HL Deb 29 January 1998 vol 585 cc326-8

3.24 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made, since the exchange of letters between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union Commission last June, in removing the anomaly of foreign fishing boats registered at British ports being allowed to catch fish within the quotas allocated to the United Kingdom.

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

My Lords, a consultation paper was issued to the industry in July containing proposals for ensuring that all British registered fishing vessels maintain a real economic link with those populations in the United Kingdom dependent upon fisheries and related industries. Those proposals have since been the subject of extensive discussions with all sectors of the fishing industry. Those discussions have been completed and the Commission's views are now being sought on our proposals. Once those views are known, an announcement will be made on the way forward.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. It is now seven months since the Government stated that they would introduce conditions for new fishing licences "with all speed", to use the Prime Minister's words. How fast does the noble Lord consider the process that he described as a disincentive to quota hopping, which was stated to be the objective, is going? Is there any assurance that the European Court will not again rule that that is illegal, as it did in the case of the register in the Merchant Shipping Act?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it has taken a few months, but we stated at the beginning that we would consult fully with the industry. We were criticised for consulting too quickly on beef bones; on this matter we consulted fully. With his knowledge, the noble Lord is aware that our fishing industry is diverse in its interests and even conflicting. It therefore took time to consult and reconcile the position. The position is now with the Commission. When we reach an agreed view with the Commission, we shall announce our plans and hope that that will be quite soon.

Our action is based upon a suggestion from the European president, who is the guardian of the European treaty. It is being finalised with the European Commission on the basis that it will be compatible with European law. We are therefore reasonably confident that we have done everything possible to make sure that it will not be overturned, as the noble Lord fears, by the European Court.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the trouble was caused by fishermen selling their quotas overseas? That happened because there was no decent decommissioning scheme, and to obtain proper value the fishermen had to do that. Do the Government now intend to introduce a much more generous and widely embracing decommissioning scheme which will solve the problem?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. Many of our problems derive from what one might call the negligent or careless handling of fishing policy a decade ago. I agree also that decommissioning must be at the heart of any future solution to our problem. We have spent money on that and, in the light of the current spending review, are considering what funds will be available.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether the eventual decision from Brussels as to whether it agrees with the Prime Minister's view of the matter will depend on the dreaded qualified majority vote? If so, can he give the House any indication as to how those votes stack up at the moment?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is a view that is being considered by the European Commission. When we obtain its response, that will be the policy. I cannot speculate on what will happen with majority votes, but that is not a relevant factor.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can I press my noble friend on that? Although the Commission may take the view that the British Government have a case, is it not the case also that any such agreement will have to be agreed by all the other member states, including Spain? If that is so, does he believe that Spain will agree to the alteration which suits them so well, in that it gives them virtually a free hand to fish exactly as they wish in British waters?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, when we have an agreement with the Commission, that will be the agreement. I should point out to my noble friend that other member states—for instance, Belgium and France—are already implementing similar regulations.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the triumphant exchange of letters—"Dear Tony" and "Dear Jacques"—last June was supposed to herald the end of this problem? It is now seven months since that exchange and nothing has happened. The discussions with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation took place last August. It is coming up to five months since those discussions were completed. When are the Government going to do something about this—or am I right in thinking and being suspicious about the fact that the solution is not half as easy as "Dear Tony" and "Dear Jacques" supposed?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not believe that it was the assumption of any of us that any of these solutions are easy. It is quite wrong to suggest that nothing has happened. As I explained to the noble Lord. Lord Campbell of Croy, very detailed discussions have been held. As I am sure he is aware, the position of Scottish fishermen is not always the same as that of fishermen in the south west. I am firmly confident that something will happen, which will be an improvement. The important thing is to get the matter right and have a proposal which will have an effect and not take the previous government's approach with their protocol, which had no prospect of success whatsoever.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, can the Minister tell us about some of the provisions that will not be in the agreement as regards the 50 per cent. of the catch which Spanish quota hoppers will still be permitted to land in Spain? I understand that there have been discussions between the UK Government and the Spanish Government about policing landings for under-sized and over-quota fish. Can the Minister say what response the Spanish Government have given regarding UK policing of those landings?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, part of the letter that has been referred to concerned enforcement. We have strengthened that in this country. We have an agreement with the Commission that there will be stronger enforcement on the Continent.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be much better for British fishing if the European Commission was to get a "Dear John" letter?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is a change to get a non-Scottish view. I have no comment on it.