Minister slates EU plans to cut fishing fleet

Inside Parliament
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No more cuts in the British fishing fleet would be contemplated until the European Commission dealt with the flag-of-convenience vessels scooping British quotas, Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister, said last night.

His scathing rejection of cutbacks on anything like the 40- per-cent scale which was suggested last week by Emma Bonino, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, was echoed on both sides of the Commons and by pro-Europeans and sceptics alike.

No MP, during a debate on decommissioning vessels, recommended anything less than a radical reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and some with fishing constituencies wanted to abandon it altogether and claim territorial waters up to a 200-mile limit.

Mr Baldry told MPs that more than 150 registered vessels were now owned, or part-owned, by foreign interests.

They represent 20 per cent of Britain's offshore fleet and take a significant proportion of its quota of hake, plaice, megrim, sole and monkfish.

Although the minister pleased MPs with a widening of the criteria for decommissioning vessels this year, the loudest cheer was for his attack on Mrs Bonino's proposals for the next round-up to the year 2002.

If adopted, the impact would be cuts of up to 40 per cent in parts of the British fleet. "This is wholly unacceptable," Mr Baldry said.

"It is easier for Spain to meet her decommissioning targets when a significant number of Spanish-skippered, Spanish-owned, Spanish-crewed vessels are masquerading as UK boats and catching fish against the UK quota - a crazy situation that cannot continue.

"The European Commission cannot be surprised that the UK fishing industry is not and will not be, prepared to contemplate any further substantial reductions in the UK fishing fleet until the Commission address, tackle and deal with whole issue of quota-hoppers."

Mr Baldry said that, contrary to the impression which was given by Mrs Bonino, there was no way of dealing with quota-hopping through existing rules and he was sorry that "responsible newspapers, on the basis presumably of Commission briefing," indicated there was such a remedy available. On detailed investigation, there was no immediate solution that the Commission could offer.

Mr Baldry added that it was also "somewhat galling" to be described by Mrs Bonino as being amongst the "bad boys" when the Commission persisted in using figures that it had been told repeatedly were incorrect and gave the impression that the British fishing fleet had increased in recent years.

In fact, 436 boats had been decommissioned in the past three years at a cost to the scheme of pounds 26.2m.

Michael Brown, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes, warned that if ministers were unable to deliver the end to quota-hopping that they had promised to negotiate for, then Britain's membership of the EU would be called into question.

Mr Brown, an opponent during the 1970s of joining Europe and who has since gone along with Britain's membership, said he did not want the House ever to have to consider withdrawal, but if it did, he suspected it would be over an issue like fish.

Though Mr Baldry talked tough, there seemed to be little optimism that John Major's attempt to end quota-hopping by negotiation at the Inter- governmental Conference (IGC) would be successful. David Harris, Conservative MP for St Ives, said he was "very sceptical". His understanding from a meeting two weeks ago with the Spanish fisheries minister was that Spain would use the veto if Britain pursued the IGC route.