HC Deb 27 May 1936 vol 312 cc2152-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Margesson.]

11.1 p.m.


I ask the indulgence of the House at this late hour in order to draw attention to a matter which is I admit of greater importance to my own constituency than to the House as a whole. At the same time, while the question primarily concerns my constituency, it is a matter of considerable moment to every industrial constituency in the country and particularly to those in the North of England. It concerns the Northern Waters Order under the Sea-Fishing Industry Act, 1933. The House will remember that when that Act was passed, the trawling industry was in a condition of acute and even dangerous depression. It was in a state of such severe depression that the Minister of Agriculture very properly considered that he could not sit by and do nothing. Accordingly he introduced that Measure the principal object of which was to reorganise the trawling industry and, pending reorganisation, to raise prices to such a level as would enable the industry to carry on. Under the Act there was a restriction on the importation of foreign-taken fish and also a restriction on the size of mesh of fishing nets. Finally, there was a restriction on the landing of fish, not foreign-taken but British-taken, caught in certain specified waters at certain specified times of the year.

It is this final restriction, known as the Northern Waters Order to which my constituents object, and I submit that they have a legitimate grievance which it is within the power of my right. hon. Friend to remove. I do not wish to maintain that the Order has not been of considerable advantage to the industry and to the country as a whole. I would not even wish to maintain that it has not been of considerable advantage to the fishermen in the port of Hull. I do not think anybody would want to return to the chaotic conditions which existed before the Order was introduced. What I do maintain is that the Order has been far too drastic in its effects and has caused dislocation which could have been avoided.

I maintain further that while the advantages which have accrued from the Order have been shared by the fishing industry as a whole, the disadvantages which have accrued from it have been shouldered in the main by one fishing port, the port of Hull. It will be realised that if an important section of an important industry like the deep sea fishing industry is closed down for four months out of 12, simply by the fiat of the right hon. Gentleman, there must inevitably be considerable dislocation. In that case there must be considerable unemployment, and even if it is only temporary in nature, it is fair to say that the unemployment which has been caused by this Order has been concentrated in the port of Hull. It is equally true that a good deal of money has been lost by the operation of the Order and that the money has been mainly lost in the port of Hull. This was really the inevitable result of the Order because it was the enterprise of the fishermen of Hull which discovered these Arctic waters which are the subject of the Order, and the enterprise of the Hull fishermen which have developed them since. The fishing industry of Hull which, even in the presence of the Assistant Postmaster-General, I maintain is the most efficient and best organised fishing industry in the country, has been based to a large extent upon the fishing of these distant waters which is prohibited by the Northern Waters Order, and for that reason my constituents feel that they have a grievance.

It is the object of the Order to secure a moderate rise in the price of fish. But what has happened? In the case of cod fish, which is the fish principally concerned in the Order, the price has risen from 12s. 5d. per cwt. in 1932 to 17s. 10d. in 1935. That is not a moderate rise; it is an excessive rise, a savage rise in price. The second report of the Sea Fish Commission, which was issued a few weeks ago, stated that more than 50 per cent. of the white fish in this country was consumed in the fried fish shops in the big industrial centres, and particularly in Lancashire and Yorkshire. A very large proportion of the fish which is consumed in these fried fish shops is, in fact, cod, the kind of fish which normally would come from the prohibited area.

On account of this extraordinary rise in the cost of raw material fried fish shops have been compelled either to raise their selling prices to the consumer or to reduce their turnover. In fact, as the report points out they are unable to pass it on to the consumer and as a result there has been a considerable reduction in their turnover. In other words, the effect of the Order has been that, on the one hand, there has been a fierce rise in prices which has to a limited extent benefited the producer but at the price of driving the producer's best customer to limit his demands, and of making everything much more difficult for the best customer of the producer. I submit that that is not a course which is likely to help the producer or anybody else in the long run.

There are two other points I would like to put to the Minister. The first is that when my right hon. Friend imposes his Order for four months in the year, the advantages of the Order, such as they are, are limited to four months, but the disadvantages persist for a considerably longer time. On 1st June my right hon. Friend will turn off the tap, and for four months not a fish will be landed from these Arctic waters. On 1st October, he will turn on the tap again, but it will be some time before the normal channels of trade recover their accustomed elasticity. It is impossible to dislocate a very considerable and very complicated trade for four months in the year and then, at the end of that four months, to expect that when supplies are again available, trade will resume its normal channels. I do not think that can happen, and in this case I think it has not happened. What happens is that for four months of the year there is a very steep rise in prices. Demand is killed because there is no supply, and when eventually the Order is lifted, there is an immense supply once again, but there is no demand, because the supply has been withdrawn for four months. The result is that a steep rise in prices, followed by an equally disastrous fall in prices. Therefore, I think there is something to be said for the argument that what the producer gains from an artificial rise in prices during the four months of the Order he loses by an artificial slump in prices after the Order is lifted.

The other point I would like to make is that I am told this year that the Icelandic fishing has been poorer in quality and quantity than ever before. That may be chance, but I think it is possible that it is the indirect result of the operation of the Northern Waters Order. When the fishing vessels of Hull are forbidden the waters of the Arctic, as they are for four months in the year, they turn to waters nearer home, that is, the Icelandic fishing grounds. The result is that during the last three years these fishing grounds have been intensively fished for four months in the year when normally they would have been fallow, and the fact that in the fourth year they are proving to be disappointing may very well be connected with the over-fishing during the previous three years which has resulted from the Northern Waters Order. That is not a point I wish to press too strongly, because it may be merely a coincidence.

I would ask the Minister in the ensuing months to watch very carefully the operation of the Northern Waters Order. I do not ask him to sweep away the Order entirely, because I think to return to the state of chaos which previously existed would be disastrous to the fishing industry of the country; but I believe the Minister will admit that the Northern Waters Order is a very unsatisfactory and very crude instrument of regulation. It may be the only instrument which is ready to his hand, but I think he will admit it is a crude one. After all, the fishing industry probably more than any other form of enterprise is subject to acts of God. The weather and the habits of the fish themselves are always incalculable, and I think that generally speaking the system of crude prohibition which is implied by the Northern Waters Order is obviously unsuitable to such an industry as the fishing industry if any other better method of regulation can be found.

I would suggest that in future years the Minister should seek powers from the House to substitute for the Northern Waters Order some Order which would give him power not to prohibit the fishing of these northern waters, but to ensure that this kind of fish should be coming in in reasonable quantities. Obviously he cannot do that this year, but for this year I would ask him to consider very seriously limiting the period during which the Order operates. The report of the Sea Fish Commission recommends that the Order should be limited to three months instead of four, and I would appeal to my right hon. Friend to accept -that recommendation. I know very well that in the past two years my right hon. Friend has done an enormous lot to help the trawling industry, and he has been very successful. The pages of the report of the Sea Fish Commission are a. testimony to the success of his efforts, and if I have been critical this evening of the Northern Waters Order, it is not because I do not appreciate his efforts. Everybody must admit that he has. done an enormous amount for the trawling industry, but the only thing I would submit is that in the matter of the Northern Waters Order he has rather overdone it, and I think he would get the advantages of the Order without its disadvantages if he adopted a somewhat less drastic and less crude form of regulation.

11.17 p.m.


I am sure the whole House has listened with interest, as it always does, to the well-informed and moderate statement of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hull (Mr. R. Law). I think it is true that the House should take every opportunity of observing the operation of the Sea Fisheries Act upon the fishing industry of this country, and I cannot but be grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised it this evening. Other opportunities will come up for a further review of the operation of these Orders, because it is in the Statute that before the quoted Order can be renewed there must be, this summer, an affirmative Resolution of -both Houses, on which an occasion will arise for a more extended review. My hon. Friend raised more particularly the position of the Port of Hull and his own constituents, and suggested that I should watch with very great care the operation of the Northern Waters Order this summer and the ensuing months. I am very ready to give him the assurance that 1 will do so.

I must, of course, watch the operation of the Order carefully, because it is, as he said, a crude instrument of handling this great industry, great in itself, in the honour that it brings to this country—for it is indeed an honourable thing, the extent to which the fishing industry has been developed in Great Britain—and great also in the amount of wholesome food which it provides for the people of this country. It is a crude instrument, because at the time when we passed this Act which enabled the Order to be put on the fishing industry, as my hon. Friend truly said, was in a state of great depression, bordering almost on collapse. It is true that at that time fish prices were low and the consumer had the advantage of remarkably low prices.

It is not to the consumer's interest permanently to buy a product below the cost of production. We have seen the same thing in a hundred other cases of primary products. The miners continually complain that, if their product is bought below the proper cost of production, it is not to the advantage of the nation as a whole. The cheap coal which the nation receives at the expense of the primary producers is in the nature of a bankrupt sale, which does not redound to the permanent profit of anybody engaged in the operation. At that time the fishing industry was going through a period of bankrupt sales, and fish was being landed at, prices below the cost of production. It was not possible, out of the prices received, for the fishermen to renew the plant and gear which were necessary for the catching of the fish, and it was only for that reason that I adopted certain limiting measures—limiting in their immediate effect, and, as I believe, fruitful and reproductive in their ultimate effect, in that they enabled the industry to get profits without which, I believe, it would have cut its own throat, and committed suicide, and bankrupted itself. Finally it would have left the consumer with scarcer and dearer fish than has been secured by the operation of this Order. I do not think that is desired by my hon. Friend or the Sea Fish Commission. What he asks is that in the operation of these crude and empirical methods we should watch very carefully and ensure that a proper balance is struck.

I think it is true that, contrary to the expectation of many Members, the operation of the Northern Waters Order was followed by an improvement of spirit in the whole of the white fish industry. Larger vessels were built and a new spirit of exploration was fostered among the enterprises which were responsible for sending out fishing fleets. I myself have inspected some of the new trawlers, which, both for their equipment for catching fish and, almost more important, their equipment for the comfort and decency of the men who have to operate them, compare more than favourably with any vessels which have previously been put into the water. I do not, therefore, apologise for the operation of the Northern Waters Order so far. I would say further, that although there has been a rise in the price of fish, it is not so marked this year as it has been in previous years.

Both in quantity and in price the landings of fish this year show, I think, that no injustice has been suffered by the merchants or by the vendors, such as the fish-fryers, this year as compared with previous years. In January for the first time for over five years, if not for the first time in history, the quantity of demersal fish landed topped 1,000,000 cwts. In February of last year the figure was 844,000 cwts., and this year 1,025,000 cwts. In March of last year it was 1,033,000 cwts., and this year it was 1,200,000 cwts. In April of this year it topped 1,300,000, which is a much greater figure than is recorded for any time in the past five years. The prices also have not been excessive. In January, 1934, the price of all demersal fish landed was 29s. 1d. per cwt., in January, 1935, 21s. 10d. and in January, 1936, 17s. 3d. In February, 1934, it was 23s. 2d. per cwt., in 1935 19s. 6d. and in 1936 15s. 4d. In March, 1934, the price was 20s.; in 1935 18s. 3d. and in 1936 15s. ld. It is true that that claim seems to alter as one comes to the month of April. The figures for April were in 1934 I6s. 7d. per cwt., in 1935 17s. 8d. and in 1936 15s. 5d. It is clear that the rapid falling off in prices which was evident in the first three months, is by no means so marked in the last months, and that is all the more reason for my watching very carefully the operation of the Northern Waters Order and the trend of fish prices during the months immediately to come.

All these things do seem to indicate that so far from a guillotining of supplies from the northern waters in the summer months some form of rationing, as my hon. Friend suggested, might be introduced. Therefore it is more than ever necessary for the white fish industry to consider very carefully the proposals of the second report of the Duncan Commission on the White Fish Industry, which is now before the ports and fishermen. It may well be that some further organisation will need to be envisaged by the white fish industry. I am not either recommending that or refusing it. I am saying that this most interesting and valuable report is now before the industry. I think it is true that there are evidences that the landings do not correspond as closely with the demand as one would wish. At times they are above the demand and at times they are below it, and it may well be that some higher degree of organisation should be undertaken by the white fish industry.

I am more than pleased to find the white fish industry is taking very seriously the report which has been laid before it by the Duncan Commission. The fact that the men of the sea, at times the most independent and quarrelsome folk, have so readily taken into their cognisance these reports, in the case of the herring industry and the white fish industry, is a portent. It certainly shows that they are going through some grave trials; otherwise they would never have considered the great amount of organisation that is contemplated. Still more, they are displaying a lively interest in the new conditions and a lively readiness to cooperate with their neighbours which has certainly been absent in all our experience of the men of the sea.

The Government take a keen interest in these matters, and in the distribution and the processing of the fish harvest. In the case of the fish fryers, the Government did their best, when the other great ingredient, potatoes, had risen to what they thought an unreasonable height, to deal with that situation by opening up the quota and by removing the duties which were limiting the potato imports into this country. They thereby caused a good deal of criticism from the other great branch of the food-producing industry in this country, the agricultural industry. This shows that the Government are interested, sympathetic and vigorous in their reactions to the problems of the trawling industry, and of the people who use the products of that industry, the fish fryers. I shall certainly, as my hon. Friend has asked, watch with the very closest interest the progress of fish prices and markets in the coming summer, and shall take into careful consideration the framing of long term legislation, in which this Order and the Duncan Commission's report will both be kept in view.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.