Fishing Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:07 pm on 14th February 1991.

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Photo of Mr David Porter Mr David Porter , Waveney 9:07 pm, 14th February 1991

I too am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this important debate, as my constituency contains the major port of Lowestoft. My delight ends there, however.

I feel a good deal of sympathy with the thrust of the Scottish amendment, which refers to "crisis in fishing". Like farming, the fishing industry is sometimes accused of crying wolf too often. Some may think that the current crisis represents more of the same, but I do not agree: the industry is crying wolf for real. For those with mortgages to pay, boat loans to service and businesses and families to maintain, the wolf is at the door.

This is, as much as anything, a crisis of confidence. The common fisheries policy is at the heart of it: it has taken the freedom to regulate the British fishing industry virtually out of the Government's hands, yet the Government still have to do some of the CFP's dirty work.

I instinctively incline to the school of thought that argues that the CFP should promptly be scrapped, but I take the point made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) in a private discussion last week. I called the CFP a dog's breakfast; he—with his many years of wisdom and experience in the House—cautioned me about the dangers of replacing a dog's breakfast with a pig's dinner.

While that may be wise, there is no doubt that the CFP's conservation measures simply do not work. It is a failed system. Every year, the extent of that failure becomes more apparent: there are still too many out-of-date boats chasing too few fish, there is still alarming scientific evidence every year, and the chasms in confidence continue. Faced with failure of the system, we bolt on another piece of machinery. This year, it is the unloved eight-day tie-up, which we have heard so much about tonight. Next year what will it be? It may be a 22-day tie-up and an eight-day fishing rule.

There are all sorts of worries about the common fisheries policy. My hon. Friend has an open door, listens well and speaks straight, but worries still linger about the even-handed application of quotas and all the other paraphernalia that surrounds the fishing industry. Any question addressed to him about the Dutch, the French, the Belgians or the Spaniards is ususally answered with the cry, "Enforcement in other countries is a matter for other national Governments." Yes, but it is all a question of confidence among British fishermen about what is happening in other countries. Can they be confident about the Spanish Government's commitment to enforcement while there is a Spanish Fisheries Commissioner? Their confidence is wafer-thin.

What hurt Lowestoft in particular was the sudden closure of fisheries before the end of the year. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food found that the full catch figures had been reached. Lowestoft's cod and sole fisheries were suddenly shut. Fishermen had been told only days before that everything was on target until the end of the year. One company alone in Lowestoft lost £333,000 due to the closure of the sole fishery. Confidence in the management of the regime is in short supply.

I am sorry to have to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I too wish to return to the question of decommissioning. The alternative is British bankruptcies. We said last month and in December that decommissioning is not a magic answer, but it must surely help. I shall not rehearse again the arguments in favour of the scheme. All I would add is that a properly administered, financed and policed scheme would, in the first instance, have to be voluntary. Many Lowestoft fishermen do not want to leave the industry. Fishermen in other ports, however, might happily leave the industry if it were made worth their while to do so —if they could pay their debts and still have something left over.

Such a scheme would make payments to boat owners and fishermen, but fish merchants and other indirect employees in the industry could be wiped out by it. Thought must be given to a whole-industry approach when it comes to restructuring it. I hope that that will be borne in mind. Fish merchants want only to keep a reliable supply of good quality fish available to the housewife. Their task in Lowestoft is made much harder when the economics of the industry frequently obliges boats to land their catch in Holland rather than in Lowestoft.

Ministers have an unenviable task. They go to Council of Ministers meetings clutching the tattered trousers of the common fisheries policy around them. Too often our European, competitors strip the trousers off them. Consequently, they return naked from those meetings. When that happens, we cannot pretend that the CFP suit of clothes is wonderful. Those hon. Members who represent fishing ports have to play the little boy to the Minister's emperor and point out that there is nothing there—that it is a sham, a charade, a pantomime, if it were not so serious.

I shall not weary the House with my objections to the eight-day tie-up. What I have had to say about the CFP, however, leads me to a list of questions and doubts which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer in writing. Will he resist an EEC trend to amalgamate all directed fisheries in the interests of bureaucratic convenience? How are North sea fishermen and related workers—they total about 2,000 in Lowestoft alone—supposed to weather effort restriction, quota cuts and increases in mesh size all at once? What thought is being given to how these ideas relate to the real world at sea and the real world of the fish markets?

If we all recognise that limitation by quantity alone fails to tackle the problem—United Kingdom fishermen have taken major reductions over the last few years—at what point do the Government say that they are happy to allow bankruptcies to help them to achieve fleet reduction and that they are happy to let the Dutch take over the North sea? When is enough enough? No one looking at the European scene, particularly the Dutch fishing industry, foresees the Dutch retreating from the fishing scene.

We hear frequently from Scottish Members with fishing constituencies that Scotland faces serious difficulties. Those difficulties may not be exaggerated, but I am sorry to say that there is often little sympathy for Scottish fishermen in the English ports. Does not the fact that there is little sympathy for Scottish fishermen reflect the confrontational nature of the common fisheries policy? The confrontation can only get worse as the European Community grows bigger, particularly if Norway, Sweden and goodness who else joins. That confrontation governs the industry, which is already the most divided industry in Britain. I remember only a couple of years ago talking to a group of angry inshore fishermen, complete with placards and banners, outside the Lowestoft fish laboratory gates. Two years ago, things were by no means as bad for them.

The Hague preference is often quoted as a wonderful device which triggers extra fish entitlement when total allowable catches fall low. It may be marvellous for Bridlington and ports northwards, but what about Lowestoft and ports south of that line? If the cod reductions invoke the Hague preference, will East Anglia be discriminated against again? Will the French get away with special derogation on mesh sizes in the southern North sea? If we go on horse-trading and quota-swapping with plaice, for example, because Lowestoft is not allowed a fleet big enough to catch its full quota, what guarantee is there that other EC Governments will not say, "Well, you didn't need it when you swapped it, so you don't need it in the future"?

What noises are we making about the former East German fleet, which is underused, inefficient and out of date? It is ideal, surely, for scrapping en bloc without any replacement.

At a time when Europeans could and should be eating more fish, the industry is facing not only the sea, but all the dead weight of the CFP, from surveillance to the transmission of catch data, and from licensing, through bycatches to technical measures. Can one wonder that there was a howl of derision last year when Mr. Marin claimed that the CFP was "theoretically perfect". Presumably, he meant that it was "theoretically perfect" in the same way that the community charge is "theoretically perfect".

During my remarks, I have mixed as many cliches as there are species in the sea. I want to end by saying to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is the blanket policy of the CFP that is so stifling. Every port, every section of the industry, every country and every species is different. The CFP must have the flexibility to reflect that. It must have it now or the crisis will destroy the entire industry.