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10.6 am

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): I am sincerely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for initiating this debate. Some hon. Members may think it odd that some of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies many miles from our coastline are here for the debate. I see my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for Boston--

Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston): Boston?

Mr. Harris: I am sorry.

Sir Richard Body: May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that we still have 40 boats left, although we used to have many more. We also used to have a fish processing industry, which has now gone to the Netherlands because the Dutch Government are more vigilant on behalf of the fishing industry than are our Government.

Mr. Harris: I apologise profusely to my hon. Friend, if he will now contain himself. I made the crucial error of lumping him in the same category as other hon. Members who perhaps look at such matters from a different perspective from those of us who represent constituencies along the coast. I recognise their genuine concern about the common fisheries policy and very

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much welcome their interest in the subject because it is part of a process that has brought to the fore the crisis in the fishing industry.

I welcome support from all sources in the process of making the House, the Government and the European Union face up to the crisis that our fishermen face. I was absolutely delighted, as were my constituents, when, yesterday, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall visited Newlyn in my constituency and spent the morning considering the problems of the fishing industry and talking at length with the people who really matter--those who work in the industry, such as fishermen, fish merchants and harbour commissioners. That is a part of the one good thing that has come out of this crisis during the past few years, which is heightened interest in it. People are at last paying attention to the problems of the fishing industry, and that is good.

I must say a few words on the speeches of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who initiated the debate. We are all a little in danger, if not of rewriting history--although I agree with much that my hon. Friend said--then of forgetting how certain aspects of the problem, such as the common fisheries policy, came about.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is right: the fishing industry was a pawn in our negotiations to enter the European Community or, as it was then, the Common Market. I recognise that, and I speak as somebody who would like to regard himself as pragmatic, down-to-earth European.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to the deep-sea fishing industry. It is nowadays overlooked completely--perhaps it is forgotten--that, when we were going into Europe, the deep-sea fishing industry pressed the principle of open access and, with respect, it was not for the reason that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave. It was because, having lost its rich fishing fields around Iceland because of the 200-mile limit, the industry thought that it would be able to gain access to what are now Norwegian waters.

Mr. Austin Mitchell rose--

Mr. Harris: I shall not give way because we are all pressed for time. We can discuss it afterwards. I could give the hon. Gentleman chapter and verse from a book on the history of the common fisheries policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood was right to say that exclusive control over what we like to call our waters would not in itself solve the problem. He mentioned Canada, which has had 200-mile limits. Canada fished out a lot of its shoals although it had exclusive control over those waters.

I had the good fortune, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to go to New Zealand. I took a little time off from foreign affairs matters to go to the Ministry of Fisheries to see how it managed its 200-mile zone and its system of individual transferable quotas. They have problems and disputes in New Zealand. Indeed, when I was with my colleagues in the Parliament in Wellington, an almighty dispute broke out which involved representatives of fishermen from Chatham island complaining about other boats coming into their waters. They happened to be New Zealand boats. There have always been disputes between fishermen and there always will be.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood also mentioned Iceland. I had the pleasure, I think with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, to give lunch to the deputy director of research for maritime resources in Iceland. He told us that although Iceland started the process of claiming 200 miles, it still had huge problems of overfishing inside its waters and that there is now a considerable movement in Iceland to extend the 200-mile limit. Please, please let no one think that even if we could regain control of our waters, it would solve all our problems. The hard fact is that practically every nation in the world is overfishing because of new technology--new means of locating fish, new sorts of gear and the power of engines.

We can argue about the common fisheries policy, of which I am no friend. As has been said, the way that it was forced upon us was deplorable. I regret bitterly many aspects of the common fisheries policy, but if it was scrapped tomorrow, there would still be problems in the fishing industry and the resolution of those problems would involve huge pain and difficulties for our fishermen.

I shall now deal with the simple case that we can withdraw from the common fisheries policy as easy as anything. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that the mechanics are simple and straightforward. I agree with him about that in respect of withdrawal, but the repercussions of unilateral withdrawal would be immense. I wish the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and others who advocate unilateral withdrawal would be honest and open and say what they really believe: that we should withdraw and that if we do not get our way, we should withdraw from the European Union. [Hon. Members: "That is not what we are saying."] That was not what was said, but it would be the consequence.

Mr. Wilkinson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Harris: I will not give way because we are pressed for time and other hon. Members want to speak.

I shall tell the House what would happen, as night follows day, if we tried to withdraw unilaterally from the common fisheries policy. Despite what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, there would be an immediate backlash and the 90 per cent. or so of the fish that are exported from Newlyn to France and Spain--certainly the element that goes to Spain--would be stopped by blockades overnight.

Sir Richard Body: Rubbish.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend can shout, "Rubbish" but that is what the immediate consequence would be. I do not say that a blockade would continue for ever and a day; I doubt that it would. In the long term, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby may be right. I know the Spanish fishermen pretty well.

Mr. Gill: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Harris: No, I shall not. I know Spanish fishermen pretty well and, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby also knows, there would be immediate retaliation, at least in the short term.

Further, if we stayed in the European Union, we would be taken to the European Court. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred to the perverse

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or diabolical judgment of the European Court in the Factortame case, over which the House was overruled. That was something for which I had been fighting long before many in this House showed any interest in fishing--doing something about the curse of the flag of convenience vessels.

One does not have to be an international lawyer to know what would happen if we withdrew unilaterally from a treaty with which we have at least gone along. It is one thing to negotiate an opt-out from a future European policy, but what is being proposed today is that we should withdraw unilaterally from a policy to which we have been party for many years. We would be challenged in the European Court and there is not the slightest doubt that we would lose. Hon. Members who advocate such a course should argue that we should stand up on the issue and then, if necessary, withdraw from the European Union. That at least is a tenable position. I disagree with it, but it at least has some sense and one could argue it. The suggestion that we can, without consequence, withdraw unilaterally from the common fisheries policy is absolute nonsense and does great damage to the fishing industry because many people buy that line without realising the consequences.

What should we do? There is a problem of great importance to constituencies such as mine. If I may refer again to the visit of His Royal Highness yesterday, the message of the fishermen of Newlyn was that they cannot see a future for the industry given the way things are going and with the pressure for reductions of our quotas. There is the cursed business of the Spanish. Indeed, on 1 January, Spanish boats will come into waters from which they were previously excluded--some of the waters of the so-called Irish box. What should we do about the consequences that will flow from that?

When the decision was taken on 22 or 23 December last year to allow the Spanish into those waters, I learnt a severe lesson. On that day, in the face of every conservation argument, the decision was taken to allow extra boats into those waters--rich fishing grounds for our boats--from January 1 next year. That was done because of the system of qualified majority voting. We were outvoted. Indeed, our Minister made a grievous mistake, in my estimation, when he only abstained. That would not have made any difference in the end, however, because all the other member states voted for the deal that emerged and we were left isolated. That must not happen again when we renegotiate the common fisheries policy in 2002. That is the big danger which has not been mentioned in the debate today.

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