HC Deb 18 February 1944 vol 397 cc607-11

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."—[Mr. Assheton.]

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen, East)

I understood that my right hon. Friend was going to say a few words in introducing this Bill. There is one point I want to raise. I hope not to detain the House long, but it is a matter which affects my own constituency vitally. It is a local matter; but also I think it has rather wider implications, which justify me in raising it on this occasion. Indeed, I think this is the only occasion on which I can raise it. One of the most important functions of the Public Works Loans Board, as I am sure the Financial Secretary will agree, is the maintenance and development of the harbours, particularly the fishing harbours, around our coasts. I want to ask the Minister what the general policy of the Government is with regard to this. The matter is one of principle. I see the harbour of Eyemouth is referred to specifically in this Bill. I propose to take, as an example, the specific case of the town and harbour of Peterhead, in my constituency, which, unfortunately, and for reasons of which I am not aware, is not included in this Bill; for the Town Council of Peterhead has not been seeing eye to eye in recent weeks with the Public Works Loans Board.

Prior to the last war, the herring fishing industry was extremely prosperous, and, for the years 1911–12–13, the average number of trans landed at Peterhead was over 200,000, and the average number of barrels exported was also about 200,000. This brought great wealth to the town. Between the two wars there was however, a very different story to tell. For the years 1936–7–8–9, the average number of craps landed at Peterhead dropped to 76,900 and the average number of barrels exported to not more than 50,000. There was no prosperity in the town, and the number of unemployed during the winter months was well over 2,000, a quite deplorable percentage of the population.

Before the last war there were guarantees by the Town Council to the Harbour Trustees amounting in all to £46,000. These guarantees were suspended during the period of the last war. At the conclusion of hostilities, the annual liability of the Town Council was £2,800 odd, and this sum was paid until 1931, when one of the loans, amounting to £18,000, was fully repaid, and the annual liability was reduced to about £1,500, which was paid until May, 1940. The total amount paid by the Town Council on account of guaranteed Harbour loans was £37,300 up to that date. Capital sums now due to the Public Works Loans Board amount to £18,300; and it will take over £25,000 in instalments of capital and interest to pay them off.

But this is not the whole story. In 1930–31, the position of Peterhead was so desperate, and unemployment so serious, that the Town Council borrowed in addition £38,900 and paid it over to the Harbour Trustees to enable them to proceed with works costing £78,000. The other half of this amount was given by the Treasury in the form of a grant. This was a heavy liability, involving an annual additional payment, on account of the harbour, by the Town Council, of £2,265. What is the position to-day? There is a dispute, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, between the Council and the Public Works Loans Board, into the details of which I do not propose to enter. What matters is that, owing to the war, and to naval requirements over which the Town Council have no control, the harbour is no longer being used as a herring fishing centre. The revenue, I admit, has not hitherto declined to any marked extent from what it was before the war, when it was inadequate to meet expenditure; but it is now going down rapidly, and it is not bringing any industry to the town, or any prosperity to the town, as it would have done if it arose out of the activities of the herring fishing fleet. I want to emphasise that the herring fishing industry is essential to Peterhead. It is not only the main industry of the town, but, with its ancillary trades, it is almost the sole industry. That is why the Town Council gave the guarantees. It is an unusual thing for a Town Council to guarantee loans to such an authority as a harbour authority; and, in my submission, it is grossly unfair to press them for payments at this time, in view of the fact that all payments were suspended in the last war, because it is no fault of theirs that the bulk of the herring fishing fleet has been temporarily transferred to other ports.

I will, in conclusion, turn to the wider aspect. It is generally admitted, and my right hon. Friend will not deny it, that the herring fishing industry will assume immense importance at the conclusion of hostilities, when we shall be trying to feed a starving Europe as best we can. It will have to be based on certain ports during the various seasons. The main ports from which the international fleet used to fish before the war, and from which it will fish again, are Stornoway, Lerwick, Wick, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Lowestoft, and Yarmouth. It is essential that these ports should be brought to the highest state of efficiency. Not only will past debts have to be written off by the Public Works Loans Board, but finance will have to be provided for further capital development and improvements on a pretty big scale. The harbours themselves will have to be well found, and supplied with modern, up-to-date equipment, including electricity. There must be slipways capable of building and repairing fishing craft; and adequate facilities for storage, preserving, and processing. And this does not apply to the fishing harbours alone. It is now generally admitted that, if we are to achieve full employment, the State must regulate capital expenditure and give facilities for development. I have recited these various and necessary improvements, because we all know now that employment ultimately depends on outlay; and the price of giving to individuals the right to save is that their private savings must be offset by an adequate, and therefore equivalent, expenditure.

I hope that this is the last Public Works Loans Bill we shall ever have introduced into this House. I hope that the Public Works Loans Board will be merged into a wider National Development Board, with subsidiary boards for England, Scotland and Wales, working in collaboration with local authorities and public utility concerns, in carrying out a general policy of capital expenditure and of national development after the war. But that, as the late Mr. Rudyard Kipling once said—and you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker may easily say in a moment or two—is another story. To-day, I am more concerned for the future of these harbours which constitute the basis of a great industry in which I have always taken a very considerable interest, namely, the herring fishing industry. Their debts are a legacy from a bad past, and my right hon. Friend knows it, when the financial policy of the Government was wrong in theory and worse in action. That ought to be written off now; and I hope that the niggling, cheese-paring attitude adopted by the Public Works Loans Board towards the Peterhead Town Council is not going to be regarded as a precedent, or tolerated in the future.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Assheton)

My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) always expresses himself extremely clearly and fluently, and we all know the great interest he takes in the herring industry. The application of what he said to the Bill is perhaps rather narrower than he might like us to think. The point at issue really is that the Peterhead Burgh Council has guaranteed a loan to the Public Works Loans Board and my hon. Friend wants this loan to be written off. Under the law as it now stands, the Public Works Loans Board cannot submit to a debt being written off unless there is no likelihood of the debt being recovered. I would not like to think that there is no likelihood of this debt being recovered from the Peterhead Burgh Council. I regret very much that, in the year 1940, they saw fit to default on the guaranteed loan and brought discredit not only upon themselves, but upon local bodies in general. I am happy to say that the Town Council have now agreed to make an immediate payment of £3,000 on account, and to discharge the balance when the necessary financial arrangements can be made.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State both paid a visit to Aberdeen recently and discussed this important matter. The Scottish Office, with the concurrence of the Treasury, have been able to offer the Peterhead Town Council a grant, and a loan free of interest to enable them to deal with the somewhat difficult financial situation in which they have found themselves. The point that I want to make to the House is this. The policy of the Government in regard to this matter is that, if an authority requires assistance in circumstances of this sort due to the war, they should get assistance from the State and not default on their obligations to the Public Works Loans Board. It is one thing to go to the Scottish Office, and for the Scottish Office to come to the Treasury and ask for assistance, but it is quite another thing to default upon a loan made by the Public Works Loans Board, and that is a matter of principle on which my hon. Friend—

Mr. Boothby

You turned on the heat.

Mr. Assheton

I think my hon. Friend will agree that I have answered his question.

Mr. Boothby


Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House.—[Captain McEwen.]

Committee upon the next Sitting Day.