HL Deb 25 March 1998 vol 587 cc1218-21

2.39 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have received from the European Commission a reply to, or comments on, their paper, submitted in February, on the need for fishing vessels participating in the United Kingdom's quotas for catches to have economic links with the United Kingdom.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the Commission has made some preliminary comments on the paper referred to by the noble Lord and we are now engaged in discussions with the Commission prior to its taking a formal view. As my noble friend Lord Donoughue has told the House previously, once the Commission's views are known, an announcement will be made on the way forward.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. Is he aware that fishermen's leaders are waiting anxiously to hear whether progress is being made because the impression was given that quota hoppers would be soon reduced after the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the Commission's president? That was 10 months ago.

Lord Carter

My Lords, this is an extremely complex area. The Commission has asked for clarification on some points of detail which are the subject of ongoing discussion. Once those issues are resolved, we are confident that the Commission will confirm that our proposed measures are compatible with Community law and the jurisprudence of the European Court. It involves the interpretation of various provisions in the treaties and the jurisprudence of the European Court. We are not the only member state currently seeking to introduce measures concerning economic links. The Commission must ensure that a consistent approach is adopted by all. In the circumstances, perhaps it is not surprising that the Commission does not wish to respond too hastily.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House what kind of economic links he wishes to see established? Is it not true that a number of those foreigners have bought United Kingdom licences from our own trawler owners? It is obvious that they have economic links in any event. Secondly, on the general question of deep sea fishing, what steps are now being taken to curb illegal landings?

Lord Carter

My Lords, as regards the demonstration of the economic link, we intend that all vessels will be required to comply with one of a number of criteria along the lines set out in the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the president of the Commission last year. Those could include having to land 50 per cent. of the catch of quota species into the UK; employing crew, 50 per cent. of whom are resident in coastal areas; incurring a certain level of operating expenditure in UK coastal areas; or any other measure providing sufficient economic benefit to populations in the UK who are dependent on fishing.

At the Fisheries Council only yesterday the European Commission reported on enforcement. To use the European jargon, there was an orientation debate in which we supported the introduction of new measures to achieve more effective and consistent fisheries enforcement. The conclusion was that there was general support for improved enforcement and the Council welcomed the Commission's intention to come forward with concrete proposals.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, have the Government considered the idea of a regional management regime for fisheries? That would mean that the fleets based in ports on the coast of a particular region—say, for example, the Irish Sea or the Bay of Biscay—could participate in its success as stakeholders. Indeed, they would have a vested interest, especially as regards conservation. Moreover, that would help stop the practice of vessels like UK-flagged quota hoppers fishing in the Irish Sea and landing their catches far away, because they would not be entitled to participate in such a regional management system.

Lord Carter

My Lords, those ideas were presented by the National Federation of Fishermen's Associations and there were some pilot regional meetings to discuss them last year. Again, only yesterday at the Council—which was an extremely successful one so far as concerns the UK—there was agreement that the initiative should be developed and extended in 1998. Those regional meetings will contribute to the UK's objective of increasing the involvement of fishermen in discussions on the future of the common fisheries policy and developing the regional dimension of that policy.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister satisfied in his own mind that the Spanish fish inspectorate has left Madrid and has actually reached Spanish ports?

Lord Carter

Yes, my Lords; so far as I am aware, that is so. However, they are extremely slow travellers.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I have listened with great attention to everything that the Minister has said. However, will he accept that it is a little difficult to appreciate what sort of actual progress has been made since 1st May last year?

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I said earlier, it is a complex issue. This is the first time that the Commission has actually stated how it describes the economic link and how it should work. We are waiting for a detailed response, but I believe that we have made much more progress during the past nine months than the previous government made in 17 years.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recall the previous government attempting to protect the positions and the livelihoods of British fishermen through the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which was overturned by the judgment of the European Court of Justice through the Factortame ruling? Can my noble friend say whether the present situation and the present talks take account of that? Can we also be assured that the judgment will not apply in this case, or that it can be overruled?

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend knows, the Factortame judgment is still in front of the Court of Appeal on the issue of liability. Therefore, it would be wrong for me to comment further at this stage. Moreover, it is much too early to discuss the likely size of the compensation package because no detailed claims for compensation have yet been received.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, before 1st May last, the then Opposition said that this was an easy and not a complex question? Does the noble Lord further agree that the Spanish are not playing ball in this; indeed, they are indicating that they will challenge any decisions made by the Commission? Further, as my noble friend Lord Campbell said, does the noble Lord agree that it is 10 months since the exchange of letters between "Dear Tony" and "Dear Jacques"; it is two months since the Government submitted their paper to the Commission; and one month since, as a result of Written Questions tabled by me, publicity for that submission was dragged out of the Government? Indeed, does the phrase "stringing along" perhaps come to the Minister's mind? Who is stringing us along: is Tony being strung along by Jacques, or is Tony stringing British fishermen along?

Lord Carter

My Lords, it is extraordinary that, after only a few months in Opposition, noble Lords opposite seem to think, all of a sudden, that everything is easy and that can be done very quickly. I have already made clear that this is the first time that the Commission has set out what it means by "economic links". We are engaged in discussions with the Commission. I am sure that the noble Lord will be pleased when we are able to bring the results of those discussions to the House in the very near future. Indeed, I am sure that he will be extremely pleased with the outcome.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, kindly provided me with a copy of the UK paper dated December last. Is the Minister confident that the scheme will be any more acceptable to the European Court than the previous British attempts to solve the problem, as features from those schemes reappear in this one? For example, I have with me the Law Report of October 1991 when the Court pronounced on the matter.

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I said, the protocol negotiated by the previous government said that there was absolutely no chance of acceptance. The Commission is expected to agree that our proposals are compatible with the EC treaty and in accordance with European case law. Therefore, any measures which are taken should withstand successful legal challenge.