HL Deb 18 June 1997 vol 580 cc1257-67

4.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the common fisheries policy which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"Fishing has an important place and a long tradition as an industry in this country. This Government intend to work with the industry to ensure its continued and sustainable future. This means devising a strategy to meet the challenges of low fish stocks and overcapacity.

"We have inherited a series of profound problems as a result of the previous administration's handling of fisheries policy, which has lacked any sign of direction or support. One of their excuses for failure has been the problem of vessels owned largely by foreign interests which are UK flagged and use UK quotas. They give little or no economic benefit from their activities to our own fishing communities because they are largely operated and crewed from other member states and land a high proportion of their catches outside the UK.

"This is a long-standing problem which the previous administration allowed to develop and failed to solve. It could have addressed it in 1982 when the common fisheries policy was being negotiated. Having failed to act then, it should have addressed it when enlargement to bring in Spain and Portugal was agreed in 1985.

"But they allowed matters to deteriorate and eventually last year proposed a draft treaty protocol which, it became clear, stood no realistic chance of success because they failed to secure support for it. Nor is it clear that it would have dealt effectively with the existing situation. Not a single member state was willing to support the concept of a protocol.

"In the weeks since 2nd May we have taken this up with the Commission and other member states, including my talks with Commissioner Bonino on 20th May and concluding in Amsterdam this week. The Government's efforts have now secured a constructive outcome. In an exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President of the Commission, the Commission has set out measures which we can take requiring UK flagged vessels to demonstrate that their activities contribute substantial economic benefits for populations dependent on fishing and related industries in the United Kingdom. The UK now has a basis for imposing requirements on fishing vessels that they comply with provisions to land a specified proportion—we envisage some 50 per cent.—of their catch into UK ports, or have a majority of their crew resident in the UK, or commence a majority of their fishing trips from UK ports, or comply with a combination of measures. At present, many of these foreign owned vessels contribute little or nothing to the economy of our fishing communities. The new rules would change this and ensure benefits flow to our fishing communities and processors by requiring the vessels to demonstrate that substantial economic benefits are secured.

"We intend to introduce new licence rules to implement these measures as swiftly as possible. We shall be consulting the whole fishing industry about the new rules before asking the Commission to give a formal opinion on them. In this way, we can ensure that our rules are effective, sensitive to the interests of all affected by them, and also consistent with the various legal requirements.

"Without effective enforcement all our efforts to ensure the conservation of fish stocks are undermined. That is why the importance of enforcement has been the second major issue that we have pursued with the Commission. We have insisted that more must be done to ensure effective and consistent application of the rules. It is essential that wherever fishermen land their catches they must be subject to equivalent measures. The Commission are committed now to examining improvements in enforcement, including strengthened obligations on member states. They will also be looking at the role of Commission inspectors. They will report later this year to the Council with proposals as necessary. Meanwhile, we are ourselves taking steps to tighten various aspects of enforcement. I am announcing these in a separate written Statement to the House. They concern action to assist the Marine Safety Agency in ensuring that vessels and their crews are properly certified to comply with safety requirements and in addition steps to prevent evasion of quota rules and undermining of conservation objectives by discarding of fish already stowed on board.

"We have also obtained from the Commission assurances about the involvement of local fishing interests in the decision-making process and about the review and prospects for the common fisheries policy after 2002. The Commission has confirmed that key elements of the common fisheries policy are widely valued and that it considers it is unlikely that the fundamental principle of relative stability would be called into question, or that there would be a desire to modify present restrictions on access to waters inside member states' 12 mile limits. We will be building on these assurances during the future discussions about the common fisheries policies.

"In total, I consider that this is a valuable outcome. We have secured some very positive results concerning the application of economic links, as well as making constructive progress on a range of wider issues, all of which are central to the Government's approach to the common fisheries policy. Because we have agreed a way forward with the Commission, we are in a much better position to avoid legal challenge to the measures we adopt. And measures proposed by the Commission to the Fisheries Council would be agreed by qualified majority voting.

"There is much more to be done to put our fishing industry on a sound footing for the future. I now propose to take this forward urgently. With my colleagues responsible for fisheries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I am inviting the leaders of the United Kingdom fishing industry for talks on the industry's future. The highest priority is to decide the way in which we implement rules to require the economic link.

"But there is a much wider agenda. We have to address the problems of enforcement, low stocks and overcapacity as well as looking at other possibilities for change in quota and licence management and the scope for more regional involvement. The Government want to develop a realistic strategy to create a viable future for our fishing industry over the years ahead. These talks will start the process. We shall ensure that the industry is directly and fully involved".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. It is always an enormous pleasure to listen to the noble Lord in the House. This was no exception.

Perhaps I may start with a question which fascinates me and, I know, many of my colleagues. Does the noble Lord believe that he will be taking this process forward post-Scottish devolution; will it be taken forward by Scotland independently, it being very largely a Scottish interest; will it be taken forward jointly; or will this process remain a United Kingdom, and therefore a Westminster Parliament, responsibility?

Straying back to the Statement for a moment, I cannot but say that, in my brief experience of listening from this side of the House to Statements, I have not heard a more fatuous and empty Statement taking longer to say nothing. This is a complete sell-out of the British fishing industry. What is the noble Lord doing in trying to maintain that what has been achieved is in any way binding on anyone? Certainly, it will not be binding on the Spanish, who have already expressed their opinion of it, and quite accurately too: nor will it be binding on the European Court of Justice—unless what we are seeing. which is what I expect, is a Statement which signifies precisely nothing.

The noble Lord knows—and his party admitted it before the election—that to achieve anything significant on quota-hopping required treaty change. He will have been advised of that by his officials and doubtless they will have said the same thing to him today. Now we are asked to believe that a letter from the Commission is enough to see off the European Court of Justice. To quote the Statement: Because we have agreed a way forward with the Commission, we are in a much better position to avoid legal challenge to the measures we adopt". What an astonishing leap forward in jurisprudence! The Commission is now sovereign over the European Court of Justice, and where it expresses an opinion, the ECJ will bow to it. I hope that this is not true. I am sure the noble Lord realises that there is very little substance in that statement.

What are the proposed measures: 50 per cent. landing in UK ports, majority UK crews and fishing to start from the United Kingdom. The noble Lord must realise that all those go straight to the basic questions addressed by the ECJ—restraint on trade and employment. We already have much of what is promised here extant in British arrangements and British law. We have gone as far as we were able to. We have taken it to the limit. How can the noble Lord contend that it is possible to take it further without running into severe problems with the ECJ? What the Government propose, if one takes it at face value, would be wonderful if it worked. But it will not.

The fishermen have gained nothing and there is nothing in the other parts of the Statement that represents progress. The Statement says that the Commission is committed now to examining improvements in enforcement. Where does the word "now" come from? If one reads the letter from M. Santer it is clear, first, that it is something the Commission has been looking at for a long time and, secondly, he explicitly in his letter makes no such promises. He just says, "We might think about it sometime. We might do something. We may". There are no promises. Nor are there promises about the involvement of local fishing interests. M. Santer says, "This is something we are thinking about". There are no promises to take it seriously or to reach any such conclusions.

The Statement says: The Commission has confirmed that key elements of the common fisheries policy are widely valued". What the Commission has confirmed is that, as has previously been stated many times, it feels this. That is what it says in the letter. There is no justification for parading this as something new. All we are looking at is the old position of the Commission as we long knew it. All we are looking at is the old position of the European Court of Justice as we have long known it. There is nothing here for fishermen. There is nothing to make any advance in dealing with quota-hopping, which will remain and will increase.

The Government say that they will address these matters as swiftly as possible. I hope we see this quickly. I hope that by "as swiftly as possible" the Government mean this year and not perhaps the back end of next year, so that we will have an opportunity to see at an early stage just how little has been achieved.

The Statement also looks forward to 2002 and to the changes that will take place then. Will the noble Lord confirm that the basic, fundamental position in 2002 is that all derogations from the underlying legislation will end? As doubtless the noble Lord knows, we will then go back to Council Regulation 101/76, under which there is no common fisheries policy, no derogations which will allow six and 12-mile limits, quotas and licences will be settled by Europe and the Spaniards will have the right to fish up to the British shores. There is nothing in that basic regulation to protect us. It is all a matter of negotiation and the starting position is one which reflects the importance of local fishing communities.

Fishing communities as such are what we have been trading away with the quota hoppers. Quota hoppers as they exist now, be they Spanish or Dutch, will be part of the Spanish and Dutch interests in 2002. If we go ahead with the MAGP and reduce our fleet by a further 30 per cent.—presumably mostly our boats, because who will compel quota-hoppers to decommission theirs?—we will be left in 2002 with our basic position being that we have rights to half the fish that we fish at the moment, half the fish that we regard as ours under our quotas.

That is the position the Government have landed us in by not taking the matter of quota-hopping seriously and by not obtaining the treaty changes to which we had committed ourselves had we remained in power. That is the position from which the Government will have to fight back. I shall be fascinated to know whether the noble Lord has any proposals as to how they will do it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, if I had wholly disapproved of the Statement and was totally against the Government, the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would have reversed my view completely in favour of the Government and the Statement. I have never heard such extraordinary arrogance from a Government—a former Government, thank heavens—who have led the fishing community into the position in which it finds itself.

I thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement. I think it offers some hope. I, too, read the letters between the Prime Minister and the head of the Commission. I thought that there was a great improvement in relations, which one needs before one can make progress. We all know the problems of quota hopping and we know why they arose. It was because full advantage was not taken of our decommissioning policy. We did not take advantage of the European regulations to buy out the quotas and the ships at a decent price so the equipment was sold. Some progress has already been made in this Statement.

However, it will be difficult. Three issues are set out; namely, the landing of 50 per cent. of the catch in the flag state, employing the majority of the crew in the flag state and commencing the majority of trips from flag state ports. That will help. It will be difficult, but it will be useful. It is true that British fishermen land their fish abroad and they may be less keen on more fish being landed here while the processors might welcome it. Nevertheless, there are possibilities. The co-operation of the Commission in this area does offer hope.

I was heartened by the fact that the Statement looks forward to the year 2002 when something more radical might well be done. The problems are great. Enforcement has been a problem from the start. The degree of enforcement in this country is much greater than it is in Spain relative to the size of the fleet, yet even in this country "black fish" are being landed at the ports and merchants admit buying that fish. So even in this country we need better enforcement, and certainly it is needed in Spain and elsewhere. If the Government can persuade the Commission to concentrate on enforcement that of itself will be a great help.

The Government must tackle the problem of discards. The Norwegians have shown the way forward on that and there is no reason why we should not do so in Britain and in the European fisheries policy. I also hope that the Government will concentrate very much on co-operation with fishermen on any measures for the future, particularly as concerns research because there is always a conflict between fishermen and scientists. If they get together more and information from all over Europe is properly pooled and researched, then fishermen will be much more inclined to accept the fact that the stock of fish is limited even though they may be getting good catches at the time. That is also an important point.

I would like to hear the Government's views on this matter. The Government should be looking forward to operating properly a decommissioning policy, which will include buying out the quota because at the end of the day, such are the skills and methods available, that there is no question but there will have to be fewer fishermen and ships fishing for the same amount of fish. That will involve buying out people who are fishing now. That is a policy which has been advocated in agriculture and there is no reason why it should not apply to fishing. There will be fewer fish and there are far better methods of catching and finding fish. Therefore, we need a policy to satisfy those who want to leave the industry. I hope that the Government will pursue their efforts to co-operate with the Commission in solving the problem.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank noble Lords on the Front Benches opposite for their comments. As regards what the noble Lord said about our policies being fatuous and empty, I believe that it is fair and modest to say that we have achieved more in six weeks than the previous government achieved in 17 years. What has been announced constitutes good progress. It is far from the end of the line of achievements that we wish to attain, but it is a solid step forward. The establishment of the economic link between fishing and the fishing community is very important. It is what noble Lords opposite in the previous Administration were seeking in their ill-fated protocol. What we are proposing in terms of enforcement is, as the noble Lord said, considerable progress. What we are proposing relates both to the national front and the European front.

My right honourable friend has announced today three further measures to tighten enforcement, including especially the question of discards. The Commission is now committed to looking at achieving better, harmonised enforcement on the Continent, particularly imposing stronger obligations on the member states and strengthening the use of the inspectorate. Therefore, perhaps tomorrow morning, when the noble Lord reads what he said, he may think that he could have expressed his view better than describing what we have done as empty and fatuous.

As regards the legal aspects, we all know that there are legal problems. They are not as great as the political problems that the previous Administration had when their proposed protocol did not have the support of a single member state and had not a cat in hell's chance of going through. We have the statement of the President of the Commission concerning his interpretation of the legal position and what is possible under the law. That is significant and practical progress. It gives us a reasonable chance of avoiding legal confrontation.

Quota hoppers exist in other countries, but for us the acuteness of the problem derives from the failures of the previous government and their one-time belief in the working of the free market. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, for his kind remarks, for his comments on the arrogance of the party opposite and for recognising the progress that we have made. I shall look again at what he said about decommissioning, which we know is a very important question. I shall also look at what he said about the way forward. We shall indeed be working towards the year 2002 and hoping to make further progress then. Certainly, we shall be working with the fishermen. My right honourable friend has announced immediate meetings with the fishing industry and we propose to go forward with those. I was not personally aware of the problem with scientists, but one always learns, especially from the noble Lord. I agree with him that the key is enforcement, and that is at the centre of what we have announced today both in what we propose to do and in what we believe is now the commitment of the Commission.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he answer the question that my noble friend asked about the position in Scotland and Wales? The noble Lord and his colleagues have been negotiating in Europe on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom and for the fishermen of Scotland, England and Wales. If, after devolution, these responsibilities are devolved to the parliament or assembly in Scotland and Wales, who will speak for them and to whom will that person be accountable: a Scottish parliament or the Westminster Parliament?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, this area of policy will be a national one for some time to come. When we deal with devolution our proposals on this front will be set out in the White Paper and noble Lords opposite will have many opportunities to discuss them.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, it is a little confusing to have two separate Statements on what is virtually the same subject. That caused me inadvertently to put my question to the Lord Privy Seal a minute or two ago. If I had heard the Statement on agriculture separately my view as to what was happening would have been slightly different. All that I can do now that I have heard it is to wish the Government well in being able to achieve what the Statement said that they hoped to achieve, but it is only a hope.

The noble Lord has just said that what the Government have done in six weeks has been quite amazing. However, as regards the fishermen, precisely nothing has been done in those six weeks. The arrangements under which the Government can renegotiate are exactly now as they were before. It is when the Government have amended those arrangements and can bring to fruition all of the hopes and aspirations that were mentioned in the last Statement that one can start to be pleased about it.

The first Statement made it clear to the House that some improvement had been made which could be recognised and identified. However, there was no evidence in that Statement that the inclusion of that sentence could be justified. The second Statement put things on a slightly different plane. The Government have said that they recognise the dangers and the criticisms that I have made and that they hope to do something about it. They have laid much stress on an exchange of letters which commits nobody to anything. Until those letters have been used in a constructive way that produces results we are entitled to continue to be worried about the rough deal under which our fishing industry has to live at the moment.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. What he said was constructive and I have a lot of sympathy with it. The noble Lord said that he had been confused. Perhaps I may advise him that I have become very familiar with that state of mind in the past six weeks. I know exactly what it is like.

As regards a separate Statement, I am sure that the noble Lord understands that this agreement is not central to the IGC. It took the form of an exchange of letters with the President and, as such, it seemed appropriate to deal with it separately. It is also a complex matter and would not have been appropriate for inclusion in a Statement which was very much centred on other matters.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. There is still much more to be done. The noble Lord is right to be concerned and we share that concern. We shall try to meet those concerns and to achieve more.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I am sorry, I should have said "the noble Lord opposite", but I hope that I still regard the noble Lord as a friend—that he is now making the same sort of noises which my noble friend Lord Lucas made when he occupied that position? It is interesting, however, that my noble friend Lord Lucas is, in effect, a sinner reformed. He hath repenteth. Surely in this agreement there has been no addressing of the problems of the basic faults of the common fisheries policy, including the appalling discard rate, which the Norwegians and the Canadians can cut by 95 per cent; and there has been no change in the regulations on cod ends or landings of discards.

What has happened is that there has been an exchange of letters. That is exactly the same as me writing to the noble Lord stating, "Dear Lord Donoughue, we do not mind you speeding down the Guildford bypass and we shall ignore it", but a court will say that that is totally unlawful. It is certain that the Spaniards and the Dutch, who have at least 50 per cent. of the quota-hopping vessels, will go to the European Court and say, "Okay, Mr. Blair has written to M. Santer and they have come to an agreement", but that would be outside the treaty, and if something is outside the treaty, whatever Mr. Blair and M. Santer write to each other will not make a ha'p'orth of difference. That is what has gone wrong in this agreement. We have not addressed the basic faults of the common fisheries policy. The Namibians, the Canadians and the Norwegians all run much better fisheries policies. All that we have done is to write letters, hoping to avoid a problem.

I absolutely accept that what the Government want to do represents a major advance, but what they will actually achieve is not worth the paper that the letters have been written on. It is a great advantage that my noble friend Lord Lucas is a sinner who hath repenteth, but the Government have not advanced one jot or tittle from where we were last April.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I have particular sympathy for sinners, whether or not they have repented. However, I believe that the noble Earl is wrong to dismiss the letters out of hand. An exchange of letters between the British Prime Minister and the President of the Commission is not like an exchange of letters between the noble Earl and myself. I cannot think of the parallel, but on the Kingston bypass the chief constable of Surrey might be more appropriate. The President of the Commission is not an ordinary citizen. He and the Commission are the guardians of the treaties and the law of the European Union. A commitment from the President and the Commission has much greater significance.

We have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Earl says about the faults of the common fisheries policy. However, it was the previous Administration who negotiated that common fisheries policy. They have missed every opportunity to improve it since. We have to live with what we inherited. However, we shall bear in mind what the noble Earl said and shall do our best to attempt to correct some of the policy's obvious and undisputed failings.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, when the noble Lord repeated the Statement he mentioned as one considerable gain the fact that there was now economic linkage and that the quota hoppers would be required to land in the order of 50 per cent. of their catch in British ports. That is not new. I have here a fishing licence which is dated 1993, the conditions of which specifically state that, In each 6 month period … at least 50 per cent. by weight of the total landings of all stocks", should be landed at British ports. That licence is out of date by four years, so even the miracle workers of this Government can hardly claim to have achieved something that was not in place before. I wonder, therefore, whether some of the other things for which the Government are now claiming credit are as hollow. Perhaps the noble Lord can reassure us on that point.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord. That was, indeed, a condition in the previous licence, but we have built on and extended that. The noble Lord has given one condition, but an alternative requirement was that a foreign quota-hopping boat could call at a British port four times in six months and that would be all right. We have now stitched together a series of conditions going far beyond that. Together, they constitute a link between fishing, the fishing communities and their economic health. The condition is now 50 per cent. of landings with no evasion through dropping in at a port a few times every six months, or 50 per cent. of crew being resident in the UK, or 50 per cent. of the fishing trips originating in British ports. Those conditions are much more significant and go much wider than the condition quoted by the noble Lord. That was, indeed, the case previously but we have built heavily on it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I find that answer particularly interesting, but the fact remains that the licence conditions to date included 50 per cent. by weight, with the second criterion being that, evidence is provided of the vessel's presence in ports [in this country] on at least 4 occasions of at least 8 hours duration". With the best will in the world—and I really mean that because I am hugely interested in the wellbeing of the fishing industry and this has been a very difficult problem which is, I suspect, much more difficult than the noble Lord yet appreciates—I do not see that the conditions that are laid out in the letter to the President of the Commission are significantly different from those already contained in British fishing licences. I must ask the noble Lord to check the conditions in those licences at present and to check on the straightforward fact that the problem has arisen not because of the Commission's involvement, but because the European Court has clearly stated that the treaty overrides the common fisheries policy. That is the central problem and until we get the Commission and the other member states to agree to a change of policy, I am afraid that there will be another Spanish quota hopper in here tomorrow.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, indeed Spanish quota hoppers can come in given the existing situation. The noble Lord has read from the licence conditions to which I have referred. It is true that they referred to a 50 per cent. catch or eight hours or four visits within six months. But I believe that that is a much slimmer condition than that which we are applying. He is quite right that in the end we must see what happens in the European Court. It is our view that the assurances given by the President of the Commission as to his interpretation of the legal position represent progress on what we had before, because there was no prospect at all of the approach through the protocol being passed.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, I understand the motive behind the new condition that 50 per cent. of crews should be from the flag country. However, does the Minister see any possible conflict between that and the priority at the IGC to achieve a more flexible labour market in Europe?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, no. What we have proposed is fairly flexible. One of the reasons is not to conflict with those requirements of flexibility and impose inflexible constraints on our fishermen who may wish, flexibly, to fish abroad.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is not the reality that the Government faced an extremely difficult problem when they came into office and had to deal with this issue? Most of us recognise that the idea that this problem can be solved in six weeks is nonsensical. Many of us congratulate the Government on what has so far been achieved, recognising that a great deal more must be done?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what in my view is a totally accurate and helpful description of the situation. We have not attempted to oversell it. The Statement says quite specifically that what we have done is a valuable step forward, but there is very much more to do.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether his discussions with the Commissioner, with which he is so well pleased, or the exchange of letters included The Hague preference which gives Northern Ireland fishermen great concern as it allows the Irish to have quotas that they do not even fish? If they did include The Hague preference, what was the outcome; if not, when does the Minister intend to raise the issue?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I confess that in my mind the name "Hague" is otherwise associated. As I recall, it does not refer to that matter. My impression is that it makes no change in the Northern Irish situation. However, as before, we shall continue the stream of letters to the noble Baroness.