HC Deb 28 May 1924 vol 174 cc516-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £150,000, 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, 1925, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Fishery Board for Scotland, and for Grants in Aid of Pier's or Quays and of Marine Superintendence, also for Loans to Herring Fishermen for the Purchase of Drift Nets.

The SECRETARY for SCOTLAND (Mr. William Adamson)

Hun. Members are familiar with the object of this Estimate. As a matter of fact, the necessity for providing this new service has been pressed upon me by Members from all parts of the House. These representations were made for the purpose of getting the Government to make loans, through the Fishery Board for Scotland, to the herring fishermen in Scotland for the purchase of the drift nets so necessary for enabling them successfully to pursue their calling. Let me remind the House at the outset that the herring fishery industry in Scotland is organised upon a special basis, which is represented—and I think with good rrason—as being of peculiar value to the community, industrially and socially. The special feature is that the great majority of the Scottish herring vessels with their nets and gear are owned by the fishermen who work them. In other words, the working fishermen are responsible for providing and replacing, as required, the necessary equipment. This Scottish system of fishermen-owners has proved of good service in normal times, but it leads to a special problem in the bad times through which the industry has been passing recently. The case for the proposal is briefly that the principal markets for the Scottish herring fishing industry, namely, Germany and Russia, have been closed or disorganised within recent years, due to the War.


And previous Governments.


Before the War the annual exports of cured herrings from Scotland rose to a total of 1,500,000 barrels, valued at about £2,000,000, while during the last three years the average has fallen to about 550,000 barrels, or one-third of the amount exported pre-War. The result has been that the fishermen have been unable to replace the annual wastage of nets, and many of the boats during the present year will be unable to put to sea unless the men are assisted in getting the necessary nets. In 1920 these men possessed a total of 313,000 nets, while in 1923 that number had fallen by 91,000 nets. The Committee will appreciate the parlous condition in which this has put the herring fishing industry to-day. In addition to this great shortage in nets, many of the nets which they still possess are 8 and 10 years old, and owing to the frequent tanning have shrunk so that they do not catch the larger and more valuable herrings, and these nets have become so hard and brittle that when a big catch is obtained the nets are unable to bear the strain, and in some cases the catch and the nets have thus been lost. Before the War the life of a net was considered to be four years, and it was the practice to discard nets as they lost their efficiency, about one quarter of the nets being renewed every year. Towards the end of 1923, and in the early days of 1924, the demand for herrings on the Continent began to revive, and there was an indication that the men would he able to make up a little of the leeway which had been lost, but unfortunately, owing to the stormy weather experienced, the worn-out nets were unable to do their work properly, and frequently broke when herring catches were obtained, thus accentuating the poverty already existing in these fishing communities.

In addition to the pressure that has been put upon me by Members of Parliament from all parts of the House, as to the necessity for helping the fishermen to re-establish their industry, I have made close inquiry into this matter through the officials of the Fishery Board, and they are unanimously of the opinion that, unless the Government are prepared to come to the assistance of the fishermen, they will be unable to find the credits necessary for obtaining the nets required, and that many of the boats will he unable to get to sea this year as a consequence. This would be a great calamity, as there is every indication that the former markets for cured herrings on the Continent are again opening up, and there is a keen demand, which I am certain every Member of this House would like to see the fishermen put in the position of meeting. The Government have examined the position carefully and closely, looking to, the importance of preserving this valuable industry and community—and I believe that every Member of the Committee will agree with me in saying that these fishing communities are of the greatest value to the country. In addition, the Fishery Board for Scotland have had the situation under very close review, and their information supports the contention that, unless we come to their help, a serious emergency is, likely to arise in this industry. In these circumstances the Government have decided that a case for assistance as a nonrecurring emergency measure has been made out.

As to the form of the assistance, it is to be by way of loan and not of grant. The loan to any fishermen is to be on the basis of 50 per cent. of the cost of the nets, save in certain exceptional circumstances, to which I will briefly refer later on. Loans are to be confined to fishermen who can satisfy the Fishery Board that they are unable to purchase the drift nets from their own resources and that they will not be in a position to take an active part in the ensuing fishing. I may say that the fact that we are dealing with working fishermen running their own vessels and nets on a co-operative system has had great weight with me so far as this matter is concerned, and as soon as the emergency is over it is my intention to make an effort to extend the co-operative basis. I fully intend to discuss with the men involved extending the principles of co-operation beyond the small family group which at present exists, so as to apply the principles of co-operation more widely, as I am of the opinion that by doing so we would put these men in the position of being able to overcome more easily the exceptional circumstances, such as they are passing through, which may arise in the future.

I wish to make clear one further point about these loan facilities. They are intended for the working herring fishermen, and they will not be available in any case where nets are provided by limited liability companies or other owners not engaged in the actual working of the nets.


What interest are you charging?


Five per cent. Coming now to more detailed matters, perhaps, without attempting to be exhaustive, I may briefly outline some of the other terms and conditions of the scheme proposed to be adopted. The number of nets in respect of which loans may be made will not exceed 10 in any individual case. The loan will be restricted to one half of the cost of the nets. I said a little earlier that there was an exception to this, and that exception is that there are a number of younger men, who, in ordinary course, would have acquired a complete outfit of drift nets, but have been unable to do so owing to being absent on war service or because of the recent circumstances of the industry. In their case, the amount of the loan will be three-fourths of the cost of the nets, and such men will receive a preference in dealing with applications. Applicants must be prepared to answer any inquiries bearing on their declaration that they are unable to purchase the nets from their own resources. On the approval of an application and receipt of the applicant's cash payment to account, the order for the nets will be placed by the Fishery Board through the ordinary trade channels. Such loans will be repaid in full within a period not exceeding 3 years from the date of the advance, with interest at 5 per cent., and subject to the right of the Fishery Board to demand repayment in full with accrued interest at any time.


At any time after three years?


At any time if that course is considered necessary by the Fishery Board. Under the share system there is a settlement for each vessel at the close of each fishing season. Without prejudice to the other conditions as to repayment, the borrower will be required to pay to the Board at each settlement an instalment of not less than 20 per cent. of the net sum accruing to him in respect of his share of the fishing gear, with accrued interest on the loan. These proposals will be put into operation as soon as this Supplementary Estimate has been passed. The sum of £150,000 will enable about 50,000 nets to be supplied.


What profit do the Government intend to make out of this?


As I have said already, 50,000 nets will be supplied during the next few months, at the rate of 10 nets per man, which will provide for at least 5,000 fishermen. On the important question of price, I am advised by the Fishery Board it is anticipated that the nets will be forthcoming at a reasonable price not in excess of the current rate. I hope this will he the case, and I think it right to say that, in the contrary event of unreasonable prices being charged, it will be necessary for me to consider the question of suspending the making of loans. I am sure that the Committee will recognise the great service these men have done to the community. The men of the fishing villages have built up an industry which is probably unique, in respect that their great fleet of drifters has been provided and equipped by their own efforts, and is worked upon the share system by the fishermen themselves. The word of such men is their bond, and I am confident that they may be relied upon to meet fully their obligation. I am sure the Committee will recognise the necessity for maintaining such an excellent, deserving and useful body of men, and of lending them the assistance required to enable them to restore their industry to a state of prosperity. I hope that the Com- mittee may see their way to give me the Supplementary Estimate which I am asking in order to accomplish the object I have in view.


Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, will he explain one point? He said that he was going to provide 50,000 nets, but he said in a previous part of his speech that the reduction in nets had been 91,000. Are we to understand that this loan is only going to provide nets for half the shortage between 1920 and 1923?


In reply to the question put by my hon. Friend, let me say that I believe the amount we are providing for in this Estimate is as much as the net factories of the country would be able to undertake satisfactorily for some considerable time ahead.


As one of the Members representing the herring industry in Scotland, I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the statement he has just made. It is quite true, as he says, that the fishery representatives have exercised considerable pressure upon him since he came into office, and I am very glad to realise that he has been able to transfer a considerable amount of that pressure to the Treasury, with, I think, a very satisfactory result. It is something over a year since certain Members in this House raised this question, and during the time that has elapsed since then the condition of the herring fishermen has not very materially improved. I am sorry to say we had no success at all with the right hon. Gentleman's successors, except that we had a somewhat indefinite promise of support from the last Government if the fishermen would form themselves into cooperative societies, so that there is nothing very startlingly new in the idea. Those who know the herring fishery are persuaded that the co-operation which already exists among fishermen, although it may centre round the family unit, is the best kind of co-operation, and suits them best, and is most likely to prove successful in their case.

At this moment, without having had time to consider, it is difficult to express a definite opinion as to the financial provisions of this Estimate. I am inclined to think at the moment that the conditions may be rather onerous in respect of the short time that is to be allowed for the repayment of the loan I do hope that the Regulations under which the law is to be administered will be in the hands of the Fishery Board of Scotland. I am perfectly certain, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me, that it will give satisfaction if this be left with the Fishery Board, who understand this problem, and who will have a little more sympathy than the Treasury. If it be left to the Fishery Board, I think we shall all be satisfied. There are two classes of people whom we wish to help. There is, first of all, the fishermen who have suffered financial loss and actual loss of gear, not only on account of the hard times caused by the closing of the Continental markets, but, really and primarily, on account of the War itself, which took the men away from their peaceful occupations, and on coming back they found their gear deteriorated, The other class is the class mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, the young men who have grown up during the War, and under conditions where it was impossible for them to accumulate capital in order to purchase nets and become fishermen as their fathers have done. The right hon. Gentleman announced that they are to receive a loan up to three-fourths of the cost of the nets, and I think they are to have more generous terms of repayment. I am not at all sure that the older men are not in a worse case than the young men, and I am not at all sure that they should not be treated on exactly equal terms; but, at all events, one is glad to know the right hon. Gentleman appreciates the difficulty under which the young men labour.

It is difficult, as I say, to do anything more than express very general approval of the scheme, but I do wish to express our gratitude, to the right hon. Gentleman. I think we know the right hon. Gentleman has had a very rough time in the past few weeks with certain Departments. At all events, it is an open secret among some Members that that is so. I am told that certain Members representing constituencies "furth" of Scotland are uneasy. We have always based our claim for the Scottish fishermen upon the fact that our men are share fishermen, that they are not the employés of syndicates, and it is of great importance that that race should be maintained. We think they are a very valuable race of people. I should like to say we hope very much indeed that Members for fishing constituencies in England will support us on this occasion. It is only fair just to realise that we Scottish Members have worked long and hard to make this case, and we had a very good case to start with. I will say this: If any hon. Member on either side of the House, representing an English constituency, can bring so good a case before this House as we have brought, we, I am sure, will give that hon. Member every assistance to bring his Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries to a reasonable frame of mind.


I should like to add my congratulations to those of the hon. Member for Aberdeen (Mr. F. Martin), and to assure him that I for one on this side of the House intend to give my support—and I hope other Members on this side of the House will join with me in giving support—to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland in the proposal he is making on behalf of these fishermen. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that when this plea was put forward—and I congratulate him upon dealing so urgently and so promptly with that plea—a little while ago in this House, I said I hoped he would help all the fishermen who were going through hard and distressful times. I, therefore, would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will shortly consider a scheme to help the English fishermen when there is a real need, and a real need can be shown just the same. I hope all Members on this side of the House will give the present proposal their support, because these fishermen certainly have a very deserving case.


I would like to add my commendations to the Secretary for Scotland for the way in which, in spite of very considerable discouragement and opposition, be has pushed through this scheme. I am not at all sure that he has not been compelled to introduce certain terms which the scheme would have been better without My own view is that some of the terms are rather harsh. I think the repayment in three years is a very stiff proposition. While I quite appreciate the idea that lies behind the provision that the right hon. Gentleman may call for the return of the loan in any given case at any given moment, and while I appreciate that he must reserve to himself such power, I think he must admit that that is a power which must be exercised most carefully, and that there ought not to be held over these poor fellows the fear that they may be called upon at any moment to repay the loan. I hope he will not too urgently insist upon the 20 per cent. repayment Supposing there is a bad season; supposing prices are low, and these fishermen do not get sufficient, or barely sufficient, to provide themselves with the necessaries of life, does the right hon. Gentleman mean to say he is going to insist upon the 20 per cent. repayment of the loan? I hope he does not, and I am sure the House will support him if he will give himself greater latitude.

8.0 P.M.

There is only one further point. If I understood him rightly, he said he was going to provide 50,000 nets in the three years. Early in his speech the right hon. Gentleman said that between 1920–23 the reduction in the number of nets was no fewer than 91,000, so that it would appear that he is going to supply a little over half of that reduction. If I understand him aright, he said that 50,000 nets was the total productive capacity of the net factories in three years. If the net factories can produce more than 50,000, why does he limit the number of nets that he is prepared to grant to 50,000? How does he explain that? Outside these points, I am sure we will join very heartily in commending the right hon. Gentleman for the way the Government has come to the rescue of these fishermen, if in a somewhat tardy manner. As the last speaker but one pointed out, the race of fishermen is dying out, and unless the British Government comes to the help, the whole fishing community will disappear. I am very anxious that the right hon. Gentleman, having gone so far, will not tie his hands with these red tape Regulations which the Treasury have evidently put forward; that he, in conjunction with the Fishing Board of Scotland, will take a wider outlook, and go beyond the 20 per cent. that he has mentioned. I hope he will insist upon the matter being left to the discretion of the Fishery Board, so that it can take into consideration the various circumstances of the fishermen as humanely and sensibly as possible.


The. Secretary for Scotland has received congratu- lations from all parts of the Committee for having succeeded in doing something for a really good cause. Nothing, however, has been said to the effect that his endeavours have been two-fold; that in the end he has worn down the opposition the Treasury were evidently bringing to bear upon him, and that he at last has succeeded in getting something for the herring fishers of Scotland. I am glad to note what my hon. Friend who spoke first said about our English friends. They, I am sure, realise that this is essentially a Scottish question, and they, in assisting us, should remember that the time may not be far distant when they, in their turn, may come for help in a similar good cause. For once the Minister of the Crown has taken the advice of a very good Department. I refer to the Fishery Board of Scotland, because this is a Department that has the full confidence of all the fishing representatives in this House. We know what exceedingly good work that Department has done for many years on behalf of the fishermen, led so well, as it is, by a very able chairman. I am hoping that in all matters affecting the fishermen of Scotland the right hon. Gentleman may always be willing to listen to what the Fishery Board of Scotland have to advise.

I was pleased to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about this grant being given for the working fishermen, because the herring fishing industry is essentially one where the men themselves are the owners of the boats and the owners of the nets, and they make their own livelihood. They are entirely dependent upon their own efforts. I should like to add that, unlike some other trades, they are not anxious to get shorter hours—I do not refer to Members of Parliament, but other trades—and one has only got to be at the harbours when the herring are landed to see that these men put in not seven, eight or nine hours a day, but many more, and for a small pittance at that! The right hon. Gentleman will not do a better thing than he has done to-day in bringing before the House the need for this £150,000 as a loan to the fishermen to help them over their difficulty. I do not say that it will get them entirely over those difficulties, because they have arrears to make up. As the right hon. Gentleman so very well said, 91,000 nets have been lost in the last three years; that in itself indicates the state that they are in. While it may be true that only 50,000 nets can be manufactured, nevertheless it is always something to the good and will enable the men, and especially the young men, to get a start in life. These are the young men who are so often urged, not only from this side of the House, but, I think, from all parts of the House, to make a start in life. Up till now some of them have not been able to do. It is a pitiful sight to see these young men willing to earn their own living and, through no fault of their own, unable to do so. This grant will now enable them to get a start. I hope that it may be the means of, getting them this start in life which will give them further help, get them heartened and amongst that class of people where we all desire to see them.


As the representative of a Scottish fishing constituency on this side of the House may I say how pleased I am that the Secretary for Scotland has taken this step. I cannot help feeling that the proposal put forward is hardly going to go far enough, because in the course of his remarks the right hon. Gentleman said that a serious emergency might arise if steps were not taken. I consider a serious emergency has already arisen. These herring fishermen are already very much in debt to those who have given advances, and I do not see how in many cases they will be able to get along; and they will have great difficulty in carrying out their contract under the terms of this Estimate. I think that the conditions laid down by the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon are extremely severe. I noticed that the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. T. Johnston) inquired as to that. I agree with him thoroughly. This payment of 5 per cent. interest and repayment of principal within three years, or at any other time When the Fishery Board or the authorities may demand it, is going to make it extremely difficult for the fishermen to comply with. I am afraid that these Regulations may prove a great disappointmnet to some, if not a good many, fishermen who may find it very difficult to benefit by the scheme. I would ask the Secretary for Scotland to consider this matter again, if he can, very carefully and see if he cannot see some way to make the terms easier. We have had but a short time in which to consider the matter. The actual Estimate does not give us the details which I wished to find, and we have just heard them from the right hon. Gentleman himself; therefore, I cannot help saying that these terms, I am afraid, are going to prove extremely severe.

There is one other point regarding the supply of nets. I gather from the right hon. Gentleman that the Department will purchase the nets themselves and will receive 50 per cent. in cash in such deserving cases as are approved. The men will be given the nets then at a reasonable price. I trust that the Secretary of State will not consider any scheme by which the nets will be purchased and supplied by the Department, because, in the opinion of many Members, there are those who are willing to supply nets at a very low, price for Government purchase, because they have had them on their hands for a long time. They may be given the name of new nets, but some of us are afraid that there will be a serious lack in their efficiency. The men should be allowed to purchase their own nets, because they know best what they want. I would also join with other hon. Members in asking those who represent English constituencies not to take exception to the present Vote, or if they have put forward opposition to withdraw it, because the Scottish case is an entirely different one to the English case. The Government are now taking steps towards remedying a wrong. I do not see how opposition can possibly be put forward, or help the English case, because two wrongs do not make a right.


There are two points I should like to put very shortly to the Secretary for Scotland. One is what is going to happen to the fisherman who is not in a position to put down any cash at the present time—and there are many such—in order to get the share of the Government loan? The right hon. Gentleman said that he would receive cash payments from the applicants. I would urge very strongly that if the scheme is to be successful, the case of a man who has no money, and requires aid, should be met, so that he may be in a position to take advantage of the help. The second point is this: Unless it is proceeded with immediately the scheme will fail. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an undertaking that the nets are going to he available within the next week or two if the men require them? Can he do so If so his scheme will prove a success, otherwise, I agree, it is rather dubious. I sincerely hope it will be carried through successfully.


The various points which have been put forward by my hon. Friends will receive not only my consideration, but the consideration of the Fishery Board. I hope that the Committee will now give me the Vote.

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow.

Committee to sit again To-morrow.