Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Moynihan moved Amendment No. 8:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--


(". This Act shall come into force only when each House of Parliament has come to a resolution on a motion tabled by a Minister of the Crown considering the legal protection for British fishermen afforded by the Treaty of Amsterdam on the issue of quota-hopping.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this new clause returns to the issue of quota-hopping. Quota-hopping remains an area which, when measured against an index of tangible benefits secured for British people and British fishing communities, the Government's negotiation in parallel with the treaty negotiations at Amsterdam is found wanting.

The problem of quota-hopping was raised in our debate on Amsterdam last July. It was raised again at Second Reading of the Bill. It was again raised in Committee. It is raised today on Report because, despite all those previous debates, we still have yet to hear why the Government did not secure the deal at Amsterdam that they promised they would on behalf of British fishermen.

The Prime Minister told another place [Official Report, Commons, 18/6/97; col. 320.]:

    "real progress ... on the problem of quota hoppers"

was made at Amsterdam, thereby claiming to fulfil his promise to get the

    "right changes to fishing policy in the British interest".

However, in the face of sustained criticism of his deal, not least from fishermen, even the Prime Minister admitted that it would be a "foolish illusion" and

14 May 1998 : Column 1178

"wrong to suggest that" his deal solved the whole problem. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, continued this low-key approach in Committee when he described the deal as

    "small ... in the face of the problem.--[Official Report, 28/4/98; col. 271.]

That is a far cry from the tub-thumping vigorous pursuit of British fishing interests promised in opposition.

Noble Lords will remember Elliot Morley MP, the Opposition spokesman, who said, referring to Tony Baldry,

    "The Minister said that it [quota-hopping] will be pursued vigorously at the IGC and we support that approach".

In Committee, the Minister skirted the issue of why the Government's gear-change on British fishing interests has shifted down from overdrive to reverse. He did the best he could--for that we are grateful--to present the Government's deal as a success, but yet again he saved up all his energy to attempt to reflect on the performance of the previous government, as he saw it, and to use the tactics of righteous rhetoric to conceal the present Government's failure.

The noble Lord spoke scathingly of "pre-election posturing". In the light of the Government's so-called deal at Amsterdam, the Prime Minister--then the Leader of the Opposition--must also be guilty of such pre-election posturing for he told the country,

    "we certainly have not ruled out holding up IGC business in order to get the right changes to fishing policy in the British interest ... where Britain's interests are at stake, we are perfectly prepared to be isolated. Of course we are".

Given the promises before Amsterdam, attempting to justify their failure on quota-hopping on the biased basis of the previous Government's record is a cheap trick to play on British fishermen whose livelihood depends on those promises.

I spent some time in Committee setting out the previous government's policy and the tough and consistent line on quota-hopping which was contained in a 10-point package, all of which was widely publicised as our agenda for Amsterdam and debated during Committee. But this new clause is not about the previous government; it is not about waging the election again. A year has passed since the election and the Government must stand up and explain why they did not achieve what they said they would achieve rather than weakly trying to pass the buck and insisting that they did their best in difficult circumstances. That was not what the Government promised.

The Prime Minister said that he would hold up IGC business if he did not obtain a deal on fishing. He said that he was prepared to be isolated in Europe if he did not obtain a deal on fishing. But he obtained no deal and his innate fear of isolation proved too much for him. The interests of British fishing communities were coldly discarded. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, confirmed that when he said that the Government dropped the previous administration's proposed protocol to the treaty because there was no support for it among our European partners--not because the Government disagreed with the protocol, but because no other member state supported it.

14 May 1998 : Column 1179

The protocol sought to deal with the quota-hopping problem once and for all by entrenching the condition that UK quotas must provide an economic benefit to UK fishing communities and not to fishing interests in other member states--and this is crucial--in a legally binding protocol attached to the treaty (something to which I shall return). However, the noble Lord dismissed the significance of that proposal for a legally-binding protocol. He went on to justify the Government's junking of it by implying that the previous government had not attached the same weight to its importance in Europe as they had at home. His logic for that assertion was that when the issue of the draft protocol was raised with the German Foreign Secretary, Herr Kinkel, prior to the Amsterdam negotiations, Herr Kinkel looked "totally blank".

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, spoke with confidence since that information was on the good authority of the Foreign Secretary. Never mind that in June 1996 my noble friend Lady Trumpington told this House that the Government had already,

    "notified the IGC, the Commission and other member states that [they] would be tabling proposals to deal with the problem of quota hopping ... [in] the form of a protocol to the treaty which recognises that national quotas allocated under the common fisheries policy are intended for the benefit of national fishing communities and that, notwithstanding the treaty, individual member states may adopt appropriate measures which ensure that there are real economic links between their fishing communities and the vessels which fish their quotas".--[Official Report, 17/6/96; col. 82.]

Never mind that that protocol was tabled at the IGC back in 1996. Never mind the fact that the problem of quota-hopping has hardly been a low profile issue in European affairs, the resolution of which underpinned the previous government's negotiating stance during the very IGC process that the Treaty of Amsterdam concluded. It does seem somewhat unlikely therefore that the German Foreign Secretary would have been unaware of a protocol on this issue tabled by the United Kingdom the previous summer.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, claimed that, because the protocol was not supported, the previous government would have left Amsterdam empty-handed. It is easy to make such a claim in hindsight. The fact remains that the resolution of the problem was a key priority for the previous government. Crucially, the previous government's 10-point package sought to ensure that the quota-hopper problem was dealt with once and for all so that UK quotas provide an economic benefit to UK fishing communities, not to fishing interests in other member states.

The previous government intended to go to Amsterdam to achieve a solution, and that potentially included pressure to amend the Treaty of Rome if the problem could not be resolved within the framework of the existing treaty and the CFP. If treaty changes proved to be necessary, the previous government pledged that they would seek them. Of course I accept that we will never know what would have happened. The noble Lord may be right to say that we were outnumbered 14 to one and that we might not have made much progress. But the previous government had been in that situation before and successfully negotiated for British interests.

14 May 1998 : Column 1180

So much for being prepared to hold up IGC business; so much for being prepared to be isolated in Europe; so much for the interests of British fishermen.

Let us look at the deal that the Government obtained, for if it represented real progress on restoring 20 per cent. of our national fishing capacity, the Government are to be congratulated. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that the deal, though small, is of benefit to the fishing communities. If so, why have fishing organisations repeatedly criticised the deal? The chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations described it as a "hopelessly inadequate fudge". But the noble Lord had an answer for that too. He said that if the fishing industry did not like the deal--he doubted that it would--then yet again the previous government were to blame.

Despite the Government's fresh approach to Europe; despite their new and constructive partnership with all the other member states listening to Britain's voice with rapt respect; despite this lush landscape of harmonious relationships with the European Union, it is a sad state of affairs that this is the most constructive method that the Government can come up with to defend their record. As we heard in Committee, the fabled deal consists of the Prime Minister's exchange of correspondence with the former President of the Commission--the "Dear Tony" and "Dear Jacques" exchange of letters.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, told us that the President of the Commission's letter was an "important step forward". It,

    "records explicitly the Commission's interpretation of how a member state may within the rules of the single market establish an economic link between the fishing activity and fishing communities and make that a condition of licence or access to quotas".

He said that meant that "we should"--tense and use of the auxiliary verb "should" is essential here--

    "now be able to specify and enforce the economic links and establish rules which will ensure that the benefits flow to our fishing communities".--[Official Report, 28/4/98; col. 272.]

He added that the Government expected the Commission to respond to the proposals currently under preparation to implement the economic-link licence conditions.

I need to press the Minister on that and ask him what legal advice he has taken on the Government's proposals for economic relationships to be written into the licences? What legal advice has the Ministry sought to ensure that, as soon as the economic relationship requirements are written into a UK licence, the Spanish do not immediately refer the matter to the European Court? If that happens, the potential solution to quota-hopping--it is only a piece of paper at the moment--could be set back for three years.

Have the Government had any bilateral discussions with Spain and received assurance from that country that it, for one, will not challenge us on these proposals? If the solution is set back in the European Court, how can we rely on the assurance given to the House by the Minister for Transport when he was in Opposition that there would be no further reduction in fishing capacity or effort in this country until the matter was resolved?

14 May 1998 : Column 1181

Most important, can the Minister tell this House whether the letter from the President of the Commission has any legal authority and exactly how the provisions set out in that letter differ from the previous arrangements on quota-hopping?

The letter of condolence from the President of the Commission is no more than a piece of paper which restates the existing situation confirming Britain's rights to issue licences requiring 50 per cent. of fish caught against the UK quota to be landed in British ports, unless the noble Lord can guarantee that in a legal challenge from Spain, which incidentally, Spain has won four court rulings defending its rights to buy access to British quotas, the Commission will unequivocally support Britain. That is, after all, the same Commission which agreed to Spain's demands that quota-hopping should not form any part of the treaty negotiations. Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister's deal actually depends entirely on the Commission's good will, a Commission which will seek to look after the interests, incidentally, not just of this country but of the Dutch, the Spanish and other interests as well?

It is all very well the noble Lord protesting that the Commission helped to design this particular set of words, as he did in Committee, but is it not the case that this amount to the Commission's agreement to receive proposals based on a set of principles? The Government have made proposals but have not yet subjected them to the testing experience of European law. Can the noble Lord today stand up and say that the Commission's legal advice, or indeed the legal advice available to the Council, has said definitely that these proposals are not to be challenged in the European Court? In the debate on fisheries in another place last December, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could not do so. In the interests of British fishermen today, can the noble Lord do so? I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page