I beg to move,
That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 1996 (S.I., 1996, No. 1242), dated 7th May 1996, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th May, be approved.
I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak in this debate, and I shall try to keep my comments as brief as possible. I hope that hon. Members will show some forbearance with interventions as I expect to cover most concerns in what I shall say.
I suspect that it will be helpful to the House if I put this order in context with what the European Commission said last week about decommissioning. Last Wednesday, the European Commissioner with responsibility for fisheries, Mrs. Bonino, held a press conference—of which we were given no notice—to outline her proposals for the next round of decommissioning, which is intended to take the European Community from now until the year 2002.
It is difficult for me to help the House in any detail on those proposals as they have not yet been tabled by the Commission, but judging from the reports of the press conference, the impact of Mrs. Bonino's proposals, if adopted, would be cuts of up to 40 per cent. in parts of the United Kingdom fishing fleet. That is wholly unacceptable.
Mrs. Bonino went on to describe the UK fishing industry as being among the "bad boys" in Europe for not having met existing decommissioning targets. Such a description is somewhat galling for the UK fishing industry, particularly as Mrs. Bonino described countries such as Spain as being among the good guys. What she failed to connect, of course, was the ability of Spanish fishing interest to move into the UK fleet. It is easier for Spain to meet her decommissioning targets when a significant number of Spanish-skippered, Spanish-owned and Spanish-crewed vessels are masquerading as UK boats and catching fish against the UK national quota. That is a crazy situation which cannot be allowed to continue. The European Commission cannot be surprised that the UK fishing industry is not and will not be prepared to contemplate any further substantial reductions in the UK fishing fleet until the Commission tackles and deals with the whole issue of quota hoppers.
When Mrs. Bonino was in the UK recently, she gave the impression that there might be some simple way within the existing rules which, if only the UK Government were to take it, would enable us to eliminate quota hoppers within a short time. No one is keener than I am to see the quota hoppers dealt with without delay and for UK fish to be available for UK fishermen. I therefore immediately instructed officials to explore in detail with Commission officials what it was that Mrs. Bonino was suggesting that we might do to tackle quota hoppers.
I am bound to tell the House that, on further detailed investigation, it became clear that there was no immediate solution that the Commission could offer. I am sorry that responsible newspapers such as The Independent, presumably on the basis of Commission briefing, have suggested that there is such a remedy available. There is not, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that we shall be seeking to deal with the whole problem of quota hoppers at the intergovernmental conference.
Given the nonsense coming out of Brussels and especially that uttered by Mrs. Bonino, given the nonsense of the common fisheries policy and especially the discard policy, and given that the Government are raising the issue of quota hoppers at the IGC, may I suggest that we go one stage further and seek a fundamental renegotiation of the common fisheries policy, not least so that we could control our own waters, no doubt with the same pattern—
We should at all times show leadership in the European Union and in the fundamental reforms of the common fisheries policy that we seek.
I must make progress; this is only a short debate.
The straightforward fact is that upwards of 150 UK-registered vessels are now owned, or part owned, by foreign interests, mainly from Spain and the Netherlands. They represent some 20 per cent. of our offshore fleet and take a significant proportion of UK quotas of fish such as hake, plaice, megrim, sole and monkfish. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue. The Commission and the European Community must take action to deal with quota hoppers.
Does the Minister recall that the issue of decommissioning and quota hopping was mentioned when I brought a delegation to see him on 27 November? He told us that it was not possible to deal with the matter in the context of the IGC. Will he consider specifically quota-hopping flag boats which have not, as I understand it, been involved in the decommissioning scheme at all, except for perhaps one boat? If the scheme continues as it is, 50 per cent. of certain species, notably hake and plaice, could be taken from our quota by quota-hopping, flag of convenience foreign boats.
Order. This is a very short debate. Many hon. Members have put their names down to speak, but the hon. Gentleman was not one of them. Long interventions are not helpful.
Let me make it absolutely clear that, as I have just said, at the IGC we intend to deal fully with the issue of quota hoppers. The Community has to take action to deal with quota hoppers. The current crazy situation cannot continue.
I represent Scarborough and Whitby. Is the Minister aware of the tidal wave of anger and frustration that has swept my constituency over the question of decommissioning? Is it not time that this country decided for itself what constitutes its own waters? Should not Britannia show Mrs. Bonino the way and declare a 200-mile limit around our shores?
I regularly meet representatives of the fishing industry. I met representatives of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation the day before yesterday, and I am glad that they very much support the line that I am taking. I work very closely with the UK fishing industry. Indeed, I see my role as doing what is in its best interests. If there is to be fishing in the European Union against national quotas, it makes sense that the quotas benefit the fishing communities of individual nations rather than the vessels of other European Union member states which rarely, if ever, visit the countries concerned—let alone bring any economic benefit—but simply catch their fish against those countries' fishing quotas.
We have told the IGC, the Commission and other member states that we shall be tabling changes to the treaty which should enable individual member states to adopt appropriate measures to ensure that their fishing communities and related industries are able to benefit fully from the national quotas allocated under Community fishing policy.
There will be an initial discussion, but no decision, on the Commission's latest proposals on fleet structure and fishing effort at the Fisheries Council in Luxembourg next week. In any event, the full proposals have not yet been issued. I shall be making it clear that, until real and substantial progress is made on tackling quota hoppers, the Commission cannot be surprised that we shall not be ready to agree how to reduce further the UK fishing fleet. I shall, however, be making a number of other points.
I do not want there to be any scintilla of a suggestion that, when progress is made on quota hoppers, we shall simply accept any restructuring or decommissioning targets that the Commission wishes to set—far from it. First, the Commission's proposals for the next round are apparently based on a report by scientists known as the Lassen report, which makes recommendations as to where fishing effort should be reduced in Community waters but, bizarrely, makes no recommendation for reducing industrial fishing. It appears that the proposals, which currently look as though they might reduce UK fishing effort by up to 40 per cent., would have absolutely no impact on industrial fishing—a form of fishing which is carried out on a huge scale and has implications for much of the marine ecosystem. It is very difficult to agree fisheries conservation measures which seek to cut pretty well every other aspect of the fishing fleet if they leave industrial fishing untouched. It is quite bizarre.
We are all aware, and the UK fishing industry recognises, that fishing is a hunting activity and that it is important that there are sustainable levels of fish left in the sea. As the recent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology made clear, the world's fish stocks are in a state of crisis. That report concluded by saying:
in their heart of hearts, scientists, fishermen, managers and politicians must all know that action must be taken now
if we are to prevent a repeat of episodes like the collapse of the Grand Bank stocks. Indeed, the scientists tell us that almost 60 per cent. of the main stocks in the waters that we fish have now been reduced to a level where there is a real risk of biological collapse. Even allowing for all the uncertainties and variables which characterise fisheries management, the stark warning in such messages is clear.
With improved technology, modern vessels are simply more efficient machines for killing fish, and fishing effort has to be matched to what the stocks will bear. Clearly there is a need to reduce fish mortality, but the Commission's proposals on decommissioning simply translate killing capacity into tonnage. Fishing vessels vary enormously, however, and it is again somewhat strange to believe that 1 tonne of an older fishing trawler has the same killing capacity as 1 tonne of a modern, large, well-equipped fishing vessel, with radar and other technology which is able with a good degree of accuracy to target, catch and kill large quantities of fish.
Many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate. I am sure that I shall cover any issue that the hon. Gentleman intends to raise.
Britain has, on average, a somewhat older fishing fleet than many other member states. We need to ensure that any future structural scheme takes adequate account of the age and killing capacity of the vessels involved and does not simply assume that every tonne of every fishing vessel has an equivalent killing capacity.
I shall also be making it clear next week, when these matters are raised, that countries such as Britain, which spends some £25 million on fisheries protection and enforcement-through the Royal Navy, among other means—should be given credit for that in relation to member states in which, the Commission has acknowledged, enforcement seems to be somewhat less effective.
Clearly, any fishing reduction or effort-control targets must be properly policed. There is a need to match fishing effort to available fish in the sea. Much more work and much more study is required on any proposals that the Commission might bring forward to ensure that they meet the needs adequately and fairly. While that work is going on, we shall expect real progress in considering and taking forward the tackling of quota hoppers.
It is also somewhat galling to be described as being among the "bad boys" of Europe when the European Commission persists in using figures that we have repeatedly told it are incorrect and which give the impression that the UK fishing fleet has increased in recent years. That is not so, and the facts are straightforward. In the past three years, 436 boats have been decommissioned and £26.2 million has been spent on decommissioning. That is a sizeable number of boats—and a substantial amount of money—and represents 6.6 per cent. of the original UK fishing fleet.
There has been wider confusion in the Commission about the UK's past performance and, sadly, a tendency not to compare like with like in publishing tonnage figures. We have been discussing a range of technical points with the Commission and have requested that it make a number of necessary adjustments to our multi-annual guidance programme figure. Once those corrections have been agreed, I believe that we shall be within a handful of percentage points of our target. This scheme will take us closer still.
As I have said, everyone recognises the need to match fishing effort properly to available fish in the sea. This statutory instrument is designed to deal with our commitments to reduce fishing capacity and to meet targets that are due to expire at the end of this year.
Before my hon. Friend concludes, will he give an assurance that the motion is being introduced purely and simply to help the conservation of fish and has no other ramifications?
The motion completes our obligations under the decommissioning programme. The programme's only objective is to try to match fishing effort to available fish in the sea. It is a continuation of the scheme that was already in place last year.
During the debate last year, a number of suggestions were made about possible improvements to the scheme. I and my hon. Friends who have responsibility for fishing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland promised to listen carefully to what was said. We have listened. I gave a commitment to seek industry views on what could be done and to reconsider the position in relation to the specific queries that were raised about the scheme last year.
If the hon. Gentleman allows me, I might tell him some good news.
I gave a commitment, for example, to consider the position on the eligibility of nephrops vessels in the light of subsequent developments. I am glad to be able to tell the House that we have been able to meet almost all the concerns raised in the consultation exercise and significantly to expand the 1996 scheme to make it more attractive and better value for money. It might be helpful if I outline briefly those changes and the principle features of the proposed scheme.
In essence, the changes relate to the eligibility criteria, which we have widened considerably. In particular, we have reduced the number of qualifying days spent fishing from 100 to 75. We have removed the restrictions on licence type to allow any licensed vessel over 10 m in registered length to apply. That will, of course, allow applications from shell fishermen and from vessels in the Nephrops and distant water segments. I know that that is very much welcomed by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishing Federation. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), has had a number of very useful discussions with the SFF on that very point.
In the consultation exercise, I suggested the possibility of allowing vessel owners to retain or dispose separately of their decommissioned vessel's track record. The response demonstrated no support for such arrangements. Again, we listened to the industry and have decided not to proceed with that suggestion. In response to a number of understandable concerns, I have introduced a greater degree of flexibility to permit historic vessels to be preserved afloat. That can be done while safeguarding public funds by allowing such vessels to be placed with registered museums. I very much hope that that will enable what is clearly a valuable part of our maritime heritage to be retained for future generations.
I have already given way to my hon. Friend.
The scheme was launched on 9 May and applications must be submitted before 25 June. Application forms and details of the scheme have been available in local port offices for some time, and it is clearly in the interests of anyone who wishes to apply to do so as soon as possible.
Before concluding, I should like to make one further announcement concerning the Seafish Industry Authority's application for a grant towards its promotional campaign to encourage greater consumption of fish and hence provide better market conditions in future. I am pleased to say that a grant of just over £2.5 million has been approved and will be paid over the next three years.
As the UK Fishing Minister, I have only one interest: to promote the best interests of the UK fishing industry. I think that everyone in the industry recognises that there must be sustainable levels of fishing if the industry is to have a secure future well into the next century. With improved technology, modern vessels are more efficient machines for killing fish. Fishing effort has to be matched to what stocks will bear. The 1996 decommissioning scheme is part of our strategy to ensure that the UK fleet can remain viable, better match available fishing opportunities, and continue to contribute to the renewal of the very fishing resources on which so many livelihoods depend and which I am determined will have a strong future well into the next century. I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome the Minister's recognition of some of concerns of the industry and Opposition Members in the new regulations and the multi-annual guidance programme—especially the more flexible approach and the inclusion of nephrops boats in the decommissioning scheme.
Opposition Members also welcome the fact that, after lengthy correspondence, the Minister has made provision for some historically interesting boats to be bought by trusts and museums so that they can be preserved. I only hope that that policy does not lead to too many fishing boats ending up in museums.
Now that the Minister has recognised that historically interesting boats can be preserved and need not be destroyed, will he extend the policy to the sale of boats to waters outside the European Union, and, indeed, to overseas aid schemes, on which I know he has received representations from myself and groups?
This debate has been overshadowed by Mrs. Bonino's recent announcement about the 40 per cent. cut in fleet capacity. The Minister was quite right to stress that. There is a serious problem with fish stocks, which the industry recognises, and progress must be made to ensure that the capacity is matched to the available fish stocks. Opposition Members think that the 40 per cent. cut on top of what has already been agreed is just not acceptable. I am quite sure that the Minister agrees that the figure is open to negotiation. We certainly look to the Government to ensure that negotiations result in a more realistic figure.
Opposition Members also want to ensure that the figure is based on sound science. The Minister referred to the Lassen report that brought about the proposal. Although there is a need for effort control, I hope that the Government not only succeed in reducing the 40 per cent. cut but try to get the Commission to accept that effort control need not just be fleet reduction. It can also concern technical conservation gear. I know that the industry—the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishing Federation—has submitted detailed proposals to the Ministry on how technical conservation gear can reduce effort, and I very much hope that they are taken seriously.
I also endorse what the Minister said about the disgraceful omission of industrial fishing. It is remarkable that a serious study on fish stocks has not taken into account the impact of overfishing in industrial fishing, and the effect it has on the overall ecology of the sea.
I welcome the Minister's strong comments about industrial fishing. I regret, however, that the Government gave financial aid to a fish meal plant in the United Kingdom based on industrial fishing. I only wish that they had thought about the impact of industrial fishing in the way the Minister did tonight when they were considering that particular grant.
The report concentrates on weaker stocks. That is understandable, but it does not take into account the impact of the figures. The fact that the United Kingdom fleet is older than many of the more modern fleets that have taken advantage of grants needs to be worked into the equation.
As the Minister said, the report does not take into account the impact of flag vessels on the United Kingdom register that represent 20 per cent. of the fleet fishing some stocks. That is an amazing figure. He said that action needed to be taken, and that Mrs. Bonino was considering what should be done. However, he could have produced some firm proposals to put to the Commission on how the problem of flag vessels should be tackled.
I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. We are having a serious debate on serious matters, not the rubbish put out by Tory central office. I have been concentrating on the central issues; however, I should stress that the Labour party argued for decommissioning and other measures, for years before the Government implemented them. We have also argued for technical conservation measures and working with the European Union to address some of the problems.
One of the main reasons why we have an aging fleet and why we are have these problems is that we were the last country in Europe to introduce the decommissioning scheme, and that should be taken into account.
Is not the truth of the matter that, for the past 17 years, the Tory Government have been responsible for running down the fishing fleet around the coast of Britain? As there will be a general election in the next 12 months, they are now singing a different tune. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather odd that the Government, who are vetoing everything blanket fashion in the Common Market, are not voting against tonight's proposal?
The tone of the Minister's speech has subtly changed in recent debates. He seems to have moved towards a more Eurosceptic point of view. That demonstrates the weakness of the Government and the fact that the tail is wagging the dog.
I return to the serious problems and issues that must be addressed. There has been a history of mismanagement of the fisheries industry in Britain, and it does not all involve the European Union. There has been a great deal of mismanagement of Government policy, and the delay in decommissioning is only one aspect of it.
Will the Minister consider how we should deal with the flag ships? Does he have any firm proposals? Both the Minister and the Prime Minister have said that they intend to deal with flag vessels. That is fine, and we agree, but what are the Government's proposals? How do they intend to address the issue?
Some minor issues that Opposition Members have repeatedly raised have been ignored. They include the national insurance contributions from the crews of flag vessels, the requirement for British officers to captain those ships, and the proportionate use of United Kingdom port facilities. I do not dispute that there are difficulties, but the Government ought to consider them and draw up proposals.
The Minister says, "We are." I hope that he will spell out some of those proposals tonight. He might like to consider raising with the Commission an extension of the decommissioning scheme in order to buy out some of the flag vessels that are currently on our register. I agree that the way in which foreign vessels have flagged out on our register to fish on our fish stocks is certainly an abuse of national quotas and fish stocks.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that he agrees with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who said on 19 December:
It is unacceptable that we should be decommissioning vessels to facilitate additional fishing opportunities in waters around the UK for the fishing industry of one of our European partners-4n this case Spain."?— [Official Report, 19 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 1358.]
Does he agree with that?
It is totally unacceptable that we should be asking UK fishermen to decommission to make way for vessels from other member states. That is not acceptable to the Labour party. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East was quite right about that.
To return to the reduction of effort and the abuse of the flag vessels, there is a lesson of regulation for the Government to learn. We need to make progress in dealing with that and addressing our own reduction figure.
When we were termed the bad boys of Europe by Mrs. Bonino, she was referring not to the fishing industry but to the Government. We have made very little progress towards our target set by the MAGP. The Minister said that he intends to announce how near we are to that target, but hon. Members may have noticed that there was no such announcement tonight. It would be helpful if the Minister would tell the House what progress has been made and how near we are to meeting those targets.
I know that the Minister is having discussions, but some of those discussions on how the targets are met and the way in which the figures are calculated depend on the good will of the European Commission and whether it will accept the Government's interpretation of them. We are all aware that the present atmosphere is somewhat strained.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should make rather faster progress towards those targets? Would that not mean further cuts in the amount of fish that British fishermen can fish?
I shall come to that point in a moment, but, as the Minister said, the industry recognises there has to be some reduction, in order to match our fishing capacity to available fish stocks. There is no argument about that, but we can certainly argue about the level of the reduction, the basis of the calculation and the science being used. There is a great deal of debate on those issues.
As for meeting the reduction, Labour has long argued that, if there has to be some reduction within the present targets—not the 40 per cent. that I consider is not sustainable and will not be imposed in the United Kingdom, but the scheme that has been agreed as part of the four-year programme—it should have been front-loaded in the first place. If we agree that there should be a reduction in the fleet, surely it would be better that it should happen as quickly as possible to help those who want to get out of the industry to do so, and to make more fish available for those who want to remain in the industry. In that respect, the Minister still has an option of bringing forward the £13 million that is earmarked for next year.
Both the Minister and my hon. Friend have referred to our aging fleets. In essence, we are talking about the reduction of an aging national fleet. At the same time, we must talk about the renewal of the remaining smaller fleet. Particularly on the west coast of Scotland, we need new vessels to replace our drastically aging fleet.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about a real problem within the industry. If we made some progress with decommissioning, the Government would be eligible for the rebuilding grants that have benefited other countries for some years, and have enabled them to modernise their fleets. Even under the present system, a scrap and build policy that takes into account the aggregation would attract some grants. The Government might like to discuss that with the Commission.
It is clear that the common fisheries policy has failed in respect of sustainable fisheries management. It does not have the confidence of the industry, and in that respect needs a radical reform. The Opposition certainly emphasise that. The Minister said that the Government will raise the issues of reform of the CFP and of flag ships at the IGC, and we very much welcome that. I hope that they make some progress, and that they get some co-operation. But the present policy has been too little, too late, to deal with the problems of the fishing industry, and it does not provide the industry with an option. It is vital that the Government make firm proposals to ensure that we have a sustainable future for our fleet, so that many of our boats do not end up in maritime museums.
In my opinion, it would be nonsense if the House voted against the motion tonight. The industry is in favour of the scheme, and, in a brief circulated to most hon. Members with fishing interests, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations described the terms of the statutory instrument as "uncontroversial fine-tuning". I am sure that that is right.
I speak as a member of the all-party Back-Bench alliance that fought hard and long to have a second decommissioning scheme introduced. If we stop the decommissioning scheme as it is constituted at present, there would rightly be howls of anguish from the industry. However, I have some reservations about the impact of the decommissioning scheme.
During the last round, for example, there was a concentration of activity regarding the number of boats in certain ports to be decommissioned. In Newlyn, the decommissioning scheme reduced almost at a stroke the catching capacity of the boats there, although other boats were introduced to the area.
The background to the debate tonight is perhaps not so much the details of the scheme included in the statutory instrument, as the remarks by Commissioner Bonino, who called for a 40 per cent. reduction in certain sections of the fleet—albeit across the European Community as a whole for certain sections. Her comments provoked yet more howls of anguish from our fishermen, who were right to protest about the proposal.
The hon.Member for Glanford and Scunthoipe (Mr. Morley) referred to the Lassen report, upon which Commissioner Bonino apparently based her remarks. That report is quite clearly flawed, and all the informed comment, particularly from the NFFO and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, shows its defects. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely correct to focus on the fact that we have an aging fleet, whereas some of the boats in the Spanish fleet in particular are modern vessels.
The report therefore did not compare like with like. We must dismiss some aspects of the report, and the rather crude and unrealistic call by Commissioner Bonino. If her proposal was ever implemented—I do not think it ever will be—it would spell devastation for many of our fishing communities, and for the industry as a whole.
My complaint about Mrs. Bonino's rather superficial remarks is that, in putting forward this "solution", she ignores the basic defects of the CFP. There is a consensus in this House—irrespective of one's attitude towards Europe—that the CFP is, not working, and is in fact anti-conservationist. It is not good enough for the Commission to say that we should somehow cut our fleet, as if that were the answer to the problem. It is not, although it may be a part of the answer.
Like the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe, I accept that there will have to be some scaling down of the fleet, and the industry agrees. I regret that, but I do not believe in kidding people. However, if we do not radically reform the CFP, we shall gain nothing by reducing the size of the fleet. We must carry out a root-and-branch reform of the CFP—that is the imperative.
We must also deal with the vexed question of quota hoppers. I have been fighting this wretched business of quota hoppers—or flag of convenience vessels as we called them in the old days—for more than 15 years. I have been spelling out the dangers and what they would lead to long before Spain came into the Community, and that is when action should have been taken. I deplore the fact that the effective action proposed in the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 and overruled by the High Court was not taken before Spain came into the Community. If action had been taken, we would not have the problems we face today.
I am indebted to the NFFO for spelling out the present position in stark statistical terms. Do people not realise that, at the moment, much of our quota is not in British hands and does not belong to British fishermen or our industry? Some 46 per cent. of our hake quota and 44 per cent. of our plaice quota is owned by foreign interests, mainly Spanish. For megrim, the figure is 35 per cent., for monkfish it is 29 per cent., and for sole it is 18 per cent. It is well documented that 20 per cent. of the tonnage of our fleet is owned by foreign interests, mainly Spanish and Dutch. That is intolerable and totally unacceptable. No wonder our fishermen are seething with anger, and we were daft to allow this situation to develop. We must put a stop to it.
Having said that, I very much welcome the robust remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister in his immediate response to Commissioner Bonino's irresponsible statement a week ago. I also welcome the pledge by the Prime Minister that, if necessary, we will look for treaty changes to deal with the central issue of quota hopping.
I must say that I am sceptical about the outcome. I was in Spain two weeks ago with other members of a Committee, and we met the Spanish Foreign Minister. The reaction of the Spanish Government to our promise to pursue the matter if necessary at the IGC was to beg Britain not to do so, and they made it clear that they would use the veto if we did. What incensed me was that the Spanish said that there is no problem, despite the figures that I have quoted to the House. It is a huge problem.
We have just as much of a fight on our hands on quota hopping as we have with beef, and it will be a test of the determination of the Government and the Prime Minister to force a solution to the problem. I hope that we will succeed—and we must succeed, in the interests of our fishing industry and our fishermen. They must be our prime concern in this House, irrespective of party position. There is a huge consensus in the House, especially among those of us who have the honour to represent fishing constituencies. We need results. This is not just a game—I say that with the greatest respect to some of my hon. Friends who comment on these issues.
An industry is at stake here. We must ensure that we defend its rights and those of the United Kingdom. We must pass the statutory instrument, but we must not lose sight of the tremendous battle ahead of us on quota hopping and reform of the common fisheries policy, because the industry's future depends on it.
I realise that time is short for the debate, and that several hon. Members wish to take part, so I shall try to be as brief as I can. I will put four questions to the Minister, in the hope that he will be able to respond to them.
The first question, which has already been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and by the Minister, relates to the importance of technical conservation. I should like the Minister to say what stage he has reached in discussions with his European partners and the Commission in pursuing measures on technical conservation. In particular, my constituency fishermen are interested in square mesh panels, which they consider a sensible way forward. Those panels are cheap and effective, and their use is supported by the fishermen. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether he has taken up such measures with the Commission, and what progress he made.
My second question echoes the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about the restructuring and modernising of older parts of the fleet. Have the Government any plans in that respect, and if so, exactly what are they? Are they working on measures to help to renew the older parts of the fleet?
My third question, which has already been raised, is what proposals the Minister has for solving the quota hopper problem. It is important that he should begin to share with the House some of his ideas on that issue, which is at the heart of the crisis we face in the industry at the moment.
In the light of the debacle over the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, it is important that the Minister shares his ideas with us at the earliest possible moment, so that we can discuss them and perhaps probe whether they offer our best solution. I remember the debates in Committee on the Merchant Shipping Act, when the Government's suggestions were criticised. The Government were told that their proposals simply would not work, and those criticisms have turned out to be absolutely valid. It is therefore important that the Minister does not charge ahead with his own ideas. He should share them with the House and the industry, which would then be better served.
My final question considers a group of people who have not been touched upon in the debate—those ordinary members of crews of fishing vessels that are decommissioned. The owners of those vessels get reasonably large sums of money from decommissioning, but those who have worked on those vessels for 10 or 20 years end up with nothing and just become unemployed.
When we consider the decommissioning package, we should also think about those ordinary crew members. We should think of measures to compensate those who are taken out of the industry through no fault of their own but simply because of its overall needs. I should be grateful if the Minister turned his mind to what can be done to help those ordinary crew members, who end up with nothing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his robust speech, which will be applauded by my constituents. I do not see, however, how anyone of us can have any enthusiasm for the statutory instrument, because it will not achieve the objective we all desire.
We could double the size of the fishing fleet going out to sea, and there would be no danger to our fishing stocks if our fishermen were able to go back to the fishing methods of an earlier generation. Equally, we could more than halve our existing fishing fleet and the fleets of other Community countries, and our fishing stocks would be so depleted that we would cease to have a fishing industry of any consequence if we all went along with high-tech industrial fishing methods.
Industrial fishing methods are being rapidly adopted not just in Community waters but around the world, and they have become a curse on conservation. I repeat that it is a worldwide problem, but I wish that this country would take the lead, as it is uniquely qualified to do, not just in Europe but internationally, to alert the fishing industries to the fact that, unless we tackle industrial fishing methods and the evils it is bringing, we will have a grave ecological problem in our seas in quite a short time.
The problem of quota hopping has been mentioned forcibly by several hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who said that he had been arguing against it for 15 years. Surely the problem goes back to 1970, and the genesis of the common fisheries policy.
On the eve of our application to join the European Community, the Council of Ministers passed the regulation that enshrined the principle of equal access. It was therefore immaterial what country one came from, because one had equal access to all the waters. That principle was reaffirmed in 1976. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not in his place, because I intended to remind him that he was in the House then and supported his Government, which he did loyally in those days, on that issue. Given his absence, I had better say no more about it.
We should remember that the problem goes back a long time. We conceded the principle when we joined the Community in 1973. If we are to make any progress on quota hopping, that regulation of 1976 must be expunged. I hope that the Minister will confirm that; that he will keep it in mind; and that he will do his utmost to achieve that objective. If he fails to do so, perhaps even he will consider the necessity for not just a root-and-branch reform of the common fisheries policy but something even more radical.
I do not wish to follow the point made by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body), because he misunderstands the issue to the extent that the common fisheries policy is built on the concept of relative stability. It is the contradiction between quota hopping and relative stability that must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
This is an item for the intergovernmental conference, so we must know what exactly the Government propose to do. Some suggestions have been made, but no specific attempts have been made to identify the necessary approach. The Government will have my full support and that of my hon. Friends to achieve that end. The IGC has been going on for some weeks. I know that it is a lengthy process and that there is still time to discuss the issue. I understand that nothing will be decided in the discussions on Monday. I am not asking the Minister to show his negotiating hand, but he needs to reassure the industry that he is taking the issue seriously. He needs to put some flesh on the bones.
I support the statutory instrument for the reasons that everyone has explained. The relaxation of the eligibility criteria is welcome, and the prawner question, which was vexed and hard fought last year, has been dealt with. The industry is a lot happier. We would obviously be a lot happier if more decommissioning schemes were introduced, backed up with proper funding, for which we have argued for many years, at least since the late 1980s. I hope that the Government will continue to do what they can to increase the access to and eligibility for decommissioning schemes in the future.
I should like to refer to the Minister's comments on the multi-annual guidance programme. I was encouraged by the tone that he adopted on some issues. The Government are entitled to be robust about the relative position of the United Kingdom and the Commission on the MAGP. However, there is still much confusion about the exact targets and shortfall, about whether the deficit will be carried over and, if it is to be carried over, the consequences that that will have for MAGP3 and up to 2002.
I hope that, if the Minister has time, he will consider that matter. I was encouraged that he took such a robust attitude to the Lassen report and the Commission's announcement on that. A 40 per cent. reduction, even if it is over five or six years, is unacceptable, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed great anger about that. I add my weight to the frustration expressed by other hon. Members. We support the Government's opposition, and I hope that that will be continued robustly.
The two specific objections to Lassen have both been mentioned, but I mention them in passing. It is unacceptable to proceed with these issues without taking account of the effect of industrial fishing and the fact that this is a biologist's report; ridiculously, there is no socio-economic analysis and perspective. The Commission must understand that, if fishermen are not committed to the schemes, mechanisms and processes, if they do not accept their value in their innermost hearts, they will not work. We must work with the grain of the industry.
Sadly, there is no basis for equating a 40 per cent. reduction in catch with a 40 per cent. reduction in capacity.
I know that the Minister received no notice of the announcement by the Commissioner, but can we get together to try to create better consultation procedures for setting total allowable catch limits? This scheme has been better than most, but it needs to be improved more in future.
The issue of quota hopping is bound up with the concept of relative stability, and we shall support efforts to change the treaty to get the common fisheries policy and quota hopping better sorted out, but it is an IGC matter and the Government need to say more about what they will do about that.
I sound a note of warning about the potential difficulty of not agreeing to consider anything to do with the Lassen report until quota hoppers are dealt with; some people would be encouraged by that, because they have a vested interest in procrastinating on both those issues. The Government must be careful how they play that tactically. A treaty change on quota hopping is necessary, but even a treaty change—the Minister might confirm this—were it to be successful, and were the Government to win that argument, could be, as far as I can read from a legal point of view, only a prospective suggestion. What can we do about those who are already in the system, and why cannot the Government use some of the money available from the CFP in connection with third-country waters, to buy people out of quota hopping? That appears a simple, straightforward way in which to proceed.
I am very worried about the continuing aging process, which has dramatically increased in the past 10 years. Ridiculously, the average age of our vessels is now 25 years. The Government are putting their head in the sand and are not making use of some of the socio-economic funds that are available through the CFP, for scrap and build and for some pension provision for those who leave the system. There is much to be done. If the Government are robust in dealing with Lassen and quota hopping, they will receive my support and that of my hon. Friends.
This is one of those debates that happens all too rarely in the House, in which there is a virtual unanimity of view across the House from all parties, whatever view we have taken individually about our membership of the European Community in the past. Speeches such as those by my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) show the outrage that exists throughout the House. The passion that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives brought to bear in his speech shows that the patience of fishermen throughout the United Kingdom is very thin.
Indeed, it has gone.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I had the privilege of welcoming the Fisheries Minister to Great Grimsby a few weeks ago. There, despite the devastation that we have witnessed in the fishing industry in the past two decades, there was a buoyancy with the opening of the new fish market—yet suddenly Commissioner Bonino knocks that confidence. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister has responded so robustly, and I hope that he will pass on the message from the House, from all the political parties, that there is outrage about the manner and tone in which she made those announcements.
I fear that, if we fail to sort out this issue, fishermen's patience with the common fisheries policy, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, has gone, will never return. Our patience on both sides of the House with the common fisheries policy will then go, the public's confidence in the common fisheries policy will go—if it has not gone already—and there will be a massive upwelling of public feeling, as we look at beef and as we look at fish, which will cause the public to ask the purpose of our membership of the European Community.
In the referendum in 1975, I voted against our entry into the European Community. In the past two decades, however, I bought the view that the issue was resolved once and for all—that that was it, we had had our say, the people of Britain had had their say and it was time to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we were in the European Community and had to make the best of its institutions.
I have gone along with that view pretty well for the past 20 years. In 1986, I did vote against the Single European Act, but I bought the general view that, for better or for worse, we have been in the European Community and we must make those institutions work with regard to fish, the common agricultural policy and so on.
I do not want the House ever to have to come to consider our withdrawal from the European Community, but it will, I suspect, be an issue such as fish that will be the straw that breaks the camel's back with regard to the patience of the people out there and of the fishermen out there.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby and I constantly attend meetings with the shadow Fisheries Minister, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). The fishermen we meet ask us what the benefit is of being in the common fisheries policy. We say to them that, unfortunately, for better or for worse, that is the structure under which we must operate at present; that is where the negotiations must take place. The fishermen's response shows that they are starting to wonder what is in the common fisheries policy for them. The concept may have been a good idea, but currently it impinges very unfairly on our British fishermen.
I am delighted with the robust view that my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in the Government have taken. I am sure that they are not countenancing failure, but if they are unable to deliver what I know that they will negotiate for, our continued membership of the European Community will be called into question. I therefore wish my hon. Friend every success, because much more hangs on a successful outcome of the negotiations than our ability to deal with this problem. I believe that, as we reach the end of this century, whatever Government are in power, the issue of fish will determine the national attitude to whether our continued membership of the European Community is a good thing.
I regret that I have not tabled an amendment, because it would be nice to have a longer debate, as we should now ask questions, and call in question the basis of the decommissioning policy. I am aware that Labour Members supported it for a long time before the Government did anything, but that delay has created a whole new ball game. It is a ball game in which the British industry is now being asked to decommission on what will be a massive scale if we cut 19 per cent. over the effort targets by the end of this year, then 40 per cent. by 2002, effectively to make room for Spanish vessels in our waters, to make more space for large, modernised, efficient European fleets, and to make more room for quota hoppers on our register.
The other European countries have reached their multi-annual guidance programme targets by flagging their vessels under the British flag. Under the MAGP targets up to the end of 1991, Spain had to reduce its effort by 2.2 per cent. It registered 3 per cent. of its fleet as British to catch our fish. The Dutch had to reduce their effort by 16 per cent., so they put 6 per cent. of the fleet under the British flag. We now carry the burden and have to reduce our effort because of that reflagging. Jim Porteous of the south-west fisheries producers organisation has calculated that the flag of convenience vessels are now catching £82 million-worth of our fish in our waters and landing it in European ports. That is why we now face this huge reduction of effort and it is one of the reasons why we should call into question the decommissioning process.
There are other reasons for calling that process into question. I have seen the Grimsby fleet drastically reduced. It is heart-rending, because it is one of the most conservation-conscious and efficient fleets in the country. It uses a larger mesh size than most other fleets and the vessels are older. They are seine netters, which is not an efficient method of fishing. It is not the vacuum cleaner method, scooping up everything. It is conservation-effective. We need more inefficient fishing, so that the fishermen catch larger fish, leaving the smaller fish to be caught later. We are taking the most conservation-effective vessels out through the decommissioning scheme, and that is wrong.
Another reason why we should question the decommissioning scheme was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald). The decommissioning proposals do nothing for the share fishermen. They are losing their jobs as the vessel is being laid up, but nothing is being done for them. I asked the Minister why the Government did not accept the European proposal—I am not advocating accepting European proposals en masse—to part-fund an early retirement scheme and a compensation scheme for fishermen on decommissioned boats. The Government said that they preferred that to be taken care of by national social security measures.
However, because we are talking about share fishermen who work on a self-employed basis, there is nothing for them when their vessel is decommissioned. They are losing their livelihood, but there is no redundancy pay and no help or support for them. If we are to have effective decommissioning, it is essential that something should be done for the fishermen—the poor bloody infantry of the industry. It is time that something was done.
We are asked to make cuts in our effort to the end of this year, as a prelude to what the Commissioner told us might be a cut of 40 per cent. in the British effort. That is ludicrous and totally unacceptable. I am delighted that the Minister is committed to working against it. I want to tell him that the only way in which it can be resisted is by calling into question the basis of equal access to a common resource on which the common fisheries policy rests. If we accept that principle, it follows as night follows day that there will be cuts pan passu across the board.
It is ludicrous that we who bring the most fish into the so-called Common Market pool—about 75 per cent. of the stock—should be asked to take the biggest cuts in our fishing effort. We are being asked to make a cut of over half. The only way to resist it is to say that the cuts should be in inverse ratio to the contribution made to the stocks. If we contribute the most stocks, we should take the lowest cuts. Spain, which has a massive fleet and no fishing waters, should take the biggest cuts. That is the only logical and acceptable way to do it.
We are reaching the end of the line. The Government have come to us bleating about the benefits of the CFP, but have done nothing for the industry except watch it be restructured by liquidation. They must stop the quota hoppers, which means an assault on that principle. They must get greater powers for the territorial states, so that we can protect our stocks and not see them stolen by other vessels. They must end the equal access. That is the only way to defend British fishing and to see some improvement. I offer the Government the principles contained in my Bill—the Fishery Limits (Amendment) Bill—which does all those things. I hope that they will look at it.
I agree almost entirely with what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I go along with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I agree particularly with the feeling of resentment about the stocks caught by the quota hoppers. That must be addressed.
I want to make one specific point that has not been covered in the debate so far. Rather unusually, my point involves the banking system in Scotland. The banks play a major part in the fishing industry because they lend finance to the fishermen so that they can obtain the boats that they take to sea. We recognise that the fleets are aging and that in the future there will be a need for the banks to provide support if we are to increase the potential of our vessels and improve safety factors, with fishermen going to sea in modern vessels.
The problem is the way in which the decommissioning scheme will be implemented. Fishermen will have to have their documents handed in and the vessels scrapped by the end of October. Thereafter, there is a 30-day gap to the time when cheques will be handed over. I am advised that at that time, the banks lose security on that element of cash. That is not acceptable to them. It would add costs to the industry in the future if it were to be permitted and if people defaulted on their bank loans.
I welcome the co-operation that is allowing all hon. Members with fishing interests to participate in the debate. Every fishing debate is controversial, and an hour and a half is not sufficient time for such a debate.
I want to make three points. We all agree that the common fisheries policy is a busted flush and should be changed fundamentally. There are three areas that destabilise the CFP. The first is the flag of convenience vessels, and that point has been mentioned many times. I remember the Merchant Shipping Bill back in 1988, when the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and I proposed amendments to toughen the conditions placed on flag of convenience vessels. At that time, despite the fact that that legislation was their fourth attempt to deal with the issue, the Government told us that everything was in order and that they had the matter in hand. They told us that our amendments were no good. Whether the amendments were good or bad, they could not have been any worse than the Government's attempts in that Bill.
The issue is now to go before the intergovernmental conference. There is a point that I want the Minister to think about. As I understand the policy of non-co-operation, everything is to be vetoed regardless of whether it is good or bad. Even if treaty changes on flags of convenience vessels were achievable, am I correct in believing that they would be vetoed by the United Kingdom? The Minister seems to be shaking his head, but as I understand the policy, everything is to be vetoed regardless of whether the United Kingdom supports it. The Minister should address that.
The second issue that destabilised the CFP was Spanish access to western waters six years before it was provided for in Spain's treaty of accession. This morning, The Times said:
Spain's unexpected decision to vote in favour of lifting the embargo on British bovine by-products may have been taken in the hope of a future quid pro quo with Britain on fishing rights.
We have been here before. There have been Council meetings at which Spain suddenly decided to vote for the United Kingdom's position on qualified majority voting. We then found out that the fishing industry had been sold down the river as part of that bargain. Would the Minister care to deny the report in The Times this morning that Spain's decision to side with the United Kingdom might have something to do with its interest in fishing matters?
I have absolutely no idea where that story came from, and it bears no relation to the truth. Spain changed its view because it saw our eradication document, and it was able to support us on that basis.
I look forward to the Minister's letter to The Times, in which he will doubtless give us the details of the dirty deal that was done with Spain three years ago, which gave it accelerated access. The Minister shakes his head, but I have heard the same point made by Conservative Members.
The third factor that has destabilised the common fisheries policy is the quota allocation. The Minister, rightly, in his short term of office has been directed to technical conservation, square-mesh panels and industrial fishing as alternative methods of conservation. We all accept that quota allocation is fine at times of abundant fishery, but when the fishery becomes tight, the quota allocation becomes perverse as a conservation policy. Many Opposition Members have put the arguments for square-mesh panels and industrial fishing to many of the Minister's predecessors for many years, but we have yet to see effective action pursued and taken.
I know that the Minister has been engaged in the dramatic consultation process in the past few months. I wish him well, but I hope that his declarations on and interest in questions of technical conservation are carried through into serious argument in the Council of Ministers.
I, too, welcome the Minister's tough talk on fishing this evening, but I have seen his predecessors come and go. They all, including the UK Fisheries Minister—as the Minister described himself—said that they would act tough and change their ways on the common fisheries policy. Yet they all went to the Council of Ministers and did not talk tough there. If they did, that did not have any effect because they acted like lambs.
The consistent feature of United Kingdom fishing policy has been to subordinate fishing to other interests in the European Union. That is why Spain, which is in the CFP, secured a good deal and Norway, from outside the CFP, secured a good deal. Fishing is an absolute priority of policy for both countries. Only when a Minister can come to the Dispatch Box and promise the House that fishing will be an absolute priority will he have any chance of success in European negotiations.
The statutory instrument covers the period up to the end of this year, but the decommissioning will not stop there and further proposals are in the pipeline. The debate has revolved not around the instrument but around those further proposals.
The social and economic structure of the areas affected by fleet reductions has been well explored in the past and needs no repetition, other than to say that if the Irish sea fleet had to cut its catch by 40 per cent., the present onshore infrastructure simply could not be sustained, because the throughput of fish would be so low as to make the whole operation uneconomic. I am sure that that also applies elsewhere.
The fishermen in Northern Ireland are astonished by the latest proposals, because they know that some species are abundant in the fishery at present, including haddock, herring and prawns. That was apparently also the view of the scientists until the turn of the year, but those early opinions seem to have been set aside despite the fact that the prawn fishery was increased by some 3,000 tonnes.
It now seems that a massive cut is being demanded because the Community has taken a global view of all EC fisheries and has made cuts on that basis instead of considering individual species or fishing areas. That is not acceptable to the fishing industry, those who represent it in the House or the country at large. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that it was not acceptable to the Government. I hope that the Government will reject the cuts that have been demanded and opt for a policy tailored to each area and species.
It is clear that the UK has suffered disproportionately from the changes made over the years, and there has been a huge reduction in the fleet in Northern Ireland already. We shall now be asked to give still more. It is time for a radical change of policy, because the Northern Ireland fleet and those elsewhere in the United Kingdom have shrunk far enough.
Something must be done about quota hopping. Much has been said about quota hopping, but something must also be done about the privileged position created for the Irish Republic by the Hague preference system, which has not been mentioned so far. I shall not go into details, but the facts will be well known to fishermen and all those who represent fishing constituencies. Those problems need immediate resolution and even more immediate is the need to fulfil the Government's pledge that the Irish sea Hague preference losses would be made good by international quota swaps.
In the longer term, we need to clarify whether the Government accept the draft report of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on fisheries, issued in early May, which discussed decommissioning and reducing activity and catchability. In short, the question the document raises is whether the EC should have a small fishing fleet with a high catch capacity per vessel and utilise it fully—apparently that would be technically easy, because many vessels are tied up—or whether it should be satisfied with many more but less efficient vessels that would keep more people at work at sea and also more small fishing ports open. That needs careful consideration, because the smaller one-rig boats that fish for prawns ensure a steady year-round supply of prawns and steady employment. The larger, more efficient boats provide more seasonal supply and employment.
The report states:
Measures to reduce activity and catchability will improve the willingness of fishermen to leave the industry".
If applied, that would lead to a policy that squeezed the individual fisherman financially to the point at which he was not able to catch sufficient fish to keep his operation viable and would therefore be forced to take a small sum in compensation and leave the industry. Is that unacceptable policy precisely the result that the demand for a further 40 per cent. cut is intended to achieve?
I am grateful to hon. Members for their wide-ranging contributions to what has once again, and rightly, turned out to be an impassioned debate. The fishing industry is a vital part of our national life and is at the heart of the constituencies of many hon. Members who have spoken today. I am proud to include myself among them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) said, and whatever the difference in views, I believe that the whole House yearns to see a viable and profitable UK fishing industry that husbands the natural resources surrounding these islands and harvests those natural resources on a sustainable basis. The fish stocks on which our fishing industry relies are heavily over-exploited. Failure to tackle overfishing exposes the fishing industry to an increasing risk that those stocks will simply disappear, and that must never be allowed to happen.
On the subject of the multi-annual guidance programme, the House has shown its real concern about the scale of the possible capacity reductions that the Commission is now seeking to achieve by 2002. I shall repeat the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State and make it clear to all hon. Members that there is no prospect of our decommissioning a third of the UK trawler fleet over the next three years, as Mrs. Bonino has suggested, but there is still a need for us to help remove from the fleet those vessels that are becoming increasingly unviable. Only in that way can we safeguard the future of the remaining fleet, place it on a more viable footing and reduce the incentive to overfish. That is why the Government propose to spend a further £13 million under the scheme before the House.
There is no doubt that we need to reduce fishing effort for the future of the industry. The question is not whether, but how and to what extent different parts of the European Community fishing fleets should reduce their fishing activity. Of course, as the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said, we do not need to proceed by decommissioning alone. The fleet can be reduced in other ways.
For example, although there is not much agreement in the industry, I know that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation is increasingly willing to contemplate restrictions on time at sea. I commend that thinking and I look forward to the UK industry acting responsibly and making known its detailed considerations of the Commission's proposals as we discuss them in the months ahead. I stress again that, in their present form, the proposals are unacceptable to the industry and to the Government.
Many hon. Members mentioned quota hopping, especially my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). Of course, there is no point in spending UK taxpayers' money to decommission fishing vessels if other member states can continue to export their own surplus capacity on to our fishing register. It is vital that action is taken to close that loophole, which is exploited by quota hoppers. It would be intolerable if we were to scrap UK vessels, for them simply to be replaced by flag boats from other member states fishing against UK quotas. Although we took action to try to remedy that problem in 1989, our action was struck down by the European Court—the same European Court that many Opposition Front Benchers would sell their souls to serve.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear the Government's resolve to tackle the quota hopping problem at the intergovernmental conference. He made that point forcefully in his useful meeting with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation in Aberdeen last month. We envisage that our proposals will take the form of a protocol to the treaty, which recognises that national quotas allocated under the common fisheries policy are to be used for the benefit of national fishing communities. The protocol will be designed to allow individual member states to adopt measures to ensure that there are real economic links between their fishing communities and the vessels that fish their quotas.
As my hon Friend the Minister of State said, the European Commission cannot be surprised that the UK fishing industry and the Government are unwilling to contemplate any further programmes of reductions in the UK fleet as long as the problem of quota hoppers remains to be solved.
Under the common fisheries policy, UK quotas are for the benefit of UK fishing communities, not for the benefit of fishermen from other member states. Fishing makes a vital contribution to the wealth of fishery-dependent areas, which are often in remote parts of our country where the scope for diversification is limited. It is our job to ensure that that contribution is properly safeguarded and secured.
Some hon. Members asked about technical conservation and progress. I acknowledge the positive role that is played by our fishing industry and the fisheries conservation group. They have agreed a package of measures which, if adopted, should help to reduce discards and improve the state of some of the stocks on which our fishermen depend. We have passed details to the Commission and will press it to present its proposals as quickly as possible. Of course, we shall update the House on that.
It is obvious that the Minister is running out of material with which to respond to the debate. I have a basic question. There have been consistent references to decommissioning and to how we can reach the multi-annual guidance programme. Can the Minister state the exact UK tonnage, because three different figures have been published in the past month?
Obviously, there is confusion about that, and so that there is no ambiguity, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will write to the hon. Lady and to other hon. Members.
Some hon. Members mentioned a decommissioning scheme specifically for quota hoppers. There are 150 quota hoppers in the UK fleet, representing one fifth of the tonnage of our offshore fleet.
I should like to intervene before the Minister moves too far from his response to the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald), who made a valid point about the early retirement scheme and the Government's opposition to it. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will look again at introducing the scheme, in view of the considerable hardship faced by some fishermen?
As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, there is a variety of other schemes, such as FIFG and PESCA. As she presses me to have a second look at the matter, I am happy to assure her that I shall do so.
I have already given way to the hon. Lady.
Clearly, if we were able to decommission the 150 quota hoppers, it would go a long way towards meeting any targets for capacity reductions. Of course, there is nothing to prevent quota hopper owners from applying for decommissioning grants under the scheme before the House. Some quota hoppers were decommissioned under previous schemes. A special scheme targeting them would be quite different, and I am not sure that fishermen would take kindly to our spending large sums of public money to buy them out.
Even if it were possible to devise such a scheme, some difficult issues would need to be resolved. Should arrangements be voluntary or compulsory, and what steps should be taken to prevent the owners of decommissioned vessels buying back into the UK fleet? How could we be sure that the quota that was released by the decommissioning of such vessels benefited UK vessels and interests? Those and other matters would have to be carefully considered.
If I were the Minister, I would not burn my bridges about buying out quota hoppers. I would introduce some flexibility. The Minister said that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation supported days at sea measures. Will he make it clear that they would not be an addition but in exchange for a relaxation of the quota regime?
Of course they are not. I am not ruling out the idea of buying out quota hoppers—far from it—but our fishermen would want satisfactory answers to a series of technical and important questions before we went down that road. I am trying to flag up some of the questions and issues that would have to be discussed with the industry and sorted out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. Although we have no plans for a scheme at present, I am not willing to rule it out. Indeed, I am willing to look at it with our industry.
The measure will, I hope, make a valuable contribution to improving the operation of the UK fleet. As the Minister of State said, there have been a number of changes in the criteria compared with the 1995 scheme, and they are all designed to make it more effective. I am glad that the House has been able to welcome the widening of the scheme, which will allow more vessel owners to apply.
We have had a full and useful debate. The proposed scheme will make a modest but valuable contribution towards restructuring the UK fishing fleet and safeguarding its future and that of the fish stocks on which it depends. I have no hesitation in commending the scheme to the House.