§ Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they are able to discourage British fishermen from selling their fishery licences, directly or indirectly, to foreign individuals or companies and thereby adding to the numbers of quota-hoppers.
My Lords, fishing vessel licences are issued at the discretion of Ministers under the Sea Fish Conservation Act 1967 to the owners of British registered fishing vessels. Under European Community law, Ministers cannot discriminate against nationals from other member states who are entitled to own British registered fishing vessels. In any event, the sale of licence entitlements is a matter for the parties concerned.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, which confirms my understanding of the position. Did he see the press reports that a prominent member of Save Britain's Fish campaign, the minority fishermen's movement stridently calling for withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, had himself sold quota to a Dutch boat owner while, in contrast, a leader of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, which does not advocate withdrawal, has publicly called on fishermen to help the Government by not selling abroad?
My Lords, yes, I have seen those press reports, although I have no knowledge as to whether they are true. Doubtless, if there is truth in them the member of Save Britain's Fish must answer to his own committee. However, I do not see why he should have to answer to this House too as he was within his rights under the law.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
My Lords, the Government have stated in the past that they disagree with quota hopping. Why, at the Fisheries Council meeting on 20th December, did not the Government try to stop or curtail the practice? It was disturbing to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said about our fishermen selling their licences, their livelihoods. In order to put the matter into proper perspective, may we be told the number of licences which have been sold, from which ports and the total cost of those licences?
My Lords, I cannot supply the detail for which the noble Lord asked, but I shall write to him. It amounts to about 20 per cent. of the British catch, which is now in the hands of foreign-owned vessels.
794 As regards the other points which the noble Lord raised, clearly, we did prosecute our campaign to end quota-hopping at the recent Fisheries Council meeting. We have made it clear that we will not contemplate any progress in MAGP 4, which is the latest round in reduction in fishing capacity, until the issue of quota-hopping is dealt with. However, we are quite clear that there is no capacity that we can find under existing EC law for quota-hopping to be dealt with. It requires a treaty amendment and we are committed to obtaining that at the conferences in the latter half of this year.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, does the Minister agree that had we not entered into the common fisheries policy, and by doing so sold our fishing birthright, the issue of quotas, quota-hopping, licences and therefore their sale would not have arisen?
My Lords, no, I would not agree with that. However, I would agree with the noble Lord that had we retained total control over our fishing we might have found the issue easier to deal with.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the treaty changes to which he has referred would require the unanimity of all the members of the Community? Can he give your Lordships' House any idea of how hopeful he is of achieving that unanimity?
My Lords, we are clearly receiving some expressions of support from other members of the Community. We are not the only country which is suffering from quota-hopping. The latest figures I have show that France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Ireland all have foreign vessels on their register. Any change to the treaty requires unanimity, but there is nothing special about the one we are asking for.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, according to the Minister's Answer, it appears that the Government agree with Mrs. Bonino, the European Fisheries Commissioner, when she says that many of the problems of quota-hopping are the direct result of the British policy and not of European policy. She claims that it was a British decision, not a European decision, to allow the sale of quota rights with the boats. Is that correct?
My Lords, a depressing amount of misinformation has been coming out of the Commission on this issue. It is quite clear that there is every right in every country within the EC for foreigners to purchase fishing vessels and fishing licences. It has taken a little while for some countries to bring their laws up to the standard required by the EC. Many are doing so, which is why they are now experiencing quota-hopping. Ours were there first, so we experienced the problem first.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, the Minister has not answered the question I asked. The issue is not the sale to foreigners; it is the decision to allow the sale of the quota right with the boat. The Minister referred to the 795 Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, which embodied a British decision to allow the sale of the quota right with the boat. Is that correct?
My Lords, it is quite clear that under European law we are not allowed to have any system which will prevent a member of another country within the European Union purchasing the right to fish within British waters off British quota. It is not a question of the particular mechanism we adopted for distributing quota. Whatever method we had adopted, it would still have to allow the Spanish and others to purchase our fishing.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, is it not right that, if British fishermen did not sell, foreigners could not buy and without the sales there would not be the hopping?
My Lords, yes. Nevertheless, if the noble Lord is suggesting that it will be the party opposite's policy to prevent British fishermen from selling their assets and businesses, I am rather surprised.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, is the main problem that fish form a more valuable commodity in continental Europe than here and fetch higher prices there, so that bids for licences from foreigners are likely to be much more attractive, not only to owners and skippers but also to the third parties through whom those licences pass?
My Lords, I do not think that that is a particular problem because British skippers have every right to land their catch in foreign ports if they wish to do so to take advantage of higher prices, and many do.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, I have listened very carefully to the Minister's replies and I wonder whether he can help me. Was it a British Government decision that allowed British fishermen to sell quotas with the boats?
My Lords, yes, but that is a policy that we should have had to adopt and other countries in the European Union have been made to adopt it by the Commission because that is what is required by European law.