HC Deb 06 April 1950 vol 473 cc1439-52

3.34 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has occupied nearly one-sixth of the precious time at my disposal but, nevertheless, I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to the state of the Scottish fishing industry. Naturally I am most interested in the lot of the fishermen and their families who inhabit the East Fife coast, but the burdens they have to bear now are shared equally by inshore and herring fishermen in every port along the Scottish seaboard: and they are of such a character as to warrant the most urgent and sympathetic attention of the House and the country.

The plea I make today is for action, swift effective action, on the part of the Government, to prevent a crisis overwhelming this vital industry and its magnificent people. Never in its long history has this House turned a deaf ear to the just claims of British seamen. I hope it will listen today for the claims I and some hon. Friends have to express are indeed just and very serious. Crisis, unfortunately, is not unknown to the fishing communities. In a trade based on home ports, but as to a large part dependent on and in all branches affected by movements overseas, it is inevitable that changing world conditions may at any time work havoc on its prosperity.

In the early 30's, when I first came to this House, a crisis of markets nearly destroyed the herring industry. Vast catches were coming in which the accustomed foreign markets in Russia and on the Continent were unable to absorb. For my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), myself and others, most of whom have now left the House, it was a time of great anxiety. Out of that crisis was born the Herring Industry Board with the duty, as we hoped, to take over the whole function of marketing and, in important respects, to re-organise and re-equip the herring fleet so that it might face its new problems with confidence and success.

Today, after five years' mismanagement of our national affairs, a new crisis has rushed upon the trade, this time a crisis of costs, the costs of boats, gear, operations and transport. In all these departments prices have rocketed far beyond the experience of any other business in the country and to such an extent as to threaten the imminent and wholesale collapse of the trade. Hon. Members must not think I am exaggerating here As if deliberately to turn the screw on the fisherman's grave anxieties, His Majesty's Government now propose, I understand, substantially to reduce the financial aid hitherto made available to the Herring Industry Board to inshore fishermen; to continue, despite protests and the plainest facts, the damaging import of overseas supplies of fish; and, most recently, as a master stroke of damage, to abolish the flat rate transport system, which alone makes it possible for Scottish crews to sell their produce at competitive prices in the great inland markets. It is an amazing record of ineptitude and irresponsibility.

Let me examine the case in detail. As most hon. Members know, the fisherman depends chiefly upon three factors for the successful prosecution of his trade. He depends on the personal skill of himself and his crew, on the efficiency and sufficiency of his boat and gear and upon the availability of swift, cheap, transport to move the produce of his labours. His skill, fortunately, has never been in question, nor his enterprise, nor his courage, nor his restless endeavour. From these precious assets in peace as in war this country has always drawn strength and security and it will be a sad day for us if ever those assets should fade away. But what value are they all when the conditions under which the fisherman works are such that he cannot achieve the elementary objective of making ends meet, or making a slight surplus, because the cost of everything he uses in his trade has soared to impossible heights?

Had the inshore industry been based like the trawler section or, if hon. Members like, the great co-operative movement, on a large aglomoration of capital, which might stand the strain of a temporarily profitless period, we might not perhaps have felt such urgent concern. But the men for whom I and my hon. Friends plead today are none of them great capitalists. It is the essence of the inshore and the herring industry organisation that the boats and gear are owned in partnership by the crews themselves—countless numbers of small men, each contributing his modest share, and none possessing the resources to withstand the heavy tide of economic misfortune which now assails them. It is because of these conditions and the substantial annual losses of nets, gear and equipment caused by tempest, storm and ill luck, that the rising cost of capital equipment has become so extremely serious a problem.

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Robertson), who only recently was responsible for the fishing industry in Scotland, and who should therefore know his facts, gave us some figures about three weeks ago. Ring nets before the war, he said, cost £50, today they cost £350; 120 fathom rope which used to cost £1 now costs £29; herring drift nets, which used to cost £3 now costs £15. In other words, according to the hon. Member, herring nets are up 500 per cent., ring nets 700 per cent., and rope 900 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie), who is an acknowledged authority upon these matters, later informed us that seine nets have increased in price by 600 per cent., diesel boats by 700 per cent. and herring drifters by no less than 1,000 per cent. since pre-war days. According to the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian the price paid to the fisherman for the herring he catches today is only 100 per cent. more than before the war.

But let us compare the position in 1945 and now, that is to say since His Majesty's present advisers became, as they boasted, "the masters now." The cost of boats—

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)


Mr. Stewart

We are working to a time-table. Perhaps the hon. Member will have an opportunity to speak later. Since 1945 the cost of boats has gone up between 30 and 40 per cent., boat engines by over 50 per cent. and rope by 100 per cent., while the cost of nets and gear has gone up to a similar extent. The rise in the cost of living for the country as a whole in the same period has been about one-fifth, and the result of the election showed how keenly the people felt that rise. But it is apparent that for the general run of the articles the fishermen needs for his daily work, the rise has been four times as much and is still rising. When the flat rate transport system is abolished, the increase will be the equivalent of five times that of the general rise in the cost of living throughout the country.

That is why I claimed at the election, and reassert in the House today, that of all sections of the community the fishermen have suffered most—far and away the most—as a result of the war and the last five years of inflation. While other producers, farmers, farm workers, miners, transport men, engineers, etc., have received increases of wages or prices to compensate them to some extent for rising costs, the fishermen today are waging an almost hopeless battle against infinitely higher expenses, without any comparable return. It is for that reason I ask on their behalf of this honourable and just House that justice be now done to these gallant beleaguered men.

I do not underrate the difficulties. I am not suggesting lavish subsidies. But if, as I think the House will agree, it is in the interests of food production, national security and the preservation of rugged individual and national character to preserve the vigorous life of the communities who inhabit our fishing ports, I say that the Government should at least avoid deliberate aggravation of the trouble and should instead endeavour to strengthen the hand of all those organisations which Parliament has authorised to guide and assist the fishing industry.

Let me mention one or two possibilities. If the flat rate transport system in its present form must be abandoned, then an alternative scheme in a different form must take its place. I would ask, is such an alternative being considered? The Government have all power in this matter. They have complete control over the railway transport, and no excuse therefore is possible, or can be tolerated, for failure to act constructively upon this vital issue.

Second, if foreign imports must be considered, and I agree that they must, cannot their timing be controlled so as to avoid their present destructive effects? In the early weeks of the present year large catches of prime herring were being obtained on the West coast of Scotland; but because Norwegian herring were being imported at precisely the same time these luscious fish from Scotland, incomparable in quality, were, on many days and at many markets, almost unsaleable. I have sent evidence to the Minister of Food about that, yet when I put these points to him in this House his brave and brilliant retort was: I do not think … that any action on my part is needed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th March, 1950; Vol. 473, c. 5.] Thirdly, if economies in national expenditure are essential, and I agree that they are, must they be made at the expense of the most useful and productive Departments of the State? In the Civil Estimates for the Scottish Office I see that assistance for inshore fishermen is to be halved next year and the loan to fishermen's co-operative societies to be reduced to one-tenth of what it was before. The Herring Industry Board grants—advances for boats, for developing export markets and in winter herring—is to be reduced by no less than 20 per cent. It seems incredible that action of that kind should be taken at this time.

Again, if taxes and duties and imposts must fall upon articles, must they necessarily be placed upon the very tools of trade by which the fishermen earn their living. Is not it clearly in the national interest that nets, ropes, boats, engines and all the components that go to make them should be relieved at any rate of some of the present heavy burden of taxation? It is in this and similar directions that I believe justice can be done, and with a will might be done now.

I do not know whether the Government propose to do anything, yet they must know that dark clouds overhang this industry. Never in my 17 years experience in this House have I seen evidence of so much concern on the part of hon. Members who represent fishing communities and so much responsible and solemn agitation on the part of the industry itself.

Mr. Edward Evans


Mr. Stewart

Deputations have waited upon Ministers and protests have been made to them. They must be aware of the facts, but despite it all we still await one single piece of constructive policy. Is not it possible for the Government to emerge from its dark and secret confabulations? If indeed they have no constructive plans to offer let them say so and give way to others who have plans. If, on the other hand, they believe they can save this industry from what may well be wholesale cessation of operations, let them act now; for I warn them time is short if that calamity is to be avoided.

3.49 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

It is rather surprising to hear the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart) saying that the Government have done nothing constructive for the fishing industry. If he will look at the legislation for the last four and a half years, he will find not one or two, but three Statutes designed to improve the conditions of fishermen and the fishing industry at large.

I do not intend to follow the hon. Member in his general survey of the fishing industry, because I know that there are other hon. Members who wish to speak; and I wish to confine myself to one particular feature which militates against the efficiency of the fishing industry. It relates to the loading, stowage and use of coal on trawlers. This, I think, can be dealt with by regulation, but if it be not done by regulation I suggest that there should be some legislative effort made to deal with it.

The present system is dangerous to crews and has already caused loss of life and much injury to the crews of trawlers. It is inefficient and wasteful to producer and consumer alike. It arises from the fact that many of the fishing fleets are old, in bad repair and unsuitable for the voyages which they have to undertake. Many of the ships, and, indeed, many of the fleets, are from 35 to 50 years old, and were built for short voyages, but, in the exigencies of today, have to undertake long voyages as far as the Faroes and Iceland. For long voyages of that kind, a considerable supply of coal is necessary, but these vessels have no convenience for the stowage of coal for such long voyages.

The obvious remedy is that there should be large and generous provision for new boats, for the repair of old boats and better accommodation for the loading and stowage of coal. This is not a new problem, because in 1943 the Scottish Council of Industry appointed a Committee to deal with this and kindred problems, and its Report stated: The existing fleet has undoubtedly been Involved in unnecessarily heavy charges owing to inefficient organisation of certain subsidiary undertakings and the lack of modern plant particularly for coaling. If the industry intends to continue using coal for propulsion in spite of the cost of transport to, and of storage in, Aberdeen, it is essential that modern coaling plant should be installed. The indications are, however, that oil, for which storage already exists, may be more extensively used in future, in which case facilities should be provided for piping it along the quay for delivery to the vessels. I hope the Minister will take note of the need of better provision for the stowage, loading and use of coal, and do whatever he can, either by way of regulations or otherwise, to see that that need is remedied.

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I do not want to traverse ground which has already been covered, but I would like to say a few words in support of the plea made by the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart) for further consideration of this most serious situation. In particular, as regards gear, I would ask the Under-Secretary to continue the inquiries which he is already making to see if there is indeed a monopoly or price ring at home, because there is some evidence that fishing gear made in Britain is sold abroad at a much lower price than in this country.

On the subject of decontrol, I would point out that the transport levy is a levy on the fishing industry and is not a tax on the consumer. The situation of all the Scottish fishermen will be very serious if they have to meet heavy freight charges, but the situation of Shetland fishermen will be doubly serious. They will not only have to meet freight charges from Aberdeen to the south, but also from Lerwick to Aberdeen and from such places as Whalsey and Yell to Lerwick.

The fishing communities of Scotland are composed of people who have been born and bred into the fishing fleets. We all know the contribution these men made to our food supplies in two wars. They have helped to keep open the approaches to these islands, and we should do all we can to help them, because we shall never replace them. We are told that some prices for fresh fish may rise. Perhaps there may be a small premium on flat fish, but not on haddocks, and the price of whiting may fall heavily.

If these fishermen cannot get a living, they must of necessity leave the sea. If we are to maintain them, there must be a co-ordinated policy. The Government have encouraged fishermen to spend money on gear and boats, and £700,000 is outstanding in loans under the 1949 Act alone. We hope money is to be spent on piers and harbours which are lacking in the case of so many Shetland communities. The Herring Board have spent great sums on freezing plants and in other ways, but all will be lost if the fishermen do not get a fair price for their fish.

I want to make three suggestions to the Government. First of all, I agree with the hon. Member for East Fife that some device for maintaining the flat rate should be revised. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will also consider postponing the date on which the flat rate is taken off. I am told the Norwegians can do a certain amount of winter herring fishing in the seas of North Scotland. Will the Under-Secretary inquire from the Herring Board whether there is any possibility that some British herring fishing might take place in those waters? Would it not also be possible to use cold freeze plant to freeze white fish and get over the difficulty of glut and slump?

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Duthie (Banff)

I intervene to support the plea of the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart). The Government should be under no illusion whatever concerning the seriousness of the position as it affects the inshore fishermen of Scot land. A deputation has seen the Secretary for Scotland and the Minister of Food this week and has made the position abundantly clear.

Today, on landing, the price of fish is twice what it was before the war, but the cost of catching is five times greater. There are many cases where non-partner members of a crew are getting up to £10 a week and the partner members of the crew are losing money week after week and month after month. The hon. Gentleman must know about cases where owners of vessels obtained under the Inshore Fishing Act and the Herring Industry Act have not been able to pay their insurance premiums for last year. There are 27 cases already known to the Secretary for Scotland where vessels have not been able to pay these standing charges. As the hon. Member for Fife, East, has stated, this state of affairs has been due to conditions over which the fishermen have no control.

I charge the Government with lack of policy in this matter because they suddenly removed the two props from the already over-weighted economy of the Scottish inshore fishing industry, namely the flat rate for transport and the subsidy, without counter-balancing action. The result is that the fishermen have been left high and dry. The day may be rapidly approaching when fishermen in the north, who have been inveigled into sinking their all to obtain vessels, are going to curse the Inshore Fishing Industry Act and the Herring Industry Act. The Government are causing complete chaos in the economy of the North of Scotland.

Warnings were given from this side of the House, when the Inshore Fishing Industry Bill was before the House. They have been given subsequently, but they have been ignored. Action is wanted now. Constructive policy is wanted immediately. Now we have another interregnum, the Easter Recess, and during that time the flat rate and the subsidy are going to be removed. What is going to happen to the industry before Parliament meets again? Time is not on our side. I urge the hon. Gentleman to use every effort he can, in consultation with his colleagues, to grapple with this problem of life or death for our Scottish inshore fishermen.

4.0 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

There have been more matters raised in this Debate than I can possibly answer in the time that remains with me. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) mentioned the coaling of ships. I should like to go into that and see if we can do something about it. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) pleaded that the Herring Industry Board should encourage and facilitate winter fishing and the extension of quick-freeze plants to permit heavier landings and to deal with them over a longer period. We have to give thought to these matters, but I think it would be better just now if I were to devote what time remains to dealing with the problem that is immediately before the industry.

The hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart) charged us with a mismanagement of the nation's affairs that has given rise to difficulties. He has charged us with ineptitude and irresponsibility. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) said it was clear we have no policy at all for this industry.

Mr. Duthie

It was not a question of general policy. It was the policy that was implicit in the Inshore Fishing Industry Act. What I objected to was the removing of the two props which were keeping the industry in some state of equilibrium, without having some counter-policy to be put immediately into effect.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

You asked for it.

Mr. Fraser

I hope I am not misrepresenting what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Banff said. He said we had no stated policy for this industry, and what he and his hon. Friend are complaining about is that we have decided, at this stage and at this time, to leave this industry free to the vagaries of private enterprise. We have, as it were, allowed this industry to be put in the position in which hon. Gentlemen opposite want to place every industry in this country. We are not controlling and regimenting them. There are no organised controls impeding this industry. They are able to buy gear from private enterprise. After 15th April they can sell fish in the free market and obtain the biggest price without any restrictions anywhere. The protagonists of free enterprise are now saying that this will not do.

Let us look at the position. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) has said, the industry has asked for this. The British Trawl-owners Federation, which represents the major portion of the industry of Great Britain, has been pressing for the removal of control for at least two years. In 1945, when I had not been long in the Scottish Office, I remember having to consider a resolution from Scottish inshore fishermen demanding the removal of control. We said at the time we could not do it. We had to protect consumers against rising prices. That was the only control—the ceiling price. We said it would be unfair and improper to remove it. But they wanted it. It is true that since then the inshore fishermen in Scotland changed their minds. It is true that the trawler owners in Aberdeen are a bit worried about the removal of controls.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

They are changed conditions.

Mr. Fraser

The hon. Gentleman refers to changed conditions. In the course of the Debate he said, "I want to make it clear that I am not asking for subsidies." I wonder what he was asking for. How else are we to deal with the problem?

Mr. Stewart

I made four suggestions.

Mr. Fraser

Yes, but all the four suggestions involved Government subvention. The British Trawlowners Federation for two years have been pressing for the removal of controls. The other sections of the industry have been against continuing controls, although some of them are now in favour of controls. We imposed a ceiling price beyond which the fish would not be sold. There was no guaranteed price, merely a ceiling price. In consequence of the ceiling price, the industry agreed to a scheme whereby there would be a flat rate paid for transport. The industry paid this. There was no Government subvention in it at all.

Indeed, let me say this to the hon. Member for Fife, East: I doubt very much whether the removal of the flat rate transport scheme will have any adverse effect in his constituency at all. Bear in mind that only a little more than a quarter of the inshore fish is transported south of the Border. All the fish that is transported short distances in Scotland before it is sold will cost less to transport after 15th April than it has cost in the last two or three years. The people in the hon. Member's constituency will be advantaged, although, as far as I can gather, the fishing ports represented by the hon. Member for Banff will be disadvantaged, but it must be remembered that this scheme has only been operated with the concurrence of the industry and we have no power to continue this scheme in face of opposition from the industry.

There was also the inshore fishermen's subsidy of 10d. a stone, which involved control. But let us see how we got this 10d. subsidy. The inshore fishermen have always told us, and in 1945 a deputation told us, when they wanted de-control, that they were landing much fresher fish than were landed from the trawlers, but that a far better price was always obtained in the open market. They said that if there was a ceiling price, the trawler owners would get the same price and the inshore fishermen must therefore have a subsidy. They got a subsidy of 10d. a stone. It has been said that they could get more than 10d. in excess of the price obtained by the trawler men. The position now is that with the removal of control they are free to get more than the 10d. which can be earned by the trawler men if the mechants and the public are willing to pay.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

Does not that depend to some extent on the amount of foreign fish imported?

Mr. Fraser

The amount of foreign fish imported should not affect the position at all. These people have always told us that they provided a quality product, that they got fresh fish, and that the fish obtained from foreign countries was not fresh at all and could not be compared with the higher priced quality product.

Mr. Grimond

When the fishermen could have got a higher price for their fish, they were not allowed to do so. Now, when they cannot get a higher price, the control is removed.

Mr. Fraser

It is true that in 1941 the Coalition Government decided that to protect the consumers in this country the Government should impose ceiling prices for very many goods, and they included fish. But after the war the fishing industry asked to have this control removed, and the major part of the industry is now begging us to remove it. We have had to give way to the pressure from the industry to remove it. Everybody appreciates that we cannot take one section of the industry which thinks it is advantaged by the present system, and continue to give some control there with some subsidy—for it is only the subsidy which goes with the control which is of any advantage to them—while leaving the rest of the industry completely free.

We are trying to do all we can to help It has been said that we have done nothing constructive at all, although as hon. Member did mention the Inshore Fishing Act under which we have made grants to the tune of £513,686 to the inshore fishermen in Scotland to help them with boats and gear. It is true we do not have the same demands on that scheme now, so that the amount of money we are setting aside for the scheme is rapidly running down. We appreciate that there is anxiety in this industry, and probably rightly so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers concerned have had regard to the difficulties of the industry in Aberdeen. As has been made clear, we set up an Inter-Departmental Committee to report. They have just reported, and we are examining the report very urgently.

The other day my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food received a deputation, to which reference was made by the hon. Member for Banff, and I was at the meeting. We listened with great sympathy to what the men had to say. It was impossible to give them an assurance that steps would be taken immediately to deal with the difficulties, but we did give them an assurance that we were not without sympathy, that we would watch the position very carefully and that if it were open to us and it were found to be necessary to take steps to protect the industry from any serious depression, we would not hesitate to take those steps.

We said at the same time, however, that we thought that they might give the free market a trial run. We doubted very much whether things would be as serious as they thought. We now find that the price of fish has gone up very considerably. The hon. Member for Banff said that fish was only twice its pre-war price, but I find that in 1949 the average price per cwt. for fish landed from the inshore fishing industry was 48s. 7d., whereas in 1938 it was 23s. 5½d. Income is almost four times what it was before the war.

Mr. Stewart

On those figures it is only double.

Mr. Fraser

The price is double but with the same number of fishermen, double the quantity of fish has been landed, so that the income for fishermen is just about four times—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is true. With just over 5,000 full-time fishermen in 1938 and the same number in 1949, 907,000 cwt. of fish was landed in 1949 as against 453,000 in 1938; that is, double the amount of fish and double the price for the fish, so that the income per fisherman employed is four times what it was in 1938. Hon. Gentlemen opposite know full well that herring fishermen got 12s. a cran before the war; they are not asked to accept anything like such a low figure now. The industry does, however, give us some cause for anxiety, and we are watching the position very carefully.

Mr. Edward Evans

Before my hon. Fried sits down, may I ask is it not a fact that if the transport levy were reimposed, the Scottish industry would be subsidised by the English section of the industry paying for it?

Mr. Stewart

We are now penalised.