Fishing Industry (Scotland)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 5th February 1979.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John Evans.]

10.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Glasgow Cathcart

I am very glad to have the unexpected opportunity to raise a few points on a subject about which I think every Scottish Member is very concerned—the problems facing the fishing industry in Scotland. I think that every hon. Member will agree that the industry is vital to Scotland. Although we have only one-tenth of the population of the United Kingdom, about half the total catch in the United Kingdom is by Scottish fishermen.

There are about 8,000 to 10,000 directly fully employed in the industry as fishermen, but many others are dependent on the industry. For example, about 10,000 are employed in fish processing, and there are many others, from auctioneers to merchants, involved in the industry and concerned about its progress.

I should like to say how grateful I am to the Minister for agreeing to reply to the debate at such short notice. He will be aware of the concern in the fishing industry about its future. Those involved in the industry are concerned, first, about the lack of progress in the negotiations with the EEC. Until those negotiations are resolved there can be no secure future for the industry in Scotland.

The anxiety has been increased by the fact that there have been signs of the EEC expressing concern about, and seeking to cancel, some of the conservation measures that this House agreed should be taken to protect our industry while the negotiations were taking place. It is highly regrettable that this action has been taken, bearing in mind that the conservation measures were unanimously agreed.

The Minister will also be aware of the real concern in the fish processing industry, where there is considerable gloom. As always when we discuss fishing matters, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) is present. He will confirm that in Orkney and Shetland the numbers employed in the fish processing factories have fallen in one year from over 700 to about 450. Many of the 450 are dependent on the temporary employment subsidy. Therefore, a serious situation faces the fish processors and a great deal of insecurity faces the industry as a whole. We want to know exactly what is happening and what can be done to help the industry.

There is a serious problem of over-fishing in some areas, because trawlers which have been denied access to Iceland, Faroes, North Norway and the White Sea are looking for somewhere to fish. We have too many vessels chasing too few fish.

We can all agree on the aim, which is that we want adequate exclusive limits, an adequate share of the total allowable catch which takes account of Britain's contribution to the EEC catch, and proper policing of the catch.

Having given very short notice to the Minister, I hope that he will be able to say something about three basic questions. First, what is the present state of negotiations? There was an indication that we might have an agreement in the summer. Then it was autumn and then it was by the end of the year. Now there seems to be no sign of an early agreement. Can the Minister give us any indication how the negotiations are proceeding and when he thinks we might have some sign of a settlement? I should like to make it absolutely clear that we are not pressing the Minister to sell out our interests and come to an early agreement, but it would be helpful at this stage to have some indication how the negotiations are going and whether he is optimistic about an early settlement.

Secondly, we should like some information about the attempts by the EEC to nullify the conservation measures that have been taken to try to protect our stocks in the interim. We have heard about the efforts of the European Court to try to undermine some of these measures. Can the Minister give some indication about the state of play on the conservation measures which we agreed, and which have been implemented with the full support of the British House of Commons?

My third question relates to the position of the fish processors. The Minister will be aware that many have had to reduce their number of employees. Some have had to close and others are totally dependent on TES, which is being phased out. At a meeting with the Secretary of State, attended by my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr (Mr. Younger) and Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher), an assurance was given that he was looking at the serious problems of the fish processors. Can the Minister give us an indication whether progress has been made and whether a statement can be made?

It would be useful to take the opportunity to say that if reports of our debates are read, as I am sure they are, by those concerned with Common Market negotiations, and those in the Commission of the EEC, the one thing about which they should have no doubt is that all parties in the House, at a time when we are disunited on so many things, are solidly agreed about wanting to get a fair deal for British fishing. We are totally united on that. It is an issue on which all parties will be prepared to battle hard and in a united fashion.

There is a rising tide of concern about aspects of EEC policy in many areas. I am sure that the Minister will accept, as would most reasonable people who keep in touch with British public opinion, that if we cannot get a fair and just deal on fishing, it will not help strengthen the unity of the EEC or its institutions. I hope that the Minister will make it absolutely clear that he agrees with the negotiating aims, will give us a report on what is happening, and will again make it clear on behalf of the House of Commons as a whole that this is an issue on which we are united and on which we are looking for action and progress.

Several Hon. Members:

Several Hon. Members rose—

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. It has long been the custom that the last half-hour Adjournment debate belongs to the person who initiated it and to the Minister, unless agreement has been reached between that person and the Minister that another hon. Member can participate. I do not know whether such an agreement has been reached.

Photo of Mr Hugh Brown Mr Hugh Brown , Glasgow Provan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a rather unusual debate, and I certainly have no objection to other hon. Members taking part.

Photo of Mr Hamish Gray Mr Hamish Gray , Ross and Cromarty

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I want to start by—

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I was not calling the hon. Gentleman to speak. I shall first call an hon. Member from the Labour Benches.

10.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has used his ingenuity in spotting that the Adjournment debate which was to have taken place now was taken earlier because the business did not go its allotted time. In his usual sharp manner, he has raised a topic which is of vital concern to every fishing constituency and to every Member of Parliament who represents Scottish interests.

I would not quarrel very much with what he said, certainly not about the importance of fishing to so many people in Scotland. I certainly would not quarrel with his statement that we must defend our fishing interests, or with his statement that the processing industry is in difficulty. But, even if only once in his life, I wish that the hon. Gentleman would give credit where credit is due. The one thing lacking in his speech was any appreciation whatever of the work that has been done by my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), who deals with fishing matters at the Scottish Office.

Had the hon. Gentleman given that credit, he would have accurately reflected the views of the fishing industry, not just in Scotland but in the whole of the United Kingdom, whether they are deep sea fishermen, middle water fishermen, inshore fishermen or herring fishermen. Each and every one to whom one speaks says exactly the same thing—"Thank goodness we have a very strong team that is arguing the case of the fishing industry within the Common Market".

It is therefore a pity that the hon. Member for Cathcart approached the debate in a carping manner. He should have given credit to the Government. He was, as always, trying to criticise the Government. It is taking time to reach an agreement, but, as the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench know well, that is because of the problems of obtaining an agreement from the EEC. Any other team of Ministers might have been tempted, as he put it, to sell out the fishing industry in the interests of a quick agreement.

Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair. It may have been what he thought my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) would say, but my hon. Friend was careful not to say any of the things attributed to him.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

The hon. Member for Cathcart is careful of what he does and does not say. But he cast aspersions on the Government in referring to the time taken to reach agreement and the mounting concern over the lengthy negotiations. If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, he will find that I am right. I accept that there is mounting concern. But the hon. Gentleman should have gone on to say that the reason for the delay is that my right hon. and hon. Friends have refused to accept an agreement that would be detrimental to the fishermen and shore-based processors in Scotland.

There is concern. The Grampian fisheries committee will be visiting the Secretary of State for Scotland next week. I cannot remember the exact date. It is concerned, if no agreement is reached, that there should be further unilateral action by the Government to tighten up conservation measures.

The Government should stand firm. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will not allow an agreement to be made to the detriment of the fishing industry.

There has been concern about the processing industry. The Minister will have received representations about constructing a scheme of aid for fish processors, especially herring processors. The industry has not got what it wanted. The hon. Member for Cathcart mentioned a meeting that he and his hon. Friends had had, and he may have been referring to this. But in a written answer to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) about 10 days ago it was stated that companies with problems could apply for assistance under section 7 of the Industry Act. It has been interpreted by some people as meaning that the Government were washing their hands of the processing side of the industry and were not concerned about its future. I believe that the offer of section 7 assistance is a genuine attempt to help.

I had a reply from the Minister of State, Scottish Office about a company with which the Scottish Development Office had been in contact in order to assist it to apply under section 7. I have written to the company to tell it that if there is any delay or difficulty in dealing with the Department I will pursue the matter. A large number of companies have written to say that they need assistance, and I hope that they will immediately apply under section 7. If the company-by-company approach does not provide the assistance that the Government intend, I hope the companies will contact their Members of Parliament so that we can ask the Government to see whether something else can be done.

It is not just a question of the fishing industry having difficulties. I want to raise one or two questions about the reconstruction of the Aberdeen fish market. I have been in correspondence with the Minister on behalf of the Aberdeen Harbour Board on this matter. There is some disquiet about the time taken in processing this application.

I appreciate that when one is dealing with very large sums the Government cannot just hand out money on the first application. In fact, some of the people who seek such assistance—not the Aberdeen Harbour Board—are the first to complain that money is handed out too readily. Therefore, it is only to be expected that the Government will consider the application very thoroughly to ensure that they are getting value for money and that the facilities are really necessary.

Sometimes those who speak on behalf of the fishing industry, including hon. Members, give the impression that the position is so bad that the provision of extra facilities and the refurbishing of fishing ports is unnecessary because there will not be the catch or the number of vessels to make it a viable concern. In pointing out the problems of the fishing industry we must not be too pessimistic, otherwise the Government might consider that the pessimistic views hold and that there is no need to put money into the industry. I hope that the Minister will assure me that the Government will look at the application from the Aberdeen Harbour Board for money to refurbish the port, as part of the quay has virtually collapsed overnight. I hope that, if necessary, the Minister will arrange a meeting with the board and myself before the board's next meeting on 23 February.

10.38 p.m.

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

I shall be brief because this is a short debate and many of the points that I wished to make have been made in pre- vious fishing debates. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Minister of State, Scottish Office have kindly agreed to see a deputation from Shetland and Orkney this week, but I could not let this opportunity pass without putting on record the anxiety felt in my constituency, which is already suffering from the setbacks in the fishing industry. In certain islands, if the fishing industry collapses, there will be nothing else to do. Also, we suffer—or enjoy—the magnetism of oil.

Not only Common Market boats but British boats are driven back into Orkney and Shetland waters from further afield. This causes difficulties. I hope that the Minister will say something about this matter, and also about fish processing, which has caused great problems in my constituency.

10.39 p.m.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) on taking the opportunity to initiate this debate tonight. I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) about the middle water and distant water fleets in Scotland. There is no doubt about the concern felt over the need for a long-term renegotiation of fisheries policy. I look forward to the Minister's progress report tonight.

The important area of the Scottish fishing industry, apart from processing, is that section of the fleet which fishes in middle and distant waters. Their difficulties and the amount of money that the fleet is losing have been put to the Government. The fleet has pulled out of Granton and it will no longer be a fishing port. That is serious and Aberdeen could be threatened with the same prospect, though I hope that it will not.

The Government gave help for English long and middle distance ports before Christmas. The scheme may not be appropriate to Aberdeen, but I hope that the Minister is aware of the problem there and is conscious of the concern and anxiety caused by what happened at Granton. I shall be grateful if, in addition to telling us what is being done about renegotiation, he will also inform us what help he proposes in the interim period for the middle water and distant water fleets in Scotland.

10.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hamish Gray Mr Hamish Gray , Ross and Cromarty

There is not much time left in this debate and I expect that the Minister will write to us with his views on what we have to say. I wish to make some specific points about the intrusion in Scottish waters during the past fishing season of factory ships from Eastern Europe. My constituency and North-West Scotland have suffered greatly.

I pay tribute to the co-operation I received from the Scottish Office during the summer. I did not have to contact the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I had occasion to contact the Scottish Office and I wish to place on record my appreciation of the co-operation that I received from the Under-Secretary and his staff. However, that co-operation did not prevent considerable pollution occurring near the port of Ullapool. That pollution has cause considerable damage to the sea bed, which, at that point, is principally used by the inshore fishermen who fish for smaller species. There is a considerable danger that their livelihood in the coming fishing season will be affected.

The Ross and Cromarty district council has sought leave to bring in private legislation, but that takes time and it is doubtful whether those proposals will be in operation in time for next season. If they are not, I hope that the Minister will arrange for special conditions to be imposed by the Scottish Office on the factory ships before they enter our waters.

Apart from the pollution and danger caused by those ships, there is a much wider aspect to be considered. I have little time for the political motives of those who operate those Eastern European ships. We may have innocent merchant seamen coming ashore, but we may also have less desirable and politically motivated people let loose in this country. What steps do the Government intend to take to ensure that those people are not welcomed among us?

I am very angry with the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). He took a lot of time and contributed practically nothing to this debate. It is only courteous for me to leave the Minister a few minutes to reply. I thank him and his Department for their co-operation and urge them to further efforts on behalf of Ross and Cromarty and North-West Scotland.

10.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hugh Brown Mr Hugh Brown , Glasgow Provan

I do not know why the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) needed to spoil a good speech by bringing in what sounded like a script for "The Thirty-Nine Steps". Our catching industry would be in a mess but for the factory ships, of whatever nation, that are willing to buy our mackerel—mainly for human consumption.

However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the possibility of pollution is a serious problem, especially in delightful areas such as Ullapool where the ships do not do much for the local fishing industries. Whether from Eastern Europe or anywhere else, the operators of those ships were most co-operative and we have no evidence or complaints of misbehaviour onshore. The hon. Gentleman was a little unfair. We recognise the problem and we shall do what we can. There is a practical problem about giving powers to a local authority in private legislation. That may relate only to one spot and mackerel might be landed somewhere else the next year. The possibility of the river purification board seeking an extension of its powers is being considered. I can assure the House that we treat the matter seriously. I am sure that we shall have the co-operation of all concerned in trying to minimise the pollution.

This has been a useful debate, but we have missed the collective noise—if not the wisdom—of hon Members of the SNP. I say that with my tongue in my cheek and after the vote because I know that the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) has been here all day and will be reporting to his colleagues.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), unusually fairly, raised three matters which merit response. He referred to processors. We have volunteered help in encouraging firms to apply for aid under the Industry Act. I regret that we have not been able to find something outwith the existing schemes. The reason for my feeling of frustration is that I know of no other industry which is in difficulty simply because of a lack of raw material.

Hon. Members have been fair. They have expressed their anxieties about the industry generally and specifically. But the Government's powers under various Acts to assist industry do not meet the peculiar problems of an industry that is going through a difficult period simply because of a temporary shortage of a raw material—in this case, herring. That is the problem.

We have had to fall back on the powers of the Industry Act. I cannot divulge confidential matters, but my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has knowledge of one firm which has made an inquiry under the Act. I assure the House that we have given every encouragement and will give help to any firm which thinks that it can benefit from the wide powers available under the Act.

The powers cover assistance for new projects which can create employment, modernisation and rationalisation, and assistance to firms which are at risk of causing redundancy. Firms that are in difficulty generally can receive help. I am not trying to argue with the Opposition, who are against increased public expenditure to assist private industry. Industry will need help in future and we are ready to consider ways of helping.

Hon. Members raised the questions of conservation and negotiations. We have had a rejoinder from the Commission about conservation to the effect that one of our conservation measures is of doubtful legality. We are required to make a response, possibly to the European Court. We are considering what case we should submit to the court. We are confident that we were right to take the measures. We had the backing of the House and we shall argue the case as best we can, and with some success, I hope.

I turn to the state of negotiations. There is likely to be a Council meeting next week. We are aware of the difficulty of achieving agreement which is satisfactory to the fishing industry. We must be realistic. There must be a general election this year. One of the disadvantages of the EEC is that all member States have general elections from time to time. That is not always the best time to make decisions. Perhaps the country preparing for an election does not want a settlement or, more likely, the other countries do not want to come to agreement because there is some advantage—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.