HC Deb 17 May 1878 vol 240 cc162-9

VISCOUNT MACDUFF rose to call attention to the unsatisfactory condition of the harbours on the north-east coast of Scotland; and to ask, If Her Majesty's Government, now that they are in possession of the Commissioners' Report, will consider the expediency of increasing the annual grant of £3,000 towards the harbours of Scotland, or otherwise providing for their improvement? The noble Viscount said, that he had originally intended to bring the subject forward on Vote 30, but that he had taken the present opportunity of bringing it under the Notice of the House and the Government lest that Vote should never be reached. He did not wish to detain the House for more than a few moments on this question; but as it touched a matter of great importance to the North of Scotland, he should like to ask the Government whether they now saw their way to take any action in accordance with the views expressed in the Report of the Commission which they appointed last year? He would not venture to take up the time of the House by going into that Report particularly, as he was quite sure it must be fresh in the memory of the hon. Baronet the Secretary to the Treasury. He might, however, merely state that the whole gist and substance of that very careful Report was that the state of the harbour accommodation on the exposed coasts of Scotland was most inadequate to secure the safe landing of the fish supply, which they declared to be as bountiful as ever. Those who urged upon the Government the appointment of a Commission to investigate the vexed question of the falling-off in the herring trade had had considerable misgivings as to the different remedies that had been suggested by fishermen and others. But the Commissioners had again reported, as they had done in former years, against every restriction on the fishing—except some prohibitions as to trawling on the west coast—and they maintained that the herring fishery as a whole had increased and was increasing. Indeed, they asserted that enormous losses were yearly incurred by the impossibility of landing the fish in the present insecure and unprotected state of the coast, and yet he (Viscount Macduff) noticed that on the present Estimates was borne the stereotyped figure of £3,000, a sum which had been absorbed for a number of years by one series of works. He did not wish, for obvious reasons, to put forward the claims of any particular place, or advocate the granting of any particular sum, but when he found in the Report such a sweeping statement as the following:— Aberdeen is the only harbour on the east coast of Scotland between the Firth of Forth and the Cromarty Firth, a distance of 220 miles, which possesses the requisites of a good harbour —he felt some astonishment at seeing no signs of any alteration in this old figure. He was aware that at Fraserburgh and Peterhead considerable sums were being spent and works begun which, when completed, would provide what the Commissioners recommend; but these places were close together, and beyond them stretched, far away to the Orkneys, a rocky and dangerous coast, upon which every year a great loss of life and property occurred. The northeast winds were apt to blow in sudden hurricanes, and unless the fishing-boats could, at a few hours' notice, make a port both near and sure, they were exposed to the gravest perils. Only that morning he received a communication from the magistrates of one of the harbours on the Moray Firth, stating that after borrowing money to the full extent of their available security, they were in danger of seeing their works swept away, if some additional labour, which they were not able to provide, was not at once spent upon them. He would like, therefore, to know whether, con- sidering the Report of their own Commissioners, the Government had any intention of increasing this sum of £3,000 for the harbours of Scotland, or otherwise, of providing for the improvement of those harbours which had been for many years the subject of repeated complaints from Scotch Members?


hoped that before the hon. Baronet answered his noble Friend, he would allow him to make a suggestion as to the funds to carry out the recommendation of the Commission. When this question had been brought before the House the invariable reply was—We quite admit that there should be better harbours on the east coast of Scotland, but we do not know where the money is to come from. For the purpose of answering that question, he would address a few observations to the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson). It would be in his recollection that about 20 years ago a herring brand was established for Scotland. This herring brand, when first established, was only sufficient to pay the expenses of the brand; but as the fishing had gone on from year to year, this brand had increased enormously. In 1875, he found the money paid into the Treasury for the brand amounted to £8,729. In 1874, it was £8,625. He had not got the Report of last year. The Report of 1876 could not be fairly quoted, because it was a bad season. This brand for the purpose of branding herrings was now a source of revenue, yet the House would scarcely credit the statement that since the brand had been established £98,902 had been paid into the Treasury from the Scotch fisheries, and not a sixpence had been got back. The expense of branding was estimated by the Government Commissioners, in 1856, at £3,280; so, for 19 years, the cost of the brand would amount to £62,320, leaving a clear balance of £36,000 to be paid to the Fishery Board. He trusted that when the hon. Baronet rose to reply, he would tell the House what had become of the money. Everyone would admit that the fishermen were a deserving class, and everyone would admit the utility of their occupation. The Commission had reported in favour of harbour improvements. He had shown where the revenue was, and asked the Government not to put this money into the Treasury, which already benefited in a large degree from the industry of Scotland, but to keep it for the purpose of lending it out in small loans to the poor fishery people.


said, that the question which the noble Viscount had brought before the House was one to which the noble Viscount had on many occasions directed the attention of the Office to which he had the honour to belong. The noble Viscount had now called their attention to the Report of the Commission issued during the year. He would remind the noble Viscount that the Report had only recently been received, and that the Government had not had time to consider thoroughly the subject-matter put before it in that Report. No one questioned, and he certainly should not question on reading that Report, the importance of harbour accommodation for the Scotch coast; but the difficulties in the way of dealing with it were really very large. There had been difficulties that were already well-known in the attempts that had been made to deal with some of these harbours. He would point to a total sum that had been already spent of, he believed, nearly £140,000 in the attempted improvement of one of these harbours at the port of Wick. That had not resulted in anything so satisfactory as to encourage efforts of that kind, and he believed the noble Viscount would see in the Report that the Commissioners had stated that the expenditure on the harbour had been practically thrown away, and instead of resulting in the protection of the trade of that district, it had created fresh difficulties in the anchorage to which the fishermen resorted. There was a question which had to be considered on a broader principle, and that was the question whether these grants in aid of particular trades were advisable or not. There was evidence of local efforts having been made, and successfully made, on several of the harbours of Scotland. One of the most important of these harbours was Peterhead. He believed that efforts at that port had for some time been made to improve the harbour. They had gone so far as to apply for a loan to the Public Works Loan Commissioners for that purpose. Fraser-burgh was another of these northern ports which had been engaged in a simi- lar way to that he had mentioned. In other places, also, local effort had been applied to get over the difficulty the noble Viscount had suggested, and it was hoped that in the course of three years these local efforts would be of immense service to the harbours of the North. That, he ventured to think, was the direction in which they ought to look in the future for the improvement of these ports. The Government would be quite prepared to encourage and assist local efforts in Scotland, as in England, as they had shown in the Acts which had been passed for that purpose. He believed that in one of these ports within the last two years the fishermen of the district and the people of the locality had raised a sum of something like £2,000, and £3,000 had been given in aid of that contribution. With such examples before them as to what local effort could do, surely that was a better form of effecting such a desirable object as the improvement of these harbours than the accepting of a large sum from the State, without any effort of the locality to assist the object. He did not say the Government would be averse to amending the Harbours' Tolls Act of 1861, so as to give further facilities to the Commissioners. He did not see his way to increase the £3,000 in the Estimates of the present year; but he was quite certain that any application supported by local effort, such as was made at Peter-head or Fraserburgh, would always meet with the favourable consideration of the Government. In answer to what was said as to the application of the particular fund received from the brand, he stated that that was a subject which had never been brought under the consideration of the Treasury. All he could say was that the Government would consider the matter; but he ventured to think that, productive as that brand might have been, it had never been so extremely productive that they could suppose that it would ever enable the Government to make grants from it to any extent. Considering the short time that had elapsed since the Report of the Commission had been made, and considering the local efforts that had been made, he ventured to think that that was a better way to deal with the subject than by increasing the sum that had been applied to this particular purpose in the Estimates.


said, he agreed with the exceedingly practical remarks which had fallen from the Secretary to the Treasury. The harbours in Scotland were of three kinds—namely, harbours of refuge, harbours belonging to Corporations, and harbours that were purely proprietary, belonging to the neighbouring landholder. He agreed that the expenditure on harbours of refuge had been exceedingly unfortunate. It was quite true that between £100,000 and 200,000 had been expended at Wick, involving a large burden on the neighbourhood, and that the harbour was now in a worse state than it was before the experiment took place. In some of the other harbours considerable improvements were going on. It only required that local efforts should be supplemented by loans from the Treasury. He was sorry to say that, in comparatively few cases, had much been done for proprietorial harbours. If the policy now proposed was adopted, the practical result would be that the property of the proprietors would be improved at the public expense. The local proprietors derived considerable benefit at the present time from the fishing boats, and it seemed to him that by Provisional Orders under the general Act, the localities might be able to carry out improvements in their harbours to a greater extent than they had hitherto done. With regard to the fees, he suspected that the House would have to consider very soon whether that system ought not to be abolished. He was not going to take up the question at that moment, because he intended to raise it on a later occasion; but he thought the great preponderance of opinion in regard to fees was, that instead of the system being an advantage to trade, it was quite the opposite.


wished to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary to one means of improving the condition of the fishermen of Scotland, and that was by reducing the amount paid for branding herrings. He thought that the right hon. Gentleman might take into consideration the propriety of reducing the fees from 4d. per barrel to 2d. per barrel, which would be not only a very great relief, but would also be an act of justice; for the practice of levying a higher fee for branding than was necessary for covering the expense was, in fact, a direct tax upon the producers of an important article of food.


hoped that in one way or other the Government would see their way to giving the advantage of these fees to the trade, either by reducing the price of branding herrings, as the hon. and gallant Baronet (Sir Alexander Gordon) had suggested, or, on the other hand, by applying the surplus collected from year to year to the improvement of the harbours. He hoped he was right in understanding the hon. Baronet (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson) to say that it was not the wish of the Government to make a revenue for general purposes out of this branding of herrings; and, if the fees were not to be reduced, the surplus from them might be regarded as peculiarly available for promoting the improvement of harbours. It was true that efforts had been made, with some success, at Fraserburgh, Peterhead, and Buckie; but these were all near together, while, northwards, the long stretch of coast as far as the Orkneys was still without good harbours; and if he had to choose between the two, he thought he would rather see the present fee for branding herrings sustained, and the amount applied to the improvement of the harbours. As to putting an end to branding altogether, he hoped that would not be done without full consideration of the Report of a former Royal Commission in its favour.


said, that as a director of the British Fisheries Society, he wished to protest against the assumption made by the Secretary to the Treasury, that the breakwater at Wick was a total failure, or that the débris of the breakwater had injured the anchorage. He was informed that it was of very great service to the fishermen at some states of the wind and tide, and he wished it to be understood that before the breakwater was constructed all the plans were submitted to the Admiralty and the Board of Trade, and received the approval of their engineers. With regard to the other question—namely, as to the harbours, he thought that £3,000 a-year was a very small sum to be expended upon them, and he never could see why the balance of the sum obtained for branding herrings should not be employed in this service.


said, he wished to urge upon the Treasury that Scotland had a very strong claim to justice in the matter of these local improvements. Scotland, unlike Ireland, not only paid its full share of all the general taxation of the country, but paid much more than its share of the taxes upon alcoholic liquors. It was also the case that there were several subjects of local Revenue in Scotland which were not wholly devoted to local purposes, but to Imperial Revenue. There was the matter of registration in Scotland, which should not be made a source of Imperial profit, as in fact it was, and there was also the branding of fish, which was a source of income to the Imperial Exchequer. He contended that Scotland had a claim to simple justice in the matter.