EC Fisheries Agreements: Third Countries (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HL Deb 16 January 1997 vol 577 cc275-8

3.23 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the £30 million spent on European Community third country fishing agreements, for the benefit of Britain's Spanish and Portuguese competitors, is a sensible use of British taxpayers' money.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, some European Community fisheries agreements with third countries benefit mainly Spain and Portugal. Others benefit other member states, including the United Kingdom. Our distant water fleet, for example, is dependent on EC fisheries agreements with Norway and other Atlantic countries. The Government are concerned to achieve value for money from the agreements as a whole.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, but does he agree that to spend £30 million per annum—I believe the figure is about £90 million over four years—to sustain the Spanish fishing effort is a frightful waste of British taxpayers' money? If that amount of money is sloshing around in the coffers, would it not be better spent on sustaining the British Council or the World Service, which do some good for this country?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, although I confess to being a great fan of both the British Council and the World Service, I do not immediately see that to save money on the Spanish means that the Chancellor will allow us to spend it on them. My noble friend may wish to contemplate the effect of not spending that money on providing fishing opportunities to the Spanish. They will come to fish in our waters rather more than they do at the moment.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his initial reply the Minister referred to the fact that certain areas of the United Kingdom had benefited from the settlement. Can he indicate which areas of the United Kingdom have benefited from it? Was Ulster one of them? Is that one of the reasons why the Members of Parliament for the Province of Ulster appear to be so dedicated to supporting the Government?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no. The main beneficiaries are our distant water fleets, which are based largely in the North East.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that when these schemes were first devised soon after Spain and Portugal joined the Community (as it then was) they appeared to be a sensible way of enabling Spanish boats to fish at a distance from British shores and to be engaged in fisheries in African waters that were of little interest to British fishermen? They also served as a form of aid to developing countries. Do these considerations still apply?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend is quite right. This situation originated when the European Community took on pre-existing fishing agreements. That seemed to us at the time, and now looking back on it, to be a sensible thing to do. To some extent, they have allowed themselves to be drawn away from that rather sensible position into overpaying and chasing round the world to search for new opportunities with little regard to cost. But I believe that that has now been reined in by the European Commission.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that both Houses of Parliament were denied the opportunity to consider the 1997 provisions in this matter in their correct setting since the European Commission, in dereliction of its duty, failed to supply the British Parliament with the budget documents until it was too late for them to be considered prior to their submission to the European Parliament?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am always happy to be educated in these matters by the noble Lord.

Lord Reay

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a report on this very subject is to be published shortly by the European Communities Committee of your Lordships' House and that one of the proposals it makes is that a greater share of the cost of these increasingly expensive agreements should be borne by the fishing interests which benefit from them or by the relevant member states on their behalf? As this is currently one of the options that the European Commission states it is considering, will Her Majesty's Government give every encouragement to the Commission to proceed down that path?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we will. Until recently we have found ourselves in a minority of one in urging this kind of budget discipline on the Fisheries Commissioner. There have been a number of agreements, one of which is that with Mauritania, by which the European Commission has bought out existing commercial arrangements and reissued licences free to people who were previously prepared to pay for them. We believe that fishermen who benefit from these agreements, often substantially, should pay their proper share of the cost.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, does the noble Lord join with me in drawing to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, the Statement made by Mr. Baldry in another place last month that the British fishing industry had benefited from subsidies, mostly from the European Union but also from national sources, equal to £131 million in the past three years?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the fishing industry throughout the European Community is heavily subsidised.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the first duty of any government is to control public expenditure? Further, does he agree that it is a bit silly for British taxpayers to pay about £30 million to the UK's competitors to the detriment of their own fishing industry?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not believe that these payments can in any way be described as being to the detriment of our fishing industry. The European Community has entered into a large number of agreements, many of which benefit the United Kingdom and many of which benefit the Spanish. The fact is that some of the money that we pay goes to the Spanish and some of the money that the Spanish pay comes to us. Looking at the current state of affairs on a global basis, we have a reasonable arrangement at reasonable cost for our own fishermen.

Lord Carter

My Lords, do the Government share the concern of many people outside the House as to the effect these agreements will have on the fishing industries in some of the poorest countries of the world? I am thinking of The Gambia, for example, which has had serious problems as a result of these agreements. Are the Government prepared to impress upon our European partners the need to take that into consideration?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, obviously that is an extremely important facet of those agreements. We must ensure that they do not amount to exploitation of third countries. Indeed, perhaps one of the helpful aspects of that is that Mrs. Bonino is the Fisheries Commissioner and the Overseas Aid Commissioner. I am sure that this is a matter which she bears closely in mind.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, we have some time. If the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is reasonably brief, as I am sure he will be, I am sure that your Lordships will allow my noble friend to come in.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, contrary to the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Kempston, the first duty of any British Government is defence of the realm?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is fishing for an answer which is wide of the Question.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is not the problem here that we have foolishly given our fisheries over to the common resource of the Community, and that before we did so we had 85 per cent. of the value of fish in our waters and 80 per cent. of their volume? We now have 30 per cent. of the volume and 8 per cent. of their value. Has not that been a colossal financial disaster for this country?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, that is an old question which has been answered at great length previously. All I can say is that my answer is no. As to why, I do not believe that I have time to go into that unless I am given another hour and a half or so. I have failed to convince my noble friend in the past and I am sure that I have now.