|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East): My right hon. Friend will notice that the Order Paper includes an amendment in the names of hon. Friends from the far
Column 783south-west emphasising the need for a Government commitment to negotiate with our European partners to ensure fundamental changes in the CFP and, in the interim, to introduce a meaningful
decommissioning scheme--for which right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House have asked.
Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend is right. We need a CFP that is better at controlling stocks. No one doubts that there is too much fishing capacity in Europe, including the United Kingdom. A decommissioning scheme is needed so that our fleet is profitable and there can be reinvestment in building new ships. That will secure the industry's long-term future against a background of somewhat lower fishing effort.
I can tell my hon. Friend and others who have raised the same point-- including my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), the hon. Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) and the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor)--of a further addition to the decommissioning scheme. We will add to the present scheme of £25 million over three years a further £28 million, more than doubling the size of the scheme. It is essential that the British fleet should be profitable and trade at full capacity and the scheme will secure the long-term future better than anything else. That is one of the things that we must do immediately, to make the present situation work.
In the House the other day, a number of my hon. Friends rightly raised the question of enforcement: although Spain has small quotas and we have the biggest, we do not believe that the Spanish play according to the rules. We are not alone in the world in believing that: the Canadians and the Norwegians tell the same story. As none of this starts until next year, we have a little time to review our enforcement systems: our assets, the Royal Navy ships; aerial surveillance, which will be vital; and how to make the hailing in and hailing out system work. Also, my noble Friend Lord Howe reported to the other place yesterday on the satellite system which is under trial.
The Commission inspectorate, which this Government brought into being as a result of work by Lord Walker, is to report back and to be strengthened. Above all, the deployment of Royal Navy ships must be strengthened and correctly located.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Waldegrave: I will give way to my hon. Friend, who comes from a relevant region.
Mr. Allason: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although additional decommissioning money is most welcome, there is a requirement by the Commission to reduce our overall fleet by 19 per cent. by the end of 1996, but that the industry itself calculates that the sum required will be not less than £75 million?
Mr. Waldegrave: That will not be the only measure in place, as my hon. Friend will be aware from his knowledge of the subject. I hope that he accepts our good faith in putting money on the table today, which shows that we will meet the programme and are taking it
Column 784seriously. Most of my right hon. and hon. Friends will welcome the statement that I have made. The fishing industry will certainly welcome it.
Mr. Campbell-Savours rose --
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) rose --
Mr. Waldegrave: I will get into a good deal of trouble if I give way so much that no time is left even for the eloquent speeches that Opposition Members are doubtless capable of making.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not complain that I have not been allowed to intervene on the Minister, but is it not discourteous to the House for a Minister to give way uniquely to hon. Members on his own side?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): That is not a point of order, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. It is for the Minister to decide whether or not to give way.
Mr. Waldegrave: It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention that I gave way several times to his hon. Friends earlier in the debate.
The present system of fisheries management--I think that I shall take most people with me on this--is highly complex, burdensome on fishermen and expensive to operate. For the longer term, we need to look for ways of simplifying it, to see whether it could be more effectively market driven, while still ensuring that exploitation of fish stocks is sustainable. I want to look at a range of ideas and to learn from what other countries are doing--from New Zealand to Norway, from Canada to the south Atlantic--with different types of quota systems and fisheries management, different approaches to enforcement, and so on. I shall also want to examine the scope for further action in technical areas, including technical conservation and discard policy--one of the most offensive aspects of current systems for managing fish.
Over the years, much thought has been given to these matters, but if we can find better approaches I shall want to discuss them with our industry and, if they seem workable, to take them up with the Fisheries Council.
I therefore intend to ask the fisheries Minister, who enjoys an almost unique degree of respect in the industry for the work that he has done, to convene a group, parallel to the one that I established to review the common agricultural policy, to review the common fisheries policy and to look at all these options again, particularly with a view to limiting overfishing and bureaucracy. We must remove bureaucracy from this business wherever it is found.
Some concern has been expressed on another front currently in the news--the projected framework document on Northern Ireland--that there could be provision for a joint north-south marine fisheries policy for the island. I make it plain today that we do not intend there to be such a policy and that we shall make no such proposals. We shall be looking at the costs and the benefits. We shall be looking at the undoubted problems that the CFP poses for us. We shall also be looking at the benefits of our participation in the single market, which I discussed earlier with my hon. Friends. We need a modern, profitable fleet investing in new boats and new
Column 785technology. That is already happening in some places. It is not all doom and gloom. Some areas have had good years and new boats are being built at this very moment--
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): A few moments ago the Minister said something which requires a little clarification. Can he confirm that there will be no cross-border committee in Ireland with executive powers over fishing?
Mr. Waldegrave: I confirm what I said--that we make it plain that we do not intend that there should be provision for joint north-south marine fisheries. No one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman--I am not sure that he did not invent them himself--that there are some special arrangements governing inland waters, but we will not have joint arrangements with the Republic to deal with common fisheries policy matters.
As I have said, we need a modern fleet. Today Labour Members have tried to make political capital out of the fishing industry, pretending a sudden concern for it even though they forgot to include it in their manifesto. That is to play politics with the future of a serious industry. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not fall for that old ploy. I remind them of what the Leader of the Opposition has said about negotiating in Europe--that he will negotiate in a consensual manner and that he will never be isolated in Europe. He will never do what poor old John Silkin did, sitting there for five years, with a veto, and getting nowhere at all. At least Silkin had the courage to be isolated. The Leader of the Opposition is throwing in the towel before he has even started on all these issues.
I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject this piece of opportunism from the party of Silkin and of Owen--the party which has now said that it will never stand alone in Europe. We should reject this ridiculous motion and see it for what it is: a rather pathetic ploy to try to mislead and to make political capital out of the fishing industry. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to throw out the Labour motion and to vote for our amendment.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): We shall find out at 10 o'clock tonight whether the bait on the long line that the Minister has cast will be swallowed by those in whose direction it was clearly aimed. I have argued in the House on many occasions in favour of decommissioning. Indeed, the Minister echoed some of my arguments for bringing fishing capacity into line with available stocks. If that was his reason for strengthening the decommissioning scheme, we would warmly welcome it, although we would probably say that the money was not enough.
It was only a matter of weeks ago--on 14 December--that the Minister of State told us that none of this would be possible. The right hon. Gentleman's speech this evening will be regarded by fishermen, especially in the south-west of England, as providing millions of pounds of taxpayers' money simply to lay up British vessels, which will have to make way for Spanish vessels entering our waters. The Secretary of State refused to say whether the additional £28 million will be spread throughout the United Kingdom, in line with the arrangements now in
Column 786force for decommissioning. The Minister of State must answer that question and tell us whether the money will be concentrated on the areas most affected by the agreements reached by the Council of Ministers.
It is welcome to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber expressing an interest in the fishing industry. I hope that they will attend many of our future debates on the subject. Those of us who participated in December's debate were in no doubt as to the depth of feeling about the important decision that was to be taken at the Council meeting. We know, too, about the outcry and the expressions of utter dejection on the part of many in the industry thereafter. The fact that we are holding this debate shows just how badly let down the industry has felt following the meeting of the Council of Ministers. Salt was rubbed in the wound when the Minister could not even bring himself to vote against the deal. Tonight, he has moved an amendment which amounts to nothing but self-congratulation. This decision was not just one of a kind; it is the latest in a series of decisions which have adversely affected the industry. To be fair to him, the Minister of State did a great deal of work during the run-up to the negotiations, talking to the industry and lobbying some of our European partners. During last year's European election campaign, I met fishermen in Devon and Cornwall who believed that they were getting a raw deal the whole time, however, because their industry operated so far from London, in scattered communities. They thought that their interests did not feature largely enough in the minds of Ministers, and that the issues concerning the industry were always subordinated to others. I fear that that impression will have been reinforced this evening, and by the decisions taken in Brussels at the end of December.
One key example of the betrayal of the fishing industry's interests was also the forerunner of these discussions. I saw the Minister look to his Minister of State to find out the answer to this when pressed earlier in the debate. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East was right: with the exception of the Irish box, which, it was always known, was to be renegotiated before the end of 1995, the other arrangements in respect of Spanish and Portuguese access were to remain in place until the end of the year 2002. That was set out in a letter from the former Commissioner to our Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, then President of the Council of European Communities. The Commissioner set out the legal position on 23 December 1992:
"the general arrangements in the Act of Accession, as regards conditions of access and fishing by the Spanish and Portuguese fleets in the waters of the `Ten' and vice versa, remain in force until 31 December 2002".
But this House has never been told why the Government supported the Council of Ministers' decision to go back on that.
On 24 June 1993, the Council of Ministers took the view that the "adjustments to the accession arrangements should be undertaken in the spirit of the reform, in order to strengthen its impact." What reform? What impact? The House has never been told. The Minister owes us and the fishing industry an explanation of why the pass was sold at such an early stage.
The deal that was struck gives rise to a whole series of other questions, too. The Minister won a valuable concession at an earlier Council meeting, when we were
Column 787told that the Irish box had become a biologically sensitive zone. How can 40 more vessels enter part of that zone while it is maintained that the British fleet will not be compromised? How does the Minister square that circle?
The Minister said today that the whole Bristol channel would be denied to Spanish vessels. That all depends on how the Bristol channel is defined. The Trevoes head area is one of the most sensitive in terms of breeding stocks, yet the Spanish will have access to it. Will that really be the case? Will that not destroy the conservation purpose of the area? Important issues will arise in fleshing out the deal.
At present, 18 standard Spanish vessels are allowed in the waters of area VI north of the Irish box. It is unclear how many will be allowed in after the deal. Is the Minister able to tell us how many Spanish vessels will be allowed in that area? Will there be more than 18?
We have been told that a system of effort control might be required of member states. What will the Government propose?
What happened to deregulation? I remember that after the meeting of the Council in November deregulation was claimed to be one of the great successes of the British negotiation. I endorsed much of what the Minister said about the need to reduce bureaucracy, but the deal that we are discussing will increase bureaucracy. We shall have more regulation.
The Minister was silent on swaps. I understand that he was silent after the meeting of the Council of Fisheries because he did not know what had happened. As a result of swaps between Spain and, I think, Belgium and France, Spain will be able to fish for cod, haddock, whiting and saithe in areas of western waters where its fishermen were not hitherto allowed.
Can Spain enter into swaps with other European Community nations in, for example, the North sea, which would give it the right to fish in the area for stocks? The Minister shakes his head. I invite him to deny now that the Spanish cannot enter into swaps and get the right to fish white fish in the North sea and, therefore, upset relative stability.
The problem was that the Government were isolated in Europe. When it came to a critical national issue, they had no friends. In the midst of negotiations, Mr. Robert Shrimsley of The Daily Telegraph wrote:
"One Tory source said that Mr. Major had been attempting to call in favours across Europe to find an acceptable compromise." We saw the result of the Prime Minister's efforts. Imagine him phoning the Belgium Prime Minister and saying, "Mr. Dehaene, I did you a great favour by saving you from becoming the president of the Commission. Will you do us a favour and save our vital national fishing interests?"
Year after year, the Government have taken a negative attitude in Europe. When the time comes to try to cash in some credit, they find that they do not have any. Britain's national interests have been fatally compromised by the Government's isolationist approach to European matters for far too long.
The Minister has said that a working group may be set up to reform the common fisheries policy. He told the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) that he could not do it earlier because it was not on the agenda at the time of Maastricht. He conveniently avoided mentioning that the
Column 788following year the CFP was up for review, during a period when Britain had presidency of the Council. The Government did not take that opportunity.
We welcome the Minister's statement that he is to set up a working party. No doubt, the fishing industry will contribute to it, as it did in 1993 when it was asked for its views on how to take forward technical conservation ideas. Its views seem to have gathered dust either in the Scottish Office or in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We want a commitment that this time the industry's ideas will be given serious treatment. If we are looking to a review of the CFP, let us have a commitment that the views of the industry will be not only sought but acted on.
Somewhere along the line, the Commission has lost its way. No longer does it appear, as once it did, to have in its focus the needs of many of our fishing industries and fishing communities around our coastline. If we are to review the CFP, we must look to those communities where families depend so much on fishing opportunities. They seem to have been sacrificed in the most recent deal and in a series of deals. We shall support the motion not least because it would enable a fundamental review to be undertaken.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that, between now and the replies by the Front-Bench speakers, speeches will be limited to 10 minutes.
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): First, I shall say a few words about my ministerial colleagues and their performance in Brussels at the climax of protracted negotiations. The climax came on 22 December, when what I think was a disgraceful episode occurred and the United Kingdom was outvoted. I only wish that we had had the veto on fishing policy. I cannot help but observe that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the party represented by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace)--I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not in the Chamber this evening--would give away the last vestiges of our veto in Europe. That is by the by. I return to the Ministers. I have one criticism, and one alone, about the way in which they conducted the negotiations, or the way in which they acted. They fought hard and they fought well, and there is much in what they say, given the rotten nature of the hand that they had to play in Brussels during the negotiations. My one criticism is that, despite what my right hon. Friend the Minister said tonight, he abstained rather than voting against the deal. I believe that he should have voted against it.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has, I believe, been the finest Minister with responsibilities for fishing that we have had for many a long year. I pay full tribute to all that he has done, especially in re- establishing links with the industry and the trust of the industry. I am sad that this evening much of the good work that he has done might well be in jeopardy because of the understandable attitude of the industry to what happened in Brussels.
I loathe what happened in Brussels on 22 December. In my opinion--I have used the phrase before--it was a cynical stitch-up of an agreement, which was led by the Commission. All sorts of bilateral deals were struck,
Column 789particularly the quota swap between France and Spain that will increase Spanish fishing opportunities. I am sorry to say that at the end of the day the United Kingdom was left completely and utterly isolated. There was little it could do but fight a rearguard action. I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister did well, along with the Minister of State, in fighting that action.
Where are we left? What is the future for our fishing industry? I do not mind admitting that I have always described myself as a pragmatic European. I was a Member of the European Parliament for five years. The result of the negotiations, however, has had a profound effect on my attitude to Europe, to our relationship with Europe and to the way in which we shall in future approach fisheries problems. Although the negotiations were about fishing, they encapsulated so many of our difficulties, as I see it, in our future relationships and in the way in which member states will be treated. What was wrong, and perhaps different, about the negotiations was that, in my reading of the situation, there was no acceptable compromise, I believe that there was a ganging-up against the United Kingdom. I accept that the deal was unpopular in Spain among the fishermen as well but there was a ganging-up by the other member states, egged on by the Commission, and we were skewered in Brussels.
What happens now? We have not reached the end of the story. There are further stages in the CFP. Above all, in 2002 there must be a complete revision of the policy. That will be done on the basis of qualified majority voting. We shall not have a veto. Liberals welcome that, but I do not. Somehow, we must get some control.
I do not have an easy answer, there are many, including my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)--I am sorry that she is not in her place because I thought that she was developing a great interest in fishing matters, but clearly it is transient--and some representative members of the industry, who are somehow giving the impression that there is an easy solution.
One of the easy solutions, of course, is to withdraw from the common fisheries policy just like that. I wish that somebody could tell us how that could be achieved. If somebody could convince me that it was possible unilaterally to withdraw from it I would be tempted by that prospect. As the amendment tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) makes clear, I want a fundamental recasting of the arrangements, be they inside or outside the common fisheries policy, to return a much greater element of control of the fish stocks around our coast to our own Government. That is what I want to see. What I am not convinced about is how on earth we can achieve that objective.
I deal now with decommissioning. In a way, the amount of money that my right hon. Friend squeezed out of the Treasury is a personal embarrassment. He was kind enough to inform me and my hon. Friends the Members for Cornwall, South-East and for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) of the amount when we met him a couple of nights ago. Quite frankly, I was taken aback by the size of what is now available. It will help enormously. Fishermen come to my surgery--one came last Saturday--and say, "We want to leave the industry. We want to take decommissioning." It will help, but it is not the answer to
Column 790the fundamental problem that we and the industry will face in future or to what it faced before. We are all aware of the problem. How on earth can we have a policy that conserves stocks and cuts back on effort on a fair basis?
Again, I return to the wretched deal in Brussels. It is not a fair deal for our fishermen, whatever is said about it. No one can convince me for one second that somehow there is some means to ensure that only the 40 Spanish vessels--I wish that there was not a single Spanish vessel--allowed into some of the waters of the box will fish there. I am convinced that more than 40 Spanish vessels will fish from time to time and probably most of the time in that huge area of water.
If there are more vessels, there will be an increase in fishing effort. The pretence that has been put up that somehow there will be no overall increase in fishing effort is laughable. Of course there will be. The Spanish, of course, are notorious for breaking every known rule in the book. They will cheat and cheat again. Of course there will be an increase in effort. I know what will happen. Next year or the year after, the scientists will come forward and say, "We are sorry but the stocks have been under still more pressure. They are reaching danger states and therefore there must be a cut in quota." Although my hon. Friend the Minister of State is correct that, as part of the deal, we still have our full quota, it will be cut and cut again. That follows as surely as night follows day. That is the prospect for the deal and for the future of the common fisheries policies. It fills me not with apprehension but with utter dismay. I am bitter about what happened in Brussels on the night of 22 December, but if I am bitter, imagine how my constituents who fish from Newlyn feel. Their anger is justifiable.
That leads me to one conclusion, and I shall finish on this note of deep, deep sadness. I applaud what Ministers have done. I am very grateful indeed for the way in which they have tried to accommodate me, my colleagues and other hon. Members, but I am going to vote against the Government tonight. I have come to that conclusion after a lot of thought. There is an illogicality in my voting. I know that it will not change the situation, but at some point individual Members of Parliament must make a stand on an issue. I can only say that, for my part--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North): It would be normal courtesy in the House to welcome the Minister on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box to speak in a fisheries debate, but I am afraid that the best that I can say is that it would have been better if he had stayed away, because he said only two things, the first being that abstention is an honourable stance. I should tell him that quite often people who stand in the middle of the road get run down. Secondly, he said that it was a good deal, a marvellous negotiating position, but we could not bring ourselves to vote for it. That is hardly an honourable position for the Minister to take.
We are debating an industry that is in an extremely precarious position. It is bound to be. It is an industry that seeks to harvest a crop, yet there is virtually no control over the stocks that are available. We already have evidence from scientists who say that the cod and haddock are under an even greater threat than we thought. They
Column 791now suggest that there may have to be as much as a 30 per cent. cut in the total allowable catch. That is a quick synopsis of what the scientists are saying.
The trouble is that there is no stability. The scientists tell us one year that the stocks are under dire pressure. A couple of years later they come back and say that we can double the quota. Then they say again that the stocks are under dire pressure. The problem is that none of us can afford to ignore their advice. We have the dreadful precedent of what happened in the Canadian cod grounds. The fishing industry, not unnaturally, does not accept all that the scientists say. I believe that it accepts what they say about cod, but not about haddock. We are in the dreadful position of not knowing where we are on that matter. The industry needs stability, but it does not get it, because the common fisheries policy undergoes crisis after crisis. It is crisis management. We have been asking for extra decommissioning money for years. We have been told that it was not necessary, that it would have to be done gradually. It really is no good the Minister coming to the House tonight and saying that he has found an extra £23 million for decommissioning--
Mr. Wallace: It is £28 million--so far.
Mr. Hughes: I apologise. Perhaps after the principled stand taken by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) it might be a bit more than that by the time that the Minister replies.
The point is that the £28 million is not being offered on any rational basis, but is being offered purely and simply to try to save the Minister's political skin. That is no way to deal with an industry and give it confidence. Its needs should be properly addressed. There was an allusion to an additional quota that the Minister had secured through swap arrangements and so on. It is no good him coming to the House and saying, "I've got a little extra fish for you lads in the north of Ireland, and a little extra fish for you lads somewhere else," on the basis that the only thing that matters in fishing is to stave off defeat in a parliamentary debate. That is what has bedeviled the Government's position.
We all know that it is a simple mathematical formula. I do not pretend to be an Einstein in mathematics, but it is a simple fact that if there are more vessels fishing in an area, the amount of fish caught will go up--the Minister says that that will not happen, and no more fish will be taken out --and, if the catch goes up, the extra amount taken out by the Spanish will have to be taken off the people who traditionally fish there. These are the only two possible consequences of the deal. He must know that.
The fundamental problem is that the common fisheries policy is now dangerously destabilised. The policy was never popular. It will never be popular, and there is no point pretending that it can be. I may not please some people by saying so, but I believe that the call to withdraw from the common fisheries policy is dangerous. It is unrealistic and those who advocate that are peddling a dangerous illusion. Whatever people might think of the past we are locked into the European Union and into the common fisheries policy.
It is no good being nostalgic and looking back to the halcyon days of an abundance of fish. My knowledge of the industry is not that of someone who has gone to sea fishing, but my father was a fisherman. Paradoxically, in the days when there was an abundance of fish in the sea,
Column 792the fishing communities were pretty poorly off. The fishing communities were not great thriving areas of richness. Yes, they had a richness of culture and common community, but they were not rolling in money. We must face up to that paradox.
It beggars belief that anyone with any intelligence could support the Government's amendment. It congratulates the Government on having achieved a magnificent deal, yet the Minister could not vote for it. It has the cheek to refer to 1976, as though that was when the whole problem began. The problem with fishing began when we acceded to the Common Market. The truth of the matter is that the fishing industry was sold down the river when we joined the Common Market. No Government have so far been able to repair that damage.
The Minister says--oddly enough, in view of my strictures of him, as so often happens in speeches, I had written this before he spoke--that we need a radical review of the common fisheries policy. That is true. We do. The trouble is that, in that common fisheries policy review, we do not want the fishing industry being treated as a pawn to be exchanged in European bargaining on events which have no connection with the industry. That is how we landed in this position. The Spanish Prime Minister made threats just a couple of months ago. In dealing with the Spanish, will the Minister tell us how much of our "fishing fleet" is owned by the Spanish? I have heard figures as high as 23 per cent. I cannot believe that it is as high as that, but it would be interesting to know the exact figure.
The difficulty that we are in is that, for the Prime Minister, Europe is either a great triumph in which he has negotiated everything that is good, or it is a place of damnation in which he wraps round his shoulders the Union Jack and plays the most nationalistic of cards.
If we are to have a proper review of the common fisheries policy, we must recognise that there are poor fishermen in Spain, as there are in other parts of the Community. There are the big boys who travel the world and rape the resources around Africa. One need only speak to the people in Africa about the Spanish to learn what the Spanish do. They could not get away with it in the Irish box and other places where they are being allowed. They come in at night, paint their numbers and names out, fish like hell and go back out again. There is a constant moving of boats. The big boys in the Spanish fleet have nothing to commend them.
A common fisheries policy review cannot be left to the European Commission or to national Governments. I say to fishermen in all parts of the United Kingdom something which I have said to them before and which they must take on board even more: such a review cannot be left just to the fishermen of individual communities. When one talks to fishermen one discovers that they have a lot more in common with fishermen in other parts of the Community than one might at first think. The fishing industries of the European Community must make common cause with one another so as to get the policy right and to bring about stability. If that is done, there is a possibility that, with a European-wide international convention, with Governments, the Commission and fishing industries considering the industry, we might save the industry. Unless we do something radical and tackle the problem seriously, we will not have to bother about having fishing debates because there will be no industry left.
Column 7938.33 pm
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay): The sad background to the debate is well known to us all. Half of it is the fact that at the time of the treaty of Spanish accession, the Spanish had a fleet one and a half times the size of the rest of the European fleet put together. Since that time, that fleet has been modernised at Britain's expense. What sickens our fishermen is not just that the Spanish will be plundering British stocks, but that they are doing it with tackle for which we have paid. That is what is so desperately depressing.
On top of that, even more depressing is the fishermen's firmly held belief that they have been betrayed, in particular by the abstention in Brussels. Whatever the long-term tactics are, whatever the advice from the Foreign Office, our fishermen cannot understand why our Ministers are not prepared to back Britain and Britain's fishermen. The consequences of what is taking place are difficult to predict. But we know that it will be Spanish vessels in British waters. Quota hopping will continue and British stocks will be denuded. The net effect of all that will be the removal of British ships to allow Spanish expansion at our cost.
Decommissioning is something of a side issue because the reality is that, with selective tendering, most of the decommissioning money will favour Scotland and the north-east, because those are the areas of the greatest concentration of fishermen. The corollary of that is that decommissioning will have minimal effect in the south-west. The amendment in my name and that of 24 of my hon. Friends recommends withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. That may well be impractical. It may well be an exercise in gesture politics. But, quite frankly, our fishing communities want some gesture politics. They want to be able to go back to square one, to start again and to renegotiate the deal that will force on our fishermen's children and their grandchildren a future of redundancy or bankruptcy, all now called decommissioning. They have no future in the fishing industry and it is clear whom they hold responsible for that position. It may well be that a unilateral withdrawal from the common fisheries policy would be illegal. It may well end up in the European Court. But our fishermen would regard that as at least an opportunity to poke Europe in the eye. That is what they want and I would be happy to accommodate them if that could be achieved.
The fishing communities of Britain are not minor areas that can be set aside as part of the common agricultural policy. Once ships are taken out of our fleet, they are gone for ever. What is so desperately sickening is to see all this British effort being removed at enormous cost to our fishing communities and then to see the Spanish ships moving in on British waters. That is what sticks in the throat of all those who live in the fishing communities, not just the fishermen, but their neighbours and their friends. Ministers should not misunderstand the level of support, particularly in the south-west, that those fishing communities have.
That strikes at the very heart of our relationship with Europe. Are we really to allow the Europeans to walk all over us every single time? Are we really to abstain on every important issue because the Foreign Office has some
Column 794long-term objective? If the Spanish were blackmailing us and threatening not to allow expansion of the market on 1 January, I rather wish that we had indulged in precisely the same tactics and said that we would hold up expansion unless we got precisely what was required and what was intended under the original treaty agreement. Some serious questions have not been answered, and I am afraid that my right hon. Friend the Minister did not deal with them in his speech. Who will count the 40 Spanish ships? Who will check their catches? Who will inspect the tackle? We can be sure of one thing: it will not be the Spanish.
This will the third vote on the issue that we are discussing. Some of us were given some pretty strong assurances when we were persuaded to vote for additional money for Europe last year. That vote was followed by a second, just before Christmas. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who talked tough: he told us what he would do in Europe, and asked for our support. On that occasion, some of us who were very doubtful agreed to support him, but made it clear that if there was an abstention or he came back with a poor deal--and we urged him to stand up for Britain's interests--a price would have to be paid. That price must be paid tonight.
No one who heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) can have failed to be moved by his determination and his support for his constituents, and I shall be right beside him in the Division Lobby. As I have said, this is our third vote on the issue. I urge the House to take full account of what my hon. Friend said; the Government amendment takes us a vote too far.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): There will be some interesting combinations of people in the Division Lobbies tonight. My colleagues in the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru will certainly support the motion.
Let me first say a word to the Opposition Front Bench. As has been amply demonstrated today, this is a Parliament of minorities, although admittedly some of those minorities are bigger than others. I suggest that, if Opposition Members wish to put real pressure on the Government, the official Opposition should discuss Opposition motions with spokesmen for minority parties: only if a coalition of interests in the House is determined to exert real pressure in regard to a critical issue can a Government come near defeat.
Although the ranks are now thinning in comparison with the beginning of the debate, I think that we have already heard enough to gather that there is real concern in many parts of the House. There is evidence of that from Government Front Benchers. After a campaign lasting at least five years for adequate sums for decommissioning, the amount previously available has been more than doubled. I do not think that fishermen in my constituency will miss the fact that the first tranche was announced just before the declaration of a general election, while the second tranche has been announced at a time when the Government are under fundamental pressure. There may be some advantage in a Parliament composed of minorities for the fishing communities. I must, however, echo the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris): in the context of tonight's debate, that decommissioning money will be seen as a facilitation of the process of getting one British boat out for every Spanish boat that comes in.
Column 795Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he would not succumb to Danegeld in any circumstances. We now have a case of what can only be described as Spanish doubloons. There will be real resentment at the fact that, all of a sudden, £28 million has become available when the Government are under pressure from a number of quarters. I understand from our colleagues in Northern Ireland not only that they have scuppered a cross-border agreement, but that they have 1,000 tonnes of fish coming from somewhere. The night is young; who knows how much more may be offered before the last desperate stage at 10 pm? There has been some disagreement about exactly when the pass was sold on the common fisheries policy. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says that it was sold back in the 1970s, when he had no responsibility for the CFP, but I prefer a more recent version. I do not think that the problem was the treaty allowing accession to Spain and Portugal, which was a very limiting document; in fact, the bulk of Spanish strategy in the past two years of negotiations has been aimed at getting the Spanish out from under the limitations in the treaty. If they had not been concerned about that, they would not have had to doctor article 157--with the help of the Commission-- and proceed with negotiations on an argument that, surprisingly enough, is supported only by the Spanish version of the treaty.
It is remarkable that, over the past two years, the United Kingdom Government have allowed the Spanish Government to get away with such a negotiating trick in Europe. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) asked a good question: we want to know why on earth the United Kingdom allowed the current position to arise. An agreed policy based on limited access, with certain exceptions, is now becoming a policy based on free access with certain exceptions. The Government do not understand the weakness of their negotiating position for the future; even at this stage, they do not realise how they have been outfought and outmanoeuvred by the Spanish Government over the past two years.
There is qualified majority voting, and we do not even have a minority of one; we have a minority of one half, because the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chooses to abstain on vital votes. A former Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the late Frank Maguire, achieved a certain notoriety because he used to transport himself from Fermanagh to abstain here in person. We now have a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who goes to Brussels to abstain in person, such is his belief in the rightness of his negotiating position.
The situation becomes worse as things go on. We do not have an agreement, as the Minister appears unable to tell the House; we have the framework of an agreement. The real negotiations are to take place over the next year. The Spanish are now in an extremely comfortable position: if no agreement is possible in the Council of Ministers, the matter will be decided in the Commission, or it may even be left to national Governments to enforce a policy. It seems to me that the Spanish negotiators have done the difficult job in Europe, and it will be all downhill as far as the Spanish are concerned. The reality is that the Spanish are now in the Irish box. It is not a concept for the future. Thanks to swaps from France and Belgium, they now have access to vital stocks of cod, haddock, whiting and saithe-- limited quantities, admittedly, but they have legal access in areas VI and VII.