HL Deb 20 March 1991 vol 527 cc620-3

2.42 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will introduce a decommissioning scheme for Scottish fishing boats.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, we have no plans to introduce a decommissioning scheme. The Government remain to be convinced that such a scheme would represent good value for taxpayers' money and would achieve the objective of reducing pressure on fish stocks.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very unsatisfactory reply. May I ask him in the first place, why not? Does he accept that the Government are hated and reviled around the north-east coast of Scotland for the eight day tie-up scheme and the inflexible way in which it has been implemented? Will he put pressure on his right honourable friend to allow him to enter into discussions with the leaders of the fishermen's organisations with a view to devising an effective decommissioning scheme?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I do not accept that a decommissioning scheme would either work to conserve the livelihoods of fishermen in the long term, or help to reduce the amount of effort of fishing on the stocks that are most under threat, in particular in the North Sea.

The noble Lady asked about flexibility on the eight day rule. I hope that she will recognise that we have introduced flexibility by offering fishermen an alternative to the eight day tie-up; namely, that they can fish with a 110 millimetre diamond mesh, rather than tying up for eight days or using the 90 millimetre diamond mesh which is the current minimum.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Scottish fishing fleet is more greatly affected by the EC mandatory tie-up scheme—about 380 vessels are involved—than any other fishing fleet in the Community? If that is so, will he tell the House why the Government are so implacably opposed to the EC-funded decommissioning scheme?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right in saying that it is the Scottish fleet that is most affected by the eight day tie-up regulation. That is because the stocks that are most under pressure, cod and haddock, are caught mostly by Scottish fishermen. We catch about 45 per cent. of the Community cod quota and 87 per cent. of the haddock quota in the North Sea.

On the question of European money for a decommissioning scheme, the European Community has no money; it comes directly from the taxpayer of individual nation states. As a net contributor to the Commission that money is rebated to us under the Fontainebleau accord. It therefore would cost the British taxpayer about £60 million to put in hand an effective decommissioning scheme. As I have already suggested, that is not good value for money.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, I believe that I heard my noble friend mention the eight day fishing restriction as an alternative. If a fisherman's boat by any chance breaks down, and he dares to put his nose out of the harbour to ensure that the engine is working, is that venture outside the walls of the harbour counted against the time that is left to him to go fishing? Is the whole day deducted?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. The point of the eight day consecutive tie-up is that it is exactly an eight day tie-up at the harbour. What one used to be able to do in 30 days one must fit into the remaining 22 days in the month.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, is that not distrusting a fisherman? If he has his engine repaired is he not allowed to take it out on trial to ensure that the engine is working? If he needs a specialised repair which is better undertaken in Peterhead than in his own port, does that count too? Is that not being too rigid with the scheme? Despite the statement made by the Minister in another place in the debate on 5th March, we have had no evidence from the fishermen that there has been any tolerance towards the fishermen with regard to bad weather or boat testing. Will the Minister expand on that?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, there is no question of distrusting fishermen. The aim of the regulation is to cut down on the amount of fishing effort. It is, for instance, to avoid fishermen testing their boats, or doing anything else with their fishing boats that they can do outwith the eight days that they are tying up.

Flexibility is important. One area on which we are keen to be as flexible as possible —and we have instructed the Fishery Protection Service to be so—is that of safety, so that fishermen do not feel obliged to go out (as I am sure none of them ever would) in a severe storm on the basis that they might get caught by the eight day regulation.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is it not another argument for Scottish devolution?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is a European Community regulation. It has nothing to do with devolution.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's disingenuous remarks about the Fontainebleau agreement, will he indicate briefly to the House when he believes that such an agreement may be operative?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, in the present conditions I cannot foresee a government-backed decommissioning scheme coming into force.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, will the Minister consider some form of payment to the fishermen of two boats which are currently banned from fishing for sand eels in the Shetland so that the ban continues in perpetuity and the sand eels survive?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, no, because those fishermen are quite capable of fishing for other species.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the alternative to the eight day tie-up scheme—that is using nets with a minimum mesh size of 110 millimetres—is totally unrealistic for catches of whiting and haddock? With that mesh size one would catch no whiting and hardly any haddock.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am aware that many Scottish fishermen have difficulties in using a net with larger mesh sizes. I am sure that the House will be pleased to know that many fishermen in the United Kingdom have greatly welcomed the flexibility that we have introduced by the alternative 110 millimetre mesh and are in fact using that mesh.