§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Boothby
When we were interrupted, I had reached the penultimate point in one of the most interesting phases of my speech. I was making some suggestions with regard to the export trade in herring. The suggestions I wish to make are first that herring cured in brine should be incorporated in as many trade agreements as possible. I am glad to see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is in his place, because this really affects his Department. I want also to say that a definite sum should be specified. It is no use in these trade agreements putting herring among the miscellaneous goods at the finish which may or may not be bought. That is of little value. In future the Board of Trade ought to see that herring as such are definitely specified in the agreements we make, and which it is necessary to make between ourselves and countries east of the Iron Curtain.
I suggest further that they should be British-caught herring, unless these are unobtainable. I am informed by the chairman of the Associated Herring Merchants that 9,000 barrels, to the value of £60,000, which were exported to Poland under the Anglo-Polish Agreement were in fact Dutch-caught, cured in Holland, brought over to Yarmouth, and re-exported as British herring from Yarmouth. I am assured that that is true; and I think it is a point which the President of the Board of Trade ought to look into very carefully.
The Board of Trade should also make some effort to come to an agreement about markets and prices with the Dutch, who are our main competitors. At the present moment we are indulging in that 1175 ruthless international competition which I deprecated earlier on in my speech. In the long run I do not think that it will do either ourselves or the Dutch any good. We could come to quite a good agreement with them about markets and prices. There are large enough markets for both of us to give a remunerative price to our fishermen, and so I think that an approach should be made to the Dutch Government in this connection. I hope also that the Board of Trade will make some representations to the French Government, because they are definitely discriminating against our cured herring, both in metropolitan France and in their colonial territories. After all, we do take their sardines, and quite a lot of wine as well. I think they really ought to take some of our herring in exchange.
To the Treasury I would suggest that the capital cost of fishing vessels remaining after charging the initial allowance should be allowed to be written off against profits for Income Tax purposes over a period of five years by equal instalments; and that the duty levied on imported boxboards and barrel staves should be refunded when the herring are exported. The Dutch do this; and when they are reexported surely the duty upon the import of these boxboards and barrel staves should he refunded. That would be a help, and would certainly not be a great financial strain on the Treasury. It would certainly help our export trade
The question of the inshore fishing I propose to leave to others to deal with. The inshore fishermen are better placed than are the trawlers or the herring drifters, because they catch quality fish in the main; and I am sure that, after this furore, which has been so greatly and unnecessarily aggravated by the Press and the B.B.C. is over, they will get better prices for good quality fish as a result of de-control. Like the drifters, the boats of the inshore fishermen are generally fishermen-owned. Their immediate trouble is the high cost of gear, and the high cost of transport. Not only is the cost of nets and rope steadily mounting—it goes on, it does not stop—but the quality is often very bad. The quality of the nets is bad; and the sisal rope, which is much more expensive than manilla rope, is nothing like so good for fishing.
1176 The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade knows of this problem, and has been very sympathetic about it. I think he is examining it at the present time; and I would like to pay tribute to the interest he has shown in the whole matter of the quality and price of gear, especially for the fishermen-owned boats round our coasts. It may require some rather drastic action to put this right, and to see that the fishermen get the best-quality nets and rope obtainable at reasonable prices. After all, what can these fishermen do? They can only go to the local ships chandler at the local harbour. They have nothing like the power of the great trawling companies when it comes to purchasing gear. So it may require very direct intervention on the part of a Government Department, or some form of centralised purchase and sale—I would not run away from that—to ensure that they get the best-quality stuff that can be bought at the best possible prices.
I feel that the little man is at a disadvantage, because he has to go to the local chandler and buy what he can get. He has no financial support behind him, no real capital. The Board of Trade ought to make a real, thorough-going investigation into the question of the quality and price of gear, and not be scared of any action which they may subsequently find it necessary to take. I gather from the hon. Gentleman that he is doing it, indeed I know he is doing it, and I pay my tribute to the sympathy he has already shown. I hope he will pursue his activities in this connection.
I apologise to the Committee for the longest speech I have ever made in this House; but it was a grand chance and I had to deploy the case. I have at least tried to be constructive. There have been one or two moments when I felt very angry with the Government, but who can help feeling angry with this Government from time to time? I have tried to curb my anger to the maximum extent possible. I had hoped that after the war things would be all right with the fishing industry; and it is a grief for me to see it once again struggling for survival, because that is what is happening today. I say that we cannot allow the fishing industry in this country to collapse on the grounds of security 1177 alone. It must be saved by energetic and, if necessary, drastic action agreed upon by all political parties, while there is still time to do it.
§ 5.18 p.m.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. McNeil)
I wish to say on behalf of my right hon. Friend and myself that we are very grateful to the Opposition for providing an opportunity to discuss this subject, which is of great interest and complexity. I should be much less than generous if I did not thank the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) for his stimulating speech. I am very crateful for some of the constructive suggestions he has made and would say at once that they will be most carefully considered.
I cannot, however, refrain from indicating that there are certain contradictions in his arguments and in his attitude. When I was in another office I was frequently chastised, delicately and skilfully, by the hon. Gentleman because I was not as good a European as he assumed that he was. When the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen went to Strasbourg this pitiful Government were held up as villains and people who were afraid of a united Europe, in which we were to take the leadership. The hon. Gentleman comes here today to display his capacity for leadership in unifying Europe. What does he say? He says, " Turn the heat on Iceland."
I will deal with the Fishery Convention, but I should like to look at the broad substance of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I should like to know how he squares up the quite understandable attitude he adopts today with the pose he adopts at Strasbourg where he struts and speaks and generalises. It is not only, " Turn the heat on Iceland." It is not only the Convention. We have also got to shut out foreign landings altogether.
§ Mr. Boothby
The right hon. Gentleman has challenged me. I only say this: 1178 The essence of European co-operation is co-operation. The reason why I want to turn the heat on Iceland is that they will not co-operate. If they had been willing to co-operate, they would have signed the North Sea Convention. They will not do it. I am prepared to stand up to any European Power that will not co-operate.
I thought, too, that I heard the hon. Gentleman make some objection to boxed fish. Perhaps 1 was wrong about it. Has he no objection at all to boxed fish coming in?
§ Mr. Boothby
My objection about boxed fish was that it should be sold under the same conditions as the fish landed by our own trawlers.
This is much better. So the hon. Gentleman has no objection to boxed fish if it is sold in the same competitive fashion as British boxed fish at our East Coast markets?
§ Mr. Boothby
I do not know why I should be under this cross-examination. If the right hon. Gentleman would be good enough to read my speech, he would see that what I said was that I thought the whole of the imports of fish to this country should be properly regulated and controlled, and I stand by that.
That is a much better statement. It is one which, I think, might be defended at Strasbourg.
I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that his hon. Friend offered at least two exclusions to that statement. One is the Icelandic cod—
§ Lieut.-Colonel Elliot
Not a bit. Many people interrupted my hon. Friend at great length. I had something to do with the North Sea Convention. I signed the North Sea Convention—the only one that worked—for a mesh required to prevent the over-fishing of the North Sea. I say that that was a good and necessary thing to do, and the right hon. Gentleman's former Department, the Foreign Office, is grossly in default for not having secured a similar Convention in the years after the war.
Perhaps I shall be better able to do something if I understand the position of the hon. Gentleman. Let me agree willingly about the Convention, but the Convention had nothing to do with the catching of cod, and the essence of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that that cod should be kept out. Of course, I do not want to try to pretend that it is not a problem. We have international obligations, including our membership of O.E.E.C. Iceland is a member of O.E.E.C., and Iceland is inside the sterling area. Therefore, as the hon. Gentleman very well knows, Iceland could not have been kept out of the London money market.
If we are now to turn round and say that effective members of the sterling area, people with whom we co-operate in O.E.E.C., are not to have such facilities as our markets can afford, for agreed objectives, it will be very difficult to redefine our attitude inside the sterling area. Again and again, the hon. Gentleman has shown us just how keenly he appreciates that point. However, I confess that foreign landings are important and that they have a relationship to our existing situation; but they will not, alone, explain it.
The foreign landings are substantial, but my recollection is—and I have the exact figures—that last year they were just one-half of the foreign landings for the previous year. The reduction was due to a reduction in price, and there can be no doubt that a much more important factor in depressing the price and leading up to the present situation is the fact that the improvement in our own distant-water trawler fleets has meant that there has been a glut of this coarse type of fish upon the market.
1180 There were some other points raised by the hon. Gentleman in the more pro. vocative parts of his speech which should not be allowed to go by default. Incidentally, I think that he was strangely wrong in putting the subsidy at £6 million per annum. I think it was between £2,500,000 and £3 million per annum. But that is not the only subsidy—the only subvention—available to the industry at present. I am not necessarily arguing that enough is available, but reference should have been made to the other types of subvention which are available to the industry. Truthfully, I am puzzled when I hear this spirited defence of competition and private enterprise and then, when the hon. Gentleman's argument unravels itself, it appears that it is to be competition against selected elements. Then it appears, further, that it is to be competition providing that public moneys are " sub-vented," in some undisclosed fashion, to the industry.
It is not a very gallant and unqualified defence of the General Election programme which the Opposition offer, although I should want to admit, in honesty, whether it embarrasses the hon. Gentleman or not, that from time to time he has displayed surprising deviations from the Opposition Front Bench. It is a curious kind of private enterprise and one in which I hope the hon. Gentleman will educate his own colleagues from time to time.
I thought, too, that it was scarcely justifiable to launch this ferocious attack upon the Ministry of Food. While it embellished the hon. Gentleman's argument and gave him an opportunity for some righteous indignation, it was a little wide of the mark to say that the Ministry of Food, in four instances, has deliberately impeded steps being taken that would have been to the benefit of the herring industry. I think that he was wide of the mark. I had previously looked at two of the points which the hon. Gentleman made.
First, the proposal for the quick-freezing plant. Why was not the hon. Gentleman honest with the Committee? Why did the Ministry of Food find themselves unable to agree to this scheme? My recollection is that they could not agree to it because the project was uneconomic at the existing prices of herring, until it was 1181 proposed that the quick-frozen herring should be sold at a higher price. But all the experts we were able to consult—and there are some in this Committee, and I see one of them right opposite me now—told us it was impracticable, because, once the herring reached the shop, one could not tell whether it was quick frozen or freshly caught.
§ Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)
I think the right hon. Gentleman is wrong, and that my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) is correct. The actual facts are that the fishing industry was only too anxious to get the freezing plants and to buy herring from the fishermen, but was unwilling to buy them at a price which would penalise the fishermen because it was a lower price. The industry was only too willing to pay an economic price for fresh herring, but, if they froze them and stored them and then brought them out for sale in the winter, when we had no British-caught herring at all, the late Minister of Food would have compelled us to sell them, wholesale and retail, at the same price that we would have got for them in the summer time, before any expense had been incurred on them at all. In that way, they would completely hamstring the industry in regard to quick freezing.
I do not deny that there was an objection, but I have tried to explain the objection. The hon. Gentleman has displayed that it was a fairly complex matter, and not just a simple slogan position, as suggested by the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire.
The one other point which the hon. Gentleman made and with which I am not unfamiliar was his assertion that they had deliberately refused to impose a good kippering standard upon this country. This is a subject in which I like every other Scots Member, have for long been interested, and I cheerfully acknowledge the expertness of the hon. Gentleman on this subject. My recollection of this proposition was that it was suggested that the kippering of herring should not be permitted in April and May, because it is true that herring are in very poor condition at that time. The viewpoint of the Minister of Food was a quite understandable one, and one which I would expect exponents of free enterprise to support. The Ministry said that if the public 1182 wanted herring in that condition and at that time, and were willing to pay the price, why should the Ministry refuse to let them have them? It is quite a tenable argument.
§ Mr. Boothby
The right hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken about that. I said that the Herring Industry Board asked permission to lay down certain standards for kippers which they regarded as essential in the industry, as I do myself. They were refused permission to do that by the Ministry of Food, and I say that that was a monstrous action by the Ministry and that the right hon. Gentleman cannot deny it.
Let me put it another way. The hon. Gentleman now insists upon the right of a statutory board to deny the public access to certain types of fish at certain times of the year.
That, at any rate, is a new proposition for the hon. Gentleman. The Committee will agree that it is a quite defensible attitude to say that we have an obligation to the consumer, and that, if they want herring to be available at that time, they should have them. The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) reminds me that we do not deny trout to the British public if they want to pay for them, but the hon. Member for East Aberdeen, in his defence of his true Europeanism, does not want Norwegian kippers at this time either, so the public are to be denied British herring, and, in pursuance of good Europeanism, Norwegian kippers also. It is a very difficult attitude.
§ Captain Duncan (South Angus)
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned trout. If he will read the Trout Fishing (Scotland) Act, 1933, he will find that there is a close season.
Of course, there is a close season, but, with great respect, I would say that anybody can buy smoked trout and imported trout during the close season. At least, I think so, but we will perhaps look it up. I am certain that I have been guilty of minor trout offences here and there, though I had no idea that I had been indulging in another one when I have eaten smoked trout in the close season.
1183 I do not in the least want to suggest to the Committee that I disagree with the seriousness with which the hon. Gentleman pursued his case. I have already said that the Committee is indebted to him and to the Opposition for the general case which they have made. The hon. Gentle- man has said that this industry is of national importance, and I think that is a fitting description. In terms of food-getting, it is of great substance and proportions. Last year, it landed for us about one million tons of fish which we needed as a nation, and, of course, in Scotland, it has proportionately an even greater place in our economy.
In the last few weeks, my right hon. Friend and myself, together with the Minister of Food, have taken part in meeting certain delegations, and in the course of these discussions the complexities of the industry were well displayed. I think I should also say that the inability of the industry to agree upon many points was also displayed. It might be easier for the Committee to follow pretty broadly the lines offered in the opening of the Debate if we follow the broad divisions of the industry—white fish and herring, and the subdivisions of the white fish section.
Last year, the total landings from British fishings of white fish were 896,000 tons. It seems a pretty good figure, but it is only fair to the Committee to admit that, in 1949, a sizable number of large and modern trawlers came into operation, while even in the inshore fishing round our own Scottish coasts there was an addition of a few modern and economically-engined craft. The increases to which I have drawn attention, I should also admit for the benefit of Scottish hon. Members, was confined to the English side of the Border. The Scottish landings, at 158,000 tons, fell by about 10,000 tons compared with the previous year. This was not a voluntary contraction, but it was in some ways a reflection of the natural forces to which the hon. Gentleman drew our attention.
Hon. Members know that the near and middle waters side of the industry has been in difficulty for some time, and that, in consequence, the Government, in December, 1948, agreed to put this subsidy at 10d. per stone on fish caught in the near and middle waters. Perhaps I 1184 should say here that I do not think it is appropriate to compare the position of farm prices with the position of fish prices. I can quite understand that it is difficult for the fisherman to understand why he should not have comparable treatment. But the truth is that the farming subventions, as, again, the hon. Gentleman knows very well, are offered for two purposes. They are offered to attract the farmer along a route of expansion which will eventually save us dollars, and they must be offered because the farmer is denied access to an open market. He has maximum prices imposed upon him.
That is not the situation in the fishing industry just now, but, at the time in 1948 when this subsidy of 10d. per stone was offered for fish caught in the near and middle waters, it was, of course, part of the whole scheme. At that time, the distant side of the industry was comparatively more prosperous, but during the latter part of 1949, owing, I think, to a drop in home prices, even this side of the industry began to show some loss, so that today we can say that the position is an anxious one. The whole industry is in comparative distress of a varying kind. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was right in displaying some of the causes of these difficulties. But the causes are pretty various, and I confess that in these deputations with the experts, from whom I have sought to get counsel on this subject, there is great disagreement as to the precise causes and the area affected.
During the war, it was plain to all that there was a shortage of food in general. Although there was a comparative shortage of fish foods, the demand was so high that prices were quite satisfactory, except, perhaps, to the consumer, and so we had to agree on both sides to the necessity for control at that time. Since the end of the war, the situation has been gradually changing. More vessels have come back into the industry, and under the planning of the Government—planning for which, apparently, the hon. Member has some kind of affection—the other types of food have become more plentiful. Therefore, for that and many other reasons the drop in the demand for fish has continued.
Then there are other factors to which the hon. Gentleman drew our attention—the increases in the cost of fuel and gear.
1185 We have quite properly been concerned about the increased price of fuel and gear. Sometimes, the Opposition are very violent in their demands for free enterprise. I think that is a kind of general position, and that when it comes to a particular application they change their attitude a little. They have done that, I think, with discretion and propriety on this question of gear. The Government have done what they reasonably can in the matter. In the case of ropes, the prices are controlled, although I agree with the point made by the hon. Member that, apparently, for purposes of the fishing industry, there is no rope as good as manilla rope. As far as possible we have controlled these prices.
On other items, such as nets—of which there is a great diversity of types—it is not possible to apply a rigid control. However, I think the Committee would want to know that the manufacturers have agreed not to raise the prices of nets without the prior agreement of the Central Price Regulation Committee. That committee has watched this subject diligently I am sure, but in some cases, where, for example, the price of the imported raw materials has continued to rise, it has been impossible to do otherwise than to permit the manufacturers to increase prices for net throughout limited ranges.
§ Captain Duncan
In that connection, may I ask whether the recent increase of 3d. per lb. in the price of cotton will not mean an increase in the cost of the nets?
I am afraid I could not give an answer offhand, but I will look at the point and perhaps give an answer.
These increases are a considerable factor in contributing to the present position and to the difficulties of the fishermen. Concurrently with that, a new situation has developed. The supply position of fish seemed ample, and the demand from the consumer comparatively lax. At that time—again, I think, without dissent from hon. Members on either side—the Government, in consequence, decided that we should end this scheme of control on 15th April. Naturally, the decision was not lightly taken. We tried to foresee the consequences, and, indeed, foresaw some of them. On reflection, I think it has to be admitted that we could not escape taking that decision. The 1186 objective of price control was, quite-plainly, to protect the consumer.
By last winter, it was plain that such fish as cod and haddock—which make up, more than half our entire catch—were selling well below the maximum prices. The remainder of the catch, such as haddock, sole and plaice, which, I believe, were often fetching maximum or near-maximum prices, did not seem to be of sufficient quantity to justify the retention of the scheme for the whole industry. The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire made a rather vigorous attack upon part of the situation arising from decontrol. He referred to the B.B.C. and to the newspapers. I think he also criticised the Government for taking no action at all. That is not true. Both my right hon. Friend and myself went into the business as fast as we could, although I agree that the effect created was most unfortunate.
I would say to the defenders of private enterprise on the benches opposite that the fault did not lie wholly with the newspapers and the B.B.C. At one port where we made observation, 200 new merchantmen came in on the first morning of decontrol. It was their scramble which was partially responsible for pushing up the prices. I am not at all distressed by the assurance that many of them burned their fingers very badly. But, at any rate, there was an equally violent reaction. Prices came down very low indeed. Housewives were staying. away from the fish shops and the merchants were holding off. It was a most regrettable consequence to commercial mismanagement, for it was essentially commercial mismanagement. As so often happens in comparable situations, it was the producer who bore, and is still bearing, the consequences of that situation.
There were other consequences to this decision to end control, a decision from which, I repeat, I do not think we can escape. It brought to an end the power of the Government to pay the subsidy of 10d. a stone for fish caught in near and middle waters. It also brought to an end their ability to operate a flat transport scheme. The flat rate had its justification as long as there was a marked scarcity of fish and there was a maximum price, because in those circumstances, with a flat rate, merchants naturally would have sold their fish at the nearest market. The people away from the coast would have 1187 been denied a fair share of a very important and nutritious food at that time.
The withdrawal of the flat freight scheme has put some areas at a disadvantage, notably the North and North-East of Scotland. However, I feel bound to say to some of the producers, and, no doubt, to some hon. Members of the Committee, that the net effect may not prove as serious as has been prophesied. Merchants, directly, and producers, indirectly, will both benefit from the cessation of the levy upon industry from which the freight scheme was financed. The decontrol of fish prices was started and, indeed, pressed for by the majority of the white fish producers. Perhaps I might be permitted to say that hon. Members opposite were not in the least '" blate " in supporting that argument and demand at that time. [An HON. MEMBER: " Blate? " Blate " is a very good Scots word. When we say someone was " not blate " we mean he was not diffident, backward or lacking in confidence. When a girl says her lover was " not,blate " she means the opposite.
No, we are a humble race.
The point I am making is that there was a demand from the industry for the ending of that control. Scottish producers did not associate themselves with that demand. It is another example of that most unfortunate phenomenon in the industry to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Aberdeenshire drew our attention—the apparently inability of this industry to agree on essentials. I should say, however, that they are agreed about the importation of foreign fish.
I think the Committee would also have to admit that it is not possible to divide the industry into two and to say that in one part of the country we should have a flat rate transport scheme and a subsidy and, in another part of the country, no system of control at all. That was quite impracticable. We had to try and measure and give accord to the majority opinion. In passing, I should remind the Committee of the anxiety of the Government to rehabilitate the industry, and, particularly, of the help which was given to the inshore portion of the industry.
§ Mr. Boothby
Can the right hon Gentleman give us no hope that he is considering the general question of transport charges affecting merchandise from the North of Scotland on long distance hauls? This announcement will cause consternation in Scotland. Can he hold out no hope that he is giving consideration to the question? I am not talking only of fish.
I do not pretend to meet the hon. Gentleman's wish, but perhaps, in a few moments, I will say something about the position in Aberdeen and the North East.
I was referring to the anxiety of the Government and the help the Government have given to the inshore industry. Grants and loans were made available by the Inshore Fishing Industry Act, 1943, and the amounts were increased by the White Fishing and Herring Industries Act of 1948. If the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire now thinks that was a bad scheme, it was not thought at that time to be a bad scheme. It was eagerly seized upon by the small men inside the industry in an effort to re-establish themselves. In Scotland, for example, substantially as a result of this scheme, large seine net boats increased from 341 in 1938 to 641 in 1949.
At the same time the operation of larger and more valuable diesel engined boats made provision of better harbour shelter essential. In Scotland, since 1945, some £360,000 have been contributed for this purpose. Further advances of just a little more than that have been already promised for the same purpose.
I do not think that is so. If he is saying that that is not enough, if he is saying that it might have been applied otherwise, I am ready to listen. But it was not " chucked away." It was received eagerly by the men, and I offer it as evidence of the anxiety and determination of the Government to help these people as best they can.
Since about 1948 the condition of the fishing industry in Aberdeen has caused special concern. I do not pretend that it 1189 was the peculiar anxiety and concern of the Government. It was felt all round this Committee. As a result, it was decided that at the official level an examination of the situation there should be made as speedily as possible. As I informed the House two days ago, we had a report from the Inter-Departmental Committee. At this stage I should say that I met a delegation from the Aberdeen industry last Saturday. I told them pretty broadly what came from the report. They were very courteous, patient, and persuasive, but I would not pretend to the Committee that they were otherwise than very disappointed with the conclusions of the Inter-Departmental Committee.
I looked at the evidence and the conclusions, and I am persuaded that the inquiry was conducted with sympathy, even with prejudiced sympathy, towards Aberdeen. It was admitted by all sections of that Committee that Aberdeen suffered by the difference in its freight rate for fishing. For reasons which I offered to the House last Tuesday, the Government did not feel justified in making special provision, at any rate at this stage.
As in most economic situations, the advantage does not lie either all the one way or the other. Aberdeen pays higher fuel rates, for example, but Aberdeen, for the most part of the fishing season, sustains an advantage in lying nearer to the fishing grounds than the ports further south. Any direct comparison between the effect of these higher fuel costs and shorter steaming could not be made, because Aberdeen trawler owners have not been in the habit of keeping precise statistics about the relationship between the cost of fuel and the value of fish caught. The right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot) is smiling, but I am not sure whether he is doing so because of the habits of the Aberdeen people or for some other reason.
I have referred to the disadvantage which Aberdeen admittedly sustains with the withdrawal of the flat freight rate. The Aberdeen trawler fears that this advantage in the more southern ports will bring down the price of fish and that, therefore, he, in turn, will suffer by comparison and by competition. But I must tell the Committee that the extent to which Aberdeen is in competition with 1190 the English ports is most difficult to assess. I have consulted alleged expert after expert; I have consulted different representatives, and it is exceedingly difficult to obtain agreement on a figure or conclusions on this aspect of the problem. It can be argued, for example, that for the better varieties of fish, usually in better condition, there is no effective competition because there is a demand in the South for all that type and quality which Aberdeen can supply.
It was also said most emphatically to me that there was no effective competition as regards the fish marketed in Scotland from Aberdeen, though I want to admit that the Aberdeen representatives argued emphatically and not unpersuasively that exactly the opposite was the case. They argued that a substantial proportion of the fish landed by Aberdeen boats is marketed in England, and that there is, therefore, a day-to-day competition. Moreover, they argued that since producers in the English ports incur, in certain respects to which I have already alluded, lower expenses, Aberdeen is not only placed at a disadvantage but is entitled to compensation.
However, I repeat that the Government were unable to agree that their claim had been established or this conflict of views reconciled. Further, and quite plainly, the transport charges and the cost of fuel are only two aspects of the economy in Aberdeen. There are many other factors involved, and in other industries there must be comparable variations in transport and in fuel costs. The Government felt, therefore—and I do not see how we could have been expected to come, at this stage, to any other conclusion because of the conflict of evidence—that the position of the fishing industry in Aberdeen must be considered in the wider context of the industry as a whole and must be considered as part of the comprehensive examination which is now being undertaken by the Government.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)
The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the " comprehensive examination " of the conditions in the industry. He said that last Tuesday, and I think he has also said it before. Does that mean that the Government are preparing a new longterm policy, or that there will be a statement of policy today? What does the right hon. Gentleman mean?
I am not sure that I would be able to say anything which would satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but in a few minutes I will refer to the point.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
May I ask my right hon. Friend a question? The other day he told me that he was asking the fishery section of the Scottish Council to make further inquiries into the case of Aberdeen. Can he say what will be the scope of that inquiry?
I am glad to say that the industry in Aberdeen gave their concurrence to a proposal that the Scottish Development Council should set up a working party to look at certain features of the lay-out of the organisation of the industry in Aberdeen. In fairness to the representatives of the industry, I should say that they did not think very much good could come of this examination. They argued that the features which were discernible in Aberdeen were equally discernible in other ports. But they were very courteous, and after speedy consideration they agreed to take part in that inquiry which the working party of the Scottish Council has agreed to undertake.
The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire used some rather violent language about herring prices. The Committee are familiar with the situation. I think nearly every hon. Member has had telegrams. I have already spoken too long, but I would say, partly in my defence, that I have tried to meet a fair number of interruptions. I do not want to leave this subject however, without saying that I hope the hon. Gentleman, who has great influence, particularly in this sector of the industry, will reconsider his eloquent and violent language. It is not reasonable for the hon. Gentleman to seek to persuade these men to tie up their boats unless their demands are met by the Herring Industry Board. It is not the end of the story to say that the Herring Industry Board are not offering a price which will afford a living wage to the men.
If the Board and the industry have a successful season, as we all hope they will, then the profits which the Board own will be distributed. It is a very good example of co-operation. I dare say that it has had greater success than any other device which has been applied to the industry. At any rate, I can only hope that the fishermen, like the hon. Member for 1192 East Aberdeenshire, will reconsider their decision, bearing in mind that under the Board's proposals the Board would pay over to the fishermen everything which is. earned by the sale of their catches. They cannot offer more without the certainty almost of incurring substantial losses, which they would not be able to finance.
There is one other thing I ought to say about this side of the industry. I should like to commend the Board, as so many hon. Members have done, for their efforts. They are diligently seeking additional markets. They have gone to, extraordinary lengths to try and get these markets and to produce herring in a fashion which will make them saleable in those markets. Hong Kong, the Far East, East and West Africa are examples of the areas in which we contemplate having sizeable projects.
The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart) asked me about the general intentions of the Government. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will say something about this when he winds up the Debate. I want to repeat that we are grateful to the Committee for the suggestions which have been offered and that we shall be grateful for any other practicable and equitable suggestions which may be offered in our reexamination of the position in the whole industry. I say to the Committee, on behalf of the Government, that we shall not shut our minds to any suggestion which is offered to us, provided it is equitable and practicable.
§ Mr. Boothby
Is the right hon. Gentleman telling the Committee that he thinks that, with costs at the present level, a price of 61s. for top quality herring is. sufficient to cover the cost of production? If so, I do not think it is.
I think that is a question which should be settled between the people who must operate upon the basis of an agreed price—the Herring Industry Board and the fishermen. My point was that I did not think the hon. Member was doing justice to his reputation, and to these very intricate negotiations, by committing himself violently to such a negative policy.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Wood (Bridlington)
In the few weeks which I have already spent in this House, I have realised that the debt which 1193 is owed by maiden speakers to the House for the very kind and generous hearing they are given is sometimes paid only with difficulty. It has been very difficult to be uncontroversial in some of the Debates which we have had recently, and that is the reason I feel very great pleasure indeed in being allowed to speak this afternoon in this consideration of the fishing industry, which I believe hon. Members in all parts of the Committee recognise as absolutely essential to the future greatness of our country.
I hope I may be forgiven if I do not follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State in the interesting things they have told us about the doings in the extreme north of these islands. I want to bring things a little nearer home—in fact, about half-way home—and to settle down on the east coast of Yorkshire, and I am very much reassured by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) intends to participate in this Debate and that the Minister of Agriculture will wind up for the Government. If Scotland has had the first word, Yorkshire will have the last, and I therefore ask the Committee to forgive me if in what I say I travel from the north a little towards London. Perhaps I can reassure the Secretary of State by saying that I shall, at least, try to speak English. If he has any difficulty in understanding me, I hope he will let me know.
I wish to say a word about the difficulties of the inshore fishermen who frequently seem to be a little forgotten, because it is about that branch of the industry that my knowledge is greatest—or perhaps I could say, with greater honesty and greater modesty, that my ignorance is least. The first problem which is facing these men is one which has been touched upon already by my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire—the problem of continually rising costs. My hon. Friend gave examples which I think should suffice to show that costs have been rising very steadily since the beginning of the war. The particular articles upon which the cost has risen for the inshore men include hemp and cotton line—both three or four times higher in price than before the war; and bait—mussels and whelks—the price of which is very much higher. The rise 1194 in costs is not the whole story. My hon. Friend has already spoken of the inferior quality of sisal compared with that of manilla. I also stress the inferior quality of present-day hooks compared with the hooks before the war. They last about one-third of the time, so that their effective cost has risen not by three to four times but by something between nine and twelve times. If this continues, the inshore fishermen will very shortly be out of business.
The second difficulty about which I should like some assurance from the Minister, when he winds up the Debate, concerns the great anxiety which has been felt by these men during the last few days that they will have to bear a little, if not all, of the increased duty on fuel oil. I believe they are misinformed, but I should very much value an assurance from the Minister that they will, in fact, be able to avoid this increase in their costs.
The third difficulty is that of over-fishing. It has already been discussed in this Debate, but it is a particular difficulty for those fishermen who are trying to find their living in the near waters. Until a short time ago I had never seen anything very attractive about a minefield. but I am now convinced that the minefields which were laid during the last war were a very welcome haven for fish and that they have contributed largely to the re-stocking and re-population of the North Sea. I am not suggesting that minefields should be laid again, but I do suggest that the Government should do everything in their power to implement the international agreement to stop the over-fishing of the North Sea.
I believe fishing needs a long-term plan. In the few weeks which I have spent in this House I have been disturbed to see a look of merriment come over the faces of hon. Members on the Government benches when any interest in planning is evinced by the Opposition. I think all of us on these benches are entirely in favour of plans, as long as those plans are realistic and as long as the planners do not try to plan unplannable details. Those are the two necessities for a plan.
What we are asking is that fishing should be given the same kind of stability 1195 as that which has been given to agriculture. I am quite aware of all the difficulties which stand in the way. After all, a system of guaranteed prices and markets for agriculture is still young and, compared with the yield of the sea, the yield of the land is a glorious certainty. There will, therefore, be plenty of difficulties if we are to give to the fishing industry the same kind of stability as that which has been given to agriculture. As I see it, to get security and confidence in this fishing industry we must have either stability of costs or stability of prices, or both.
I do not believe that any of us wants to return to price control. It gave a certain security, but it was open to powerful and weighty objections which it is administratively impossible to overcome. What I should like to do is to ask the help of the Ministry at least to hold costs firm and, if possible, to assist in reducing them, because if costs continue to rise there will be only one result—fishermen all over the country will be driven from business. The question we are considering is, therefore, whether the fishing industry shall continue. I do not think it is enough to look at this question through a pair of economic spectacles. If one reads history, however superficially, one realises the tremendous contribution which the fishing industry has made, not only to the greatness of this country but also to the much wider objective of breaking down the barriers which divide men in one country from men in another. It is my conviction that the fishing industry has the same kind of contribution to make in the future and, therefore, that it deserves every help that either this Government or any future Government can possibly give it.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)
It is my pleasurable duty to say, on behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, how, much we have enjoyed the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood). His ease, his clarity, his gentle humour—without that facetiousness, which is fatal in this Chamber, I imagine—and his deep interest in the subject he had so easily at his command, have given us the hope and expectation that he will enrich our Debates, with great profit 1196 to us. He follows, of course, a very distinguished former Member of the House of Commons, one who has risen to very high eminence in the State, and whom once I had, in a very humble capacity as a school master, to go before —and " go before " is, I should think, the right term, because to me he was such an awe-inspiring person that I retain a very vivid recollection of him and of the occasion. However, I would again say to the hon. Gentleman that we enjoyed his maiden speech, and look forward to hearing from him again.
We are grateful to the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) for having opened this Debate in his usual exuberant style. We enjoyed it very much, but I am sure his enjoyment was much greater than ours—not that ours was not considerable. I find myself in a very great difficulty, because there are so many points on which I am in agreement with him, and which he has already elaborated, that it would be invidious for me to follow them in the detail with which I had intended to speak of them. However, it is very necessary that this subject should be debated at the moment.
Fish has been news. During the past weeks it has obtained a great deal of attention, as has been said, in the Press —and a lot of this notoriety we could very well have done without. Unfortunately, the blame can be laid, to a very large measure, on the industry itself. I am not saying that the Press, in its desire to get exciting news, did not make a great feature of it, but we must remember that the Press reported what happened on the markets.
I have been on the periphery of this industry for some 22 years, first as a resident of Great Yarmouth—and I was very disappointed that the hon. Member, in his very interesting historical survey, although he mentioned Great Yarmouth, did not mention the equally interesting port of Lowestoft.
§ Mr. Evans
I have tried at various times to penetrate to the centre of this industry; and I must confess that the more contacts I make, the more I get into touch with the various elements that comprise this very diverse, uncohered industry, the more difficult I find it to get what I may 1197 be called the considered view of the industry as a whole. It is one of the least integrated of industries, and one most difficult to act for. I would agree with the hon. Member and with the Secretary of State for Scotland that it is up to the industry itself to create the machinery by which its interests—the interests of its various component elements—may be more closely assimilated.
During recent years, since the war, there has been a high degree of prosperity in the industry in regard to both herring fishing and the white fish. Catches following the war, after a long period of rest, have been high; owners have derived good profits; and the men's position—and I am particularly glad of that—in regard to wages, status and influence in the industry, has risen; and also there has been a considerable diminution in unemployment. Today, we are back in the difficult times. What I believe the Tory Party call " the good old days " have come back. We are back in the position we were in after the First World War, and it is our duty—it is the duty of the industry and of the Government —to do what we can, without a great deal of recrimination, to bring the industry out of its present difficult position.
The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire in his more didactic moments, pointed his finger at the Government Front Bench. I should like to point my finger at him, and ask what he meant by certain of his suggestions. I will come to him in a moment, if I do not drive him from the Chamber before I have finished—which I promise will not be very long from now.
I happened to be in my constituency on the day control was lifted, and I was considerably disturbed at the way prices rocketed. I am pleased to say that the more responsible men in the industry were equally disturbed, because they could see the result that that would have on the prosperity of the industry, at least in the immediate period following this amazing lack of foresight on the part of the industry, which ought to have been able to foresee and guard against such a catastrophic state of affairs. It augurs ill indeed for free enterprise and decontrol if that vision, which ought to have been there, is so remarkably absent in the industry's attitude to consumer reaction.
1198 I noticed, in the speech of the hon. Gentleman, that in his special pleading for the industry he did not once show any regard for the consumers' interests. I know that those of us who represent fishing ports here are primarily concerned with the producers, but I would remind hon. Members that we have also an obligation to the consumers. We must not forget them. The consequences, of course, were alarming. What is the basic trouble? I would say that the fundamental disability afflicting the fishing industry is a lack of consumer demand, and that unless we can stimulate that, the industry is in for a very long period of thin years. There is no question about that. Consumer demand has fallen off. It falls off for two reasons. One is lack of quality and the other is high prices. These two causes operate today—inferior quality and too high prices. There has been a big decline in the consumption of herring in the home market, and the home market is the one that takes the prime quality of herring.
I am told—I had the information only yesterday—that the decline in the kipper section of the herring industry is 50 per cent. in two years. That is a very serious state of affairs, and the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire is right when he says it is due to the fact that we have not paid sufficient attention to the quality that we are allowing for the kippering section of the industry. It has been suggested—and I am sorry that, here, I shall have to cross swords with the hon. Member for Bridlington—that the ring net fishing at Whitby in August and September ought to be barred; that the herring are " mazy " and are allowed to go for kippering to the detriment of the trade. No industry can can survive on a bad quality commodity, and if that is allowed we shall be doing a great disservice to the herring industry.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire did not give the whole story when he spoke about prices. The over-all price is not so thoroughly accepted by the industry as one is led to suppose sometimes. I had rather a shock in my constituency not very long ago when I told them that I had supported the hon. Gentleman—as I very often do, in spite of the fact that he sometimes visits my constituency in other interests, although with no success—on this question of the over-all price for 1199 herring, because I was immediately assailed—if that is not too strong a word —by interests there who said that at any rate certain sections of the trade did not want an over-all price because they relied on quality—quality being one of the features of all the fish, both herring and white fish, landed at the port of Lowestoft.
On the question of the over-all price, strange to say, both sections of the industry, the Scottish and the English fishermen, have come together and agreed to approach the Herring Industry Board. It has been stated that the price offered was 60s. a cran. That is only part of the truth. The truth is that there will be.area pools with bonuses—I am sorry they are to be differential bonuses—paid in respect of the trading position at the end.of the summer season. I assume they are taking as their model the very successful experiment that has been praised from these benches—the Lerwick experiment.
The trade, no doubt quite justifiably, are putting up a higher bid, and are asking for 75s. a cran as against the 60s. offered by the Herring Industry Board. The Minister has already told us that the Herring Industry Board cannot pay this out unless they get a Government guarantee, and I am with the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire in suggesting to the Government that as the fishing industry is so important to us, and as it performs such a useful function, being analogous to the agricultural industry, the Government should sympathetically,consider guaranteeing the Herring Industry Board in order that they can pay this price.
A little had been said about overseas' markets. I do not want to indulge in too much special pleading, but I would ask the Minister to consider one aspect -of the herring export industry, and that is the rough packed ungutted herring which has a market in Belgium and France. Unless those carrying on this trade can get allocations they will be deprived of those markets, into which the Dutch are already penetrating and which they will, no doubt, capture, unless 'something is done. It is quite a profitable market for a restricted part of the industry, but one in which my constituency is somewhat interested.
1200 The position in regard to white fish has deteriorated, and is now desperate since decontrol. I sometimes wonder who really wanted decontrol. We have had representations in this House, in the fisheries committee of our own party, and from the big interests, pleading for decontrol; but I have been at pains to interview practical boat-owners, fishermen, and it is surprising to find the number of men who had no enthusiasm for decontrol, and who, now that it is there, are more anxious than they were when control was on. The industry asked for it; they pleaded for it, and now they have got it. But I am quite sure that they did not envisage, as the Minister has said, the situation in which, at one port alone, 200 new merchants have come on to the scene, and in which, at various ports throughout the country, there are already 600 scrambling for a living. Inevitably, the result is that the older members must protect themselves, and already the merchants' associations are, I understand, protecting themselves by withholding the facilities of credit. Inevitably, we shall get another ring if this situation continues.
A great deal has been said about over-fishing. Quite frankly, I agree with the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire when he says, " Put the heat on Iceland." I do not want to be misunderstood. I say that any country which exports fish to Britain, but which has not signed the Over-Fishing Convention ought to have their landings barred. I would not say that about any other commodity they send to us, but if ever there was a case for applying sanctions it is in the protection of our own industry, which those countries are flouting by not signing the convention. I spoke on this subject on an Adjournment Debate in 1947, and in spite of the efforts of the Government to get agreement—I am not complaining, because it is very difficult to impose sanctions—I believe that only three or four countries have signed the convention. No doubt the Minister will tell us about this later.
§ Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)
When the hon. Gentleman refers to " signing " the convention, does he not mean ratify the convention?
§ Mr. Evans
Yes. I thank the hon, Gentleman. I did mean ratification.
1201 On the question of foreign landings, I warn the Government that last year Icelandic landings were down compared with 1948, due, no doubt, to the fact that the German market was then fairly wide open. But now, with the rehabilitation of the German fishing fleet, that market will be closed to a great deal of the Icelandic trade, and they will try to get their fish landed here.
I return to the consumer interest and the policy of the Ministry of Food, which, as has been stated, has not been in harmony with that of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The primary duty of the Minister of Food is to feed the people, but the time has now come when he can afford to take a much stronger line with foreign landings than he has done so far, and I hope, particularly in view of what I have said about sanctions, that he will do so.
I was on the telephone today to my constituency, before this Debate, and I was told that boxed Dutch plaice of prime quality is available in Lowestoft today at 6s. a stone. I am wondering what the housewife will have to pay for it. Even if she pays 100 per cent. on that, I am quite sure that she will not get it for ls. a pound. This disparity between the price which the producer gets—in this case it is the Dutchman, but it applies equally to our own people—and what the housewife pays is one into which it would profit the Government to make a very close examination indeed.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire has gone from the Chamber, because I interrupted him to ask whether he would define his attitude to a white fish commission. It will be remembered that he spoke about a white fish marketing board. I took this point up with him and I wish that he had replied to me then. Is it the policy of the Opposition and of the hon. Member particularly to set up a white fish commission, which appears to be analogous to the Herring Industry Board?
I do not want to misrepresent what the hon. Member said, but I think he said, " If you advocate that policy, I am willing to go with you all the way." That is a very brave statement to make, because I am convinced that unless we can get an overall authority for the industry, not only for marketing but for production, allocation and, particularly. distribution, we 1202 shall not get very much further in rehabilitating this great and important industry.
I must not keep the Committee longer, but I would urge the Government to consider very strongly the setting up of a board or a commission—call it what we will—of independent people, who are not to be swayed other than in an advisory way by the trade itself, to regulate this industry. We all know the advantages that have accrued to the herring industry through the direction and assistance of the Herring Board, and I hope that we shall get something on the same lines for the white fish industry.
Finally, if we are to protect the position of the working fisherman who has now attained a status comparable with that of the industrial worker, if we are to maintain it and provide full employment; if we are to maintain his holidays with pay, not heard of in the industry before, and decent wages, we must do our best to see that this vital industry is rehabilitated and strengthened to play its very important part in the economic life of the country.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Duthie (Banff)
Members of the Government in recent weeks have been receiving first-hand and indisputable information directly from the producers in the fishing industry concerning the catastrophic state in which the industry finds itself now. It is particularly necessary in a Debate of this kind, where factual information is so absolutely vital, for each one who is sufficiently fortunate to catch your eye, Major Milner, to state the position as he sees it in relation to that part of the industry which he represents in this House.
On three occasions since this Parliament met, I have called the Government's. attention to the parlous position of the fishing industry—in the Debate on the Gracious Speech and when I was fortunate to speak in two Adjournment Debates. In the last Adjournment Debate, which was sponsored by the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart), I was amazed that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, in reply to that Debate, when we were discussing the Scottish fishing industry and its plight, apparently based his argument and the findings of the Government upon representations made by the British Trawlers-Federation.
1203 The British Trawlers Federation does not represent Scotland in any way. It is true to say, I think, that none of the trawler owners in Scotland are members of that body. It appeared to us in that Debate that the influence which apparently held sway at the Scottish Office had been created south of the Border. The apprehension that we expressed on those three occasions concerning what would ensue when the controls were removed has unfortunately been only too amply borne out.
As you probably know, Major Milner, I represent in this House the inshore fishing industry and the herring industry. Those are the two industries into which I was born and brought up, and I have been associated with them all my life. I should like to deal with the inshore white fishing industry first. That industry, as we know on the Moray Firth coast, has not been paying its way for a long time. It has been progressively declining, and while the deckhands—and this is a very important consideration— who are the non-partner members of the crew but are there on a profit-sharing basis have been getting a good wage weekly, the fisherman-owner of the vessel have been getting steadily into debt.
I can see no hope under the present arrangement, with the additional load which the industry in the north of Scotland has to carry, of economic rehabilitation or, indeed, of economic survival of this industry. I will not go over the points that contribute to that state of affairs—the cost of gear, vessels, repairs and operational costs, and all that sort of thing. These points have been fully explained to the Minister of Food, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Board of Trade by deputations which have met them in the course of the last few days.
A deputation from the North representing the inshore fishing industry saw the Minister of Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland as recently as 3rd April. The case which they put forward in common with other deputations was uncontrovertible, and it is hoped that some good will come of this Debate on that account. By reason of the geographical position in the North, the removal of price controls, the subsidy and the flate rate put an end to any hope of successful operation, bearing in mind that 1204 we are working now on the inshore fishing grounds of the north of Scotland which have been very seriously depleted by over-fishing. That cannot be laid at the door of our own fishermen. The foreign trawler is responsible for the grave condition in which we find our inshore fishing grounds.
The new vessels which have been acquired very largely by ex-Service men have been the most hard hit bcause they have been acquired new at the top market price since the war. A grant and loan came to their assistance to secure them in the first instance, but the heavy overheads which they have to carry have been such that several of them—and, indeed, 27 of them are known to the Secretary of State for Scotland himself—have not been able to pay their insurance premiums for the last 12 months, not through lack of the will to do so, not through lack of seamanship and not through the wrong type of skipper in the wheel house. These chaps are first-class fishermen, but the over-fishing and competitive conditions which they have to meet have rendered their economic position such as I have described.
Our industry is threatened with extinction. I say that in all seriousness. It is not only the livelihood of our fishermen and their families which is at stake, but the livelihood of all the fish workers, the ship chandlers, carpenters, engineers, riveters and shopkeepers. The economy of the whole of the Moray Firth coast is at stake, because it depends entirely on the fishing industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) said—and it is something that must be emphasised on every possible occasion—the fish our fishermen produce is competing all along the line with foods that are heavily subsidised. It is quite impossible to expect or ask the housewife to pay a price which is commensurate with the cost to the producer.
The price we obtain is affected all the time, if not actually determined, by the fish imported from foreign sources. We know that foreign fish is not of such good quality, but it goes direct to the distributing centres without having to come to the quayside markets and stand comparison with our own catches. This foreign fish arrives in boxes at the distributing centres, and if the fish wholesaler or retailer buys some of that fish at what is a 1205 reasonable price to him, he buys that much less fish landed by our own seamen at our own ports in our own vessels. That is a point which must be prominently borne in mind.
The remedies I suggest to meet this situation are these. First, I suggest the strictest control of foreign importations of boxed fish direct to the distributing centres. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) that all fish should pass through the quayside markets. The importations of foreign fish must be so regulated that at no time is there any danger of our own supplies having to be sold for fisheal and the like. Our own fish should shave the pride of place in our markets, which the foreigners would be only too happy to participate in by supplying any deficiency on a day-to-day basis. Secondly, there should be complete control of the landings of fish by foreign vessels. It may interest the Committee to know that in North Shields last year more fish was landed by Danish and Norwegian vessels than was brought in by our own boats.
Thirdly, we want a white fish marketing board with greater powers than the Herring Industry Board. We want that board to have control over all landings and importations, as well as over the channeling and marketing of fish. That is absolutely necessary. Fourthly, we want the fullest implementation of this international agreement. I have seen haddock disappear during my lifetime from the Moray Firth as a result of the depredations by foreign trawlers. We want to see international policing in all waters, so that any foreign vessel coming into our waters can be examined and ordered to port for any infringements of the agreement.
Fifthly, we want more fat for the fish friers. There is a vast latent market here waiting to absorb great quantities of fish. In addition, we want an additional fish course to be served in restaurant meals, which will also absorb a considerable amount of fish at a reasonable price. Lastly, we want immediate financial assistance. In my view, a subsidy of Is. 3d. per stone should be paid on all fish landed in British ports from inshore or near-water vessels. That is very necessary until this business sorts itself out and we can get some proper perspective 1206 in regard to gear costs and on-costs for the industry. If the industry is to continue in its present form, it must have financial assistance. That is the position in the North, and it applies to a greater or lesser extent around the coast.
I now wish to turn to trawling. Near-water trawlers are being laid up in Aberdeen. A large number have already been laid up there, and vessels that are perfectly sea-worthy are being offered at scrap prices. The owners of these are suffering from over fishing, and they want assistance just as much as the inshore fishermen. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire pointed out, the operation costs in 1938 for a near-water and inshore trawler were some £20 a day, whereas today the costs are between £65 and £80 with an average daily catch value of £50. No industry can continue on these lines, and therefore this is a matter which must be taken in hand in the most constructive way at Government level.
I sincerely trust that something will transpire as a result of the recent deputation, on which the chairman of the Aberdeen Fishery Trawlers Association, Mr. Harrow, was informed that a working party would be instituted to go into the matter at Aberdeen. I should like to be assured that this inquiry will not be confined to Aberdeen, but that it will also take into consideration the equally deserving ports along the Moray Firth, ranging from Wick right round to Peterhead, including Buckie, Macduff, Lossiemouth, Whitehill and Fraserburgh. These ports are in a worse plight than Aberdeen.
I should now like to deal with herring fishing and the new prices for 1950. These prices are disquieting. Our herring fishermen in the Moray Firth area have had two disastrous years. Last year the Herring Board fixed the top price at 89s. a cran, which has now been cut to 61s.
§ Mr. Edward Evans
The top price was 89s., whereas this is an overall price. The price is graded according to the quality of the herring.
§ Mr. Duthie
The price is graduated down, and so is it in this particular instance. The sum of 61s. is the top price, and it comes down to 35s. a cran. The former price was 89s. which came down to 35s., and now it is 61s. to 35s. I have the document here. It is true that an 1207 average would be struck and a bonus would be paid in respect of the profit earned on the deal, but if the top price was 89s. last year and the year before, and the Herring Board bring it down to 61s.—the price they can afford to pay—the fishermen are presented with this situation: how can they have confidence in the future? In consequence—and I am stating this as a dire fact and I do not hold that fishermen should not go to sea for those prices—fishermen are not encouraged to go to sea today. They can see no prospect of a living wage for themselves and their families from herring fishing, and there is no prospect, things being as they are, for them to acquire new gear. So they are not encouraged.
Ten days ago I spoke to one of our most successful herring skippers at Buckie Harbour. He has one of the most up-to-date drifters in the harbour, but he cannot get a crew. They prefer to take casual labour work ashore, because, for the nonce, they are assured of a regular wage. That is a serious position, and one which I am sure the Herring Board are viewing with the very greatest concern, because in my view the Board are a most excellent instrument, an instrument which would make for greater efficiency if they could get greater powers, particularly in the handling of the home market for fresh herring.
I do not want to touch on some of the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire concerning new markets and the like. He dealt with that matter very fully, but I should like to ask the Government this question—it has come to this for the inshore fishing industry in the north of Scotland and also for the herring industry —do the Government desire the Scottish fishing industry to survive, or want a remnant of the Scottish fleet to leave their home areas and become based upon English ports or on ports in Eire? There are signs of that-migration having already started. This is a matter of the very greatest seriousness.
In conclusion, I want to say that I hope this Debate will be a prelude to some really forceful and constructive action being taken, otherwise our northern coasts will become a locality of deserted towns and villages, which visitors in the future will look upon with awe, as they will 1208 know that once those villages cradled the finest seamen in the world.
§ The Chairman
May I make an appeal to hon. Members to make their speeches as short as possible. There are far more Members who desire to speak than the Chair can possibly call upon but it would help if hon. Members would make their speeches as short as possible.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Yarmouth)
I shall keep my eye on the clock, and I hope to follow the rule which you, Major Milner, have laid down for us and speak for a short time. I must say that I have wondered this afternoon why fishing, of all subjects, should be debated so quickly after the election, and I rather thought, bearing in mind how level the score was yesterday in a match between the two sides, that someone on the Opposition said, " To debate fishing is a good electioneering trick. Let us have a Debate on it and throw out everything that is bad in the industry, blaming it on the Labour Government."
If one of those gentlemen from Iceland happened to be sitting in one of the Galleries, listening to this Debate, he would have got the impression that the hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the Committee who want all these regulations, controls, red-tape and financial assistance from the Government, represented the Labour Party, because we have heard continual appeals from hon. Members opposite for the rescue of this dying industry by Government help. We have been told, just a few days after controls have been taken off, that this industry is facing bankruptcy.
The greatest blow that has been struck at the industry since controls came off, in my opinion, was the revolt of the housewife. She refused to buy fish because it was too dear, and, thereby compelled the industry to take new steps in the matter of price. The industry, now that it has been decontrolled, has to provide fish that will compete with the other foods that can be bought in the shops, because if it does not, the housewife will refuse to pay the price demanded for the fish. That state of affairs has to be faced by the industry in the next few years whether there is a new type of Government sitting on these benches or the type represented by the Members at present on this side of the Committee
§ The hon. Gentleman the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby)
who is not in the Chamber now, told us something about regulations and Government help. He also told us about his own approach in this House to the matter of fishing for 25 years. I wondered, as he was speaking—I was not in the House during all those years of which he was speaking—what was his attitude in the years before the war, when a Tory Home Secretary raided the Arcos offices in 1926, as a result of which the herring industry in the English ports and in the Scottish ports was almost ruined. During the last few years, under a Labour Government, the industry has been building up its prosperity, and the Government have gone out of their way to help it rise from the ruins in which we found it in 1945 when the war was over.
What has emerged from this Debate is that hon. Members opposite want the Government to come into this industry, put it on its feet, and keep it there. I agree. We have travelled far from the days when we considered that industries which provide the necessities of life can be left on their own, and that we can afford to allow them to lapse into the condition in which coal mining was before the Labour Government nationalised it. Fish is an elemental, economic product, just as coal is, and we should look upon it with the same kind of favour as we look upon coal mining. It is an essential industry, which should be kept on its feet, if necessary, by Government control, and all the little sections in it should not be allowed to fight against each other with one or two " smart Alecks " coming along for the plunder to the detriment of most of the fellows who do the work in the industry.
It has been found in the ports that decontrol does not pay, and the danger is that the standard of living of the fishermen will fall much below that of the ordinary civilian. The industry must be put on a sound basis, and the Government have got to give a hand to get some sort of control or board. Where I disagree with the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire is that he wants a marketing board to look after some people who were always able to look after themselves. They are the type who wait for the fish to come in, and then they collect their wealth. My consideration is for 1210 the fellow in the blue jersey—and I gave a warning during the election that decontrol might have a serious effect on him. It has come, because, since 15th April, he has got the dirty end of the stick, and unless we do something quickly he will again go through those years of depression which he went through in the years before the war, when the industry had not the control which we now agree that it should have had. We must look after him. We must safeguard these people, who are our first line of defence when war breaks out, and see that we keep them afloat in peace time in their drifters and trawlers and whatever else they sail in for inshore fishing.
Besides that, the Government must keep an eye on the whole thread of activity in the industry and see that the housewife does not need to revolt as she has done in the last few weeks, that the commodity flows through, that a decent standard of living is given to the people in the industry, and that people in the industry who are unnecessary to the fisherman on the one hand or the housewife on the other are eliminated. If we are to get a really streamlined industry we want something much more than a marketing board. We have the Herring Industry Board. We have long advocated that more power should be given to the Board, so that it can work more efficiently than it has done since the war. In the case of white fish, the whole thing needs looking at from top to bottom. We need a commission to cover the whole of the industry, not just a marketing board to ensure that some fellows make a fat living out of a commodity while they play no part in the dangerous business of getting it. We want everybody, from the fisherman to the consumer, to be safeguarded.
I hope that the Government will give some indication that they realise the seriousness of the position and will give us a promise that in their lifetime, however short it may be, we may expect a white fish commission to act alongside the Herring Industry Board, with wider powers than it now possesses, so that this elemental basic industry, which ought to have been organised a long time ago, will give a decent standard of living to the people in the constituencies represented here. That can only be done by means 1211 of Government regulations and a certain amount of " red tape." But if it is the only way to keep the industry going then it is a national necessity.
There is also the question of foreign landings. I was rather amazed at the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire. He goes trotting off to Strasbourg and talks about an economy for Western Europe. He says that he has asked for that from that corner seat for years, and he wants to ask the Dutch, the French, the Poles and the Danes to come into it. Yet he comes here on a constituency matter and talks about " turning the heat on the Icelanders." The Icelanders are only trying to make an honest living. Here is a market with a thick population and they come into it.
I hope that before the Debate finishes, the Minister will give us the figures to enable us to put the question of foreign landings in its proper perspective. Have they been as harmful as some people make out? I doubt it. On the other hand, if they have to be controlled I am all for it because we must put our own people first, but it does not ring true when we get one of the Strasbourg protagonists turning the heat on the Icelanders and then turning it on the Dutch. This is all part of the European problem, and we are all in it. We have to work out some way of seeing that the working people of Holland, Belgium, Poland and France and our constituents in England and Scotland get their share of the riches from the common fishing grounds and ensuring that we do not harm those fishing grounds in the process.
There is also the question of building trawlers for the Icelanders. During the Debate I have been wondering if there is a trawler maker on the benches opposite. I wonder if there is a Member of the Tory Party who has actually got a contract for building one or more of the 10 trawlers for the Icelanders. What is his view about it? Is he annoyed because the money was raised in London and the trawlers are being built in this country? Is there an hon. Member on either side of the Committee who is annoyed because a number of people in his own constituency are making trawlers for the Icelanders? In some of our constituencies there are the best people in the world at building trawlers, and it is 1212 the sensible thing to see that we get such orders. Admittedly, after they have been made and are on the fishing grounds they will be competing with some of our trawlers which are not so modern, and we must then have some agreement and some Government regulation, but it ill-befits hon. Members opposite to attack the building of these trawlers, because they will give work to people 'in small shipyards like some of those in Yarmouth.
At the moment the gear which the fishermen have to buy is too dear, like many other products in this country. It would be grand if the President of the Board of Trade could say that he has found a way of reducing the price of gear to what it was in 1939, but that is out of the question. When I was with some people representing the silk industry the other day I tried to find out if we could get some nylon nets to replace those of sisal and manilla, which are difficult to get. I was told that that was possible but that they would cost three times as much as the other nets. Perhaps we can pass on to the industry the task of trying to reduce the price of nylon nets to one-third of what they are now. The industry should get its technicians on the job, for even if it took six months or a year it would be worth while. That might be done in this country. I do not know, because I am not an expert on nylon, but I hope this suggestion will be brought to the notice of the industry.
We are now accepting the fact that fishermen, like agricultural workers and coal miners, are the producers of basic elements for the continuance of life in this country. I should like the Government to start off from that basis and give us a commission which would enable us to unify the industry and the workers. themselves. I should like to see them all becoming members of the Agricultural Workers' Union, whose members provide the other foods for our people. It would be a grand thing. I know that there are difficulties. It is easy to reach the farm worker in his village, because he is never far from the land where he works. But the only time I see the fellows in the blue jerseys is at election time, or at occasional village meetings, when they happen to be home from a voyage and one meets them almost by accident.
It is very difficult to get all these people together, but the Agricultural Workers' 1213 Union is already represented in villages in Norfolk, and probably it could bring them all together and put their representations before hon. Members and the Government better than they have been put before. Other hon. Members may suggest other unions, but however it is done I should like to see the unity of those workers achieved. Then we could hold out hope to the industry, not of avoiding all the periodic difficulties, because there are bound to be gluts when plenty of fish enter the nets and the opposite if there are not enough fish when the trawlers go out, but of ironing out the difficulties, with the different sides working together instead of against each other. so that one fellow can do the other chap out of something. The Government are in a position to give a lead tonight if they can say that some kind of board or commission is on the way.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)
On rising to address the Committee for the first time, I claim, as is customary, the indulgence of hon. Members in bearing with me and my shortcomings and in extending the courtesy which is usual upon these rather difficult occasions.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie), I was extremely pleased with an answer which I was given yesterday regarding the Meals in Establishments Order. I hope that something will come of this in the near future. I feel that if the supply of fish has been de-controlled, there is a case for the consumption to be de-controlled also.
We have heard speakers from the North and East, and I should like to shift for the time being to one or two of the problems in the far West. I will first deal with some of the difficulties of the canning industry in West Cornwall. In 1948 the Cornish Sea Fishers Committee met and were addressed by a representative of, I believe, the Ministry of Food, who encouraged them to undertake the production of canned pilchards as soon as possible because he said something to the effect that there would be no possibility of canned fish imports from the dollar areas for at least five years. After initial difficulties, some seven firms started, I believe, and they now have an output of 200,000 cases a year.
As may be well imagined, they were extremely alarmed, when in 1949 large 1214 quantities of Japanese, Clifornian and South African canned pilchards were imported. The position today is that these firms have about 12,000 cases of canned pilchards unsold. At the same time I believe the Ministry say that 30,000 cases of Japanese pilchards are on their way to this country, bought with dollars. I understand that the Ministry have told our canners that their prices are too high. It may be that they are a bit higher, but I submit that the wages we-pay to the people employed in canning these fish are very different from those. paid to the Japanese. If we cannot produce enough—and of this I am not sure—why should not our share be taken before the Japanese?
I believe that certain constituents of mine asked the Ministry if they would take some of this surplus and the reply was that the Ministry of Food were not traders. Yesterday I was handed a tin of pilchards from which I took the label I hold in my hand. On it is a picture of a pilchard and underneath is stated that it was packed in Japan, and next to it is a notice " Imported by the Ministry of Food, London." That is hardly consistent with not being traders. In my division there are mothers and relations of men who have lost their lives at sea, whose feelings I am sure hon. Members can well imagine when they go into shops in West Cornwall and see on the shelves such tins packed in Japan and imported by the Ministry of Food. [An HON. MEMBER: " Shame!"] They have made vigorous protests to me on this subject.
What is the effect on the fishermen? The British Canners' Association have guaranteed the fishermen 3s. a stone for pilchards provided we are not flooded with foreign imports. If these canners have to close down, I am informed that approximately 750 fish workers will be thrown out of work and that it will have a serious effect on some 450 fishermen. Lastly on this canning question, in the event of war there would be no Japanese pilchards, even if people agree with their importation now. Possibly then we should be turning to the canners in this. country. If so, surely they must be kept going and given a reasonable security for the future should there be another war —which, pray God, will not happen—so that they would be ready.
A great deal has been said about the; cost of gear. If no manilla twine has 1215 been bought because the excuse is made that dollars are not available, surely dollars can be better used for buying manilla twine than for importing Japanese pilchards? I was interested to hear the hon. and gallant Member for Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) suggesting research into the use of nylon. Even though this is three times the price today, I see no reason why research should not be carried out in an attempt to bring down the price.
Hon. Members will agree that there is considerable concern as to the future of this industry owing to the lack of recruitment. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff told us about the difficulties of getting crews, and this is a matter which causes many of us great concern. May I make some suggestions to the Government to try to overcome this difficulty? First, there should be really effective and interesting propaganda in schools to bring to the notice of adventurous children what a grand and wonderful service they can give their country—and I mean service—in going into the fishing industry. This might also be the subject of special lectures in such schools as the Outward Bound Trust. In addition, the West Country has put up a scheme to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries which has been approved by the Council of Further Education for the south-western area. I believe that this training scheme has not gone through yet because the Minister of Education has not been able to give the necessary training grants. I hope that something may be done in this matter.
Would it be possible to have a kind of fishermen's reserve of the Royal Navy? Its object would be to enrol young men of call-up age, or before. They would be exempt from National Service, on condition that they did not go into the reserve to dodge National Service. They would sign on for a period of, say, 10 years, they would be given naval training in off-season periods, and in this way we would have in the event of war a ready, well-trained and excellent body of men ready to go immediately into the patrol and mine-sweeping service, as they have done in two world wars. Those of us who have served in the Royal Navy know what wonderful service fishermen have given.
1216 Before leaving that point, may I ask whether the Government have made any special provision in the Festival of Britain to show what the fishermen do and what are their difficulties? Have they their right place in this Exhibition? The fishermen of this country provide not only a wonderful service in time of war but are the lifeblood of this country in peace, and any of us who know the duties carried out by coxswains and crews in the lifeboat services know what a vital part they play, quite apart from fishing. Enough has been said about their part in war to make it unnecessary for me to say anything further.
In conclusion, I am sure that many hon. Members in going the rounds of their constituency socials have listened to the local celebrity, after the master of ceremonies has said, " Mr. So-and-so will now render ' The Fishermen of England.' " The last time I heard it, I was struck by these words:And when at night you safely lieIn blankets snug and warm.The fishermen of EnglandAre riding out the storm.Let us hope that all of us on all sides of the Committee will do our utmost to see that these men really do ride out the storm.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
It is my pleasure today to congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Howard) on delivering his maiden speech. I understand that he has already served the public well as mayor of the City of Westminster and that he also served his country in the recent war. Now, he is an hon. Member of the House of Commons and has delivered a speech which we all enjoyed. I hope that we shall hear from him many times in the future. I venture, therefore, to offer him a welcome to the House.
Turning from that pleasant aspect to the topic which we have been discussing all afternoon, I think that it is evident to everybody in the Committee that Aberdeen stands in a special place in the fishing industry. It is obvious, from what fell from the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby), that that is so. He quoted Trevelyan, the English historian, in praise of English fisherman, but I am sure we all felt that it was a pity that he, a Scot, could not find it 1217 in his heart to quote from a Scottish historian in praise of Scots fishermen, who are as noble, as courageous, and of as great service to this great nation and to their own great nation as the English are to theirs.
There is no doubt that Aberdeen has great advantages and suffers from great disadvantages in the fishing industry. The advantages are that here is an old-established industry which has served the nation well. It has a highly skilled fishing community which is an asset to the nation in peace and war, and whose interests should be preserved. Today, the energies of my right hon. Friends, particularly the Secretary of State for Scotland, will, I am sure, be directed towards protecting that industry, which is now so gravely threatened.
Among other advantages of the Aberdeen fishing industry is that it is nearer to the deepsea fishing grounds and, therefore, better able to land prime, fresh fish than, possibly, are other fishing ports. The first-class fish can be put on sale in the London markets in a fresh condition if good transport is available. That, in fact, is the rub with regard to the present aspect of this industry. These are, obviously, very great assets for Aberdeen and, indeed, for the whole country, but they are diminished by the disadvantages affecting transport from which she suffers.
The disadvantage is that Aberdeen is farther away from the great consuming areas of the south. It therefore has a higher ratio of expense for the carriage of coal and other fuel and of gear to Aberdeen from the south. It also has to incur a greater cost for the carriage of fish to the south. These disadvantages were, to a large extent, diminished by the incidence of the flat rate for the carriage of fish so long as that was maintained. That flat rate, let it be realised, was an advantage, not only to Aberdeen, but to the large consuming centres of the south, who were able to get their fish in prime condition and at a moderate cost.
But the abolition of the flat rate has damaged not only the fishermen in Aberdeen, not only the ship-owners and the fish market porters, but everybody there connected with the industry. It has also damaged the consumers in the south of these Islands, who may be deprived of regular supplies of good, succulent, fresh fish unless something is done to remedy 1218 the adverse conditions caused by the abolition of the flat rate.
To show what these adverse conditions are I should like to quote briefly from a letter which I have received from a very experienced wholesale white fish and herring merchant in Aberdeen, Mr. Clark. Here is what he says about control:Control had a stabilising effect. The housewife knew the price she had to pay for the various varieties; she also knew she was safeguarded by the Ministry of Food. Now she does not know where she is, except that she is at the mercy of the retailer, who can exploit the prices for all varieties and who can withhold the benefit of the cheaper fish. This condition will be most noticeable when landings are in short supply. Prices will rise, and middle and working classes will not be able to buy.The result of the abolition of control has been to create chaos in the industry, in the markets, in the shops, and in the homes.
I should like to quote from another letter, from the Aberdeen Fish Curers' and Merchants' Association, Ltd., who protest against the manner in which the abolition of the flat rate was publicised and the damage which that did to the fishing industry. Here is what they said as recently as 24th April:When fish prices at the coast are ' on the floor' it means that the demand from inland markets and probably in the fishmongers' shops has been more than met. It is thought that if at times like these the Press and the B.B.C. would make a special feature of the fact that fish is cheap it would encourage the housewife to buy more than she usually does.Upon decontrol on 14th April, 1950, the Press and the B.B.C. carried on a campaign of informing the public of the fact that fish prices had reached unprecedented heights and the Press advised housewives in a few cases to keep away from the fishmongers, which they did. They failed, however, to inform the public in time that prices had again dropped to unprecedented levels. If they had done so it is the considered opinion of those in the trade that the disaster of the last few days would have been averted. It should be noted that the Press statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland was a very praiseworthy effort to turn the tide.Press and B.B.C. statements are often misleading, and it is thought that far more benefit would accrue to all if prior consultation with trade bodies took place before statements are made.That indicates the importance of taking into consultation the appropriate trade bodies.
1219 To remedy the threatened disaster caused by the abolition of the flat rate, it was at first suggested that the flat rate should be restored. Now, however, an alternative has been suggested, that there should be a subsidy or other assistance to meet the high cost, on the one hand, of the carriage of coal and other fuel to northern fishing centres and, on the other hand, to assist the transport of fish to the south. This request has, I understand, been further diminished to its very minimum by a suggestion that there should be a subsidy of 3d. a stone on fish landed in Aberdeen. That subsidy is arrived at in this way.
The average rail rate from Aberdeen to Billingsgate is 158s. a ton. The average rate from Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood is 115s. a ton. The difference is 43s. a ton, or 3d. a stone, which is less than id. per pound. That, I submit to the Committee and to my right hon. Friend the Minister, is a reasonable, practicable and inexpensive way of meeting this difficulty. That subsidy would cost, on the basis of the 1949 landings of fish, no more than £170,000 per annum. I submit that it would be an act of statesmanship to grant a subsidy of this kind. Edmund Burke said:Statesmanship is a disposition to preserve coupled with an ability to improve.If ever there was an industry which deserved to be preserved and improved, it is this industry and there is the means of doing it.
The troubles of this industry are further complicated by the problem of landings of foreign fish, which have been referred to already and about which I will not elaborate beyond giving figures which have not been mentioned. The figures of foreign landings in 1938 compared with 1949 are 1,635,382 cwt. and 3,676,322 cwt. The British catches during the same two years were 20,913,254 cwt. and 20,032,691 cwt., so the foreign landings have more than doubled while British catches are reduced.
A great many other problems remain to be discussed, but because of the pressure of time, I will not deal with them. The Secretary of State for Scotland, in reply to a Question I asked the other day, showed how appreciative he is of the problems which threaten this industry.
1220 He said that the Scottish Council (Development and Industry), at his request, would appoint a working party to consider improvements in the industry. That is welcome news. I am sure the Committee will feel glad that my right hon. Friend has so keen an appreciation of the problems of the industry, and is taking such active steps to see that they are dealt with adequately.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
I am sure that after the last week or two the Government can be under no misapprehension about the very grave concern felt all round our coasts in all branches of the fishing industry. From the records of share fishermen which I have examined it seems that in many boats the men are not now earning what in most industries would be regarded as a decent minimum wage. In my own constituency, to add insult to injury, we not only have our troubles from fish, but are now suffering from a surfeit of whales. I am not sure whether whales are in order in this Debate, but I ask the Secretary of State if in one capacity or other he can get rid of them as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Grimond
On the question of controls the ground has been fully covered. I think the hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) made a good point when he said that most of us are in favour of planning, but it has to be good planning. It does not seem so clear at the moment that there is good planning in the fishing industry. It does not seem good planning for inshore fishermen to take up large loans, which they have to repay over 20 years, when, with very little or no notice, the flat rate is removed and this swingeing increase on petrol and rail charges is added. That will not only add to the cost of the transport of fish but the price of everything which the fisherman has to buy. I would ask the Secretary of State if he can persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a concession to fishermen on petrol and, also, again to consider some such scheme as has been propounded for Aberdeen, which would allow a reduction of freight charges. I am glad to hear that his Committee are still considering what steps to take to reduce the high costs of gear.
1221 The forthcoming herring season is of vital importance to the whole fishing industry. If the inshore fishermen have a bad season, and do not have a reasonable return after the last bad season and the difficult winter, they will be hit very hard. Concern must be felt about the prices we hear they are to get for herring. I urge on the Secretary of State to continue his efforts to find markets for herring. I believe it will be increasingly difficult to find a market on anything like a large scale for salt herring, but, if the right hon. Gentleman, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) suggested, can persuade some European countries to take some of the salt herring so much the better.
I think the industry has to depend on good quality kippers—and I emphasise good quality—and on fresh and sharp frozen herring. The question of quick freezing has been raised. In Shetland, we are lucky to have a quick freezing plant and there is no question that it is an enormous asset to the industry in the Shetland Islands. We want an extension of quick-freezing plants and also of refrigeration ships. I am told we do not possess any small ships of this kind. I suggest that there may also be a further outlet for herring not in the form of fish manure, but for edible oil.
There has been a suggestion that the Herring Board may be encouraging the closing of small ports. I hope that if that is so the Secretary of State will do his best to discourage that practice. So far from closing small ports I would like an investigation into the possible opening of such ports as Stronsay and Stromness. On the grounds near.Stronsay a very high quality herring is obtained. We have to remember that the herring industry is not only concerned with giving us valuable food, but, as has been emphasised, with breeding most valuable men. Without them we would have found ourselves in a very serious state in the two world wars. I ask the Secretary of State to take the human element into consideration, and, if possible, to keep the small communities alive.
On the question of over-fishing I feel that possibly we have been disingenuous. It is a very slippery question, and it is not entirely true to say that the fault is over-fishing by foreign trawlers. It all depends on the fisherman. If one is 1222 using a seine net one wants the trawler kept out and if one is using a line one wants the trawler and the seine-netter kept out. If one is a British trawler one wants the foreign trawler kept off. But we shall very quickly overfish our inshore waters unless some steps are taken. I do not think we will ever have great quantities of line fishing again. We could not again get the women in their hundreds to bait the lines as they used to do.
We must research into the situation to see whether we are destroying the spawn and to see where the inshore fish come from; do they breed out in the sea, or on grounds near the shore? How much damage does seine netting do? We want an international agreement. We may find that we need to have a sort of close season. I suggest, even, that at weekends it would be of value if Scottish fishermen would keep off the sea. Trawling is a difficult subject—I speak for an area interested in seine netting and inshore fishing. We do not like to see the trawler, but, on the whole, they keep out pretty well. Some poach, but. generally, they keep out.
We would like to see the three-mile limit drawn round the heads of the land to keep them out of the voes and the lochs in order to allow people to fish in them with seine-net and line. I would like to see new fishery cruisers, not the old big vessels which can do only eight knots, and which everyone can see coming days before they arrive, but some small, fast fishing vessels which could enforce the law. Finally, some additional protection might be given to the crofter line fisherman, where he still exists. Seine net boats might be kept out of those small areas where the crofter still adds to his livelihood by line fishing close in shore.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Hudson (Hull, North)
I have taken the opportunity of addressing the Committee on this important matter because the fishing industry plays such an important part in the lives of those whom I am privileged to represent in this House. I am speaking in this Chamber for the first time, and for that reason I ask for, and I am sure I shall be shown, the courtesy and the indulgence which is the tradition and the habit of right hon. and hon. Members on such an occasion.
1223 The livelihood and well being of many who live in Kingston-upon-Hull, and not a few in North Hull, depend upon the prosperity of the fishing industry. I refer, of course, to the distant water fishing industry and not to inshore fishing, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) has spoken so effectively today.
Hull may quite properly claim to be the largest fishing port in the world. The number of trawlers in the Hull fleet roughly equals, and in fact slightly exceeds, the total of such vessels—distant water vessels—plying from the rest of the ports in the country put together, not excluding our distinguished rival, Grimsby. To repair the serious depredations of the war, Hull owners have built a fleet of modern vessels equipped with every possible device for speedy and economical fishing, and with first-class accommodation for their crews. In 1949 the total landings of sea fish in Hull were nearly 4 million kits or 5 million cwts. These facts show that the livelihood of owners and crews alike, many thousands of them, depends on the demand for fish as an item of food.
It is not generally realised that, apart from the minimum basic wage varying from £5 15s. to £7 5s. per week, the earnings of principal ratings include a poundage upon the gross value of the catch. Until recently this has formed a large part, in fact the major part, of their remuneration. Skippers and mates are remunerated entirely by a share in the proceeds. As has already been clearly stated, the demand has dropped to such an extent that the earnings of crews have been seriously reduced, while owners have been faced with serious losses.
My main purpose in speaking tonight is to draw attention to one important reason for this lack of demand and to suggest a means whereby demand may be stimulated. Demand depends upon two main factors. One of these is household consumption, and, as has been shown, fish is now competing with foods which are heavily subsidised, and therefore is at a disadvantage.
The second point to which I wish to draw attention is that the demand depends mainly on the needs of the fish friers who provide that very humble but very popular dish of fish and chips. I make 1224 no apology for dwelling on that topic in this Chamber tonight because I would point out that only last night a most distinguished woman, a lady of high rank, left her West End hotel to enjoy a dish of fish and chips in Paddington.
Merchants estimate that 85 per cent. of the Hull catch, certainly of cod, goes to the friers, whose costs of production have greatly increased. For reasons that are well known, the cost of gas and electricity is higher than ever before, and the principal raw material, frying oil, is costing from four to six times as much as in 1939. I do not wish to weary the House with figures, but I must give two or three examples of that. Best pure groundnut oil could be bought by the friers prior to the war at from 24s. to 26s. per cwt., and cotton seed oil for 21s. a cwt., while today the friers are having to pay for palm kernel oil, a much inferior product, 126s. 6d. per cwt. The take-up of the allocations is below 100 per cent., which is an indication of lack of demand.
I do not wish to appear controversial on this occasion but I wish to ask why it is that this oil, which is purchased and sold by the Ministry of Food, is so very dear? At the peak period of the war the highest price that had to be paid for it was 64s. 6d. per cwt. Now it is nearly twice that price. It has been suggested that the Ministry of Food are making a considerable profit out of these deals in oil and other fats; only last night the figure of £9 million for 1949 was suggested to me. There may be some quite proper explanation of this point. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply to the Debate will be able to throw some light on the matter and possibly suggest some means of reducing these costs and so stimulating demand. In taking this line of approach, I am not so much advocating the cause of the fish frier, although that is of great importance. I believe that the revival and development of the fish frier's trade is the best and quickest means of increasing demand to the benefit of all who are engaged in this hazardous occupation.
I realise that a maiden speech must be brief, and I intend mine to be so. I have purposely refrained from mentioning such topics as the part played by the fishing fleets during the war or the unregulated landings of foreign-caught fish, to which my hon. Friend the Member for 1225 East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) has referred. But there is one point in that connection which I do not think has been mentioned and upon which I feel I must touch. It is that Western Germany recently prohibited imports of fish, as her own trawlers could provide the whole of her needs. That market is now closed to the Icelandic trawlers, and that is one reason why the Icelandic fishing vessels are concentrating upon our market. It seems to me a strange and disturbing fact that Germany, with a relatively short coastline, has taken this course, while we, a maritime nation, have no regulation of landings. I respectfully invite the attention of the Committee to that point.
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Donnelly (Pembroke)
I am really the last person in this Committee to whom it should fall to congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. W. Hudson) because I came to this House myself only a few weeks ago. I know exactly how the hon. Member must have felt, and I very much admired the great confidence with which he spoke. I wish that I had had the same measure of confidence when I was going through that same ordeal.
I am glad to have been called if only so that I can remind the Committee that there is a fishing industry in Wales as well as in other parts of the British Isles, and bring the discussion of this question back to the West Country again. My concern is with the white fishing industry, which has quite different problems from those of hon. Gentlemen north of the Border, who are concerned with the herring industry.
I wish at the very beginning to clear up one great misconception which seems to exist in the minds of many hon. Members and in the country regarding the state of our fishing industry at the end of the war. Many people felt that the fishing industry did very well towards the end of the war, and for a period following the war, and that it is quite reasonable to expect they might work off some of their fat now and go through a lean period. It is perfectly true that some trawler owners did do very well, not because of the high prices being paid for fish, but because they were able to have a very large turnover at a time when very few trawlers were fishing the grounds; and when the fishing grounds were well stocked. The high 1226 profits they made were due to the high turnover rather than to the high price of fish.
It is as I say perfectly true that in 1945 there was a limited number of trawlers fishing and they were able to bring home very large catches. In 1946, however, we begin to see a different picture; and in 1947, when the weather was extremely bad at the beginning of the year, the fishing industry went through a difficult period. There was a revival in 1948, but a recession set in again in 1949, and we are in a position today where everyone in this Committee is agreed that the fishing industry is facing a very difficult situation indeed.
Why has the fishing industry reached serious and critical condition? The first and basic reason is that, while the price of fish has gone up at the port by something like two and a half times compared with the price paid before the war, the cost of the trawlers and of keeping them at sea—as was stated by the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby)—has gone up by between three and five times. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) said that it was our duty to state how each one of us found the position in our particular area, and we find it has gone up at least five times so far as the cost of keeping trawlers at sea is concerned. It is that great increase in the costs of the industry compared with the increase in the price of the fish landed, which is the first great problem facing the fishing industry.
Another great problem is that of the marketing of fish. We find a situation today in which the fishing industry, so far as its catching side is concerned, is in the hands of one Government Department, but from the moment the catch comes on shore it is under the control of another Government Department. I ask for the maximum co-operation between the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Food in this respect. There is a feeling, which I personally do not share and which I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will repudiate, that the Ministry of Food have done very well by the people on the shore, but the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries have not been able to help the men at sea so much. I hope that matter will be cleared up, and that the Government will be able to say that they have 1227 been able to help the fishermen to an equal extent. With very great diffidence, and at the risk of being told that I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I make one or two suggestions, as I think it is important in a discussion of this kind that we should pool our suggestions so that the maximum number of constructive proposals may emerge. My hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) suggested a white fish commission. Perhaps I might support what he said and suggest the same kind of thing, whether it is a white fish commission, or an industry board. I hope the Government will go into the suggestion and, if they do decide to act upon it, that sufficient power and teeth will be provided so that the job may be done adequately and successfully. This is no time for half-measures so far as the fishing industry is concerned.
There is a great opportunity in the fishing industry so far as research is concerned, and such a body might be able to help in this matter. Or if not, perhaps the question of research in the fishing industry might be dealt with by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research; and work in the way of chartering new vessels and other technical research might be undertaken, including the seeking of new fishing grounds and so on. I would suggest that some action might be taken with regard to the financing of the industry on similar lines to the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, because that is a great problem. I do not see any reason why the fishing industry should be any less trustworthy than farmers or, for that matter, film producers.
There is also the question of foreign landings. I do not share the alarm and fears expressed by hon. Members opposite regarding the importation of foreign fish. Perhaps that is because I am at heart a Free Trader. All we ask is to be able to compete on fair terms with the fish which comes in from abroad; that it should have exactly the same marketing process as the fish landed at our own ports, and that the Ministry of Food do not import fish from abroad and make a loss on it, whilst we are bringing fish into our own ports and standing the loss in the industry itself. A good deal of thought must be given 1228 to the fact that much of the fish imported from abroad is caught by people not enjoying conditions as good as those in our own industry. Attention should be given to what might be called " black fish " being imported into this country.
I join with hon. Members who suggest the removal of restrictions on the sale of fish courses in restaurants and canteens. Even though this is only a small matter, and can affect the sale of fish in this country only to a small extent, it is important, and anything which encourages the marketing of fish is something which should be pressed forward as speedily as possible.
The Government ought to give a lead in educating the public to appreciate the great value of fish as a food. It needs more than just an " eat more fish " campaign. The public should be educated in the right way of cooking fish and making it attractive. They should be asked to realise that fish is every bit as valuable a commodity as many of the other things publicised by Government advertising in the national Press. In that respect it might also help and be a valuable guide to housewives if publicity were given to the price paid for fish landed at the ports in terms which the housewife can follow—say in pence per pound. Such terms as " kits " and " stones " and so on, means little to the housewife. But if the price were expressed in pence per pound, she would be able to see and appreciate the difference between the price paid to the trawlermen and the price paid over the counter in fishmongers' shops.
With regard to marketing policy, it seems to me that the ultimate long-term solution to the problems facing the fishing industry cannot be resolved until fish is treated as a non-perishable foodstuff. Quick-freezing, as has already been pointed out by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), is of great assistance to the fishing industry. I hope the Government will be able to press forward with the provision of quick-freezing plants in our ports. The problem facing the fishing industry today seems to me to be very similar to the problem which faced the retail meat trade in the last century. Once we began to have imported meat in this country, we got used to the idea of frozen meat; and the butcher, instead of relying upon the 1229 slaughterhouse for meat and having to market it very quickly, was able to ring up and order the meat when he wanted it. We shall never arrive at a solution of the problem of the fishing industry until we are able to regard fish as a nonperishable in the same way as we regard meat today.
I should like to join in the appeal made by the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire when he urged the industry to speak with one voice. I hope the Government will give them a lead and assistance, because it is the dissensions and hesitations in the fishing industry which are apparently responsible for many problems facing it today. This is an ideal example of the failure of the system advocated by the party opposite and to which the whole country would return if they were returned to power.
While labour conditions in the industry are satisfactory on the whole, some thought might he given by the two sides of the industry to some provision which would give more security and less surtax to skippers and mates. It is a great tragedy to see these men, who have made big money, sitting on the walls in fishing ports, down and out and facing difficult days.
Inshore fishing has been dealt with in considerable detail already by hon. Members. Inshore fishermen will never be able to compete on prices with deep-sea fishers; but they have something which the trawler owners and the trawling industry have not. They are able to bring their fish very much more quickly ashore and to market it in much better condition. There will always be a demand for the high-quality fish that the inshore fishermen can bring in. In this respect, too, quick-freezing is of considerable value. Anyone who has sampled quick-frozen fish will agree that it is a considerable delicacy. I understand that a number of West End firms, like Fortnum and Masons, sell very large quantities of it. It is something which could be extended very widely, with considerable benefit to the industry as a whole.
I end with one request to the right hon. Gentleman and, with great diffidence, utter a warning to this Committee and to the country as a whole. As many hon. Members have said in this Debate, there has been a wide campaign by a 1230 number of national newspapers urging the housewife not to pay more for fish in the shops. The B.B.C. have led a campaign of that nature as well. The " Daily Mirror," which possesses the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country and is probably read by more housewives than any other paper, has played a leading part in the campaign.
§ Mr. Boothby
The " Daily Mirror ' does not possess the largest circulation. The paper with the largest circulation is the " News of the World."
§ Mr. Donnelly
I have read with great interest and entertainment the paper to which the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire is such a distinguished contributor and have no desire to detract from it. The largest circulation of any daily newspaper in the country would be a more accurate description of the circulation of the " Daily Mirror." I saw on Friday, 21st April—and it is typical of a great number of pronouncements in this paper—an injunction in an editorial headed " The Woman is the Boss." There is a sentence which is very damaging indeed. It says:The controlled prices have proved enough to earn the industry's living, and it would be more than fishy if they were not enough now.I should like the Minister, in replying to the Debate, to confirm or deny whether it is a fact that considerable subsidies were paid to the near-water fishing industry, because the controlled price was not enough to keep the industry going? Is it not true that the Government paid that subsidy rather than pass on the higher price of fish to the shops? Is not that a proof that the controlled price was not adequate? Is it not misleading to the housewife and damaging to the fishing industry if the housewife is urged to keep down the price below the economic level? The ultimate effect of such a campaign would be profoundly detrimental to one of the great basic and traditional industries of these islands.
The catching of fish is not a pleasant, easy or safe occupation. We had a salutary reminder of that in a Question I asked in the House yesterday, referring to the loss, with all hands, of a trawler from the port of Milford Haven. It is a hazardous, dangerous and dirty industry, and of supreme importance and value to 1231 the people of these islands in time of war. I hope the Government will not neglect the fishermen in time of peace.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Captain Orr (Down, South)
I ask the usual courtesy and indulgence of this Committe, this being the first time I have the honour of addressing it. I will do my best to stick to the rules and not indulge in anything too fractious or contentious. If I possibly can, I will try to prevent my blood from boiling, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby). As a possible inducement to hon. Members to treat me with kindness, I offer them an invitation to come to visit Northern Ireland.
It would not be a bad idea if hon. Members could say that, before they died or went into political oblivion, they had seen the leading and most loyal part of the United Kingdom. If any hon. Member cared to come with me I would take him round the Mountains of Mourne. It is possible that some hon. Members might have heard of the Mountains of Mourne. I know that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) has heard of them. He fought that constituency before I did. He was not successful. I nearly lost my deposit, having only a 16,000 majority, which is not considered a very large majority in Ulster now.
I would take such an hon. Member along the coast between the Mountains of Mourne and the sea. There he would find a number of fishing villages. All the way along the County Down coast there are villages where live a sturdy, independent race of people who have made their living from the sea as their fathers did before them. He would find that they have a very particular and urgent problem at the present time. Sometimes, if one examines a particular case, it throws light upon the difficulties of a whole industry.
We have a certain skipper-owned boat. One man owns a single boat and he has a crew of, say, six. He reckons, over a season, to make approximately £200 a week. That is not an under-estimate of the gross takings while controlled prices were in force. It is interesting to discover what happens to that £200. He has small expenses amounting to some £40. They are: fuel oil, £15; lubricating oil, £3 10s.; groceries, £6; National 1232 Insurance stamps, £3 4s. 7d.; harbour dues, £1 13s. 4d.; insurance of boat, £6; wireless hire and maintenance, £1 15s., and ice for approximately £3. I am not a good mathematician, but I think that comes to £43 2s. 11d. If we take a round figure of £40, he is left with £160 out of his £200. He has now got to divide that £160 into two. He has got to give £80 to his crew to divide between seven of them, which means that they get £11 8s. 6d. apiece. Of his £80 left, as it happens in Northern Ireland, the owner has got to send three-fifths to the Ministry og Commerce for Northern Ireland to pay off a loan which he had to help him build the boat in 1940.
He is left with two-fifths of £80, and I make that come to £32. Out of that sum he has got to buy rope and net and also keep his boat repaired. I am sure my hon. Friends the Members for East Aberdeenshire and Banff (Mr. Duthie) will bear me out when I say that rope for one of these boats—measuring 60 to 65 feet over all—costs about £20 per week. In 1945 it cost only about £10; £20 from £32 leave £12, out of which the man has got to pay for repairs and net. A seine net in 1945, if made up locally, cost about £32. It now costs approximately £66, and, as will be known by hon. Members who are familiar with inshore fishing, a seine net can last five or six months or only five or six hours.
No man can carry on in those conditions, and this is a very serious problem. I imagine that the same thing applies along the coast of Scotland, but it certainly is a very serious problem in Northern Ireland. If the Government are really interested in preserving this small inshore fishing industry, some method of fixing a ceiling to these prices must be found, because they cannot be allowed to go on rising; if they do, these men will be driven off the sea altogether.
The other end of the business should also be examined, and we in Northern Ireland are particularly interested, because 80 per cent. of the catch of one typical skipper in County Down comes to London. I am told that a merchant pays 5s. for a six-stone box in freight. Something should be worked out—I cannot suggest anything constructive—to equalise the freight charges. One cannot argue that proposition purely for fish alone; the principle of equalising freight charges 1233 cannot be wrong because if one puts a letter in an envelope and posts it, it costs 21d, whether it is sent to Piccadilly Circus or Belfast. The principle cannot be wrong. It is one of the advantages, of which there are very few, of having a nationalised service that something of that sort can be done. With the British railways under public control, we might get some advantage out of them if they could arrange for the freight costs not only of fish but of all sorts of other commodities to be evened out in order to assist Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I do not wish to detain the Committee too long. I would only say that it does not appear to me to be unreasonable to argue that a white fish marketing board should be set up. I think that such a board could help to control the imports of foreign fish, and I agree with the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire that some control over the import of foreign fish is necessary. Such a board would have the confidence of the industry and could negotiate with the Government.
It is surely not too contentious to ask whether the Government's policy is one of cheap fish from anywhere at any price, or whether the Government are genuinely interested in preserving this industry. If they are so interested, we are entitled to inquire what the Government are going to do about the cost of gear, the special freight problems of distant areas such as Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the restrictions of landings of foreign fish. I hope the Minister of Agriculture will be able to make some proposal in this regard. The situation is genuinely very serious. If these fine independent island folk are not to be driven off the seas which their ancestors have fished for generations, something must be done, and something must be done soon.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Mr. J. J. Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
It is always a great pleasure to have the honour of congratulating a maiden speaker. On this occasion it is an even greater pleasure because the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) managed to include in his maiden speech an invitation to those of us who are weary of the work in this House to breathe some of the invigorating air of Northern Ireland and go to the foothills of the mountains of Mourne.
1234 The hon. Member displayed a considerable knowledge of the fishing industry. and he also managed to convey to us the attractions of the constituency which he represents. I trust that we shall be able to hear from him on future occasions. as I am sure we shall all benefit from listening to such speeches.
I am aware that there are many Members still very anxious to take part in this very important Debate. It is an extremely important Debate, and I am gratified to know that so many hon. Members are so keen to speak. It would be a sad thought if any of us on these benches were to think for a moment that the fishing industry was to suffer from neglect and be cast aside in the way that it was cast aside during the years between the wars.
§ Mr. Robertson
I am glad to note that the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) nods his approval to that assertion. I presume that he will not contradict me when I say that of all the industries in this country, perhaps the fishing industry has been the most neglected during the 20 years between the wars. Hon. Members opposite are really a little belated in now making proposals which, if they had been carried out in the years between the wars, would have put the fishing industry in an absolutely strong and prosperous position. It is not too late, however, for hon. Members opposite to be converted to the idea of the introduction of some plan for the fishing industry.
I have thought that the general tone of the Debate has, perhaps, carried over post-election speeches or introduced pre-election speeches, because during the whole of the 20 years between the wars the party opposite did very little for the fishing industry. I speak against the background of rather sad memories of the conditions in the fishing industry in the years immediately after the First World War. I was born in a fishing community and spent my early days in the industry, and long before I had reached manhood I was earning my living on the old-type fishing boats. I, therefore, claim that I have a very considerable knowledge of the plight through which the industry passed in the years following the 1914-18 war. I learned about fishing the hard 1235 way. Like many of my contemporaries I came out of that war hoping to find a very good living in the industry, but we were very sadly disillusioned because the industry was soon in a perilous state.
I remember little coastal towns of Scotland, now perhaps hardly noticeable on the map, where there was a thriving industry—villages of independent and God-fearing people who were earning a very hard, honest living from the seas and who were very happy. The plight of the fishing industry—and it was a very important industry in those days, as it is now—was the direct result of the neglect of the party opposite in the years when so much could have been done for the fishermen. I am very anxious that this Government, or any other Government of the future, shall not fall into the same errors as the Governments in the years between the wars.
In view of the fact that many other hon. Members wish to speak in the Debate, I shall be brief, but I must say that it would be a pity if we merely regarded this industry as something which is of service only during peace time for the production of food, and not as something which is also related to the very important question of the defence of the nation in war. After all, the fishing industry has played a magnificient part in the defence of this country during the last two wars. In the last war there were just over 8,000 fishermen engaged in the Fighting Services, and, in addition to that, about 2,000 were engaged in the Merchant Service. I think that was no mean contribution, in skill and sea knowledge, to the country's sea power at a time when we were in desperate need of that power. If we desert the industry we may again run into the danger of losing this reservoir of skilled sea manpower.
Many of our fishermen were deprived of the opportunity of earning a good living in the fishing industry and they went to the big cities to find some less arduous and more secure employment. Indeed, many families left Scotland, in particular, and went to the Dominions, where they settled down and became thriving fishing communities. I believe that during those years between the wars we forgot that we lived on an island and 1236 we dispensed with the sea skill and resourcefulness of those men who have twice during our time so valiantly defended our shores against the threat of the enemy.
I think it would have been at least some salve to the conscience of the party opposite could they have claimed in this Debate that under successive Conservative Governments between the wars the fishing industry had received half the assistance during that period which has been rendered by the Labour Government since 1945. But the roofless houses, the derelict fishing yards, and the neglected coastal villages and towns are the grim answer on the position of the fishing industry between the wars.
I should like during the few minutes left to me to say, further, that despite the past struggles of the industry for existence during those lean years of the 'thirties the fishing industry is still one of the most important and largest industries in Scotland. From the waters around the shores of Scotland fishermen produce about a third of the total landings in the United Kingdom. What this means in terms of the economy of our country can be shown in figures. Its value is equal to £2 5s. 7d. per head of the population of Scotland, as compared with 14s. 5d. per head of the population in England and Wales. It will be seen, therefore, that the fishing industry in Scotland is a vitally important and tremendously big factor in the whole economy of Scotland. In most cases, the fishing industry of Scotland is carried on by small boats, very often as family concerns. Over 60 per cent. of the herring catch landed in the United Kingdom since the war was landed in Scottish ports. In the period between January and September of 1948 about 250,000 tons of fish, which realised just over £10 million, was landed in Scotland.
This, I think, has been made possible very largely because of the assistance which the Government, since the end of the last war, have rendered to the fishing industry, especially in the acquiring of new boats, and by assuming responsibility for marketing, in so far as the herring industry is concerned. The Herring Industry Board has new powers under the 1948 Act. The Board has, I think, tackled its job with vigour and considerable success. The first great problem was 1237 to ensure that in future there would not be any more dumping of edible fish—that heartbreaking operation which was such a feature of the period between the wars. Something which I myself will never forget was the experience of landing 100 crans of good herring and then finding that we had to go back to dump them in the sea again.
The Herring Industry Board has prevented that happening since it has been in existence, and it has been achieved largely by the policy of developing new outlets for herring catches, which make it less dependent on exports. In this field of Government enterprise the Board are capable of doing a good job in the development of oil and meal production, and I trust that will be done to a greater extent in the future. Apart from the serious prevailing cost of running the dual purpose boats and the high cost of gear, I think that today the herring fishing industry is in a better position than it ever was, certainly in the inter-war period, because there is today an organisation for the establishment of guaranteed prices and for marketing the catches.
On the white fish side of the industry, in my considered view—and I am glad to note that almost every speaker, on both sides of the Committee, has made this same plea—unless the Government are able to extend to the white fish section the same form of assistance and management that has been given to the Herring Industry Board we shall be back to where we were in the years between the two world wars. Clearly, this nation cannot afford to allow such an important food producing industry to be regarded as other than of vital importance to our island economy. I therefore suggest to the Government that the first, and perhaps the most urgent, need is the setting up of a white fish board. I know that has been said by almost every speaker, and I am glad to agree with the views thus expressed so widely in this Debate.
I would not attempt to outline in detail the functions of such a board, other than to say that, obviously, its first function should be the organising of the industry in such a way that the present wasteful extravagance between primary producer and consumer should be overcome and eliminated. That is probably the greatest burden the industry has to bear. Second, it is most important that those appointed 1238 to the board should have personal experience of this very intricate and perhaps most complex of all industries. Third, the board should have fairly wide powers; it should be responsible to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, and should be concerned mainly with production rather than with marketing. It may be that the Ministry of Food should under take the marketing side. Fourth, the board should have power to acquire and run long-range trawlers equipped with modern processing plant. Finally, I most earnestly urge the Government to regard the fishing fleet as an integral part of our defence system.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Osborne (Louth)
I promise to be brief and I hope I shall speak to the point. I think it would be a strange thing if fishing were to be discussed in this Committee without a reference from Grimsby which is the primary fishing port in the country. I want to direct my remarks first to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, because I want him to give me an answer.
About six weeks ago, representatives of the fishing industry interviewed the Director of Animal Feedingstuffs with regard to the de-control of fish that goes to the fishmeal factories, and no promise could be obtained—that de-control would be exercised for that fish. I want to know why? Twenty-five per cent., roughly, of the total catch for this country—I am not talking about the few herring about which we have heard so much today—goes to the fishmeal factories. The Government say that they have decontrolled the industry. They have not. They have decontrolled only 75 per cent. of the industry. The other 25 per cent. which goes to the fishmeal factories is still controlled at a price less than the normal market price.
If the industry is to recover sufficiently to face the squalls which lie ahead, the 25 per cent. which now goes to the fishmeal factories must also be decontrolled. My friends estimate that for the past year it would have given the industry something like an extra £500,000 if the decontrol which has been allowed in regard to the fish that goes to the ordinary market had also been allowed for the fish that goes for fishmeal. I want to know from the Minister why the Director of Animal Feedingstuffs refused to give an answer.
1239 Secondly, speaking as many hon. Members have done for their constituencies, and I am speaking for the biggest fishing port in the country—[Laughter.] Hon. Members need not laugh because that is quite true—I am asked to say that with regard to the flat rate of transport, the Grimsby section of the trade are entirely opposed to its reimposition. It is calculated that of the white fish which is brought into this country something like 73 per cent. comes into the two Humber ports. The flat rate last year cost Hull and Grimsby about £1½ million more than they would have had to pay for normal economic transport charges. The people of the Humber are tired of subsidising Scottish fish.
§ Mr. Osborne
They are tired of subsidising Scottish fish coming into English ports to compete with our own fish. I have been asked by my constituents to make that point of view known. They feel very strongly that the flat rate in any circumstances ought not to be brought back.
My third point is that at the present time in Grimsby there are 39 trawlers laid up. The industry is faced with what some of its members consider disaster, and certainly with considerable unemployment. If any plea will move hon. Members opposite, I am sure that one will, and quite rightly so. What they complained about is that, while we have trawlers unemployed—and the number is going to be added to—the Government in the last 18 months have allowed the Government of Iceland to come to the City of London and borrow Eli million with which they have built, or are building, 10 absolutely up-to-date trawlers with the money we are providing for them, in order that their fish may come into our market and compete with the fish that we catch.
§ The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. Thomas Williams)
To whom is the hon. Member referring when he says that " we " are providing the money?
§ Mr. Osborne
I was coming to that. In the normal prospectus issued in July, 1949, it states that theconsent of His Majesty's Treasury has been obtained to this issue.1240 It would not have been allowed without that permission. The Government cannot get away from the fact that they gave permission for this to happen. Furthermore, according to this prospectus, vetted and passed by the Capital Issues Committee, which can act only with the sanction of the Treasury, there is also this provision:The Government of Iceland further undertake to procure that the sterling proceeds of the catches of these 10 trawlers shall be surrendered for the yearly servicing of this debt.The Government allowed the Icelandic Government to borrow money in this country and to have ships built with a priority over English ships so that their catches may be sold in English markets in competition with our own catches. I have been asked to protest against this. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the importations of fish from Iceland before the war were in the nature of 500,000 cwts., whereas last year the figure was no less than 2,300,000 cwts.
This is allowed by a Government that prides itself on having cured the problem of unemployment, but the Government will not cure unemployment in Grimsby in this way. This prospectus says that the export of Icelandic fish to this country last year was to the value of £4,400,000, to which there is a footnote to depress still further those interested in the fishing industry.In addition to the above, the British Government in 1948 bought fish for Germany to the value of ill million.My constituency says that instead of this Socialist Government giving this high priority to Iceland, to borrow money and have ships built in our shipyards, it would have been much better to have stopped the importation of so much foreign fish and to have given our people a fairer chance. The Secretary of State for Scotland might say to me that this Icelandic position is part of the over-all American plan against Communism and, therefore, it has got to be fitted in; we are only a pawn in a much bigger field. It may be so, but if it is, we have to explain to our people at home that they are being sacrificed.
I have here a statement from Mr. Carol Ross, one of the leading trawler owners in Grimsby. When speaking to the 1241 Chamber of Commerce annual meeting on 31st March last, he said:Imports from Iceland are five times what they were before the war_ The fishing industryspeaking for Grimsby again—is in for a major crisis unless something is done about imports very quickly. The general public of this country was invited, with the blessing of this present Government, to subscribe £1,250,000 for the building of a further 10 vessels.I hope hon. Gentlemen opposite will listen to this, because some of them doubted what I said before:You can imagine how one feels, as I did a fortnight ago, when one learned that a licence for £25,000 had been turned down.The Government's representatives recently turned down the application by a Grimsby firm for a licence to build a trawler, and not so much earlier they issued a licence for 10 trawlers to be built for the Icelanders. We think this policy is wrong and that it ought to be altered. We hope the Government, on second thoughts, will think so, too. I hope that what I have been saying has been material and to the point.
§ Mr. Osborne
Mr. Carol Ross finished up by saying:When they ask usthey " being His Majesty's Govern-mentabout buying Icelandic fish, we advised them to buy none, or very little. They completely ignored the advice and bought twice as much as they had been buying previously. They were left with some for which they paid 13s. 6d., and which they are now offering back to the trade at 7s.If the Government are proud of the way they have handled the industry in recent years, the points I have advanced will take a lot of explaining.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mrs. Castle (Blackburn, East)
The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) said that it would be most unfortunate if a fishing Debate took place in this Committee and the voice of Grimsby was not heard. It would be equally unfortunate if a Debate on fishing took place in this Committee and the voice of the consumer was not heard. I have sat patiently most of the afternoon listening to one fishing port after another putting 1242 forward its point of view, and I have been emboldened to intervene very briefly to put the point of view of what is rather important to the fishing industry as a whole, namely, that of the receiving end of the business.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) is not in his place, because in the very short time at my disposal I wanted to address the major part of my remarks to his speech. I have witnessed this afternoon the most remarkable transformation scene on his part that has ever been seen outside a pantomime. At 3.45 p.m. in the House today we had a little rumpus, and the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire joined in the howls of hon. Members opposite and the expressions of righteous indignation when the Minister of Transport said he had decided to make it possible for the British Transport Commission to cover the cost of production of our British railway services. Hon. Gentlemen opposite were staggered and horrified at the suggestion that it might be necessary to enable the British railways to cover costs which we were shown had risen spectacularly—timber four times, steel about twice and coal three times—and we were told by hon. Members opposite that this was entirely due to the fact that it was a nationalised industry.
Yet at four o'clock the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire was wringing our hearts with a picture of the fishing industry unable to cover its cost of production, which he said had risen by four or five times, and he demanded that the Government should do something to enable the fishing industry to do so. He even said that he was prepared to demand a direct subvention for the industry from the pockets of the taxpayer. I am in agreement with the demand that the industry should be allowed to cover its costs of production, but I suggest to the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire that what is sauce for the private enterprise goose is sauce for the nationalised gander.
I listened very attentively to his speech, but I should have been more sympathetic if I had been able to detect any reference in it to where the consumer fitted into the picture. I am glad to see that the hon. Member has returned to his place. I am afraid that I have been " having a go " at him in his absence, but I naturally 1243 assumed that he would have sat in this Committee as long as I have done and that he would be in his place when I started my speech. However, I have not finished with him.
I should have had greater sympathy with his demand for restoring the viability of the fishing industry if he had given any indication of consideration for the point of view of the consumer and any indication of alarm at the cost of living aspect of the problem. Here, again, the contrast between the performance of the hon. Member at four o'clock and his attitude at 3.45 was rather marked, because we are now assured that, although, since decontrol, fish prices have risen a little, it is nothing to worry about because it is a mere 3d. a pound on fish costing 2s. a lb. Yet that is a price increase of 12½ per cent., and at 3.45 the hon. Member was expressing indignation at the request of the Minister of Transport for an increase in railway charges which would mean an addition of a half of one per cent. to the cost of the goods transported.
Let us be logical and uniform in these matters, and let us express some anxiety about a cost of living increase of 12½ per cent. in the price of some of the commodities which the housewife has to purchase. Even that price increase is a comparatively reasonable situation com, pared with the one which obtained when decontrol was first introduced. Everybody is rightly congratulating the housewife on her achievement in bringing down the cost of fish in the shops by her strike. I also want to congratulate the housewife upon that.
I would point out, incidentally, two rather interesting facts which emerge from the results of decontrol. I have been very interested to watch the British Press in the last two weeks urging the fishing industry to prove that decontrol will give as square a deal to the consumer as price control used to do, which is a pretty clear indication that price control has been highly efficient and highly effective and in the interests of the housewife, a matter which some of the " set-the-people-free " gentlemen opposite are not always willing to admit.
The second rather interesting conclusion to be drawn from the results of the last few days is the fact that this buying 1244 strike would not have been possible or successful if the general food situation in this country had not been a great deal better than hon. Members opposite have ever been prepared to admit, thus enabling the housewife to dispense with the fish and to manage none the less to provide sufficiently varied menus.
However, I suggest that de-control has not solved the problem. The Press is suggesting that prices will continue to fall. Personally I think that when the furore has died down, when this has ceased to be a news story, we shall find the opposite happening; that insidiously prices will creep up again, and nobody will pay a great deal of attention to a mere extra penny here or there. After all, it is not a nationalised industry, so price increases in it are not news.
If, however, the prices still fall, then clearly that does not solve the problem either. After all the trawler owners and producers in this industry have wanted a higher price. They wanted de-control in order to get a higher price, and the reason is because they claim that the same situation is occurring in this industry as has occurred in others, that on the one side the producer is not getting an adequate remuneration for his product, for his efforts and hardships which are greatly appreciated by all hon. Members, and on the other the housewife cannot afford the prices charged. It is no solution to the problem, either of the trawler owner or the housewife, to have a situation in which there is sky-rocketing of prices, a housewives' strike and the fish being left to moulder on the slabs.
I suggest that it is " Alice Through The Looking Glass " politics to say what advocates of the housewives' strike have been saying, that the only way to keep the price of fish within reasonable limits is for no one to eat the fish. That, carried to extremes, would suggest that our problems would be solved if we did not eat at all. Therefore, in the few minutes left to me I suggest to the Government that they cannot abdicate their responsibility to the housewife by saying to her that the only way she can get her fish at a reasonable price is by not buying at all. How long and how often has the housewife to refuse to buy?
The difficulty of this situation is that the housewife, if she is to be the person who has to produce reasonable prices for 1245 the fish, will always have to refuse to buy just when her need is greatest. It is one of the interesting facets of private enterprise that it is not only an increase in the cost of production which sends up the price, but it is demand which sends up the price as well. It is demand, unrelated to any increase in the cost of production, which sends up prices since, as any housewife knows, there is always a mysterious rise in the price of her fruit, vegetables and fish between Friday night and Saturday morning, because the shopkeeper knows that on Saturday she is buying in for the weekend and has to buy in for it. Unless there is some check and control, the mere existence of the housewife's need sends up the price.
The housewife is becoming tired of these conspiracies against her purse. She should note some of the remarks of the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire and the fact that his remedy for this price problem is to make the rest of her food dearer. The complaint of the hon. Member was that fish is having to compete with subsidised commodities. The housewife should remember when she considers this matter that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the party which is committed to a policy of removing the subsidies. No doubt that would be a very nice Tory remedy for the problems of the fishing industry—to raise the prices of the present subsidised commodities and, therefore, to enable fish to be more competitive, although hardly more acceptable to the housewife.
§ Mrs. Castle
I am only sorry that I have managed to catch your eye so late in the day, Sir Charles, because I am only at the point of developing a speech which contains a full answer to the hon. Member. Being provoked, however, let me remind him that before the war, in the 1930's, when the various inquiries were carried out, fish was already too dear in relation to other foodstuffs, when no food subsidy scheme was operated by the Government.
Let me remind the hon. Member of what the Duncan Report said in 1936:Fish is in fact uncomfortably near the border-line of dearness. The system of marketing from port to shop appears to ensure the worst of both worlds, for fish is 1246 definitely dear when supplies are scarce, and, in many areas, it cannot be called cheap when supplies are plentiful.My whole point, therefore, is that the problem of the fishing industry has not been created by the fact that the Government have succeeded so well in keeping our basic foods cheap. The fishing problem goes much deeper than that, and I make this request to the Government tonight. I am not opposing the de-control which has taken place, because there are severe limitations to the value of maximum-prices control. But we cannot leave things just at that and sit back and say that there is nothing else to be done. In effect, we are back where we were in 1936, when every expert on the industry —the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire will know this better than I, because I do not claim to be an expert on the industry—knew that things were not going right, that quality was bad and that prices were too high; and I want the Government, in their future considerations, to look into this question with a view to regulating the industry, in the interests of the producer on the one hand, not forgetting the consumer on the other hand, and on the good Socialist basis of expanding supplies while giving a square deal to the housewife.
§ 9.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Law (Hull, Haltemprice)
I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) will not take it amiss if I suggest to her that if she could have seen the faces of those on her own Front Bench while she was speaking she would have understood the point of the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby). I think I can assure her that the speech she has made tonight has, at least, done one thing, and that is to ensure that in every seaport throughout the land the votes of the fishermen and of those dependent upon them will be cast for that party which, in the past, has cared for fishermen
§ Mr. Law
The Debate has been distinguished by a number of first-rate maiden speeches—by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Howard), my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Hull, North (Mr. W. R. Hudson) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). I have no doubt whatever that in their respective divisions their constituents will he congratulating themselves that they are so well represented in this House. It is a particular pleasure to me to pay this tribute to my hon. Friends, because my own maiden speech, which I made 20 years ago, was on the subject of fish. In that 20 years I have learned more about fishing industry than even the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey).
§ Mr. Law
That is as may be. I think hon. Members will agree that the standard of speaking of new entrants has risen in the most remarkable way in this Parliament. In this Debate there has been general agreement about the importance of the fishing industry, not only as an economic enterprise, to this country. There has been general agreement that it is the duty of the Government to foster the fishing industry today just as, my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire, pointed out, it was the duty of Mr. Secretary Cecil 300 years ago. I think also, in spite of the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East, that there is general agreement that the fishing industry is affected today by one of those periodic 1248 crises which have affected it throughout its history.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington said he hoped we could give the fishing industry the same kind of assurance that agriculture now has, and went on to say that that was extremely difficult. All of us who have been connected with the industry for a long time realise that of all industries, the fishing industry is most liable to fluctuations of demand and supply and that the power and mystery of the sea, if nothing else, make it an extremely unsuitable subject for the kind of economic planning which is dear to the hearts of hon. Members opposite. The fishing industry has always been subject to hazards of storm and tempest. When, to these natural hazards, we add the artificial hazards that have been caused by dislocations arising out of the war; by the mismanagement of the Ministry of Food—I refer in particular to the insane bulk-purchase of frozen fish and the equally insane purchase by the Ministry of Japanese pilchards, to which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives referred—the helpless and supine attitude of Ministers in face of the importation of foreign fish and the heavy burden of taxation which afflicts that industry as all other industries, we can realise how very serious is its plight today.
I wish to say a word about taxation. The fishing industry, more than any other industry in the country, depends upon adventurers and on the spirit of adventure. It has always been an industry where men have gone out and got the fish, got the markets, or got the fish and lost the markets; sometimes they have done well, sometimes badly, but when they have had to face these crises before, whether they were big trawling companies or inshore fishermen around our coasts, they have always had some fat to live on. They have always had something put by from the past.
§ Mr. Law
Did the hon. and gallant Member listen to the Chancellor's Budget speech, in which he explained to people like the hon. and gallant Member that he had taken all the profits and that there was nothing left to take? In the light of what I have said, it is not surprising that the fishing industry is faced with a crisis of the first magnitude, and that all around our coasts, in the herring ports, in the inshore fishing ports, the near water ports and the distant water ports, there are thousands of fishermen, and many thousands of others dependent upon them, who are looking to the future with fear and apprehension, very largely, as we on this side of the Committee believe, as a result of the lack of policy of His Majesty's Government.
§ Mr. Law
To these men, the fishermen of England, Scotland and Wales, what a mockery the Government's claim to have provided full employment is beginning to sound.
I do not wish to take up much time by repeating all the points we on this side of the Committee have made about the policy which ought to be pursued in the future. We hope that the Foreign Office will pursue with more vigour than it has yet done the full achievement of the Convention about over-fishing. I hope that the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries will answer the questions which my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) put to him about fish meal. The main points of that policy, as has been clear from the Debate, are the re-establishment of the White Fish Commission and the establishing of a marketing scheme. The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East, said that none of us on this side of the Committee had any interest in the position of the consumer. That is not true. One of the reasons, indeed the principal reason, why we want a marketing scheme is to improve the quality of fish and to increase the consumption of fish.
One hon. Member asked what kind of a commission we wanted. It is perfectly clear that we want something on the lines of the Commission which was appointed under the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1938, which was suspended during the war and then abolished by the present Govern- 1250 ment. The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Robertson)—I will pay the party opposite this much of a tribute—was the only Member to trot out in this Debate that old red herring about the 20 years between the wars. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East did.
§ Mr. Law
Then I was paying a compliment which was entirely undeserved. That was the main theme of the speech of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian. I can assure him that in this connection at any rate it is wearing rather thin. He asked why did we not recommend between the wars the kind of steps which we are recommending in the Committee tonight. The answer is that we did recommend them between the wars, and gave effect to them. If he will look at the Sea Fishing Industry (Regulation of Landing) Order, 1933, and the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1938, and read the Debates in this House on those subjects he will, if he is a fair-minded man, agree that we recommended exactly what we are recommending tonight, and that we had gone a long way towards giving effect to them when the outbreak of war put a stop to them.
§ Mr. J. J. Robertson
if that is all the Opposition is now recommending I suggest that it will be as completely futile as before the war.
§ Mr. Law
I have not the time to follow the hon. Member, because I wish to give the Minister full time to reply. But if the hon. Gentleman will look back at what happened before the war in connection with that Order and that Act he will find that it was by no means completely futile.
I wish to say a word to the Secretary of State for Scotland in particular about the question of foreign importations. We on this side of the Committee do not want to prohibit the importation of foreign caught fish. We do not want to cause embarrassment to other countries, whether Iceland or any other country with whom we have a trading relationship. But we do maintain that it is impossible to obtain any stable price level so far as fish is concerned, or to 1251 undertake any campaign to increase the consumption of fish, or to improve the marketing, unless there is some reasonable stability about the supply. The Secretary of State for Scotland, who recently vacated an office which, as he knows, I used to hold, pointed out that the position regarding Iceland was one of great difficulty because Iceland was a member of the sterling area and came in the Marshall Aid arrangements. For that reason, he said, it was impossible for us to take any steps about the importation of Icelandic fish. If I have mis represented the right hon. Gentleman—
In connection with the sterling area, I was replying to the objection to the lending process.
§ Mr. Law
Yes, the lending process. But I do not accept the view of the right hon. Gentleman about the lending process, because it certainly was constitutionally possible for the Treasury to stop this loan. I believe it was unnecessary, even from the point of view of maintaining the Icelandic economy, to permit it.
§ Mr. Law
I do not think it sensible to try to ruin the fishing industry in order to develop our shipbuilding programme, and if hon. Members opposite have no better suggestions I think they would do better to keep them for another occasion.
The point I would put to the Government is this. The catching of fish by Iceland have increased since before the war out of all knowledge. They have built from their sterling balances 32, I think it is, modern trawlers. Under this loan they are to build 10 more. There will be 42 of these immensely powerful fish killing machines at the disposal of Iceland, which will give their fishing industry a catching capacity far and away ahead of anything they have had before. I suggest to hon. Members opposite that by standing by and allowing this to happen, by taking no steps to protect British fishermen, they have done not only an immense disservice to British fishermen but, in the long run, are acquiescing in a disservice to Iceland.
I am quite sure that the gearing of the Icelandic fishing industry today is far too high. It is supporting a fishing industry 1252 which is extravagant in every respect, and to encourage Iceland in this process will not only lead to absolute disaster for our own fishermen here, but, in the end, will lead to collapse for the Icelandic industry as well.
I hope the Minister will tell us tonight that, with his colleagues, he will take steps not to prohibit foreign landings but to regulate them in the interests of the British fishing industry, of the British consumer and, in the final analysis, of Iceland herself. I greatly fear that, if the right hon. Gentleman cannot give us this assurance, we can only go back to our constituents and tell them this great industry, one of the greatest in the country, will be the first major casualty of the Socialist Government and, I am afraid, not the last.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. Thomas Williams)
I have listened with very great interest to this Debate. I should like to compliment hon. Members in all parts of the Committee on their wide knowledge of the industry and to say that I fully share their anxiety to see this basic industry placed on a firm foundation.
I am sure the right hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) would not disagree when I tell the Committee that it was never on that firm foundation from 1919 to 1939. It is perfectly true that the Conservative Governments of the inter-war period did things for the industry, but even in 1939 it was nearly a bankrupt industry. Therefore, to work hard with no results is perhaps no better than not working at all.
I was sorry to find in the latter stages of this Debate that hon. Members opposite turned the discussion into a sort of political campaign. After all, as the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) said in his speech earlier, the fishing industry to some extent does compare with mining and agriculture as one of the basic industries. If it must regarded as a political question, then I would say that if the right hon. Member for Haltemprice, thinks that one speech from the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle), is going to turn the fishermen, their wives, and daughters and all the rest to the Conservative Party for our failure, he must 1253 be a very great optimist. Especially must he be an optimist if he has not forgotten what the Conservative Party's fishing policy was at the last election. This is what they said in their pamphlet " The Right Road for Britain; The Conservative Party's Statement of Policy ":We shall also enact legislation to enable the industry to set up a White Fish Marketing Board….That is their policy. They had never been able to achieve it through the ages, yet that is the only policy they laid before the electors during the recent election. I am prepared to take my stand on what this Government has done and what Conservative Governments before the war failed to do, and no one knows that better than the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire.
As everyone knows, we have just passed through a very exciting time in this industry where the exuberance of certain coastal merchants led to incautious buying. There were too many buyers chasing too few fish and prices rose very steeply. They collapsed equally suddenly when retailers and housewives went on strike. It remains to be seen whether prices have now reached a level at which they are likely remain for long periods, giving a sense of stability to the industry.
I should like to issue a warning. There are so many factors affecting the production side of the industry that variations in price, due to fluctuations in supply, must inevitably occur from time to time. I hope that neither newspapers nor the B.B.C. will take undue advantage of a particular incident without knowing all the facts of the situation. I am sure that the majority of those in the industry wish for nothing better than to maintain prices at a reasonable level, providing a fair return for the producers and reasonable prices for the consumers, while at the same time encouraging consumers to consume as much fish as possible.
Since the first hectic days of de-control, it would appear that the slump in distant water fish prices which started last November is unfortunately continuing, and the prospect for vessels engaged in that type of fishing is certainly not encouraging at the moment. The full effect of the increased capacity of fishing fleets, both our own and those in foreign countries, has not yet really been felt. It 1254 would appear on the face of things as they are now, with a wider variety of food available to the population, that large quantities of cod and kindred species will be unsold even at very low prices unless the consumer can be induced to resume buying as she was buying until quite recently.
The British distant water fishing fleet consists of the most modern and largest vessels in the industry. When prices were good—and they were good for a long time—they made very substantial profits indeed; but equally when prices fell rapidly as they have done recently, they also made just as large losses, and I fear that those losses are being made at the moment. When prices were controlled it was argued that controls destroyed all incentive to land high-quality fish. Fortunately there is an indication that greater care is now being taken by the industry in handling fish, and the quality has to some extent improved. I hope the industry in its own interest, will make every conceivable effort to keep fish in the best possible condition until it finally reaches the consumer.
There are very special difficulties with fish caught in distant waters because of the length of time between actual catching and landing and because the fish is of coarser quality. The problem of quality catches in near and middle waters is not so acute because of shorter voyages. As has been brought out in the several speeches in this Debate, the problems are high operating costs and the high cost of gear. I shall refer to them later. But a major factor is also the scarcity of fish in home fishing grounds. Because of this, as a temporary expedient the Government provided a subsidy of 10d. per stone on fish caught by inshore, near and middle water trawlers from December, 1948. This, I fear, did not wholly remove the losses that were then being incurred. I think we shall have to wait, since it is only 12 days since prices were decontrolled, to see whether a free market for high-quality fish will enable fishermen to operate at a profit.
While other factors intervene with regard to inshore fishermen, they are very much in the same position as the near and middle water fishermen, and the same difficulties of high costs of operating and high costs of gear are their major trouble. Looking at the white fish industry generally, landings in the first 1255 three months of this year tell their own story, and I hope every hon. Member will take it to heart. These amounted to 160,000 tons landed for the first quarter of this year, or 480 tons more than the first quarter of 1949, but the actual returns were £781,000 less, or a 10 per cent. drop in the revenue. Of course, costs have risen rather than fallen during the same period.
It will be seen, therefore, that, apart from some very radical reorganisation, either carried through by the industry itself or helped by some outside source, the industry will certainly have difficulty in carrying on. This, therefore, is a challenge to private enterprise. If I accept the views expressed by hon. Members in all parts of the Committee, however, there is small hope of the industry putting its own house in order, and I think that has been brought out by every committee or investigation which ever took place into the industry.
The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire, who opened the Debate, urged the Government to revive the White Fish Commission, which has been suspended since the outbreak of war. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice, attaches some importance to that, but my view, for what it is worth, is that if we revive the White Fish Commission with the same powers as those given to it in the 1938 Act, it would be worse than useless. I will explain why I think that. The powers given to the White Fish Commission were based upon the assumption of a very large measure of unity within the industry—utterly unwarranted by any experience of or any report on this industry that I have ever seen. The White Fish Commission was authorised to prepare schemes for marketing fish, but no scheme could operate unless it was approved by a very large majority of the sector of the trade involved. In other words, if 34 per cent. of those engaged in that sector voted against it, no marketing scheme could come into operation. If only 50 per cent of those engaged in that sector voted, but 17 per cent. voted against the marketing scheme, there would be no marketing scheme. I think, therefore, that the 1938 White Fish Commission would have been worse than useless.
1256 The 1938 Act provided for the setting up of five marketing schemes, all independent bodies dealing with small sectors of the industry, with no proper correlation of their activities at all. There could, for example, have been separate boards for producers, wholesalers, fish friers, fishmongers and fishermen's cooperative societies. Curers, smokers, driers, canners were left out in the cold. As I say, the Commission would have done little to bring cohesion into the industry, but it would have done much to preach the divergency so harmful to the industry in the past. Now the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire suggests that we should revive it. The right hon. Member for Hull, Haltemprice, echoes those sentiments and pats himself on the chest, declaring that if we will only do that, hey presto, all will be well with this industry.
I am satisfied that merely to revive the White Fish Commission—which, by the way, we have not abolished; it is still in a state of suspended animation—would do nothing to help this industry back to a state of prosperity. I was much more attracted by the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), who suggested a White Fish Industry Board with appropriate powers to do the job, with some sort of direction—which right hon. and hon. Members opposite usually shirk—for unless something is superimposed, as the Duncan Committee suggested, some really executive powers given to an independent board, nothing will happen which is of fundamental value to this industry. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said, we are willing to examine any constructive suggestions which have been made this afternoon—suggestions either of a commission or a board for production or distribution, or both, always bearing in mind the vital importance of the industry and, of course, the interests of the consumers in this country. We shall not turn down any fair, constructive suggestion that has been made or that may be made which may help this industry.
§ Mr. Boothby
There is one question I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman. This is important. Has he got something in mind for the white fishing industry analogous to the Herring Industry Board?
§ Mr. Williams
I said that I am more attracted by the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft—
§ Mr. Williams
—who made the suggestion that a white fish industry board might be set up, to see what it would be possible for it to do, and what proper powers might be given to it. We shall turn down no suggestion, but I am certainly not attracted by the White Fish Commission, with its useless powers given by the 1938 Act.
Over-fishing in the industry has been referred to by several hon. Members in the course of the Debate. I am fully aware of the evil effects of over-fishing in the near and middle waters and inshore fisheries. The fall in stocks of fish has not been arrested since the end of the war. In the North Sea, vessels caught 26 cwts. per day's absence in 1947, 23 cwts. in 1948, and 20 cwts. in 1949. While this is above the level of 1938, the position certainly causes us considerable anxiety, and I am convinced that, unless and until the Convention which this Government initiated in 1946 is fully signed and ratified by all the contracting parties, our anxiety is bound to grow. In those areas where the hake fishery is carried on, the position is no better. The quantity caught per day's absence in 1947 was 21 cwts. but only 10 cwts. in 1949.
The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire said we ought to turn on the heat. Speaking in a purely personal capacity, I should like to turn it on in my own sweet way, but I need not explain what my own sweet way is. Four countries, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Iceland, have not yet ratified the Convention. Recently the Government invited those countries that have ratified the Convention to put it into force forthwith, and we, of course, would join them; but only Norway, Sweden and Denmark were prepared to do so, while the Netherlands Government refused until the Belgian Government agreed.
That is what we seem to get out of international agreements—no agreement at all. Meantime we can only continue our pressure on these various Governments to put the Convention into force. Hon. Members will be aware that they pressed upon me very urgently some 1258 months ago not to apply the Convention to our trawlers until other Governments did likewise. They pressed me, and I fell for their blandishments, and we are still in that position. But we shall continue to press for this Convention, and I do not mind what sort of heat the Foreign Secretary may bring to bear.
The question of the high cost of gear was referred to by several speakers as another factor in the high cost of catching fish these days. I know that prices have risen considerably since 1939. It is difficult to control those engaged in private enterprise from forcing prices up here, there, and everywhere for good or not so good reasons. It is difficult to give the average in the increase of costs because of the great diversity of types of gear used, but herring drift nets, for example, have increased by 300 per cent., while sisal rope has gone up by 280 per cent. The cotton yarn in herring drift nets costs £5 today compared with £1 in 1939. Sisal fibre is bought by merchants in a free market in East Africa, and it is seven times the price it was in 1939. The Government have no control over that free market. This increased price is not the result of bulk purchase. It is the result of a free market
§ Mr. Williams
I thought we were talking about fish. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening carefully, he would have heard his hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire give him the price of coal, both pre-war and post-war, so I need not repeat his figures and waste the time of the Committee.
§ Mr. Williams
It has been suggested that we should re-impose the pre-war quotas on imported fish. In 1938, foreign imports were 53,000 tons, or 6.6 per cent. of our total supplies. By 1947 they had risen to 181,000 tons, or 19.2 per cent. of our total supplies. Who on the Opposition benches would in 1947, with a scarcity of food all round, have imposed restrictions upon the imports of fish, or indeed of any other foods that we could have obtained? I am perfectly certain 1259 that the Opposition would have shirked that duty back in 1947. By 1949, foreign imports had dropped to 16.9 per cent. of our total supplies; and for the first three months of 1950 they had dropped a further 20,000 tons. It remains to be seen, bearing in mind existing prices, whether this fall will continue.
I ought to say that the Norwegian Government, recognising the position, plan to produce more salt fish, which means a reduction in the quantity of cod available for the British market. Since 1946 the imports of foreign-caught fish have been subject to a series of agreements between His Majesty's Government and the Governments of exporting countries. Ceilings were placed on the quantities of boxed fish imported into this country. In 1949, the ceiling was fixed at 70,000 tons, but only 43,000 tons were landed so that that could not have had any material effect upon the economics of the industry. These arrangements, however, came to an end shortly before the date of de-control. Boxed fish generally is of a high quality, and it is high quality fish which has helped to sell the not so high quality fish in this country, and I am not sure that we ought to keep it all out.
I was asked a question about the increase in the price of cotton. This may ultimately have an effect upon the price of herring cotton fishing nets, but it is impossible for me to say at the moment just what the change may be. I was also asked about the duty on fuel oil as applied to trawlers, and so on. Well, it does not apply to trawlers at all, because even today they get a rebate for the petrol they use. One hon. Member argued that there was little or no co-operation between the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Food, or any other Government Department.
§ Mr. Williams
I can give the lie to that in 1950, since the Ministry of Food, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Scottish Office are co operating at this moment to see whether or not we can work out a real scheme for the fishing industry.
§ Mr. Williams
Well, if it is for the first time and we produce a scheme, it is worth bearing in mind that it will be one scheme better than was ever produced by any Conservative Government in the past.
The hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) asked one or two questions, the major one being, I think, on the Petrol Duty. I have already explained that that does not apply to trawlers and to fishermen generally. His other point was to argue that we should have a long-term plan for inshore fishing, or fishing generally, comparable with that for agriculture. Well, the two industries are not quite comparable, and, as I am sure he recognises, it would be infinitely more difficult to get plans operating for fishing similar to those which operate for agriculture. Nevertheless, it is worth the while of this Committee, or this Parliament, or this Government, or somebody, to do what they can to find the best scheme possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft, in what I regarded as an excellent speech, asked the Government to give sympathetic treatment to the herring industry—to both producer and consumer. The fact that the Herring Industry Board has been set up, is now operating, and has preserved that industry when all else would have failed—
§ Mr. Williams
Not a Conservative Government, anyhow. It was the Labour Government of 1945 that extended its powers and made it infinitely more effective than ever it had been before. My hon. Friend also referred to the possibility of the Belgian and French markets closing down for British-caught herrings. I can only hope that that does not happen. Over-fishing I have dealt with and need not refer to again.
The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) put a whole series of questions, as he usually does, because he is well-informed on these fishing topics, and he told us that the inshore fishing industry was not paying its way, and he could see little or no hope for it. This, he 1261 said, is due to the increased cost of gear, vessels, operating and so forth. It seems to me that what the hon. Member did not say, but ought to have said, was that if ever he wants to see lasting prosperity among inshore fishermen, he must support and encourage them to do more co-operating among themselves, both in catching and marketing, than they have done so far. I am sure that in that direction lies greater hope for the inshore fishermen than from any single thing that any Government can do. I have referred to the imports of boxed fish, and I need not go over that again.
The hon. Member said that he wanted to see a white fish marketing board. I want to see something even stronger than a marketing board. He also wanted more fat for fish frying. I need only tell him that the fish friers are not at present taking up their quota. He also wanted a subsidy of ls. 3d. a stone if the industry is going to be kept in existence. Well there is no reason why the hon. Member should not be a perpetual Oliver Twist.
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Howard), in a maiden speech, asked if we had made any arrangement to give the fishermen a place in the Festival of Britain. Representatives of all sections of trade have been brought to London, and it is intended that fishermen and fishing shall get a good display in the Festival of Britain. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. W. R. Hudson), also in a maiden speech on which I should like to congratulate him, asked me one or two questions. He referred to fish friers taking 85 per cent. of the catch at Hull and said that if there were more oil for fish friers they would buy more fish. I can tell him, as I have said already, that the fish friers are not taking up the quota made available to them.
§ Mr. Williams
That may very well be. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman the reason. The price of palm kernel oil is based on the price which the Minister of Food has to pay for palm kernels and processing. The Ministry do not make a profit on their sale of edible oils. That is not the fault of the Government. if the Government have to pay the price at which private enterprise sell it, they have to sell it at that price or make a loss.
1262 I must say this to the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) in the minute which I have left at my disposal. Forty-five berths were made available in 1946 for the building of trawlers. They were all made available for British trawler owners to build trawlers if they wanted to. They refused because of the uncertainty of the market and the absence of any declared policy and because of their experience of the inter-war years. While they were refusing to accept these slipways, Iceland came in and had their trawlers built and now the trawler owners of Grimsby or anywhere else cannot complain about what the Government did or did not do. My reply to another question of his is that the Government have abolished the transport equalisation rate and they are not likely to resume it. I am sorry that I cannot reply to other questions, but I have done my best in the time at my disposal.
§ Brigadier Peto (Devon, North)
The right hon. Gentleman has skated very thinly over the policy in regard to the importation—
§ It being Ten o'Clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.
§ Committee report Progress: to sit again Tomorrow.