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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 November 1995

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Common Fisheries Policy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Conway.]

9.34 am

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I must confess, Madam Speaker, that I was not keen on our new arrangements until you generously allowed me the opportunity to raise this morning a subject of the utmost importance to our country--the common fisheries policy. At the heart of our national discontent lies a feeling of impotence, in that an elected British Government can no longer decide our country's destiny in a sense that accords fully with our people's desires, or even with their interests.

In few areas of public policy is that frustration more manifest than over fishing. As in much else, it is the apparent supremacy of the cause of the European Union, alias the "process of European construction", over the welfare of the British people that is to blame. It lies at the root of our beleaguered fishing communities' feeling of alienation and of the wider sense of popular disbelief that any Government of the United Kingdom can any longer protect our natural inheritance of rich fishing resources against the depredations of foreign trawlers, officially sanctioned by what many people regard as an alien power beyond their effective control--the European Union.

If the common fisheries policy were working, I should have no reason to complain. Like many hon. Members, I have a personal interest in its doing so. After all, I voted for our accession to the Common Market in 1971, campaigned in favour of our continuing membership of the European Economic Community in the referendum of 1975, and voted for the Single European Act in 1985.

We all like to think that our past parliamentary behaviour and political attitudes can be justified by events, but if that natural human desire does not accord with subsequent realities, pride must give place to honest acceptance of the facts, and intellectual integrity should be our rigorous guide. I do not believe that in the case of fishing we were right to bind successive Parliaments by assigning in perpetuity our unique insular maritime inheritance, our incomparable wealth and diversity of fisheries, as a common resource to what became the European Union.

It is true that in coastal waters for up to six miles British fishermen alone may fish, that between six miles and 12 miles out, only the boats of European nations with historic rights may compete with our vessels, and that

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even beyond 12 miles a joint EU regime does not prevent United Kingdom fishing boats from fishing their traditional waters.

Nevertheless, the common fisheries policy flies in the face of intrinsic logic and of the pattern of fish stock management in north Atlantic waters adopted by northern maritime nations akin to our own. It was lack of public confidence in the conservation measures and fishing control capability of the European Community that contributed to the Norwegian people's rejection in two referendums of their country's proposed accession.

Likewise, the Icelanders, the Canadians and the Greenlanders have found the imposition of a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone to be fundamental to the husbandry of their precious national fishing resources, and to their Governments' efforts to preserve the livelihoods of isolated coastal communities where little alternative employment to fishing exists. I am not naive, and the Canadian experience shows that Canada's policy is no panacea. Job losses in the Canadian industry have been huge. Fishing bans and even unilateral action beyond the 200-mile limit--as with the arrest of the Spanish trawler Estai--have demonstrated the dire consequences of overfishing.

Nevertheless, when the Estai crisis broke, there was no doubt where the sympathies of the British people lay. Their hearts were not with European Commissioner Bonino's efforts to uphold the letter of the international law of the sea on the EU's behalf, but with the enviously regarded, spirited and decisive action of the Canadians in defence of their interests. British fishermen sailed for weeks with the Canadian maple leaf proudly at their mastheads in salute to a friendly national Government who had the courage to see off what they regarded as a common threat--European Union-supported Spanish fishermen operating far from home in waters where historically they have no place.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill)--quoting Cicero--put it so admirably in a letter to my hon. Friend the Fisheries Minister on 23 October,

or, the people's welfare is the supreme law. That is a classic concept to which electorates rightly expect Governments to aspire, and it should be the guiding principle both of our country's attitude to the common fisheries policy and to the evolution of the EU itself.

Let us examine some basic facts about the common fisheries policy. First, the treaty basis for it is fundamentally flawed, and rests on an assertion in article 39 of the treaty of Rome that the Common Market's agriculture measures shall extend to fisheries. There is no rationale for this, except--as we all know--that the application of the common fisheries policy to the United Kingdom was the quid pro quo exacted by the original six members of the Common Market as Britain's entrance fee to the Community. This historical aberration does not justify the UK's continued participation in the common fisheries policy, especially as decision-making under the policy is by qualified majority voting. That allows even landlocked countries such as Austria and Luxembourg a say, and policy can be potentially decided by horse-trading on extraneous matters rather than on specifically fishing issues which are crucial to the prosperity of British coastal communities and to the interests of the UK economy.

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If further enlargement of the EU occurs--to which the British Government are rightly committed--and unless we have first withdrawn from the common fisheries policy, Polish, Bulgarian and other east European vessels will be allowed access to the so-called common resource of fish stocks. Those stocks have been sorely depleted already within what should be Britain's exclusive maritime economic zone to the detriment of United Kingdom fishermen, who have seen their way of life threatened by Spanish and Portuguese fishing boats, following the accession of those countries to the EU.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): Spanish boats, mainly.

Mr. Wilkinson: I take my hon. Friend's point. Lest anyone should still allege that horse-trading is a misnomer for the European decision-making process, I remind the House that when the Spaniards threatened to block the entry of Austria, Finland, Sweden and--at that time-- Norway to the EU at the Edinburgh summit in 1992 unless Spain and Portugal's full participation in the common fisheries policy was brought forward from 2002 to 1996, the UK capitulated.

Before I make my final recommendations, I must demonstrate how seriously the common fisheries policy is failing. In so doing, I will refer to the House of Lords European Communities Committee report of 1992-93. On the decline in catches, paragraph 2.5 of page 42 of the report states:

In the case of the 11 species listed--made up of various types of cod, haddock, saithe, whiting and plaice--the total allowable catch in 1982 was 868,010 tonnes, which had fallen by 1992 to 495,750 tonnes. The United Kingdom's quota in 1982 was 426,570 tonnes, which had fallen to 207,825 tonnes in 1992. The report commented:

I move on to the question of landings. Page 41 of the report states that the figure for demersal landings in 1982 was 448,000 tonnes, but that the figure had fallen 266,500 by 1990. In the case of pelagic landings, the drop was less marked, but the figure did fall from 301,300 in 1987 to 256,900 in 1990. There is clear evidence of a serious decline of stocks, and the nature conservation committee established by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 made some very interesting comments on this matter to the House of Lords Committee.

The nature conservation committee said that the common fisheries policy

    The CFP appears to have failed to maintain many important commercial fish stocks in the EC's waters. The size of the stocks of the primary commercial species, such as those of cod and haddock,

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    are at an historical low . . . 'Total Allowable Catches' as applied in the EC appear to have proved unsatisfactory and relatively ineffective for several reasons."

The nature conservation committee's remarks continue by stating that one of the reasons why the policy is not working is the pernicious practice of discards, whereby species in excess of the quota are thrown back into the sea dead, and the House of Lords Committee had much to say about that practice on page 27 of its report. The conservation regime is being circumvented by the procedure of quota-hopping, whereby the European Court, no less, has--as usual--proved to be the nigger in the woodpile. The Factortame judgment overturned British law and enabled Spanish interests to buy into British operating concerns, as my hon. Friends who represent Cornwall constituencies will no doubt testify.

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