HC Deb 11 December 1950 vol 482 cc941-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Popplewell. ]

10.20 p.m

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Angus, North and Mearns)

I want to draw the attention of the House to one or two features of the National Insurance Regulations as they affect share fishermen. The share fishermen who claim unemployment benefit must, of course, satisfy the usual conditions which have to be satisfied by one claiming unemployment benefit, and must in addition satisfy certain rules which are set out in Statutory Instrument No. 301 of 1949, and which more particularly are described in leaflet N.I. No. 47, which deals with the problems of share fishermen.

One of these additional conditions, which is described in the Statutory Instrument to which I have referred, is that on a day in which a fisherman performs no work as a share fisherman he must prove that he has not neglected to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of employment as a fisherman, and he must also prove that there was no work on or in connection with the fishing vessel for various reasons, among which is the one that, on account of the state of the weather, the fishing vessel could not reasonably have put to sea with a view to fishing.

In a constituency such as mine, which has a long rugged sea coast, with a number of small fishing harbours, a large number of inshore fishermen ply their ancient calling from a number of boats of different sizes, varrying in length from 24 feet to 55 feet, There are many days on which it would be possible for a 55-foot boat to go to sea, but when it would definitely be dangerous or unwise for a 24-foot boat to do so. Moreover, with an offshore wind crab fishers are able to ply their trade in the lea of the rocks, whilst line fishermen, going further out in the exposed and more stormy areas offshore, would be unable to do so with safety.

I want to submit—and this is the first submission I make—that the case of each crew ought to be considered on its merits and not dealt with collectively, as they are at the present time in my own constituency, where, if one vessel can put to sea, whatever its size, all the other crews are disqualified from claiming unemployment benefit.

The second point is this: The Regulations distinguish, not very clearly. between, on the one hand, work that is done to a boat or gear which must be done before the vessel puts to sea for its safety, or for its reasonable efficiency, and, in that case, payment of unemployment benefit is disallowed and, on the other hand, maintenance work to the vessel or to spare gear which could be done at any time but which is not essential, in which case unemployment benefit is allowed.

May I, in a sentence or two, detail the kind of case which arises in the small harbours I have tried to describe? Very often, when a vessel is prevented from putting to sea by reason of the weather and is tied up in a small harbour, a storm suddenly arises which makes it necessary to make good a rope that may have broken if there is a swell in the harbour, or to put out extra moorings, or to pump out bilge, or even to remove the boat from one part of the harbour to a more sheltered spot.

If share fishermen go on board to do this work, it does not take more than 10 minutes to half an hour. Yet, if they do that work, the stipulation made by the Aberdeen area office, which looks after my area, is that they are disqualified from drawing unemployment benefit. These duties have occasionally to be done according to the state of the weather, and I say that the men ought not to be penalised if they spend a few minutes on board doing work of this nature. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell me what discretion is allowed to his local officers in this matter. I have tried to get the information from the Aberdeen office, but they have been unable or unwilling to give it to me.

I want to draw attention to two cases of constituents of mine who come from Stonehaven, Kincardineshire. These two men, whose names I have given to the Minister, put in a claim for unemployment benefit in the usual way in respect of 10th and 11th October, 1949. The claim was turned down by the tribunal for the Aberdeen area on 9th November, 1949. These two men appealed in the usual way against the decision of the tribunal, and they were suspended from benefit pending a decision. The Commissioners turned down the appeal, and ever since that time, as the need has arisen, these two men individually—they both own shares in the same boat—have filled in form U.I. 118 in respect of days they were unable to put to sea. These forms have been accepted by the local employment office, but still these men have received no benefit. They have not received a penny in respect of any day since their appeal in October, 1949. Why is this? I heard about this case somewhere around last Christmas. They came to see me, and I have seen them twice.

On 13th April last, they came with the most astonishing story. They told me that the area manager had said that their only hope of getting anything at all was to sign a declaration in front of a justice of the peace, whereas the form is, in itself, a declaration. If a false statement is made, they are subject to the penalties of a fine not exceeding £100, or imprisonment not exceeding three months, or both. Yet, here is an area manager of the Ministry of National Insurance at Aberdeen saying that they should make a declaration in front of a justice of the peace.

These are two exceptionally honest men. If the Parliamentary Secretary could meet them, he would see that for himself. They were quite affronted at the idea that they would make a false declaration. They asked why they should be told that they would have to go to a justice of the peace and make a declaration. They asked whether they had to do so. I said, "Supposing you went to a justice of the peace, what could you say?" I dictated the kind of declaration which I thought they might make. That was shown by my agent to the insurance officer in Aberdeen. He said it would not do. I do not know how it happened, but the idea of a declaration was dropped, or at all events it was not pursued. That was on the 13th April.

Within the next 10 days three seine net boats from Kirkcaldy were fishing off Stonehaven. On three days they fished into the harbour. On three days, the 24th, 25th and 26th April, they were unable to put to sea because of adverse weather. The crew of 18 of these three vessels reported to the employment exchange. After telephoning through to the Anstruther office, which is the one concerned with Kirkcaldy, all the men were paid, although during this time the crews, all the 18 men, were living in the boats, including these three days of unemployment.

The appeal went against my two constituents because the Commissioners had held that to do occasional work on board for the safety of the vessel disqualified them from benefit. Is it conceivable that these fishermen did not do exactly this during those three days when they were living aboard and were unable to go to sea? Yet they were allowed unemployment benefit. It would seem to me that there is no consistency in these matters. I believe that these two men whom I have mentioned to the Minister are being penalised for their honesty. Because that was exactly what they were prepared to do, and in some cases have done, for 10 minutes, they are prevented from drawing unemployment benefit.

There are other points which I might mention, but I know that other hon. Members would like to mention similar cases. I believe that these Regulations have had teething troubles, that they have had a difficult time to go through and I hope that these cases may now be looked into in the spirit in which I have tried to raise them. In particular, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to right what I believe is a wrong in the personal cases which I have brought to his attention.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Duthie (Banff)

I should like for a few moments to support the appeal made by my hon. Friend. I am speaking on behalf of the herring industry of the Moray Firth. They are practically all share fishermen, and the bulk of the Scottish herring fleet is based on that area. There are four herring seasons. They are the spring season in the Minch and the waters of the Outer Hebrides; the summer season on the north-east coast of Scotland, and in the Lerwick and Wick areas; the autumn fishing in East Anglia and the west of Scotland; and the winter fishing in the West of Scotland. The herring fishermen of the North of Scotland fish for herrings all the year round. The governing factor is the question of markets. A seasonal worker is engaged for a season, and is not taking on an operation which is continuing all the year round. These fishermen would be fishing all the year round if markets were available. They did that before, and probably will do it again.

What we want is an informed local interpretation of what constitutes a particular share fisherman's vocation, and to determine whether or not it is seasonal. Men just home from East Anglia are being classified as seasonal workers. Many of these men have turned over to white fishing. Some cannot do that because they have neither the gear nor the money to pay for it. For a short time they are going to be ashore until another herring season opens. What is happening now is going to accelerate the movement away from the herring industry to land jobs. Already fishermen are being driven to give up their natural vocations and seek jobs on shore. We cannot afford to lose these men.

I would impress on the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance that there is little or no abuse here. These men can be trusted. Between the wars a herring fisherman was not classed as a seasonal worker, and he is even less of a seasonal worker now, because herring fishing is a more continuous operation today than formerly. Certainly there is more need for it to be continuous all the year round than ever before in view of the shortage of other foods. I appeal for immediate sympathetic action for these men.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I should like to add a few words to what has been said. This is a general problem all around the shores of Scotland, and, as the hon. Gentleman who has raised this matter said, I think these are teething troubles of the scheme. But there is no uniformity, and where there is no uniformity there is a great feeling of injustice. That is my first point. My second point is that the people who have paid their money into the scheme look on it as an insurance scheme, and they feel they are entitled to benefit when they are unemployed.

Thirdly, I should like to add something to what has been said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie). Fishermen are sometimes classed as seasonal workers, but they are not seasonal workers in the sense of a man who runs a fair ground at a summer resort on the South Coast, and who probably earns enough in the summer to keep himself in the winter. That is not the case with fishermen. They will go to the herring and other fishing whenever they can, but they can only do so as long as markets and weather allow and there are fish to be caught. In the constituency which I represent—an island—it is often impossible for men to get any other form of employment. This may prevent a man from showing that he has reasonable prospects of employment.

This is a genuine problem arising in the special case of a special industry or profession. The numbers affected are small, but to those affected it is important. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will look at the problem with a sympathetic eye, to see whether he can adjust the Regulations accordingly.

10.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. Bernard Taylor)

May I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Angus, North (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley), who has raised this complicated matter. Before replying to the particular points that he has made, I think it would be of benefit to the House if I were to make one or two general observations about it. I think it is important that we should get this class of insurance into proper perspective.

Share fishermen are insured as employed persons if, on the whole, they are engaged in, and earn a living from, share fishing together with any other Class I employment they may have. Under the National Insurance Act there are three categories for insurance purposes—those who work under contract of service for an employer; those who work for themselves in a self-employed capacity; those who are not gainfully employed. The hon. Gentlemen who have spoken have made a point about benefit, and I would make it clear that under the Regulations no share fisherman can receive unemployment benefit on any day unless he can show that he did not neglect to avail himself of reasonable opportunity of employment as a share fisherman, and that he did no work as a share fisherman on that particular day.

Further, these share fisherman—and that will bring in the constituents of the hon. Member for Angus, North—who work on boats where part or all of the ownership belongs to the skipper or members of the crew, must show good cause for not having fished on a particular day for which a claim for benefit is made. As has been pointed out by hon. Members in referring to the Regulations, certain "good causes" are specified, and I will give to the House just two examples. First, bad weather, and secondly, lack of fish. But clearly there may be other "good causes," and the Regulations allow the independent statutory authorities for benefit claims to take all these causes into consideration. I emphasise this because of comments made tonight by hon. Members.

Let me say a word or two on the intention of the Regulations, because that is important in that it may possibly cover most of the points raised. I am glad to have the opportunity to say that the Regulations are not designed for the purpose, as unfortunately some seem to think, of making it harder for share fishermen to get unemployment benefit—to make it harder for them than it is for other persons when they are out of work. These Regulations in this connection do no more than apply the ordinary rules about being employed and available for employment, to the special circumstances of the share fishermen. Because of these special circumstances which surround the work and activities of the share fishermen, the ordinary rules which apply to claims for benefit would be ineffective, and it was this fact of special circumstances which kept share fishermen out of insurance against unemployment for so long.

I am sure that hon. Members who know so well the case of the share fishermen would agree. May I remind the House that the Government, in the last Parliament, with the help of the National Insurance Advisory Committee, tackled the difficulties raised by the peculiar employment conditions of this industry, and I pay tribute to the Committee for its help in this matter. By devising suitable auxiliary benefit conditions to enable these fishermen to have cover against both unemployment and industrial injuries, they were given a right and a privilege which they had not enjoyed prior to 5th July, 1948. Hon. Members will be well aware that the solution to these difficult problems—and this is a complicated industry—was warmly welcomed in February, 1949, by all hon. Members on both sides of this House, and, I am sure, by the hon. Members who spoke so ardently and effectively on the fishermen's behalf. I take this opportunity of paying my tribute to the great part that was played in the making of these Regulations by hon. Members from constituencies in which share fishermen reside.

May I say a word about the application of the Regulations, because that point was forcefully raised by the hon. Member for Angus, North. When my predecessor introduced these Regulations, he said that their administration would be carefully watched, and what was recognised then is still recognised by my Department; the administration of these Regulations is very important indeed, and I should like the House to know that this careful watchfulness, so far as these Regulations are concerned, is being continued.

It is the case—and the House will be well aware of this—that my right hon. Friend and I cannot, of course, influence the decision upon claims in any way, but we can see how far the Regulations enable local tribunals to take local conditions into account and how case law is developed under the National Insurance Commissioners. I want to say, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, that at the present time there has been no development either from the tribunal point of view or from the Commissioner's point of view, which would justify any change in the Regulations, but I hasten to make this point that it is yet early to decide from individual cases whether the Regulations cover satisfactorily every type of case.

Having made these few general observations, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I now come to the particular points which have been raised especially by the hon. Member for Angus, North. He made reference to small boats being in the harbours and a storm blowing up, which is not unusual, and the fact that the fishermen, for the safety of their boats, would perhaps put additional moorings in and move from point A to point B so that the boats would be seaworthy and able to go out fishing. I am advised, on that point alone, that the statutory authorities look very carefully at all the evidence that is submitted, and I am advised that things of that kind might not be regarded as work being done on a particular day in respect of the circumstances which the hon. Member has described.

The other point about which I know the hon. Member feels very strongly is the suggestion he made that a declaration has to be made before a justice of the peace. I have made careful inquiries into this, and I am informed that that is not the Rule; a fisherman may make a claim for unemployment benefit by merely complying with the conditions, and all that is necessary is that the application form for a postal claim has to be signed either by two householders of the district, adult employees in the same occupations, or the secretary or other responsible local official of the particular union.

I come to some of the circumstances surrounding the villages in the constituency of the hon. Member for Angus, North. In September there was only one claim and that was allowed. In October there were 61 claims from the Gourdon office, three of which were allowed, and 58 disallowed. Seven of them appealed to the local tribunal and were allowed, but the remaining 51 made no appeal at all.

I regret that the time available has gone and that I have not had the opportunity to comment upon the seasonal workers; but I conclude by saying that the circumstances surrounding the application of share fishermen for unemployment benefit are decided by the statutory authorities in the first place, and the men have the right of an appeal to the local tribunal and also to the National Commissioner.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Ten Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.