Fishing Industry

Part of Delegated Legislation – in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 20th November 2000.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 11:42 pm, 20th November 2000

I am sure that hon. Members were expressing their excitement at the remarks that I am about to make, and expressing their support before they go home, safe in the knowledge that the British fishing industry is being well defended in the Chamber.

I have a simple theme: the rise in fuel prices has hit fishing harder than almost any other industry, and has resulted in the fact that sections of the industry are no longer viable because fuel is too expensive for fishermen to carry on fishing in the way that they have done; whereas other industries, such as freight, received help and concessions in the Budget announcements last week, and recognition of their problems, fishing has received neither help nor effective recognition of the scale of the problem. Certainly, nothing has been done about it.

The fishing industry put its case to Ministers in two or three meetings in September and since, but nothing has happened to help the industry or to save it from the consequences of the rise in fuel prices. That is unacceptable. At the same time as the fishing industry has been hit by rising fuel prices, it has been hit by another crisis as well.

There is clearly a conservation crisis, or a stocks crisis, affecting large sections of fishing. Quotas have been cut, yet in the case of some species—cod is the classic example—fishermen cannot catch the fish permitted by the quota. Catches are down, but prices have not risen enough to compensate. Indeed, they have fluctuated while the fuel crisis has put up costs.

Fishermen face three crises: higher fuel costs and a shortage of fish, as well as prices that do not compensate for that. For example, marine diesel has increased in price by 200 per cent. in just over two years, which shows the scale of the rise. Most of that increase has taken place since the spring, and it now sells to fishermen at about £230 a tonne. Indeed, I received word from Lowestoft today that it was trading at £238 a tonne; last week, others told me that they were paying 26p a litre for fuel.

Such heavy fuel charges are particularly crippling for a number of vessels—those at Grimsby, for example. Grimsby fishing vessels have further to steam to reach the grounds and catch the fish than those from other ports. Those charges are hitting vessels that have to stay longer at sea to catch their quotas and make a living. They are being squeezed both ways: the longer they stay at sea, the higher the fuel costs. However, staying at sea is the only way that fishermen can make a living.

Beamers in particular are being hit, as they need more power and use more fuel. The markets depend on the big vessels, which catch the bulk of the fish. Their throughput has to be sufficient to keep the market and the facilities in the fishing ports going and to sustain the industry, yet those vessels are being hit particularly hard. Fuel costs have risen from a fifth to about 50 per cent. of the earnings of a vessel, which means less money for the crews, who are coming home in debt.

Some vessels have tied up to sit out the situation; others cannot get crews, even in great ports such as Grimsby, because earnings are too unattractive. Crewing has always been difficult, but that difficulty is increasing because family connections and the tradition of going into fishing have been broken. For example, in June, Aberdeen's Press and Journal cited a skipper who said that his fuel costs were £75,000 a year and that that had cut the crew's annual earnings by about £3,500 a head.

Those huge cost increases are being taken out on the vessels and the crews, and they cannot be made up through prices because the fishing industry is a price taker, not a price maker. It does not have control over prices, which are set at auction and, ultimately, by the consumer. If the price of fish rises too much, consumers switch to white meat such as chicken. That imposes a limit on the level to which prices can rise to compensate fishermen for those increased costs. Consumers are not prepared to pay more for fish, so the all-round impact on the industry is disastrous.

If that impact is prolonged, some vessels will clearly drop out of the industry. Many will not be viable and will be unable to carry on fishing. The crews will be out of work and the whole industry will decline. The spiral of decline, which hit us in the 1970s, had been checked, but a resumption is imminent. My hon. Friend is a good Minister and I know that he takes the concerns of the industry seriously—indeed, he takes them to heart and keeps in touch with fishermen—but I want to impress on him the need for urgency. He must outline those concerns to a Department that can be callous and unfeeling to fishing, even when the case is argued as well as he argues it.

Fortunately, fishing has strong support throughout the country. However, some critics may point out that marine diesel is duty free. I admit that that is true throughout the European Union. Others—including the Government, I am afraid—argue that the increase is temporary and that prices will fall in the long term. However, there is no sign of that. Keynes said that, in the long term, we are all dead. At current fuel costs, in the long term, large sections of the fishing industry will be dead. Keynes' argument is therefore especially relevant. The level of prices is a nail in the coffin of some sections of the industry. If it dies, the Government will effectively have killed it by standing by, wringing their hands and saying, "We feel your pain." That is now the answer to most problems.

Feeling the pain of the lorry drivers and the freight industry produced some results. However, feeling the fishing industry's pain has produced nothing so far. Unless there is a response, we will return to the policy of the Tory years: restructuring fishing by rigor mortis. I do not want such a process to occur under a Labour Government. It is not right to allow that to happen, and to stand by without helping the industry. I do not believe that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary wants to take that position. Yet no help has been forthcoming.

Most of the European fishing nations, with which we compete for the catch in fairly intense competition, have produced some sort of support for the industry to see it through the crisis. Even the Greeks have come bearing gifts to fishermen. That has no impact on competition with us, but it shows that other Governments have been more responsive than ours.

Support has been given in some form other than for fuel prices, although Portugal provides fuel at a fixed price to the Portuguese fishing industry. The classic example of support is France, where fishermen, like lorry drivers, are prone to asserting their power, usually at the expense of British tourists who are trying to return home on the ferries. Such assertion of the industry's needs, to which French Governments listen, has produced both long-term structural support and a short-term package. We need such measures in this country if we are to maintain the competitive position of British fishing.

Pressure from French fishermen produced relief from social security charges. Dutch fishermen also receive roughly —3 million of such relief. Spanish fishermen have received —9 million in social security reductions. The support for Belgian fishermen is on a different basis; their social security contributions are deferred for one year. Those are all examples of support that has been provided to help the industry in its temporary difficulties through lower social security charges.

The French have also granted relief from port charges. It is not yet clear whether they will be written off or whether central Government or local authorities will pay them. However, fishermen have been relieved of the heavy burden of port charges. It is right that that should be done to compensate them for the fuel price increase.

In Ireland, support has been given for exploratory voyages. We used to grant such support in this country; it helps to keep the industry going. As far as I know, Denmark has not yet done anything. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us otherwise when he responds. However, support in the other countries that I cited has been fairly substantial.

Spain has granted approximately £26 million in soft loans to fishing infrastructure. That is another form of compensation. The French have given support through a reduction in finance charges for those in debt, and Belgium has done the same. British fishermen have had nothing like that.

All our competitors are anxious to secure the survival of their domestic fishing industries and to see them through this crisis, so they support them. If their industries survive and ours does not, or if our industry is reduced in scale more drastically than theirs because of the crisis, they will inherit the better future which must lie ahead for fishing with proper conservation. Is that what our Government want? Do they want a fishing industry reduced in scale by the pressure of the fuel crisis and because it does not receive help from the Government, unlike fishing in other countries?

My hon. Friend the Minister told the fisherman early on: I am not going to see our industry disadvantaged by illegal action by other states. That is well and good. He wants to maintain a level playing field, but if other states are giving advantage to their fishing industries, we must do the same.

Such measures may not be demonstrably or provably illegal. In fact, I doubt whether social security reductions are illegal. They may be inconvenient for the Government or the Commission, but their legality is another issue

entirely. Even if they are illegal, it will take a long time to prove that and to get them removed. The crisis is now. It will take a long time for the argument within the European Union about whether this support can be given to this industry and whether it is legal or illegal to go through the official channels. How much of our industry will be left at the end? How many of the EU's industries will be left, given that they will have received aid through this long process of consideration?

If my hon. Friend intends to contest these supports as illegal because they distort competition. does he have any prospect of success? Frankly, I doubt it, so it is important to keep our industry viable and to maintain a level fishing ground, which I am always talking about—it is a nice concept. Maintaining a level fishing ground means doing something for the industry now, not waiting to prove the illegality of what others are doing. The crisis is now, the impact is now, and the lack of viability is now.

There has been a series of meetings with Ministers. My hon. Friend always listens patiently. He is the best informed Fishing Minister we have had for many years, and he keeps in close touch with the industry. I am repeating to him what the fishermen have said to him, but he knows it well.