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House of Commons

Tuesday 16 March 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities Bill [Lords]

Considered; amendments agreed to; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Common Fisheries Policy

1. Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): What recent representations he has had from the Scottish fishing industry on the common fisheries policy; and if he will make a statement. [160301]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have had no specific representations from the Scottish fishing industry recently, but as Scottish Members we have received written communications from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. We are fully aware of the industry's concern and I am a member of the ministerial steering committee for the UK-wide fisheries study undertaken by the Prime Minister's strategy unit.

Mr. Salmond : Is the Minister aware that, as of today, if half the Scottish white fish fleet goes to the major haddock fishing area at a time of record haddock stocks, it will be forced to discard the fish caught dead over the side into the sea? Everyone knows that the map on which the regulations are based is wrong—it is admitted by the European Commission, the Scottish Executive and fisheries Ministers here—and over the past four weeks we have been promised appropriate changes within days, so as of today what is the Minister going to do to prevent thousands of tonnes of quality fish being used to feed seagulls? What exact intervention does the Secretary of State propose to make to prevent that fishing disaster and environmental obscenity?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman, as usual when he tries to advocate a case, goes into hyperbole. I think that references to an environmental disaster, which I have read in this morning's press, do no credit to his

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case. However, there is no need for the Secretary of State to step in because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the fisheries Department has been in weekly contact with the Commission since the beginning of the year to deal with the variations that he has raised. We hope that those outstanding issues will be resolved soon. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, is awaiting the proposals from the Commission, and I understand that it is treating it as a matter of some urgency.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend had time yet to read the report of the Royal Society of Edinburgh inquiry into the future of the Scottish fishing industry? Does she support the recommendation that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea should consider abandoning virtual population analysis as the principal method of determining stock sizes? Those are, of course, the stock sizes that the European Union uses to determine the total allowable catches and quotas for our fishermen.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my right hon. Friend for the question. The Royal Society of Edinburgh has published an authoritative report over the past couple of days. It would be premature for me to comment on any one of the 35 recommendations, but I know that the acting fisheries Minister in Scotland has already said that he welcomes the report and, obviously, we will take those recommendations into consideration when looking at the strategy unit report. It is also worth highlighting, however, that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has clearly indicated that there is absolutely no merit in our withdrawing from the common fisheries policy and that we have to resolve these issues within the framework of a reformed common fisheries policy.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con): The Minister will recall that in January I asked her whether she could give me one positive result arising out of Scotland's membership of the common fisheries policy over 30 years. She has had nine weeks to consider the matter. Can she give me one positive outcome?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman is being naive or disingenuous or both, because the reality is—he and his party need to realise it—that, if we did not have a framework for fisheries management in the North sea under the common fisheries policy, we would have to invent one. We share our fisheries stock and our fisheries area with other members of the European Union, so the question that he asks is totally naive.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Does the Minister agree that the common fisheries policy has failed because it is over-centralised, and that it needs to be replaced by a new system managed by regional management committees, involving fishermen working with Government and scientists in order to produce a policy that is both sustainable and fair in enforcement?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one of the platforms on which we conduct our negotiations in the European Union is that we are keen

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to have reform of the common fisheries policy, with more decentralisation of stock management. We are probably nearly, if not totally, at one on that.

Whisky Strip Stamps

2. Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): When he last met the Chancellor of the Exchequer to discuss the introduction of whisky strip stamps. [160302]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on a wide range of matters.

Pete Wishart : I get a strong sense that the Chancellor intends to pursue the introduction of these costly and fraud-prone strip stamps in tomorrow's Budget, which would have a dramatic effect on the whole Scotch whisky industry, including Dewar's, Blair Atholl and Edradour in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State urge him, at the eleventh hour, to consider properly the National Audit Office report that concludes that the financial basis for strip stamps is at best unreliable? Will he also ensure that the Scotch whisky industry's own sensible counter-fraud proposals are once again thrust in front of the Chancellor before he brings that red box into the Chamber tomorrow?

Mr. Darling: I have seen the NAO report, and the hon. Gentleman is right in that it says that far more work needs to be done on the exact figures, but what is not in doubt is that fraud is a problem. Having spoken to the Scotch Whisky Association, I know that it is aware of that. He will appreciate that, as the Budget statement is just over 24 hours away, it might be best to wait and see what the Chancellor proposes, and I do not think that I should say any more in advance of that.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): First, I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary for meeting Mr. Vivian Imerman, the owner of Whyte and Mackay, at my request to discuss the problems that may arise with strip stamps on whisky bottles. At Grangemouth in my constituency there will be an added cost to the production process, putting an extra £4 million on top of the £20 million that is being invested there, but the biggest problem is the pay-back time for the excise duty. It is possible to have a fiscally neutral pay-back time, above 140 days. Will my right hon. Friend take that up with the Chancellor to ensure that, if the system is to be introduced, it is at least fiscally neutral and the tax does not cripple the industry?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right in that there have been many discussions, including the meeting to which he referred. However, I repeat that, with the Budget statement so imminent, it would not be wise for me to speculate about what might be in it.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): May I first draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests?

The Secretary of State will be aware of the pitfalls of unintended legislation. Perhaps he will recall the advice given two years ago by many Members of Parliament to the Treasury in respect of the oil industry—advice that

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went unheeded, with the result that many jobs were lost. As the Scotch spirits industry represents about 68,000 jobs in Scotland, will he urge the Chancellor not to play fast and loose with this important industry and to listen to the wise counsel from throughout the House, that strip stamps will not produce the revenue gains that he intends and could have serious consequences for the industry?

Mr. Darling: I was not aware of the hon. Gentleman's entry in the Resister of Members' Interests, but I will have a look at it. If he is pleading guilty to liking the stuff, I expect that a few more of us could join him. He mentioned the oil industry and the whisky industry. Of course, the Government are alive to the importance of both, but we must also be alive to other considerations for the wider public good. I assure him that, whatever the Chancellor announces, he will have had regard to all the relevant factors. Normally, I like to be helpful to the House, but at this stage, having been a Treasury Minister, everything tells me that I should say nothing further.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op): While not wishing to say anything further, will my right hon. Friend none the less take into consideration the fact that the National Audit Office, in examining the statistical evidence of fraud, accepted that there was a possible variation in its scale between £10 million and £1 billion? Given that wide range, does he accept that more work needs to be done before a final decision is taken, and that that would allow more time for the industry's own proposals to be examined more rigorously?

Mr. Darling: There is a limit to how many more times I can say nothing in particular, despite seven years' experience of trying very hard. The point that my hon. Friend makes about fraud is similar to the one made by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). What is beyond doubt—here, there is common ground—is that fraud is a problem in the spirits trade. The question is how best it can be dealt with. As I have said many times—subject to you, Mr. Speaker, I may do so on a few more occasions—given that the Chancellor is making his Budget statement tomorrow, I cannot usefully or prudently add anything to it.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con): I doubt whether the House has quite grasped the notion that the Secretary of State describes. Last month, we established that he was not consulted before the Government again raised the spectre of whisky strip stamps, so he may not have heard the Economic Secretary to the Treasury confirm that the industry's counter-proposals were received in time for consideration, and that their timing should not of necessity rule them out. Given that they were submitted in time and would eliminate more fraud more quickly, what is the basis for the Chancellor's not being persuaded by them?

Mr. Darling: As I said just a few moments ago, the Chancellor is coming here tomorrow afternoon—perhaps that fact has passed the hon. Gentleman by—to deliver something called the Budget, in which he sets out his proposals and takes into account all the matters that

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have been raised. In order to vary my answer, I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, had Conservative policies continued during the past seven years, an extra £1 in duty per bottle of whisky would have been charged.

Mr. Duncan: Perhaps I can elicit a further response from the Secretary of State. Whose side is he on in this debate? Will he stand up for the 40,000 Scots jobs that are at risk, or is he the new "Gordon's gopher" in the Scotland Office, doing the bidding of one who would be future leader? By way of observation, whose side is he on?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is confused as to just how many jobs there are in the industry, which does not surprise me. As I discovered the other day, this is the man—a member of the Conservative and Unionist party—who has predicted that if it is elected, it will destroy the Union of the United Kingdom. This is the same man who thinks that the Mersey Tunnels Bill is Scottish business, so it is hard to take him entirely seriously. But as I have said on many occasions, I am in the very happy position of always being in complete agreement with whatever the Government happen to be doing.

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