HC Deb 07 May 1929 vol 227 cc2121-31

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £43,845, 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, 1930, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Fishery Board for Scotland, including Expenses of Marine Superintendence, and Grant-in-Aid of Piers or Quays."—[NOTE.—£22,000 has been voted on account.]


Do I understand that it is the Fishery Vote that has been put?


Yes, the Vote for the Fishery Board.


I understand that hon. Members desire that some statement should be made on this Vote.


What about education?


The Deputy-Chairman has put the Education Vote.


Was that put before the Fishery Vote?


The Education Vote has been passed. Hon. Members must keep to the Question before the Committee at the moment. We are now on the Vote for the Fishery Board for Scotland.

8.0 p.m.


Fishery questions deserve consideration from more than one angle. There is the question of the ordinary administration of the Fishery Board, and there is the question of the actual proposals which were made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget speech. These matters are of considerable interest, and I think the fishing community of Scotland would desire that they should be explained at somewhat greater length than we have been able to do up to the present time. The Fishery Board have been going into the whole matter of the improvement of the Scottish Fisheries, not merely from the point of view of the administration of what one might call the restricted side but from the constructive point of view. It is necessary to deal again with the problem of preservation, cold storage and residues. From time to time there is a glut of fish, and it should be possible to store the fish for a longer period than is the case now. It should be possible to treat the fish residues in such a way that the value is not entirely lost. In conjunction with the Department of Scientific Industrial Research we have set up a station at Aberdeen to deal with the problem of the preservation of fish. Sir William Hardy, head of the Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge, has pointed out that the perishable nature of fish is rather exaggerated, and that fish treated in the same way as milk would keep for a much longer period than it does now. If milk was treated in the same way as fish, that is, thrown about unwashed decks, trampled on, contaminated and exposed to infection, you would naturally get a much more rapid process of decomposition than really arises from the nature of the material. We are dealing with this problem in the station at Aberdeen; not merely with the preservation of white fish but also with the problem of the herring fisheries. White fishing is not in the same depressed state as the herring fishery, which suffered after the War by the loss of many of its markets.

It is undoubtedly true that the disturbed conditions, especially in Eastern Europe, have a great deal to do with the contraction in the opportunities for utilising the herring. In Eastern Europe the Scottish herring fishery markets have been largely recovered, except in so far as Russia is concerned, and there is no obstacle, as far as the Government of Great Britain is concerned to trade with that country. The absence of any substantial market for British cured herrings is wholly due to the conditions in that country and to the trade restrictions which have been imposed by their Government. The Government there, having a monopoly of foreign trade, has of course a perfect right to impose what conditions it chooses. We have recovered our markets in other parts of Europe, but not in Russia, because of the action taken by the Government of that country. That being so, we have to see what we can do in other directions to assist the herring fishermen in their difficult task. In the case of the smaller ports and harbours on the East Coast we have a special problem. There you have a small unit which is not capable of bearing any large expenditure. It must mean a rise either in the rates of the place or in the dues of the harbour. If there is a sudden rise in expenditure an unbearable burden is cast on these small communities.

After the War considerable sums were obtained by these small fishing harbours from the Development Commissioners and the Public Works Loans Board, whilst sums were also borrowed from banks and private lenders. It is undoubtedly true that it is not possible for some of these small harbours on the East Coast to carry the weight of debt which they have accumulated. A further problem arose when we went into this matter during the passage of the Local Government (Scotland) Bill. We found that a remission of rates which was due to some of these small communities would in some cases simply mean an increase in the amount of money they would have paid in loan charges, and the Bill, therefore, would not fulfil the object of the Government; that is to assist the primary producer. The matter was examined at some length by the Departments concerned, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, speaking in the House on the 20th March, said that he hoped to be able to do something on this line. We put the matter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury, and I am glad to say that we were successful in getting him to take a sympathetic view of the problem. It will be remembered that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his Budget speech, said: I have made a provision of about £30,000 a year for reducing Harbour dues in certain cases where they press unduly upon fishermen, especially upon those engaged in the herring fisheries in Scotland and for assisting in the discovery of deep sea fishing grounds or in other ways. In addition certain debts to the Exchequer which weigh upon these fishing harbours and prevent them making full use of the rating relief will be eased either by remission or suspension."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th April, 1929; col. 51, Vol. 227.] It has been announced since that approximately two-thirds of this £30,000 will be allocated to Scotland, and I am sure hon. Members in all parts of the House will realise that from our point of view it is a reasonable distribution. The Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement took into consideration three elements in the situation which specially affect the Scottish herring fishery and the harbours used by the fishermen: the difficult times of depression; the heavy debt charges which the harbour authorities could not meet; and the consequent heavy harbour dues. Some of the small separate fishing communities in Scotland are often isolated and take a view of themselves entirely separate to the county and the landward area. The fishing community looks out to sea, intermarries amongst itself, and would as soon marry a foreigner, a Scandinavian, as marry a native of the landward community. They do not regard themselves as forming part of the rest of the county. Therefore, it was a very serious thing for them when they found that in linking up their major services with the counties, which was one of the purposes of the de-rating Bill, that they would not receive the benefits of that Bill in a remission of harbour charges which was actually due to them on paper, because it was forthwith eaten up by the lenders in their attempt to-collect money in view of their debts.

We therefore decided that it was necessary in some way or other to make this relief available for the fishing communities and to enable them to share in the general policy of relief to the primary producers. In the case of ordinary commercial harbours it is anticipated that the benefit from de-rating relief will enable the harbour authorities to agree to a reduction of the rates payable by the users of the harbour, but there are cases where, although the harbour authorities will be relieved of three-quarters of the normal amount of their rates by the operation of the Local Government Act, they will not be able to make a reduction of dues. In order to meet the situation it appeared to the Secretary of State that it would be reasonable to give assistance to such harbour authorities to enable them to reduce the dues charged to the fishermen, where they were so heavy as to press unduly upon them. The herring fishery is conducted by many fishermen who are partners in their vessels, and these charges are a charge on the fishermen themselves.

When we went into this question we found that it was a most intricate business. These debts are owed in a number of different ways and the dues are collected in one way in one harbour and in another way in another harbour. Certain classes of goods are subject to dues in one place and are not subject to dues in another, and the Secretary of State, therefore, decided on two different methods to deal with the problem; in the first place, he proposed that certain debts due to the Development Fund should be eased by a remission or temporary suspension of part of the demands according to circumstances, and, in the second place, to make grants from the Fishery Board's Vote towards the loss of harbour revenue resulting from an approved reduction in the dues payable by the fishermen. We have secured the consent of the Treasury and the Development Commissioners to these proposals. The Fishery Board are engaged upon the collection and examination of the detailed information upon which the actual amount of remission or suspension of debts due to the Development Fund will be determined, and afterwards a detailed scheme for the reduction of dues will be drawn up. According to our information, in spite of the variations in the dues and circumstances of the various harbours, we shall be able to frame a scheme which will be fair and workable.

Of course, representations came to us at once saying that £30,000 a year was not much and would not go far in assisting the fishing industry in Scotland. Apparently, it was not realised that we have obtained two-thirds of that amount for Scotland alone. These people were thinking, apparently, of eleven-eightieths of £30,000, which is not a considerable sum. But two-thirds of £30,000 is by no means an inconsiderable sum. In fact, the total dues received by harbour authorities which own harbours to which herrings are sent and landed in considerable quantities, amount to £90,000 per annum, and a grant of £20,000 towards a total income of £90,000 is indeed a considerable sum. That figure of £90,000 covers all the dues payable by all the users of the harbour, not merely the dues paid by the fishing vessels which use the harbours. As the latter are only a proportion—there are other users—and as a reduction of dues is only to be given to the fishermen it should be possible, in any cases where the existing dues are excessive to provide for a substantial reduction in the amount.

To sum up, we found that some of the herring harbours would not receive the advantages which we had hoped for from the de-rating scheme; that the herring harbours were, to put it bluntly, insolvent; that they owed, in all, something like £1,100,000 and that, as long as this big debt hung over them, any remission of taxation or of dues, or any grants made from the central authority, would be swallowed up in this all-engulfing maw. Therefore we have come to an agreement, first with the creditors that a certain amount of the debt will be remitted, and, secondly, with the Exchequer that a grant amounting to some £20,000 a year will be available to enable these harbours to pass the relief right to the fishermen and produce where necessary an actual lowering in dues. These steps we think will produce a substantial improvement in the position of the fishermen of Scotland and do so in a way which will come home to them in the simplest and most effective manner. These dues constitute a charge on a boat and a remission of the dues on a boat goes back into the pockets of the individual fishermen. We think, therefore, we have found a way of giving substantial assistance to the herring fishermen of Scotland.


I am full of sympathy for the Under-Secretary who has sat, without an interval, throughout these proceedings since half-past three o'clock. I myself was here until half-past seven o'clock when the hon. and gallant Gentleman's paeans of praise about pure milk and pure food compelled me to resort to the dining room. In the short period of half-an-hour during which I was absent I lost the opportunity of delivering a carefully prepared speech on agriculture and another on education, which, though not so carefully prepared, would, I am sure, have been equally useful. Therefore I am compelled to say something about fisheries. While the hon. and gallant Gentleman's constituency has some contact with the docks, mine has not even the slightest connection with fish except in the form in which it finds its way into the homes of the consumers. I have been particularly interested in the Under-Secretary's efforts to find an economic and philosophic basis for all the contradictory, haphazard hits in the dark of the Conservative Government in their attempts to resuscitate Scottish industry. If the Conservative party were doing the right thing by the hon. and gallant Member, they would take him from the Front Bench and put him in the Tory headquarters where, perhaps, he might evolve what is obviously lacking just now, namely, a philosophy of Conservatism which the ordinary common man can understand.

I was interested in his view that de-rating will be of substantial advantage to the Scottish fishing industry. He has told us that the relief granted to fishing harbours will amount to a quarter of the total dues. I should like to know to what extent harbour dues enter into the charges on the fishing industry Having regard to the total catch landed at our Scottish fishing ports, £20,000 seems an infinitesimal fraction of the total value involved, and would not make any appreciable difference in the retail price to the consumer. Unless the rating relief is going to express itself in a reduction of the retail price to the consumer, there will be no substantial improvement in the market for fish. I do not like to see human labour thrown away, and nothing is more shocking than to read, as we do periodically, of fish being dumped back into the sea after men have spent days and nights in catching it because the market was not able to absorb it—or even thrown out as offal from the markets of our big cities, or, at the best, going into manure factories. While one would be glad to see better facilities for curing and preservation, yet it is a well-known fact that preserved fish of one kind or another is a commodity of reduced value both to the consumer and the producer. The curing and cold storage of fish can only be, at the best, a way of disposing of surpluses, and the real steady market for fish must be in the fresh fish which the ordinary population is able to consume.

I noticed that, with regard both to agriculture and fishing, the hon. and gallant Gentleman laid stress on the necessity of improved marketing machinery and the necessity of developing some form of capitalism. He very deliberately used that word. What he really meant to tell the Committee was that the system of distribution of primary products developed by capitalism and private enterprise was inefficient, costly and slow and that some form of public machinery would have to be created to secure that perishable goods should get speedily and cheaply from the producer to the consumer. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman is prepared to stand for that policy he will find himself a very lonely Member on that Front Bench, in spirit, as he has been to-day in person. He will find himself standing quite alone because this Government during their four and a half years of office have been more anxious to maintain all the little inefficiencies of private enterprise and private ownership than to devise machinery by which the producers of goods can get them into the homes of the people who want the goods, with speed and at a reasonable price.

The discussion of the fishing industry comes back ultimately, as did our discussions on health and agriculture, to the poverty question. The fisherman is not able to buy agricultural products because he cannot get the price for his fish, and the agricultural worker cannot buy fresh fish because he is not getting a decent price for his labour. The hon. and gallant Gentleman will have to try to develop some device for curing poverty. I congratulate him on his personal interest in research work in connection with the production of fish but I wish to goodness he would set up a body of experts to make researches as to how to abolish poverty. To-day there does not seem to be such need for getting more fish or more cabbage or even more broccoli. The urgent thing is to make it possible for the people to get the fish, the broccoli, the cabbages and the potatoes that are being produced now. I hope that in the next Parliament, when the hon. and gallant Member will not be with us whoever succeeds him in an office which he has held with considerable distinction will establish a research station engaged solely in finding a solution for poverty.


The Under-Secretary in dealing with the difficulties of the fishing population made as much of the question of research as he did when dealing with agriculture. As I said then, I have every sympathy with research which will enable either the agricultural industry or the fishing industry, to overcome their difficulties, but I think there are several things of more immediate necessity. These fishing communities, made up as they are of excellent bodies of men and women are well worthy of any efforts that we can make on their behalf. The hon. and gallant Member for Montrose Burghs (Sir E. Hutchison), when we were discussing another Estimate, tried to get in one of the important matters in connection with the fishing industry. He endeavoured to point out that the fishing industry was being strangled for the want of proper facilities and that fewer men were being employed in it than would be the case if proper facilities were given to the fishing population. The Under-Secretary of State spoke of the £30,000 that had been granted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the fishing communities around the coasts of Britain and said that two-thirds of it was granted to the Scottish herring fishing industry. I do not think that that £20,000 will touch the difficulties, which are much too great for that. Many harbours are in debt, and they hang like millstones round the necks of the fishing population in those particular parts of the country, and it will take help of a much more substantial character than the £20,000 to remove those difficulties.

There are harbours round our coasts that used to be used by the fishing population but that to-day are practically derelict and are requiring money spent upon them in order that they may give proper facilities. I put the condition of one of these harbours before the Secretary of State for Scotland recently. I pointed out that a little fishing community in the North of Scotland was in great difficulty because its harbour was out of repair, and that, with the expenditure of a reasonable sum of money, that little community could be placed in a far better position than it is in to-day, but the reply was not very encouraging. These are some of the difficulties facing the fishing population that require to be dealt with, either by the present Government or by some future Government. The £20,000 will hardly touch the fringe of the problem. The importance of the fishing industry, from the point of view both of food supply and of the number of men who can be engaged in producing that food supply, is great indeed. The discovery by scientific men of better methods, of which the Under-Secretary spoke, will go a considerable way in the direction of helping the industry, but there are other things required, such as were spoken of by one of my hon. Friends, as, for instance, co-operative marketing of the produce that will give to the fishermen a bigger share of the money that is got for the fish.

There are too many coming in between the producer in the fishing industry and the consumer, and we require to deal with these vital matters, to help, not only the producer, but the consumer. We require to reorganise our markets and to have our people taught, particularly in the fishing industry, the value of co-operation in placing their products upon the market and securing as big a share as possible of the money that is received for those products. I hope that either this Government or some other Government will go much more closely into the question of the fishing industry than evidently has been done by the present Government. Again, as the Under-Secretary knows, there is the question of the destruction of nets and gear by trawlers within the preserved waters that requires to be looked into and greater supervision afforded. Anything that can be done to assist the fishing population will confer a benefit, not only on that population, but On the whole of the people of this country, because the fishing industry is of as great a value to the consumer as to the producer, and is well worth being preserved.

Question put, and agreed to.

Forward to