European Community (Agriculture Ministers' Meeting)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th March 1977.

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Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford 12:00 am, 16th March 1977

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the meeting of the EEC Council of Agriculture Ministers in Brussels on 14th and 15th March. There was further discussion of the Commission's proposals for 1977–78 farm prices but no decisions were reached, and, since we shall have an opportunity of discussing the proposals later today, I shall confine myself now to the question of fisheries. For this my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland led for the United Kingdom, supported by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary.

At the start of proceedings on 14th March I drew the Council's attention to proposals by the Faroese authorities to introduce, for the period 15th March to 30th April, new conservation measures which would severely curtail fishing activity by Community and particularly United Kingdom fishing vessels in Faroese waters. Moreover, as President of the Council, I was scheduled to sign a framework fisheries agreement between the Community and the Faroese on 15th March—the day the new measures were due to come into force.

It was important to ensure that the sudden appearance of the new Faroese proposals did not prejudice the arrangements for signature. I am pleased to say that the Faroese have now agreed to defer the introduction of their measures and to enter immediately into consultations with the Community about them. On that basis I felt justified in signing the agreement, which I and the Faroese Prime Minister did yesterday.

At the signing ceremony I expressed deep concern at the timing and nature of the Faroese proposals. Commissioner Gundelach supported me. It is now my hope that the consultations on the Faroese proposals can be speedily and satisfactorily completed, although I am bound to tell the House that the initial position taken by the Faroese Government does not give grounds for optimism.

I have for some time been concerned at the lack of progress towards a permanent common fisheries programme. I am therefore pleased to announce that the Council has now agreed on the urgent need to establish a permanent internal regime, and that revised proposals are expected from the Commission soon after Easter. The Council's aim will be to reach decisions on them by the end of June.

The Council also discussed a Commission proposal to establish catch quotas for the remainder of 1977 for certain species of fish in extensive areas within the waters of the member States, including United Kingdom waters. One of the objectives of this temporary measure would be to facilitate the development of the fishing industry of the Irish Republic. My right hon. Friend, while approving the principle of coastal State preference, drew attention to a number of difficulties to which this proposal gave rise.

The Commission's proposal will be studied further by officials and the Council will consider it again at its meeting at the end of next week. However, it is not now expected to be adopted in the form proposed by the Commission. In the meantime, the Irish Government undertook to defer introduction of their proposed regulation on the size of fishing vessels permitted to fish in certain coastal waters around Ireland.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I suppose that I ought to give an interim and rather muted welcome to a statement that is at best inconclusive. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can help the House by explaining what was the merit in signing the framework agreement with the Faroese in conditions which, from what he has said, seem to amount almost to duress.

Secondly, it would help if the right hon. Gentleman could say what proportion of the cod catch of both this country and the Community comes from Faroese waters.

Of course I welcome the agreement that there is an urgent need to set up a permanent internal regime, but that hardly takes us very much further. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will say what interim arrangements will prevail until the agreement has been reached. Will he also say where he is getting in his talks with the Russians?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

It was a question of balance whether one should proceed to the signing of the framework agreement, which was what the Council had to consider. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that. Having made the point to the Council, I was in the position of the President of the Council, and it was for the Council to tell me what it wished to be done. But the argument which then decided the matter was that the framework agreement contained the basis for reciprocity between the Faroese and the Community. Therefore, without that agreement there would have been no basis for reciprocity.

The Council also took the view that if the framework agreement were signed it would be possible to raise the questions on which I have given the House information, and we should then be able to come to a satisfactory conclusion on them. I said that in my view the initial position taken by the Faroese gave the Government no ground for optimism, and I want the House to be well aware of that. However, as long as there are consultations and as long as the Faroese have agreed to defer the introduction of their measures, there is a prospect of settlement.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the exact figures about the proportion represented by the cod and haddock catches, but this issue affects us in the United Kingdom a great deal, particularly in Aberdeen and Grimsby. It also affects other Community members.

The interim arrangements are in a state of flux, and the Council has become more and more aware that, as the United Kingdom has always felt, we must now get a permanent regime. It was these pressures that showed the need for a timetable. It is an interesting timetable, as the right hon. Gentleman will see if he cares to study it. It is a speedy timetable, as it must be since Easter is coming next month.

There has been no breakdown in the negotiations with the Russians. The talks, which are now concerned with allocation, will be resumed on 19th April. In the meantime the interim licensing arrangements will continue.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with the significance and the quantity of our Faroese catch?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

I tried to deal with that matter. It is important, particularly to Aberdeen and Grimsby, and it affects both cod and haddock. I cannot, however, give an exact percentage of the total catch, particularly as there are other third countries in whose waters we fish, and that affects the situation.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I share the Minister's anxiety over the lack of a common fisheries policy. Will he say a little more about the meaning of the principle of coastal State preference, since it is important within the policy to safeguard the rights of major fishing nations? What were the main objections that were apparently raised by the British representatives to the principle? Will these decisions on future policy be firm by the end of June, or will they be recommendations?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

The principle has been laid down, as far as we are able to put it, in the statement by my right hon. Friend, then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, on 4th May last year. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the Commission produced proposals which we found totally unacceptable. The point that must be borne in mind is that revised proposals are coming forward from the Commission, and obviously we shall have to look at them.

If I may use such an expression, a deal of water has flowed under the bridge since then. We now have, for example, 200-mile limits, a new Commissioner, the situation which has developed because of third-country fishing, the Ireland situation, and so on. The importance of a new look by the Commission has therefore become all the more vital.

The provisos by my right hon. Friend were not related to coastal State preference. On the contrary, they applied to the practicalities of the Commission's proposals, some of which the Commission itself argued in the course of discussion.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North

May we know what has happened to the proposed settlement with Iceland, a settlement which at one time was promised for the end of January? Have our efforts here been more successful since we handed these matters over to the Commission?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

I wish that I could report satisfactory progress in this sector, but I am afraid that I cannot do so. The position there reminds me slightly of the historical position between the Earl of Chatham and Sir Richard Strachan, because at the moment both the Commission and Iceland seem to be waiting for one another. I cannot offer the House much comfort on that. I simply hope that matters will progress.

Photo of Mr Hamish Watt Mr Hamish Watt , Banffshire

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the Commission is aware of the damage being done at present by over-fishing by EEC nations? Will he assure the House that there will be no retrospective element in the catch quotas when the Commission finally comes to a decision on the quota for 1977?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety on both those points. We have made those points very forcefully, and we shall continue to do so.

Photo of Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith , Angus North and Mearns

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Faroese proposals were greeted with utter dismay in Aberdeen? My contacts there this morning indicated great concern about the precise meaning of the signing of a structure agreement. Since the right hon. Gentleman is being realistic, will he acknowledge that if the agreement is implemented in full it will make fishing by United Kingdom vessels in Faroese waters totally uneconomic? Will the right hon. Gentleman be more specific and say what counter-proposals he might have put forward concerning fishing by Faroese vessels in Scottish waters?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

I had better explain the situation again. The position was that as President of the Council I was due to sign a framework agreement on 15th March—the second day of the Council. In view of the proposed new measures by the Faroese, which I had seen only the weekend before, I raised with the Council the question of the agreement, telling the Council of my deep concern—I share the hon. Gentleman's concern on this matter.

As a result, the position was changed, and the Faroese were then asked to enter into consultations and to defer the measures that they had proposed to take immediately on 15th March. This deferment took place. I cannot claim that as a great and unqualified victory. I can only say that I believe that the consultations will help. At least they can do no harm. I am aware of the difficulties, and that was why I raised the matter.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am aware of the dangers of a mounting desire to take reciprocal action once measures of this sort are taken against us.

Photo of Mr James Johnson Mr James Johnson , Kingston upon Hull West

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the feeling on Humberside about the agreement? It does not yet affect Hull, but the feeling in Grimsby is as doleful as the feeling that we have heard exists in Aberdeen. This is a very significant issue for us.

May I ask my right hon. Friend about Iceland? He said that he did not know much about the position there. Is he aware that the Icelandic newspapers contain no indication of even a centimetre of give in this matter? Will he comment again on this issue? If there is no give by Iceland, we on Humberside will want the. EEC to take some steps towards barring Icelandic vessels landing fish on the mainland of Europe.

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

I think that I have said as much as I can about Iceland. Of course, one must bear in mind the feelings to which my hon. Friend refers. I think that I said some time ago that if one has a negotiator negotiating on one's behalf, he must be allowed to continue until the end of the negotiation before one thinks of biting. That remains my view on the Iceland situation.

I am aware of the worry in Grimsby about the Faroese suggestions. The conservation measures ought to be taken if we are to preserve the supply of fish. That is correct, and the Faroese are as entitled as anyone else to take such measures.

If one takes conservation measures I am concerned that they shall be genuine and scientific. The four measures that I recommended to the House, some of which appear in the order, are scientifically proved and appear to be the right basis on which to proceed.

Photo of Sir John Gilmour Sir John Gilmour , Fife East

Can the Minister assure us that in any discussions with the Faroese special consideration will be taken of the line fishermen, who can only fish in those waters during the winter and who have no other place in which to fish?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

All such considerations must be taken into account. At the negotiations that are being conducted by the Commission we have our own officials from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and from my own Department advising the Commission.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although we support his stand on conservation, many of us are increasingly worried about the concept of catch quotas? Does he agree that unless the quotas are policed and organised, not only the British housewife but those in the industry will be sadly put out? Will he press strongly for a workable and effective scheme instead of the vague commitments that we have at present?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

My hon. Friend has a point. Catch quotas alone do not answer the problem at all.

Photo of Mr Robert Hicks Mr Robert Hicks , Bodmin

When asking the Commission for revised proposals for the common fisheries policy, will the Minister assure the House that account will be taken of the dangers of over-fishing in South-West coastal waters and in particular the adverse effect that that has on the inshore fishing industry of Devon and Cornwall, particularly on those fishing for mackerel?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

We continue to make that point, because it is absolutely right. We shall see that the point is made until the matter is finally settled.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Although the Minister has mentioned fishing, have there been any discussions about tobacco? Is it not curious that the EEC is spending 200 million units of account next year for the purchase and storage of surplus tobacco—of which the United Kingdom share is about £15 million—when his right hon. Friend made an announcement on the subject last week?

Photo of Hon. John Silkin Hon. John Silkin , Lewisham, Deptford

I felt that it was my duty to report to the House what had taken place in the Council, not what had not taken place. I have a list of some hundreds of those items that were not discussed. This is not an appropriate moment to answer my hon. Friend's question.