HC Deb 11 November 1941 vol 374 cc2100-27
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Major Lloyd George)

I beg to move, That the Fish Sales (Charges) Order, 1941, dated 25th September, 1941, made by the Treasury under Section 2 of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, a copy of which was presented to this House on 30th September, be approved. When price control was introduced for fish some time ago it became necessary that the transport charges should be equalised, for the good reason that when this commodity was in short supply, and the margins fixed, there was a tendency for it to be consumed in areas near the ports of landing. We were anxious to get distribution, although the commodity might be in short supply, as far as possible throughout the country. We, therefore, decided as a temporary measure that the Ministry would pay all transport charges on fish in order to achieve this object so that no extra benefit would accrue to any coastal wholesaler if he decided to sell fish within the narrow area of a port. During the first three months of the Order the transport charges were paid from public funds, and they in fact represented a subsidy to the industry of something like £2,000,000 a year. This new Order puts the charge upon the industry itself. Article 2 of the Order lays down that the charge of 6d. per stone shall be paid on all first hand sales of fish landed. The money will be paid into the Ministry of Food Fish Charges Account. This charge of 6d. per stone is collected from those who sell the fish at first hand, that is, in the majority of cases, the owners of trawlers and fishermen who own boats. There seems to be some misunderstanding about the effect of this charge upon the fishermen. In some quarters it has been assumed that the 6d. will be a deduction from the price which fishermen will get for what they catch. The fact of the matter is that the prices which the Ministry of Food agreed to pay for various categories of fish had 6d. added to the price in order that when the levy was collected it did not mean a reduction of 6d. in the price. To take an example, the price of round fish is 7s. per stone, but had it not been for the sixpenny levy it would have been 6s. 6d.

Hon. Members will know that an amending Order has lately been made, the effect of which is to take out of the Order under discussion Articles 3 and 5. The House would probably like to have some explanation of this change. The previous Order lays down the procedure to be followed in the paying of the crews. Many hon. Members are no doubt aware of the system by which hands are paid. They are paid in relation to the value of the catch, and therefore we decided that when the maximum prices were obtained for fish, the owner should be required to settle with the fishermen on a higher basis than the maximum prices. It was estimated that this arrangement would cost the British owners something like 8d. a stone on all fish caught, and it was decided accordingly to make a charge on foreign owners at the same rate in order that our own people should not be at a disadvantage. Very strong protests were received on this score from practically all the foreign owners who are landing fish in this country to-day. We were most anxious, naturally, in view of the fact that there is such a shortage of supply, to do nothing that would, in any way, reduce the already small supply coming into the country. Accordingly we have decided to remove this provision from the Order, and that explains the deletion of Article 3.

Article 5, which is also to be deleted under the amending Order, lays down that the 6d. which is added to the price of the fish should not be deducted by the owners when they are making their settlements with the men. It is not surprising that strong exception should be taken to this by the owners. We have been in consultation with them since they have made their protest, and we have agreed to delete Article 5. The owners have, however, agreed to pay this levy until 31st December next and not to charge it, in settling with their crews, and we, on our part, have agreed to introduce a new Maximum Prices Order as from about 31st December next, and we shall arrange that the levy shall then be collected from the coastal merchants rather than from the owners.

Mr. Garro Jones (Aberdeen, North)

My right hon. and gallant Friend says that he has been in consultation with the owners and has conceded their point. May I ask him whether he is aware that there is considerable feeling on this matter among the fishermen themselves and whether he has been in consultation with them?

Major Lloyd George

I do not think my hon. Friend quite appreciates what has happened. There is no change whatever in the position. What I have said is that the 6d. was added to the price obtained in order that the levy should not be inflicted upon the members of the crews, because the settlement in the normal case, as my hon. Friend knows, is based on the value of the catch. The value of the catch here is estimated plus the levy, and settlements have been made hitherto on the value of the catch plus the 6d. This, of course, is not the real value, but the owners have agreed to continue that practice until 31st December, when the new Maximum Prices Order will be introduced. Therefore, up to 31st December the position will be exactly as it was before, under Article 10 of the Maximum Prices Order, which lays down the system by which this payment is made. The principle will not be departed from in any agreement which the owners make with the men, and I think my hon. Friend can rest assured that there will be no hardship involved in this case. As a matter of fact we are very much alive to the necessity of compensating fully the men who take the risks which are taken by the fishermen to-day.

Mr. Garro Jones

I appreciate all the points which my right hon. and gallant Friend has put, and I was not seeking to go into the merits of the question. But he has consulted the trawler-owners on a point affecting the system of settling with the men, and I would like to know whether he has also consulted with the men's representatives and whether they consider that what is being done is just.

Major Lloyd George

I am sorry, but my hon. Friend when he speaks of being just, evidently has not yet appreciated what I am trying to get at. At the present moment when the maximum price is obtained—and in one port which I know very well, the maximum price is obtained in 90 per cent, of the cases—the trawler owner settles with his crew on prices which, in some cases, are shillings above the price that he receives. Take the case of haddock, for instance. The price, I think, is 7s., but the settlement is on the basis of 9s. The reason for that is that my Noble Friend decided that while prices in June were far too high, it was most desirable that they should not be brought down at the expense of the people who were catching the fish. Therefore, that provision was put in, and at the present time, in most cases in which the maximum prices are reached, the settlement is made on a higher price than the actual price received. This 6d. levy is not received by the owners at all. The owner collects the levy, but the proceeds are paid to us—to our Fish Charges Account. While negotiations will be taking place between the men and the owners regarding the method of settlement, the owners have agreed, in consultation with us, that the principle laid down in the Maximum Prices Order will not be departed from up to 31st December, and they propose to continue paying on the basis of the price plus 6d. That is the position.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

Are we to understand that on 31st December next the system by which inshore fishermen pay the levy will be altered and that the 6d. levy thereafter will be paid by the port wholesaler?

Major Lloyd George

By the coastal merchants. With these two Articles deleted, the House will observe that the main purpose of the Order is to authorise the imposition of this 6d. levy. There is no doubt whatever that it is important that we should have some means by which to equalise the cost of transport. One of the greatest difficulties has been that of getting fair distribution. That is quite apart from the shortage, though it is partly due to shortage. Naturally, as I have said, there was an inducement to the wholesale merchant at the coast to deliver his fish to places as near as possible to where it was landed, in order to make as much profit as possible. Then we introduced this system of equalising transport charges, and from inquiries I have made and from my own experience, it has worked very satisfactorily, and I am certain that the House will wish that the system should continue.

The sole purpose of this Order is to empower us to collect this levy for the purpose of equalising charges. Points with regard to the case of the inshore fishermen have been put to me by my hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart). I have met my hon. Friend, and also representatives of some of the inshore fishermen, and I can say this to him that the levy has nothing to do with the price obtained for the fish. If the price previously was 10s., it will now be 10s. 6d.; a levy of 6d. will be added. But it will have nothing to do with the price the fishermen get for what they catch. I have made inquiries into the position as it affects certain inshore fishermen, and, as I promised my hon. Friend, I am making further investiga- tions. We shall do everything we can to assist the fishing industry, because we have no desire that anybody should lose by helping the nation in this time of war.

Mr. Riley (Dewsbury)

In connection with this levy of 6d., may I ask whether there will be any further levy upon the delivery of fish by non-British trawlers? It has been the case, I think, that such fish delivered at British ports was subject to a levy of an extra 8d per stone. Has that been abolished?

Major Lloyd George

Yes, Article 3 of the amending Order which we present to the House deletes it.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

The whole fishing community will, I think, be grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend for the concession which he has announced. Speaking for myself, as one who has taken some little part in pressing for this and other changes in the Order, I want to thank him for what he has done and for the courtesy he has shown in considering the case of the various sections of the trade which has been presented to him within the last week or two. What my right hon. and gallant Friend has said in effect to-day, although not all hon. Members may have observed it, is that this scheme of a levy upon fishermen is damned, and that by the end of December it will be dead as well; and I feel that he is entitled to claim that the sentence he has passed upon it is the wisest judgment he has ever passed upon a Departmental Measure. If he will go further and extend the same sentence to other parts of the Orders affecting fish prices and allocations, he may well go down to history as being almost the only Minister who in the last 25 years has shown common sense and justice in dealing with this very difficult, very complicated but nevertheless vital national industry. But I feel that my right hon. and gallant Friend really must carry his investigations a good deal further than he has suggested that he proposes to do. There is more in this amending Order than would appear from the gentle, almost dulcet, tones in which he has described it. There is much still that is wrong with this Order and the related Orders dealing with prices. Already much evil has been done by this particular Order, is being done and will continue to be done until radical changes are made in it and in its related Regulations affecting the catching, selling and distribution of fish.

In considering these evils, let me remind the House that this levy continues. It has been in operation now for six weeks, and it is to continue until the end of the present year, and that is a very serious thing for men whom I and some of my hon. Friends here represent. The fact that this levy has been in operation has given us practical evidence, as opposed to theory, as to its effects. First, this is a new Order. This method of a levy upon fishermen landing their fish at the quayside introduces an entirely novel method into a very old industry, a method of dealing with transport charges which runs counter to every rule and custom of the fishing trade as established over the last 500 years. There is no more conservative class in the country than fishermen. They live upon tradition, their every action is based upon the accepted customs and practices of their fathers. That is one reason, if there: were no other reason, why they ought to have been consulted at an early stage before this new measure was introduced at all.

More than that, the Order enforces upon tens of thousands of fishermen a heavy additional financial charge which many of them can ill afford to bear and for which no Parliamentary authority has existed until to-day. I know that my right hon. and gallant Friend says that the price levels laid down in the Maximum Prices Order take account of this levy of 6d., but I would point out that it is only the maximum prices which so provide. In a great many cases maximum prices are not reached. He says that in 90 per cent, of the cases in his own constituency maximum prices are obtained, but that is not my experience, nor is it the experience of my hon. Friend who represents the other side of the Firth of Forth, or those who speak for the Forfarshire fishermen. It is not the experience of the deputation of fishermen which met Scottish Members a few days ago. Our experience is that frequently, at every port, maximum prices are not reached. One of the men who met us in Edinburgh gave us figures to prove that on one particular day—I think it was a day or two before he came to the meeting—the maximum prices were not reached, and that when he had added the levy to his costs the result of the voyage was actually a net loss to him and his colleagues in his boat. Therefore, it is no use my right hon. and gallant Friend saying that this levy is accounted for in the price. On the contrary, it is a direct, new and onerous charge upon the fishermen, and that is one of the reasons why I am objecting to it. I gather from what was said by the deputation of fishermen from East Yorkshire that they have experienced much the same thing.

I repeat that this is a charge which until to-day has had no Parliamentary authority. I suppose that the Treasury can introduce an Order of this kind and put it into effect, but I feel I have the support of other hon. Members in saying that such an Order, which introduces novel practices, upsets a whole industry and imposes new burdens upon fishermen at a time when they are ill able to carry them, should not be brought into operation without immediate consultation with Parliament, indeed, I would say, without prior authority from Parliament. Why has there been this long interval between the date when this Order was put into effect and the levy was imposed upon fishermen and the date when Parliament is invited to authorise the Order? There were probably technical reasons, but I cannot help feeling that serious injustice has been done to the men. Many hundreds of pounds have been paid already by inshore fishermen on the East Coast of Scotland, and many more may be paid before the scheme is changed. The scheme, I feel, has been a great injustice to fishermen and reflects very seriously upon my right hon Friend and his Department. There ought not to have been so long a delay before the scheme was presented to the House.

Mr. Robertson (Streatham)

Can my hon. Friend give the House any authentic figures showing that loss has been sustained by the fishermen since the war broke out?

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend is not following the point. I am not talking about that aspect of the subject, but about this levy. The levy was imposed only six weeks ago and involves a payment of 6d. on every stone of fish landed. [Interruption.] I certainly say that it will involve thousands of pounds being charged to fishermen throughout the country. If the fishermen in my hon. Friend's con- stituency are not objecting as mine are,' I am very surprised to hear it. Why was there no proper consultation before this burdensome levy was introduced? It is very unusual for the Government not to consult the trade concerned. A few months ago a White Paper was, issued from the Treasury dealing with stabilisation and prices. What did the Government do about it? Before the paper was drafted it was presented to the Trades Union Congress and the employers' federation. There were amendments and counter-amendments, circulation and re-circulation, before it reached this House. Even then so timorous were the Government about it that we were prevented from so much as discussing the matter. But when it is a case of the humble, unorganised and unsupported fishermen the Government do not deign to consult them at all.

Major Lloyd George

I cannot allow the statement to go forth that no consultation took place, because a very great deal of consultation has taken place. We took all possible steps to consult whomsoever we could. My hon. Friend knows as well as anybody does that organisations of inshore fishermen and other bodies were consulted.

Mr. Stewart

I invite my right hon. and gallant Friend and the House to consider the facts, and I include not only the inshore fishermen in my statement but the trade, the bigger trade, and the Fish Industry Joint Council, which stands for the whole trade. I say that on this matter of the levy the Fish Industry Joint Council, which is the only body competent to speak for the trade, was not consulted until last Wednesday. There was no consultation with any body on the question of the levy until last Wednesday. How did it come about that there was consultation? Was it on the suggestion of the Ministry? No, but on the last-minute desperate appeal of the trade itself. It is wrong that this should be so. When the deputation was received by the Ministry the case that it put in the simple terms of practical men was so overwhelming and obvious that the Ministry accepted it at once. The deputation said that the levy as proposed was unworkable, inefficient and wasteful and that there was another, easier and more efficient way of achieving the same result. These views were immediately accepted by the Minister, who issued his amending order within 48 hours of hearing that deputation. How much time and energy as well as money might have been saved if that consultation had taken place five weeks or more before the scheme was ever set on foot, instead of only five days before this Debate and five weeks after the scheme has been in operation.

Major Lloyd George

The Fish Industry Joint Council was not in existence when this was started. As soon as it was in existence we consulted it.

Mr. Stewart

That may well be, but my statement is that no part of the fishing industry was consulted on this matter of the levy until last week. My right hon. and gallant Friend has shown himself a generous Minister. He received the deputation from East Yorkshire and was exceedingly kind and sympathetic. I am not blaming him, personally, but I am saying that there is something wrong in a Ministry which introduces and puts into effect a levy of this kind without consultation with the trade concerned.

The levy now stands, and I regard it as unjust and impracticable. It remains until December. This is a matter of the greatest possible importance to hundreds of men whom I and other hon. Members represent. We have all been in close contact with our constituents, and we know how seriously our constituents feel on this matter. I invite the House and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to consider the facts of the levy in terms of the hard cash burden to the humble fishermen. The effect of the levy has been to bring down the maximum price to the fishermen. I will speak in specific terms. The maximum price to the fishermen for cod, haddock and that wide range of fish which is probably the most popular of all upon the British table, to 5d. per lb. In the East of Scotland, the average crew ranges from about five to six men. The men I represent are therefore getting about 1d. per lb. for their cod as a result of the price schedule and the levy. Compare this with the 1s. or 1s. 6d. per lb. paid for the same fish by the housewife, it may be in the same village where the fish is landed.

Is it to be wondered at that those whom I represent complain bitterly about the present Order? In the case of haddock the maximum price is brought down to less than 25 per cent, over the pre-war price—I am quoting the Ministry's own figures. The price paid for haddock to fishermen is only 25 per cent, higher than it was in 1938, and yet the price of everything which the fishermen need to catch the fish has gone up, sometimes by four times. These are practical results which lead me to describe the levy as injurious and wholly unjustifiable in its effect upon the fishermen.

Let me now examine the effect of the levy upon the distribution of fish. My right hon. and gallant Friend said that the purpose of the scheme was to effect a more even and a fairer distribution of fish in the country. Is the present system of imposing the levy, which is now in operation and which will continue until December, a good system? It is an untried system. Whereas the traditional system, by which the wholesaler not only distributed the fish but paid for its distribution, did secure economy of distribution and economy in the weight of fish actually sent on railway trains, under the new method, by which the Ministry becomes responsible for all transport charges and every vestige of responsibility for transport is taken off the shoulders of the wholesaler, the merchant does not care a rap what fish he sends away, nor how he sends it. What matters it to him if cod, which is normally dispatched with the head removed to save weight, is sent with the heads on from the East Coast to the Midlands, and the weight thereby increased; what matters it if the cost is much higher than it need be; what matters it if it goes to the wrong places? Who cares? The Government pay. It is one of those innumerable cases, of which I am afraid we have all come across examples since the war started, of the waste and inefficiency of State control and Socialism. It is a typical example which I hope will be borne in the minds of the whole country. I say it is a wasteful system, because it is extravagant with the use of much-needed transport, and for that reason it ought to be ended. My right hon. and gallant Friend and his Ministry and officials have admitted the evils of the system, and he has said that it will be altered in December.

Major Lloyd George

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I simply stated that after December the machinery of collection would be the merchants' instead of the owners' responsibility.

Mr. Stewart

I do not suppose a Government Department would ever change a system unless they were persuaded that it was a mighty bad one. It is true. This is a thoroughly bad system, and if the levy upon the catch is to be paid, it ought to be paid by the wholesaler—the merchant—the man who does the distribution, and put upon him in such a way that he becomes responsible for seeing that an economic method is used in the distribution of fish. If the present system is bad, as I think it is, demonstrably, why should it be continued until the end of December? If it is bad, it ought to be stopped now. My right hon. and gallant Friend may say that the Treasury need recompense for the money that they have paid out for transport, but it was only in September last that this levy was imposed upon fishermen. Throughout 24 months of war it had not been found necessary to impose this bad and uneconomic system; will waiting another two months until a better one has been invented ruin the British Treasury? Of course it will not. I ask the House to insist that the whole Order be withdrawn. There is nothing in it now but Clause 2. If this levy has to be abandoned, let us abandon it at once and be done with it. I feel that my right hon. and gallant Friend will be taking the only sensible course if he agrees to that course. If he does not, I shall have to oppose the Order and will gladly divide the House when the time comes. My right hon. and gallant Friend has been most willing to hear the case, and I hope he will be able to make some sort of statement which will make that course unnecessary.

I hope my right hon. and gallant Friend will be able to develop a little further the few remarks that he made on the general question of prices. The second paragraph of this Order reads: — And whereas the Fish (Maximum Prices) (No. 2) Order, 1941, made by the Ministry of Food under Regulation 55 of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, contains a scheme of control of fish: And whereas it is desired to provide for imposing and recovering, in connection with that scheme, the charges hereinafter specified: That being so, you cannot consider the present Order without also considering the prices Order. I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend will develop a little further the very welcome assurance he gave that he was examining this question of prices. I know that he has sent out investigators and that one of them is going to Scotland to-morrow; I thank him for that, and we shall all gladly welcome his representative, but I hope that the reports of these investigators will be studied with the maximum speed in the Ministry of Food, because my right hon. and gallant Friend must understand that the present prices are not good enough. I must say I find it very difficult to understand why he and his noble Friend should choose the beginning of the winter to impose a fairly heavy cut in the prices to be paid for fish. Winter is the season when the fisherman's life becomes even more hazardous, when the catch is almost automatically smaller, but when the demand for good fresh food such as the inshore fishermen can provide is greater than at any other time. Yet it is now that prices are to be reduced still further. There have been some very remarkable cases, and again I will be quite specific. In June my right hon. and gallant Friend had already cut prices paid to fishermen. In the East of Scotland, for example, the effect of that cut in June was to reduce the prices paid for cod by no less than one-third. That was a pretty drastic cut, from 10s. to 7s. a stone. Would he not have been wiser—

Mr. Speaker

The only point the hon. Member can raise on this Motion is that the 6d. charge under this Order would be too high. He cannot deal with prices.

Mr. Stewart

I am grateful for the correction. What I am trying to point out is that a situation was created previously into which it is now sought to introduce this further imposition of a 6d. levy, and in order to show the harmful effects of that levy I am trying to indicate what was the prior situation. I have only one other figure to quote, and I will undertake not to stray beyond the Rules of Order. I was saying that in June a cut of one-third was made, and in September a further cut of one-quarter was added, the result being that for the same cod the fishermen now receives only 5s. 7d. As I have said earlier in my remarks, everything the fisherman needs to catch cod has increased in price. Full details have been given to us; I have submitted them to my right hon. and gallant Friend, and he is now making inquiries throughout the coast to check up on that point. I can give him any amount of details. A line which used to cost £1 us. ready to put into the water now costs £4 10s. Bait—mussels and whelks—all the materials used by fishermen have multiplied in price. I estimate, quite conservatively, that the cost of fishing has increased by at least 70 per cent. over the 1938 level, yet the prices being paid for certain fish are only 25 per cent. higher than pre-war prices. I invite my right hon. and gallant Friend to tell us a little more about the assurance he gave that the problem of prices which lies at the back of this Order shall have his most immediate and sympathetic consideration.

I am sorry to have kept the House so long, but this is a very important matter for us. It is not the first time that I have pleaded the cause of the fishermen in this Assembly. Their life is a very hard one even in normal times. The returns are comparatively poor. At the present time they face not only the hazards of the weather and wind and winter, but in the Firth of Forth and all round the East Coast they are moving among mines and bombs. Every moment is one of peril and danger to life and limb. My right hon. and gallant Friend has the future of these men in his keeping. He has a very serious responsibility. I have told him, I think I have proved to him, that this present scheme does a very real injustice. I beg hon. members therefore to show the greatest possible expedition and sympathy in removing this measure and bringing us something more worth while in its place.

Mr. Beeehman (St. Ives)

I was very glad to hear from my right hon. and gallant Friend that he had found it possible to reconsider favourably some of the pleas made to him in respect of this Order. I should like to acknowledge that when I first, some two months ago, expressed some uncertainty to him about how this Order might work out, he has treated me, and those other hon. Members interested in this matter, with the utmost courtesy, and has been at pains to explain to us the purpose of this Order and the modifications which, from time to time, he has had in mind. I was glad that my right hon. and gallant Friend indicated that he recognised the special position of the inshore fishing industry. He has rightly said that it is not only a part of the fishing industry with very special characteristics, but that it varies from district to district. I do hope that when my right hon. and gallant Friend sends his investigators abroad he will not forget to take into consideration the inshore fishing industry in the West Country. It is not only a matter of very great concern to the West Country, but has afforded magnificent aid in the national effort itself.

I feel that this problem has come about very largely because the Treasury, which, after all, is primarily responsible for this Order, has had its mind more directed to the actual machinery of collection with which it is concerned than to the texture of the industry from which it has to collect the levy. I quite understand that the Treasury is concerned to see that the levies are collected as easily as possible, but I think it ought to have been apparent at the start that it would not be felt to be reasonable that the levy should be collected at the producing end only. Everybody who has anything to do with fishermen knows that, while they are rightly quick to resent injustice, there is no body of people more reasonable in acquiescing in proposals when they are explained and when they are felt and found to be just. In this case it was rightly felt that to impose a levy on those who actually catch the fish, in all weathers and in the face of great danger, as has been stated, could hardly be called equitable.

It has been a most remarkable thing to find that the fishermen and, indeed, the fish merchants have, so far as my experience goes in the West Country, supported the fish control in a remarkably heartening way. The fish control is not only a scheme which has helped us considerably to keep prices reasonable during the course of the war, but, from one's observation of the way in which it is being supported by the fishermen themselves, it may well be that this system holds out very encouraging possibilities for the organisation of the industry after the war. Therefore, when one does find that the fishermen arc making some objection, one knows that, from the reasonable way in which they have supported the control so far, it is a matter which deserves consideration. My right hon. and gallant Friend has told the House that this is merely a matter of collection. I have assumed that to be so in the course of my brief observations. He has told us that the 6d. is allowed for in the price. I hope that I have understood this matter aright, because I think it is a matter of great moment.

Originally we had a draft Order fixing maximum prices, and in the subsequent Order prices were stepped up 6d. because it is said this levy was in view. It does not, of course, answer the point to say that it happens that, in the subsequent Order, the prices were stepped up. It only explains what has been done if we can assume that when the Order was finally made, and the price stepped up 6d. it was done with the knowledge that this levy was about to come into force. Is that the position? I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend for indicating assent. The only criticism I have to make on this aspect of the question is that if that 6d. was put on at that time because it was to be taken off in the levy, it should have been explained to the trade and to the fishermen at the time. I do not believe that this controversy would have arisen, certainly it would not have arisen with the acuteness with which it appears to have arisen in certain parts of the coast, if it had been explained at the time that this extra 6d. was only being put on in order to be taken off again in this way. I will conclude by observing that we are to have this change on 31st December. I should have preferred to have seen the levy spread right over the industry. I suppose it ought to have been collected equally, for instance through fried fish shops as well as through other sections of the industry. But I will say that I am quite sure that, in view of my right hon. and gallant Friend's assurance that he is going to consider the situation, especially so far as it affects the inshore industry, the fishermen will meet the matter reasonably and will assume that their interests are to be considered. If the matter does not turn out as we now hope, it may be necessary to raise it again in this House.

Mr. Parker (Romford)

I hope the Minister will consider not only the views of fishermen but the views of the general public. My constituency is a working-class and lower middle class constituency on the outskirts of London. The views of my constituents are very different indeed from those of the constituents of the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart). We have had hardly any fish for weeks, and what there has been has been sold at very high prices. The great demand in my constituency is that we should have more fish, and at more reasonable prices. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for East Fife in criticising the Minister's views that there should be some attempt at equalisation of the cost of distribution. It may be a novel thing in the fish industry, but it is far from novel in many other industries. In the meat and wheat import trades schemes have been in operation for years, under which the costs of distribution are levelled throughout the country. I do not see why a similar scheme should not operate in the fish trade, or why the Government should be expected to subsidise it. But if one agrees with the Ministry so far, one does not necessarily agree with the way they have approached the whole question of trying to equalise distribution. The hon. Member for East Fife spoke of a Socialist system having been introduced by the Ministry. I, personally, see nothing Socialistic about it at all. It seems to me the worst kind of State control mixed up with an arrangement for the continuance of the profiteering which has been going on in the industry since the beginning of the war. There is nothing Socialistic about a bastard scheme of that kind, combining a certain amount of Government intervention but with private traders continuing to operate the industry. Our quarrel from this side with the Government is that they have not been courageous enough in dealing with the industry. The fish trade should be dealt with as the meat trade already has been. Why should not the Ministry requisition all the trawlers, do the fishing themselves, and control the trade right through? I noted that quite recently the Minister, in replying to various attacks upon the Ministry, pointed out that during the past year the Ministry had actually held three trawlers and had fished with them themselves, and that during that perod they made a clear profit of £250,000, the total landings from the three trawlers being 178,000 kits. In the same period, the trawlers in private hands caught 1,250,000 kits, and made a profit which the Minister estimated at £1,750,000.

Major Lloyd George

They were not trawlers; they were carriers.

Mr. Parker

I took this statement from the "Evening Standard" If they have misreported the Minister, I apologise. When many trawlers have already been requisitioned for Admiralty purposes, it is only fair that the others should be requisitioned and used also for national pur- poses. If the Ministry are prepared to do that, I am certain they will have effective control of the fish trade, from the point of catch to the point of sale. The fish trade before the war was top-heavy and over-burdened with wholesalers and agents. In the inter-war years the number of merchants dealing with the fish in Grimsby and many other ports increased, although the actual quantity of fish handled decreased. Just before the war, the industry, according to the White Fish Commission, had far too many people handling the fish. When the war came, and the quantity of fish handled decreased, this same number of people continued to try to make a living, and prices consequently went up amazingly, until the Government had to fix prices.

I hope this Order will be only the beginning of an attempt to deal with the fish industry. It has successfully fought the Ministry for many months. On 1st September, the Ministry were going to take it over and make drastic alterations. For various reasons, they did not do so. They finally brought in this Order instead. I hope that the Ministry will not go back on their original intention to make drastic alterations in the industry, but that they will take it over, rationalise it, get rid of unnecessary middle-men, employ as agents the most suitable men in the industry, and distribute fish as fairly as possible, seeing that the working-class population get a fair share. I hope that they will be prepared to requisition trawlers and rationalise the industry right through, and not be frightened by the influence of the fish trade in mobilising opinion against them. I hope that the Minister will be courageous, and that he will stand by his guns and carry through the more extensive scheme which he originally talked about. I hope that this is only the beginning of changes in the industry.

Major Braithwaite (Buckrose)

I do not find anything to quarrel with in the statement of the Minister. I think it has clarified a position which was exercising the minds of many fishermen, and which was misleading to general public opinion. There has been no official notification until to-day that the 6d. levy was not on the real price for which the fish were being sold at the port. I am obliged to my right hon. and gallant Friend for his kindness and courtesy in receiving a de- putation which came from East Yorkshire, consisting of fishermen from that area with some of my Parliamentary colleagues. I think the Minister could not have helped being impressed by the sincerity of those men, who came, at their own expense, to describe to him the conditions which they were experiencing as inshore fishermen. They were able to show that they were getting a very poor living. I know that these Orders are not strictly relevant to that particular side of our fishing industry, but the position in regard to the 6d. levy was clearly not understood by the fishermen when they came on that deputation. I agree with the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) that this system of levying production is a bad system on which to attempt to establish any measure of confidence. If my right hon. and gallant Friend had not been at the Ministry of Food, but had tried this game at the Ministry of Mines, he would have heard a great deal about it in this House long before now.

I can see, when it is explained, that it is obviously a reasonable method of raising money for carrying out a particular duty, but if the levy is to be applied to transportation, then it should be clearly laid down so that everybody understands it, and it should be understood by all these people who transport goods to a definite market.

I can assure my right hon. and gallant Friend that our fishermen are carrying out a difficult and dangerous duty in these times, and I hope that there will be an extension of the fishing industry, because it is a great thing for the life of our country that we should have an adequate supply of really fresh fish and not the stuff that is being packed away on ice or in refrigerators for months. If he makes conditions reasonable for these people, they are prepared to take all the risks and to go out into the dangerous waters round our coasts and to do their best to bring in a proper catch for our people. I am glad to learn that by the 31st December the whole principle of the levy is to be revised and a new system adopted. I only hope that he will make it clear to the general public. There have been some complaints from the other side today that fish is too dear in some places. I hope that the general public will know exactly the net price to our fishermen at the ports and then criticisms will not arise. From what I have seen and the examinations I have made of the balance sheets of boats fishing from my own and adjacent constituencies during the last three months, these do not make good reading at all and have shown, in many cases, severe losses to our fishermen.

I want to close by thanking my right hon. and gallant Friend for his courtesy and the way in which he received that deputation of fishermen last week and by asking that he will make an announcement on the result of his investigations as soon as possible, so that our people can get back to work and put their backs into doing everything possible to make the maximum effort in war-time.

Mr. de Rothschild (Isle of Ely)

The Order which is before the House to-day has been the subject of much comment in the Press and of much interest to the consumer at large in these Islands, but before I discuss it I would like to extend my congratulations to my right hon. and gallant Friend for the manner in which he and his Department have been handling the slippery, perishable foodstuff in which we are at present interested. The fishing industry, as is well known, is an industry of many varied branches, and these interests are very little agreed. That is why we have heard so many divergent views to-day. There is no doubt that this industry got thoroughly out of hand at the beginning of the war, yet I commend my right hon. and gallant Friend because he has won the cooperation of the whole industry and has worked with it and produced these very serious and interesting measures for the control of the home market. He has produced a scheme of price control which up to the present has been adhered to loyally and carefully worked out by the different branches of the trade, and until the present shortage appeared there was little or no complain. Some evidences of a Black Market have lately appeared, but I believe the position is being very carefully watched by the officers of the Ministry.

Everybody appears to approve the scheme of the Minister, and there have been very minor complaints. In reference to the prices, which have been touched upon by some of the Members who have spoken in this Debate, there has been very little comment, except on the subject of the price of hake especially in comparison with the price of dogfish. Hake, as my right hon. and gallant Friend no doubt knows, is a very delightful and much appreciated fish, whereas the dogfish is one which takes its name, I imagine, from the pye-dog in the East, which is not as dainty as the lap-dog we know in this part of the world. So it is not surprising that the housewives have all joined in the "Hymn of Hake." There are other minor details which have been thrown at the head of my right hon. and gallant Friend, such as the disappearance of some of the little men from the market, but these are difficulties with which the Ministry is very well able to cope.

I would also like to congratulate the Minister upon his allocation committees, which have functioned so well and which will help him in the distribution of fish throughout the country. As regards the consumers, there have been good arrangements made to get to them the fish that reaches these coasts, and we have heard the scheme outlined to-day. But in spite of these very carefully-thought-out measures, of the cost of inland transport being paid out of the central fund under the auspices of the Ministry, and of the fact that everybody has his task assigned to him, yet there is very little fish to buy and very little fish to be distributed. There is little work for the trade, so that offices and fish shops are often closed at midday. There is so little fish that an empty fishmonger's shop with bare slabs is a common sight in any shopping district at the present time. No wonder people are asking the reason for this shortage and there have been articles in the papers. The consuming public is concerned and many of the statements that have been made are no doubt somewhat wide of the truth. Perhaps we may hear more from the Minister when he makes his concluding speech. We know, that to-day the fisherman, as we have heard, is faced with greater difficulties and dangers than he ever has been and that he meets them with his usual courage. But the view is constantly being reiterated in these articles in the Press that supplies of fish could be greatly increased from. Icelandic resources if certain restrictions now in force were removed. The levy which is now before this House brings up this very important question, because it is closely connected with certain aspects of the Icelandic Agreement. The terms of this Agreement are shrouded in Icelandic fog. In normal times, no doubt, a Treaty of this kind would have been discussed on the Floor of the House, but no Member to-day would wish to press for information which might in any way be prejudicial to the national interest. But with regard to this Treaty, although it has not been placed on the Table, it has been seen apparently by various individuals and interests. Allegations have been made about it in the Press, and they give an impression that may well be quite incorrect.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker(Colonel Clifton Brown)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot see where the Icelandic Treaty comes in on the Order we arc discussing now.

Mr. de Rothschild

It comes in inasmuch as the Treaty has been made between this country and Iceland for the importation of the catch of Icelandic fish. This is brought to the country by the Government. Besides this, there is a large number of boats which ply between this country and Iceland, and on the catches made by these fishermen a 6d. levy must be paid. That is why I consider the Icelandic Treaty is closely bound up with the levy we are discussing at present. It is obvious that this Treaty can only be a success if the Icelandic Government and people are satisfied with it. But there is little fish coming into this country. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has shown great tact in dealing with the inland fish, and I am sure he can be relied upon to show equal tact in dealing with this wider question of foreign policy with the Icelandic Government, which will influence to a degree the 6d. levy which is put on the trade.

I wish to refer to the scarcity of fishing boats which arc allowed to trade between Iceland and this country. Besides the boats which are chartered by the Ministry and which are handed over to one concessionaire there are 30 trawlers, 30 Iceland carriers, and 30 Faroe Island boats —90 boats in all—licensed to fish in Iceland and bring that fish to this country. It is alleged that there is a large number of boats which could be used but which are lying idle and which could bring fish to this country on which the 6d. levy could and should be paid. The men who man these boats are prepared to take all risks and face all dangers in order to bring fish to this country and satisfy the consumer. One trawler owner went so far as to say that 128 such boats were laid up. If 128 more boats brought fish from Iceland, it would mean a great deal to the consumers of this country and would bring more sixpences into the coffers of the Ministry. The Icelandic people claim that certain fishing grounds are closed to their own fishermen. What is the result? Boats reach this country with only half cargoes and, therefore, pay many pounds less levy to the Treasury and to the Ministry. I wonder whether that point is met by this Treaty. If not, is there a compensatory provision which may help the right hon. and gallant Gentleman from another point of view? There is another class of boat which it is urged could be used. These are the boats which make regular journeys to Iceland carrying exports from this country. When empty they could bring back catches of fish on which the Ministry could collect a levy, whereas I understand they return in ballast.

There are claims that more fish could be landed in this country if loading arrangements in the Iceland ports were better and if there was more than one organisation employed to do this work. Although many are available and anxious to share in it, only one, as far as I can make out, is being employed. This leads to delay and lack of cargoes coming into this country. I wonder if that is why so much fish is bad on arrival and why on so much fish the 6d. levy is not being paid. There was a recent newspaper article saying that 25,000 stones of fish had been condemned in three weeks and that in addition much fish was not consumed as it was of doubtful quality. Of course, by that you get a loss to the consumer and to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. No doubt such allegations are being carefully investigated, since this is a matter which seriously affects the health of the nation and also the administration of the fishing industry. Men should not brave the hazards of the sea to bring these worthless cargoes to our shores, nor should we be deprived of the fish which comes here. No doubt this is only part of the story, and the truth will appear shortly.

I wonder whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is satisfied with the amount of fish he is getting or the amount of levy which is being paid into the account of the Ministry. Certainly he is getting, a certain amount of salt cod which the Ministry advertises as though it was succulent lamprey. Of course, the consumer would rather have plaice or turbot, which cannot be stored in Iceland ports for salting while waiting for Government boats to bring it here, yet we hear that prime fish is being thrown back into Iceland waters because Government transports are not available to bring it. These stories are reminiscent of former times. They remind one of the days when corn was burnt for fuel while millions were inadequately fed. So long as we get fish at a reasonable price it does not matter much by what means it comes to us. As regards profit, the Minister is seeing to it that there are no excessive profits to be made now. Let us keep our minds on the supplies of fish; let us not be diverted by the red herring of excessive profits which is being drawn across the empty slabs of the fishmongers' shops. Undoubtedly, excessive profits have been made, and steps are being taken to deal with that at the present time. If it is felt that these profits are still excessive, fish prices can be cut further. They can be fixed in a just and fair manner. When the Government concluded the agreement, apparently they intended to use the profits to defray the costs of inland transport. Unfortunately, this attempt at State trading does not appear to have been the success it was intended to be, and the levy of 6d. is to be imposed.

I take it that all sections of the industry in this country will now be satisfied with the promises that have been made by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. I hope that he will also be able to give equal satisfaction to those who are interested in the Icelandic question. If the Government seriously want these sixpences, no matter from what source they come, they must encourage the boats to bring fish to our ports. Unless more boats arrive, we shall have little fish and few sixpences. Perhaps a less restrictive policy would be in the interests of everybody, the fishermen, the Ministry, and, above all, the consumers. Let us by all means stamp upon the profiteers, the racketeers and the "blacketeers;" but let us see that the people get the fish.'

Major Thornton-Kemsley (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Western)

It is not my intention to follow the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) into those icy regions to which he has directed the attention of the House. Nor is it my intention to stand long between the House and the statement which we are anxious to hear in the further speech which my right hon. and gallant Friend is to make. It seems to me not altogether inappropriate that the House should reassemble to discuss on one day matters which affect the welfare of our two oldest industries. We often talk in the House about agriculture' it sometimes seems to me that we do not talk nearly enough about the honourable and ancient calling of the men who "go down to the sea in ships" at all times and in all weathers in order to secure for us that food which is as essential a part of our war-time diet as it was a desirable component of our peace-time breakfast tables.

In the rugged coastal villages of my own constituency, most of the inshore fishermen are share fishermen. Three or four of them, or perhaps more, own between them the boat and the gear, and divide the proceeds of the fishing. Most of these men were naval reservists before the war began, and the youngest and most active of them are now away on service with the Fleet. My hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) was quite right in directing the attention of the House to the hard times which the survivors among these inshore fishermen have been facing. Many of them who are left to carry on with the share of the boats are veterans who had given up before, in some cases long before, the war began. They are now having to hold the show together to secure a difficult livelihood, not only for themselves, but for those who are now away on service. They are the lifeboat men, too. I remember that it was my privilege only a few months before the war to entertain in the precincts of this House the veteran coxswain of one of our lifeboats, who had left his native village, I think for the first time, in order to come to London to receive an award from Royal hands at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's annual meeting. That old mariner left his native village again 10 days ago in order to be one of three who went all the way south to Edinburgh to plead that this levy of 6d. should be withdrawn.

I think the House is in a little difficulty in this Debate in that we understand that Amendments have been made to this Order at the eleventh hour, which Amendments, as far as I have been able to ascertain, are not available in the Vote Office. We have been told that Clause 5 is rescinded, but I think I am right in saying that none of us has been able to see that officially. Therefore, we are in some difficulty. What I think is clear is that the levy is to be maintained until 31st December. Of course, we would have liked to have seen it taken off straight away. But we are hopeful that my right hon. and gallant Friend will take all these facts that have been placed before him during the last few weeks and in this Debate into consideration when he is deciding what form the levy of the future, if any, is to take. I am quite certain that my right hon. and gallant Friend, who knows the conditions in the fishing villages, and who himself comes from a part where fishing is, with agriculture, one of the greatest, as it is one of the most ancient, of industries, will give full weight to the appeal which is coming to him from the humble homes of men who live dangerously and whose womenfolk are companioned almost always with anxiety.

Major Lloyd George

I do not think it is necessary for me to assure the House of my sympathy with the fishermen, representing as I do a constituency which contains within it one of the biggest fishing ports in the country, but I think that hon. Members, if I may say so without disrespect, have talked about a good many things with which this Order has nothing whatever to do. The real purpose of the Order is to levy the 6d. I have heard about the Iceland agreement, which certainly has nothing to do with this Order. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) has talked about fish going bad, and although the figure which he gave sounds a large one, I can assure him that compared with peace time it is not. The hon. Member also spoke about drawing the red herring of excessive profits across the fishmonger's slab. I am sure he will be interested to know that red herrings do not come under the levy; they are excluded. As I have said, most of the points that have been raised have nothing to do with the Order.

The point is this: Some hon. Members have said that the levy is a cruel imposition on the fishermen. It is nothing of the kind. The price which fishermen obtain for whatever type of fish they catch is settled entirely without regard to the 6d. Therefore there are two points. What we are discussing is whether the 6d. should be levied or not. Whether the price paid for the various categories of fish to the fishermen is good enough is another point altogether. The 6d. levy has nothing whatever to do with the price obtained by the fishermen. If cod was fixed at a certain price—say 6s. 6d.—it would become 7s. If after investigation it was found that it could not be caught except at a loss and the price was made 8s., it would become 8s. 6d. The 6d. has nothing whatever to do with the price. It is an entirely separate question, but we are prepared at any time to consider it, because no one realises more than we do what tremendous risks we are asking fishermen to undertake, and no one will object to fair and good remuneration. There is no intention whatever of asking fishermen to provide food for us and not be adequately remunerated.

The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) talks about the price of fish to-day. I can assure him mat, as far as the big fishing fleets are concerned, prices are very much in excess, not of what they were in June when they were far too high, but in comparison with pre-war. But that has nothing whatever to do with the levy. If the price that we have decided is not good enough, let us have the arguments, and we will see what we can do about it, but the 6d. levy will still go on. We are simply using the trawler owners and fishermen as a machine for collecting this money. It is just the same as if I agreed with my hon. Friend to pay him so much a week while he was in my employ and also paid him 10s. a week for travelling expenses. As far as the trawler fleets are concerned, I do not think anyone will complain about the prices they are getting, but I appreciate that there is something to be said for further investigation in the case of inshore fishermen.

With regard to the various kinds of fish, we have data which show the prewar price, and therefore we can come to some reasonable decision as to what the increase should be. But prices vary so enormously round the coasts that it is extremely difficult to get figures in the case of inshore fishermen, and that is why on the representations of my hon. Friends who represent districts where inshore fishermen operate we have promised to conduct a further investigation. It is simply no good saying, as my hon. Friend did, "Why did we not leave things as they were? For 24 months of war fish has been distributed; why did we not leave it where it was?" It was being distributed in certain places. We were anxious that, small as the catch was, it should be distributed as fairly as possible. And that is why the Order has been brought in, and the fact that at the moment the levy is collected by the owners or the fishermen themselves makes no difference to the price they get. If it was transferred to another section of industry to collect, the 6d. would come off the price.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Fish Sales (Charges) Order, 1941, dated 25th September, 1941, made by the Treasury under Section 2 of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, a copy of which was presented to this House on 30th September, be approved.

Forward to