Spanish trawlers can claim UK cash

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Spanish fishermen operating from UK ports will be entitled to claim part of the £53m in grants put forward by the Government on Wednesday to persuade British fishermen to scrap their boats.

The money could be given to Spanish trawler owners who have infuriated British fishermen by registering in Britain, fishing in British waters, but landing their catches in Spain.

MPs expressed astonishment last night when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food confirmed to the Independent that Spaniards who have vessels registered in the UK would be eligible for the decommissioning grants. (Any EU national or company canregister in the UK.)

The amount available to fishermen prepared to scrap their boats was increased from £25m by William Waldegrave, the Fisheries Minister, as part of a desperate effort to persuade Euro-rebels to vote for the EU deal he struck last December, which will allowmore Spanish ships to fish British waters.

About 100 Spanish-owned vessels are registered in Britain and have bought fishing licences.

Last year, under the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme, 135 boat owners were paid an average of £58,000 each to scrap their vessels and hand in their fishing licences. The scheme is designed to reduce over-fishing.

To apply for grants, British-registered owners must show their boat is over 10 metres long; more than 10 years old; and, that it fished for 100 days in 1992 and 1993 in EU waters as a UK-registered vessel: they must then provide an estimate of the compensation they feel they should receive.

Jim Clench, the Registrar-general of Shipping and Seamen, said yesterday any vessel owned by an EU national or company could be registered as British. To discriminate against any EU national - in any area of policy - would be illegal, he said. "We don't know how many foreign-owned boats are registered, because to make a list of different nationalities would be seen as discrimination." Mr Clench said the only restriction on applicants is that their boat must be managed, operated and controlled in the UK.

But there is no shortage of companies able to act as agents. One of the largest is the Clearmaine Group, owned by the Couceiro family from Milford Haven, south Wales, where about 30 Spanish-owned boats are registered. Speaking from Spain, John Couceiro, managing director, said he acted as agent for eight or nine Spanish-owned vessels based in La Coruna, north west Spain, but registered in Milford Haven.

Asked whether his clients had considered applying for Mr Waldegrave's grants, he said: "At the moment, depending on the bids they would put in, there might be some possibility that they could put one in. Whether or not they will, I don't really know."

David Harris, Tory MP for St Ives, who voted against Mr Waldegrave's deal on Wednesday, said: "We have been complaining for ages about increasing numbers of Spanish boats using British flags of convenience. The idea that they could also benefit from the money offered by William Waldegrave . . . is infuriating. It is just another example of the nonsense British fishermen have to deal with."

Gavin Strang, Labour's spokesman on fisheries, said: "I'm sure that a lot of people will be astonished by this, but the logic behind it is that they are UK-registered vessels. British-owned boats could register over there, too. Nevertheless, there is still serious concern over the continued use of British registration by Spanish vessels."