HC Deb 13 March 1950 vol 472 cc876-84

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

10.17 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I desire to draw the attention of the Government and the House to a matter of considerable importance to the fishing industry, and particularly the inshore section of the industry. This matter affects the Scottish fishermen perhaps rather more seriously than fishermen elsewhere, because in Scotland we have a larger number of inshore fishing vessels, very often operated as family concerns. The problem of rising costs in operating a modern dual-purpose boat has reached alarming dimensions. Unless something is done, and done very quickly, about this, there is a danger that inshore or small vessel fishing will come to an end and fishermen may well be forced to lay their boats ashore.

I am afraid that not many hon. Members are fully aware of the importance to this nation of the inshore fishing industry. First of all, to equip one with a sound knowledge of the sea it is an excellent apprenticeship to serve on a small fishing vessel. Secondly, the inshore fishing fleets around our coasts land the best quality fish and, what is very important, the fish that is landed is fresh. Speaking with some knowledge of the industry, I would say quite definitely that the inshore fishermen at the present time are not getting a square deal in this matter of rising costs of fishing gear, and I strongly urge the Government to give the matter their immediate attention.

First, let me deal with the risk of damage and loss of fishing gear. Each time an inshore fishing boat puts its nets and gear into the sea, there is a serious risk of loss amounting to about £160 in the case of an inshore white fish seine net boat. If the gear fouls the bottom of the ocean, or perhaps a wreck, it may mean a total loss, for there is no insurance coverage for fishing gear. People like Lloyd's, who are not unaccustomed to taking certain risks in other venturesome fields of human endeavour, shy at the mere mention of insuring fishing gear.

When we examine the position of the herring fleets, the consequences of the loss of nets are even more serious, for every time herring nets are shot into the sea about £1,000 worth of fishing gear is put over the rail. This is indeed a serious matter for the small man in the industry, for while the Government give fairly generous grants, and have been giving fairly generous grants during the last few years towards the initial cost of fishing gear, there is no grant given for replacement of fishing gear. It seems to me that here is a case where the Herring Board might assist by having available a pool of nets kept at the fishing ports for hiring to fishermen. If that could be done, I think it would assist the herring side of the industry very considerably.

I should like for a moment to give some comparisons with pre-war prices for nets and other gear. A ring net, for example, costing about £50 pre-war, is today priced at £350. A total of 120 fathoms of rope for the foot of the ring net, which could be bought for about 21s, before the war, now costs £9. A herring drift net before the war could be purchased for about £2 15s. or £3, but it now costs over £15. This is indeed more than five times the pre-war cost, and I do not think there is any other industry where the tools for the job have increased in price so much during this period. The price of herrings has not increased more than about twice over the pre-war price, and one can imagine the difficulties the herring fishing fleet will have in replenishing gear. In addition to the risk of loss, to which I have already referred, it is estimated that the cost of running one of those new dual-purpose boats in inshore fishing is round about £1,500 per year. It will be seen, therefore, that the gamble has not disappeared from the inshore fishing industry, as it has in agriculture.

Now let me turn to what I believe to be the principal causes of this alarming high cost of fishing gear. First, the monopolistic control in production and distribution of nets and cordage plays a very big part in this alarming increased cost. One of the largest combines in this business is British Ropes, Ltd. It is rather interesting to read the annual report published in "The Times" of 6th June, 1949. The heading runs: Substantial Higher Trading Profits for 1948. The chairman, Mr. Herbert Smith, criticises nationalisation. This report reveals an increased trading profit over the previous year of £241,000 and a net profit of £1,323,000 on the year's working. If I may make the suggestion, I think that this is one of the monopolies which might well be investigated by the committee now sitting to inquire into these matters.

My final point is in connection with the sale and distribution of fishing gear. It appears that this is under the control of the Hard Fibre Cordage Federation. Hon. Members will, perhaps, remember that in the Fishing Industry Act, 1949, there was a Section providing inducements to inshore fishermen to set up co-operative societies in order that they might not only sell their fish co-operatively but at the same time might be able to purchase necessary gear. That has been done in many ports, and, indeed, in my constituency there is a very enterprising and prosperous co-operative society run by fishermen under the leadership of a local clergyman.

The experience of this organisation is well worth citing on this occasion. About three years ago this organisation decided to set up a ship's chandlery department. Application was made to the Hard Fibre Cordage Federation for inclusion on their lists. After some lapse of time, the application was agreed to in August, 1947. I should, perhaps, explain to the House that inclusion in the list of this organisation meant that the fishermen could purchase their requirements—their gear, their nets—directly from the producers, and so thereby save 5 per cent. on the transaction which otherwise would have gone to a private ship chandler's business. Everything went all right for a matter of a year or so, but it was not permitted to last for very much longer, because on 11th March a letter was sent to the secretary of the organisation, which I think it is worth while quoting: Dear Sir: We have your letter of the 7th inst. and would inform you that in line with the policy of the Federation to exclude all fishermen's associations from the benefits of the ship-chandlers' arrangements, it was recently decided to delete your name from the ship-chandlers' short list. That, of course, means that this organisation of fishermen who desire to purchase their gear direct from the manufacturers are not permitted to do so on the same terms as other ship chandlers. I leave the House to draw its own conclusions from the contents of this letter.

In conclusion, I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, whom I congratulate most heartily on his appointment, to use his influence to ensure that the fishermen's co-operatives are not penalised in this way by the manufacturers. I also appeal to him most earnestly to take every action open to his Department, in an endeavour to make available more manilla rope for the inshore fishing industry. The present supply of sisal is of a very inferior quality, and I am told by practising fishermen that it does not last longer than one-third of the time which manilla used to last before the war.

I know that if my hon. Friend can do something for the fishermen, and particularly for the inshore fishermen who run the little boats by themselves, the fishermen will welcome any effort he can make, especially the fishermen of Scotland who have to depend so very much on this industry. By doing so, he will make it easier for them to pursue their arduous task of bringing in the harvest of the seas and so continuing to make the notable contribution which they have made since the end of the war, and which they made during the war, towards replenishing the national larder.

Brigadier Thorp (Berwick -upon-Tweed)

Before the hon. Member sits down, will he confirm that he said in May last year, when he was Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, in reply to a speech I made on the Fishing Bill, that the Government were considering setting up a committee to consider the price of fishing gear?

Mr. Robertson

There was a commission set up to consider monopolies and restrictive practices. The suggestion I am making is that the same commission might look into these monopolies and the control of fishing gear.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Duthie (Banff)

The suggestion which has been made by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Robertson) is one which we on this side of the House have been pressing for the last 4½years. I am glad that the hon. Member has now left the "buffer state" of the Under-Secretaryship to join the firing line. We look to him to support us in our endeavours to have this matter put right. Costs in the fishing industry are ruinous today. I only wish to intervene for a matter of minutes to touch upon one or two of the salient points.

Ordinary diesel-engined vessels for inshore fishing cost £6,000 before the war and now cost £40,000. A steam drifter before the war cost £3,000 and now costs £30,000 new. A seine net cost £12 before the war and today costs £70. A herring net cost £2 before the war and today costs £15. Ropes before the war cost £2 a coil and now cost £9 a coil. Ropes today are sisal and not manilla. One question which I would like to address to the Parliamentary Secretary is why we are deprived of manilla for rope for this industry. Other countries can get manilla; why cannot we? It is odd if the Supply Departments think that manilla cannot be obtained for us, since it is obtainable in the Far East. Coal prices have doubled; the price of fuel oil is away up. Grants and loans have been made available to fishermen in order that they might obtain gear—I agree that that is true—but these have been swallowed up in rising costs.

Efforts which we have made from this side of the House, through the Secretary of State for Scotland, resulted in our having one hilarious moment when there was a reduction of six shillings per coil of rope. That lasted one week, and then the price was advanced eight shillings. It would appear that somebody is just playing with this job; and that there are people at the Board of Trade who do not appreciate the serious circumstances. I hope that this Debate will turn attention in the right direction. May I say, in conclusion, that we on this side of the House cannot and will not rest until the matter is settled in the right way?

10.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Rhodes)

One of the many lovely things about this House is its attitude towards newcomers, whether it be in the House as a whole or at this Box, and I ask for the indulgence of the House in making my first speech since taking up my new appointment.

Let me say, first, that the case has been well put by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Robertson), but there are one or two things which he has got rather wrong. For instance, he made an accusation that the firm of British Ropes was a monopoly. That is not the case, because British Ropes is only responsible, in that section of its activities which it devotes to the fishing industry, for one-fifth of the rope and twine used in that industry. It is, nevertheless, making substantial profits, but those profits are subject to the careful scrutiny of the Central Price Regulation Committee, and the prices are looked at meticulously every month, and prices agreed on the ruling price of stocks held by the manufacturers of ropes.

It may be that an accusation might be made with regard to the Hard Fibre Cordage Federation, which distributes these ropes. I should like to deal with that point. The hon. Member said that the Hard Fibre Cordage Federation were distributors; actually this association is a distributor of hard cordage and twine only; not only to the net manufacturers, but also to the fishermen as ropes. I want to refer to the arrangements about which my hon. Friend has complained in respect of the discounts allowed and also his attitude with regard to this association—perhaps not his opinion only—constituting a monopoly. I must remind hon. Members that, in the normal way, arrangements relating to discounts are not a matter in which the Board of Trade interfere, but are for ordinary commercial settlement between the parties.

There is the procedure provided by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices (Enquiry and Control) Act, 1948, whereby the Board of Trade may refer to the Commission restrictive arrangements made by associations who control at least one-third of the supply of a given line of goods. I think it was this to which the hon. Member was giving his mind when he spoke about a committee being able to take some action where there appeared to be monopolies or restrictive practices. We have no firm evidence at present either about the extent to which the associations in this field control supply, or about the extent to which their arrangements are restrictive. If, however, evidence were provided establishing a prima facie case that the supply of any or all of these various types of equipment for fishermen came within the scope of the Act, we should, of course, consider whether a reference to the Monopolies Commission should be made. The subject would have to be considered together with a considerable number of other matters which may qualify for reference to the Monopolies Commission, and it is impossible for the Board to enter into any commitment that a given subject would in fact be referred to the Commission.

With regard to prices as a whole, the high prices which reign today in this field are due entirely to the prices of commodities overseas in relation to the materials required for the making of nets and ropes. Cotton has increased in price since before the war by about 400 per cent.; sisal, an East African product which has a high dollar-earning capacity, has increased by something in the nature of 600 per cent. The prices before the war were something like £18 a ton, and are now in the region of £125 to £130 a ton. The same applies to the cork imported from Portugal and Spain, where prices have gone up considerably. The same can be said, too, of wood tar imported from Russia and the United States, and there again there are difficulties not only of acquisition but of the payment of hard currency.

With regard to the complaint that there has not been sufficient manilla rope available, the fibre from the Philippines is only being produced at one-third of what it was before the war. It is also a dollar commodity, and the price has gone up to about six times what it was before the war.

Mr. Duthie

How does the Parliamentary Secretary explain foreign fishing vessels being equipped with manilla rope while we are going without?

Mr. Rhodes

That question goes right to the heart of policy over hard cordage generally. In this country we make the manufacturers of hard cordage take their stock values when they are putting in their appeals before the Central Price Regulation Committee. That has not been the case overseas, because in Belgium, which take it is the country to which the hon. Gentleman was referring, they have automatically increased the price to the current price instead of, like us, giving the fishing industry the benefit of commodities paid for at a cheaper price.

On the question of discounts, we must not run away with the idea that the distributive costs in this industry are excessive. Sales by the Hard Fibre Cordage Federation to approved ship chandlers are at the list price less 5 per cent. If, however, this cordage is sold to approved rope merchants, it is list price less 2½ per cent.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me? The question upon which we want assistance is a more constructive suggestion as to how the position could be eased so that the fishermen could buy gear cheaply. Would my hon. Friend be in favour of assisting bulk purchase of gear which could be re-sold to the fishermen and paid for by them on the instalment plan, and ease the position in that way?

Mr. Rhodes

From what I have ascertained in the few days I have had at my disposal, I could not hold out any hope of any reduction in the price of gear until world prices come down.

Mr. Hughes


Mr. Rhodes

No, I cannot give way. That is the position with regard to that.

May I go on with regard to the discount, because this has been complained about and it is something that needs to be cleared up. There is no doubt that a maximum distributing margin of 5 per cent. is not excessive. That is for the hard cordage. With regard to fishing nets, the discount terms are as follows. Sales direct to fishermen are made at list price less 5 per cent., with an additional l¼ per cent. for cash. Sales to a merchant are subject to a further 5 per cent. discount which the merchant retains if and when he sells to the fishermen. I think the House will agree that there is no—

Captain Duncan (South Angus)

Do the fishermen include the fishermen's associations?

Mr. Rhodes

In the case of the 2½ per cent., that includes the fishermen's associations. The general picture of it is that the high cost of gear is entirely due to high prices—[An HON. MEMBER: "High profits."]—all over the world, and until we can get these prices down, or until such time as prices are reduced, we cannot hold out much hope of any reduction.

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

Adjourned at Thirteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.