HL Deb 09 July 1993 vol 547 cc1698-706

3.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe) rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 26th May be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am pleased to introduce today the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1993 under which £8.4 million is available in 1993–94 for decommissioning grants for fishermen. The scheme will help to reduce fishing effort and to fulfil our EC obligations.

Why do we need to reduce fishing effort? Scientific advice is that several fish stocks in UK waters are severely depleted and that all stocks are vulnerable. Technical conservation measures—for example, rules on mesh sizes and measures such as total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas, which we currently have in place—are not of themselves sufficient to protect the fish and allow the stocks to be replenished. The only sure way to conserve this important resource and thus to assure the long-term future of the industry is to have less fishing. The industry itself accepts that there are too many boats chasing too few fish but there is no incentive for the individual fisherman voluntarily to limit his fishing effort; he wants a guarantee that this action is being taken collectively.

That is why governments throughout the world have taken responsibility for the conservation of fish stocks for the good of their fishing industries. That is why the European Community has agreed multi-annual guidance programmes (MAGPs) with targets for capacity reductions and limiting effort which all member states must achieve by end of 1996. And that is why in February 1992 the Government announced a package of conservation measures aimed at reducing fishing effort. The package includes changes to the licensing regime, the £25 million decommissioning scheme and days at sea restrictions.

One way of achieving less fishing is of course to have fewer vessels and that is the objective of the decommissioning scheme. It has the potential to reduce the UK fleet by about 10,000 to 12,000 tonnes and to make a contribution towards our MAGP target of at least 5 per cent.

The purpose of this statutory instrument is to set out the rules for the payment of decommissioning grant. Eligibility for grant is restricted to registered fishing vessels which are more than 10 metres; more than 10 years of age; are seaworthy; have a valid fishing licence which has not been downgraded since 27th February 1992 (the date of the ministerial announcement); were acquired before 27th February 1992; and spent at least 100 days on fishing trips in each of 1991 and 1992 (to ensure that only active fishing vessels are decommissioned). The level of grant is to be determined through tendering with bids ranked according to pound sterling per vessel capacity unit (VCU). That will enable us to take out the greatest capacity for the available funds. The owners of eligible vessels must be prepared to scrap and de-register their vessel and surrender all its licences by 1st March 1994. That way we have a tightly controlled scheme.

Those are the eligibility rules which will apply for 1993–94. Next year they may be changed in the light of the experience of this year's scheme, so as to provide for the best targeting of funds.

Under the 1993–94 scheme £8.4 million is available and £25 million is available in total. A press announcement inviting applications under the scheme was made on 26th May 1993. The closing date for applications is now the end of July. My honourable friend the Minister of State announced on Wednesday this extension to the 9th July deadline to allow fishermen to reflect further and apply if they wish.

I believe that this scheme, as part of the package of conservation measures I have mentioned, will be effective. It offers those fishermen who meet the eligibility criteria and who wish to leave the industry an excellent opportunity to do so. It will help reduce pressure on scarce fish stocks and contribute significantly towards meeting our EC targets for reducing capacity.

I should like to say a few words about the other main element of the package, the days-at-sea restrictions. The fishing industry has expressed doubts about these restrictions and we are fully aware that some sectors of industry do have ideas on alternative solutions or concerns about the detail of the days at sea rules. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my honourable friend the Minister of State have been listening to the industry's views and as a result of its representations the Minister of State announced on Wednesday a postponement of the days at sea restrictions until 1st January 1994. That will give us the opportunity to consult fully with the industry about their concerns and to hear its ideas on tackling conservation. However, I must emphasise that effort controls remain a key element in meeting our MAGP targets and in ensuring that we make the best use of the £25 million available for decommissioning. We cannot remove vessels from the fleet and allow other vessels to fish harder. That would not give us value for money; nor would it be in the long-term interests of the fishing industry.

We hope that the industry will take the opportunity of the postponement to put forward constructive views and suggestions so that by the end of September we have its firm views and can take those into account in time for the final days-at-sea arrangements to apply from the beginning of next year. We shall listen carefully to what is said.

It gives me pleasure to commend for your approval this instrument which, together with the postponement of days at sea, shows the Government's commitment to help the industry and to listen to its anxieties and ideas about all aspects of the policy.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, has he remembered the advice of Sub-Committee D to the European Communities Committee that, although £25 million is helpful, it is not sufficient to resolve the problem of too many ships chasing too few fish?

Earl Howe

My Lords, indeed, Ministers bear that advice strongly in mind. As my noble friend will no doubt realise, budgetary restraints in the current year will prevent us from instituting a larger scheme. But I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding the House of that advice and of the committee's work, which was of great value. I commend the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th May be approved. [32nd Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Earl Howe.)

3.19 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for the way in which he introduced the scheme. He explained the background to it and described in clear detail the content of the scheme. I am sure that there is no dispute in your Lordships' House about the underlying reality which the noble Earl described as too many boats chasing too few fish. I believe that that is the most succinct way in which it can be described.

We have noticed the destruction of the Canadian east coast cod fishing industry in which 25,000 jobs have been lost because of a failure to engage in adequate conservation policies. We are extremely conscious that it is a particularly traditional industry with a very strong community base. Therefore, we are conscious that the social aspects of cutting back are particularly severe in an industry of this kind. I think that they deserve special attention.

I believe that the main problem was implicit in the noble Earl's remarks; namely, the need to combine a cut in capacity with a reduction in effort. Both are undoubtedly needed. But, in our view, the key to conserving fish is to give priority to limiting the total capacity of the fishing fleet rather than to fishing effort (by placing restrictions on all vessels in the fishing fleet). But one has to do both. It is a matter of balancing the two. In our judgment, the Government are not putting nearly enough emphasis on decommissioning as the method of reducing the capacity. I believe that their policies concentrate excessively on curtailing the fishing effort.

The present decommissioning scheme of £25 million over three years, with £8 million plus for this year, is even poorer than the one that was originally promised, which was to span over a period of two years. I believe that. I carry the noble Earl who intervened a short while ago along with me when I say that it involves so small a sum of money as to be without serious significance and is quite inadequate to meet the scale of the problem and the challenge that we face.

Therefore, from these Benches we advocate a more meaningful decommissioning scheme which will be matched by a social retraining programme for local communities that are specially affected by the harmful consequences of decommissioning. I refer, for example, to the unemployment that occurs, very often with no prospect of alternative jobs. There are also special problems associated with employment in the fishing industry, where share fishers who are not employees have no rights of redundancy and, therefore, decommissioning in financial terms will do nothing for them.

By refusing to receive 70 per cent. European Community grants for decommissioning, it appears that the UK is forfeiting a large amount of money. The figures that I have seen show that the United Kingdom (a country with a large fishing industry) has received 58.3 million ecu through the common fisheries policy; whereas equivalent countries, such as France and Spain, have received, respectively, 165.9 and 168.9 million ecu. I should be grateful if the noble Earl can explain why we have done so poorly in that respect.

On the face of it, some people may say that the scrapping involved in decommissioning is itself a rather wasteful policy. But clearly that is not the reality of the situation. If the vessels due to be decommissioned were in any way to survive and were sold off, that would lower the cost of buying fishing boats and encourage other countries' fishing industries to increase their activities, thus only transferring the problem elsewhere.

I do not underestimate the difficulties facing the Government. I am rather conscious that I am a late Friday afternoon layman on the subject. My experience of the fishing industry is confined to going down from Monifieth to Arbroath to buy my smokies. The memorable period when I played a modest part in the first shaping of the common fisheries policy when I was commissioner in Brussels left me with a very chastened feeling about the immense complications and problems of dealing with the fishing industry. Apart from the problems of stocks, it consists of communities that are basically very vigilant and watchful not only about what other countries receive (which they do not receive) but also about what their immediate neighbours receive under any policy. It is not an easy problem.

In trying to bring about a peaceful and gradual reduction in the scale and size of the industry. we very much welcome the news given by the noble Earl that the period before a final decision is taken about the particular days-at-sea method of reducing effort is to be extended until the end of the year. I believe that all of us in your Lordships' House hope that the Government will make a serious and earnest effort to examine closely the various alternatives that are being put out from various quarters in the fishing industry to see whether at the end of the day there cannot be an agreement on the best form of reducing effort. From these Benches I must reiterate that we believe that the Government have allowed the financial pressures on them to result in a decommissioning policy that is quite inadequate to the scale of the problem that has to be dealt with.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, with the leave of the House, will my noble friend ensure that, with the execution of these important rules, the evident effect of which will be the saving of fish stocks, these fish stocks that are saved will not be fished out by our European competitors who do not follow the sarne rules as ourselves?

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, we on these Benches are also grateful for the explanation of the order which the noble Earl has given the House. We are equally aware that in the outstanding report on the common fisheries policy prepared by your Lordships' Select Committee, on the European Communities, the proposed £25 million over three years 'which is embodied in the scheme was regarded by the committee and us as a totally inadequate response to the magnitude of the problem. Although it is accompanied by restrictions on days at sea, even taken together we are not particularly sanguine that much success is likely to attend this effort, although of course we wish it well.

That enables me to ask the noble Earl the first of a number of questions on the order; namely, how much of the £25 million in the order will come from European Community sources? If the first tranche of £8.4 million is not taken up, will there be a carry-over of that sum to the following two years? I think the industry will appreciate the extension of the closing date for applications to 31st July as there will be arrangements for days at sea which are to apply now from 1st January 1994. Are there to be any geographical preferences within the scheme to take account of variations in the numbers of eligible vessels; for example, Scotland? If the tender method incorporated in the order results in an imbalance of decommissioning by areas, will this be taken into account when drafting rules for years two and three?

In another place on 7th July the honourable friend of the noble Earl, the Minister of State, said: My Scottish Office colleagues and I will shortly meet the Scottish Fishermen's Federation".—[Official Report, Commons, 7/7/93; col. 420.] They are to meet to discuss the general question of fishing. Will the noble Earl say where responsibility will lie under this scheme for decommissioning in Scotland, particularly as regards the share of the sum of money available? Will it be weighted in any way to take account of the size, tonnage and catch, demersal and pelargic, of the Scottish fleet? Payments for decommissioning by the tender process, which the noble Earl has described, are to be by bids ranked according to tonnes of weight per vessel capacity unit; that is, the largest catching capacity. Is there any evidence—I do not object to the principle behind the scheme—that such vessels usually catch most fish? Will the noble Earl also say what provision there is in the decommissioning scheme for sharing the proceeds with crew members, especially where share fishing schemes prevail?

Without prejudice to the scheme and negotiations about days at sea regulations, we on this side of the House must express particular concern about the state of the industry at this time and the relationships between Her Majesty's Government and fishermen in all parts of the United Kingdom. We are aware of the announcement by the Ministry of Agriculture following the Fisheries Council meeting on 24th and 25th June. How urgently will the improved system of control and enforcement decided then be pursued in other member states? When will Her Majesty's Government see the text of the regulations giving effect to these decisions? Will they be discussed by Ministers at the meetings which they are to hold with fishermen's organisations in the United Kingdom?

As we see it, no peace is likely until United Kingdom fishermen are convinced that conservation measures are being even-handedly and strictly applied throughout the entire European Community. As I said at the outset, we are not convinced that the present scheme set out in the order is sufficient. However, we accept it gratefully, and I hope graciously, as a first step.

3.30 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am most grateful to those noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I welcome the agreement expressed by noble Lords on the need for greater conservation of fish stocks, a need which is acknowledged by the fishing industry itself. I am also pleased that the decommissioning scheme is welcomed as part of a package of measures to reduce pressure on the stocks and help meet EC targets for capacity and effort reductions. Decommissioning must be part of a package which includes effort controls. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, acknowledged, on its own it cannot be the solution to the problem of diminishing stocks.

That brings me to one of the main anxieties expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, and the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, that the scheme is too little, too late. It has to be seen as just one, although a key, element in our overall policy to reduce fishing effort and in the context of the Government's expenditure on fisheries—£18 million on research and £20 million on fisheries protection per year. The figure of £25 million is a significant sum, given the criticisms by the PAC that the 1983 scheme gave poor value for money, that some vessels rejoined the fleet simply to claim grant, and that the scheme was inflexible and had no specific objectives. Furthermore, the scheme did not enable us to meet our MAGP targets. We had to think carefully in drawing up a new, effective scheme that would address the criticisms. We had to fight hard for the £25 million. Unfortunately, I see no prospect of that sum being increased in the foreseeable future.

It has been requested that all the £25 million should be made available this year or spread over two years. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, raised that issue. The present multi-annual guidance programmes are segmented and they run until the end of 1996. Spreading the decommissioning scheme over three years gives us a better chance of targeting the scheme in subsequent years towards meeting the targets set for each segment of the fleet.

Anxiety has naturally been expressed, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, about fishermen who lose their jobs and the effects on the fishing community. Inevitably, reduction of the fleet will mean fewer jobs, and I have every sympathy for fishermen and their families. However, unless fishing effort is reduced stocks will simply collapse and the jobs of all fishermen will be at risk.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, asked about decommissioning in other member states. All member states with fishing fleets bar Ireland and the UK operated decommissioning schemes during the period of the previous MAGP (1987–1991) at a total estimated cost of about 150 million ecu. However, a recent report by the EC Court of Auditors criticised that expenditure for providing poor value for money. The UK's previous decommissioning scheme was criticised by the Public Accounts Committee on similar grounds. Therefore, we thought it wiser to spend more time designing a scheme which will provide a real contribution to decreasing overall fishing effort and thus help to conserve fish.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, and the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, mentioned that the Commission will contribute to the cost of the scheme. They suggested, therefore, that the Government could afford to spend more. It is misleading to talk as though the Community has its own funds. Whatever the Community pays will come from the Community budget to which we contribute. The rules are such that the UK taxpayer has to find a large proportion of the EC contribution. In any case, whether the funding is from the EC or the UK, we must ensure that it will offer value for money.

It is true that the UK has received less than other member states. That is partly because we have deliberately spent less on decommissioning. We have also spent less on construction and modernisation grants. That seems quite reasonable, I suggest, given the problem of excess capacity.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, asked about the geographical balance of targeting the decommissioning scheme. We cannot prejudge the response to the scheme. As I have said, it is estimated that the available funds will take out about 5 per cent. to 6 per cent.—10,000 tonnes to 12,000 tonnes—of existing capacity. In the first year the scheme is open to all vessels over 10 metres meeting the eligibility conditions. However, in future years it may be targeted further to enable the UK to meet its EC objectives for reducing capacity as those have been set according to fleet segments.

My noble friend Lord Clanwilliam raised a point about what I broadly classify as the level playing field—if one can use such a term in connection with fisheries. I remind my noble friend, as I am sure he knows, that the UK has a major stake in EC fish stocks. We are very concerned to ensure that fisheries legislation is enforced in our waters as well as in the remainder of the EC. It is therefore very good news that at the June Fisheries Council, agreement was reached in principle on a new control regulation which will be of immense importance in ensuring that the Community rules are enforced to the same standard by all member states. Final discussions on the new regulation to clear up some outstanding legal points are due to take place next week; and the regulation should come into force in January of next year.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, asked about fisheries-dependent areas. The Edinburgh Council agreed that fisheries-dependent areas could qualify for support under EC structural funds. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland will, of course, qualify for maximum support under Objective 1. Other areas can qualify for Objective 5 or similar support. I realise the importance of fishing to certain areas. I believe that those anxieties can best be addressed through those mechanisms.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, asked a specific question about whether the budget for 1993–94—£8.4 million—could be carried over until the next financial year if there were spare funds at the end of the current year. The answer to that is no.

I do not believe that the package of conservation measures discriminates against UK fishermen. I detected a note of that sentiment in what my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam said. All member states are obliged to meet their agreed EC targets for reducing fleet capacity and controlling their overall efforts. Even those member states proposing to achieve their targets by decommissioning alone will be obliged to monitor fishing effort to ensure that it does not increase. The Commission is keeping a close watch on progress and we are supporting it in that.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, criticised the Government's days at sea policy. My honourable friend the Minister of State stated that he would listen carefully to the industry's suggestions between now and the end of September. Any proposal that the industry makes will, however, need to be judged against the following three criteria. Does it help to conserve the fish stocks? Does it contribute to the achievement of our MAGP targets and shall we be able to demonstrate that to the Commission? Does it meet our concern that expenditure on decommissioning should not be undermined by increased effort elsewhere in the fleet? The Government are ready to examine any proposals that satisfy those requirements.

It gives me pleasure to commend for your Lordships' approval this instrument which is designed to give those fishermen who wish to stop fishing the opportunity of a sympathetic way out, while contributing to the necessary reductions in fishing effort which will give our industry a viable future. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.