European Common Fisheries Policy (Referendum)

– in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 15th March 1999.

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Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood 4:33 pm, 15th March 1999

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the holding of a referendum on the United Kingdom's participation in the European common fisheries policy; and for connected purposes.

The objective of this Bill is twofold: first, to allow the British people the opportunity to state democratically how they wish Britain's fishing policy to evolve before any new European fisheries regime is established from 1 January 2003; and secondly, to support the statement of fisheries policy by the Marine Conservation Society, which refers to the concept of sustainable management of fish stocks whilst recognising the impacts of fishing on the marine ecosystem, in particular the environmental consequences of stock collapse, habitat destruction and the modification of predator-prey relationships". It must be understood that the European common fisheries policy was never necessary according to the relevant criteria of all-stock conservation or fisheries management. It was introduced in 1970 to allow the vessels of existing common market countries whose own fishing grounds were depleted of stocks to exploit the well conserved waters of the then applicant countries for entry to the European Economic Community: Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Shortly before the conclusion of the accession agreements, the six original European Economic Community members adopted regulation No. 2141/70, which laid down a common structural policy for the fishing industry, and regulation No. 2142/70, on the common organisation of the market in fisheries products. Those became part of the acquis communautaire, to which the United Kingdom had to agree as a condition of admission to the common market.

EEC regulation 2141/70, later replaced by regulation 101/76, required equal access to and use of the fishing grounds … for all fishing vessels flying a flag of a Member state and registered in community territory. Thus was the principle of equal EEC access to a common resource established, the birthright of countless generations of British fishermen given away, and 73 per cent. of the common resource constituted by British territorial waters opened up to the depredations of continental fishermen.

The passage by the then Labour Government of the Fishery Limits Act 1976, which established the United Kingdom's 200-mile or median line exclusive fishing zone, had no effect, as competence for living marine resources had already been handed over to the EEC. That contrasts with the cases of Iceland and Norway, where establishment of 200-nautical-mile exclusive fishing zones had been the key to their sustainable, responsible husbandry for their own stocks, the preservation of employment in their fishing industries and the enhanced prosperity of their peoples.

The Fishermen's Association of Aberdeen, in a memorandum submitted to the EU Council of Fisheries Ministers in November 1998, stated that the quota system is responsible for the dumping dead of countless thousands of tons by weight and billions of individual fish"— which is a principal cause of the overall reduction of fish stocks and makes a major contribution to pollution". It goes on to state that the system results in highly inaccurate data in official fisheries statistics, thus rendering accurate scientific assessment impossible … It criminalises honest fishermen who are obliged to dump massive quantities"— or to land quota fish illegally … It destroys direct and indirect employment through fleet restructuring and quota restrictions … it is having a devastating effect on the most vulnerable coastal communities … It has resulted in the growth of the trade in quotas, which ensures that ownership of the fleet is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The memorandum also states that in the UK at least there is little or no financial aid to upgrade or modernise the fleet". The Fishermen's Association's subsequent memor-andum to the EU Council of Fisheries Ministers of February 1999 stated: The conclusion is that the present community policy on fishing does not exhibit a single positive feature. It is destroying the fishing industry, it is creating economic, social, environmental and ecological havoc, and it violates some of the fundamental principles of the European Union. There is no way that it can be reformed. There is therefore no justification for extending the present system, which should be wound up at the earliest possible moment as a matter of urgency, without waiting for the conclusions of Agenda 2000". There now approaches a compelling conjuncture, with the imminent enlargement of the European Union and the end of the derogation by 2003 which has permitted sole British jurisdiction over fishing in United Kingdom coastal waters.

Furthermore, since the treaty of European Union, signed at Maastricht and later embellished at Amsterdam, gave the EU sovereignty over fisheries, as against the EEC competence over fisheries products under the treaty of Rome, it will be difficult for the United Kingdom, by ministerial negotiation alone, to secure EU unanimity in support of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, which we require to safeguard fish stocks in the British exclusive fishing zones and to preserve the British fishing industry—let alone to safeguard sufficient resources of fish in our waters to allow traditional access by bilateral agreement to boats of other nations.

Her Majesty's Government, by their commitment to a referendum on possible participation in the euro, have officially endorsed the referendum as the approved democratic determinant of key British policy towards the EU, and rightly so. My Bill proposes the extension of that principle to a referendum to legitimise, by national majority ballot box endorsement, the treaty change necessary to secure the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European common fisheries policy. Our people will thereby demonstrate their commitment to the ultimate supremacy of the British Parliament and the preservation of the jobs of brave British fishermen who deserve to continue to derive a livelihood from the well managed and well policed territorial seas of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole 4:40 pm, 15th March 1999

I oppose the Bill, but in doing so I seek not to divide the House but merely to place the counter-argument on the record so that people may take it into account should the Bill proceed any further.

I am not opposed to improving the lot of the fishing industry—I was, after all, born and bred in Grimsby, and have seen at first hand the devastation of the industry. However, the action of a Conservative Government back in the early 1970s cannot now be rectified by our withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. It is therefore wrong to pass a Bill offering false hope through a referendum.

I must make it clear that I am not against the use of referendums. The Government have used them several times since the elections, and they have been widely supported by the electorate. However, all those referendums were based on asking the public whether they wanted to change to a new and specified system. In this case, the reverse is true. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) seems to want a referendum on whether we should leave the common fisheries policy, but does not say what would take its place. In other words, he seems to want to ask people what they do not want rather than what they do want. That is not in the interests of the fishing industry.

The vagueness of that approach is not surprising or, indeed, inconsistent with the current approach to fishing adopted by the Conservative party. Whatever views hon. Members have on the common fisheries policy, it is worth bearing it in mind that it is a treaty obligation. Indeed, at Agriculture questions only last week, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is in his seat, was asked: What assessment he has made of the prospects of any EU nation unilaterally withdrawing from the common fisheries policy". He replied: Such action would breach European Community treaty commitments and be incompatible with membership of the EC."— [Official Report, 11 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 492.] I think that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood knows that very well. The reason he has introduced the Bill is not primarily to do with fishing, but has everything to do with his well known views on Europe. Indeed, if the European Union could collapse on the back of the CFP, he would be a happy man, but it would not be good news for our fishermen; nor would it be in Britain's national interest.

Even if people voted against the CFP in a referendum, how would the Government implement the result? We could do that only with the unanimous agreement of all the other European Union member states, which seems most unlikely. Would it help our fishermen? We would still need to protect fish stocks, and the issue of quotas and the returning of dead fish to the water would remain.

In previous speeches on this subject, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has cited Norway as a country that successfully goes its own way, but Norway has only a small fishing industry which has had problems with the management of its stocks and now has a ferocious enforcement regime. I am not sure that our industry would want to follow that course.

The Bill is wholly in line with the stance of Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen as they try to find an Opposition fisheries policy. The Tories, who signed up to the CFP back in 1971 and then reconfirmed it when they signed the Maastricht treaty under the previous Government, now seem, after 28 years of supporting the policy, to want this Bill in order to get out of it—or do they?

In a fisheries debate on 15 December last year, the right hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who speaks for the Conservatives on fisheries matters and who is in his place now, made it clear—[Interruption.] Oh, he is not right hon. I am sorry; I did my best. He made it clear that the Conservative party supported withdrawal. He reiterated that fact on 22 February this year, apparently with the support of the Leader of the Opposition. He was even given a supportive editorial in The Daily Telegraph the next day.

Since then, I fear that not all has been well around the kitchen table. The shadow Chancellor, the shadow education spokesman and the shadow agriculture spokesman have all pointed out the folly of this policy. The Leader of the Opposition, who is probably sympathetic to the Bill, nevertheless wrote an article in Fishing News, claiming that the Tories would regain control of our fishing grounds, but dropped any reference to withdrawal from the CFP. Indeed, after 28 years of adhering to the policy, he claims to have a completely new approach to fisheries". If only we had known before what we had to do.

The editorial in Fishing News was withering—certainly not as complimentary as The Daily Telegraph—stating that the Conservatives were up in the air and had no realistic explanation of how they would fulfil their promise. The Scottish White Fish Producers Association said that the response of the Leader of the Opposition was a load of waffle which underpins why the Conservatives are in opposition"; and that the true Conservative policy on fishing was "Be vague with Hague." One can imagine the shadow Cabinet sitting round the kitchen table singing, "Fins can only get better".

The hon. Member for Teignbridge clarified the position at MAFF questions only last week. After speaking so passionately for withdrawal from the CFP, he said that the Tories' fisheries policy was that we rule nothing in and nothing out."—[Official Report, 11 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 492.]

No wonder the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has introduced his Bill. He must be exasperated by the antics of those on his Front Bench. Perhaps The Daily Telegraph could run a new readers' game—fantasy fishing league. Everyone could have a guess at what will come next from the Tory shadow Cabinet on fishing.

Last week my hon. Friend the Paymaster General accused the Opposition of having a "pick and mix" approach to the Budget. I suppose that we are witnessing the Conservatives' "all you can eat" policy on fisheries.

The Bill is a final attempt to say something—anything—on fishing. It is not realistic, for the reasons that I have outlined. Those of us who served in the Labour party in the late 1970s and early 1980s know what it must be like to be in the modern-day Tory party. We know that the further one gets from power, the more bizarre and unworkable one's policies become. To judge from the opinion polls and the Bill, that rule of thumb still applies.

When considering the Bill, Conservative Members should take heed of this advice: Withdrawal from the CFP would require unanimous agreement by EU member states. They would not agree to a 200 mile fishing limit. Even before we joined the Community, we only excluded all foreign fishing vessels from a 6 mile limit. We would pay a heavy price in other areas of EU policy which could damage vital national interests. Wise words, taken from the Conservative party's policy guide for candidates at the last election, and the policy on which Conservative Members were elected. We could be witnessing a first—an Opposition who break their promises. Old Tory habits die hard.

I hope that hon. Members will reflect on all that has been said today and that the Bill, with all its shortcomings, will fail to make the statute book.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Wilkinson, Sir Richard Body, Mr. Christopher Gill, Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. John Townend, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Michael Fabricant, Mr. Gerald Howarth, Mr. Owen Paterson and Mr. Graham Brady.