Council of Agriculture Ministers

– in the House of Commons at 3:57 pm on 22nd July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester 3:57 pm, 22nd July 1982

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the meetings of the Agriculture and Fisheries Councils which took place earlier this week.

At the Agriculture Council on 19–20 July, at which the United Kingdom was represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State Northern Ireland Office, agreement was reached upon a package of measures for the wine sector. I am pleased to inform the House that we obtained satisfactory safeguards for our alcohol and spirits industries.

On 20–21 July there was a meeting of the Fisheries Council at which I was accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

The Danish delegation refused to approve measures involving agreements with Norway. This prevented the Commission from negotiating with the Norwegian Government on total allowable catches in respect of joint stocks which would have considerable impact upon quota allocations.

Nine member States agreed that until this negotiation could take place there could be no meaningful discussions on total allowable catches, quotas, and access. This was certainly the view of the United Kingdom Government, since important quotas for cod and herring are involved.

Therefore, it was agreed that negotiations on those major aspects would be resumed at a meeting of the Fisheries Council to be held in Luxembourg on 21 September. Agreement was reached on several implementing measures under the marketing regulation which will come into operation on 1 January 1983.

Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Renfrewshire West

The first and most obvious matter is that the House would like to know exactly what the Minister means by "satisfactory safeguards for our alcohol and spirits industries." Is the industrial alcohol industry in Britain to be fully protected and, if so, how?

Although the statement was short, two extremely important matters arise from it. One would not have been unduly concerned about delay in a negotiation of this kind for two months were it not for the fact that, by the end of the year, the present fisheries agreement runs out. Is the Minister not negotiating with partners who have all the cards in their hands and who possess the veto, and is it not our fish that are at stake? Does the Minister agree?

Does the Minister agree that, as the Ministers are meeting again in September, as he has already surrendered to the French, and as the Danes are objecting and he is likely, in order to get agreement, to surrender to them eventually, it would be wrong for him to come to an agreement in Brussels while the House is still in recess? I hesitate to suggest that the House should be recalled to discuss the matter, but at least he should not come to an agreement with his Common Market partners in Brussels until he has had the terms of it ratified by the House on our return.

What does the Minister intend to do in the remaining two months of the year if no agreement is reached and the derogation runs out? He has told us that he has contingency plans. The clock is ticking very loudly now. We need to know what the contingency plans are to protect our fishing stocks against the depredations that loom ahead for them.

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

The safeguards for alcohol are similar to those agreed at the 18 May Council, which were considered by the industry to be completely satisfactory. They applied to the intervention of wine distillates, and the new regulation stipulates that their disposal must not disturb markets for alcohol and spirit drinks. With regard to other distillates which receive FEOGA marketing aids, the Commission has stated, and categorically minuted, that it will not allow the aids for which it is responsible to undermine existing alcohol and spirit drink markets.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted—he always is at any success on the part of British negotiators—that total safeguards have been obtained. I can claim that it was a considerable achievement, because it was done by the Minister of State and not by me.

With regard to the fisheries negotiations, the hon. Gentleman suggested that we were negotiating with partners who were all waiting eagerly for the end of the year. Clearly that was not the case at the Council meeting, where we had the support of eight of the partners, all of whom want agreement to be reached as speedily as possible. I hope that there will be a successful settlement in September. That will be in the interests of our industry.

As for getting the prior approval of the House, my position is exactly the same as that of the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) when he held my office.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I propose to allow questions to run until 4.20 pm by the digital clock. If there are brief questions and brief answers, it should be possible to accommodate most of the hon. Members who wish to speak.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

As the settlement of the common fisheries policy has again been delayed, will my right hon. Friend explain to the House the exact legal position that we shall face next year concerning fishing up to the beaches? I do not expect him to go into details, because obviously he will wish to keep his hand covered.

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

The view of the British Government is that the wording of the treaties is such that, in the event of there not being an agreement, there will not be a free-for-all and fishing up to the beaches, but it is a matter which others could dispute and which could be decided in the courts. In looking at the wording, I cannot say with certainty what is the exact legal position, but the Government's interpretation—and that of the previous Labour Government—is that it does not allow for fishing up to the beaches.

Photo of Mr Harry Ewing Mr Harry Ewing , Stirling Falkirk and Grangemouth

In view of the Minister's statement about the safeguards for the wine and alcohol industries, may I ask whether he is aware that the 18 May agreement was based on the distillation of 55,000 hectolitres of wine alcohol? Is he now saying that we are still distilling the 55,000 hectolitres, or that a greater quantity is being distilled? If that is the case, can he say how much more than 55,000 hectolitres is being distilled, because obviously that will distort the market, despite the non-disturbance clause?

What studies are taking place in the EEC on alternative uses of the wine lake—for example, for animal feedstock?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's last point, I am glad to be able to tell him that, at our request, the EEC has agreed to make studies.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first point, obviously the total volume will vary, depending on the size of the crop, but the non-disturbance agreement for all the wine going into intervention totally applies and I am glad to say that it is part of the regulation.

Photo of Mr David Penhaligon Mr David Penhaligon , Truro

Has the Minister made it perfectly clear during negotiations that, come what may, Britain will in no circumstances allow fishing up to the beaches?

Photo of Sir Walter Clegg Sir Walter Clegg , North Fylde

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the latest Danish delay could be fatal for the port of Fleetwood? Is he further aware that two middle water fleet trawlers have already tied up? A meeting is to be held this afternoon, as a result of which the rest may be tied up. It may well be that 38 lumpers will be laid off. Is there not a case now for financial help for the British fishing industry, pending a final solution?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

As my hon. Friend knows, the specific problems of Fleetwood result from a range of difficulties, not all connected with the negotiations. Meetings took place yesterday with my right hon. Friend and further meetings will take place early next week.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East

Does the action of Denmark lead the Minister to conclude that there is now a real prospect that no agreement will be reached before the end of the year? In those circumstances, will he give the House an undertaking that by no later than October he will come forward with his plans to ensure that our industry can develop, expand and succeed after 1 January 1983?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

I still believe that there is a very good prospect of an agreement during the period of the Danish Presidency. Having been present at past meetings, as has the hon. Gentleman, I have witnessed the sorts of pressures now being put on the Danish position and upon the Danish Government. It is very unlikely that the Danish Presidency will proceed during the coming six months on the basis of refusing to come to a sane and sensible agreement on fishing. If I am proved to be wrong, we shall have to be prepared to come forward at an appropriate time—which will have to be judged in the circumstances of the dates of meetings and so on—and make clear what action we shall take.

Photo of Mr Albert McQuarrie Mr Albert McQuarrie , Aberdeenshire East

My right hon. Friend's statement will be greeted with dismay and disappointment by all British fishermen, and particularly those in my constituency. As my right hon. Friend is aware, the pelagic fleet fishing has already been delayed.

Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that there will be active policing to ensure that the Danes do not overfish in the North Sea during the two months before the next meeting? If they do, they will be taking advantage of the British fishermen who are endeavouring to carry out proper fishing.

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

I am glad to say that one of the things agreed yesterday was a roll-over of the various conservation measures. I assure my hon. Friend that, in those waters in which we are responsible for surveillance, proper surveillance will take place.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , Berwick and East Lothian

As there will be only 72 fishing days between the date set for the next Fisheries Council meeting and the deadline on 1 January next year, and as the House is rising next week for the recess, will the Minister take this opportunity to tell the House of his contingency plans for protecting British fishing interests at the beginning of next year?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

No, Sir, because I do not negotiate on the basis of announcing what I shall do if I do not succeed.

Photo of Mr Barry Henderson Mr Barry Henderson , Fife East

Is it not ironic that apparently it is the Danes who are holding up the settlement, bearing in mind that it was their ruthless industrial fishing methods that caused great problems in the fishing industry generally?

As there was the possibility of reaching a settlement on an earlier occasion, when France was causing the difficulty, can my right hon. Friend tell us whether there are any aspects of that near agreement which the Danes were then accepting but are not accepting now?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

No, Sir. There has been no basic change in the position. One of Denmark's problems is that it has a minority Government, but it also has the responsibilities of the Presidency of the European Community. One matter that emerged clearly from the meeting was that the rest of Europe expects Denmark to conduct its Presidency in the interests of Europe.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

For how long will the Minister retain his innocent belief that there is good-will in the Community to reach a fisheries settlement that is satisfactory to British fishermen, as there is always one obstructive fishing nation in the EEC? He said that his position on ratification of the agreement by the House of Commons was the same as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin). Can he remind me of that position?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

The right hon. Member for Deptford said that if one reaches an agreement that is satisfactory to the industry one must accept it and then justify that action to the House of Commons. That is what he told the House. It is obviously difficult to reach agreement when each nation wishes to have the maximum amount of fish and the best access arrangements. There is a strong desire to reach agreement among nine countries and I hope that, before the end of the year, that desire will extend to the Ten.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

Is not the lesson of the latest Council meeting that our vital national fishing interests would have been better protected if the Minister had asked for majority voting on the issue earlier? Secondly, as the Danes are in the Presidency and that option will no longer be open, is there not also a risk that the right hon. Gentleman's earlier settlement of agricultural price fixing, which he deliberately linked to the budget, will be used to link the budget to a fisheries settlement? Can he assure us that there will be no such linkage?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

I have had the delightful task of negotiating in Europe for the past three years and I believe that there would be nothing more disastrous for the United Kingdom than to have majority voting. I should not join any process of majority voting, although no doubt on some occasions it would be to our advantage. As to the linkage between the budget and other matters, the proposals now advanced by the Commission on quotas will mean a better position than at any time in the Community's history, including the time when the leader of the Social Democratic Party was President of the Commission.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

As my right hon. Friend the Minister has greatly reassured me, and possibly others, with his clear statement to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) that the Government will not permit fishing up to the beaches at the end of the year in the absence of an agreement, does he agree that it would be much more satisfactory, instead of seeking a hasty and unsatisfactory deal, to work to a deal that would be acceptable to all fishing organisations, including the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

I shall try to reach an agreement that has the support of all the fishing organisations. At a recent meeting with the NFFO president there was no disagreement about our negotiating position. I asked this organisation's leaders whether, if we reached a settlement that was agreed by the fishing organisations that were responsible for 80 per cent. of the catch, they would wish to veto the entire agreement. They replied that they would not.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

There will now be another two months' delay before arrangements are made. Is the Minister now beginning seriously to consider giving financial aid to the industry, such as operating subsidies, because bankruptcy is facing both large and small firms?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

We are considering details that have been sent to us, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows better than most hon. Members, the fishing industry has diverse interests. A substantial section of the fleet has had much higher catches and prices during the past six months. Other sections of the industry are now in difficulty. We are considering carefully the detailed picture that is being presented to us.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

My right hon. Friend has not said anything about the reestablishment of the British veto. As this is fundamental to the Agriculture Council, can my right hon. Friend say what discussions there were about the restoration of the British veto and when he expects to see it restored? If he has any doubt about its restoration, what discussions has he had with his colleagues as to the action that should be taken by the Government?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

Community procedures are a matter for the Foreign Affairs Council and they have been discussed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The Minister mentioned the political pressures on Denmark, which he said had a minority Government. Will he add proportional representation to those problems?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

It is not for me to analyse why the Labour Government in Denmark is a minority one.

Photo of Mr David Crouch Mr David Crouch , Canterbury

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members feared that he might have been tempted into a trade-off with the French and the Italians about the distillation of wine and that we are grateful to him and to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for not having been so tempted? Will he acknowledge that, in reaching the decision, he was helped by advice from Members of all parties?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

I am grateful for the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The fact that the final wording of the agreement is highly satisfactory is to the credit of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who spent four and a half hours negotiating the wording and who eventually achieved what he required.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Rother Valley

Although the Minister's comments on industrial alcohol could have been worse, does he agree that the larger problem of the enormous over-production of wine in the Community, which leads to the astonishing and increasing export of large volumes of wine to third countries at prices such as 4p and 5p a litre, should command even more attention than he has devoted to the problem so far?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

Yes. I did not go into detail about all the wine regulations that I mentioned in my statement. However, I know the hon. Gentleman's interest in the topic and he will find important structural proposals in the package, which I hope will reduce surplus wine production.

Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Renfrewshire West

I hope that the Minister has taken on board the genuine, sombre concern that is felt on both sides of the House about the time factor. As we understand the position from his statement and from answers, there was agreement by everyone except Denmark. Does that mean that he is in total agreement about the limits laid down in the Commission documents?

Secondly, what does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about confirming with the House the September agreement, if it should be reached then, because we are not talking about a normal agreement? The Minister referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin). We are now talking about the next 10 and probably 20 years of fishing policy, and the Minister must obtain agreement from the House before he concludes that.

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about the latter point. The right hon. Member for Deptford was also questioned about total agreement on the common fisheries policy. He reasonably and rightly said "If in the middle of the night I have the opportunity … " I agree with that view.

I made it clear in my statement that nine countries agreed that we cannot meaningfully discuss quotas, access and total allowable catches until we know the additional available catches from the Norwegian joint stocks. The opportunity to discuss and make changes in those areas did not occur at the meeting, because we agreed that until the details of the additional stocks were available we could not discuss quotas.

Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Renfrewshire West

The Minister answered a question that I did not ask. I asked him specifically about the six-mile or 12-mile limits. Does he agree with the Commission document on those limits?

Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester

Those matters are still under negotiation and the position is changing continually. I have agreed no proposals for access with another country or with the Commission.