the 1988 Act, failed to fulfil its obligations under the EC treaty. The United Kingdom is defending these infraction proceedings.

The Commission also brought an application for interim measures under Article 186 of the treaty asking the court, to order the United Kingdom to suspend, as regards nationals of the other Member States, the nationality requirements enshrined in sections 13 and 14 of the Merchant Shipping Act". Judgment in respect of that application was delivered on 10th October and this order concerns that judgment alone. My honourable and learned friend the Solicitor General robustly argued the case for the United Kingdom on a number of grounds. Among other things, he submitted that interim relief ought not be ordered where a Commission's case on the incompatibility of the nationality conditions with Community law was weak. In particular, he argued that a state has the right and duty under international law to prevent the abuse of its flag and to lay down the conditions for registration of ships which will fly its flag.

He further submitted that the nationality requirements at issue were both consistent with international law and were necessary to uphold the system of national quotas under the common fisheries policy, which are based on nationality. The House will remember that the common fisheries policy was negotiated in minute detail by Ministers from each member state in a whole series of monthly meetings in Brussels when this system was set up in 1982–83. However, the court accepted the Commission's view that there was a prima facie case against the United Kingdom on the nationality issue and also that in the meantime certain "quota hoppers", particularly Spanish vessels which had hitherto fished against United Kingdom quotas, were suffering loss. The court, therefore, made its interim order to limit the loss of these fishermen pending the outcome of the main action—provided that they were able to satisfy the other conditions for registration to which I have already referred.

The United Kingdom is now obliged to give effect to the European Court order, which is why this order is before the House for approval. It is, as I said earlier, not certain what precise effect the relaxation of the nationality requirement will have. It may be very little since, as was recognised by the Commission itself, no more than a few fishing vessels are considered likely to be able to meet the other requirements which remain in force.

I refer to the requirements for residence and domicile in the United Kingdom and direction and control of operations from the United Kingdom, which will still need to be satisfied. It is of course possible that certain Community nationals might decide to take up residence in the United Kingdom, but this would require positive action, which would include setting up their permanent home here. In any event, it would continue to be necessary in all cases to establish that beneficial ownership, management and direction and control of vessels rests within the United Kingdom. It would not be enough merely to have token representation in this country.

The Government's objective remains to take all proper steps to ensure that the benefits of the United Kingdom quota under the common fisheries policy accrue to the genuine United Kingdom fishing fleet—but, of course, all such steps must be in accordance with EC law. The European Court of Justice has required, on an interim basis, that that portion of the 1988 Act concerning the nationality requirements for registration be suspended pending full argument and the final decision in this case.

Before I move the Motion, I feel that it would be helpful and would perhaps save some time if I answered more fully some of the points which were raised last week on the occasion of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. He asked whether it was not intolerable that a court sitting in a foreign land could instruct the British Parliament to alter an Act of Parliament. I cannot accept this. The relationship between Community and national law was considered at the time of our accession. In joining the European Community we accepted an obligation to comply with Community law. This includes compliance with orders from the European Court of Justice. It is now a fact of life within the Community that Community law prevails over any conflicting provisions of national law. The European Communities Act 1972 provides machinery for giving effect to Community law. Hence the draft Order in Council that we are debating tonight.

I hope that I have already gone some way towards answering the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Jay and Lord Underhill, about the effect of the order on the British fishing industry. I do not believe that the order would let in an armada of quota hoppers.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy asked how the fishing quota system could continue to operate if the European Court's decision were to allow fishing boats to change their nationality at will and with ease. The interim order by the European Court is a very limited change. It does not change the existing requirements on residence and domicile, and it should have no effect on the common fisheries policy quota system.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, asked me to consider the implications of the order for shipping safety and the dangers of over-fishing, particularly in the seas around Cornwall. On safety there should be no implications since all vessels fishing against the United Kingdom's quota will continue to have to be registered in the United Kingdom and will therefore be subject to the United Kingdom's statutory safety requirements. There should also be no effect on fish stocks. The order will have no effect on the EC fishing quotas and, as I have indicated earlier, the order is unlikely to lead to any significant increase in the number of vessels eligible to fish against the United Kingdom's quota—whether around Cornwall or elsewhere.

I hope that I have now answered the questions which were put to me last Thursday. I ask the House to approve the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount Davidson.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Viscount for explaining this order and for dealing with some of the points which were raised during Question Time last Thursday. Perhaps I may say at the outset that I am still unhappy with the order but that I appreciate the attitude taken by the Government in resisting the application made by the Commission to the European Court. I think that the Government took the right stance. The attitude I should like to take up in this matter is that of my party in relation to accepting the position of Britain within the EC.

The Minister has explained that it was the European Commission which sought the declaration from the Court of Justice. He dealt with some of the provisions of subsection (1) of Section 14 around which the whole case revolves. The court document sets out the history of fishing quotas and that of the Spanish fishing vessels which noble Lords will recall was the subject of very detailed consideration during deliberations on the Bill which is now the Merchant Shipping Act 1988.

Paragraph 15 of the court order sets out the agreed transitional system which limits the number of fishing vessels flying the Spanish flag which may fish in waters of member states to 300 vessels of which only 150 may pursue fishing activities at any one time. Paragraph 21 of the court document is most important. It points out that under the articles of the Rules of Procedure, an interim judgment may not be given, unless there are circumstances giving rise to urgency". As I mentioned in one of my supplementary questions last Thursday, the issue of "urgency" must be examined. The legal arguments are set out in a document and, as the noble Viscount said, the court found that the requirement of a prima facie case is settled.

The following paragraphs in the document deal with the matter of urgency. They state that the Commission informed the court that the British conditions had had the effect of forcing the entire Anglo-Spanish fleet to remain idle which had led to serious financial damage.

In the circumstances I must repeat some of the questions which were put last Thursday. I must also comment upon some of the points made by the noble Viscount. The news release of MAFF of 11th October quoted a comment on the judgment by Mr. David Curry, the Government's fisheries Minister. It reads, The Court's Order only requires us to suspend temporarily the nationality restrictions of Section 14 … the requirement that owners of British fishing vessels shall be resident and domiciled in the UK remains, as does the need for the vessels to be controlled and managed from here". In my view the Minister's comments which were quoted in the release do not bring out an important point: Articles 3 of the order now before the House makes clear that a vessel must be "Community-owned" and not "British-owned" as at present set out in Section 14(1)(a) of the Act. This emphasis on Community ownership is repeated in relation to Sections 2 and 7 of the Act. Moreover, the explanatory note to the order further emphasises that point. The explanatory note also explains that the court ruling relates to, vessels which were fishing under the British flag up to March 31st 1989 and were owned by nationals of member States of the European Communities". These vessels will be allowed to fish under the British quota but the noble Viscount has said that only a few will be involved. However, he cannot give any actual figures or say how the situation could develop. Is this part of the explanatory note in accordance with the president's order which is set out at the end of the court document? For the benefit of noble Lord, and with the leave of the House, perhaps I may be permitted to read that order. It says: Pending delivery of the judgment in the main proceedings"— which, incidentally, we are told may take two years— the United Kingdom shall suspend the application of the nationality requirements laid down in Section 14(1)(a) and (c) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, read in conjunction with paragraphs (2) and (7) of that section, as regards the nationals of other Member States" — noble Lords will note that there is no comma or full stop here— and in respect of fishing vessels which, until 31st March 1989, were pursuing a fishing activity under the British flag and under British fishing Licence". I have no knowledge of the law. But does that not mean that the position of the vessels which were fishing until 31st March are covered by this order and that their activities—which were denied by the Act—must be continued? Moreover, what about the reference to, as regards the nationals of other Member States". Does this mean that provided they fulfil other requirements they can fish in British waters? In my view that point is rather important.

The European Court made its ruling as a matter of great urgency. If the Minister is correct in stating that the interim ruling will have little effect, and if the noble Viscount is correct in repeating that statement, where does the court's argument stand on the question or urgency? Surely the matter of urgency does not then arise.

If many vessels are involved this could lead to a situation as regards quotas whereby British fishermen could be out of work. Surely that is a matter of urgency for the United Kingdom. Therefore the question regarding the number of vessels involved, and the number that will be involved, is rather important. Moreover, even if only a few vessels are affected, as Section 14 (1)(b) of the Act still stands under the court order, could not these Community owners arrange for their vessels to be controlled and managed within the United Kingdom? Thus, despite the court ruling, more Spanish vessels and more vessels of other Community states could be allowed to fish to the detriment of British fishermen. In my view this point was not clarified in the statement made by the noble Viscount this evening.

I should like to follow briefly an issue raised by the noble Viscount as regards international law. From the legal advice given to the Government I should like to know, despite our acceptance of the Community treaty, whether that can obviate the right of any nation to decide under international law what should be the basis of registration of a ship and the entitlement to fly that flag. We are told that the conditions which the Government thought were the basis of international law are those imposed by other member states for flying their flag. Is that, or is that not, the position? If it is the position, then obviously it is one of great seriousness.

I noticed that an article which appeared in The Times on llth October stated that this case sets an important legal precedent in that it appears to be the first time that the Commission has suspended a new British law before taking a decision on its incompatibility with Community legislation. I should like to know whether that statement is correct? I think that that is one point which must be settled.

If the Commission is so urgently concerned with discrimination and if only a few vessels are involved—although that point has still to be clarified—would it not be advisable for the Commission to spend its time dealing with the opening of cabotage to merchant shipping of all member states? Should it not also take action against the fiscal advantages and discrimination practised by many Community states in support of their merchant shipping and port industries?

It must be proved to us first that only a few vessels are involved; and secondly, that this is a matter of great urgency. If it is not a matter of great urgency, then I suggest that the points I raised at the end of my remarks are ones of greater urgency to member states and especially to the merchant shipping of this country.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for explaining the order. I also understand the unease about the suspension of part of a British statute which was expressed in Question Time last week and which will no doubt be expressed again this evening. I propose to draw attention to a general matter, which I find most disquieting, which looks to the future, far beyond the order. Of course, I shall not discuss the case which is now before the court, but the fact that the action has been brought at all by the Commission raises questions for the future.

The action relates to a dispute between the United Kingdom and owners of certain fishing boats about eligibility for the new United Kingdom register for fishing vessels. If the EC is to proceed towards interchangeability of nationality, that may be a desirable aim. I, for one, do not object to it in principle. It is, however, completely inconsistent with the regime devised as the cornerstone of the EC common fisheries policy—the system of national quotas agreed from time to time for individual member nations' nationally registered fishing boats.

Under the common fisheries policy, the fishermen's boats are treated in accordance with their nationality, and the quotas of scarce or conserved fish (those much in demand) are divided accordingly. That system, negotiated with great difficulty, could not be continued and would have to be changed to something different if the separate nationalities are to become merged or interchangeable through everyone eventually assuming similar rights in one another's countries within the EC. The two policies are contradictory. They are both being pursued at the moment, and the Commision is the agency.

The part of the Commission which is concerned with fisheries has the duty of supervising the operation of the quota system, relying entirely upon different nationalities. The part of the Commission concerned with establishment matters, and rights of participation in the capital of companies, is no doubt doing its duty as it sees it, to reduce restrictions arising from nationality within the EC.

It is probably not the Commission's fault that, unless the situation is taken in hand, the result of both those activities could be chaos. The situation may be worrying for other industries apart from the sea fish industry and in other areas of activity. It is developing into a minefield for the sea fishing industries. I put that in the plural because it is not just the British industry. There are others in the EC who will find the decision disrupting. They will be damaged if the quota system is made useless and inoperative.

The Spanish fishermen's organisations, based in Spain, have been in touch with me from time to time. They deplore the attempt at quota hopping, as it is called, of the boats which try to disguise themselves as British. The genuine Spanish fishermen do not sympathise with their renegade colleagues because they undermine agreements which have been reached and make for bad feeling between Spanish and British fishermen.

It might be argued that the quota system could still work, with allowance made for additional boats which have changed their flag; but it would be difficult to keep abreast of numbers. Four years ago there were about 50 Spanish boats which had established themselves and registered at British ports. From my latest count a few months ago, the figure is now 150; it may be more. If it becomes easy to adopt a new nationality within the EC, or nationalities are virtually pooled so that everyone can assume the rights of other nationals within other countries, changes of flag could be frequent and unpredictable; in other words, when skippers of fishing boats can change their flags as often as their shirts or socks, the whole basis of the common fisheries policy will collapse. Confidence within the various fishing industries will evaporate. Scarce fish will become scarcer.

Noble Lords will be aware that the species under threat around our shores and in EC fishing areas is haddock. They are disappearing and need special conservation measures which have been extremely hard on the fishermen involved. For a period in the recent past, the herring had to be protected from extinction. There was a total ban on fishing for herring in some areas.

The quota system has played, and continues to play, an essential part in all that as a fair and orderly control over the modern, effective catching power of the fishing fleets. It will not be easy to devise and reach agreement upon a new common fisheries policy. I am sure that the Government agree that if the quota system had to be scrapped it would be a formidable task to replace it.

I have seen the policy develop from close at hand. I was the Minister most concerned when the United Kingdom joined the EC in 1972–73. I was a close observer of the later negotiations, the enlargement of the Community with Spain and Portugal joining, and the problems of the fishing industries involved at that time.

I fully support the Government in the attitude that they have taken—I made that clear, as others of your Lordships did, when Part II of the Bill was going through your Lordships' House—and I must give a warning that the pursuit of EC objectives in one area may bring tumbling down EC achievements in other areas.

I thank my noble friend Lord Davidson for his assurance tonight and his response to the supplementary question that I was able to put last week. This evening I have set out my concerns about the more distant future if apparently conflicting policies are pursued within the EC.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Underhill, I cannot see why there is such urgency about bringing forward the order. It appears that other people in another place are of the same opinion, because this afternoon the question of whether the order should be proceeded with was raised by Mr. Taylor, the honourable Member for Southend, East.

I had hoped, because I listened to that exchange, that the Government were listening. The Leader of the other place was present. I assumed that his silence implied consent; that is, consent to the arguments which were put by Mr. Teddy Taylor, but it seems that I was completely wrong and that the Government have decided to press on regardless, despite the serious constitutional issues which arise from the court's judgment and the implications for British fishermen and their livelihoods.

My views on the EC, I hope, are well known and, of course, correct. I cannot help but be contemptuous of the obsequious alacrity with which the Government appear to accede to every whim of the EC and its institutions. The order, for example, was prepared within seven days of the court's edict. No wonder the court and the Commission see this country as a soft touch. What other item, say of domestic legislation, would be dealt with within seven days? We should be shouting "hooray" of course if it were; but here we have an order from the EC which is processed and put into the system within seven days of the edict delivered by the court. As I say, no wonder they think in Europe that this country is a soft touch.

It is remarkable that we should be such an easy touch. Only in 1988 the Government were urging the Merchant Shipping Act on Parliament. I must quote from the speech of the then Minister, Mr. Channon, during the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons on 28th January 1988. He said: Part II deals with the very serious problem of foreign-owned fishing vessels registered in the United Kingdom in order to fish against our EC quotas. This is, I know, a matter of concern to hon. Members who represent fishing constituencies. We are introducing stringent new eligibility requirements for the registration of fishing vessels in the United Kingdom. A fishing vessel would need to be beneficially owned as to at least 75 per cent. by British citizens resident and domiciled in the United Kingdom or wholly owned by a qualified company. There will be powers to specify additional eligibility requirements. These are stringent requirements, but we believe they are essential— let me underline that— if British fishing quotas are to be preserved for British fishermen. They have been carefully drawn up in consultation with the fishermen's organisations and widely welcomed by them".—[Official Report, Commons, 28/1/88; col. 5] Bearing in mind that strong support of Part II of the Act, why do we give in so easily to an edict from the European Court which, perhaps even in just a small measure, will hurt our British fishing industry?

As I said last Thursday, only months after that speech was made and the Act came into operation, we are told by this court sitting in a foreign land that from an Act of Parliament passed by both Houses of Parliament, with agreement largely on all sides, we must remove any reference to vessels having to be British-owned. We must write into the Act a provision which removes the rights and privileges and which affects the livelihoods of British fishermen so that they now have to be shared with the nationals of 11 other nations. There are no comparable rights for British nationals in other EC countries. There are no reciprocal arrangements. British fishermen cannot go to Spain and do the same as the Spanish can here.

Why then do the British Government give in so easily, if there are no reciprocal arrangements? The fact is that the British Government and, it seems, the British courts appear to be less ready than other EC countries to protect the fundamental rights of their nationals. Perhaps I may quote from an article which appeared in the Financial Times on 13th April 1989 and which supports that contention: In the face of the overconfident and extremely free interpretation of European Community law by the EC Commission and the European Court, the attitude adopted by the UK courts appears distinctly diffident and timid". Those are not my words but the words of the Financial Times. The article continues: This contrasts with the attitude of German courts which provide Luxembourg judges with more references than courts of any other member state, but jealously guard the fundamental rights of German nationals and residents. The French courts have a different solution to the problem: they see no need of asking the European Court for interpretation of Community laws and regulations, the meaning of which seems clear to them". So there is a contrast between the way in which we deal with and protect the interests of our nationals and that of other members of the EC.

It is quite ironic that the first Queen Elizabeth, 400 years ago, defeated and sent packing the Spanish Armada, but now, in the reign of the second Queen Elizabeth, a Spaniard in the form of Senor Marin—the fisheries commissioner—can come to the Queen's realm and tell British fishermen, as he did in Aberdeen on 6th April, that their fishing fleets will have to be cut by up to 22.5 per cent. in the coming years.

In my view the constitutional position is very serious indeed, as I made clear last Thursday. The matter was raised again in the House of Commons today and from that it would appear that the position is even worse than I had realised. It now seems that, in the light of other references which were made to the court in Strasbourg, we in this country may very well find that the traditional situation whereby Parliament legislates and the courts administer will change and the courts of this land will be allowed, under a Brussels edict, to set aside Acts of Parliament.

In conclusion, there is a convention that the House of Lords does not vote on orders. Generally speaking, I agree with that convention. However, I understood that the House of Lords was supposed to look after constitutional matters and had a role in protecting the constitution. In matters of this kind, I believe that the convention that the House of Lords ought not to vote on orders should be set aside. I do not know that we, or I, shall test the matter tonight. However, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, raised a very serious question regarding the lights of this House. The more we have orders of this kind the more we shall have to consider exactly what the role of this House is.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Jay

My Lords, the Minister said that it was necessary to look at the background of the order. However there are some facts in the background which he did not mention. One is that had this country never accepted the common fisheries policy, we should still have—as Norway does—a 200-mile fishing zone of our own. Norway has successfully preserved its zone. That was not done here. As a result of the common fisheries policy, this country contributed something like three-quarters of the total stock of fish to the pool. I understand that under the British quota the British fishing industry is only able to take out about 16 per cent. as opposed to the three-quarters put in. Those are the basic facts to the background.

In addition, it is apparently true—and the Minister will say if I am wrong—that of the fishing vessels entitled to draw on the British quota, about 10 per cent. are now Spanish owned. I believe it is also true that the present fisheries commissioner in Brussels is Spanish. If that is not correct, the Minister will tell me.

On top of all that, we now find that the interests of the British fishing industry are to be even further damaged by this provision forced on our legislation so that we cannot in effect mention the fact of British citizenship in a piece of legislation of this kind. The Minister, brushing this aside, said that all these matters were discussed when the EC legislation was passed, and that was the end of it. However, I cannot recall that the public were told at the time of the referendum, or indeed in debates in the House of Commons, that membership would make it impossible for the British Parliament to mention British citizenship in an Act of the British Parliament. If my memory is at fault there, the Minister can say so.

When one turns from those considerations to the practical effect of what is now proposed, and how many vessels will be affected and what the consequences will be for the British fishing industry, it seems to me that we are left wholly in the dark. We are told that there still has to be a residential qualification for the owners of the vessels in question. It seems curious that one cannot mention nationality and the matter of citizenship, but one is still allowed to mention nationality, apparently, when it is a question of ownership and residence. Surely what matters from the point of view of practising fishermen is how many vessels will be affected by the change. If it is now true that some 10 per cent. of the vessels which are entitled to draw on the British quota are Spanish owned, will this residential qualification reduce that 10 per cent. to 7 per cent., 5 per cent. or even less, or will it, numerically, have only a completely negligible effect? I should have thought we were at least entitled to know that. So far we have not been told.

I wish to put the assertion of my noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon in the form of a question. Is it the case that this measure is not reciprocal? Is it a fact that for some obscure reason it is not possible for British fishermen, presumably by acquiring a residence in Spain, then to draw on the Spanish quota in the same way as the latter will be allowed to do in regard to our quota? I must confess that, even after hearing the Minister who did his best with the brief he has, I find deplorable the situation into which step by step we have now been pushed. If no further information can be given, I should very much deplore it if this order had to be passed by both Houses of Parliament.

Lord Parry

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, who has allowed me to speak before him. I wish to declare an interest as the chairman of the Milford Docks Company, from which role I draw a profit. The House will be aware that some time ago I warned that there was a danger that the Government would find themselves in a position of illegality in regard to the general law of the EC over this exclusivity issue. I do not rise tonight to say "I told you so", and nor do I dissent from some of the difficulties faced by my noble friends.

I was an opponent of our entry into the EC and I am sceptical about the EC at the present time to say the least. Yet ironically I find myself with a wholly different problem for the Minister. I must remind him that the port of Milford Haven was the base of the Welsh fishing fleet at a time when it put some 100 ships to sea. At present the indigenous fleet at Milford Haven is down to between seven and nine vessels, of which about half a dozen only are at sea at any given time. Over the course of our lifetimes we in Wales have seen the decline of a basic part of the economy of Wales, and particularly of West Wales. We regret that deeply.

I have always supported the indigenous fishermen. I wish to protect them and ensure that they get the opportunity to fish. Nevertheless, times change and we have entered the EC. We are almost on the eve of 1992 when some of the arguments that have been presented here this evening will have taken their place in the history of the evolution of Europe.

I have already put to the noble Viscount, Lord Davidson, the fact that a part of the fleet at Milford Haven is Spanish. However, I must repeat that for the record. The fleet is Spanish in the sense that some of its operators were originally Spaniards who came to settle in Milford Haven. The Couceiro family have worked for a long time to obtain a proper right to fish as British nationals within the British system. The father of that family has been a citizen since about 1955. His son has been a citizen for at least 15 years and the other son who is a participating partner is a British born citizen. That family can in no sense be called quota hoppers or renegades either to their nationality or to the work they are trying to do. Without picking up a specious issue, I simply wish to point out that we are talking here about people who have tried to make their way within the British system and to obtain British nationality.

If this decision were clear cut, I do not think many of us would have much trouble with it. However, unless the Minister can give me some satisfaction later this evening, I must contend that it is not. Twelve modern vessels, each worth anything from £300,000 to £500,000, owned by one Spanish-Welsh or Welsh-Spanish family, whichever way one cares to look at it—I am conscious that a lot of time has been taken over this issue but it is vital to put the Welsh issue on the record—have been tied up for seven to eight months at the wall at Milford Haven. During that time the company in which I have declared an interest built a new ice factory to service the fishing industry to try to keep it alive and sought and obtained support for funding it from the Welsh Office. We have spent nearly £½ million on the provision of new facilities to strengthen the whole fleet; that is the indigenous fleet and those who are able to fish within the limit.

The land based employees at this one company amount to 12 people. The indigenous fishing people ashore adds up to a similar number and the sea based members of the fleet would number 50 if they were all at sea. If a willing seller made these ships available to a willing buyer at this time, the seller would have a valuable asset which would command a global sum of about £2 million. However, the vessels are tied up at the wall at a cost of £400 a day. Although my noble friends are right, given their concerns, to argue that there is no great haste for the decision to be clarified, the sooner the matter is clarified and resolved the better it will be for fishing in West Wales.

The figures that I have quoted have been certified on affidavit before the courts. We now have a potential fleet of 12 boats of the Couceiro family and six to nine boats from the indigenous fleet. One could add to that the fisherman, Ramon Ileria, who sought British nationality because he wished to live and to trade within the regulations. If we added up all those boats, we would have the beginnings of a modern fleet and Milford Haven could offer a modern facility of value to Wales.

The noble Viscount, Lord Davidson, was not certain about the precise effect of the order. My noble friend Lord Underhill also raised that issue. Is the Minister able to confirm that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has appointed an inspector who will investigate the issues affecting the registration of the Couceiro fleet and others at Milford Haven and has asked the inspector to report to him? I realise that the Minister may need to take advice on that, and I shall be only too happy to receive an answer either directly or indirectly. It does not matter to me how I receive it as long as I receive one. In the meanwhile I ask the Minister to impress upon his right honourable friend, if there is such an inspector and if the intervention of the inspector is likely to be a lengthy process, the need for haste to a good decision on the issue with regard to that fleet.

I say again to the Minister and to the House that if British nationality and British control requirements are satisfied, since there are only two years to go to 1992 and an open seas policy, in this case I should welcome a decision.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I shall be exceptionally brief in order to give time for the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, to wind up and for the noble Viscount to reply.

I support what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said about cabotage. I also support the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, who pointed out that the Spanish can fish in our waters but we cannot fish in theirs.

8 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I shall also be extremely brief. This has been a fascinating debate. We have heard the Teddy Taylor appreciation society and the anti-European monarchist party speak. We have heard challenges to the rights of the European Courts. The question of Community law versus domestic law has been raised. We have to take the rough with the smooth. Many of us, particularly on this side of the House, are grateful to the Courts in Europe for preserving human rights in this country when the present Government are trying to erode them, particularly in the area of individual freedom.

From these Benches, as committed Europeans, it is easier for us to be critical of the Community when it makes mistakes. We believe that the Community is making a mistake in this case. There is a widely held view that Spanish fishermen are cheating. It is very difficult to pin it down precisely, but the quota system is being nibbled away at the edges by some fishermen. However, I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Parry, that those who have come to settle here and who have provided a certain amount of inward investment are greatly to be appreciated and should be supported.

If the Commission is acting unfairly, as many speakers tonight believe it is, it should be made clear to the Commission that it is in its interests to see that the quota system is applied properly. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said, fishing quotas have been a very important means of dealing with extremely difficult problems relating to national demands on fish. They have also provided a basis for some conservation of fish stocks.

Reference was made to the years when herring disappeared from the North Sea. I well remember that. I remember being at a party conference many years ago at which a trawlerman who was speaking in a debate pulled a herring out of his pocket, flung it into the audience and said, "Pass that round. It might be the last one you see". For many of us it was the last one that we saw for several years. The herring stocks in the North Sea reached the point almost of no return. Fortunately the situation has recovered. However, there is no doubt that fishing quotas have been an important factor in preserving stock.

The Government ought to be saying to the Commission, "You have agreed national quotas. They have been agreed over a long period. It is up to you to defend those quotas when there are genuine problems". That there is a genuine problem in this case there can be no doubt. As the noble Viscount said, his right honourable and learned colleague in another place has been defending the position before the European Court and, from what he said, has been putting the case very well.

It is to the Commission that we should say that we are being treated unfairly. Not only are we being treated unfairly but there are also problems in other countries. One of our difficulties is that we normally address the Commission in such strident terms—like a collection of fishwives, if I may use the expression, although on the whole fishwives are rather more polite than our present Prime Minister. If we stopped shouting at the Commission, started to talk to it and explained our problems we might make more progress.

There is a genuine problem here. It is not restricted entirely to this country. Like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I have before me the MAFF news release which said that Mr. Curry had just returned from a fact-finding visit to the German fishing industry and that support for the UK's position had been expressed by his colleagues in Germany, Ireland and Denmark. It also said that other member states would be arguing for stronger rules to protect their fishing industries. I should be glad to know whether the noble Viscount can tell us whether there have been further discussions with other European Community countries because that seems to me to be the way forward.

I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for his answers to the supplementary question that I raised to a Question last week. I am perfectly satisfied with what he said. On the assurance that little change will take place as a result of the interim order we would certainly not push our objection further. However, the Minister and his colleagues in the Government must recognise that there is genuine concern in this House, as in another place, even among those Members who are fervent believers in the European Community. Genuine criticism from them might be listened to more sympathetically than from those who are diametrically opposed to the whole concept of Europe.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on the order. We are a little pressed for time but I shall do my best to answer as many of the points raised as possible.

On a general point I must emphasise that it is a fact of life in the Community that Community law prevails over any conflicting provisions of national law. The European Court of Justice has now required the UK to suspend the nationality provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act pending final judgment on their compatibility with EC law. Of course we argued before the Court against suspension. But I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that we take our obligations seriously, including European Court of Justice judgments, because we believe that it is in the UK's interest for the Community to have strong institutions and a sound framework of law. So we intend to implement the Court's ruling. I do not wish to continue the debate as to whether or not we should have joined the Common Market.

I must emphasise that the European Court of Justice works within the confines of the treaties. It is an independent and impartial court and has by no means always decided in favour of the Commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to a statement in The Times to the effect that the Court had made a ruling requiring a change in the law without there being any determination that UK law was in breach of Community law. Such a ruling is in the nature of an interim measures ruling. As the noble Lord has pointed out, the Court has to be satisfied only that there is a prima facie case before it will be entitled to grant interim measures. The purpose of such an order is not to determine the rights of the parties but to hold the position pending final determination.

Regarding urgency, the rule of Community law, a well established rule as the European Court of Justice has itself said on a number of occasions, is that, The implementation of a judgment has to be commenced immediately and must be completed as soon as possible". In this case the urgency arose because the owners of the vessels which will benefit from the order could go bankrupt very swiftly. For them, therefore, the matter is urgent. It is in relation to them that the Court—and I repeat, the Court—considered the matter urgent. Of course I am not in a position to speak on behalf of the Court.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said that the requirement that beneficial ownership be vested in persons domiciled and resident in the United Kingdom remains. Therefore present owners could not just arrange for their vessels to be controlled from the UK; they would themselves have to become resident and be domiciled here. I might write to the noble Lord to explain more fully what "resident" and "domiciled" mean. I would have said so now but I am trying to hurry.

Concerning cabotage, I can confirm that it is still the Government's intention to secure freedom of cabotage within the European Community. That is why we took the power to control cabotage in the 1988 Act. However, that issue is outside the scope of the order and would be better discussed on a more appropriate occasion.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy spoke about the conflict of EC policies. We agree that there is a conflict between the EC policy on fishing quotas and the interim order of the court. However, that is a wider question than the one we are considering tonight. I can assure my noble friend that we shall continue fighting the issue in the context of the court action.

The noble Lord, Lord Jay, was correct on one point; namely, that the EC Fisheries Commissioner is Spanish. The UK contributes 75 per cent. of the fish but has only 37 per cent. of the quota. Only one per cent. of the UK fleet is Spanish-owned and the Fisheries Commissioner is Spanish.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, spoke about the UK being called—I believe that this is what he called it—a soft touch. The UK is indeed the first country against which infraction proceedings have been introduced by the Commission, although I understand that proceedings have been instituted against Ireland in a related matter. We understand that infraction proceedings will be opened in the very near future—within three months—against the fishing vessels legislation of six countries, namely, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France and Ireland. The decision on proceedings against another four countries—Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal—is to be taken within one month.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, asked about discussions with the other member states on quota hopping. The fisheries Minister will be holding such discussions over the next few months.

The noble Lord, Lord Parry, asked about an inspector being appointed by my right honourable friend. I can tell him that Clearmaine has now been informed that the Secretary of State has appointed an inspector to investigate the eligibility of the vessels for registration. That seems the best way of dealing with the case. The inspector will take account of the Order in Council once it is approved by both Houses of Parliament and made by the Privy Council.

Lord Jay

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he say whether British fishermen will have corresponding reciprocal rights in Spanish waters?

Viscount Davidson

Not at the moment, my Lords.

On Question, Motion agreed to.