HL Deb 16 June 1993 vol 546 cc1565-8

3.57 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether a limit of 80 days at sea each year for fishing vessels will conserve fish stocks; and what effect such a limit will have on fishermen's livelihoods.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, the Government are not proposing a limit of 80 days at sea. Some fishermen have indeed been given a minimum provisional allocation of 80 days, but they have been encouraged to apply for additional days to reflect their actual time at sea in 1991. We must conserve fish stocks to safeguard fishermen's livelihoods, and effort control will contribute to this important objective.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I believe I am correct in saying that 80 days, or 160 half-days, was in the provisional allocation. Can my noble friend say why that figure was specifically chosen? Such an aggressive figure was hardly likely to achieve the co-operation of the fishermen because the viability of their boats would be in danger. Will my noble friend consider whether the conservation policy would be better served by reducing the capacity of the fleet by a more wide-ranging commissioning and decommissioning policy than that which the Government are at present adopting?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the aim behind the 160 half-day minimum allocation was to provide a basic entitlement to all fishermen, but without leaving too much slack since that would be a threat to conservation, including conservation of non-quota stocks. However, I stress that it is only a minimum and that all fishermen can bid for more. As regards my noble friend's second question, we plan to spend £25 million to complement the days-at-sea regime. The scheme has now been made and laid before Parliament. I also ask my noble friend to accept that decommissioning alone will not guarantee a conservation result whatever the size of the scheme.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that our fishermen really feel that they are getting a raw deal from this Government, and hence have organised the port blockades? Is he further aware that as regards sea-time restrictions, this Government are treating our fishermen worse than any other Common Market government are treating their fishermen? Further, is it not the fact that the Sea Fish Industry Authority estimates that there will be cuts in individual earnings of £1,500 per year? What compensation will be forthcoming? What is the possibility of a better, more financially attractive, decommissioning scheme? Finally, the £25 million which the Minster has mentioned is to be spread over three years, whereas the French Government have spent £25 million in the past 12 months to help their fishermen.

Earl Howe

My Lords, my right honourable friend Mrs. Shephard recently met the NFFO, and she hopes to meet the Scottish fishermen in due course. In her discussions, there was agreement on the need for the conservation of stocks, and we agreed to look at the anxieties which were expressed. It was a useful meeting. My honourable friend Mr. Jack will be meeting fishermen tomorrow in Brixham, and the Government will be interested to hear their views and suggestions. The noble Lord compared our situation with that of other member states. Perhaps I may point out that we are still at the very beginning of a four-year programme. The United Kingdom does not yet have restrictions in place; and other member states are in the same position, except for the Dutch who already have a time-at-sea regime. As to the effect on fishermen's livelihoods, the restrictions on days at sea will not affect the ability of fishermen to catch their quotas and should not therefore have an effect on their livelihoods. Fishermen will be able to fish at least as much as they did in 1991.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us how many fishing days other EC countries are allowed to have?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have just mentioned, the Dutch have a days-at-sea regime. That scheme is particular to that country. One cannot generalise about the number of days at sea because I understand that each vessel has its own allocation. If I am wrong in that, I shall write to my noble friend. It remains to be seen whether other member states also adopt such a regime; but it is our view that they will be obliged to do so.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that these severe restrictions have been imposed not because of over-fishing of British waters by British fishermen, but because of over-fishing by foreign fishermen? Would he not also agree that he is being rather complacent about the effect on our fishermen and their attitude towards the scheme, bearing in mind that for the first time ever British fishermen have blockaded ports and occupied a government building? Finally, will the noble Earl, and other noble Lords who are interested in this matter, note that I have a Motion on the Order Paper which I hope the Chief Whip will give me time to debate? All those who are interested will be welcome to participate in that debate.

Earl Howe

My Lords, we take fishermen's anxieties seriously, which is why my right honourable friend has recently had a meeting with fishermen's organisations. Perhaps I may advise the noble Lord that by far the most significant area for key stocks of haddock and cod is the North Sea; and the United Kingdom has around 70 per cent. of the total haddock quota and about 40 per cent. of the total cod quota in that area. It really is up to us to implement our own measures to conserve those stocks in our own interests.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the fishermen's quota; but would he agree that the critical point for fishermen is the amount of the quota? If 80 days at sea is sufficient for them to catch their quota, that is more or less fair; but if it is not, it is grossly unfair. Is the amount that fishermen at different ports can catch in 80 days in relation to their quota taken into account when they apply for extra days at sea?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I stress to my noble friend that the 80-day figure is only a provisional allocation. We are encouraging fishermen to submit evidence if they feel that it is an inadequate allocation in relation to the time that they spent at sea in 1991. Any reasonable evidence which a fisherman considers supports his claim will be given careful consideration. It is our intention to be as flexible as we can without of course leaving too much room for abuse.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Earl give us some of the comparative figures for which he was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange? Are our figures average? Are we less than average or more than average? The noble Earl should be able to say that.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I must emphasise that even member states which are achieving reductions by decommissioning will be required to limit overall fishing effort. Only the Dutch have so far implemented a scheme, so I cannot be more precise.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that the fishermen of other member countries are sticking to their quotas?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lady with an answer on that question.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government have confirmed that the fishing records for 1991 are incomplete although those are the records on which the number of tie-up days is supposed to be based? As the Minister said, fishermen are now required to make an individual case for an increase in allocation; but if the records are incomplete, what evidence will the Government use to decide whether fishermen should have an increase in their allocations?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I have said that we shall accept any reasonable evidence—for example, port or harbour logs kept by Her Majesty's coastguards; voluntary returns to sea fisheries committees or to MAFF; business plans to banks or in support of grant applications; or business records of any kind, including sales notes or even fuel bills.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, would the Minister like to assure the House that when he said that the number of days at sea would enable fishermen adequately to catch their quotas, that will not involve fishermen taking excessive risks by going out in bad weather and staying out for 24 hours out of 24?

Earl Howe

My Lords, there will be no restrictions on when days at sea may be used, so fishermen will be free to manage their time at sea and will not be forced to go out in dangerous conditions.

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