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Column 920I have another letter from a group of fishermen's wives in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) : "Our husbands are hunters--hunters of vital food supplies to a nation, hunters who must work in dangerous conditions and who must leave the comfort of their homes and the company of their families for long periods with the knowledge now that even 16 days at sea no longer secures even a living wage."
There are many other examples in my correspondence. I shall take the liberty of sending that correspondence to the Parliamentary Secretary.
I refer to small businesses that are already facing extremely adverse economic circumstances in the last six months of this year. They involve people who have invested and modernised and are now facing penal interest rates. We cannot blame the Parliamentary Secretary for the misguided policies that are pursued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but we should have the answer to the questions. What possible benefit can there be for the United Kingdom economy to have interest rates at a level that will bankrupt vital fishing businesses? What possible merit can there be in driving out share-owned fishing businesses?
The focal point of the correspondence that I have received is Icelandic imports. People in the fishing industry strongly believe that such imports are undermining prices in the home market and are coming in at below reference prices. The research that I have been able to do suggests that the central problem is the grading system. Surely it must be looked at by the Parliamentary Secretary. Even in my limited research, I have been able to uncover examples of imported fish presently coming in at under reference prices. Therefore, it is with some surprise that I see no sign of Government action. According to the Sea Fish Industry Authority's trade bulletin, the latest figures were released in September. That is a scandal. How can the Government possibly monitor developments in fish imports if the latest statistics are two months old? In imports of frozen fish from non- EEC countries there are three categories, one of cod and two of saithe, for which the average price quoted in the bulletin is lower than the reference price.
For example, the average price of other cod is £709 a tonne. The reference price is £869 a tonne. What is the Parliamentary Secretary going to do about this? Why is he not invoking the countervailing measures that are open to him, or going to the Commission to ask for countervailing action against these imports? Even on this dated evidence--there is every reason to believe that things have deteriorated since--imports are undermining the home market. I take it that the Government realise that, if effective action against non-EEC imports is not taken, as is allowed in the Commission regulations, we face the prospect, with the quotas announced in these documents, of having the home-produced product further compressed, with the price not responding because of the flood of imports from Iceland and elsewhere. That would be the most serious position of all for the fishing industry.
I repeat the question asked by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The Iceland Government and people have every right to conserve their natural resources as they see fit, but it is for our Government, and other EEC Governments, to monitor and protect against the penetration into the EEC market from Icelandic imports. The Icelandic Government cannot
Column 921have the bun and the penny. They cannot both secure their own natural resource and demand complete access to EEC markets. What will the Parliamentary Secretary do about the clear evidence that Icelandic imports are undermining the home market and are the cause of the collapse in prices that we have seen over the past three months?
As a means of control of fishery, the TACs are an extremely blunt instrument, as blunt as interest rates as a means of controlling the national economy. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has made a number of strong points to me and other Members, but one of the strongest is that we have enforced the recommended quotas for the past five years for both cod and haddock, and that on only one occasion--and that marginal--have the landings exceeded those quotas, imposed as a result of the original scientific advice given to the Community. Why is it, then, if TACs are an effective way to manage fishing stocks, that we now face a crisis in cod and a disaster in haddock?
To set TACs impossibly low risks the danger of a perverse effect because of the likelihood of increasing the number of discards. The Government will have to re-examine the management of fisheries to see whether TACs by themselves are effectively controlling fishing. Surely the fishing industry has to be controlled by effective management of capacity and the enforcement of protection for the spawning stock. It is not adequate for the Government to say that, just because the last decommissioning scheme was a national scandal, that is a reason not to have another. That is a reason for having a fair and honest decommissioning scheme and not repeating the mistakes of a few years ago.
The main point for Scottish Members in this debate is the dramatic and catastrophic decline suggested for the haddock TAC. I am sure that even the Parliamentary Secretary needs no reminding--if he did need reminding he would have to cope with the lack of a Minister from the Scottish Office to give him that reminder--that haddock is the mainstay of the Scottish fleet. It is the dominant species both by quality and by value. The proposed cut of 62 per cent. will strike at the heart of the Scottish fishing industry.
I have been looking at the Community documents and the documents presented to the House on this subject, because I, too, am interested in the "Hague resolutions" and what practical effect they can have on our difficulties. What is interesting is not just the meeting in The Hague in late October 1976, or the Council resolutions published on 3 November that year, but what was said to the House of Commons in the explanatory memorandum that was presented with these EEC documents. The Foreign Office was negotiating the rights of Scottish and other United Kingdom fisheries, and it was painting a reassuring picture. The House of Commons was assured that
"the need to maintain the level of employment and income in coastal regions which are economically disadvantaged and largely dependent on fishing"
was one of the three main thrusts of the embryo common fisheries policy, which was being discussed. It was made clear that the vital needs of fishing communities in Ireland, northern Britain, and Greenland would be protected in the application of the common fisheries policy. It was also made clear that the Commission was thinking of further assistance to fishing regions, such as money from the European Investment Bank, or from the regional fund or
Column 922the social fund. That is money that, incidentally, thenorth-east of Scotland has long been deprived of because of the Government's own regional policy.
It was said that the vital needs of northern Britain would be protected in the application of the common fisheries policy. We want to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary how these vital needs will be protected and whether the "Hague preference" and commitment will be redeemed. What does it mean in practice? Does it mean that the first 60,000 tonnes will be available for northern Britain to fish as part of the haddock quota? What guarantee has the House that that is his aim and intention, and that he intends to secure that 60,000 tonnes when he goes to the negotiations in Brussels? Will he give us a guarantee that, if that 60,000 tonnes is not forthcoming, he will renegotiate what has already been negotiated? As has been pointed out, even 60,000 tonnes would be a disastrously low figure for the Scottish fleet.
It is ironic that, only a few months ago, the Secretary of State was making a speech in Europe on Saturday 7 May, which was headed : "CFP brings stability and prosperity".
The fishing industry in Scotland, and the documents that we are discussing, do not promise stability and prosperity. The talk in the fishing industry in Scotland is of viability and survival. I suggest that the Secretary of State changes not only his speechwriter but the method by which, and the vigour with which, he pursues the defence of Scottish fishing interests in Brussels. I welcome the Minister back to our proceedings. Unless we hear from the Parliamentary Secretary that he will take positive and fighting action to defend the vital needs of the Scottish fishing industry, we shall have no hesitation in dividing the House on these documents.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : It is not my intention to speak on many of the technical issues raised in the debate, which have been dealt with adequately by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and by many other hon. Members representing constituencies all over the United Kingdom. It is appropriate that I speak as a woman representing a fishing constituency, because my hon. Friend read out letters from the wives of many of our skippers and fishermen in Banff and Buchan and Moray. Many of these people are my personal friends, while others are constituents whom I do not know. This much I do know: they are women who are committed to the work that their husbands undertake. They are aware of the dangers and adversity that they face. They are not people who complain. It shows the depths of concern within our communities that the wives of our fishermen are at the stage of writing to the Prime Minister to state their views and to ask for assistance.
The fishing industry is not composed of people who belong to a breed of moaners. The fishermen do not come begging, time after time, for assistance. They are men who work against adversity. They are used to the difficulties of the industry, but the situation is now so critical that positive action to assist our communities is necessary. The fishermen in my constituency have put it to me firmly that they see the situation now as being worse than that which preceded the famous blockade in the 1970s in the north-east of Scotland. That surely must bring home to the Minister the strength of feeling among our people.
Column 923When women write to us, they are conscious of the investment made in the fishing industry by individuals, families and shareholders in our small communities. Boats now cost well into six figures ; in some cases, it costs £1 million to buy a new boat. Mention is made of the possibility of tying up some of those boats, but the men cannot afford to tie up their boats because they are staring financial ruin in the face. They have to keep working to pay the interest and to ensure that the boat can continue to go to sea.
Many of the fathers in my constituency are now being asked for advice by their sons who want to follow in the family tradition of owning a boat, going to sea and making their living through the fishing industry. Those fathers are now placed in the impossible position of saying, "I would not advise you at this stage to contemplate coming into the fishing industry" because everything seems to be loaded against them. Prices have plummeted and it is now possible that we shall not have catches that make it worthwhile going to sea. There have been problems with licences and lack of grants for our fishermen. The whole quota situation needs to be reconsidered because of the difficulties experienced. That is the atmosphere in our small fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland and I am sure that it is reflected in other such communities round the coast. Those communities need people to fight on their behalf. They deserve people arguing on their behalf at the Commission in Brussels. It is not good enough to say that The Hague preference will be put on the table. We want to know what kind of a muscle will be used to ensure that it is implemented. Here I echo the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan that we need a satisfactory response and, if we do not receive one, we shall press the matter to a Division.
We do not want to see the heart torn out of our communities. It is a matter not just of loss of jobs and earnings, but of the heart being torn out of our communities. We need action now and I hope that the Minister will argue most effectively on behalf of those women and fishermen.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : It has been a very good debate this evening and I have listened with interest to every word. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) apologises for being absent, as does the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I work closely with my noble Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office.
Mr. Thompson : Let us get on with the debate. It is very important. The noble Lord spends a great deal of time and energy explaining the problems and advantages of Scotland to my right hon. Friend and myself. I resent the attacks made upon him, but will not take the matter further. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and
Column 924Buchan (Mr. Salmond) started with a fierce attack, but I shall not comment on that further as I do not want to stray from the issue. I wish to say a few words about the great wodge of papers that hon. Members have collected from the Vote Office. The figures are still emerging and Opposition Members have been telling us tonight that we must change the figures in those documents. The Scrutiny Committee has been most generous in its acceptance of the documents at the last minute so that this debate could take place in an orderly and proper manner. The Committee's generosity was also displayed when it referred in one of the documents to the helpful information given by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
That leads me to thank all hon. Members for their understanding of our desire to provide the documents so that they can make relevant and informed speeches, as they have done. That would not have been possible without a great deal of hard work and dedication from my officials and those of the Scottish Office who have brought these documents to our notice very quickly.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to Channel cod and Icelandic fish, as did many other hon. Members. He asked about Greenland cod and whether we would do all we could to catch our total quota. I can assure him that we shall do our best to catch our total quota of Greenland cod this year, although we have not done so every year.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned scientific advice, as did other hon. Members. The scientific advice is the best advice that we have. As many hon. Members have said, the problem is that, in some respects, the advice fluctuates greatly. That does not give us a proper basis upon which to build an industry.
I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan and for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) who read us letters from their constituents. Those people may doubt the wisdom of scientific advice, but that advice, the quotas and the TACs are intended to protect not only the fishermen and their families, but their children's future. As I have visited various fishing communities throughout the country, I have been impressed by the way in which various fishery committees and fishermen ask for greater conservation measures. I shall continue to visit those communities and, if I am invited by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, I shall come to Scotland too. I know that I shall be welcomed when I do. In Scarborough, for example, they are requesting a three-month moratorium on cod fishing. They also suggested an extension of boxes in which people could not fish, so that there could be conservation in the first three months of the year.
Mr. Salmond : The Minister is missing the point about the administration of the fishery by quotas alone. Surely, if he accepts that the scientific advice has by and large been followed over the past five years, that shows that the advice could not have been accurate during that time. The burden of managing the fishery cannot rest on quotas alone. Why do the Government refuse, for example, to introduce a decommissioning scheme?
Column 925were other matters that we must consider, such as net sizes. The net size has been increased from 1 January 1988, but many fishermen contend that it has not been increased.
Mr. Kirkwood : The Minister appears to be arguing reasonable academic cases that will have to be addressed in the longer term. Everyone understands that, but he appears to have missed the point that there is no time left for some of those fishermen, particularly those fishing for haddock in constituencies such as mine, because they will not survive next year to take advantage of those decommissioning schemes.
In response to the question by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, I see no possibility at present of a set-aside scheme for fisheries. Quotas have gained the same sort of value in the hands of fishermen as have milk quotas in the hands of farmers. That means that the chance for decommissioning is most precarious. It will be difficult to draw up a sensible decommissioning scheme while, in many parts of the United Kingdom, licences are changing hands at inflated prices.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) spoke about the licensing of vessels under 10 m and I expected to hear more demands for their licensing. However, as soon as we license them--they seem to catch a small proportion of our fish--we immediately give a value to that licence, which would make it more difficult to introduce a decommissioning scheme.
Dr. Godman : Might it be the case that the measures outlined in the Ministry's consultation paper will ensure only that fishing capacity will stay around its present level? Is it the case that, by the end of 1991, the Government will have to bring about a reduction in the fleet of about 11 per cent.?
Mr. Thompson : It is right to bring about a reduction in the fleet of about 11 per cent. It is right to say that the only countries that are tackling the job at present are Denmark and Portugal. Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 we have given parliamentary time to tackling the job. The register has started today and we have had a favourable initial decision from the Advocate General which gives us hope that the policy will work. The quota-hoppers will then leave the fleet and we shall start to reduce it. We have held consultations and we must find positive ways to reduce capacity.
Before hon. Members become too impatient, I shall deal with The Hague convention. They will be pleased to know that we managed to raise the matter of The Hague convention at the last Council meeting in Belgium. [Interruption.] Let me get three sentences together. We did so under difficult circumstances. I understand the great anxieties of the people who want to fish at the same levels as last year.
Mr. Home Robertson : I am intervening in case anybody feels it necessary to alter Hansard's record. There has been a spot of bother about that recently. Is the Minister talking about The Hague preference or The Hague convention? The two are very different.
Mr. Thompson : I am talking about The Hague preference. I shall fight for The Hague preference. We started to fight for it at the last Council meeting. I fully understand the importance that hon. Members give to the preference.
Mr. Salmond : What does the Minister mean by fighting for The Hague preference? Is he telling the House that he will accept nothing less than 60,000 tonnes of haddock and will he invoke The Hague preference to achieve that? If not, what will he do?
Mr. Thompson : I shall not tell the House how I intend to proceed. If I tell the House, I tell the Germans, Dutch, Danes, French and Italians how I intend to proceed. I have given hon. Members the assurances that they were seeking on this matter.
Mr. Wallace : I am not asking the Minister how he will go about the negotiations. I seek an assurance that at least 60,000 tonnes of haddock will be made available and that that will be the bottom line.
Mr. Kirkwood : Does the Minister understand that there is confusion among our sister European nations about our position? Haddock is an essential national resource in terms of the common fisheries policy for Scotland and the United Kingdom. We do not seem to be fighting our corner. If we did fight for a TAC for haddock, we should get support for that. From the Minister's tone this evening, I have the impression that he has no stomach for a fight.
Mr. Thompson : The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his insinuations. I realise the value of the haddock stock and our European colleagues realise its value to us. We need a balance on all stocks throughout the United Kingdom. It has taken a year's hard negotiation to maintain the 4 deg west provision. I know of the difference between last year's quota and this year's.
Mr. Salmond : Will the Minister speculate on how the fisheries Minister of an independent Scottish Government might treat The Hague preference and the Scottish fishing industry's vital need for haddock? Would such a person treat it as a vital matter, or with the Minister's casual attitude?
Column 927Hague preference. The Minister must assure the House that the Icelanders will not be able to exploit a reduction in the domestic catch of cod.
The United Kingdom delegation, with my noble Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office sitting next to me, will fight as hard as anybody for Scottish rights. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow gave the House some figures about Icelandic cod. There are various technical difficulties about the figures and they must be seen over a period of time. If he sends me them, I shall look at them carefully.
We have no evidence to date that imports from Iceland were below the levels. It will be difficult to negotiate with the Icelanders about fish because their livelihood depends wholly on it.
Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 150, Noes 37.
Division No. 5] [7 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon John
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Emery, Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Fishburn, John Dudley
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Fox, Sir Marcus
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hampson, Dr Keith
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Lyell, Sir Nicholas
MacGregor, Rt Hon John
McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael