HC Deb 07 April 1938 vol 334 cc585-602

5 23 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

I beg to move, in page 5, line 29, at the end, to insert: and for preventing or regulating the combination of wholesalers for the purposes of carrying out joint buying. Members who were on the Standing Committee will recollect that this point was raised in the course of the discussion. Although the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland seemed to hold the view at that time that the objective which we have in view could not be reached either by Statute or by statutory regulation, a promise was given that the matter would be reconsidered before the Report stage. The Clause that we seek to amend merely gives power to the Commission to make regulations. We seek that they should make regulations to deal with the particular evil to which special attention was drawn in the Duncan Commission's Report. On page 37 of that report it is stated: Further, despite the number of merchants, there is, in the auction itself often a curtailment of free competition, because so many of them are operating on such a small scale that a group not infrequently gets one of its number to buy, and shares out the purchase in smaller lots. We understand the object of the Bill to be to prevent fishermen from being exploited in the disposal of their catches. It would, therefore, not be unreasonable to ask the Government to give the Commission power to make regulations to deal with that type of evil. I must raise again the answer which the Under-Secretary gave in Committee. I am not satisfied that what we propose cannot be done, and I submit that it cannot possibly hurt to put such a power into the Bill. If you discover that regulations can be framed in such a way as to be effective I believe they could stop this forming of rings on the market against the fisherman with the object of preventing him from getting a proper reward for his catch.

5.27 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir A. Lambert Ward

I cannot help feeling that if the Amendment were inserted in the Bill it would be extraordinarily difficult to enforce. One of the great mistakes which tend to become more common in legislation to-day is to pass laws which are easy to enact but difficult to enforce. It tends to bring the whole legislative system into disrepute. When one has become accustomed to breaking a law there is a tendency to go on doing it. It, obviously, is bad for a ring to restrict the buying of fish to such an extent that fishermen do not receive a fair price or a fair remuneration for their work, but even if this proviso were inserted it would be easy to evade it.

Another fact which has not been mentioned in relation to auctions is that the auctioneer has the remedy in his own hands. It is one which he frequently uses, and consists of accepting imaginary bids. It is a well-known custom at auctions. If the auctioneer thinks that a ring has been formed to restrict buying he very often accepts imaginary bids from people who are not bidding. In the long run one usually finds that the effect of a ring of this kind is more or less negatived by the action of the auctioneer. In the circumstances it would be a mistake to insert this proviso, because it would be extremely difficult of enforcement.

5.29 p.m.

Mr. Beechman

The Amendment raises again a matter of the utmost consequence. We are seeking to help the fisherman in one of his chief grievances, which is the great disparity between the price obtained by him and the price at which the fish are sold to the public. I do not say for a moment, and I do not believe, that the fault lies with the local buyers, but I have reason to believe, and I think there is a case for inquiry into the matter, that the fault lies in the auctions in the larger centres. There have been some inquiries, and those of us who are concerned with these matters believe that rings exist whereby buyers are able to obtain fish at very moderate prices and sell it to the consumers at a very large profit. This is not only a grievance for the consumer, but it means that the fisherman feels acutely that he is not getting a chance to obtain a proper price for his fish. I listened with great interest to what was said by the previous speaker, and I agree that there is a difficulty in putting these matters right, but this is not by any means the first time that action has been taken by this House to regulate behaviour at auctions so as to avoid rings. Legislation—the name of the Bill escapes me for the moment—was passed by this House only a few years ago——

Sir Douglas Thomson

Has it ever been found possible to bring any proceedings under that Measure?

Mr. Beechman

I agree, and no doubt the hon. and gallant Gentleman who spoke before me had it in mind, that it has been found difficult to put the provisions of that Act into operation, but I am not going to say that it has no effect. I believe it has had a very salutary effect. There is another reason why I should like to see this Amendment very seriously considered, and, indeed, should like to see the words inserted in the Bill. One of the matters which the Commission must consider is the cause of the tremendous disparity between the price charged to the consumer and the price received by the fishermen, and I think that, if these words are inserted in the Bill, they will ensure that the Commission will take serious note of this very important question.

5.33 p.m.

Mr. Macquisten

I do not think there is much in the argument that has been advanced against this Amendment by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-West Hull (Sir A. Lambert Ward). All crafty things are difficult to check, but those who engage in them are burdened with a sense of sin. It is an old saying that, when thieves fall out, honest men get their due, and these plunderers of the fisherman will occasionally fall out over the plunder. There is no doubt that there are rings in the fish markets—shocking and disgraceful rings. A friend of mine had a confession made to him some years ago by one of the buyers to whom fish are consigned by the poor fishermen. He said that one of the ways in which they made their profits and wealth was that one buyer would sell fish to another buyer and charge the fisherman his commission for selling it, and the other buyer would sell his fish to the first buyer. In this way each would make the profit that causes the immense spread between wholesale and retail prices. That was a little bit of inside information, perhaps incautiously given, as to what was happening in the fish market. I remember also that an acquaintance of mine questioned the price charged to him for salmon at Billingsgate, and pointed out that it was much higher than was stated in the official magazine; but the man who ran the magazine said, "These are the prices we put in to enable us to deal with the fishermen." In this way all these little producers are being robbed by middlemen. We are here to see that the men who do the hard work get the best reward, and that the others are put back into the position where they ought to be.

5.36 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Wedderburn)

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) has reminded the House that this Amendment was discussed at considerable length in Committee, and that I undertook to re-examine the matter before Report. I gave that undertaking in response to representations which were made from all quarters of the Committee, but I also said this: All that I would make plain is that I cannot promise that the effect of my looking into it again will produce any useful results, because we already have examined it for a very long time in the light of the Commission's Report.—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee C), 14th December, 5937; col. 177] I went on to say that I should be only too willing to receive any suggestions and to reconsider the matter to the best of my ability. I said that because of the sympathy that I feel with the purposes of the Amendment. But, having examined the matter further with a view to seeing whether anything could be done to meet the views put forward by hon. Members, I am sorry to say we find that there seems to be no practical means of achieving the object which could be enforceable, and I do not think it would be wise to insert in the Bill words which would confer powers upon the Commission to make regulations which are incapable of enforcement. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Beechman) referred to previous legislation. I think the Act he had in mind was the Auctions (Bidding Agreements) Act, 1927. That Act, which was passed some if years ago, would fully cover all cases of the kind we have in mind, and would, if it could be enforced, prohibit the doing of anything which hon. Members desire to prevent; but the fact is that in practice the Act has been a dead letter, and I do not think it has been possible to bring forward under it a single successful prosecution.

Mr. Macquisten

Probably they now obey the law.

Mr. Wedderburn

My hon. and learned Friend has said that buyers' rings ought to be imbued with a sense of sin by having it stated in some Statute that the operation of rings at auctions is a transgression; but the transgression is already defined, And the sin 'is already condemned, in the Auctions (Bidding Agreements) Act, 1927, and the persons concerned should already have, however much they may favour these practices, that sense of sin which my hon. and learned Friend is so rightly anxious to instil into their souls. I would point out to the House that, when marketing organisation is in force, it will be possible for producers if they are satisfied that a particular wholesaler is offending in this matter to decline to deal with him, although it may not be legally possible to bring it home to him in a court of law. In the system of marketing organisation —to which on an earlier Amendment my hon. and learned Friend took such sore exception—there is a real practical safeguard against the undesirable practices which he has condemned with equal severity on the present Amendment.

5.40 p.m.

Mr. Shinwell

Hon. Members on this side of the House, and my right hon. Friend and myself, are disappointed by the reply which the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has just given. We were under the impression, from what he said in Committee, that the Government intended, as a result of their consideration of this matter, to bring forward some Amendment which would have definitely safeguarded the actual producer against any combination of wholesalers. The hon. Gentleman has just said that there is provision in the Bill, though he did not specifically indicate where it is, that would enable a producer, if he were satisfied that there was something wrong in the conduct of wholesalers, or of any particular wholesaler, to decline to deal with those persons. That is all very well, but producers are not in a position to determine a course of action of that kind if they must sell their commodity through some intermediary organisation. It seems to me that, in spite of the safeguards in the Bill, if the wholesaler is determined to take a course of action the intention of which is to keep the price low against the producer, the producer has no remedy whatever.

In the course of the Debate on this matter in Committee, the hon. Gentleman, in reply to a submission I made to him, agreed that wholesalers, in spite of such a provision as is embodied in this Amendment, could act to the detriment of the producer. But what does that prove? It proves that no proper machinery has yet been devised for dealing with those wholesalers in the white fish industry who are determined, in spite of regulations, to take advantage of the producers. It may well be that the words suggested in this Amendment are not the best that could be found, but I had hoped, as had my right hon. Friend, that the Government would have found some form of words which would give the necessary assurances to producers that their interests will be protected. I have been through the whole of the Debates during the Committee stage and on the Second Reading, and I see nothing there or in the Bill itself, apart from vague references to regulations and the functions of the Commission, to provide any actual safeguard for the producer of fish. Later on we shall discuss an Amendment relating to the embargo question, and on that I hope to develop the argument further, but it certainly seems to me that there is no safeguard for the producer. I understood the Minister to say, in the course of our previous discussions, that the Government's primary concern was the interest of the producers of white fish. I have no doubt that that is the intention of the right hon. Gentleman, and I cannot understand why an Amendment of this kind does not receive the consideration of the Government. I repeat that, unless something of this kind is accepted by the Government and embodied in the Bill, the position of producers in the future will be, under this Bill, no better than it is now or than it has been in the past.

5.44 p.m.

Mr. Ede

As one who served on the Committee that considered the Bill, I heard the statement of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with very considerable disappointment. He was so good as to quote some of his own remarks, but he did not quote what was really the gem of his oratory on the morning when we discussed this matter. He commenced his. speech on it to the Committee by saying: It almost breaks my heart riot to be able to accept this Amendment, because it has an object with which I have the greatest sympathy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee C), 14th December, 1937; col. 175.] The hon. Gentleman appears to have recovered from his broken heart, and, in the course of his semi-theological discussion with the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) I gathered that, like Pharaoh of old, he has now hardened his heart against the poor constituents of the hon. and learned Member and myself. We understood that this Bill was required, in the main, owing to the plight in which the men engaged in the white fish industry find themselves as a result of the ineffective price they manage to get when they try to sell their catch. Unless something is done in the way suggested in the Amendment, it is very difficult to see how their second state is going to be any better than their first. I imagine that, under the terms of the Act, if these various other people engaged in getting the fish from the port to the table have been organised it may be that the producers will be considerably worse off than they were.

I should have thought it would be possible for the Minister to see his way to empower the Commission in the way suggested in the Amendment. At any rate, it would make it clear that this House regarded the formation of these rings as being not merely reprehensible but absolutely illegal. That would have given the Commission, in their efforts to deal with the matter, a standing that they could get in no other way. Even now, in spite of the fact that the hon. Member's heart has recovered from the condition of being almost broken, it may be possible to find some form of words, before the Bill is passed, to enable the Commission to take effective action in this matter. It must be a matter of the very greatest concern to these people engaged in catching the fish that, when their fish are put up for disposal, the sales are genuine and they are not prevented from obtaining a proper price, as hon. Members on all sides agree happens at present. The hon. and gallant Member for Buckrose (Major Braithwaite) gave the Committee an account of something that happened in his own constituency. He said: Two weeks ago I was in my constituency." Twenty-three trawlers came into Bridlington Barbour with a catch of codling, which sold at 2S. 6d. per stone. The price paid on the Grimsby pontoon for similar fish coming from the same fishing ground on the same day was 3s. 9d. per stone. The price charged in the shops on that day was 1s. per pound. I am all against the auctioneering of fish."…[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee C), 21st December, 1937; col. 183.] And so he went on to describe the way these people operate. If the Government want producers to think that they are going to get some benefit from the Bill, they will have to reconsider the attitude which has been adopted by the hon. Gentleman this afternoon.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. Foot

I understand that hon. Members above the Gangway intend to take this matter to a Division. If they do, we intend to vote with them. I just want to enter this proviso on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself. We are voting for the attempt which is being made by the hon. Gentleman above the Gangway, to give the Commission certain responsibilities in regard to combinations of wholesalers. We do not very much like the form of the Amendment, because it merely aims at preventing and regulating the formation of combinations and does not indicate what steps the Commission are to take. We are not satisfied ourselves with the particular words used, which would give very wide and undefined powers to this body.

Mr. Shinwell

Most of the powers vested in the Commission are undefined.

Mr. Foot

I do not want to pursue the matter. I was just making this proviso with regard to the words. As I understand the purpose of this Amendment, it is not just to confer these additional powers on the Commission. We are told that already it is against the law to enter into certain forms of combination or rings, in certain circumstances. The effect of this Amendment would be to give the Commission certain statutory responsibilities, to see that laws of that kind are enforced. It seems to me that, since this is a grievance which is admitted by hon. Members in all parts of the House, and with which the Under-Secretary admitted that he had a great deal of sympathy, we should put a reference to this matter into the Bill, and say that the Commission should be responsible, as far as it can, for seeing that these combinations and rings should not take place. Any of us who are interested in the fishing industry, whether in England or Scotland, know that there is this difficulty. Wherever you go, whether it be in Cornwall or in Scotland, you hear complaints of this kind; and if the Commission were to be given a statutory responsibility in relation to this matter, would it not mean that those complaints, which are so frequently made, could be taken, and properly taken, to the Commission by those

who wish to make them, and that the Commission would be under an obligation to hear them and, so far as they could, to remove the grievances?

Question put, "That those words be there inserted in the Bill."

The House divided: Ayes, 122; Noes, 205.

Division No. 169.] AYES. [5.53 p.m.
Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple) Green, W. H. (Deptford) Oliver, G. H.
Adams, D. (Consett) Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. Owen, Major G.
Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.) Grenfell, D. R. Paling, W.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.) Griffith, F. Kingsley (M'ddl'sbro, W.) Parker, J.
Ammon, C. G. Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth) Pet hick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W.
Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R. Griffiths, J. (Llanelly) Pritt, D. N.
Banfield, J. W. Gritten, W. G. Howard Richards, R. (Wrexham)
Barnes, A. J. Groves, T. E. Ridley, G.
Barr, J. Hall, G. H. (Aberdare) Riley, B.
Batey, J. Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel) Ritson, J.
Beechman, N. A. Hardie, Agnes Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)
Bellenger, F. J. Harris, Sir P. A. Seely, Sir H. M.
Benson, G. Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.) Sexton, T. M.
Bevan, A. Henderson, A. (Kingswinford) Shinwell, E.
Broad, F. A. Henderson, J. (Ardwick) Simpson, F. B.
Brown, C. (Mansfield) Henderson, T. (Tradeston) Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)
Buchanan, G. Hills, A. (Pontefract) Smith, E. (Stoke)
Cape, T. Holdsworth, H. Smith, T. (Normanton)
Cassells, T. Hopkin, D. Sorensen, R. W.
Charleton, H. C. Jagger, J. Stephen, C.
Chater, D. John, W. Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)
Cluse, W. S. Johnston, Rt. Hon. T. Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)
Cocks, F. S. Jones, A. C. (Shipley) Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Cove, W. G. Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) Thorne, W.
Cripps, Hon. Sir Stafford Kelly, W. T. Thurtle, E.
Daggar G. Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T. Tinker, J. J.
Dalton, H. Kirkwood, O. Tomlinson, G.
Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill) Lansbury, Rt. Hon. G. Viant, S. P.
Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton) Lathan, G. Walkden, A. G.
Debbie, W. Leonard, W. Walker, J.
Dunn, E. (Rother Valley) Leslie, J. R. Watkins, F. C.
Ede, J. C. Loftus, P. C. Watson, W. McL.
Edwards, A. (Middlesbrough E.) Lunn, W. Westwood, J.
Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty) Macdonald, G. (Ince) White, H. Graham
Evans, D. O. (Cardigan) McEntee, V. La T. Whiteley, W. (Blaydon)
Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H. Macquisten, F. A. Williams, D. (Swansea, E.)
Foot, D. M. Marshall, F. Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)
Gardner, B. W. Milner, Major J. Young, Sir R. (Newton)
Garro Jones, G. M Montague, F.
George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey) Morrison, R. G. (Tottenham, N.) TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Gibson, R. (Greenock) Naylor, T. E. Mr. Mathers and Mr. Adamson.
Graham, D. M. (Hamilton) Noel-Baker, P. J.
Acland-Troyte, LI.-Col. G. J. Carver, Major W. H. De la Bère, R.
Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.) Cary, R. A. Denman, Hon. R. D.
Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr. P. G. Channon, H. Danville, Alfred
Albery, Sir Irving Chapman, A. (Rutherglen) Doland, G. F.
Allen, Col. J. Sandeman (B'knhead) Chapman, Sir S. (Edinburgh, S.) Dugdale, Captain T. L.
Amery, Rt. Hon. L. C. M. S. Clarke, Frank (Dartford) Duggan, H. J.
Apsley, Lord Clarke, Colonel R. S. (E. Grinstead) Duncan, J. A. L.
Aske, Sir R. W. Clarry, Sir Reginald Eastwood, J. F.
Assheton, R. Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston) Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E.
Atholl, Duchess of Colville, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. D. J. Ellis, Sir G.
Balfour, G. (Hampstead) Conant, Captain R. J. E. Elmley, Viscount
Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h) Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.) Emmott, C. E. G. C.
Blair, Sir R. Courthope, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir G. L. Emrys-Evans, P. V.
Boyce, H. Leslie Cox, H. B. Trevor Entwistle, Sir C. F.
Braithwaite, Major A. N. Croft, Brig.-Gen. Sir H. Page Erskine-Hill, A. G.
Brocklebank, Sir Edmund Crooke, Sir J. S. Everard, W. L.
Brown, Rt. Hon. E. (Leith) Cross, R. H. Findlay, Sir E.
Brown, Brig. Gen. H. C. (Newbury) Crowder, J. F. E. Fleming, E. L.
Browne, A. C. (Belfast, W.) Cruddas, Col. B. Furness, S. N.
Burgln, Rt. Hon. E. L. Culverwell, C. T. Gower, Sir R. V.
Burton, Col. H. W. Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil) Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)
Butcher, H. W. Davison, Sir W. H. Grant-Ferris, R.
Campbell, Sir E. T. Dawson, Sir P. Granville, E. L.
Grattan-Doyle, Sir N. Makins, Brig.-Gen. E. Sandys, E. D.
Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester) Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)
Gridlay, Sir A. B. Mason, Lt.-Col. Hon. G. K. M. Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forlar)
Guest, Han. I. (Brecon and Radnor) Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J. Shepperson, Sir E. W.
Guinness, T. L. E. B. Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth) Simmonds, O. E.
Gunston, Capt. Sir D. W. Mills, Sir F. (Leyton, E.) Smithers, Sir W.
Hannah, I. C. Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest) Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Harvey, Sir G. Moore, Lieut.-Col. Sir T. C. R. Southby, Commander Sir A. R. J.
Haslam, Henry (Horncastle) Morris-Jones, Sir Henry Spears, Brigadier-General E. L.
Heilgers, Captain F. F. A. Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.) Spens. W. P.
Hely-Hutchinson, M. R. Morrison, Rt. Hon. W. S. (Cirencester) Stanley, Rt. Hon. Lord (Fylde)
Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P. Munro, P. Stanley, Rt. Hon. Oliver (W'm'ld)
Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan Neven-Spence, Major B. H. H. Stewart, J. Henderson (File, E.)
Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth) O'Connor, Sir Terence J. Storey, S.
Higgs W. F. O'Neill, Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh Stourton, Major Hon. J. J
Hoare, Rt. Hon. Sir S. Ormsby-Gore, Rt. Hon. W. G. A. Strauss, E. A. (Southwark, N.)
Holmes, J. S. Palmer, G. E. H. Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Hope, Captain Hon. A. O. J. Patrick, C. M. Stuart, Lord C Crichton- (N'thw'h)
Horsbrugh, Florence Peake, O. Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.) Peters, Dr. S. J. Tasker, Sir R. I.
Hulbert, N. J. Petharick, M. Taylor, C. S. (Eastbourne)
Hunter, T. Pilkington, R. Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)
Hutchinson, G. C. Plugge, Capt. L. F. Thomas, J. P. L.
Inskip, Rt. Hon. Sir T. W. H. Ponsonby, Col. C. E. Thomson, Sir J. D. W.
James, Wing-Commander A. W. H. Procter, Major H. A. Touche, G. C.
Joel, D. J. B. Ramsbotham, H. Tryon, Major Rt. Hon. G. C.
Keeling, E. H. Ramsden, Sir E. Wakefield, W. W.
Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose) Rankin, Sir R. Wallace, Capt. Rt. Hon. Euan
Kerr, H. W. (Oldham) Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin) Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F. Rayner, Major R. H. Waterhouse, Captain C.
Lamb, Sir J. Q. Reid, Sir D. D. (Down) Watt, Major G. S. Harvie
Leech, Sir J. W. Reid, W. Allan (Derby) Wayland, Sir W. A
Leighton, Major B. E. P. Remer, J. R. Wedderburn, H. J. S.
Lennox-Boyd, A. T. L. Rickards, G. W. (Skipton) Wells, S. R.
Lewis, O. Robinson, J. R. (Blackpool) Whiteley, Major J. P. (Buckingham)
Lindsay, K. M. Ropner, Colonel L. Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.
Lipson, D. L. Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge) Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Little, Sir E. Graham Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R. Willoughby de Eresby, Lord
Lloyd, G. W. Ruggles-Brise, Colonel Sir E. A. Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)
Locker-Lampson, Comdr. O. S. Russell, Sir Alexander Withers, Sir J. J.
Mabane, W. (Huddersfield) Russell, R. J. (Eddisbury) Womersley, Sir W. J.
MacAndrew, Colonel Sir C. G. Russell, S. H. M. (Darwen) Wright, Wing-Commander J. A. C.
MacDonald, Rt. Hon. M. (Ross) Salmon, Sir I. Young, A. S. L. (Partick)
MacDonald, Sir Murdoch (Inverness) Sail, E. W.
McEwen, Capt. J. H. F. Samuel, M. R. A. TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
McKie, J. H. Sandeman, Sir N. S. Mr. Grimston and Major Sir
James Edmondson.

6.1 p.m.

Mr. Garro Jones

I beg to move, in page 5, line 37, at the end, to insert: (c) for the purpose of securing that where, in the case of any fish consigned for sale on commission, the salesman makes a charge by way of commission or otherwise, he shall enter in a book kept by him for the purpose the names of the owner or consignor of the fish and of every purchaser and the price paid or agreed to be paid by each purchaser, and shall as soon as practicable after the sale send by post or deliver to the owner or consignor an account containing the following particulars:—

  1. (i) the actual price paid or agreed to be paid for the fish and, where there is any variation in price, the number, weight or quantity sold, or agreed to be sold, at each price; and
  2. (ii) the commission or other charge made by the salesman for selling the fish, together with details of any charges made for services in connection with the sale; and
  3. (iii) the amounts, if any, paid or payable by the salesman on behalf of the owner or consignor in connection with the sale, with details thereof;
  4. (iv) if on any such sale as aforesaid any fish so consigned is bought by the salesman 596 or by any person on his behalf, the fact shall be stated in the account, but nothing in any regulation made under this provision shall be construed as making any such transaction, if otherwise illegal, legal."
Before describing the effect of my Amendment, I would like to state to the House the body of authority for this proposal, which may incline the Minister and the House to a favourable view of the proposal in the Amendment. This proposal is a repetition of the substance of a private Bill which was introduced into this House by a very respected Member, Sir Murdoch McKenzie Wood, in 1934, and on that occasion it was supported by Members of all parties. It was supported by the Government of the day, and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland on that occasion remarked: This Bill, with the foundation of an existing Act of Parliament and the recommendation of the Food Council, is not one which, in principle, the Government would be inclined or prepared to oppose. "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1934; col. 2296, Vol. 285.] It is clear that the present system is open to objection. He went on to refer to the moderate terms in which the Bill was drafted, and the only reason why the Government did not accept and the House did not carry the proposal on that occasion was, that the Duncan Commission was sitting, and it was thought wiser to await the result of their deliberations. This does not launch us upon any new principle. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture has successfully rebutted a proposal of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) which, though recognised perhaps as beneficent, introduced such far-reaching principles that he did not feel able to adopt it in its single application to this Bill.

The proposal that I am making merely brings the procedure under the Bill into line with the procedure which has already been accepted in principle by the House in the case of horticultural products despatched to markets inland for sale on commission. Therefore, we have to decide, the House having accepted the general principle, whether the principle in my Amendment is susceptible of application to the fishing industry. In order to convince the House that it is, I propose to read the recommendation of the Food Council of 1927 on this proposal. It was recommended by the Food Council, supported by the Committee on the Fishing Industry, which reported to the National Government from 1931 to 1935, and it was accepted as reasonable by the London Fish Trade Association. Therefore, the House is now being offered a proposal which is accepted in principle, which the Government accepted in 1934, the London Fish Trade Association accepted as reasonable, and which has been recommended to the House by every committee charged to examine the subject now before us.

I hope that I have satisfied the House that this is no new and revolutionary proposal, and I will now explain the proposal. When fish is landed at the port, the port wholesaler rings up all the inland markets, such as Billingsgate and so on, to ascertain in which of those markets he is likely to obtain the most favourable prices. Fish is a perishable commodity. He is not able, save in exceptional circumstances, to ice his fish and keep it for considerable periods, but he has to dispose of it at the best price it will fetch. Frequently he has no time to make this preliminary arrangement, but has a standing arrangement, which he may have with an inland wholesaler, who takes the fish and sells it on commission, which is generally 5 per cent., for the best price it will fetch. In these circumstances he is very largely at the mercy, and certainly he must rely upon the integrity of, the inland wholesaler. The practice, as it obtains at present, is for the inland wholesaler to offer him no account whatever of the manner in which the fish has been disposed of. The inland wholesaler merely sends him a remittance, with, occasionally, some rough indications of the deductions which have been made.

This practice has given rise to serious abuses. There have been cases where porterage has been excessively charged. It used to be the practice at Billingsgate for a porter to be paid a nominal sum of 6d. for every box of fish he carried. Perhaps that was a fair reward in the days when the fish was not handled in such large quantities in those markets as it is to-day, when a porter could handle enough boxes of fish to bring him in a return in one day of about £. It is not impossible, under conditions as they exist to-day, for an inland wholesaler to make an additional profit. Instead of paying the porter 6d. a box, which would entitle him to£, he would pay him 7s. 6d. or 10s. for his trouble and would, nevertheless, charge to the port wholesaler the full amount of 6d. a box. There are various other practices, such as charging for the boxes and so on. These are, however, only the minor abuses which have crept in. If these alone had been the abuses, I should perhaps not have brought forward the Amendment, and the Bill, which was presented to the House in 1934, would never have been drafted.

The main abuse which has crept in has been that the inland wholesaler to whom the fish has been offered for sale on commission, instead of selling it in the open market for the best price it would fetch, has, if business has been slack or if he could offer any excuse, immediately bought the fish himself. Instead of acting as an agent, he has acted as a principal and has resold the fish to somebody else, and, instead of receiving 5 per cent., has perhaps received, 15, 20, 30 or even 50 per cent. profit. There has been no obligation upon the inland wholesaler to disclose that he is acting as a principal instead of as an agent, with the result that widespread discontent has arisen because of this practice. There have been a few cases where port wholesalers have been able to detect these malpractices. I have myself discussed the matter with port wholesalers, who have been able to follow their fish by surreptitious means from the time that it reached the inland market to the time at which it was sold to the consumer. Fish, in respect of which the 5 per cent. commission has been paid, has been resold in the inland market for a much greater sum.

Mr. Loftus

Do not the abuses which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned also occur in the sale on commission of foreign imported fish, and would his Amendment actually include fish imported from abroad?

Mr. Garro Jones

I have no doubt that if an inland wholesaler is false in one thing he will be false in all. We are not charged with protecting the interests of foreign consignors. Our job, mine in particular and that of the hon. Member, is to protect the interests of the port wholesaler, and incidentally of the producer. I am not going to ask the House to take my word for this. I propose to read the report upon this very subject issued by the Food Council in 1927. I have ample evidence to show that the practice has not diminished during the intervening period. This is what the Food Council said: The fact that salesmen in the inland markets act both as merchants, buying and selling fish on their own account, and as commission salesmen on behalf of port wholesalers, has given rise to complaint. Some witnesses representing associations of port wholesalers stated that the salesmen at inland markets, when acting on a commission basis on behalf of a sender at the port do not always conduct genuine sales, but (if it suits them) sell the fish at a low price on commission to themselves, later on reselling and taking a merchant's profit as well as a commission. A further complaint is that the commission salesman does not return to the sender— That is, the sender at the port— the actual prices received for the individual consignments, but either the price which he considers fair, this price being in fact lower than the actual market price. I will not read the rest. I have read the substance of it. There was a later committee which reported in a similar strain. This is what the Committee on the Fish Industry reported to the first National Government in 1932: There is evidence that the present system can be and sometimes is abused. The Committee recommended as follows: The root of the complaint lies in the fact that salesmen act both as merchants, buying and selling fish on their own account, and as commission salesmen on behalf of port wholesalers. Such a state of affairs inevitably leads to abuse. When we are attempting to reorganise this industry it is not necessary, in order to accomplish this, to fling reckless charges about, but what happens is this: If the hon. Member for Grimsby (Sir W. Womersley) sends a box of cod and a box of soles to Billingsgate and the cod is sold for 4d. a pound and the sole for 1s. 4d. a pound, the inland wholesaler will merely send him back an account showing that he had an average price for the whole consignment of 10d. per lb., and there would be various deductions. It would be quite impossible for the consignor to ascertain what price each separate consignment made. It is not too much to say that the port wholesaler has been absolutely at the mercy of the inland wholesaler in the price he obtains for his fish. However honest Billingsgate fish merchants may be—I regret to say that in the report of Government Committees they have not received very admirable reports as regards their practices—I say that we are not sufficiently reorganising this industry unless we provide some system under which the port wholesaler is able to keep a better check on what happens to his fish when it reaches the inland market.

I am making here an appeal for the producer. In private conversations which hon. Members frequently have with each other we are all agreed that the producer is passing through a time of difficulty. It is the same in agriculture and in coal-mining as it is in the fishing industry. But it has proved more difficult for the producer to organise in his own interests than it is for the intermediary sections of the industry. The very fact that the producer has been having such a difficult time has made it more difficult for him to provide funds for organisation, and this has increased the disadvantage in which he stands in relation to the other sections of the industry. I am asking the Minister to provide some machinery to meet this situation.

Of all producers I think producers in the fishing industry ought to receive consideration from the House. The hon. and gallant Member for Portsmouth, North (Sir R. Keyes) has frequently described in terms of eulogy the work of the fishermen and those associated with them. I have heard him say that in the days when he was commanding the Dover Patrol they did not care whether they lived or died in the discharge of their duty. These men are passing through a time of greater hardship and financial difficulty than almost any other section of the community. They are having an extremely difficult time. These malpractices—I must use that word—of the inland wholesaler are increasing the difficulties under which they labour, and while we are reorganising the industry it is an essential part of the programme that we should give some additional safeguard for those who actually produce the fish which is handled in the inland market.

Mr. Ede

I beg to second the Amendment.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I may say at once that I propose to accept the principle of the Amendment. I think the hon. Member has made out a case for something of this kind to be done. The only point I want to consider is whether it is better to give the Commission power to make regulations or whether it would not be better, in fact, to follow the precedent in the Horticultural Produce (Sales on Commission) Act and make those terms or something like them a statutory obligation in the Bill. As that is a matter of some importance I should like further time to consider it. There is one point about the form of the Amendment on which I am not quite satisfied. It deals with any fish consigned for sale on commission. This part of the Bill deals with white fish and, therefore, it would be necessary to confine the Amendment to white fish. But I will reconsider the matter and try to give effect to it in the best form.

Mr. Garro Jones

I thank the Minister very much for what I believe will be a most substantial concession to the producer, and with the leave of the House I will withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.25 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I beg to move, in page 6, line 29, to leave out from "fish" to the end of line 31.

This arises out of a discussion in Committee. The hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) mentioned a doubt as to whether power to inspect documents includes a power to make copies of them. In order to make sure that the Commission had such power I accepted an Amendment of the hon. Member, subject to reconsideration. I am now completely satisfied that as a general rule of law the right to inspect documents always carries with it the right to make extracts and copies. If we leave these words in, it might cast a doubt on the law.

Amendment agreed to.