I thank my right hon. Friend for having arranged the meeting between the fishermen's leaders and the Prime Minister in Perth last Friday, which was greatly appreciated. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that decommissioning is an effective conservation measure which takes vessels out of the fleet and thereby reduces fishing efforts? What advice would he give to the fishermen's leaders about what further evidence or information he requires from them to persuade his colleagues of the justice of the case which the fishermen and others have been making for many months?
I certainly acknowledge the consistency with which my right hon. Friend has advanced the case and the great importance that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation attaches to it. My discussions with the federation were useful and I was able to put the point that while decommissioning reduces capacity, it does not necessarily reduce effort. It is the reduction of effort which is most important. I have told the federation that if it cared to introduce a package of proposals in which decommissioning was a component I should be willing to consider it.
Mr. Robert Hughes:
Is the Secretary of State aware of the mounting evidence that the eight-day tie-up scheme is being administered with extreme harshness, not with the flexibility that was promised when it was announced? There is much confusion about the view of the Scottish Office and the Government on decommissioning. Would it not be better if the Secretary of State commissioned an independent study by experts in fishing and economics to have a clear look at the matter? That would avoid the prospect of the Secretary of State, simply because he thinks that events may affect his political future, saying that he will consider the matter, while the Government resist on every occasion. Why cannot there be an independent assessment? The case could be proved without a shadow of doubt. We could then have a decommissioning scheme and honour would be saved, too.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the eight-day tie-up arrangements are subject to conditions set down in a European regulation and are not at the discretion of the Government. To the extent that we have discretion in the matter, the tie-up arrangements are being applied as flexibly as is compatible with the important need to conserve stocks. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the most important criterion in the whole exercise is the need to conserve stocks, especially of cod and haddock, so that there will be fish for future generations of fishermen.
Does not the Secretary of State accept, however, that other European countries are implementing effective Government-backed decommissioning schemes to enable skippers and owners who want to leave the North sea fishery to do so? Is he also aware that other European Governments are implementing effective compensation for the tie-up period and social security schemes for people who work on boats but are not skippers or owners? Why are the interests of crewmen in this country being prejudiced, when they operate a fisheries policy common to European Community? Why are they not getting the same benefits as are available in other countries?
Decommissioning schemes are in operation in other countries, but that does not exempt them from the need to apply other conservation measures as well, including the eight-day tie-up. If the Scottish Fishermen's Federation produced a package of proposals including a decommissioning component—perhaps funded to some extent by the industry—we should be willing to consider it. Our overriding priority is to ensure the conservation of stocks so that fish are there for the future.
Is the Secretary of State aware that, as well as the crisis in the fish catching side of the industry, a tragedy is taking place in the processing side of the industry, with businesses closing down on a regular basis? A dangerous situation is developing. In the north-east of Scotland we shall lose a large proportion of our fish processing industry. Is the Secretary of State aware that when fish processors recently made representations to the Scottish Office, they were rebuffed? There was no sign of sympathy whatsoever. What are the Secretary of State's proposals to assist fish processors through this difficult and dangerous time?
Of course, I appreciate the knock-on effects on the fish processing industry, but other options are open to fish processors, such as diversifying into other stocks and importing stocks. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have secured for the industry European Community grant aid of about £15 million for 1991–93. That will be of considerable value to the industry in modernising its premises and processing capacity.