HC Deb 15 May 1946 vol 422 cc2046-51

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Fish Sales (Charges) Order 1946 (S.R & O., 1946, No 520), dated 9th April, 1946, made by the Treasury under Section 2 of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, and Section 5 of the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act, 1945, a copy of which Order was presented on 12th April, be approved."—[Dr. Summerskill.]

12.50 a.m.

Mr. R. S. Hudson (Southport):

I think that the House is entitled to have some explanation from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food of the reasons for the making of this Order. It is quite true that it refers to an alteration in the size of the levy, and anyone looking at it might well wonder why a levy of this nature was necessary when the question is only a matter of Id. on a stone. In answer to a Question this afternoon the Minister of Food said that the proceeds of this levy amounted last year to something well over £3 million. I submit that when figures of that order are involved the House is entitled to the courtesy of an explanation by the Minister concerned. We would like to know exactly the purposes for which this levy is being made. Some slight explanation is given in the explanatory note on page 3——

Mr. Speaker:

That, of course, would be ruled out of Order on this occasion.

Mr. Hudson:

What we surely are entitled to know is how this money, arising out of this levy, is to be spent. As I said, the figure is no small one.

Mr. Speaker:

That, of course, is an old question which has been gone into several times before. We cannot now discuss a matter which has already been decided.

Mr. Hudson:

I am aware of that, but, after all, if you, Mr. Speaker, will be good enough to look at the terms of the Order you will see, in paragraph 2: There shall, in accordance with and subject to the provisions of this Order, be paid:— (a) by every person who buys fish (other than herrings, pilchards, sprats, mackerel and horse mackerel) on first hand sale a charge at the rate of is. per stone of fish so bought. In the Order which this is superseding the figure was not 1s. a stone but 1d. a stone. I submit that the House is entitled to know why it is necessary on 9th April, 1946, to ask everybody who buys a stone of white fish to pay at first hand sale a levy of 1s. instead of the levy that has hitherto been charged of 1d. If you will look a little further down, Mr. Speaker, you find: …every person who buys herrings on first hand sale a charge (i) at the rate of od. per stone of fish so bought… Again, the figure in the Order which this supersedes was 1d. in the case of white fish. We are being asked tonight to approve an increase in the charge of 1,200 per cent.

Major Cecil Poole (Lichfield):

On a point of Order. In view of the fact that the number of fish is being reduced by the amount by which the levy is increased, which means that the fish is actually available at the same price as the first hand sale, there is no change. Therefore, I venture to suggest that the argument of the right hon. Gentleman is null and void. That is in the explanatory note.

Mr. Hudson:

I think it is a different set of people which is buying. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, there must have been some reason why the Government found it necessary on 9th April so substantially to increase the charge. If 1d. was sufficient for whatever purpose the levy is required for up to 9th April, what has occurred since 9th April to make it necessary now to charge 1s.? I submit that it is relevant for me to mention the answer that was elicited from the Minister of Food today on this very point. The Minister of Food was asked what was the total sum collected by the levy on the first sale of fish, excluding——

Mr. Speaker:

I have read the Order carefully, and the only comment the right hon. Gentleman can make is why the charge of 1d. is increased now. That is the only point.

Mr. Hudson:

But, Mr. Speaker, this charge is being increased from 1d. to 1s. That is admitted. There must be some reason for it, and surely the reason must be to raise money. Surely, if we are to be asked to raise a much larger sum of money than we were raising up to now, the next question, logically, is what are the Government going to do with the money? With all respect, Mr. Speaker, if you rule that we cannot ask what is to happen to the money, I confess that I am sorry for the hon. Lady who is to reply, for I do not see how she can possibly justify the increase of the charge from 1d. to 1s. [AN. HON. MEMBER: "It is a red herring."] Therefore, I submit that it must be relevant for me to put the further question, what is to happen to the money? I understand—I hope you will allow me to go thus far—that the money is required for some current transactions, and also for paying off a debt that arose earlier. That is clear from the explanatory note. Are we not entitled to ask what was the amount of the debt still to be cleared off, in order to decide whether or not this increase from a 1d. to 1s. is justified? Surely, that is in Order?

Mr. Speaker:

That is pure speculation, surely. It would be possible to speculate about all sorts of things for which the charge is increased.

Mr. Hudson:

I am trying to submit to you, Sir, that the questions I was putting are really relevant to this. It really is a serious point The money is required to defray certain charges, and I think it will be found, when the hon. Lady replies, if she is allowed to within the Rules of Order, that she will say that it is required both to cover current transactions and to pay off a debt previously incurred. I hope she will tell us what these current transactions are, what is the size of the debt, how much longer someone has to go on paying 1s. rather than 1d., and what the effect of this is. I say quite frankly that this is relevant, because the question will come up later on a Prayer, and the answer the hon. Lady will give will have a certain relevance to the question, curiously enough, of the price of pears in Aberdeen, which it would no doubt not be in Order for me to go into too closely at present. I hope, anyway, that with that introduction we will have a full explanation from the hon. Lady.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summerskill):

I was quite prepared to give the House an explanation, but I thought that this matter was so elementary that no hon. Member on the other side would need to have an exposition at such a late hour. If the right hon. Gentleman who is a little bewildered about the purpose of this levy would like me to explain, I am quite prepared to do so. The object of this Order, as of the previous Fish Sale Orders, which it supersedes and revokes, is to put into effect what might be described as an equalisation fund for the cost of fish transport in order to secure equitable fish distribution. Hon. Members will understand that everyone does not live at the same distance from the port. The Ministry arranged that from June, 1941, it would bear the cost of fish transport from the port of landing to its first destination inland. To meet this cost, it placed a uniform flat rate levy on the sales of sea fish out of which the railway charges were to be met.

That is the purpose of the levy—to meet the railway charges incurred. This levy is not paid by the fishermen, but by the fish wholesalers who buy the fish in the first instance from the producers. The size of the levy does not cut down the remuneration of the fishermen, but, on the other hand, it is taken into account when calculating what the wholesaler can charge on resale. We have been able to agree with the railway companies on a flat rate to cover all movement of fish in respect of which the carriage is paid by the Department. This has tended to reduce administration costs in connection with the scheme. I should like to tell the right hon. Gentleman, that although the revenue was greater than expenditure last year—I think the answer was given in the House—in other years there has been a deficit. I will let him have the other figures. There is, therefore, a debt which we are anxious to wipe out.

As far as white fish are concerned, it has been the general practice over a number of years during which the scheme has operated to vary the levy charge. The system of having different rates in summer and winter has operated since June, 1943. It has the advantage of compensating the producers in some measure for the increased difficulties and dangers of procuring fish in the winter months. The increase of 11d. per stone effected by the Order in respect of white fish corresponds to a decrease of the same amount in the producers' maximum selling price under the Control and Maximum Prices Order, but for most varieties there is a heavier cut in the producers' price, which, with the saving on distributive margins, has been used for the benefit of the consumer. The House will agree that in these days, with such large catches, the consumer should benefit.

With regard to pelagic fish, which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned—herrings, pilchards, sprats, mackerel and horse mackerel—fishing for these fish is seasonal and local, and the considerations, which in the case of white fish make it desirable to give higher prices to the producer in the winter than in the summer, do not apply to pelagic varieties. That is why the amount remains constant. The rate of charge on herrings, pilchards, and sprats has, therefore, remained unchanged at 9d. per stone since October, 1942. It has, however, been found that the levy income collected at the rate of 9d. per stone on herrings over the last few years has been insufficient to meet the cost of the carriage, and in order to meet the estimated cost for the next 12 months, the levy is being increased to 10½d. per stone from 18th May. The extra cost of distributing herrings is due to the fact that compared with the landed weight the net weight of fish incurring a carriage charge is smaller, in the case of white fish, than in the case of herrings. White fish are gutted, usually headed and often filleted before despatch. Levy is, therefore, paid on a greater weight than is carried. Herrings, on the other hand, may make two journeys to and from the kipperers. There will be a separate levy of ¾d. per stone to be imposed and collected by the Herring Industry Board on first hand sales of fresh herrings as from 18th May. The Control and Maximum Prices Order will be amended with effect from the same date to spread the combined levy increase of 2¼d. per stone over producers and distributors. I can assure the House that all those concerned with this industry have been consulted, and, therefore, I hope that the House will approve the Order.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Fish Sales (Charges) Order, 1946 (S.R & O., 1946, No. 520), dated 9th April, 1946, made by the Treasury under Section 2 of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, and Section 5 of the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act, 1945, a copy of which Order was presented on 12th April, be approved.