First Minister Alex Salmond has today written to the Prime Minister urging him to allow Scotland to speak at tomorrow's EU AgriFish Council meeting in Brussels.
Scottish Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead is travelling to Belgium to attend the talks which will feature discussions on the ongoing dispute with Iceland and the Faroes over mackerel quotas.
But despite being the only UK representative there with responsibility for fisheries - and despite the Scottish fleet catching around 90 per cent of the value of the UK's mackerel quota - Mr Lochhead is not being given the opportunity to speak to the Council.
Instead, UK Farming Minister Jim Paice will speak on the issue, which has seen Iceland and the Faroe Islands set unilateral quotas for mackerel catches.
In his letter to David Cameron, the First Minister warns the issue has bearing on the respect agenda between the two governments and points out that when a similar issue occurred earlier this year both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were in favour of Scotland speaking.
Mr Salmond said:
"Scotland needs to keep pressing for strong action from the EU over the unilateral quotas set by Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Our fishing communities need strong action - and it's also what needs to be done to protect the health of our mackerel stocks.
"We must have a strong Scottish voice at tomorrow's talks in Brussels if we are to keep up the pressure and make the best case for Scotland. Scotland catches around 90 per cent of the value of the UK's mackerel quotas and our Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead will be the only minister there with a portfolio responsibility for the subject. It makes no sense at all that he will be barred from speaking up for Scotland.
"Not only that, it represents a definite departure from the promised 'respect agenda' between the London and Edinburgh governments.
"It is not too late for David Cameron to reconsider and allow both our administrations to work together in the best interest of the fishing industry. I hope that my letter to the Prime Minister will encourage him to think again."
Mr Lochhead said:
"We need to stand firm to secure a fair solution over mackerel quotas that both protects mackerel stocks and safeguards Scotland's fragile fishing communities. The best way for that to happen is for Scotland to have a direct voice at these talks.
"The EU has negotiated on behalf of Scottish fishermen to seek an international agreement, and Scotland has been closely involved in recent talks with both Iceland and the Faroes to help find a resolution. That is encouraging, but this momentum needs to be maintained - meaning Scotland must be able to speak for herself at the AgriFish council talks.
"I will be meeting European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki during her first visit to Scotland later this week and I will again make clear what the impact of the unilateral quotas set by Iceland and the Faroes is for Scotland, which undermines our carefully managed mackerel fishery.
"That's why all parties must come to a new agreement, which does not reward unilateral actions but ensures a fair deal. However, if countries refuse to negotiate reasonably I urge the EU to take strong action. "
FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER FROM THE FIRST MINISTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER:
26 September 2010
I am writing to you about an urgent issue with bearing on the Respect agenda, to which I trust our Governments remain committed. I wish to request that Richard Lochhead MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, is permitted to speak at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on Monday regarding the important issue of mackerel quotas. This issue will arise under AOB on the agenda, given the crisis that has arisen following Icelandic and Faroese unilateral action which has destabilised the pelagic industry.
Following the rejection of our original request, I have already spoken, in William Hague's absence, with David Liddington MP on this issue to express my strong view that, in the circumstances, Scotland's Minister is ideally placed to speak. I understand that the UK delegation will be led by farming Minister, Jim Paice MP, who has no portfolio role on fisheries, and who will be the only UK Minister at the Council.
The mackerel issue is clearly of overwhelming importance to Scotland and one on which Richard Lochhead has already demonstrated a leading role. The dispute with Iceland and the Faroes puts at risk Scotland's most valuable fish stock, and Scotland's share of the UK quota and landings is around 90%. In addition the small amount of quota of interest to English fishermen is controlled by two Dutch owned boats. We have worked closely with the UK Government on this issue and it is important that we continue to do so. However joint working requires some degree of mutual respect.
You will recall that a similar issue on fisheries arose with the last Government at the dying days of their administration which caused great rancour. Their behaviour was vigorously attacked by both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. I raised it at the JMC and both yourself and William Hague, in particular, were strong that it was your intent to avoid such totally unnecessary disputes. It is deeply disappointing that these good intentions seem to have come to naught and that Defra has lapsed into its old habits, regardless of change of Government.
Richard Lochhead will be part of the UK delegation, and is surely better placed to speak on this issue than a Defra farming minister. I attach great importance to the assurances given by your Government under the Respect agenda to take on a more inclusive approach to working with the Devolved Administrations, including our playing an active role on EU matters. I find it hard to see more appropriate circumstances, with Richard the only Fisheries Minister present, and with Scotland having the overwhelming interest in the issue, for the UK to make good those commitments.
I would be grateful for your urgent confirmation that Richard Lochhead will be permitted to speak on behalf of the UK tomorrow, on this single item on the agenda, given the circumstances that pertain and given previous assurances at JMC discussions and elsewhere.
Yours for Scotland
Scottish Government officials took part in a bilateral meeting between the EU and Iceland in Reykjavik on September 21. The meeting re-established dialogue with Iceland and follows on from Scottish involvement in an EU meeting with the Faroes Islands on September 10.
At the end of July the Faroe Islands set a quota for mackerel of 85,000 tonnes for this year, more than three times their previous total allowable catch (TAC), which follows a recent decision by Iceland to declare themselves a unilateral quota of 130,000 tonnes.
Scotland has the first large-scale mackerel fishery in Europe to be accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council and the value to the Scottish economy of mackerel was £135 million in 2009 - the fleet's most valuable stock.