30 January 2003

(S1F-2462) Fishing Communities (Support)

3. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): To ask the First Minister what measures are being introduced to support communities affected by the cuts in the fishing industry. (S1F-2462)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): On Tuesday, Ross Finnie announced the biggest ever package of transitional and structural aid for the Scottish fishing industry. Up to £50 million will be allocated to secure a sustainable long-term future for the Scottish fishing industry.

Rhoda Grant: Does the First Minister agree that we must protect conservation-led fisheries, such as those in Alasdair Morrison's constituency in the Western Isles, and in many more areas throughout the west coast of Scotland? Will he ensure that the west coast fisheries will be protected from ruinous displacement from other areas in the UK?

The First Minister: Yes. That is an important objective, which Rhoda Grant has raised with me on a number of occasions. We are working to ensure, preferably in agreement with the industry, that conditions are placed on the aid so that those who currently fish elsewhere do not move their catching to the western fisheries. It is important that we put that condition on the aid, because there is little point in our providing aid if the fishing effort simply moves west and causes problems elsewhere. The western fisheries are critical in the overall equation, although the package that was announced this week is largely for the north-east.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Does the First Minister recall European Council regulation 1263/1999? The regulation states:

"Community financial assistance may be granted for the implementation of measures in support of ... revitalising areas dependent on fisheries".

It also states that such assistance can be used for "innovative actions". Will the First Minister accept that fishing communities across Scotland are bitter about his redundancy plans for them and his manifest failure to tap into Community funds, while Spain gets money to build new boats that will be used to fish out our fish in years to come? Will he now ask for European money to save our communities?

The First Minister: I thank the member for his question and for welcoming me to Peterhead on Sunday afternoon—even if it was from behind the barrier. It was good to see him there.

There are a number of important points to make about the fishing industry. First, we must dispel the myth that there is some European Union money floating around that could have been applied for. That is simply not true. Had SNP members listened at all over the past fortnight, they would be aware that any reallocation of money within Scotland's overall fishing structural funds for the purposes that Mr Stevenson outlined would simply have led to a reduction in money for the fish processing industry. That would have been wrong.

This week, we announced the allocation of money over and above the amount that the European Commission was prepared to allocate for the Scottish fishing industry. That positive move compares favourably with the so-called recovery package that the SNP proposed this morning. The SNP says that it would scrap plans to spend money on decommissioning. However, that would simply result in a reduction in the number of days at sea for those in the north-east from 15 to nine, as outlined by the European Commission.

The SNP also says that it would maintain the industry's critical mass, but that would simply ensure that the North sea fishery stocks were depleted more quickly, thereby threatening the long-term sustainability of the industry. Moreover, the SNP says that it would provide fishery-related firms with rates relief, which it would take from the £50 million. We have made it clear that that money will be in addition to the £50 million. The SNP's recovery plan would not help the recovery of the Scottish fishing industry but lead to its decline. That is why the SNP plan will be rejected by fishing communities across Scotland.

Mr Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): First, I notice that £40 million of the £50 million on offer is for decommissioning. In other words, it is a redundancy package for the Scottish white-fish fleet. Does the First Minister honestly think that the £10 million left over will be anything like enough to cover the losses of the affiliated fishery workers and processors? Secondly, what is to happen to the boats that carry on? They will labour under 50 per cent cuts in their quotas and 50 per cent cuts in the number of fishing days. What will the First Minister's Government do to help those fishermen who are bravely trying to soldier on against the most appalling odds?

The First Minister: I will preface my remarks by saying that the cuts in quota are too deep and the impositions on days at sea are too severe. At the same time, it is vital to be honest about the matter, to face up to difficult decisions and to take the actions that will lead to a long-term future for the fishing industry.

The reality is that, if decommissioning does not take place, the majority of European Union member states will vote—it will happen automatically—to reduce the number of days at sea, possibly to even less than nine. If we do not reduce the take from the stock in the North sea, the long-term future of the industry will be less viable.

We need a balanced plan that ensures the industry's short-term future through aid, decommissioning and more days at sea than were originally proposed, attached to long-term action that will secure a more sustainable fishery. That is the right plan. Ross Finnie's announcement on Tuesday was right for the industry.

George Lyon (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Have discussions with the fishing industry begun? How will the £10 million of traditional aid be delivered to the fishing industry? When will the money begin to flow to hard-pressed fishermen who are faced with tying up on Saturday?

The First Minister: We will make the money available as quickly as possible. The Parliament will have to make the right approvals over the coming weeks. Discussions have been under way since December and those discussions will now become more detailed, because we know the overall scale of the package. I hope that we will be able to provide the aid in the near future, so that we can secure the temporary provisions that are required to see us through such a difficult period. I hope that, at the end of the day, we will have not only a stronger fishing industry, but a better set of decisions in Brussels.

The Presiding Officer: Because of the earlier interruption, I will take question 4.

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