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4.43 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): As it is Burns night, I have spent most of my time here trying to find a quote from the bard that would sum up the Minister's opening speech. I came up with Burns's "Epistle to Robert Graham". Graham represented Dumfries in this place in the late 18th century. The poet wrote:

That is appropriate, because these were the best of words. The Minister is the first fisheries Minister in living memory, or at least in my memory, who has known much about the industry, and that is to his credit. If his knowledge is not translated into action, however, all his fine words will serve the industry and our fishing communities no better than his predecessors, who knew and, perhaps, cared so much less.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) summed up the position. I find that our paths are converging increasingly, which no doubt worries both of us. He said that the Minister was a Minister of maximum good will but minimal money. What I want to do is persuade the Minister that that maximum good will should be translated into maximum financial support during the difficult period ahead.

I want to concentrate on the cod recovery plan, before saying something about the future of the common fisheries policy--if, indeed, there is one--and how that future can be sustained not just north but south of the border. As was appropriate, the Minister began by paying tribute to those who have lost their lives at sea. That should remind us all that this is a special industry full of special people and special communities, to whom we owe a special obligation.

I would not argue that the economic pressures on the industry and the safety issues are always directly related. Many fishing incidents are not due to economic pressure. However, the combination of younger skippers and older boats going to ever more distant waters is increasingly dangerous, and economic pressure is a factor in the safety concerns to which the Minister rightly drew our attention.

The cod recovery plan is, of course, much better than the original. I have the infamous "sausage" here, whose design may or may not have been drawn up by David Armstrong. Some say that it was drawn up by a MAFF official, no less. In any event, this map would have decimated the Scottish fishing industry. There is no doubt about that. It is the one thing on which I agree with Tory Front Benchers: the map could have been designed to aim not a sausage but a dagger at the heart of the Scottish industry.

Here we have the new--as of yesterday--corporate company plan: a much more sensible plan, which owes much more to the contribution of fishermen themselves.

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However, as has been said by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, it involves not minimal but substantial sacrifice--the sacrifice of fishing opportunities over the coming months in the short term, let alone what will happen over the next five years.

A phenomenal amount of effort has been involved. If we had been told a few years ago that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the NFFO would come up with a plan involving the closure of fishing areas and the unilateral pursuing in Scotland of the square mesh panel as a conservation device, we would have found it difficult to believe. Yet all Members now receive letters from the various environmental organisations saying that the fishermen are right.

All the efforts of the leaders of the fishing industry, especially in Scotland, to carry their members down the line of conservation will be reduced to nothing unless the cod recovery plan is supported by an economic recovery plan for the fishing communities.

The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but he seemed to refer, in relation to the £100 million, to "plucking figures out of thin air", as if attacking the industry for talking in terms of such a sum. The Minister shakes his head. I do not know whether he is denying the quote or trying to redress what he said.

Why should such a sum be regarded as out of the question? The Conservative Government had to compensate vessels sailing under flags of convenience to the tune of £100 million. The Government obviously and rightly regard the west midlands car industry as a strategic industry, and several hundred million pounds has been offered to major car companies to sustain employment. Fishing employs 25,000 people in Scotland and, I suspect, about the same number south of the border. It is a major strategic resource-based industry and it is entitled to look for roughly similar financial support in current circumstances.

If the Minister was saying that he wants to see more detailed projections, fair enough. If he was dismissing out of hand an economic claim for such support, that was fundamentally wrong, given the economic sacrifice that will be made. Although he did not use the phrase, he meant that the Fontainebleau agreement had been an albatross round the neck of the fishing industry over the past 15 years. He was absolutely right, and he and I long argued with Tory Fishing Ministers about that very point. He was correct that, under the terms of the agreement, 71p of every £1 given in aid to the fishing industry would be funded by the UK Exchequer, but that still seems to me a net gain of 29p in each pound. That should therefore be pursued.

The industry has been caught on the rough end of the Fontainebleau agreement and the rough end of the UK rebate. Given that billions of pounds have come back to the UK Treasury over the past 15 years as a result of the agreement, and given that fishing, by the Minister's own admission, has suffered under that agreement, is not the industry entitled to ask, "Shouldn't we get a fraction of that money, which has been acquired to our detriment?" That is why I should be delighted to be part of a cross-party delegation to the Treasury. I hope that we can make that very point and that we shall have the Minister's support in making it.

The economics of the industry are fragile, but the Minister must act, and act quickly, on one area. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) said

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that one of his boats, deprived of the opportunity to fish for cod, will switch to prawns if it can afford to regear. That will not be the only cod boat that diverts to other fishery, whether for other white fish species or prawns. More boats in Scotland pursue prawn fishery than any other fishery. If major white fish boats divert to prawn fishery, the knock-on effect will destabilise it and will progress, species by species, as the diversion of effort causes chaos in the industry.

The Minister must respond to that. There is no point in waiting to see if that happens, saying, "It might not, and fish prices might go up." It is going to happen. The Minister was told by one of his own Back Benchers that it is happening in his constituency, and I can tell the Minister that it will happen in mine. This is a classic example of when a compensated lay-up scheme should be employed as a short-term measure for the next few months. I have not suggested such a scheme as a long-term policy, but emergency lay-up must be used to restrict effort and to allow the cod recovery plan to take emergency effect. The Catalonian fleet is laid up at European expense and, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby pointed out, at ours. This is precisely the time at which to employ such a device.

I do not mind the Minister taking time to think about decommissioning, although I do support it. I remember the decommissioning money in the early 1980s disappearing up the Humber; I remember the disaster of that decommissioning scheme. I remember, too, that it so poisoned the view of the Tory Minister responsible that he blamed everyone apart from himself and refused to introduce a decommissioning scheme in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was sensible to do so. He must find a way to act now to stop the effects of boats diverting to other species. If he does not do so, all the sacrifice, or a greater part of it, made under the cod recovery programme could destabilise other scarce white fish and prawn fishery. He must respond to those concerns.

I have heard it said--not by the Minister, but by other Ministers in another Parliament--that things are perhaps not too bad, in that although quotas are much lower this year, catch was lower than quota for many species. That overlooks a frightening point. The finances of the white fish boats and many white fish processors have been shot to pieces. Young lads in my constituency go to sea for £10,000 to £12,000 a year. The Minister noted the danger of a life at sea; such remuneration will not keep people in the industry.

The processing sector has long paid low wages in many factories, and they are certainly not getting any better. Those of us with processing factories in our constituencies know that there is pressure on overtime, which many people needed as part of their substantive pay. It is no longer there. There is already pressure on low-paid workers. The industry's finances are in a severe condition. One cannot say that conditions will not get any worse than last year. They probably will, but last year crippled the industry's finances. That is why I say that an economic recovery plan must address those points. It must support and encourage the catching sector and the processing sector.

There are many ways to calculate the overall support given to the British industry, compared with the industries in other European countries and in relation to the size of the fleet. The Minister says that the French Minister often moans to him about tax, but I asked the Library of the

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Scottish Parliament last week to relate the financial transfers into the fishing industry to the size of a country's national wealth. That is a realistic way to look at the matter, and the figures are overwhelmingly clear.

On that basis, Ireland's support for its fishing industry is 10 times the UK support level. The support given by Portugal and Spain is six times the UK level. Support in Denmark is five times the UK level, and in Sweden and Finland it is twice the UK level. The support in France is only marginally above the UK level. Those competitive fleets and industries enjoy far greater support than ours.

The Minister said that the industry could expect to receive money through the financial instrument for fisheries guidance budget, but that is a mere 1 per cent. of the budget for rural affairs in Scotland, never mind the total budget for public spending. I am sure that the situation south of the border is no better. It might even be worse.

The fishing industry has not had its hand in the public purse or received substantial financial support. It is in deep trouble, and is entitled to financial support over the next few difficult months, and over the longer term.

That brings me to the future of the common fisheries policy. I shall not join in Conservative attacks on the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), but a Scottish Office paper released under the 30-year rule responded to a demand for a meeting by one of my predecessors, the former Member of Parliament for Aberdeenshire, East, Patrick Woolridge-Gordon, by stating that, in the wider UK context, fishermen must be regarded as "expendable".

It is not a figment of fishermen's imagination that the industry has been traded away for other UK objectives. That has been a clear pattern over the past 10 or 15 years in European negotiations, such as those on enlargement of the EU and accelerated Spanish access to the west coast. The industry wants priorities to change.

The CFP can be sustained only if there is equivalent funding with other competitive fleets, and if the Government give our industry as great a priority as the Danes and the Spanish give their industries. If the Minister is not prepared to do that, I shall quote him another few lines from the same Burns poem that I mentioned earlier:

I am sure that the Minister would not want to be ground in the mire by his refusal to offer support for an industry in its time of need.

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