Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as many noble Lords will know, I have over several years pursued this subject in debates and in Questions. I therefore propose to make a few comments today. On 18th February this year, following a Question of mine, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, supplied me with a copy of the paper which was the United Kingdom's proposals, as sent to the European Commission. His letter to me referred to the paper as resulting from the Prime Minister's exchange of letters with the president of the EU in May, a year ago. The key words in the British proposals are "real economic link". The proposal is that a fishing boat should be judged as eligible to fish for British quotas if there is a "real economic link" with this country.

That is very different from the impression given immediately before the general election--and immediately after it--that all was in hand and would be settled very soon. Fishermen's leaders are most disquieted that time is passing and that the basis of the United Kingdom's proposals in that memorandum are not at all certain of acceptance; and that is a year later.

14 May 1998 : Column 1182

The letter of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, to me said that the aim of the UK's memorandum was to establish whether the proposals being put forward by Britain were compatible with the jurisprudence of the European Court. With respect, it is not so much a matter of jurisprudence. What is important is what the Court's judgment will be eventually and not whether the matter falls within its jurisprudence. Unfortunately, it probably will.

The last effort by a British Government, the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which I strongly supported as it passed through this House as a Bill, made a very good attempt to define what should be regarded as a British fishing boat--a fishing boat with UK nationality. But it was found by the European Court to have failed to fulfil obligations under articles of the EEC Treaty. That judgment was in October 1991. I have the text with me but I shall not, in a short debate, weary your Lordships with it in full. The articles were specified as Articles 7, 52 and 221 of the EEC Treaty.

The UK Government had made careful provision in the 1988 Act for defining what should be regarded as fishing boats with UK nationality. I take now the opportunity again to point out the contradiction that exists in two conflicting concepts within the EU. I believe that this is the root of most of the trouble. European Union law on establishment--part of the treaties--seeks to make all EU nationals equal in business activities. The fisheries regime, in contrast, regulates fisheries and allocates quotas within EU countries specifically on separate nationalities. So one part of the treaty and of the Commission is trying to make all nationals within the EU as equal as possible, but the fisheries regime is dependent on allocating quotas in accordance with specific nationalities within the EU.

As a result, virtually any Spanish or Dutch boat operated by a company or an owner based in the UK can qualify for British quotas. Any assurance that towards the end of the present exercise the European Court will not again judge that these proposals fall foul of Articles 7, 52 and 221 of the EEC Treaty or successor articles coming from the Government Front Bench today will be welcome. That is really the main point. Can we be at all certain that the European Court will not find exactly the same kind of objections as it did on the last occasion?

The Government's attitude at Amsterdam has let our fishermen down. They feel exceedingly let down because they were given an impression that a much more robust attitude would be taken. I suggest that what is needed is definite and positive action now.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am not an expert on fishing; certainly not in the way the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, is. He has been at it a long time. But what I have done is to arrange some meetings with Mr. Ashworth and Mr. Hay in the Palace of Westminster. They represent Save Britain's Fish and are great experts on this matter. They believe that the only way in which the fishing problem can be resolved is if control of British fishing waters is returned to the United Kingdom. Their members and the fishing

14 May 1998 : Column 1183

industry have been most upset over a long period of time by the handling of this issue. It is not just a question of what this Government have done in 12 months; it is a question of what has been done over the past 25 years since we acceded to the Treaty of Rome, or at least gave away our fishing rights. Does my noble friend Lord Randall wish to intervene? He has been jumping up and down.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way and for showing such courtesy. Is it not the case that the common fisheries policy, which has caused a lot of concern particularly among Euro-sceptics, came into being in 1983?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, my noble friend is not correct. We acceded in 1972 to the policy that fishing is a common resource. It is from there that the present policy derives. In 1983, when other nations acceded, the common rights were extended to the new entrants. That made the whole issue more complex, more difficult and more adverse for British fishermen. So my noble friend is both right and wrong. The fact is that Britain's fishing resource was handed over a long time ago. As I said, British fishermen at present believe that the only way the matter can be resolved is for control of Britain's fishing waters to be returned to the United Kingdom.

The pass on fishing was sold in 1972 when the Heath government gave away the right to control access to British fishing grounds and to manage them in such a manner to conserve fish stocks for the main benefit of the British people and British fishermen and to share any surplus with other nations prepared to work in accordance with British rules.

I remind noble Lords that fishing is still the only common resource in the European Community. There is no other common resource. The common resource which we gave away represented a huge loss for Britain--66 per cent. of the fish are in British waters--and a great gain for the other countries of the European Union. So it was a great handing over of British resources and British interests. It was an act of sheer, stupid folly. The fishing industry has had to suffer because of it.

Ordinary fishermen have been driven into bankruptcy, into burning their boats and into criminality because of absurd regulations. It is an Alice in Wonderland situation in which they are prevented from putting to sea themselves while watching Spanish and French fishermen happily catching the fish which they believe belong to them. That is the position. My noble friend really is very anxious this afternoon.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, I express appreciation again to my noble friend for giving way. I know that he is aware that for 14 years I represented Hull where there is a fishing industry. Is it not the case that improved technology in terms of nets, identifying

14 May 1998 : Column 1184

the location of fish and the capacity of fishing vessels now far exceeds the opportunities that exist for fishing? That is the essence of the matter.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, my noble friend makes a marvellous point. He makes my case for me. Under those circumstances it would be far better if Britain were able to control its own waters, its own management and its own conservation. That is the point I am making. I am most obliged to him for intervening to assist me in making the case, based on his expertise and service over a very long period of time in a fishing constituency.

British fishermen want the whole matter sorted out in a way which benefits them and the British people and which brings British waters back under United Kingdom control so that we can stop the depredation of irresponsible fishermen from other countries ruining a vital and valuable resource. I believe that this amendment will assist the Government in their very difficult negotiations with the European Union. Therefore, I support the amendment and I hope that other noble Lords will do so too.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, my own intervention will be brief because, like some previous speakers, I am not an expert on the situation. I wish to set out the position as we see it on these Benches. We have a number of Members in another place who are deeply interested in the health and future of the fishing industry.

I do not believe that the previous government are in a position to point very great criticism at the present Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, pointed out, the common fisheries policy was accepted in 1972 and the government of the day acceded to it. Later on, when the Irish Government tried to seek substantial changes to it upon Spain's entry into the European Union, the British Government rather left them on their own.

In 1983 a decommissioning scheme was brought in precisely for the reasons adduced by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of St. Budeaux; namely, that there was overcapacity in the fishing industry, not only in this country but elsewhere. From 1983 to 1986 there was a fairly effective scheme for decommissioning of which a number of fishermen took advantage. I am told by Members in another place from Cornwall and other counties dependent on fishing that this was a well-received scheme in the industry.

However, in 1986, in their wisdom, the UK government decided that they would not put up their share of the finance to continue with decommissioning. As a result many British fishermen were forced by sheer economic circumstance to sell their boats to others, among them the Spaniards. I suppose that one can argue that the free market makes its friends and its enemies. It operated very harshly in this situation. It must be said loudly and clearly that the scheme advanced at the time to ease that situation--it was a very unfair situation for fishermen and in that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon--was largely undermined by the attitude of our own government.

14 May 1998 : Column 1185

We have now reached the situation where in the year 2002 the common fisheries policy will be reviewed again. There is a central problem to which those advancing this amendment have not paid sufficient attention. There is an international crisis because of acute under-stocking and over-fishing. It affects all countries of the world and, of course, all countries within the European Union. I have had the not very great privilege of watching Russian fishing vessels literally vacuuming up the ocean bed. Members of this House have also seen a Japanese system which, I believe, has been ruled out of order recently. In that system the net is dragged across a distance of as much as one kilometre, taking with it almost everything in the ocean.

Let us move away for a moment from adducing national considerations to the wider interests with which our fishermen are bound up. It seems to me that, first, we need to look at effective enforcement. Here I sympathise with noble Lords who have pointed out serious breaches of fishing regulations on the part of Spanish ships, although not by them alone. It is right and proper to strongly reinforce European and international regulations as regards preserving fish stocks. I understand that the most efficient way of achieving that is an effective system of satellite inspection. There are a number of serious gaps in the system of satellite inspection which the European Union employs. That appears to me one constructive way in which to move forward. A second is to try out the principle of so-called "local economic interest". That is what Her Majesty's Government are trying to do. It may not yet meet the full demands of the fishing industry; it would perhaps be surprising if it did. It has not yet been effectively tried. We should at least see whether it will work. It lays down a series of quotas for the employment of crews from Britain and for the part of the stocks which are unloaded in British ports. We have hardly given the scheme a chance to see if it works before condemning it.

Thirdly and finally, it is simply unrealistic to believe that one can pull Britain out of the common fisheries policy without the gravest damage to our position in the single market. It is difficult to cherry-pick and to say that we would like greater freedom in manufacturing but we cannot allow common market fishing. Surely, the crucial point is that we have to see how we can best protect the interests of British fishermen; how the Government can best help them either to stay in the industry by raising the standards of their boats or get out of the industry if they do not wish to stay in. I plead that we try to find a constructive answer to what is an extremely difficult problem in the interests of our own fishing industry as much as anything else.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have been over this ground many times. It is with a heavy heart that I rise once again to answer. I believe that all in this House sympathise with the plight of many of our fishing communities. However, it is deeply disheartening to hear the line adopted by the official Opposition.

14 May 1998 : Column 1186

I believe that I speak for the whole House--or at least those noble Lords who have had the strength to sit through these debates--when I say that admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has grown during these proceedings. His attention to detail and his forensic approach to amendments and to the treaty have deeply impressed us. It is unfortunate that with this amendment he has once again fallen into what I believe to be pre-election posturing. It is disheartening that the official Opposition have tabled this amendment. It comes from a party which for 18 years presided fairly passively over the decimation of our fishing communities. The official Opposition are attempting in this amendment to blame the incoming Government for not solving those problems in six weeks.

I, of all people, am anxious to avoid accusations of asperity of speech. Therefore, I shall not use the word "hypocrisy". Nevertheless, there is here a whiff of deliberate moral inconsistency. The fact is that in the 14 months of negotiation to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred the Conservative Government made no progress in convincing other member states of the merits of their proposals, and there was no prospect of doing so in the final six weeks of that negotiation. Not a single government among the other member states supported the proposed protocol. As the noble Lord has acknowledged, it is significant that many had never heard of it or did not regard it as a serious threat by the United Kingdom.

The protocol was submitted some time in July 1996 and circulated to the other member states by the then Irish presidency. That was the only time that it surfaced in the pre-IGC discussions, despite the fact that 3,000 other documents were circulated during that time. That was why I said that the German Foreign Minister and others were unaware of that draft or the alleged importance which the then British Government attached to it. Neither the Irish nor the Dutch presidency produced any draft proposals that would have incorporated it; nor would that protocol, had it been adopted, have secured the removal of a single quota-hopper from the UK register despite the impression given by the noble Lord.

The Labour Government have taken a robust but more cautious attitude. We fully agree that the current situation is not satisfactory, but in seeking to make progress we have tried to avoid posturing on the issue. What would the negotiating stance of the previous government, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, have achieved?

The noble Lord claimed in Committee and today that if other member states had not agreed to the protocol submitted by the then UK Government, the UK would have prevented the conclusion of the Treaty of Amsterdam. Let us examine that. It is claimed that they would have held up the whole business of Europe if they did not get agreement to their proposals on quota-hopping.

Just how credible is that proposition? To put it in context, that was not the only threat. The then government also threatened to prevent the completion of the treaty if there was any extension of QMV; any

14 May 1998 : Column 1187

increase in the powers of the European Parliament; if there was not a complete revision of the powers of the European Court of Justice; if the Working Time Directive was not rescinded and if the beef ban was not lifted. It is perhaps not surprising that other member governments thought there had been too many cries of wolf. Those threats had varying degrees of credibility and vacuousness.

The fact of the matter is that it was empty rhetoric and recalls nothing so much as the phoney "beef war" in which they also attempted to block European business. A precious lot of good that did either the British beef industry or Britain's negotiating position in Europe. Did the Conservative Government really believe that to end up with no treaty, no quota-hopping protocol and an impasse in Europe would have benefited our fishing communities one iota?

There is an alternative explanation of the negotiating position. In a more sophisticated mood no doubt the noble Lord would say that it does not work like that and that there would have been negotiations and perhaps a trade-off between quota-hopping and some other aspect of the treaty. But what would that actually mean?

The noble Lord rightly said that the main stumbling block to reaching any solution, even if the other governments could have been convinced, was the position of the Spanish Government. Unanimity is required on changes to the treaty. Frankly, Spain would have blocked incorporation into the treaty of the quota-hopping proposals put forward by the previous government.

What concession would the previous government have been prepared to offer Spain in order to remove that block to incorporation, and at what cost to our national interests? I do not believe that, in honour, the previous government would have made such a substantial concession to Spain to persuade it to remove its opposition to quota-hopping. Any concession to Spain would have had to be of tremendous importance to that country. Frankly, such a negotiating stance was not on. If the noble Lord believes otherwise, perhaps he should inform the House.

In contrast, the Labour Party when in opposition and in government did not, contrary to the impression given by the noble Lord, claim that it would seek to deal with quota-hopping at Amsterdam by insisting on a change to the treaty. We pursued the question of the fishing policy vigorously and separately from other negotiations at Amsterdam. At Amsterdam, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister secured an exchange of letters with the President of the Commission which represented an important step forward. That exchange records the Commission's interpretation of how Britain or any other member state may, within the rules of the single market, require an economic link between fishing activity and fishing communities.

Since Amsterdam, we have taken forward that process. Last July we issued to the industry a consultation document, following which government officials met representatives of all parts of the UK fishing industry to discuss the implementation of the economic link and the licensing conditions that we

14 May 1998 : Column 1188

proposed. Subsequent to that fairly prolonged period of consultation, we submitted draft proposals to the European Commission, incorporating contributions and comments from the industry. A copy of those proposals was placed in the Library of your Lordships' House on 12th May.

We are confident that that represents a substantial package of measures that is both effective and compatible with the treaty. We intend that all vessels with a UK licence should be required to comply with one of the following criteria: they must land 50 per cent. of their catch of quota species in the UK; or require 50 per cent. of the crew to be resident in UK coastal areas; or require a certain level of operational expenditure in UK coastal areas; or other measures must be taken to provide sufficient economic benefit to populations in the UK which are dependent on fishing and related industries.

The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Moynihan, asked whether the Government believed that that package of measures was based on sound legal advice. We took legal advice before Amsterdam. The President of the Commission also took legal advice. We believe that those propositions are in line with the legal advice that both we and the Commission have received. It is of interest that both the Belgian and French fishing industries are now considering similar proposals. We are confident that the measures would be upheld were they to be challenged in the European Court of Justice, principally because they do not infringe the right of establishment, as did the previous government's attempt at regulation.

We are in the process of putting the bones on the Amsterdam proposition. We await the Commission's final opinion on the details of the proposals and expect a response shortly. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is right to say that real progress was made at Amsterdam and that further progress has been made subsequently. Of course, it is not everything that the industry would wish. The industry has criticised the extent of the proposals, as revealed by the contacts of my noble friend Lord Stoddart. But it is real progress, in contrast to the way in which the previous administration carried out their responsibilities to the fishing industry.

In considering the way in which the Official Opposition have approached this matter, I must repeat the points I made at Second Reading about the sad neglect of the fishing industry over 18 years of Conservative rule. If my noble friend Lord Stoddart is right, the neglect stemmed even from 1972. There was a complete failure to modernise our industry in anticipation of Spain and Portugal joining the common fisheries policy. There was a failure in the face of under-stocking to negotiate quota levels throughout the 1980s and 1990s which were favourable to UK fishermen. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, pointed out, there was a failure to match the money provided after 1986 by the European Commission to allow our fishing industry to decommission its inefficient and outdated boats. There

14 May 1998 : Column 1189

was a failure to introduce a licensing system which would contain transfer of licences within the industry and not allow them to be sold off to the highest bidder.

As a consequence of those failures there was the further failure to prevent the sale by British fishermen of their licences, directly and indirectly, to Spanish and other non-British quota-hoppers and their agents. There was a failure to regulate this process and, when they did try to regulate it, there was a serious legal failure to recognise that the form of those regulations would inevitably run up against the European Court of Justice because they flouted the basic right of establishment in Community law. There was then a stubborn failure to recognise that the inevitable ECJ verdict meant that they had to change those regulations. Instead, they engaged in empty rhetoric and threats to derail the treaty.

This is a record of failure to tell the truth to the fishing communities and the public. It is a deplorable record. I do not see how, in any sense, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, can regard this record as a tough and consistent line in favour of the British fishing industry and its communities.

As noble Lords have recognised, I do not claim that what we have achieved in Amsterdam is all that we would have wished and not all of it has yet come to fruition. However, we have moved further in defence of the British fishing industry in six weeks than the Conservative Party did in 18 years. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is proud of his achievements at Amsterdam.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, is an honourable man and in his heart of hearts he must be ashamed of that record. At the very least he must be a little shame-faced today in pursuing his amendment. I have heard rumours that he may even pursue it to a vote. It is time we stopped posturing on this and told the truth to the fishing communities. The amendment is not about what the Government did at Amsterdam but about the terrible legacy left over in the fishing communities by the last government. If the noble Lord does not see fit to withdraw his amendment it will be a damning indictment not of the very real progress made by the Government in a relatively short period of time, but of 18 years of neglect of our fishing industry by the last Government. I would ask the noble Lord to think again and to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page