HC Deb 27 April 1950 vol 474 cc1160-73

4.21 p.m.

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeenshire, East)

After the political tension and stresses of yesterday, and the last threequarters of an hour, the Committee will, I hope, turn with a measure of relief to the consideration of a problem which, although desperately urgent, demands at least a measure of objective thought and action. We do not intend to divide the Committee this evening; and I certainly do not intend, so far as I can possibly avoid it, to make a partisan speech. I am very proud to have been asked to open this Debate on the fishing industry, one of the most important we have ever had upon the subject. I also feel very keenly my responsibility, for the industry is undeniably facing a very great crisis in its history.

Let me start my speech with an assertion. It is that, although not of comparable size, the fishing industry of this country ranks with agriculture and coal mining as a basic industry of national importance. There is no doubt about that. It is the source of an invaluable supply of food, especially in times of emergency: and it is, in addition, and historically, one of the foundations of British sea power. Mr. Trevelyan in his " Social History of England " tells us that the two chief nurseries of English seamen were the colliers plying between the Northern ports and London, and the fishermen of Cornwall and Devon. He says: No less important was the growth in Tudor times of the herring fleets of the East Coast. Camden noted the size of Yarmouth, the out-port of Norwich, now outstripping its rival Lynn, ' for it seems incredible what a great and throng fair is here at Michaelmas, and what quantities of herring and other fish are vended '. The Tudors laid the foundations of the sea power upon which the British Empire was subsequently built, and under the Tudors the fishermen were favourites of government. In Elizabeth's reign laws were passed ordering the observance of " fish days "—at one time twice a week—avowedly designed to maintain our seafaring population and to revive the coast towns, and they were very strictly enforced. In this and every other way "— writes Trevelyan— Secretary Cecil strove to maintain the seafaring population and shipping of the country. He exempted seamen from military service on land; and he enforced navigation laws against foreign ships. Ever since that time the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine have recruited their men very largely from the fishermen, because the sea is in their blood.

I do not need at this stage to stress the great part played by the fishermen in the First World War. The service they rendered was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in what I shall always think is one of the greatest poems he ever wrote, " The Minesweepers," which I once quoted to the House and will not quote again. In the last war they were even more indispensable. I remember asking questions in the 30's as to whether the Admiralty would make a grant for the upkeep of trawlers and drifters, and the reply of the Admiralty was that such vessels would not be needed in the event of another war, and that they were sorry that no money could be made available. Those vessels were never more needed than they were between 1939 and 1945; and today, when small craft have come finally into their own, they are needed more than ever. I say that the fishing fleets and those who man them are essential to the security of this country at sea.

The Committee knows well enough that this industry is divided into three main sections: the trawling industry, conducted by trawlers operating in the main from Hull, Grimsby, Fleetwood and Aberdeen; the herring industry, conducted by drifters; and the inshore fishing, conducted by smaller craft from innumerable harbours all round our coasts, using seine nets and long lines. I include in the inshore fishing the specialities such as lobsters, crabs and pilchards.

I propose to deal with these various sections of the industry separately, and as briefly as I can; but before doing so I want shortly to refer to the difficulties that confront the fishing industry as a whole, because they have a number of difficulties in common. First of all, it is fundamentally a competitive industry, and the crisis which now faces it is fundamentally a crisis of costs. These have risen by anything from three to five times since 1939.

I will give the Committee four examples only, although I could give many more. Before the war it cost between £20 and £25 a day to run a trawler; today it costs between £60 and £80. Before the war bunker coal for fishing vessels cost 32s. a ton in the North of Scotland; today it costs £5 2s. Before the war a drift net cost £3 12s.; today it costs £15 10s. The cost of fuel oil was raised by 381 per cent. by devaluation alone, equivalent to an increase of £4,000 per annum in the fuel bill of an average 150-foot trawler. The cost of new building is, frankly, prohibitive at the present time. On top of everything else, the Minister of Transport comes to the House this afternoon and announces a savage increase in freight charges. I shall have more to say about that in a moment; but I want now to come to the second point affecting the industry as a whole.

At a moment when the public demand for fish is diminishing, the industry is faced in the home market with hot competition from other foodstuffs, the price of which is kept down artificially by subsidies amounting to over £400 million a year. I want to drive that home to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. There is no subsidy on fish for the consumer; but meat is subsidised, bacon is subsidised, eggs are subsidised, and all are in steadily increasing supply. That is what the fishing industry is up against. It is not the only thing it is up against, but it is a formidable fact too often lost sight of.

There is a third point. The weight of foreign caught fish now coming into this country is three times the 1938 figure. It has risen from 1.6 million cwt. to 3.6 million cwt. Imports of cod alone have risen from 220,000 cwt. before the war to no less than 1,300,000 cwt. per annum. I want to ask the Government, is this really necessary? According to the Minister of Food, between September, 1949, and March of this year, 22,000 tons of white fish were sold to fish meal works and 16,700 tons of herring were reduced to oil and meal. Under these conditions it does not seem as if these tremendous foreign imports were desperately necessary for this country.

In these circumstances it is something of a tragedy that the fishing industry should speak with so many discordant voices, and that there should be so little effective co-operation, not only between the English and Scottish fishing interests but also between the different sections of the trade in both countries. They have fought each other for too long, with disastrous results. It is high time they got together. It is also unfortunate—and I say so with a fine array of Ministers before me—that there is so little coordination between the various responsible Government Departments. Far too often in the last 10 years the Ministries of Food and Agriculture, the Scottish Office, the Treasury and the Board of Trade have simultaneously pursued conflicting policies. There has not been any effective co-ordination with regard to policy for the fishing industry between any of the too numerous Government Departments concerned with it.

Now let me say a word about decontrol. On 15th April last the price of white fish was decontrolled. That meant, and let the Committee be seized of this fact, that subsidies equivalent to about £6 million were withdrawn from the industry. It has been suggested that we on this side of the Committee believe in oampetition, and that we wanted prices decontrolled. I say quite frankly that I am not opposed in principle to the decontrol of white fish prices, although I deplore the method.

The wild exaggerations in the first two or three days, of the Press and particularly of the B.B.C., which were left uncorrected, did infinite damage to the fishing industry. It gave the housewives of the country what we call in Scotland a " scunner " against fish for which there was no justification; and it will take time to repair this damage. Had it not been for the reckless attitude adopted both by the Press and the B.B.C., without any sufficient authoritative correction, prices would have settled down much more quickly. I think now that ultimately they will settle down.

Nevertheless there is here an issue of principle which I personally do not intend to shirk. While I am a believer in healthy. internal competition, I have never believed in cut-throat international competition. I am, and have been ever since I entered public life, an unrepentant believer in protection and in discrimination. And so is the party—by and large —with which I am associated. [An HON_ MEMBER: " By and large! "] Well, 99 per cent. I sat in this House during the decade between 1925 and 1935 and saw what free, multilateral trade and cutthroat international competition did to the fishing industry. And not only to the fishing industry but to the coal mining industry, to the steel industry and to agriculture. We do not want any of that again at any price.

I think that the home producer should have the first preference in the home market; and that he should be protected at all times from assault by the products of sweated or subsidised foreign industries. I have always taken that view and I always shall; indeed, it is why I am in the Tory Party. Further, I believe that at certain times and under certain conditions subventions to home industries may be necessary. Indeed, this principle has been accepted by all parties in the House so far as agriculture is concerned. I opened my speech by saying that the fishing industry was from the national point of view of at least as great importance as agriculture. Therefore I do not rule out direct subventions to the fishing industry.

The rise in costs which has taken place is part of the general economic problem confronting this country, and is bound to be affected by the general economic policy we pursue. As such it is outwith the scope of this Debate, but this much I must say: if it continues, and if other foodstuffs continue to be subsidised on the present lavish scale year after year, some form of direct financial assistance to the fishing industry will become absolutely essential if it is to survive. Otherwise it cannot stand up against the pressure. Such assistance is already given in various forms on the Continent, notably in Holland. I do not want to introduce an unduly controversial note, but when I think of the amount of money spent—I will not say squandered—on the groundnuts scheme by the Government, and the trivial proportion of that sum which would have been necessary to put the fishing industry upon a sound basis for the next ten years, it makes my blood boil. [HON. MEMBERS: " Hear, hear."] I am sorry—I have now recovered my temper.

In any event the abolition of the flat rate transport charge for fish, topped up by the increased transport charge announced today, will have to be followed, as the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland knows jolly well,.by a comprehensive scheme for the reduction of freight charges for all merchandise on long hauls if the North of Scotland is to survive. Otherwise we are out. I am not surprised that the Minister of Transport delayed this announcement until after the Dunbarton by-election. It would just have made the difference, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. The right hon. Gentleman also knows that, if nothing is done about transport charges on long hauls, the North of Scotland will be put right out of business, not only the fishing business but of all business; and reduced, as I said in a supplementary question to the Minister just now, permanently to the status of a depressed area.

Let me give one example to the right hon. Gentleman, the case of the canning factory of Crosse and Blackwell in my own constituency at Peterhead. These increased freight charges will just about obliterate their profit. The figures have been supplied to the right hon. Gentleman. And if they have to sustain them, I fear that that factory may be closed down, which would bring ruin to the town of Peterhead and a rapid rise in the rate of unemployment. Then we should be back just where we were in 1929 and 1930, or worse.

If the Minister of Transport and the Government are just going to announce these increases in freight charges and leave it at that, it is an action of wanton sabotage; and I can think of nothing better calculated to win us another election quickly especially in Scotland. It is one of the wildest political actions I have ever known; and, if the Secretary of State for Scotland wants to save his skin, he had better get cracking about it. He cannot let it go as it is now, otherwise he will go down to history as " the man who ruined Scotland "; and he surely does not want to do that—at least I do not think that he does.

I said that I would deal with the different sections of the fishing industry one by one. I do not want to delay the Committee for any undue length, but I must deploy the case. First I will say a few words about the trawling industry. The importation of foreign fish, and particularly of boxed fish, is a continuing menace. These imports should be regulated, as should also the method by which they are sold. The Committee may not know that all British fish landed has to be sold by Dutch auction at the port of landing. But foreign fish are in most cases consigned direct to inland markets and sold on a commission basis; so that very frequently the fishmonger or merchant finds on his slab in the morning a good supply of foreign fish, for which he pays on a commission basis; and he does not, or may not, want more fish. Therefore, our fish are cut out, so that under these conditions the foreigner benefits.

The first thing to be done is to insist that foreign landed fish should be sold by Dutch auction at the port of landing on the same basis as our own fish—I think that that is absolutely vital. I had a telegram last Monday from one of the leaders of the English trawling industry. It said: Foreign fish landing today 3,685 boxes Norway 4,704 Denmark markets glutted. Just before I came into the House today I had another telegram from the same source: Danish fish due tomorrow 5,704 boxes, Norwegian 976. And so it goes on. At a time of crisis, when prices are breaking, I think it is iniquitous.

The second point I want to raise in connection with the trawling industry is the over-fishing of the North Sea. It must be stopped. The International Convention did not accept a general reduction of the fishing fleets to a percentage of the tonnage operating in 1938, which it should have done; but it did agree to an increased minimum size of mesh and to size limits for white fish. But that is not in operation. Why is it not in operation? Mainly because Iceland has not yet ratified the Convention. Why do we not start turning the " heat " on Iceland? [Laughter.]

I come to my third point in connection with the trawling industry: the insane policy of the Ministry of Food. I am very sorry that the Minister of Food is not here. I told him that his was the only Department I was going to attack; and, I think, no other Minister minds very much when the Ministry of Food is attacked. The insane policy of the Ministry of Food in building up large reserves of frozen white fish should be discontinued right away. Heaven knows how much trash they have imported from Iceland and elsewhere during the last two years, or how much they have spent in subsidising the freezing of this rubbish at Hull and Grimsby; but it is a continuing drag on the market, and the bulk of it is not yet sold.

Yet the Treasury—and I wonder if the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries knew about this?—last year issued £1,250,000 worth of Iceland Sterling Stock to assist Iceland to modernise her fishing fleet. The Government of Iceland undertook to pay the interest out of the proceeds of the catches of the 10 modern trawlers which they were building with our money, landed in this country in competition with our own fishermen. Imagine it! I cannot believe that the Scottish Office or the Ministry of Agriculture really knew what was going on.

And what was the excuse which was given by the Treasury? On 28th July last the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, replying to a Question in the House, said: If the Iceland fishing fleet becomes more efficient it should be able to sell its produce here at lower prices and, therefore, the livelihood of our own people will be assisted."— [OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 2658.] Did you ever? Just imagine that! It is shameful.

My fourth and final point with regard to the trawling industry is this—

Commander Pursey (Hull, East)

Would the hon. Member allow me to intervene before he leaves this Icelandic trawler loan business? We have listened to him on this side with great interest, as we always do, but I am sure he would not like to mislead the Committee on this point. He said that the Treasury had given their approval. There has been some controversy about this point before, particularly during the General Election, and it should be made quite clear that the British Government had no hand at all in this loan. It was an entirely private loan. The hon. Member should refer to " The Times " announcement by Hambro's Bank. This information is public knowledge. I do not want to attempt to make a speech at this point, but the hon. Member must get the facts right. This was a loan floated by the Icelandic Government in the free market of the City of London by Hambro's Bank, and in the announcement the Government said that they took no responsibility for it. The Icelandic Government said that the responsibility was entirely theirs. I think, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman should clear up the point that the Treasury had no hand in the matter at all except to give approval, which is automatically given—[Interruption.] Approval is automatically given to such loans floated by private enterprise in the free market of the City of London.

Mr. Boothby

I can answer the hon. and gallant Member in a sentence. No public issue can be made without the consent of the Treasury and the Bank of England through the Capital Issues Committee. The idea that this consent is automatically given is absolute nonsense, because I can quote to the hon. and gallant Member a thousand instances where the issue of a public loan has been turned down by the Capital Issues Committee.

Commander Pursey


Mr. James Stuart (Moray and Nairn)

They have all to be approved by the Capital Issues Committee.

Commander Pursey

At this stage it would be fair to say that I have registered the shot. If I am fortunate enough to be called by the Chairman, I will develop the matter and clear up the point.

Mr. Boothby

All I will say is that the Treasury " O.K.'d " this issue, and spoke with approval of it through their representative in the House.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (Ayrshire, South)

The hon. Member put it up.

Mr. Boothby

Rubbish! I did not put it up to them.

The fourth point I want to make with regard to the trawling industry is that in our opinion a white fish marketing board should be set up. This would permit the statutory control of imports, and provide a greatly improved marketing organisation. I should like to quote what the Duncan Report of 1938 said in this connection: The conclusion is irresistible that, if the Statutory Regulations under the 1933 Act were supported by a firm foundation of coordinated organisation at each stage, marketing could be greatly improved, the public given better quality and value, and the producer at the same time reasonably remunerated. It might well be advisable to set up in connection with this marketing scheme a compensation fund charge, under the direction of the board, on the same lines as Mr. Lloyd George's scheme for the brewery trade. That was a good scheme. It buys up obsolete public houses; and, I think, it would be a very good idea to have a fund which would buy up small obsolete trawlers, without total loss to the owners, because they would be well out of the way. What happens now in many cases is that some small fellow who is inclined to take a gamble with a few hundreds pounds buys these craft, which should not be at sea at all, and sends them out in the hope of making at least one or two catches; and they do no good to the industry as a whole.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

Will the hon. Member allow me?

Mr. Boothby

No, I am not going to be interrupted. I have a very good and important speech to make. I shall not be very much longer, but if hon. Members keep bobbing up and down I shall be kept longer.

Mr. MacMillan

I wish to ask, in view of its import in another place, how piscatorial peers would have to be created if the hon. Member's suggestion were adopted?

Mr. Boothby

In view of that interruption, it will be seen how right I was not to sit down.

Mr. Edward

Evans (Lowestoft): May I ask the attitude of the Tory Party towards the setting up of a White Fish Commission? I am interested in the hon. Member's speech and I should like to hear him elaborate that a little and to tell us what is in his mind in respect of the control of the white fish industry analogous to the Herring Industry Board, because that matter could be developed later in the Debate.

Mr. Boothby

We passed the Bill which set up the Sea Fish Commission, which was abolished when the war came. The reason we opposed the Sea Fish Bill last year was because it prevented the establishment of a marketing board. That was why we were against it in Committee, and we got it withdrawn. We had great success; and now we want the Commission, and a Board, established again. On this side of the Committee we want a White Fish Board; but up to date the Socialist Party, who are so often behind the times, have been reluctant. " Dragging their feet," I think is the contemporary phrase.

I now turn to the herring fishing industry, about which I have greater personal knowledge. The position in the herring industry is very grave. The scheme of loans and grants has completely broken down; and the men who have had them, particularly the ex-Service men, are seriously in debt. That is all that the scheme has done for them —to get them hopelessly into debt. The younger ones are leaving the industry. When the last war started, costs were a quarter of what they are now in the herring industry; but the Ministry of Food offered the fishermen 98s. a cran. Last week they were offered 61s. by the Herring Board for top-quality herring. I say without hesitation that this is too little. It is uneconomic, with costs at their existing level. I know that the Committee are always willing to listen to people who are actually doing the job; and I will therefore give quotations from two of our leading fishermen, Tom Buchan of Peterhead and Joe Duthie of Fraserburgh. Mr. Buchan says, in a letter to me: The outlook for the coming season is very bleak. I have made enquiry at the various salesmen's offices and I am informed that no ship has a full crew to date. True, there are three or four drifters at present prosecuting the fishing, but they are manned by makeshift crews who normally return to their own boats when the season opens. You must admit that it is very galling for us to receive a top offer of 61s. per cran for first grade herring whilst the farming and filming industries are receiving additional subsidies. At a meeting of fishermen held on Saturday it was decided that no ships would put to sea until the crews are guaranteed a living wage. This must be, as the men are at present in the position of obtaining remunerative work ashore, and obviously will not return to sea until offered a comparative wage. Before the war when jobs were unobtainable ashore the men had no option but to go to sea, but this no longer holds good, and it is doubtful if there are sufficient men to crew half the ships. When we think of the praise that the fishermen were accorded for their part in the two world wars, I am more than surprised at the treatment they are now receiving. Mr. Duthie says: It is my considered opinion that we are now in the worst position the herring industry has ever been in our time, and if you cannot get the Government to enable the Herring Board to pay us at least 70s. as a fiat rate for all herrings landed, then we are sunk. I think they are absolutely right. The prices now offered to the fishermen will not give a living wage to the deck-hands during the forthcoming season. Anything below 70s. is an outrage, with existing costs. As far as any influence I have got can be of use, I should advise the drifter men and herring fishermen of the North of Scotland to tie up their boats and go on the dole, or seek other employment, rather than go to sea for the prices they are now offered.

For this side of the industry I have one simple sovereign remedy; it is much more power, and a little more money, for the Herring Industry Board. That is my recipe for the herring industry; and let the Ministry of Food, at all costs, keep out. They have made a terrible mess of it during the last few years. Responsibility for the marketing of herring should be transferred, definitely and finally, from the Ministry to the Board. The White Fish and Herring Industries Act, 1948, gave the Government the right to confer upon the Board adequate powers to do their job properly. Unfortunately there was a saving clause, Section 8, to which I objected at the time, giving Ministers the right to direct the Board on what they called " matters of national interest." It has been grossly abused by the Ministry of Food.

I accuse the Ministry of Food of four things. I accuse them of deliberately discouraging the erection of quick-freezing plant on a commercial scale. I further accuse them of deliberately preventing the Herring Industry Board from improving the quality of kippers. The Herring Industry Board submitted a scheme to the Ministry of Food for laying down certain standards of quality of herring for kippering, with the advice of the trade; but it was turned down by the Ministry of Food, who foisted on the public the most filthy kippers, which have damaged the industry for many years to come. I accuse the Ministry of deliberately discouraging the production of oil from herring by reducing the price from £114 to £93 per ton in April last year, although there is a world shortage of edible and hardening oil. Finally, I accuse them of importing, or allowing to be imported, coarse Norwegian herring every year between January and April, which have nauseated the public, and greatly prejudiced the home demand.

If we had had the necessary quick-freezing plant, our own men pursuing our own winter fishing on the West Coast could have supplied all our requirements for the home market with herring of the finest quality. We have only been playing with quick-freezing in the herring industry; yet it is far the most promising of all the developments which have taken place in that industry since the war. Those are serious charges which I have made against the Ministry; but I could substantiate every one of them in detail, if I had the time.

I now turn to the question of the export trade. The Committee know that the movements of herring are strange, and in some degree inexplicable. They came to us from the Baltic in the 16th century, a mine of wealth of which the Tudors took full advantage. Since then they have been swimming, at more or less regular intervals, round our coasts. They come in dense shoals off the north-east coast of Scotland between May and July; they then disappear, and reappear in October off Smith's Knoll for five or six weeks; and then they go away. During these periods there are the summer and autumn fishings, heavy fishings, in which drifters from up and down the coast land herring in great quantities from grounds which are seldom more than 40 miles off-shore. The voyage lasts a single night, the drift nets being shot at dusk and hauled at dawn. When there is criticism in the public Press sometimes about herring being dumped, it is because people do not realise how seasonal is this trade, and what a fantastic industry it is in many ways. It necessarily depends a great deal on exports. Before the 1914-18 war Russia alone took over £1 million worth of cured herring from us; but today the continental markets are beginning to close. The sellers' market is going, the buyers' market has begun, and that is serious.

I wish to put forward one or two suggestions in regard to the export trade—

Forward to