HC Deb 29 July 1914 vol 65 cc1447-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £15,497, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1915, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Fishery Board for Scotland and for Grants-in-Aid of Piers or Quays." [Note.—£8,000 has been voted on account.]

Captain WARING

I want to say a few words on the position of the Scottish fisheries, with special reference to the Report recently issued by the Departmental Committee on the North Seas Fisheries. I think, in the first place, I may congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having kept this inquiry going until within a few months of the natural end of this Parliament; the appointment of another Committee by the Fishery Board to inquire into the conditions obtaining in the North and West of Scotland reduced the whole system to a fine art which could hardly be surpassed. I have been the recipient of many complaints along the coast as to the method in which evidence has been collected by this Committee, and the way in which the witnesses were examined, and I may also say that allegations have been made of bias on the part of certain members of the Committee. I hope, however, to-night we shall hear someone speaking from the other point of view, and that we may possibly find that this allegation is ill-founded. This Report, so far as it deals with loans to fishermen, is really not worth the paper on which it is printed. But I am glad it begins by saying that there is no reason why the State should not enter into undertakings of this kind, provided always it is shown that private enterprise fails to give reasonable facilities. But then the Committee go on to attempt to prove that the fishermen are in a particularly favourable position, by reason of the fact that the banks advance money to them at an average rate of 4 per cent. That is perfectly true, and our complaint is not in any way against the banks. What the Committee fails to lay particular stress upon is the fact that the banks only advance money to an amount which is equal to one-third of the total value of a drifter, and that it is necessary for fishermen to go to landowners to make up the necessary funds. The Committee also failed to inform the public that the average rate at which these private men advance money is considerably more than 4 per cent. I will take the Banff and Buckie District of the Moray Firth, in which a round sum of £58,500 is loaned by private individuals and by private firms. Of this sum £3,000 is lent at the rate of 4½ per cent. £22,000 odd at 5 per cent., and £32,000 odd at more than 5 per cent., the latter sum including £3,300 at 7½ per cent. My point in this connection is this, that not one single pound of that money is lent at as low a rate as 4 per cent., and yet that is the only figure which is mentioned in the Report, so far as this part of the subject is concerned. Perhaps some explanation may be forthcoming to show why this rather important information was passed over with only a very vague reference.

The Report and Minutes of Evidence show how anxious the Committee were to stifle the whole question of loans to fishermen. But they have not been so successful in showing that the conditions imposed by some of these private lenders are not irksome—indeed, they had to admit that there might possibly be some ground for complaint in this respect, although, in reading through the evidence, I see it is suggested that the point would appear to have been slightly exaggerated. There is a most significant paragraph in this Report which throws a rather curious sidelight on this branch of the subject, and that is where the Committee most gratuitously, to my mind, throw cold water on the idea that co-operation should be started among fishermen. This is what they say:— Hence it is of little use to suggest that the fishermen should imitate the farmers and co-operate for the purpose of selling their fish and obtaining their stores, unless by such means they could also provide funds for the purchase of the steam vessels. Any such general move on the part of the fishermen would lead to a large withdrawal of the merchants' capital, and at present the fishermen could not do without it. Why, when these merchants are apparently getting a good return in the way of interest for money they have invested on very good security, do they wish to withdraw their capital in the event of cooperation being started among the fishermen? The only reason can be that the greater portion of the profit they derive comes from the goods they sell to the fishermen, and if co-operation is started they will lose control of the tied boat. We hear in these days of the tied cottage, but a tied cottage is child's play compared with the tied boat. These gentlemen, when they are declaiming against the principle of State loans, which has been urged so frequently by certain Members on this side of the House, hold up the bogey of bad debts, insufficient security, in the interests of the taxpayers. When, on the other hand, they are lauding the existing system, they tell us that the fisherman has no right to expect a particularly low rate of interest, for the reason that a man will frequently be well enough off to be able to pay off in ten years a mortgage on a drifter costing £3,000. Whatever may be the truth in either of those statements—I am not going to argue the point—surely the Committee could not hope to have it both ways. In spite of the fact of the bullying of the witnesses when they went before this Committee—the most casual observer of the evidence will see that no counsel with a brief could have taken more trouble to trip up any witness who came before him who was brave enough to speak up in favour of State assistance and in spite of the obvious bias of certain members of the Committee, I venture to say they have failed altogether to make out any case against the State assistance that we have proposed.

The money which would be required would be a drop in the ocean compared with what has been spent in Ireland on rural development, and would be less than is going to be spent annually on the establishment of small agricultural holdings in Scotland. Hon. Members this afternoon have been pleading for more money for that purpose. What we asked for, and what we are entitled to, is that the rural fishermen of Scotland should receive the same treatment as other sections of the community. If the village fisher population of Scotland is to be maintained at all, and if the Government are in favour of maintaining the rural population already in existence, I am convinced that some scheme, such as has been adopted by almost every other European country, must be started here. I can assure the light hon. Gentleman of one thing, that this Committee has not yet succeeded in killing this question. The Fishery Board for Scotland have already found it necessary, in spite of the fact that it is only three months since this Committee reported, to start a fresh inquiry for the North and West coasts of Scotland. As inquiry is apparently all the rage at the Scottish Office at present, at all events so far as fishery matters are concerned, I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should extend the scope of the inquiry, in order that once again the whole subject of the financial status of fishermen should be inquired into for the whole of the coasts of Scotland. If he will agree to this suggestion, I would ask him that in regard to any Committee that might be set up, he should take particular care to see that no member of that Committee has any financial interest whatever in the existing state of things. I asked the right hon. Gentleman this Session whether any declaration was required for any person before being selected to serve on these Committees of Inquiry, similar to the declarations which have to be made by every Member of this House before he is permitted to serve on a Private Bill Committee or a Provisional Order Bill Committee upstairs. He replied in the negative, but added, what I am perfectly willing to believe that great care was taken in the selection of the persons who serve on those Committees of Inquiry. But when I asked him further whether any member of this Committee or North Sea Fisheries was so financially interested, he replied that he had no means whatever of finding out. I do not think it is necessary for me to prove whether the rumours of the financial interests of one of the members of this Committee was true or not. In my opinion it is the business of the Secretary for Scotland to find out whether those rumours are true, and for the rest I consider that it is a matter between the Members of that Committee and their consciences. But I ask the right hon. Gentleman to say definitely that he will in future make it necessary for persons to make some such declaration as I have indicated before they are allowed to serve on these departmental inquiries, for I feel sure that any action of that kind would undoubtedly serve to add at all events to the confidence which I know is already shown in the purity of its administration.


The greater part of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's speech was a veiled attack upon myself. I was asked by Lord Pentland to be a member of this Committee, and I refused. Pressure was put upon me, possibly because I knew something of the subject, and it was with great reluctance that I accepted. My position then was exactly my position now. Lord Pentland, then Secretary for Scotland, knew that I was not a shareholder but that I was glad to be able to help fishermen in my own locality. If I had consulted my own interests, financial or political, I should not have been a party to the Report that has been made by the Committee of which I was a Member. The hon. and gallant Gentleman has called in question the sort of evidence which was given. I impressed upon the Secretary of the Committee that anyone who had anything to say on this question in favour of State loans, should be called to give evidence, and further that every Member who had taken part in the great meeting at Great Yarmouth, including the hon. and gallant Gentleman, should be asked to come before the Committee. Not one of them did so, with the exception of the Chairman of the Fisheries Committee in this House.

Captain WARING

He was not at the meeting.


He was not at the meeting, but he came and gave evidence. The Secretary of the Departmental Committee made many requests to this Fisheries Committee to come and give evidence, and to suit their own convenience as to when they would come, but the hon. Member (Mr. Morton) was the only one who came forward. When we are told that we only took a certain kind of evidence the hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot be aware of the facts. The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Cowan), who is Secretary of the Fisheries Committee, wrote to the Secretary of the Departmental Committee as follows:— In further reply to your letter, my Committee at its meeting yesterday desired me to inform you that, believing that the witnesses who have already been heard have adequately stated the case which the Committee desire to be put before the Departmental Committee, they have no further suggestions to offer at present as to taking evidence. In spite of that letter, the hon. and gallant Member who makes the proposal seems not to be aware of the facts, and he blames the Departmental Committee for being biassed. So far as I am concerned the attitude I took up in cross-examining witnesses was, when a witness came before us, to find out, if I could, why he was or was not in favour of State loans, and if a witness who was in favour of them came before us, to find out why he was. On several occasions when I found that witnesses did not understand what I was driving at, I came back to the subject in order that they might make up their minds on the questions put to them. The hon. and gallant Member has not stated this fact, that there is great diversity of opinion among fishermen in Scotland as to the advisability of giving State loans. It is perfectly true that at certain meetings unanimous votes in favour of State loans have been passed. Why is that? Simply because it was a nubulous resolution committing no one to anything. There was no scheme put forward; otherwise, from the evidence we have received, there would have been great opposition. In my opinion, before we agree to give State loans, three conditions have to be fulfilled. In the first place, we must be sure that local effort is not sufficient to help local fishermen; secondly, we must be sure that the terms are oppressive and onerous; and thirdly, we must have a certainty, that the great fishing industry of Scotland is in a languishing condition. In my opinion neither of these conditions exists.

Let me tell the House what is the history of the Scottish Fishing industry. In the old days we had small undecked boats in which the men rowed to their work. Afterwards decked boats, and then a particularly good class of boat called the "Zulu" boat. Although I am not a yachtsman, I have often thought that when the America Cup is to be competed for there could not be a better boat than the "Zulu" boat. It costs £800. Gradually it gave place to what is called the steam drifter. It carries a crew of nine men. Six of them are paid on the share principle, and two or three of them may be part owners of the boat. The hon. and gallant Member stated at the meeting at Yarmouth to which I have referred that the best days for fishermen were when every fisherman owned his own boat. The hon. and gallant Member must have been thinking of punting on the Thames. There never was a time, and there never could be a time, when every fisherman owned his own boat. It may be that the hon. and gallant Member has a soul far and away above trade. But you can easily understand that no fisherman could pursue the herring industry if there was only one man in a boat although he himself owned it. The story of the steam-drifter fleet is one which has something of romance about it. Within the last few years, in the North-East and other parts of Scotland, a sum of over £2,000,000 has been raised to build up that fleet. It began with forty-four ships, and there are now nearly 900 vessels. At the present moment, if you gave men the money without interest you could not get boats made; all the yards are full. Can anyone then say that the industry is in a languishing condition? And when the plea is put forward that every man should have a share of a vessel you must remember that in the old days strength merely was required to pull the boat to the fishing grounds, and every man was on a level. Now, with an instrument costing £3,000, skill, science, and education are required, and the kind of man who can be skipper of such a boat is not so plentiful.

As to finances, to which the hon. and gallant Member referred, it has long been a tradition in the Scottish fishing villages and towns that the tradespeople should, as far as possible, help the fishing, and take an interest in it. That has been so from the time of the first decked boats, and it remains so. Generally fishermen have a share. A fish salesman or others will advance so much, and then the whole boat is mortgaged to the bank, which may or may not give from one-third to one-half, generally one-third. But the whole boat is mortgaged in favour of the bank. What was the claim with which we, as a Committee, had got to deal? We were told, and rightly told, that in Scandinavia, Ireland, and Germany advances of money in the way of loans were given to fishermen. But to compare the Irish fleet and the Scandinavian fleet, with boats costing a few hundred pounds, with the fleet in Scotland, with boats costing £3,000, is very much like comparing a small sweet-shop with a large place of business. We were asked to give cheaper money. We were asked to increase the term of repayment, and we were asked for less security. All these things are different in Ireland, and different in the Scandinavian countries. The repayment has generally to be made in from five to ten years, In Ireland it is ten years. An Irish fisherman gets advanced to him only from £12 to £25. What is the use of £12 or £25 in the case of a drifter costing £3,000?

Complaint has been made that shore owners, that is landsmen, have advanced so much money for boats. Some of the fishermen, including the chairman of the Peterhead Fishing Association, a man much in favour of State loans, stated that they preferred to have landowners as shareholders than to have other fishermen. The reason is obvious. Most of the shore owners put no nets on board. I do not want to go into technicalities, but in the case of dividing the proceeds of a steam drifter the cost of the boat gets one-third, the nets costing £800 get another one-third subject to certain deductions, and one can easily understand that that method gives ground for complaint. Besides, if you did pay out the shore owners, what would be the good of it? They could always again provide a fleet for themselves if they were disposed to do so. And if there is one thing more proved than another, it is this, that six co-owners in a boat would seldom agree, and that they would be selling and re-selling almost every day of the week.

As regards the claim for loans for motor boats, nearly all fishermen in Scotland are now engaged in the great herring fishing industry, which may or may not be a good thing—at any rate all the eggs are in one basket. The motor boats fish for herrings like drifters and the result would be State-aided competition. A most intelligent witness from Wick gave evidence to the effect that the Wick fishermen were in favour of motor boats, but that motor boats were in an experimental stage. Certainly that was not a very strong argument for the State to go in for motor boats. The hon. and gallant Member referred to the report with reference to what was said at the Great Yarmouth meeting, which was attended by several Members of Parliament. Very grave charges were made, and in consequence a deputation afterwards waited upon Lord Pentland on the subject. One statement most frequently made at that meeting was that owing to the shore capitalists Scottish fishermen had to engage in Sunday fishing. That was repeated time after time. But the only man who made such a statement before the Committee was the agent of the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire, and he at once asked that the statement should be withdrawn.

Then we were told that the boats had to go where they were told. If there is one thing surer than another it is that the fishermen of Scotland know their own business best, and that no man need interfere with them. Bank interest has been referred to. In Scandinavia for small steamboats 4 per cent. is charged. In Fraserburgh, owing to the new account system prevailing in Scotland, the interest in some cases is 3 per cent., others 4 per cent., and in a few exceeding 5 per cent. entirely according to what the catch may be. We were told by the hon. and gallant Gentleman that fishermen were tied to those who supplied them with goods. May I be permitted to state that from certain parts no such complaint was made, and the fishermen who appeared before us said they were satisfied with the system. Complaints were made from Fraserburg, Peterhead, and Lossiemouth, and the witnesses were asked to give proof of such statements to the Committee, and informed that the statements they made would be kept private, but nothing was forthcoming. Only one member of the Fisheries Committee in this House, the hon. Member for Sutherlandshire, came forward, and he stated that he represented that Committee. He represented, therefore, their views. Let me read several questions addressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutherlandshire, whose sincerity and ingenuousness I have always admired. He said:— Alterations are necessary if the Scottish industry is to be protected and maintained. Then another question was put to him:— Why do you assume that the Scottish fishery has declined?—From information that came to us as representatives. Will it be believed that the Scottish herring fishery is the greatest the world has seen, and the percentage of increase within the last fifteen years calculated on the first and last five years of the catch in Scotland is 91; in England, 55; and in Ireland, 1.9. I know perfectly well that Ireland will soon get Home Rule, but I shall be very much surprised indeed if their present system of advancing loans is likely to be continued. The Irish fishing is mostly caught by English and Scottish boats. When the hon. Member for Sutherlandshire was asked are you prepared to have an indefinite expansion of the fleet, he said that he was. Indefinite expansion of the fleet means congested markets and ruin. Last year was one of the best for fishermen, and it is a significant fact that in Yarmouth on one day the price was 40s. while on another day, owing to the glut, they were sold at half-a-crown. It must not be forgotten, and I hope it will not be, that as soon as the question is settled in favour of State loans for Scotland you have got to face the same question on a bigger scale in England. The trawl owners who appeared before the Committee stated that they were waiting to see what was done with regard to State loans for Scottish fishermen, and that they would make a claim for State loans for fishermen in England if they were granted to Scotland. Then ruin and disaster is before the industry. I have lived amongst the fishermen and know the coast and know the temperament of the men as well as anybody in this House, and I want them to be independent. We have been told that they will be tied if companies are formed. I have done my best in a very little way to help to keep them from being absorbed into companies, and to be independent, and the one regret that is expressed is that I have done it. Why do not those Gentlemen who are so eager to criticise us come to the help of the fishermen of Scotland? What would be the state of the industry if it were dependent on them and on them alone? What the men of Devon have done for the Navy of England the Scottish fishermen have done for the fishing industry. I am certain of this, that as soon as they realise that the granting of loans to them will mean Grants for all kinds of Scottish and English fishermen, and that the markets cannot cope with the supplies, they will be very glad that the question of State Loans has been settled in the way it has.


The hon. Member for Elgin Burghs (Mr. Sutherland) referred to a letter which I wrote to the Departmental Committee. I unfortunately have not got a copy of that letter before me, as I was not aware the hon. Member proposed to read it to the House, but what I was said to have written I understand was something like this, "Believing that the witnesses who have already been heard have-adequately stated the case for State loans. I have no further witnesses to suggest." I think, substantially, that is what I suggested. I would like to say in reference to another statement of the hon. Member that the Secretary of the Departmental Committee made many efforts to induce Members to give evidence, that on the contrary I had the greatest difficulty, as Secretary to the Scottish Fishery Members in this House, in inducing the Secretary of the Departmental Committee to call the witnesses whose names I furnished to him on behalf of my Committee; and when I wrote to him towards the conclusion of the inquiry that we had no-further evidence to suggest, because we believed the witnesses who had been called had adequately stated the case, we did so absolutely in ignorance of what evidence had been given. When the Report of the Committee was issued and we realised the nature of the evidence that had been given, and the way in which the witnesses had been handled, and the generally unsatisfactory conduct of the inquiry, naturally we took a very different view. I would have liked very much, if it were possible—I know it is quite impossible to-night—to have answered the speech of the hon. Member for the Elgin Burghs (Mr. Sutherland).


Next year.


I shall have an opportunity, my hon. Friend suggests, next year.


I called the hon. Member on the understanding that it was to deal with a personal reference. A personal explanation is his only title to intervene. Otherwise I should have called an hon. Member on the other side of the House.


Then I must wait until next year.


With regard to Treasury Grants for motor-boats, the position of the fishermen whom I represent is that they have no objection to Treasury Grants being given to those who want them, but that they themselves are independent men owning their own boats, and they are not much interested in that matter. The matters in which they are interested are trawling for herrings, the statement that such trawling is harmful to the industry, and the territorial limit. The three-mile limit, they say, is too small and ought to be extended, and that unless it is extended we shall before long be faced with a very serious state of affairs. They say that the white fishing has shown a continuous decrease, and it remains to be proved whether herring fishing will not do so too. The migratory habits of the herring are very embarrassing to scientists. It is hard to prove where the herring goes and what it does; and almost every Member will await with great interest the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee presided over by the Postmaster-General. I remember being asked two years ago, on the appointment of the Committee, when I expected its Report, and my answer was, "After the next Election." It strikes me that that prophecy is going to come true. I cannot understand why it is taking so long to get out that Report. All the evidence was concluded months ago; there has been ample time to sift it thoroughly, and it ought to have been published long before now. The results of the Report may be vital to the men who are working for their livelihood, and it is very wrong that it should be delayed.

Another point has reference to the fines upon trawlers and poachers within the three-mile limit. The fines are quite insufficient. If they were sufficient there would not be a continuance of the offence. It has been proved again and again that nobody cares. The owners may pay the fine, and the people who actually commit the offence get off without any punishment at all. This ought to be put a stop to. With regard to the Fishery Cruisers, the officers and crews are most inadequately compensated for their work. They have all sorts of onerous work, and it has been added to lately; but they have no pensions whatever, and their pay is quite inadequate. I know that the Secretary for Scotland is anxious to get this put right. However anxious he may be, it is his duty to go to the Treasury and get a Grant if the money in his hands is not sufficient. As to Sunday fishing, I think it is very wrong that fishermen from Scotland should be handicapped. They see English fishermen going out and coming home with big catches, when they, because of their religious principles, are not able to do so. That should be looked into, and we should have fair play to all.


Hon. Members on this side are grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his courtesy in making his remarks short from consideration of time. Were time not so short I should have desired to deal with the matter raised by the hon. Member for Banffshire; meantime let me say that I am in general agreement with the views he expressed. Like the hon. Gentleman opposite I have always considered the extension of the territorial waters a capital question affecting line fishermen. Without exaggeration, I think I may say that we have had Committees sitting on this subject for the last fifty years. I will content myself with going back twenty years. The Committee which sat under the presidency of the late Lord Tweedmouth, then Mr. Marjoribanks, in 1893, recommended the extension of the Three-Mile Limit for fishery purposes. That recommendation was embodied in a Bill introduced by the Liberal Government in 1895. It was that you should draw a line right across the East Coast of Scotland from Rattray Head, at the corner of Aberdeenshire, to Northumberland, and that there should be power to prohibit trawling in that very wide area. The proposal was eventually cut down to a suggested 13-mile limit. In commending the proposal on behalf of the Liberal Government, of which the present Prime Minister was a leading Member, Lord Tweedmouth said:— He did not regard this Bill as in any sense a party measure, nor was it brought forward as such, or with the view of catching votes. He really believed it was the minimum that could be given to the fishermen of Scotland with any prospect of doing them justice. That Bill was nearly passed intact. The only reason that it is not on the Statute Book and operative at the present moment, is that on the Motion of the late Lord Salisbury, who intervened at the last moment, a proviso was inserted in the Bill to the effect that it should not be operative until the consent of the other signatory Powers to the North Sea Convention was obtained. I do not suggest that this would be a well chosen moment to approach the other Great Powers with a view to an amicable conference upon the subject of fish. But I do wish to say that successive Governments have for twenty years been considering this question, and I do most earnestly press upon my right hon. Friend—and I should press it at greater length if I had time—and His Majesty's Government to carry out the policy of their predecessors, and make this Bill operative in fact as it is in intention.


The hon. Member who has just sat down dwelt upon the importance of the Scottish fisheries, and I should like to point out to the authorities on the Front Bench that if they had been a little wiser they could have made the fishing industry in Scotland greater than it is at the present moment. I want to draw attention to the present state of things in the Murray Firth, which were brought to light by the Noble Lord the Member for West Perthshire yesterday. He asked a question as to how many foreign trawlers had been fishing in the Moray Firth since January this year. The reply was fifty-eight foreign trawlers as against two trawlers under the British Flag. The hon. Member for Forfarshire will remember that he and I were in a minority of one protesting against the enactment and the Bill for the prohibition of trawling in prohibited areas. Every word of our predictions then have been more than fulfilled. The whole of the Moray Firth is kept preserved for foreign trawlers, and every one of the predictions I made to deaf and dull and stupid ears, and never more stupid than at the present moment, have come true to the letter. One might as well try and charge a brick wall: it is useless to do it. This question was asked partly by chance yesterday, and we have these facts brought out. Fifty-eight foreign trawlers protected by British cruisers trawling in the Moray Firth, while the cruisers prevent British trawlers fishing there. How long is this state of things to go on? The Noble Lord asked another question, namely, How it was that British trawlers were prevented from fishing while foreign trawlers were allowed to fish without molestation? The Secretary for Scotland, in reply, went off on a side issue and evaded the whole question. It is ridiculous that only forty-five minutes should be given for the discussion of this great fishing industry in Scotland. I hope the Lord Advocate will reply to the questions I have raised.


I should like to have gone into this question of the Report of the Departmental Committee. I am not going to have anything to say to personal matters except that I object to having any paid officials on these Committees.

It being Eleven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow; Committee also report Progress; to sit again to-morrow (Thursday).