HC Deb 28 April 1952 vol 499 cc1184-94

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

11.56 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I want tonight to lay before the Government some of the problems of the Shetland hosiery industry, and to ask them to assist that industry in at least one particular respect. I must thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade for coming tonight, and I am extremely glad to see the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I am particularly encouraged by the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary, because he has assured me that he is a great admirer of Shetland knitwear and actually wears it himself. As he is one of the most elegantly dressed members of the House, I think it is a tribute to the industry.

This is an industry without parallel in Great Britain. It is not easy to earn a living in a rather wind-swept group of islands half-way between Norway and the mainland of Scotland. For many generations the people of Shetland have had to depend upon fishing and wool—the peculiarly soft and fine wool of the Shetland sheep. This native wool is knitted by the Shetland women into jerseys, gloves, berets, scarves and other garments known all over the world.

Where and when Shetlanders first learnt this trade no one knows. It has been suggested that the Fair Isle patterns were brought by some of the Spaniards who were wrecked in a galleon on the Island at the time of the Armada. But it is probable that knitting was one of the main trades of the Shetlands long before the Armada. At any rate, last year the body of a man who died in the 17th century was found in a bog, with the wool garments he was wearing still in shape, expertly knitted and well preserved—a remarkable tribute not only to the Shetlanders' knitting but to the quality of their wool.

I would particularly like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) to this remarkable advertisement for our woollen goods. He might indeed be able to assist the industry in many ways. It is surely no wonder that Shetland and Fair Isle knitting has achieved a world-wide reputation.

This industry, like other textile industries, is facing difficult times, and because of its structure and traditions it requires special study by the Government. I would like now to say a word about the nature and structure of the industry. The bulk of the wool in Shetland is produced by crofters. They are outside any marketing scheme, and either sell their wool to a variety of merchants or send it to be spun for their own use at Brora, Inverness, or somewhere else in the south. There is today no spinning mill working in Shetland, though we hope that one day there may be.

The wool which is spun on the crofters' own account returns to Shetland to be knitted by hand or on machines, or, as regards a certain proportion of it, to be woven. As far as hand knitting is concerned, the women knit in the crofts, or even as they go about their work. The traditional picture of a Shetland woman shows her with her kishie on her back leaving her hands free to knit as she goes about the croft, and having a belt at her waist to hold the needles when they are not actually being used. The knitwear is sold either direct to customers or, more usually, to merchants either in the Shetlands or in the south. Such machine knitting as there is is done in small units on machines belonging to a merchant.

I want at this point to impress on the Government as firmly as I can two or three important facts about Shetland. First, there is a high and continuing rate of unemployment in the Islands. Even today the total is about 900. That is a very high figure for an area with a small population. Admittedly, some of the unemployment is seasonal; admittedly, most of it may disappear for a month or two in the summer when the herring fishing starts, and drainage schemes, road repairing and other work absorb some labour, but there is a grave lack of steady employment in the Islands, taking one year with another. Since the war, talk of full employment has been a mockery in Shetland.

Today all parties pay lip-service to this ideal, but in my constituency it has never been achieved. Since all parties talk about full employment I think we have some claim to assistance from the Government in any feasible scheme giving steadier and better-paid work in the Islands. It must also be borne in mind that the unemployment figures would be much worse but for the fact that many Shetlanders are forced every year to leave home to seek work elsewhere.

It is extremely difficult to introduce new industries into a place like Shetland chiefly because of the high freight charges. Therefore we have to rely to a great extent upon those industries which are founded upon our local products.

The Shetland knitwear industry must depend upon the quality of its products—the high quality of the wool, of the design and of the knitting. We should welcome, and should do our best to encourage, any proposal which will maintain and improve that quality. Here I ought perhaps to mention that in Shetland today there are other breeds of sheep than pure Shetland. Their wool might have to be distinguished but this should not present any fundamental difficulty. I hope I have made it clear, through this brief account of the industry, that it is a difficult industry to organise or, indeed, to help, because it is an industry of individuals growing their own wool and disposing of their own goods through their own individual channels.

It is significant that there has lately been a great step forward in a matter which has long been debated in Shetland. If we can achieve what we have in mind we may see this industry put on to a firm basis, and may be able progressively to improve its standards.

The scheme to which I refer makes no encroachment upon the rights of the individual crofters, knitters, or weavers. That has been an objection to some previous schemes. It need not apply in this scheme, which has as its twin objects, the protection of the name "Shetland," and the establishment of standards and definitions. Behind this scheme, there is a remarkable degree of unanimity.

The county council, at the request of the Shetland Hand Knitters Association, recently convened a meeting which was attended by representatives of most of the organisations concerned with the industry, all political parties, and all the important local bodies. Agreement was reached in principle, and a committee of the council is now considering how the objects of the scheme may be achieved.

It would, of course, be essential as a first step, and at least so far as application for a certification mark is concerned, to see that standards and definitions were drawn up and accepted by the Board of Trade. I think that would be an essential before they could be registered. Well, a list of suggested definitions has already been settled, and I will not give it in detail now, although I have a copy, and I can supply the Minister with it afterwards.

It lays down that, with the exception of knitting wools, all the products would have to be knitted or woven in Shetland from yarn carded, dyed and spun under an approved contract, or when, later on, we get the mill, as we hope we shall, actually spun in the Islands, the wool would have to contain a high proportion of pure Shetland wool. It lays down also that all the wool, whether pure Shetland or not, must be produced in the Islands. The list covers knitting wools, hand-knit garments and machine-knitted garments, and tweed.

I may be asked at this point, why is all this being done, when there is already in existence a Shetland mark, the mark known as the "Galleon," which is the property of the Shetland Woollen Industries Association? But, unfortunately, this mark has never been wholly effective, and the paramount reason is that so long as goods which have no connection with the Islands can be sold under the name "Shetland," no such mark will ever be effective.

It is our submission that the name "Shetland" ought to be the hallmark of goods produced in Shetland, and should be used only for goods produced in the Islands of wool which has been bred and grown there. But, as anyone who studies trade catalogues will have found, there is no doubt that a vast variety of goods made in factories far removed from Shetland are found on the market under that name. One could quote as an example, the Argentine.

These goods are sold as "Shetland" and not only is their quality different, but usually much inferior; and it is not only the quantity put out, but the poor quality of many of these spurious goods which damages the true hand-knit trade. That is one of the most important aspects of this piracy.

So, now we come to the second essential of the scheme. I know that there are difficulties in registering or protecting a geographical name but, on the other hand, there are some precedents of a sort—although perhaps, not a very conclusive sort—which have been set, as, for example, in the case of Sheffield steel and Worcester sauce. In the case of Harris tweed, the mark is the orb, which is closely associated with the name of "Harris," though the name alone is not protected.

Incidentally, the case of Harris tweed somewhat differs from that of Shetland knit-wear in that the disposal of it is largely canalised through three or four channels, and tweed goods are more easily marked than knitted goods.

I do not deny, in fact I stress that, in this respect—the protection of its name—Shetland needs special treatment. It will in fact need Government action. But such action would be justified because it is an industry which, I think, is unique. I think that we can make a case for special treatment; in my submission we merit special treatment. My case is that such treatment is equitable, for surely the Shetlanders should have some copyright in their products, in that which is their own. Shetland knit-wear is known the world over, and that reputation was earned by the Shetlanders themselves. Therefore, it is surely something which they are entitled to protect.

Secondly, I do not think it is difficult to devise simple means of protection; and thirdly, I confidently say that economically it would obviously be highly desirable, because unless the Government are prepared to assist us to secure an effective mark or some other protection for the name "Shetland," along with the subsidiary help that will be required in advertising it, there is a very grave danger of the industry being killed by a flood of inferior foreign products. If that happened it would inevitably mean higher unemployment and eventually even the depopulation of the Islands.

It may be suggested that at present a prosecution could be effective under the Merchandise Marketing Acts against those who put on the market goods which are essentially misdescribed. I am not very certain how far that would be successful. Personally, I do not think that that is the complete answer to the problem which we put before the Government.

There are, no doubt, other steps very necessary also for the establishment of the industry on a firm footing. We would certainly like to see a spinning mill, and also further technical education in both knitting and designing. These are matters which upon some other occasion I may possibly trouble the Government again. Tonight I should like the Government to give us the benefit of their advice, and to indicate how far they are prepared to go to help us.

As I see it, the present Trade Mark Acts are designed to serve three very useful purposes. First, they enable manufacturers to have their goods distinguished; second, they allow goods to be known by their trade description, which delineates type, method of manufacture, standard of quality, etc.; and third, they serve the public interest by protecting the public against misdescription or fraud. All we want to do is to give full effect to these intentions in the marketing of Shetland knitwear and tweed.

We believe that the Government want to encourage industries to set up and maintain their own standards; we believe that they intend in any case to take steps to improve existing legislation in this regard, and we also believe that there is a strong inclination in the courts to take a commonsense view, and to try to save the public from the results of misdescription of goods, as obviously happens if goods which have never even seen the back of a sheep in the Shetland Islands are described as "Shetland."

But while we believe that we are going in the same direction as the Government, we are very anxious to know how far the Government are prepared to come with us, how far they are prepared to help us over this difficulty of the name; and we should be very grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary could give us some indication as to how we should proceed in this matter. I think be will agree that it is of some importance to a local craft, which may be small but which is one of the unique crafts of Britain.

12.14 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has made an interesting and, I think the House will agree, a fascinating speech on the famous industry of his constituents. It is indeed a very interesting subject, and I think there must be few people who are interested in excellent goods of good design who do not respect the names of "Shetland" and "Fair Isle." Though I think the hon. Gentleman perhaps exaggerated in describing the Shetland garments that I was wearing, it is true that my household receives, generally once a year, a parcel from some admirable constituents of his, from which articles can be selected and the remainder returned, and they give pleasure not only to my household but as presents to my friends.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the industry has been the subject of an interesting survey by the Scottish Council on Industry. He will be familiar with the Report of the Committee on the Crofter Woollen Industry which was published in 1946. It may not be completely up to date, perhaps, in all respects, but it has some observations and recommendations which, I think he will agree, are valuable, especially in paragraph 99 and those that immediately follow it.

But I think he will not wish me to enlarge on many of the topics there raised, but rather to concentrate on what was the topic to which he devoted the greater part of his speech—this question of certification trade marks, trade descriptions, and so forth. I think, perhaps, it is not very easy for a layman at once to grasp what the position is under the relevant statutes, and I should like to describe in non-technical language briefly what the position is, and the two main statutes concerned.

First of all, there is the question of a certification trade mark, more commonly called certification mark. This is dealt with in Section 37 of the Trade Marks Act, 1938, and the First Schedule to that Act. A mark of this description can be owned only by persons who are not themselves engaged in the trade but who undertake to certify goods in respect of origin, material, mode of manufacture, quality, accuracy, or other characteristic. To get a certification trade mark registered the applicant has to satisfy both the Registrar named in that Act, who is the Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks, and the Board of Trade; but those two have quite different functions.

The Registrar decides on the distinctiveness of the proposed mark and any question of conflict with other marks, and the Board of Trade then decide on the competency of the applicant to certify the goods, on the appropriateness of the draft regulations which the applicant submits outlining his proposed administration of the mark, and on whether the registration of the mark is to the public advantage. That is, very briefly, the description of the position under the Trade Marks Act, 1938.

Then there is the Merchandise Marks Act, 1887, which creates, inter alia, two criminal offences; first, the false application of a trade mark—a phrase which includes the certification trade mark which I have described; and, secondly, the application of a false trade description—and there can be false trade description apart from a mark altogether. Now, in the case of wrongful application of a certification mark there is both a civil action for infringement and a possibility of criminal proceedings for false application of a trade mark. There is also a criminal remedy in the event of the use of a false trade description.

The hon. Member will, I think, have understood from what I have said that on this question of the registration of a proposed certification trade mark the procedure throughout is judicial or quasi-judicial, and there is no scope for Ministerial discretion. He will appreciate that I am dealing with the existing statutes. I think I may be able to show him that he is unduly pessimistic about the position under the existing statutes, but he will appreciate that I should be out of order if I went on to consider any future legislation.

He may wish to know what I think are the conclusions which may be drawn from the existing law, which I have briefly described. A mark must be distinctive. The word "Shetland" alone, being wholly geographical, can probably not be registered as such a mark. On the other hand, a distinctive device which included the words "Made in Shetland" or "Made of Shetland Wool" would probably be acceptable. The hon. Member mentioned the galleon mark which was registered by the Shetland Woollen Industries Association, Limited, as long ago as 1923. He has given a description of that mark as containing a device, the galleon, and the use of the word "Shetland." If that device has been used on goods not connected with Scotland, I think probably a remedy lay, and lies, in the hands of the trade association.

The word "Shetland" or the words "Made in Shetland" may be a trade description within the meaning of the Merchandise Marks Act quite apart from any question of a certification mark at all. It is an offence to apply a false trade description, irrespective of whether it is registered as a mark or not. I would inform the hon. Member that I am not aware of any instance in which an alleged misuse of the trade description "Shetland" or "Made in Shetland" has been brought before the courts.

It is possible for geographical names to lose their geographical significance. A Bath bun is probably an example, or a Brussels carpet. It is conceivable that a Shetland shawl has reached that position. The objection certainly does not apply, however—or I have no reason for thinking that it applies—to "Shetland" generally as a trade description, and I do not believe it is too late to use the Merchandise Marks Act if the word "Shetland" is used as a trade description.

The word "Sheffield" is a special case, as I think the hon. Member knows, because that mark was registered earlier under a less stringent Act. "Worcester sauce" is, I believe, a bad example; I do not believe that it comes under protection at all. "Harris tweed" differs in certain particulars, but I think the combination of the words and a device which has been effective in the case of Harris tweed could also be effective in the case of the product in which the hon. Member is interested.

The industry can apply for registration of a new certification mark if it so desires, and that will be properly considered under the procedure which I have described. I believe that this week the hon. Member is going to Shetland with colleagues of the Advisory Panel on the Highlands and Islands, and I think he will meet those interested in this industry, which we all wish well. I assure him that I should be most grateful for a report of any meeting that he has and shall discuss with him any problem with which, in the short time I have had at my disposal, I have not had time to deal. I am certain that the whole House shares the good wishes to the industry which he has so eloquently expressed.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.