HC Deb 16 November 1945 vol 415 cc2524-35

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

11.12 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Wheatley (Dorset, Eastern)

I am very pleased that this Bill is likely soon to be on the Statute Book, not so much for what it contains, but as an earnest that the Government intend to look after this very depressed industry. The inshore fishing industry has been a real Cinderella for the last 25 or 30 years. Nothing seems to have been done to induce the men employed in it to remain in it, or to encourage their sons to continue in their fathers' trade. Men who are employed in this industry deserve well of the country. They carried on an industry which was important both from the defence and food points of view, but they have not had much help in the past, probably because they are not a very vocal industry—except in the summer season when seated on the bottom of an upturned boat, they tell tales of the sea to gullible visitors. They have no big national organisation and no trade union, and for that reason they have been left to drift on until the industry has come to be in a very serious situation.

I am assured by the Minister of Food that he is in consultation with the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries on a question which lies at the basis of any success which may come to this industry, that of stabilised minimum prices. The people employed in this industry have enough trouble, with instability of weather and of fishing, to put up with without having instability of prices. These men deserve well of the country; they are the men who, at the time of Dunkirk, sailed their little boats to the rescue of our men, and who largely provided the crews for the little ships of the Royal Navy. I do hope, therefore, that the Government will not stop at this Bill in coming to their assistance, but will go further and help them more than ever.

My one criticism of the Bill concerns that part of it which refers, to loans. I would much rather that the whole of this money for the industry should go to it in the form of grants. The purpose of the Bill is to give the industry an opportunity of rehabilitating itself and getting its gear and ships into good condition. Surely it will not help the industry very much if a large proportion of this money is to be given in loans which will hang like millstones round the necks of the fishermen. When they come back into the industry their earnings will be mortgaged for a number of years owing to their having to repay the loans and the interest on them. Still, these loans are better than nothing, and I welcome the Bill on behalf of the industry and on behalf of the men who go out in the little boats along the South and East coasts of England. I ask the Government to consider bringing in some legislation very soon to deal with the question of stabilised prices.

11.16 a.m.

Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence (Orkney and Shetland)

I wish to reinforce the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Dorset (Lieut.-Colonel Wheatley) and to say how warmly I welcome this Bill. The whole question of the inshore fishing industry was very closely studied by a Committee recently in Scotland, and this Bill implements the first and most fundamental recommendation of that Committee. Unless the industry can be modernised and equipped with better boats than it has had in the past, there will not be a very good outlook for it. This Bill carries out practically everything in that respect which the Committee recommended.

I do not know exactly what arrangements will be made under the Measure for the acquisition of naval boats by fishermen. Obviously the assistance to be given under the Bill will be available to fishermen for that purpose, but I ask the Minister what arrangements there are to be. Will the Admiralty sell those boats direct to fishermen? If that is done it will be a great mistake. I consider that these arrangements ought to be made in conjunction with the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland, since otherwise men who may not be at all suited to take charge of boats will get them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) has pointed out, it is not every man who will make a successful skipper of a fishing boat, and it is important that these boats should go into proper hands. I think the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for Scotland must enter into the picture. I would like also to call attention to a valuable suggestion that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff, namely, that in the allocation of these boats, or in giving assistance under the Measure, the advice of local people in the industry should be sought. The people in the industry, wherever they may be, know best who are the men worth backing and likely to make good skippers and successful fishermen.

There is one point concerning the Bill which has not yet been mentioned, and that is that it helps men who are engaged in the shell-fishing industry. I am glad they are included, because the shell-fishing industry is of great importance in some parts of Scotland, such as Stornoway, Wick, Barra, and Orkney, where lobster fishing is a considerable industry bringing in between £50,000 and £60,000 a year. The people concerned, for the most part, live on small uneconomic holdings, and the only way in which they can make a living is by engaging in some ancillary industry. Lobster fishing flourishes in those parts and is worthy of encouragement. These men have been working very often with inadequate boats, sometimes sailing boats, and sometimes boats in which they have ingeniously fitted old car engines. This Bill will help to give them better boats and a greatly extended range of operations, and will increase the supply of lobsters on the market. I wish to express my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for having taken over this Bill, which was prepared by the previous Government, and for having implemented the first and most important recommendation of the Scottish White Fish Industry Committee.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir B. Neven-Spence) said, the Government inherited this Bill from the Coalition Administration, and the Minister of Agriculture is to be complimented upon his wisdom in reintroducing it so quickly. I wish to emphasise the great need for this Bill and the pressing urgency with which the question is regarded by the fishing industry. I have here a letter typical of several letters and messages which I have received during the last few weeks indicating the state of affairs, at any rate, on the Fife coast. This letter is from a man who was demobilised a month ago. He writes: I am likely to be unemployed for a long time, because I am a fisherman. My brother has been unemployed, being a fisherman, too, for three months now, and we are expecting our youngest brother home, demobilised under Group 26. Before the war the three of them worked co-operatively on one vessel, as is the custom of fishermen. The vessel was requisitioned by the Admiralty at the beginning of the war. These three men are back, each of them has a family of two or three children, each of them has given over five years' service in the Patrol Service of the Royal Navy in home waters and abroad. They are back, they have no boats, they are idle. In one port of East Fife alone, 60 men are hanging about idle because they have no boats for fishing.Meanwhile the people in the great cities are crying out for fish. The Herring Industry Board states that only 50 per cent.of the herrings that the people want are being supplied. It is the same with white fish. I want to impress upon the House the urgency of this matter. I hope that the Minister of Agriculture, when he has got this Measure, will put it into practice with the greatest speed possible.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland raised an important point relating to Admiralty vessels. There is nothing in the Bill to suggest that the boats which are to be provided with the grants and loans are necessarily to be new boats or boats specially designed for this kind of fishing. Although for my part I hope the great bulk of them will be new boats specially designed for the dual purpose of white and herring fishing, the urgency is so great that we shall have to get, in the course of the next few months, a great many boats from other directions. One of the directions from which these vessels might come is undoubtedly the Admiralty. In preparation for this Debate, I addressed a question to the First Lord last Wednesday, and I was told by him that his Department have now a considerable number—I think 978—of vessels of the usual motor fishing vessel type. He said that the bulk of these boats, which every- body agrees are usually admirably suited for fishing, are in the Far East and cannot be brought home, but that a considerable number are in home waters. He said: Any which may eventually become surplus at home will be offered to the fishing industry."—[Official Report, 14th November, 1945; Vol. 415, c. 2253.] He said that in addition there are a good many of these M.F.V's still on the stocks not yet completed, and that some of these will be probably offered to the fishing industry.

The question I want to put is the same as that put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland. What are the Ministry of Agriculture and the Scottish Fisheries Department doing about those Admiralty vessels? Does the Minister know about them? I have some doubt about that. My impression is that the Admiralty have not yet made contact with the right hon. Gentleman about the disposal of those vessels. I see that the Minister shakes his head, which I hope means that he has made a plan. If so, I should be glad to hear what the plan is. Is it to be left to individual fishermen in Fife, for example, to apply to the Admiralty for some of those M.F.Vs., or are they to apply for them through the Fisheries Division of the Scottish Office? If so, are those vessels to carry with them the rights of grants and loans in the same way as new vessels specially built for the purpose? I should like to hear a clear answer from the right hon. Gentleman.

During the Second Reading Debate, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland what was to be the departmental "set-up," to use an unhappy phrase which fits the purpose, as between the Herring Industry Board and the Fisheries Division of the Scottish Office in the way of providing grants and loans for boats provided under the Herring Industry Act and under this Measure. For the benefit of non-fishing Members, I would explain that this Bill is intended to provide boats primarily, but not solely, for use for white fishing. The purpose is really to produce dual purpose vessels that can be used primarily for white fishing, but also substantially for herring fishing. The Herring Industry Act, which was passed last year, provides boats primarily for herring fishing and substantially for white fishing. Therefore, in practice the two types of boats are really the same, but they are to be administered by two different Departments of State—in Scotland by the Herring Industry Board and the Fisheries Division of the Scottish Office. It will be difficult for fishermen sometimes to be able to say, "I am going to use my vessel mainly for herring fishing and only part of the time for white fishing." It may be that the two interests will just about balance. It may be that in one year the fisherman will be more employed in herring fishing and less in white fishing, and the following year it may be the other way round.

I asked the Under-Secretary of State to tell me how decisions were to be made. Is the Herring Industry Board to work in a completely watertight department, paying no attention to the demands and applications made to the Fisheries Division of the Scottish Office, and is the Fisheries Division to hand out grants and loans without the Herring Fishing Board knowing what is being done? I cannot conceive that such a thing will happen but one wants to know what is to be the administrative arrangements to meet these obvious difficulties. When the Under-Secretary of State replied, he rather pooh-poohed the matter. He had obviously not thought about it and clearly did not know the subject to which he was referring and gave a completely unsatisfactory answer, which caused much confusion among local fishermen. The right hon. Gentleman must tell us today that a clear division of responsibilities, or, as I would like to put it, a clear link of administrative action has been forged for providing for these two types of related vessels.

A matter was raised in Committee which I must raise again. We are providing under the Bill, as the Herring Industry Act provided under that Measure, grants and loans for new boats. Without any exaggeration, the prices now charged or estimated to be charged for new fishing vessels are exorbitant and beyond any reasonable capacity of fishermen to meet. The figure I quoted on Second Reading was that the kind of vessel about which we are talking would have cost £3,000 before the war. Fishermen who have tried in the last year to get such a vessel have had estimates up to £8,000. If we put upon the fisherman's shoulders a burden of debt of up to £8,000, we crush him for the next 20 years. The Government must give an assurance that they are taking steps to reduce these excessive prices.

I do not know how these prices arise; I mean that I do not know the complete answer. Part of the high cost is due to shortage of labour, and shortage of supply, but part is undoubtedly due to a tendency in some building circles to create a ring. I say, as a Liberal, that a ring of that kind is anti-social and if it exists it ought to be broken. The difficulty about the Bill is that it gives large grants, and undoubtedly some unscrupulous builders will say, "Here is a large grant; I will put up my price. It will not affect the fishermen because it will come out of the Government's coffers." The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland showed an appalling lack of knowledge of these circumstances on the Committee Stage when the hon. Member for Montrose Burghs (Mr. Maclay) raised the matter.

The Under-Secretary of State said that the prices of boats and gear would not be determined by this Bill; but, surely, they will be determined by it. Here is a Bill offering the fisherman many hundreds of pounds, may be thousands of pounds, for the purpose of obtaining new boats. Unscrupulous men will take advantage of that and put up the prices of boats. Therefore, the Bill may have, unless we take great care, the effect of raising the prices of vessels. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to assureus that under the great powers his Government have taken for the next five years, he will ensure that the fishermen and the Departments are not going to be exploited in this way. I am not, of course, saying that one can reduce boat prices to prewar level, and I do not say that the Minister's action can show results immediately. But I feel certain that if he took energetic steps, by the time the first vessels came off the slips under the provisions of this Bill, we might see a very considerable reduction in prices.

As I said on Second Reading, and I repeat it now, precisely the same principles apply to the cost of gear. A fishing boat is no good without nets and a great many other sets of appliances for catching fish. Gear has trebled in cost. There must be a reason for that. I cannot believe that that vast increase is justified. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to tell us that in that respect also, he will make searching inquiries into the detailed items going to the cost of the manufacturing of the nets. There are many steps in the process of making a net. There is the material and the various stages of manufacture, and all this ought to be examined in complete detail, just as we did in the war with regard to the manufacture of shells and other munitions. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that these steps are being taken.

This is a very important Bill and this is a historic day in the story of, at any rate, the Scottish fishing industry. Great hopes are attached to this Measure. Thousands upon thousands of men are looking to the effects of this Bill for the development of their life and livelihood and that of their children. Hundreds of communities in the case of Scotland may be dependent on the proper administration of the Measure, so a heavy responsibility rests on the right hon. Gentleman. I compliment him on introducing the Bill and he will have earned the gratitude of a great and gallant community if he carries this thing through with the drive and sympathy that ought to be associated witha Measure of this kind.

11.37 a.m.

Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)

This Bill will be welcomed not only by the House, but also by the fishermen concerned. The Government have rightly come to the aid of men who incurred considerable hardships during the war in providing people with a very valuable food. These fishermen have earned the gratitude of the nation for the services they rendered during the war. Now that men are being released from the Royal Navy, I hope that there will be a speeding-up not only in the provision of boats, but in the provision of gear. May I express the hope that the Government will do something more to help these inshore fishermen by protecting them against the inroads of trawlers?

11.38 a.m.

Mr. Duthie (Banff)

I cannot too strongly associate myself with the words which have been spoken by the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart). This Bill represents something that is fundamental to the fishermen of Scotland. In association with the Herring Industry Act, it offers what is virtually a new lease of life to a very depressed community. This great hope could, however, be a two-edged weapon unless we can secure for the fishermen all the assistance which the Government can possibly give in relation to the control of the cost of the vessels and the gear which this Bill sets out to provide.

There is another matter of fundamental importance. No matter how much we can provide for fishermen in the shape of boats and gear, unless we can secure for them markets for the fish and fair prices, the most promising ventures may be doomed to failure.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I must point out to the hon. Member that on the Third Reading he must confine himself to what is in the Bill and not deal with what the House might like to have done.

Mr. Duthie

In relation to the point made by the hon. Member for East Fife and by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir B. Neven-Spence), I cannot too strongly emphasise how necessary it is, with regard to determining those who are to receive assistance under this Bill, that all possible local assistance and advice should be secured. Again, I would like to emphasise that there is no better possible advice that can be obtained in a matter of this kind than that of a local committee on which is a fair representation of the fishermen themselves. I submit that, in any local committee that is set up, the fishermen must be represented. I cannot see how this matter can be adequately dealt with on a local basis, unless the assistance of the fishermen is invoked in devising and carrying on the local arrangements. This Bill is a Godsend to a very deserving community, and in direct ratio to the assistance which the Government will give with regard to the control of prices in the building yards and the scrupulous control of gear prices to ensure that the fisherman is not mulcted of too much for the acquisition of both boat and gear, we shall see this Bill, conjointly with the Herring Industry Act, 1944, attain the great objective for which they have been devised, that is, the salvation of the fishing industry around the coasts of Britain.

11.41 a.m.

Commander Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I rise to welcome and support the Bill. I trust the Minister fully realises that this is only a beginning and that there is a great deal more to be done. A number of men have already been demobilised and, what is more important, a number of Cornish men have been demobilised and are waiting to take advantage of the provisions of this Bill. I do not know the exact machinery whereby the Bill passes from here to another place. But I ask that its course will be speedy and that despatch will be given to it. I know not the colour of the Minister's docket jacket, whether it be yellow, black or blue, but whichever it is, I hope he will see to it that, as fast as it is delivered into the "In" way it will find its way to the "Out" way and so reach another place with the speed necessary for an important Bill.

11.42 a.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

As the Minister responsible for this Measure, important, though small, I am very proud of that position this morning, since it happens to be not only a Bill that is welcomed in all quarters of the House, but one that is likely to secure the Third Reading very early. It will, too, be my first real product from the Ministry of Agriculture, apart from yesterday's Statement. One or two questions have been put which are fairly easy to answer. With regard to the acquisition of naval boats from the Admiralty, all I can say isthat we are aware that some of these motor boats may be useful for fishing purposes, but we fear, that most of them may not be. In any case, we are already in consultation with the Admiralty and will necessarily become the intermediaries between the Admiralty and appropriate persons in the purchase of any boat.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

Can we take it that those Admiralty boats, if they become available through the right hon. Gentleman's Department, will carry the same concession of grants and loans?

Mr. Williams

If a boat is found suitable in every particular and is accepted as such by the Secretary of State for Scotland or myself, then, presumably, similar terms and conditions as those which obtain under the Bill will apply to them. On the question of advice raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir B. Neven-Spence), advice from local bodies will obviously be sought. We would not expect to sit in Whitehall and determine whether a person was either more competent or less competent, whether his services were what they should be and whether or not he fulfilled all conditions. Clearly, we must obtain our informtion from local sources, and steps will be taken to that end.

The hon. and gallant Member who spoke first said that, instead of the grant being one-third and the loan 56 and two-thirds per cent. he would have preferred that it had been a total grant. I suppose most fishermen would, but the lines of this Bill follow identically the lines of the Herring Industry Act, and I do not see that there could be any complaint on that account. The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) said there was a great need for this Bill. That being so, I think we ought to pass it as quickly as possible. In reply to the hon. Member's observation on the Herring Board and the Fisheries Division of the Scottish Office, or its parallel in this country, obviously, the Herring Industry Board and the Fisheries Division of the Scottish Department will work in close co-operation. Should an application be made to the Herring Industry Board for a boat, which seems on the evidence available to be a case for an inshore fishing boat under the terms of this Bill, the two Departments will work harmoniously together, and that applies to England and Wales, too.

On the question of the prices of the boats, my hon. Friend found himself making two rather contradictory statements. He told us on Second Reading, and he repeated this morning, that the prices being charged for boats such as those we have in mind under the terms of this Bill are perfectly outrageous—£6,000, £7,000 and £8,000, the hon. Member said. I have no means of declaring that that is either the right or the wrong price that is being offered, but the hon. Member went on to say that this Bill will determine the price of boats. I should have thought that, if the prices now being charged and which have been charged for some little time are setting the pace, it cannot be this Bill that is setting the pace. The hon. Member was right to make the point, and I can assure him that, when applications are received, all relevant matters concerning the prices of boats, gear and equipment will be taken into account. I cannot imagine either this Board or the Scottish Fisheries Division deliberately giving Treasury funds away to exploiting shipbuilders merely because the Government has decided to help this deserving section of inshore fishing. I hope the Bill will receive its Third Reading, so that we can take active steps to get into harness quickly and help the fishermen referred to by the hon. Member. Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.