Backbench armada takes aim at Spanish fishermen

Navy urged to take up historic role q Our man in Madrid `not carpeted'
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Indy Politics
The spirit of Drake was invoked in the Commons yesterday as Tory backbenchers demanded that the Royal Navy stand by to take firm action against any Spanish harassment when British fishermen sail south for tuna this summer.

Patrick Nicholls, MP for Teignbridge in Devon, plainly had in mind the singeing of Iberian beards when he reminded the House at Question Time of the Navy's policy, "which goes back some centuries now, of curbing Spain's maritime pretensions". He asked John Major for an assurance that the Navy would go to the assistance of any British boat "prevented from going about its legal business by Spanish actions".

To Tory cheers, the Prime Minister replied: "I can confirm that. We believe in strict enforcement, and the fisheries protection vessels of the Royal Navy will ensure that rules and agreements are respected." A confrontation in the Bay of Biscay between the Spanish and fishermen from the South- west, whose hearts were with Canada in the latest fish war, is likely.

Spain's director general of fisheries, Rafael Conde, will make an official visit to London next Monday to lobby the Government to end drift netting for tuna - the so-called "walls of death" used by British fishermen.

Mr Conde may not be the most popular man in town. William Waldegrave, the Minister for Agriculture, was about the only person in the Commons with a word of sympathy for the Spanish over their dispute with Canada, pointing out that Spain was also a parliamentary democracy with politicians under pressure. But he quickly added that high unemployment and public opinion was no excuse for over-fishing.

At the request of Sir Teddy Taylor, the Euro-sceptic MP for Southend East, Mr Waldegrave made a statement on the EU-Canada agreement on Greenland halibut quotas, commending it as a model for waters beyond the North Atlantic. Both sides had made compromises. "It is a victory for good sense and negotiation, the course which the British Government has been urging throughout the conflict."

Mr Waldegrave put a completely different gloss on reports that the British ambassador to Madrid, David Brighty, had been carpeted on Monday when he was called in by Carlos Westendorp, the minister for EU affairs, to hear of Spain's displeasure at Britain's stance.

"Media reports of this meeting bear little relation to what transpired," he said. The ambassador had been "asked to call on the state secretary".

"Mr Brighty used the opportunity to make clear that we had throughout the dispute tried to promote a negotiated settlement favourable to conservation, involving effective enforcement of the rules and acceptable to both the EU and Canada. That has now been achieved." In his diplomatic way, Mr Waldegrave underlined the Prime Minister's assurance of Royal Navy support for British fishermen in the tuna season.

Tony Marlow, Conservative MP for Northampton North, observed: "It is, to say the least, just possible that the Spaniards might make it rather hot for our tuna fishermen when they go about their lawful business later this year." "The same thought had occurred to us, and we will deploy the necessary resources," Mr Waldegrave replied. "When you are right you have to take tough action, and that we will do, if necessary, to protect our fishermen."

MPs went on to give a formal First Reading to a backbench Bill to prevent the guilty profiting from their crime by selling their story to newspapers, and to provide new protection for the identity of those accused of sexual offences such as rape.

Introducing his Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, Michael Stephen, Tory MP for Shoreham, said it would, for example, be "intolerable" if Rosemary West were convicted of the Gloucester murders and received any financial benefit from selling her story.

Like most backbench Bills, this well-intentioned measure will get nowhere for lack of parliamentary time. Its 10-minute introduction, however, enabled Mr Stephen to pursue a dual campaign and MPs will in all probability return to the anonymity issue.

Barring a general election, the Environment Bill will certainly reach the statute book. Already through the Lords, the Government's big green measure was given its Commons Second Reading without a vote.

Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, welcomed the protection agencies which form the core of the Bill but complained that no action was proposed to tackle noise pollution.

Peers inflicted an awkward defeat on the Bill, passing a "quiet enjoyment" amendment which would effectively ban noisy sports such as powerboat racing and rallying from national parks.

Pressed on the issue, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, gave only the slightest indication that he might try to reverse the amendment during the Bill's Committee Stage.

Responding to Conservative Iain Mills, chairman of the all-party car group, who voiced the alarm of rally enthusiasts, Mr Gummer said he had received a letter from the RAC objecting to the peers' amendment. He noted the difficulty of balancing the concerns of single-issue groups, but said it would be necessary to recognise people's right to enjoy a range of activites, "even in the national parks".