Empire blood proves thicker than EC water than fishing water

q Canada praised for its Spanish catch q Heseltine defends gas chief's pay deal
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Commonwealth Day was marked in the Commons by a passionate defence of Canada over its seizure in international waters of the Spanish trawler Estai and an outpouring of vitriol against Iberian fishing practises.

"What conceivable interest do we have in defending the depredations of the Spanish pirates of the fishing grounds?" demanded Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby.

Roger Knapman, Conservative MP for Stroud, said: "If given the choice between supporting our kith and kin in Canada or our so-called fellow Euro- citizens, surely we could choose the former every time?"

No one had a good word for Spain as Michael Jack, the fisheries minister, responded to a request from Labour's Peter Shore for an emergency statement on the Estai affair. A minority, however, echoed Mr Jack that fishing nations should play by the rules and that negotiation rather than "precipitate action on the high seas" was the right way to resolve the dispute.

David Harris, Conservative MP for St Ives, who earlier this year led protests against granting Spanish boats access to traditional British fishing waters, said the sympathy of every fisherman in the South-west was with the Canadians.

But he warned that if Canada pursued the action, in breach of international law, Spain could use it as a precedent to arrest Cornish tuna fisherman when they sailed south in the summer. "It is not as simple as some people are trying to make out."

It seemed pretty simple according to Sir Teddy Taylor, Tory MP for Southend East: "The fishermen of Canada feel absolutely sick that their fish stocks have been destroyed year after year by Spanish vessels."

Spain responded to last Thursday's seizure of the Estai by sending a naval vessel to the troubled waters off the Grand Banks - a "gunboat" as Mr Shore described it. The former Labour minister asked if the Royal Navy was going to line up with the Spanish against a senior member of the Commonwealth and Nato ally.

Pointing out that Spain was also a Nato member, Mr Jack told MPs: "Gunboat diplomacy on the high seas, whoever undertakes it, does not remove the underlying worldwide problems of pressure on fish stocks." He said the dispute was over the division of a much-reduced total catch of 27,000 tonnes of Greenland halibut in the waters of the North West Atlantic Fisheries Organisation, outside the Canadian 200-mile limit.

The EU expected a share of about 75 per cent, in line with catches over the past three years when Canadian vessels took less than 14 per cent. But Canada now wants 60 per cent with just 12 per cent for the EU. British vessels are not involved.

Mr Shore said that only five years ago the EU catch had been about 2,000 tonnes and had gone up to more than 82,000 tonnes. Michael Lord, Tory MP for Suffolk Central, said Spanish trawlers would fish wherever they could to the detriment of fish stocks and fishing communities everywhere.

From the greed of Spanish trawlermen, MPs slipped effortlessly to similar charges against Cedric Brown, the chief executive of British Gas, and his fellow directors.

Mr Brown sat in the public gallery for some two hours waiting for the Second Reading debate on the Gas Bill, ending the company's 150-year monopoly of supply to domestic customers. He endured questions on Wales, the Church Commissioners and the Lord Chancellor's Department, plus the Estai statement, but had left before Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, defended his £475,000 salary.

Mr Heseltine said the board's pay and share options amounted to less than £10m a year compared to a company turnover of nearly £10bn. If there were no directors, no stock options and no bonuses, it would reduce the price of gas to the domestic consumer by 50p a year.

British Gas meanwhile had brought down prices by 20 per cent - £77 for the average domestic customer. "So if you got rid of all the senior directors, all the bonuses and all the options, you would save 50p for a board of directors who have saved customers £77 a year."

But Jack Cunningham, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, said the public did not care if it made any difference to their gas bills or not. "Mr Heseltine doesn't seem to recognise that out there in the country people are fed up with seeing these people rip them off."