Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,161,125, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1920, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, of the Agricultural Wages Board, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and of the Food Production Department, including certain Grantsin-Aid and Special Expenditure in connection with the Purchase of Pickled Herrings.
The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Sir Arthur Boscawen)
I have to ask the Committee to authorise a Supplementary Estimate of a net sum of £1,161,125 for the purpose of defraying money which has been expended in giving a guarantee to the herring fisheries. In order that I may make the matter quite clear to the Committee, I will explain the past history of the question. The herring fishery is one of the largest and most important fisheries in this country. Fifty per cent. of the total landings of fish in this country are herrings. The weight of herrings landed in a normal year is about 11,000,000 cwts. The industry employs 15,000 fishermen and 1218 something like 1,600 steam drifters. In addition to that, there is a large number of coopers, curers, and other persons engaged in mending nets and otherwise connected with the trade, who depend upon this herring fishery. One most remarkable thing about the herring fishery is that 85 percent. of the catch is exported. We use for home consumption fresh herrings, kippers, Yarmouth bloaters, and so on, but they only represent about 15 per cent. of the catch. The rest is all pickled in brine—a very thirsty form of food it is—
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
The Scottish people eat their kippers, and so on, but nearly all the pickled herrings are exported to Germany and Russia.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
No doubt it does. In order that we might have a good supply of fresh herrings, kippers, and so on at, home, it was absolutely necessary that, there should be this large export, without which the trade could not possibly live. The value of the exports in the year before the War was no less than £6,000,000. Then, of course, the War followed, and the markets of Russia and Germany were closed. The matter was not so serious to the trade as might have appeared at first, because, owing to the fact that nearly every fisherman joined up—they were a most gallant set of fellows, all of them—the number of ships out fishing was comparatively small. In order to keep the trade going at all, and in order that there should be a supply of fresh herrings for the people at home, the surplus was bought by the Ministry of Food, I think for every year during the War, In that way the trade was maintained. We then came to the period of demobilisation. These gallant fellows, who were employed on the drifters, mine-sweeping, in the auxiliary partrol, the Dover patrol, and so on, came back to resume their occupations. A great many of the drifters which had been employed by the Navy were put back into commission as fishing boats. This difficulty, however, followed: The two normal and regular markets for export were still closed; at all events, although you might still export to Germany and Russia, you could not get payment. The question was, how on earth was the trade to be maintained during this difficult interim period 1219 before the trade resumed its normal position as it was before the War? It was perfectly clear that if these men were to go to sea, if this great army of man were to have employment and to receive wages, some assistance from the Government was necessary. The matter arose, first of all, last summer. There are two periods during which the herring fishery is at its height—one is called the summer season, that is the Scottish season; and the other is the autumn season, which is principally an English season.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I said that the autumn was principally au English season. The herring fishery off the East Coast of Scotland continues right away through the summer, then in October and November the herring fishery is at its height off the coast of Norfolk, when a large man-her of fishermen go out from Lowestoft and Yarmouth and the Scottish drifters follow down and take part. In order to get over the financial difficulties of the Scottish period the Cabinet, on the advice of the Secretary for Scotland, gave a certain financial guarantee to the Scottish fisheries. It was practically on these lines. It was arranged that the Government should purchase all the surplus stock of herrings that were not sold at the end of the Scottish season. That arrangement was made, but it did not work very satisfactorily, the reason being that the arrangement did not provide sufficient for the wages or the earnings of the fishermen. I am sorry to say it is a fact that during the Scottish season, notwithstanding this guarantee, a great many of the fishermen did not really earn a living wage, and when the English season, as I have called it—the fishing which is based on Yarmouth and Lowestoft occurred, we found that unless a further guarantee was given which contained a provision whereby the fishermen would earn a living wage, the fishermen would not be induced to go out. They could not dispose of their surplus. They had not been satisfied with the arrangement made before, and the whole industry would have been held up and, owing to the absence of exports, we should not have got sufficient herrings for the home consumption, because the home consumption of 15 per cent. depends upon the industry as a whole being kept going. It was most important that we should re- 1220 start this industry; it was most important that it should be started on a fair basis, and it was most important that we should make quite certain that in any new arrangement which was made for the autumn fishing season, the fishermen themselves were properly looked after. They had performed miracles of valour for the country during the War, and we could not contemplate the idea that they should be either out of work or should be insufficiently paid for the work they were doing.
The President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries therefore approached the Treasury, and an arrangement was made whereby the Board undertook to purchase 600,000 barrels of pickled herrings, that is to say, the class of herring normally exported to Germany and Russia. As part of the arrangement it was laid down definitely that the fishermen should get 45s. for what is called a crap. A cran is one of the many rather nondescript weights and measures we have in this country, and it is the measure applied in the case of herrings. The 45s. a cyan would mean a weekly wage of £2 19s. 6d. The curer was to get a sum which practically represented the cost of curing and nothing besides. Altogether the 600,000 barrels were to be bought by the Government at a cost of £3 Cs. 6d. for a barrel of gutted herrings, or £2 19s. 6d. for ungutted herrings. The Estimate of this expenditure was £2,000,000. The idea was that the Government would buy, in the first place, through a Committee, of which the principal Fisheries Inspector of the Board would be the chairman, and on which every branch of the trade would be represented, and, having bought the pickled herrings for export—leaving, of course, the home trade uncontrolled and open to the ordinary play of the market—the Government would subsequently sell those herrings to Germany, Russia, or America, or to any other market, thereby recouping themselves for the outlay. We confidently expect that every one of these barrels of pickled herrings will be sold. It may be that they will not be sold at once, but, of course, the fishermen could not wait for their money. That is why the Government have had to step in. We feel certain that they will be sold. Although, of course, there is a difficulty in getting cash out of Germany or Russia at the present time, ultimately we hope to get the whole of our money and a profit. We shall get it back in some form or other either in money or money's value.
1221 Any profit that is made is to be divided on the basis of 75 per cent. going to the Government and 25 per cent. to the curers. I am glad to say that this guarantee has been so successful that we have not to come here to-day to ask for £2,000,000 or to ask for the purchase of as many as 600,000 barrels. Subsequent to the establishment of the Committee, which has had great assistance from various Government Departments concerned, and as a result of their operations in sending abroad cargoes of fish, especially fresh herrings, the number of barrels of cured herrings available for purchase by the Government was reduced, with the result that instead of coming here and asking for £2,000,000 in order to purchase 600,000 barrels, I am only asking for a sum of £1,161,000 for the purchase of 350,000 barrels. Though this is the case of a Government Department coming and asking for a supplemental sum, it is in respect of a service which was not anticipated at all when the original Estimates were made. As a matter of fact, we have saved nearly £1,000,000 on the amount originally suggested, and we are asking for less than the original Estimate. If there are any questions which hon. Members would wish to ask about the policy generally, I shall be only too pleased to endeavour to answer them. I wish to make it quite clear that the whole herring industry—with the loss of fresh fish for ourselves and the loss of employment not only to fishermen but ad the others who are dependent on the industry, such as coopers and so on—would have been held up unless we had made this guarantee. It is a purely temporary measure to carry us over this difficult time. Before the trade with Germany and Russia was in any way restored it was necessary for the Government to step in, and I think they have stepped in with very beneficial results.
§ Mr. ACLAND
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the extreme moderation of his demands. £1,000,000 sounds quite small and moderate as things are nowadays. I quite agree that he has been lucky not to have to make a. greater demand. I gather that the justification for this policy and for entering into this arrangement is a double one. First, there is a prospect, now or at some future time, of selling these herrings to Germany and making a profit on them, which will be paid in some way left rather vague. A great many people in this country will 1222 think it a crime to buy anything from Germany, and, therefore, to sell anything to Germany. If we do not succeed in getting Germany to take these herrings at a profit the Minister in charge will justify the action which has been taken by his Department on the ground that really, even if we lose money on it, the arrangement is justified from the point of view of giving employment to our very gallant seamen at a time of transition.
§ Mr. ACLAND
One thought occurs to my mind on that in the light of a certain Bill which has been attracting attention lately, which there are none to praise and very few to love—the Anti-Dumping Bill. What is the policy which the hon. Gentleman justifies in advance except the policy of dumping into Germany herrings at a less price than the cost of production in this country, namely, the price which has already been paid and given to these fishermen? If it is such a dreadful crime in the Bill I have referred to, why is it an excusable and, indeed, it may be a perfectly justifiable and beneficent matter when it comes to our dumping these herrings into Germany?
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I do not understand. There is no question of dumping. I do not know that there is going to be any loss made, but I should third certainly not. I should say we should make it large profit.
§ Mr. ACLAND
The hon. Gentleman definitely agreed, by nodding across to me, when I made the suggestion that even if we were going to lose on our deal by dumping into Germany at less than it cost us here, it would be justifiable for other reasons.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I imagined the right hon. Gentleman meant if we lost on the deal because we could not, dispose of the number of herrings. I did not think he meant because we were selling at less than the cost price.
§ Mr. ACLAND
It is the internal price in the country of origin, which is presumably the amount which has been given to the people who caught the herrings. I stick to my point that one Minister of the Grown is justifying in advance a policy which may result in selling these herrings in Germany at less than they have cost while the policy of other Ministers of the Government is to denounce anything of that kind as little short of high treason.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman upon the success of his policy in trying to re-establish the herring industry. It was quite justifiable to depart from the ordinary practice. He rather depreciated the qualities of pickled herrings as food, and seemed to suggest that in no part of this country was it regarded as food. It was simply food for Hums. Pickled herring is a food for kings. There is no article of food I know of which is in some respects preferable to pickled herring. I am not ashamed to admit that I have had it myself. I had it to-day. In the Highlands of Scotland, in the South and West of Scotland and all through Ireland it is one of the staple articles of diet, and if it were more generally extended to darkest England you would not have so many diseases as the result of beef-eating and evil habits of that sort as those of us who practise in England have met with in our career. If they ate more pickled herrings, the English race would be much healthier than they are, and would very soon come within easy reach of the standard of health which we find in the Western Isles of Scotland. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appear in a white sheet for having detracted from the character of pickled herrings as food for civilised man. As to creating a thirst, it need not do that at all. Anyone who has an interest in creating a thirst can eat pickled herring at a certain stage, when it will create a thirst, but there is a way of dealing with it so that it will suit all tastes.
It is a splendid food—no doubt an acquired taste, but one which might with advantage be acquired by many people who have not acquired it. There are many parts of the country where the fishing industry has not yet been properly re-established owing to the disturbance created by the War, and which largely depends upon this pickled herring business. The principal markets for pickled herrings are Russia and Germany and there is also a large and growing market in America. One of the principal conditions of the success of the industry would be peace with Russia. In Russia we have an inexhaustible market for pickled herrings, and there is nothing which will conduce to the success of the industry all round the British coast, from Yarmouth to Shetland and from Aberdeen to Stornoway, than having settled conditions in Russia. Then the hon. Gentleman's help would not be 1224 necessary; but on behalf of the industry I thank him for the help he has given, and congratulate him upon the success of this expenditure.
§ Captain W. BENN
I have had a case brought to my notice of a British company which exported a large quantity of herrings to Hamburg but found when they got to Hamburg that they could not get through into Germany. I do not know what was the reason for that. I did what. I could, to help to get the food through. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us anything about the facilities at the other end for these herrings when they get abroad, especially to Germany, which is no doubt wanting this sort of thing, and whether in this Vote any provision is made for seeing that the market is rapidly re-opening?
§ Mr. C. BARRIE
I agree with everything that the hon. Member (Dr. Murray) has said. The trade had to be supported and put on its legs, which was simply a question of tiding over a short time to enable the fishermen to get a start again. I doubt very much whether the Government will lose a single penny on the deal. They will probably make money, and I hope the success which the Government have achieved in helping the fishermen so far will be an incentive to them to help them further in the future and give them further guarantees for the winter fishing if that be necessary.
§ Mr. INSKIP
I agree entirety as to the desirability and wisdom of helping these men to re-establish the industry, but I am not sure what is meant by the purchase of the herrings from the curers at flat rate prices or why the curers, having been guaranteed against loss, which I gather has been done in paying them practically the cost of curing, should have a share in the profits. These curers have made very large profits in the past out of the industry and it would have been quite sufficient to purchase the herrings from them at the cost of curing them. Why they should be entitled to make a profit out of the arrangements which the State has made to re-establish the fishing industry, for their benefit as well as for that of the fishermen, I am rather at a loss to know.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I thank the Committee for the kind way in which they have received the proposal, but I really cannot go into some of the questions which have been raised which have noth- 1225 ing to do with it, especially the great question of the blockade of Russia and Germany. Those are questions which must be addressed to other Departments. We hope the trade will be restored and the sole object of the guarantee is to get us over this very difficult transitional period. With regard to getting the herrings into Germany, the Committee I mentioned which is carrying out the scheme and undertaking the sale of these barrels of pickled herrings is no doubt making arangements for their disposal in Russia, Germany, America, in the Mediterranean and wherever they can. Every possible step will be taken to reopen those markets without which the herring industry cannot go on. The fact that we get herrings here at home is due to the fact that we are able to export this large quantity. This is by no means a beneficial arrangement for the curer, who gets the very smallest possible profit. It represents a sort of bargain between the Government and the curers, and I think the Government gets the best of the bargain. They said, "If there is any profit over and above what the curer gets in the first instance, if the Government not only gets the difference of rate but makes a profit, it shall have three-quarters and the curers shall have one quarter."
§ 8.0 P.M.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
No. The fishermen are guaranteed 45s. a cran, which comes to £2 19s. 6d. a week, which figure, I believe, entirely satisfies the fishermen. I am sorry if I have been disrespectful to pickled herrings, and I am glad to hear from the hon. Member (Dr. Murray) that pickled herrings are a very healthful food. I shall endeavour to imitate his example, and to stave off old age by eating Scottish pickled herrings. He said pickled herrings are a food for kings. It is well that they are also a food for other people or there would not be a very big demand for them. I thank the Committee for the manner in which they have received this Vote.
Question put, and agreed to.