Common Fisheries Policy

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 11th May 2004.

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Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench 2:30 pm, 11th May 2004

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration they are giving to taking the United Kingdom out of the common fisheries policy.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, a change to the Treaty of Rome, which would require unanimity, would be needed for the UK to withdraw from the common fisheries policy without withdrawing from the EU. The challenges that the fishing industry faces will be resolved not by further discussion of leaving the common fisheries policy but by practical reform. Most of the stocks that we fish migrate in substantial numbers in and out of our waters. They can be effectively conserved only through co-operation with our partners in Europe.

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not altogether satisfactory reply. Do the Government realise that, if they want to secure the Scottish vote in any referendum on the European constitution, they must either take our fisheries out of the common fisheries policy or, at the least, renegotiate the terms of membership? Are the Government aware that, as the Norwegians are not in the common fisheries policy, their waters have not been overfished by the Spaniards and others and still have plenty of fish in them?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, there has been a depletion of stocks in the North Sea of some species and not of others. The comparison with Norway is not entirely valid. As for any referendum on the European constitution, the issue will not determine the vote of Scottish electors: they are far too sensible for that.

Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour

My Lords, I am strongly in favour of Ministers being polite, courteous and as brief as possible in replying to Members. On this occasion, the Minister missed a marvellous opportunity. Should not the Minister have replied, "Non" and sat down?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, it occurred to me to do that. I am sure that, had my noble friend Lord Barnett been standing here, we would have heard that kind of answer, given in the politest possible way. In reality, the answer is "No". We are not considering withdrawing from the common fisheries policy, and nor will we.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, the Minister says that fish in European Union waters migrate and that therefore this dreadful policy is required. Will he admit that, when we joined the common fisheries policy, the United Kingdom owned more than 70 per cent of the fish that spent all their life in British waters? Will he also give your Lordships the vaguest estimate—to the nearest £1 billion a year, let us say—of the damage that the policy has done to the British economy?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, it is erroneous to say that we "owned" the fish in 1972. In any case, not many of them are around any more. Had we continued to fish at that rate, whether or not we were in the common fisheries policy, there would have been a conservation problem. There is a conservation problem now that the common fisheries policy—belatedly and not always in the most sensible way—is attempting to address. It is important that we address the problem and do so with the other nations that have access to those waters.

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Shadow Minister (Agriculture), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, will the Minister get his department to assess the impact of the decision of the Council of Ministers last winter to allow EU fishing boats, including Spanish vessels, into the Irish Sea, where hitherto they had not been? If the facts of what is going on are established, will he make every endeavour to reverse that policy?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the decision in December was negotiated in detail for different waters. On balance, it reduces the number of days that Spanish and other European vessels, including British vessels, can fish in the Irish Sea, the North Sea and other European waters. It is a means towards conserving the stocks of species that are under threat.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister, Environment & Transport

My Lords, the Minister said that we could get change only through co-operation. I trust that the Minister will, at least, acknowledge that our fishing stocks are in a very poor state. Co-operation has not been the panacea that it should have been. The Select Committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has issued four reports and knows exactly what the problem is, but there is no action. All of that is happening alongside the closure of our Scottish fishing fleets, while other European countries are allowed to reinvest in their vessels. Is it not time that the Government did something about it?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, we are doing something about it. Last winter, we got the kind of deal that was appropriate. I said earlier that it was belated and that those in the common fisheries policy had not always faced up to the real difficulties of conservation and ensured the fair sharing out of the burden. However, we believe that we are on better lines now. For species such as cod, in particular, that face serious conservation problems, we have a basis for restricting fishing and allowing for some restoration of the stocks.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Croy Lord Campbell of Croy Conservative

My Lords, is there not a conflict of policies, in that the United Kingdom has a conservation policy in our coastal waters, whereas the EEC appears to condone a free-for-all, with fishing allowed, in some cases, up to the beaches?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, EU policy in EU waters is now focused on conservation, as is the British policy on inshore fishing. As I indicated, it has taken some time to get the common fisheries policy to that point, and all countries have overfished those waters. We now face quite a serious situation, but the December agreement will, I think, begin to tackle the problem.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the Minister said that the fish had disappeared from British waters. Is that not because we allowed the predatory Spanish fleet to come in and take them all? Will that problem not be exacerbated, now that the European Union has decided that the catch should be shared between the new entrant nations? There are 10 such nations, and many of them are absolutely landlocked. As long as we keep on sharing our stocks, it is inevitable that they will be further depleted, and our fishing fleets with them.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, as far as enlargement is concerned, there are only two countries which have just acceded to the European Union that have access to the North Sea, western waters and the Baltic. They are Estonia and Poland. Between them they have a 2,000 tonnes quota compared to a total of more than 500,000 tonnes. They are unlikely to make a significant difference, particularly in our waters.

Clearly, if we do not have a common approach to this there will be a free-for-all and the conservation will not be achieved. Neither futile attempts to persuade us to leave the common fisheries policy nor wrongful assertions that the European constitution alters this situation will help in the discussion of what is a very real and serious problem for our fishing industry and for the marine environment.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, instead of describing the Spaniards as predators, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, did, does the Minister agree that, in fact, the British industry has to a substantial degree damaged itself by the sale of fishing boats, and with them the consequential quota, many of them boats that were otherwise fishing in Scottish waters?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, yes. I have brought that to the attention of the House before. The sale of some otherwise British entitlements to the Spanish and others has done some serious damage to the interests of the British fishing industry.