HL Deb 17 June 1996 vol 573 cc70-84

7.10 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington rose to move, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 8th May be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is but a short time since we had a detailed discussion of the report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, about the serious problems facing fishing fleets, not just in the European Community but worldwide. We learnt that many of the stocks on which UK fishermen are critically dependent are at risk of biological collapse and that urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the pressure of overfishing. Those warnings have been given even more force in the past few days by news of the North Sea herring stock. We also heard a deal of criticism of the Government's efforts to respond, in particular in terms of removing capacity from the UK fleet.

In answer to those comments, I assured the House that we were in full earnest in the measures we were taking and that we already had a substantial decommissioning programme amounting to over £50 million to the end of next year. I know that there are suggestions that this is too little and too late. But, as I also explained to the House, the problems of overfishing have to be tackled on a common basis by all who fish the same stocks. Quite apart from the financial burden of acting alone―and the economic impact on our fishermen and their communities―such sacrifices would simply not have the desired effect if others continue to fish without the same controls and restraint. That indeed is the basic rationale for our staying in the common fisheries policy and making it work.

It is therefore with some sadness that I have to tell the House that the Commission's ideas for the next series of multi-annual guidance programmes, which were announced at a press conference in Brussels on 29th May and which are designed to address this whole problem of over capacity, are simply not acceptable in their present form. First, as my honourable friend the Minister of State in another place has already said, UK fishermen cannot be expected to contemplate further cutbacks as long as there is no satisfactory progress with sorting out the problem of quota hoppers. But, in addition, it is clear that there are a large number of inconsistencies and shortcomings in the Commission's underlying approach, most blatantly in respect of its failure to make any recommendation about the level of industrial fishing. At the Council of Ministers meeting on 10th June, I am pleased to say that many of our concerns were echoed by a number of other member states. It is therefore clear that much further work needs to be done before conclusions can be reached. Given the more narrow purpose of the debate tonight, I do not think that we should attempt to go further into these aspects now. I was, however, anxious to give your Lordships a full and frank explanation of the background before moving on to the detail of the draft order itself, which is a much more limited measure designed to deal with our existing commitments to reduce fishing capacity and to meet targets due to expire at the end of this year.

There is much confusion over the rate of UK progress towards these objectives, resulting largely from the Commission's use of different figures and different units of measurement from those reported to Brussels by the UK and indeed other member states. On the basis of gross registered tonnes (GRT) in which our multi-annual guidance programme targets were set, the UK fleet now stands at approximately 207,000 tonnes. Compared with our original target, this is still uncomfortably high. But a number of new factors have come to light about the historical data on which this assessment was based. We are pursuing these with the Commission in an effort to get the figures corrected. If we are successful, the remaining percentage gap will be in single figures and well within the scope of the decommissioning programme which we have been successfully pursuing for the past three years. The question of what more needs to be done to address future targets is, as I said, for another day. In the meantime I wish to elaborate on various improvements we are making to the present decommissioning scheme, notably in the light of a consultation exercise with the industry held earlier this year.

I am happy to tell the House that it has been possible to meet most of the concerns raised in the consultation exercise and significantly to expand the 1996 scheme to make it more attractive and better value for money. I shall therefore conclude by outlining those changes and the principal features of the measure before the House today. In essence the changes relate to the eligibility criteria, which we have widened considerably. In particular we have reduced the number of qualifying days spent fishing from 100 to 75. This will enable a number of vessels that failed to meet the previous 100-day requirement to apply and will maximise the amount of EU funding available to us. We have also removed the restrictions on licence type to allow any licensed vessel over 10 metres in registered length to apply. This will allow applications from shellfishermen and from vessels in the Nephrops and distant water segments.

The exclusion of Nephrops vessels last year was controversial. The Government have listened to those who pointed out that fleet segments are volatile. It is true that a large proportion of demersal vessels fish for Nephrops and vice versa. To that extent the segmentation is an artificial construct which we will be seeking to change in the forthcoming MAGP negotiations. I believe that this change to the scheme rules will be widely welcomed. We have, however, retained the exclusion for vessels under 10 metres. With finite funding available we wish to target that part of the industry which has the highest impact on stocks.

In the decommissioning consultation exercise we suggested the possibility of allowing vessel owners to retain or dispose separately of their decommissioned vessels' track record. This was intended to increase the incentive to submit lower bids for applications. The response demonstrated little support for such arrangements on the part of the industry. Again we have listened to the industry and have not proceeded with the suggestion. Finally, in response to a number of concerns, we have introduced a greater degree of flexibility to permit historic vessels to be preserved afloat. This can be done while safeguarding public funds by allowing such vessels to be placed with registered museums. I very much hope that this will enable a valuable part of our maritime heritage to be retained for future generations.

The scheme provides, as it did in 1993, flexibility for Ministers to set deadlines for the scheme. The scheme was launched on 9th May. It has already been announced that applications must be submitted before 25th June and that those that are accepted must decommission their vessels by 31st October 1996. Except for the significant changes I have mentioned, the 1996–97 scheme is similar to its predecessors in that vessels must be over 10 years old, be seaworthy and hold a valid fishing licence and, if accepted, vessels must proceed to decommission or be excluded from future schemes.

As in previous years we will be paying particular attention to the value for money of bids received. If, for whatever reason, funds remain unspent from the current round the timing this year will enable a second tender to be held in the autumn should this prove necessary. To sum up, the 1996 decommissioning scheme is an important part of our strategy to ensure that the UK fleet can remain viable in the face of reduced fishing opportunities and go on to contribute to the renewal of the resources on which so many livelihoods depend. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 8th May be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committed].— (Baroness Trumpington).

7.20 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her excellent outline of the 1996 scheme and for telling us of the latest state of the British fishing fleet. We are returning to a subject on which we have had two major debates in this House already this year. I refer to the debate on 14th February on the common fisheries policy; and to that on 16th April on the need for a worldwide reduction of fishing effort. There was also my more recent Starred Question on 15th May to which the reply came that, if treaty changes were needed, the Government would seek improvements in the CFP at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference. I aim to go on from there and not to repeat what I said on those occasions.

The scheme for 1996 is a further instalment following agreement between the British Government and the European Union on a reduction in tonnage of about 19 per cent. in the United Kingdom fleet from 1993 to 1996. I should add that tonnage by itself is not an appropriate measure. I am sure that that is one of the points to which my noble friend referred as being a difference between ourselves and the Commission. The effective catching power is the realistic statistic for fair comparisons.

Responsible and experienced fishermen's leaders accept that conservation is essential and that fishing effort has to be reduced. They are, rightly, very concerned that this must be carried out fairly between fishing nations, and particularly within the European Union.

The key point in this decommissioning scheme is that about 20 per cent. of the registered British fishery fleet consists of foreign boats—mostly Spanish and Dutch—masquerading as British. They are described as the quota hoppers. Not only do they qualify to fish for UK quotas, but presumably they also inflate the figure for the total British fleet and thus distort the targets for decommissioning.

We have discussed in the past the history and reasons for this extraordinary paradox. I sum up the situation in this way. There is a lamentable contradiction between the European Union laws on establishment of businesses within member countries' jurisdictions and the European Union system of fishing quotas which is based entirely upon the different nationalities of member states. It is not difficult for foreigners to set up offices in this country, as the Spanish have done, and to reorganise their boats to pose and to pass as British.

The European Court of Justice, presented with the task of interpretation of laws on establishment, has ruled that such vessels are British and entitled to be on our register. The Court's interpretation is no doubt correct. Its effect has been to demonstrate that the EU law is incongruous in this field and that sea fisheries were most unlikely to have been in mind when that part of EU law was being drafted and accepted. If Spanish, Dutch and other foreign boats are included in the tonnage total and in the provision of grants, that would be the main objection to our schemes for decommissioning.

We cannot do anything about that this evening except to register protests. I have been registering protests in this House for several years from well before our Merchant Shipping Act was passed changing the qualifications for our register. That Act still did not meet EU law on establishment, according to the Court's later ruling. I trust that the British Government will now be able to secure a resolution of this quota hopping aberration at the IGC.

Before I leave the subject, clarification is needed on a letter which appeared in The Times of 5th June from a Mr. Wood. I gave notice to MAFF last week that I should raise this matter. The letter stated that the Spanish and Dutch, got their quota from the British skippers who owned it", and went on to describe this as selling one's birthright to the highest bidder. Can my noble friend comment? Does she know whether any British skippers or boat owners were selling their part of the British quota? They may have made some financial transactions with Spanish companies or Spanish fishermen to help them operate from British ports, but the suggestion that individual parts of the British quota were on sale from British skippers should be confirmed or denied. If necessary, a correcting letter in The Times is required. (I am not sure whether The Times would accept a letter from me as it printed one of mine only the day before yesterday. However, that was on a quite different subject—football and inappropriate theme tunes).

The 1996 scheme is broadly acceptable to the main British fishermen's organisations. It enables fishermen to leave their occupation on a voluntary basis with compensation, and with changes from previous schemes which they welcome. My noble friend mentioned some of those.

However, two of their criticisms should be noted. British fishermen are not to be eligible for a decommissioning grant if their vessels are disposed of outside the EU for fishing purposes, or inside the EU for non-fishing use. However, that grant is available to other EU members in those circumstances.

Another source of EU finance which is not available to British fishermen, although it is to others, promotes joint enterprises with parties from third countries. This could help to reduce fishing effort less painfully, with financial contributions from the Commission. Why not bring British fishermen into such schemes, with EU financial help on offer?

Looking ahead to the immediate future, the British Government should be working for radical changes to the CFP. Can my noble friend tell us when the CFP review group, established by our Government, will report with its recommendations, if it has not done so already? Preparations are necessary, too, for the fourth EU multi-annual guidance programme covering three years starting 1st January 1997 and now being negotiated. Matters to be settled are predictions on fish stocks and the extent of proposed fleet reductions.

Further ahead, there has been the latest statement from the EU Commission that there should be a 40 per cent. reduction in fleets from present levels by the end of the year 2002. That can be acceptable only if it relates to the bona fide British fleet and not to the 20 per cent. of foreign quota hoppers; and provided that all the other EU members are carrying out the same or greater reductions, and that the process is being reliably monitored. Reduction will affect fishing communities, many of them small, around our coasts, where sea fisheries have been the chief industry which has provided virtually all the employment, with associated services.

I reiterate the proposals that I made in the debate on 16th April. I believe that I was the only speaker who touched on this subject. There should be accompanying measures to help provide alternative employment. Fishermen will no longer be certain that their sons can follow them in the same occupation. There will be fewer fishermen in future and there will be some distress in the smaller fishing communities.

The scheme before us is needed. Much work is also necessary for the development which is to be expected in the immediately following years.

7.29 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing this debate to our attention. The Minister referred to the government response to your Lordships' Select Committee. That committee found that we were behind schedule in decommissioning and called for more radical targets to be set. I do not know whether there is a confusion in the figure of 407,000 tonnes for the British fleet mentioned by the noble Baroness. It indicates that there may have been some confusion in the mind of the Select Committee. It only goes to show how bewildering and differing constructions can be put on all the directives of the European Union. I am delighted to hear that the reduction proposed by Brussels has been totally rejected by the Government. I should like to know what the decommissioning figure will be: what percentage, what it will cost, and by what number boats are expected to be reduced.

The licences to which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy referred are to be returned on decommissioning. Can we be assured that the licences will be reissued only to UK fishermen; and that a licence will be issued on the basis that the Government have an option for first refusal on any sale at a fixed price? That may get round the problem presented by the European Court of Justice. Perhaps my noble friend will be able to comment on that.

At the risk of rehearsing previous debates, there are alternatives to decommissioning that we ought to consider. They have all been considered before, but there is the opportunity to limit the use of beam trawlers, which are having a devastating effect on the sea-bed and its biota. Ironically, they were a British invention, a post-war design to maximise production and efficiency regardless of the environmental effect. It is another example of the compulsive urge towards intensive methods of production which pervades all our food production activities. We know what dire effects that can have. Perhaps those trawlers could be redesigned in a more environmentally sensitive manner.

Secondly, there is the vexed question of discards. Can we not unilaterally declare that all discards should be optional? Let all the fish caught by our fishermen be used in either retail or commercial markets. It is important to eliminate the disgraceful waste which is abhorrent to all and which mystifies the general public. It is another example of Brussels madness. Incidentally, it gives rise to yet another environmental disaster on the sea-bed.

The Select Committee also recommended further trials of the successful rigid sorting grids that were clearly illustrated by MAFF at a recent seminar. There is good news in relation to the square mesh, and especially about the inserts and escape panels. However, I am sorry to hear that the rigid grids are considered too cumbersome for UK boats. Perhaps new boat construction could incorporate this extremely successful and useful system. It is vital for the needs of conservation.

There is one further point. Members of the industry were receptive to the idea of the temporary closure of areas where a high proportion of juvenile fish were known to congregate. In response to the report the Government said that they would look upon that suggestion favourably. I wonder whether anything has been done about it since. With those remarks, I commend the scheme to the House.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I am glad to be taking part in this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, slid out of it with great ease and quickness when she discovered I was to be here. The debate is important, not because of the rather miserable measure we are discussing but because of the extraordinarily serious situation in fishing of which all of us are aware. We know that something has to be done.

I understand that we said we should spend £53 million. We have spent £26 million; £13 million is on offer now for 1996 and a further £l3 million in 1997. It may be that the £13 million will not be taken up. It appears that we are not very successful in getting people to decommission their boats. Possibly we make it too difficult; there are too many regulations. The Government have done something in regard to prawners. They have widened the scope. But they are still not getting fishermen to decommission their boats. On my figures, we still have to remove 15.8 per cent. by the end of this period if we are to achieve the 19 per cent. that is promised. The Government may try to have the figures manipulated, but the fact is that we shall be extremely short of the target.

The general position is that the Lassen committee of scientists advises a 40 per cent. reduction. It may well be right. Our experience in the North Sea—we had to close the sea for herring fishing for years before the stocks recovered—is that it is very easy to destroy stocks. Now, not only herring but cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting and practically every fish caught in the North Sea is under threat. Something has to be done. We need not blame flags of convenience.

I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who has great experience and who knows the situation better than most, should wonder whether the letter in The Times was true. There is no other method by which the quota can go except by fishermen selling it. I criticise the whole of the quota system, including that for milk. It is the same sort of thing. Farms are worth less in some cases than is their actual quota in milk. That must be rubbish. A quota is of no advantage to the farmer. It is a thing granted by a bureaucratic body. To let it have a value and be traded in this country is bad enough. It keeps young people out of milk production. In this case, in Europe, the quotas can be traded on a European basis. Again, I am told, it is totally common for the quota to be of more value than the boat itself.

The faults must lie with the system. If a British fisherman cannot get a decent decommissioning grant from the Government, he will take the best money that he can from elsewhere. That is why we are in this ridiculous situation. It is very difficult now, but I suggest that the Government try to keep the value where it belongs—in the hands of the licensing authority—instead of letting it accrue to people who have done nothing for it except to be in the business before others were. That keeps new entrants out of fishing.

Again, the Government must surely be to blame for the fact that the Scottish fleet is old, ageing and not up to scratch. There is a scheme on the Continent whereby, if the government of the country concerned put up the money, the EC will add to it for the modernisation of boats, and that is at present being taken up.

The whole question of fishery policy needs to be examined. Norway is a very good example of how to proceed. It has a policy of the discards coming back to port. Also, very sensibly, all forecasts of the fish in the quotas and the amount to be caught are decided in collaboration by the fishermen and the scientists. In Europe generally we do not have that form of collaboration, which can at least make the fishermen believe in the truth of the recommendations. At present fishermen are extremely doubtful as to whether the scientists have a grip on the situation. That is one thing that could happen. Of course it is no good saying that Britain should come out and control her own fishing in the way that Norway does because Norway depends on the European Union producing a sensible policy and preserving the fish. The fish do not confine themselves to one country's area.

A good deal of black fish is being landed in this country today. That appears to me to be ludicrous and dangerous; it means that our supervision is not sufficient. It also means that information on fish landed in Spain, with less than a quarter of the number of inspectors we have in Britain and a bigger fleet, must be, to say the least, somewhat doubtful.

The question of the communities, mentioned by Lord Campbell of Croy, is very important. Something has to be done if we are to reduce, as we must, the number of fishermen employed with the new methods. The Highlands and Islands board has done a great deal to raise employment in the fishing areas and of course that must continue. The late Lord Thurso said that small ports could survive if they were allowed to fish freely with the long lines. I well remember going out in a boat with a long line when I was a candidate in Angus long ago. We took the long lines, baited by the wives with mussels, ran them out over a mile and then descended into the cabin, drank tea and smoked. If a political person was on the boat the idea was to keep him there long enough to make him sick. In my case they just failed. Afterwards, the fish were taken off and the small fish thrown back. The fish would command in Arbroath a considerable premium in price over net caught fish. It is possible that no fisherman wants to go back to line fishing, but it could keep the population in the small areas going to some extent. The suggestion may be impractical but it is worth studying. It is essential to get the right answer. Without control in European and world waters there will not be any fish.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for giving as usual a lucid explanation on this order, which deals with a very important subject. I say at once from this side of the House that we welcome some parts of the Government's attitude towards the fisheries policy. The inclusion of Nethrops is right, and as a more flexible approach to the multiannual guidance programme, the MAGP, is sensible. We particularly welcome the proposal in Article 8(4)(b), which allows boats with an historic interest to go to trusts or museums. Perhaps I may repeat a question I have asked a number of times before, and I know has been asked by other people. If decommissioned boats can be given to museums, why can they not be used as part of development aid for third world countries? They could not come back into the European fleet because they would have no licence. I understand that this option is available to the other member states. It would be interesting to know why we are not allowed to take advantage of it in this country.

We agree entirely with the Government that the 40 per cent. reduction figure which has been floated around by Mrs. Bonino, the Fisheries Commissioner, is completely unacceptable and should be sunk. What we are talking about is effort control. This is something more than a reduction in fleet size. I believe there has been a number of proposals from the fisheries organisations for the use of technical and conservation gear. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister what is the Government's response to those proposals, which seem to us to be eminently sensible and to approach the problem from the point of view of effort control and not just a reduction in fleet size.

We agree also with the Government that the omission of industrial fishing from the Commission proposals is quite extraordinary. As we know, industrial fishing can cause grave ecological damage. We are at one with the Government in their reaction to that submission. Industrial fishing must be brought back into the calculation.

I turn now to quota hopping. That has always seemed to me a rather strange phrase: it sounds like some curious form of disco dancing. What firm proposals do the Government have to deal with that problem? I have on a number of occasions seen the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his place. He knows that I have raised the point that Mrs. Bonino has made certain proposals which suggested that within the existing rules it would be possible to deal to some extent with the problem of quota hopping. The answer we always get is that her suggestions are unworkable, but we are not told why. It would be helpful if the Minister could say why the hints or suggestions she has given cannot be followed through. If her suggestions are unworkable, have we any ideas of our own to put forward?

Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of State, Tony Baldry, have said that we intend to deal with flag vessels. The simple question is how? The Government have said that a number of times. We are still waiting to hear what the proposals are and how they intend to deal with it. It has been suggested, rather unkindly, that the Government decided to kick the whole problem into touch in the IGC. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what the Prime Minister and the Minister of State meant when they said that we intend to deal with flag vessels. Exactly how do they propose to go about it?

From these Opposition Benches, and indeed from other places, there have been a number of suggestions, not major but ones which would help if they could be adopted; for example, proposals regarding the national insurance contributions from the crews of fishing vessels, a requirement for British officers to captain vessels which have been fishing in British waters, and also the proposals for the proportionate use of UK ports to make it uneconomic in some degree for the quota hopping vessels to operate.

Why are those proposals not workable? If they are not workable, could the Government tell us what their alternatives are? It is clear—we can all agree about this—that we cannot ask UK fishermen to decommission their vessels in order to make way for vessels of other member states. That was made clear by my noble friend, Mr. Gavin Strang, the Opposition spokesman on agriculture and fisheries, speaking in the other place on 19th December 1995. He said: It is unacceptable that we should be decommissioning vessels to facilitate additional fishing opportunities in waters around the UK for the fishing industry of one of our European partners—in this case Spain".— [Official Report, Commons. 19/12/95; col. 1358.] It is clear that we are not able to accept or agree with it. We are at one with the Government on that.

Perhaps I may offer the Minister an analogy. I was minded to try it when I heard the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, about milk quota. Let us suppose that a farmer in the north of France decided to buy a dairy farm in Kent which had quota. He paid the money for the quota and when the cows were milked, he put the milk in a tanker, transported it through the Channel Tunnel and delivered it to a dairy in France. I think I am correct in saying that that delivery would be quoted against the French milk quota. The French farmer would have paid for the English quota, so the English farmer would have benefited, and would have done a favour to other British dairy farmers because he would not be delivering against our quota. The delivery of that milk on the other side of the water—which would not be completely impossible if the two farms were close to either end of the Channel Tunnel—would, I believe, be quoted against the French milk quota. It is perhaps unfair to spring the question on the Minister but, if that is the case, why cannot that be done in a similar way to deal with the problem of the quota hopper when it comes to fish?

There have been proposals for scrap and build. It would be interesting to know where we stand with that proposal and how the Government regard it. In common with most member states, the UK fleet is too large in relation to available fish stocks. We all agree with that. The decommissioning scheme has been effective in reducing the size of the fleet. If it has not been as effective as we might have hoped, it is a start. As we all know, it has the advantage of being voluntary. No fisherman is forced out of business.

The British fleet is suffering from the legacy of the late 1980s, when the present Government refused to introduce a decommissioning scheme while the rest of the European Union operated such a scheme to some effect. The main disadvantage of the decommissioning scheme is that, although it is effective in reducing fleet capacity, it does absolutely nothing to address the fundamental problem of an ageing and unprofitable fleet. With very few exceptions, the British fleet is now increasingly inefficient in comparison with many of our continental and Scandinavian competitors.

What is required is a mechanism that can achieve the twin objectives of fleet reduction and fleet renewal. At first sight, those objectives might appear to be contradictory. As I said, the possibility of scrap and build offers an alternative. Through a combination of public funding and capacity aggregation, it would be possible to encourage fishermen to modernise and/or rebuild their vessels while at the same time reducing overall capacity. In return for obtaining public funding for modernising and/or building a new vessel, the applicant would be required to take out and scrap a number of existing vessels. In that way the dual objective of fleet reduction and fleet modernisation could be achieved for the same cost as a decommissioning scheme. That would seem to me to be an extremely sensible approach. It would be interesting to know why the Government seemed to reject it. With that in mind, would it be possible to bring forward any part of the decommissioning money for future years and speed up the process?

We have our criticisms, but we have no objection to the order. It is a start, although, as I said, we wish that it were part of a policy to go much farther and much faster.

7.54 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I did not expect this to be a dull occasion and I have not been disappointed. I am only too well aware of the concern of your Lordships' House for the conservation issues underlying the present state of marine resources and for the welfare and livelihood of the fishermen who depend on them. They are all most difficult and sensitive issues and it is right that we should examine them rigorously and critically. There are no easy ways of producing the virtuous circle which gives more fish tomorrow for those prepared to take less today. Economic and political realities inevitably mean that balance and compromise have to be found.

My first point is that we do not have unlimited financial resources. Decommissioning is an expensive policy and will become more expensive as the efficient vessels are taken out. It cannot be the only instrument for reducing fishing effort. Certainly, it could not deal with cuts on anything like the scale that the Commission is pressing for, even if they were acceptable on other fronts.

The noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned that the fleet is increasingly out of date and uncompetitive and suggested that we should operate a scrap and build policy instead of decommissioning. I agree that a scrap and build policy is more positive than decommissioning but it is even more—much more—expensive. Funds are limited. We must therefore concentrate on the most pressing objective of removing capacity. Once we have a better balance between the number of vessels and the amount of fish, it should be easier for the industry itself to finance investment for modernisation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said that the Government were not paying out enough for decommissioning. The rate of grant is set by competitive tender. The Government do not set a maximum limit, provided the bids represent value for money. Unfortunately, quotas are a necessary means of rationing a scarce resource.

Let me answer the various questions from my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Carter, on the subject of quota hopping. There are currently some 150 quota hoppers on the UK fishing vessel register which are fully or partly owned by overseas interests, mainly from Spain and the Netherlands. Of those vessels, around 40 joined the UK register in the early 1980s, prior to the operation of EU quotas and licensing restrictions. Since the mid-1980s the UK has operated a restrictive licensing scheme, which has meant that it has only been possible to bring a new vessel into the UK fleet or take up commercial fishing activity by acquiring a licence from an existing vessel owner.

It is perfectly true that British fishermen have sold their fishing licences and access to UK quotas to agents or others acting on behalf of Spanish or Dutch fishing interests. In some instances those selling licences would not have been aware of the eventual destination. There have been no restrictions on such activity and the rules of the marketplace have operated.

British fishermen cannot be blamed for the advent of quota hopping. The system of national quotas agreed as part of the common fisheries policy in 1983 was designed to safeguard the interests of the fishing communities of each member state. That has been undermined by the practice of quota hopping: foreign-owned, foreign-based and foreign-crewed vessels, fishing against our quotas and landing their catches abroad. The Government took positive steps to deregister such vessels in 1989, but action was subsequently overturned by the European Court in the Factortame judgment. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, the present situation cannot be allowed to continue. That is why the Government are raising the matter through the IGC. We must be able to ensure that our fishing communities derive real benefits from national quotas allocated under the CFP.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked whether Commissioner Bonino had put forward effective measures to regulate quota hopping. Let me put the record straight. Commissioner Bonino has agreed to re-examine with her legal experts the scope for imposing controls on quota hoppers. MAFF and Commission officials are discussing options. But we remain to be convinced that there are effective measures which can be taken within the existing framework of Community law.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked when the Government would present their proposals on quota hopping to the IGC and what those proposals would be. My answer is that we expect to put those proposals in due course and we shall keep the House informed.

As already explained, we have notified the IGC, the Commission and other member states that we shall be tabling proposals to deal with the problem of quota hopping and envisage that they will take the form of a protocol to the treaty which recognises that national quotas allocated under the common fisheries policy are intended for the benefit of national fishing communities and that, notwithstanding the treaty, individual member states may adopt appropriate measures which ensure that there are real economic links between their fishing communities and the vessels which fish their quotas.

It may be necessary to look again at limiting the time at sea. But we can only contemplate that if reductions apply to vessels of all member states operating in the same areas. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, it is difficult to quantify the level of blackfish landings with any precision since such landings are by their nature clandestine. However, it is clear that such illegal activity undermines the efforts to conserve fish stocks and threatens the future viability of the fishing industry. The scale of any additional reductions is clearly a matter for debate, which has a long way to go. It would not be appropriate to go into the detail of that now other than to reiterate that we must have progress on sorting out the quota hopper problem before any decisions are reached. We must also have measures which seem to be necessary, fair and workable which command the confidence of the industry itself.

We are certainly not dismissive of the scientists or their warnings. But there are real doubts about parts of the so-called Lassen Report on which the Commission's current thinking is based. Those relate to issues like industrial fishing and to assessment in areas like the Irish Sea where new evidence is about to be available and the relationship between the different fisheries is unclear. The Lassen Group also recognised shortcomings in some of its data and inconsistencies in the quality of member states' catch reports and their evaluations of their own fishing effort.

It is simplistic to assume that reductions in fishing mortality can necessarily be achieved by simple cuts in fleet tonnage. The relationship between effort and catches is much more complex and needs to be addressed in some detail before decisions can be reached. I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, that we are pressing for factors like the age of the UK fleet to be taken into consideration.

The measurement of tonnage and the need to replace that with catching power was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. I agree that tonnage alone is a crude measure of fishing efficiency. That is one of the points that we shall be pursuing in the forthcoming negotiations.

In order to allow decommissioned vessels to be given as aid to third countries, under EU rules member states are obliged to ensure that decommissioned vessels are permanently excluded from fishing in Community waters. Normal practice is therefore to require that any vessel be scrapped before grant is paid. We looked carefully at the possibility of allowing vessels to be exported as opposed to being scrapped. We have been unable to devise arrangements which offer the necessary guarantees that vessels will never return to the EU fleet.

I know that the present decommissioning scheme has its critics and that it cannot solve all problems—it is not meant to. It is simply the latest instalment of our current policy designed to meet existing MAGP targets. Effective conservation depends on a wide range of factors, including catch controls and technical measures. My noble friend Lord Clanwilliam referred to the UK fleet as now standing—I believe he said—at 407,000 tonnes. Actually what I said was 207,000 tonnes. I felt that I should set the record straight.

Decommissioning has proved successful. In the three schemes so far, 6.6 per cent. of the fleet has been removed at a total cost of £26.2 million. I can break that down into years, but I will write to my noble friend. He indicates that he does not want it, which is a great relief.

A great deal of confusion has been caused by the Commission quoting figures on a different basis from those supplied by the UK and because of a number of technical factors. We are in discussion with the Commission on the detail. If all the adjustments we identified as necessary are taken into account, we estimate that we may now be only 5 per cent. short of our end of 1996 targets. The Commission's latest figures, on which I have already commented, reveal that eight member states still have to meet some or all of their current MAGP targets and the UK is by no means the worst offender.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about decommissioning allowing in Spanish boats. My answer is no. When a vessel is decommissioned any fishing licences held in respect of that vessel must be surrendered. Under the Western Waters Agreement, which is an entirely separate issue, the UK's fishing quotas are unchanged and our industry's ability to take their quotas is fully protected. We will not lose any fish to the Spanish.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked what the EU is doing about industrial fishing. The total allowable catch is based on scientific advice, except for industrial fisheries such as sprat and Norway pout. In December 1993, at the request of the UK, the Commission established a working group of marine ecologists with fisheries biologists on sustainable fisheries and on industrial fisheries in particular. Last year a working group was set up with Norway to address the problem of herring by-catchers in the sprat fishery. That work is continuing in 1996. My honourable friend Mr. Baldry, the Minister in another place, drew attention at the Fisheries Council to the magnitude of the industrial fisheries in the North Sea urging a cautious approach to their management.

It is clear that technical conservation methods have an important role to play in preserving fish stocks. The Commission does not view them as part of its structural policy but it is right that we take their effectiveness into account in assessing what needs to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, will be interested that the fisheries conservation group set up by the Government earlier this year has just produced a report which makes an important contribution in that regard. We are pressing the Commission to reflect its conclusions in its proposals. I commend the scheme to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.