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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the full-day fishing debate and congratulate the Minister on having secured it with the Whips. It has given us the opportunity to listen to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in full flight, and to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), whose contributions to such debates are usually truncated, but on this occasion he managed to give us the full range of his extensive knowledge of the industry.

The debate also allowed us to listen for the first time to my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil)—[Interruption.] That is the Western Isles, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). Na h-Eileanan an Iar is the parliamentary constituency. It is said that in the run-up to election night, I practised for some time in the expectation that we would win the constituency. Expecting to be challenged on its pronunciation, I am assured by my Gaelic friends that I managed to carry it off with reasonable aplomb, as though I had been doing it all my days.

We welcome my hon. Friend to the proceedings. He is, as far as I know, the only working fisherman in the House. He is also the only working crofter in the House. Some people in the Western Isles would say he was the only worker in the House. It is useful to have in our debates someone who has done the job, done the business—done the fishing that we debate and care about. All of us who represent fishing constituencies care about the industry. There is no prouder boast in politics than to say that one is a fishing MP. It is an industry to which we owe our dedication, not least because of the fatalities and casualties—the real price of fish, as the Minister rightly reminded us as the start of the debate.

I shall make five points of detail before drawing a few broad conclusions to reinforce some of the arguments that other hon. Members have made so expertly in the debate. First, as I have said to the Minister, I am concerned about the aggregation of white fish licences in the pelagic sector. The hon. Member for Chorley has discussed flagged boats, although I am not certain whether flags of convenience are the same in the fishing industry as they are in the merchant marine.

The pelagic fleet in England is very small and consists of only two boats, both of which are flagged and both of which are Dutch owned. Given that we are generally
 
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hostile to flagged boats, it is amazing that such interests always seem to come out on the right side of any decisions. I have never understood why that outfit has such lobbying power—perhaps it advances its arguments expertly or perhaps DEFRA officials listen especially acutely—but it has come out on the right side of a change in the pelagic sector.

I accept that there are other winners in the sector, but there are also potential losers. I know that the Minister will treat with great seriousness any change in regulation that might discriminate—no doubt unintentionally—against one fisherman as opposed to another, because the public purse has paid a heavy penalty for perceived discrimination in regulation. I hope that the Minister will examine the matter to see whether a measure can be found to ensure that all boats in the pelagic sector are   given equal opportunities in the changes on aggregation.

Secondly, as the Minister has said, at a time of scarce fishing opportunities it is important to maximise any opportunities, so I am therefore puzzled by the western mackerel quota. After a few years of precautionary reductions, advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea suggested that there was scope for a 15 per cent. increase in catch, but the Commission advises a 5 per cent. increase. Will the Minister elaborate on why that apparent opportunity has not been seized in a difficult year?

Thirdly, there is the question of who holds quota in the industry. It is self-evident that at a time of economic pressure on the industry, we must ensure that all available returns from fishing are kept within the fishing sector and, so far as it is possible, that no finance leaks elsewhere. Because of the downturn in the white fish sector, decommissioning and the huge pressure experienced by my constituents and many others around the coastline of Scotland and elsewhere, the banks inherited a substantial part of the quota. Of course, the banks did not fish themselves and rented out the quota to working fisherman, which represents a further leakage of returns from the industry.

Earlier this year, I joined a delegation from the producer organisations to visit the Royal Bank of Scotland, an organisation that has done incredibly well since I ceased to be its economist a number of years ago—I am sure that I helped to build the foundations for its future success. In conversation with the Royal Bank of Scotland, I argued that it is not stable in the medium term for financial sector institutions to own quota and make revenue from renting it to the industry.

I note with pleasure that the Royal Bank of Scotland recently sold its quota to fish-selling offices in Scotland. Personally, I would have preferred the quota to go the producer organisations, but none the less the quota is back within the fisheries sector. Some quota is still held outwith the fisheries sector, and people who are no longer working fisherman also hold a lot of it. Does the Minister have a view on whether it would be better consolidated with people who are pursuing a licence to fish, which would prevent the leakage of revenue out of the sector? Many other financial institutions still hold quota, and I also wonder whether the Minister has a view on that.
 
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My fourth point has already been well made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), so I will not go through it again. However, I emphasise the importance of not cutting days at sea—an effort limitation—as a result of quota arrangements with Norway, because such a cut would be extremely prejudicial in the medium term. The Minister did not mention that point in his initial remarks, so perhaps he will let hon. Members know his attitude to potential restrictions on days at sea as a result of the negotiations.

Finally, I turn to fuel costs. At the Fisheries Council earlier this year, before the UK took over the presidency, the vast majority of fishing countries expressed concern about fuel costs, and the Commission was asked to investigate the possibility of fuel price protection for the fishing fleet. Other fishing fleets have some degree of protection; France has been mentioned. After his latest oil tax hike, the Chancellor of the Exchequer expects to have £12 billion in revenue from the North sea. Next year, he may even surpass in cash terms the all-time record for that set by Lord Howe in 1984. I was with a delegation that went to see the Chancellor earlier this year, when we talked about this and other matters. In such circumstances, one might think that the fishing communities—the people who sail round the oil rigs and platforms producing this enormous wealth and largesse for the Chancellor—would be tiny beneficiaries of the enormous funds from the black black oil that are filling Brown's black hole. At the very least, the Minister should give a guarantee that our fishermen will not be at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other European fleets as regards fuel costs.

I move on to some general observations. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby returned to one of his favourite themes in trying to explain the importance of the priority of fishing in negotiations. He does that extremely well. Over the years of the common fisheries policy, some negotiating countries have attached an enormous priority to fishing. One thinks of Spain and, more recently, of the Dutch. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the famous memo written in 1971 by a Scottish Office civil servant, which says:

the Scottish fishermen—

That memo was released under the 30-year rule. It was written in the course of negotiations that took this country into the then Common Market. The fisheries policy emerged from those negotiations at the very last minute. It should be said in defence of that nameless civil servant that he was not saying that the interests of Scottish fishermen should be expendable, but commenting bitterly on the attitude of the Foreign Office in the negotiations. Neither the Scottish Office nor the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as it was then, could make any impact on the Foreign Office, which was obsessed by getting the agreement signed.

Mr. Hoyle: Obviously some of us are not old enough to remember that. Can the hon. Gentleman remind us who was in power at the time?

Mr. Salmond: Of course. The Conservative party was in power and the late Sir Edward Heath was Prime Minister. It should be said in his defence, as he is no
 
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longer able to defend himself, that he vigorously denied in this Chamber that fishing was given a low priority. Nevertheless, the facts are clear.


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