HL Deb 17 June 1997 vol 580 cc1108-11

3.17 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the Answer given by Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean on 9th June (Official Report, col. 760), what progress they hope to make at the Intergovernmental Conference with regard to quota-hopping.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Symons told the House on Monday 9th June, the Government attach great importance to achieving progress on the very difficult inherited problem of quota-hopping. The Government's objective is to secure greater economic benefits to coastal communities and to strengthen enforcement in that area. Detailed discussions with the Commission and others have been taking place for some time. The Amsterdam Summit is still in progress and a series of issues is still being negotiated there. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister will shortly make a full Statement in another place and arrangements will be made for a similar Statement to be made in this House.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that national quotas are for the benefit of national fishing communities? Given that the British fishing fleet faces a cut of over 40 per cent. in the next five years and that over 25 per cent. of the British quota is now owned by nationals of other EU countries and other fishing fleets, does the noble Lord agree that those cuts will fall disproportionately severely on the remainder of the bona fide British fishing fleet?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not agree with the point as the noble Lord has stated it. The United Kingdom's obligation to reduce its fishing fleet under the multi-annual guidance programme can be met either by the physical decommissioning of vessels or by limiting the time that the ships are at sea. Such effort controls would apply to all UK-registered vessels. The concerns of the noble Lord would be borne out only if any future decommissioning arrangements resulted in a disproportionate uptake by the UK rather than foreign-owned vessels. Even in those circumstances, under that scheme it would not be possible for decommissioned vessels to be replaced by new quota-hoppers. Licences are automatically surrendered to the Government and are cancelled when vessels are decommissioned. Discussions with the industry on the available options to reduce fishing fleets as required under this programme are still taking place.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we cannot condemn quota-hopping outright? Is he aware that a large number of quota-hoppers are those European fishermen who legitimately bought licences from our own trawlermen? They have then registered in the UK, and they are legally entitled to fish in UK waters. I gather that there are about 160 quota-hoppers. So how many are on licences sold to them by our own fishermen?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, this is, in a sense, a sorry story, but my noble friend is right. The licences under the arrangements entered into by the previous Government were handed out to individual fishermen. They had the right to sell them on. A number of British fishermen have done that, either through third parties or directly mainly to Spanish and Dutch fishermen. Under EU regulations it would have been possible for other arrangements to have been made, but those are the historic facts. Our concern now is to establish in all future arrangements that there is a genuine economic link between vessels which are licensed under the UK quota and this country's fishing communities. That is our intention in our discussions with the Commission and in Amsterdam.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the economic link about which the noble Lord talked mean that the Government will pay adequate sums to decommissioned vessels? The fishermen sold their quotas abroad because our decommissioning policy under the previous Government was hopelessly inadequate.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the decommissioning provisions exist under EU regulations. In the early stages the previous government did not fully take up those provisions. Our concern now is to ensure that future arrangements mean that, where a vessel is decommissioned, it will be replaced by one which has a genuine economic link with this country's fishing communities.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in fearful anticipation of another review, in addition to the general response that he has so far given the House, how will the noble Lord ensure that UK quotas provide economic benefit for the UK and for the UK fishing communities and not for the fishing interests in other member states?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the House will understand that we are still involved in delicate negotiations, and that the agreement between ourselves and the Commission has yet to be finalised. So I should prefer not to give further details at the moment. All will become clear when the Prime Minister makes a Statement in another place later this week.

Lord Parry

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, as the honorary president of the Milford Haven docks, I have a continuing, though non-pecuniary, interest in the fishing fleet that is based there? A valuable element of it for a long time has been the Spanish fleet. If it is possible for the Government to reach a compromise in the negotiations, delicate though they are, that would be of enormous benefit to the economy of west Wales.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we recognise my noble friend's position in relation to west Wales in general and the fishing community in particular. I hope that he will find that at least some progress will have been made in Amsterdam which will need to be followed through nationally in the approach of my right honourable friends in another place towards their responsibilities for fishing and their relations with the EU.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that there is no question of setting aside past commercial transactions, freely concluded, and that what we are concerned with is the future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept that. I am glad to hear such a realistic assessment of the position from the Opposition Benches.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, given the noble Lord's understandable inability to answer the Question precisely, because the IGC negotiations are still going on, does he agree that the issue of quota-hopping is only part of the complete disaster of the CFP in general, whereby some 3.7 million tonnes of fish are thrown back dead every year into European waters in the name of conservation? Do the Government agree that the only sensible policy is to emulate Norway and thus take back control of our own very rich waters, make discards illegal, and license other countries to fish in our waters after satisfying the needs of our own fishermen?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the CFP was entered into by previous regimes, and we are bound by its terms. There are drawbacks to some aspects of the CFP. Nevertheless, fisheries in the North Sea and our other waters are international and fish are no respecters of boundaries. A one-nation approach to the conservation of fish and the future of fisheries within those waters is not, in my view and that of Her Majesty's Government, possible. We are looking at reform of the CFP. There will be substantial moves in that direction as we approach the review, which is not until 2002. Nevertheless there will be a review at European level. We wish to ensure that we strengthen economic benefits to fishing communities; that we extend beyond 2002 the restrictions on foreign access within the 12-mile limit; that we improve the effectiveness of enforcement measures; and that we introduce far more effective conservation measures. Those negotiations have yet to start. I hope the negotiations which are going on at the moment will give a good start to that process.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, suggests that he is totally indifferent to the preservation of fish in our home waters, and that the European policy is one of conserving fish stocks so that we may continue to enjoy eating fish, which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and I agree we like, and to which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, appears to be indifferent?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, precisely. I agree about my liking for fish. I am not sure about the dietary habits of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, or what was his motivation for that point, but the consequences would be as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, described.