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Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)
That the Bristol Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989, dated 20th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd June, be approved.-- [Mr. Durant.] Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Durant.]
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : It is hardly surprising that I am here at 4 o'clock in the morning as this is my Adjournment debate, but it is a tribute to the importance that Members of Parliament representing fishing constituencies attach to the crisis in the industry that my hon. Friends the Members for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) and for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman)--the official Opposition spokesman on fishing matters--the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald), the saviour of Scottish Tories, the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) are here. I should also mention our silent partner, the Minister from the Scottish Office. He has had to sit quiet all evening, and, as is often his wont, no doubt he will sit quiet through this debate.
I hope that there will be no dispute about the severity of the situation facing the industry. The exhaustion of the North sea haddock quotas is the immediate cause of the difficulty, but only the immediate cause. The species is the mainstay of the Scottish fleet, and of the processing sector. Although the debate will be answered by a Minister from the English Ministry, I hope that he appreciates that important distinction between the Scottish and English fleets. Earnings in the fleet dropped last year, and will drop again this year, with the fall concentrated on the white fish sector. Worse still, the outlook for next year is also poor.
The vice in which the industry is caught is completed by spiralling costs, largely due to rises in interest rates. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that, in terms both of the falling revenue and the rising costs, we are dealing with factors that are outside the control of the individual fisherman. Both the overall quotas and the level of interest rates are matters of public policy. They are not under the control of the individual fisherman. I hope that the Minister will answer a question that I have put to a number of his colleagues : what contribution does it make to the defeat of inflation generated in the south of England to wreck the finances through high interest rates of the fishing fleets in the north of Scotland?
I hope that there will be no dispute on the importance of the industry. Some 30,000 jobs, offshore and onshore in Scotland, between the catchers, the harbours, the shipyards, the processors, the distributors are dependent on fishing. Employment in this industry is almost as significant as employment in the electronics industry, although it may not provide as many photo opportunities for the Minister of State at the Scottish Office. It is the vital dominating industry around the coastline. It is one of the great natural resource industries of Scotland. It should be developed and enhanced, not crippled and undermined.
What we want above all from the Minister is a firm timetable for action to deal with the crisis. Two years ago, when I was first elected to the House, one of the first engagements that I took on was an invitation from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation to attend a discussion about licensing and structures policy, to respond to a Government discussion document that was released at that time. Little did I think that, some two years later, we would have made little progress in the discussions and
Column 1021consultation. It is incredible that the whole licensing and structures policy of the industry has effectively been in hiatus for that time.
I understand that some indications were given in a letter earlier this week that was sent to the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), whose work for the industry is acknowledged on the Opposition Benches as well as on the Government Benches. I want to know when the Government's proposals are to be published. I want also an assurance that any aggregation within the licensing and structures policy will not favour the company sector against the share-owned boat, which is the typical pattern of ownership of the Scottish industry.
Decommissioning is another area where action is long overdue. I do not think that any Opposition Member would seriously argue that the decommissioning of the fleet is a complete solution, but it would make a contribution to a managed reduction of the over-capacity in the industry. Is it true that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has torpedoed a decommissioning proposal emanating from the Scottish Office? When I made the suggestion in the press a few weeks ago I was loyally upbraided by the Minister of State, Scottish Office, who accused me in a letter of "wild speculation". Unfortunately for the Minister of State, on the very day that he wrote that letter, 11 October, under the headline "Gummer Sinks Fishers Hopes", the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, while speaking at the Conservative party conference, was quoted in the papers as pouring cold water on any decommissioning scheme. Yet after the Scottish Grand Committee debate in July the Scottish Office was openly briefing that there would be a decommissioning scheme this autumn. Indeed, in September, the Minister of State, Scottish Office, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, East and stated that "progress is being made and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement in the not too distant future."
It seems to be clear that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is the stumbling block in stopping progress with the decommissioning scheme, and I shall use a few minutes of the time of the House to ask why that should be so.
There is the well known antipathy of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food towards the Scottish fleet. After all, I am talking of the Minister who climaxed his speech, if that is the right description, to the Conservative party conference with a quote from "Henry V". Perhaps the play was rather over-used at that conference but the Minister referred to
"this sceptred isle,
This precious stone set in the silver sea".
The last words, of course, were
I do not think that we can be in much doubt where the political priorities of the Minister lie!
It could be that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has built its opposition to decommissioning on a strategy of using the elimination of the flag of convenience boats to take out capacity in the fleet. It may be that the Ministry believes that by eliminating the flag of convenience boats from the fleet it could observe the multi-annual guidance premium. The best that can be said about that strategy after the previous debate is that it is
Column 1022badly holed under the water line. I am tempted to say that, given the performance of Ministers in that debate, it is hardly surprising that we lost the case before the European Court of Justice.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : Might it not be that the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has painful memories of the way in which the previous decommissioning scheme was manipulated or exploited by certain Humberside trawler owners? If the Government are to behave humanely to our fishermen, however, they must introduce a decommissioning scheme vis-a-vis the multi-annual guidance programme obligations.
I was coming to the "guilty conscience" theory as a third explanation of why the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food might be so blatantly blocking progress towards a decommissioning scheme. The fishermen of Scotland and those of us on the Opposition Benches drew a sharp intake of breath when we heard the Minister regaling against "the widespread abuses" of the previous decommissioning scheme. Could that be the Minister who presided over these abuses and whose Ministry was so severely criticised in the Public Accounts Committee report on that very matter? If I remember correctly, the report questioned whether the Ministry had detailed knowledge of the finances of the fishing industry. I hope that the Government and the Minister do not claim that it is impossible to have an honest decommissioning scheme. If it were, that news had better be communicated to all the other member states that are implementing just such a scheme.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow would agree with my recollection that the Public Accounts Committee did not argue against a decommissioning scheme ; it said that the next one should be more effective--an honest decommissioning scheme and not just a route to siphon money towards some fishing companies that may or may not have had close relationships with the Conservative party. The fourth explanation of why the Minister may be blocking progress is that the Fontainebleau agreement might mean that, although the European Community funds 50 per cent. of the decommissioning costs, and although they are charged against income tax, thereby giving a further gain, it may be that the Prime Minister is worried about her rebates--about getting her money back, as she so eloquently put it. If that is the case--and we need it put on the record--the Scottish fisherman will be deprived of access to European funding because of the Fontainebleau agreement and the Prime Minister's attitude to the European Community. I hope that the Minister will not follow his colleagues in blaming the industry. I hope that he recognises that no one accepts that explanation and no one believes it.
In The Sunday Times last Sunday--hardly a trenchant critic of Government policy--Alan Massie wrote :
"The attempt made by John Selwyn Gummer, minister of agriculture, fisheries and food, to throw responsibility for the crisis back on the Scottish fishermen was a characteristically silly and shabby effort to evade Whitehall's responsibility."
So let us hear no more of the nonsense that fishermen are to blame. The Government's fishing policy is in total disarray.
Column 1023The Opposition parties and the industry-- both catchers and fish merchants--have offered the Government positive proposals on how to deal with the crisis. My colleagues and I put up a six- point plan and presented it to the Minister last week. We received a courteous hearing, but I wish that I could say that we had been given some sign that there would be imminent action. We proposed a lay-off scheme as an immediate response to the particular problems and to take some pressure off the scarce stocks. We proposed a decommissioning scheme, to which I have already referred. We proposed that there should be real action against industrial fishing in the North sea. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of this, but industrial fishing is taking 1 million tonnes of sand eels and Norwegian pout--the seed corn and the food source of the haddock stock in the North sea. Will the Government press for action against industrial fishing?
We proposed that the "Hague preference", the council resolutions of 1976, be given wider application. Those resolutions recognise that there are areas of the Community dependent on the fishing industry, such as Ireland and northern Britain which should be given preference in the application of the common fisheries policy. They could be used productively to help both the catching and the processing sectors of the Scottish industry. We also want to know when the Scottish Fishermen's Federation will be given a reasoned and positive response to its proposals on conservation such as mesh size enforcement, gear restrictions and action against the discarding of small fish. Last in our six-point plan was our desire for the Minister to recognise that reliance on low quotas alone has proved a failure. Let us look at the haddock quota : over the past five years it has not once been overfished. Any assessment of quotas suggests that, given that the stock is now experiencing severe problems, the scientific assessment itself leaves much to be desired. We want to move the emphasis of conservation away from the low-quota system, which has failed, to other measures which can succeed.
Finally, let me emphasise that we have never argued that our plan--or anyone else's--holds all the answers ; what we demand is that something be done. I believe that the measures that the SNP has outlined would bring stability and security back to the industry. Some of these, I accept, would have to be argued for at European level, but some are being blocked by the pure inertia and incompetence of the present Government. We shall continue to hound that Government and press this case until we secure the action that is so urgently required. We need that policy action to save the industry--and to save the communities which we represent.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : The hon. Member for Banff andBuchan (Mr. Salmond) began by reproaching my right hon. Friend the Minister for his overuse of "Henry V" at the Conservative party conference. My right hon. Friend did, of course, quote Shakespeare, but he clearly knows his Shakespeare better than the hon. Gentleman, because he quoted from "Richard II" : it was a speech of John of Gaunt, I believeI shall not waste further time on preliminaries, although I think that we should have our literary references straight.
Column 1024The hon. Gentleman will no doubt know that yesterday--or, rather, the day before yesterday--we announced the allocation of the Hague preference for haddock. He will also know that that allocation went to the northern communities, which means predominantly Scotland--about 85 per cent. of that additional allocation, in total 5,360 tonnes. I am sure that he will recognse that that has caused disappointment and more among the English fishing communities, who are facing exactly the same strain as the Scottish fishing communities.
No doubt the hon. Gentleman will also be interested to learn that yesterday we completed arrangements for an additional 200 tonnes of North sea haddock for the whole of the British industry, by means of a swap with Germany. Together with the previous 400 tonnes swapped with France, and 26 tonnes from the Belgians, that takes the United Kingdom quota to 55,006 tonnes-- which represents 88 per cent. of the entire EEC quota for North sea haddock. Just in case the hon. Gentleman wishes me to be precise, let me tell him that we gave back some pollack and megrim from the western areas.
I must make it clear that producer organisations that have overfished their allocations will not benefit from the additional allocation--although we recognise that it is a small one. We are pursuing the matter of further swaps, but, as everyone involved in the debate recognises, we are tackling the problem of a large amount of high technology pursuing a limited resource.
It is true that fixing quotas is a difficult matter. In 1989 we fixed North sea haddock quotas at 68,000 tonnes, on the basis of clear scientific advice. That followed evidence of poor recruitment and high catches of juvenile fish, which led to increased discarding and drove the spawning stocks to very low levels. We insisted that there should be a mid-term review in case the scientists had got it wrong. We had that review but it confirmed the assessment, and we decided that, as our priority was to rebuild a precarious stock, we would accept that assessment.
The advisory committee on fisheries management meets in the first week of November to recommend the 1990 total allowable catches. We shall seek action, as we have always done, on the basis of scientific advice. It is all too easy to say that the scientists have got it wrong--and fishermen have been saying that recently, and quite frequently. I must, however, warn the House against over-enthusiastic acceptance of political arithmetic. Scientists may not be infallible, but if we do not rely on objective data while seeking to improve the quality of that data, we shall find ourselves in the business of trading political multipliers, which will lead eventually to far too great a pressure on stocks.
First, he mentioned his programme, and I shall try to cover that as best I can in the time available. He asked about a laying-up scheme. There is provision under the council regulation 4028/86 for member states to provide laying-up premium in respect of temporary withdrawal of fishing vessels. I am not sure that that is appropriate for the current circumstances of the North sea fisheries. It was not intended for the short-term problem which exists in the North sea haddock fishery and the rates are set at low
Column 1025levels. There was little interest in the earlier scheme between 1984 and 1986 because of the tight eligibility conditions. For example, the period of laying-up must be additional to normal laying-up and extend to between 45 and 150 days. Few vessels would qualify for such a scheme and in any case the scheme is not intended to fill the gaps in normal fishing activity. The danger is that a laying-up scheme might retain capacity which should go out of the industry. There is very little enthusiasm within the Community for such an approach, and, given the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the Community, no doubt he would be anxious to secure its endorsement.
Mr. Curry : We have to reach a solution in which market forces have a role to play. I do not intend to stand at the Dispatch Box saying that it is the job of Government to manage every last iota of decision making in the fishing industry or any other industry. That is not the job of Government and I do not think that Government do it very well.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about decommissioning which is a complex issue. A full decommissioning scheme would be expensive. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations recently estimated that a full scheme would cost about £45 million. We need to be sure that such expenditure would be well used. That includes being sure that vessels which might be decommissioned would otherwise not have left the fleet. We also need to be sure that any capacity removed under a decommissioning scheme would ease pressure on the fish stock. That would not be the case if ineffective capacity were removed, leaving behind the efficient vessels. In practice, it is difficult to draw up a scheme which targets the efficient vessels. Those difficulties need to be addressed in deciding whether a decommissioning scheme might be introduced.
The hon. Gentleman asked several questions relating to the methods of management.
Mr. Curry : No. The hon. Gentleman went on at length and then invited me to cover his six points. Perhaps I can do that first. He mentioned several items which relate to methods of management. He made suggestions for dealing with the discards, and I know that there are schemes which would require the landing of all fish caught. I know that there is a proposal for multi-annual quotas. Those are alternative management systems. The hon. Gentleman will know that the present Community system is based on total allowable catches, minimum landing sizes and mesh sizes and gear restrictions. Everyone recognises that it is not a perfect system, but it is probably the best way. If we were to allow people to land the fish that they had caught when the fishery was closed, we simply would not have quota management at all.
I say seriously to the House that shortly we shall enter difficult negotiations in Brussels in the context of the mid-term review of the entire fisheries policy. It would not be sensible for the United Kingdom, which has significant advantages under the present system, to suggest that we want to throw that in the air. If we did that there are plenty of other people who would jump in immediately. We have
Column 1026spent one and a half hours discussing the problems of quota hoppers and Spanish interlopers. I cannot imagine the enthusiasm that there would be in some continental countries to see the status quo being challenged by the United Kingdom.
It is absolutely essential that everyone in the industry makes it clear that they are committed to the legal operation of the quota system and the full observance of the rules. Those who tout illegality are simply indulging in a form of suicidal
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned conservation, about which I am more in agreement with him. Suggestions have been put forward by the Scottish fishermen's organisations and other organisations across the United Kingdom. However, those organisations do not all agree about what they should like to see done. The suggestions cover mesh sizes and shape, restrictions on gear attachments--including the length of the extension piece and measures to prevent the ballooning of the cod end--the prohibition of the carriage of illegal gear and the one-net rule, to which I know that Scottish fishermen are particularly attached.
We are examining those interesting ideas and shall shortly send to Brussels a paper suggesting measures based on the project put forward by the industry.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned industrial fishing. We believe that the present Community controls on industrial fishing provide an adequate level of control and that there is no scientific base for banning the practice completely. By-catches of human consumption species in the North sea have fallen considerably to low levels and do not pose a threat to stocks. If that position does not continue, we shall have to reconsider it.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned licences. The present ban on licence transfers that involve increases in tonnage or engine power is causing the industry problems. We shall shortly issue proposals that will provide more flexibility for fishermen when transferring licences and will not lead to an increase in the total capacity of the fleet. These measures will involve the aggregation of fishing vessels' licences.
Suggestions have been made--I realise that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan did not lend his name to this suggestion, but it is important that I should refer to it--that there should be an amalgamation of quotas : for example, that the United Kingdom quota for the west of Scotland haddock could be amalgamated with that for the North sea. There is much west of Scotland quota left, and, at present catch levels, about 15,000 tonnes would be available. However, it would be caught in the North sea and not in western areas.
Mr. Salmond : I want to return to the question of decommissioning. The Minister has been extremely hostile to the prospect of a decommissioning scheme. His tone is entirely different from that of the Scottish Office. Will he confirm that there is tension between his Department and the Scottish Office on the decommissioning scheme, and that his Department is effectively vetoing a decommissioning scheme that would otherwise be supported by the Scottish Office?
Mr. Curry : I made it clear that we are retaining the decommissioning scheme as one of the options under consideration. I made it clear that it is an expensive option. We realise that there are targets that we must attain. We
Column 1027have yet to decide which would be the best combination of measures to achieve those targets. When we reach that decision, it will be a decision of all the fisheries departments and of the Government.
The Spanish have entitlements to west coast stocks. If the stocks were to be amalgamated with North sea quotas, what possible grounds would we have to deny access to the North sea to Spanish vessels? To attack the present system would destroy the credibility and force of the British argument for continuing the essential structures and operation of the common fisheries policy.
I realise that the industry is facing great difficulties. It is equally true to say that the Scottish fleet went through a period of significant profit and well-being in the mid-1980s. It made major investments in its capacity and was earning a 15 per cent. return on capital.
Column 1028A single idea will not resolve the present difficulties. Fishermen are individuals ; fisheries have their own characteristics, but the problems that they face are very different. We are seeking to achieve a healthy, modern fleet that can take its own decisions on the basis of as much stability as we can achieve in the context of a common fisheries policy and a resource that is limited, moves around the sea and is subject to biological change. We must rely on a disciplined approach to fishing. Stocks must be maintained to ensure their conservation and the opportunity for British fishermen--I use the term "British fishermen" deliberately--all around the coasts of the United Kingdom. This must be in the framework of a fisheries policy that meets our interests and conserves our advantage.
We shall shortly be taking important decisions, because the mid-term review will be of capital importance to the British fleet. We are determined to defend that interest in the future, as we have done in the past, to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a significant fishing nation.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.
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