HC Deb 19 March 1952 vol 497 cc2431-41

8.56 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)

I have no doubt that for the second time tonight the Whips' Department has not been working very well—I am talking about the Government Whip and not the Opposition Whip. I have no doubt that a Minister will appear from the Scottish Office, but perhaps the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries will make a note of what I say. I am not blaming the Minister, as he has been present in the Committee for a long period.

I wish to raise one or two specific points on this Vote, because the sum involved is £278,500 which is a considerable sum of money going to the Fisheries Department of the Scottish Office. I want the Minister to say something about research work which is going on regarding fishing in the Firth of Forth. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is responsible for this Department, had many questions to ask about this problem when he was on this side of the Committee. I wish to know what results have been achieved by the research department, because I notice at Item D.I. of the Supplementary Estimates that there is provision for £60,000 for a new research vessel—

Captain Duncan

On a point of order. Again I raise the same point as I raised with your predecessor, Sir Charles. The hon. Member is referring to savings. Item D.I. refers to savings. Are we in order in discussing all the savings or are we only in order in discussing Items B and H?

Mr. Woodburn

Further to that point of order. We are discussing a considerable sum of money for assistance for the white fish industry. There are no details of whether the assistance includes some money for research. I submit that since it is inclusive of assistance to the white fish industry, the discussion is in order.

The Chairman

Yes, the addition of £400,000 for the white fish industry is in order, but savings are out of order.

Mr. Hoy

I would not like to go any further than that, but there is an additional sum of £400,000 in connection with the white fish industry. I am sorry that the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan) is no better informed on this subject than on the last. He might have had a little more patience, because this is an important problem so far as Scotland is concerned, and we are dealing with a very important industry which does not call for any frivolity on his part.

I would like to know from the Under-Secretary what results he has to report on research work regarding the Firth of Forth, because I know he is interested in the matter. I also wish to know if the work is going on at present and if it is likely to continue. It is extremely important, for this reason. A decision has been given by The Hague International Court which considerably limits the fishing grounds which our people would have to exploit, and so it is—

Captain Duncan

On a point of order. I would like to follow the hon. Gentleman, if it is in order, but, again, he is referring to Item D. 1, dealing with research, which refers to savings. The hon. Gentleman has referred to a sum of £60,000 which is referred to in Item D. 1. Is it in order, therefore, to discuss Items B and H?

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman has referred to Items B and H, and I understand that he is making the case that research was necessary.

Mr. Hoy

The Committee has tried already this evening to make the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South, understand what is being discussed, and we have been very unsuccessful on previous occasions. It now appears that the hon. and gallant Gentleman's intelligence has not improved between then and now.

What we are asking for is an explanation of the sum of £400,000, and what I want to know is what is included in that figure. I am certain that I am quite in order in asking that question, and now, if the hon. and gallant Gentleman will listen, I will proceed to give the reasons for asking that question.

May I say to the Under-Secretary, once more, that the reason for all this is that we have had a decision from The Hague Court which can affect considerably the fishing resources of this country, and I understand that there is some further information about a further curtailment of fishing grounds which affects Iceland. I do not know if the rumour is correct or not, but perhaps the Under-Secretary will be able to give Scottish Members some information on that point when he replies. This makes it all the more important that we should see how this £400,000 is being spent, and if any part of it is being used for research work for the benefit of the Scottish fishing industry.

The Under-Secretary knows as well as I do that Scotland has been interested in this matter for a considerable time. In fact, we played an active part in the working of the North Sea Over-Fishing Convention, which dealt with this matter. I myself raised the matter at Strasbourg, and we had a Motion supporting the Convention and asking the countries concerned to ratify it to preserve the fishing grounds of the North Sea.

I do not know what has happened so far, but it would be of interest to us to know whether Belgium and Iceland have agreed to ratify the Convention. I raised this matter myself, and I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South, will not mind me saying that I raised the matter directly with members of the Belgium Parliament last September. I would like to know what action has been taken by those concerned.

I do not want to go very much further, or to get out of order, but I hope that the Under-Secretary, when he comes to reply, will give us some information on this particular point. What part of this sum is to be devoted to research work, and what results have been obtained from it, so far as the Firth of Forth and other areas are concerned? Will he say if, indeed, it is true that there is to be a further curtailment of fishing grounds of importance to Scotland in regard to some law which has been promulgated by Iceland?

Furthermore, will he give us any information in regard to what has happened over the North Sea Over-Fishing Convention. That is research work of a very important character, and it is extremely important to fishing people and to those who earn their living in Scotland from the sea.

9.4 p.m.

Captain Duncan

I did not intend to intervene in this debate until the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) brought me to my feet. He has raised matters which I thought could not be raised in this debate, but, as they have been raised, I should like to ask similar questions to those that have been asked already.

The Norwegian decision has caused a great deal of discussion among fishermen in the north of Scotland, and our people are asking why, if the Norwegians can curtail the fishing round their indented coastline, the Scottish people should not also do it. There are, of course, difficult questions of possible counter-action by other countries. One of the countries in which counter-action might be taken is Iceland. Therefore, it is a question of whether the Scottish fishermen would gain by copying the Norwegian decision and making it from point to point along the coast instead of within the three-mile limit according to the indentation of the coast line.

Mr. Manuel

On a point of order. The hon. and gallant Gentleman, Sir Charles, is now going beyond the point to which he himself objected, and is dealing with Icelandic fishing methods as against Norwegian methods.

The Chairman

I think the hon. and gallant Member is relating his argument to what might be done in Iceland if we adopted the Norwegian method, and to the effect that such a decision would have on the white fish industry in Scotland.

Mr. M. MacMillan

Further to that point of order. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is discussing something which is explained on page 59 under assistance given to white fishermen. The £400,000 is explained away as a white fish subsidy which will operate until March, 1952. I did not see why he should allow himself this legal poaching when he objected to it from this side of the Committee.

The Chairman

I did not realise that was the case. It was my mistake. The hon. and gallant Member is, I am afraid, out of order.

Captain Duncan

I thought so, too, Sir Charles, but I thought it only fair that I should make some attempt to answer the point from this side of the Committee. I will say no more except that this extra £400,000 which we are now voting has been of very great assistance to the inshore fishermen. Without it they would have been in a very difficult situation. I do not want to go into any great detail, but I want to give one instance, the enormous increase in the cost of gear, about which the late Government did nothing at all. It has put up the cost of fishing enormously.

In addition, the coastal waters of our islands are gradually becoming denuded of fish, and fishermen are having to go further out to sea, which means bigger boats and stronger tackle and gear. Had it not been for this subsidy which expires on 31st March, 1952, but which, in fact, will continue after that date, I do not know what would have happened to the inshore fishermen. The fishermen of Scotland are very grateful to the Government for the extra £400,000 which the Committee is authorising tonight.

9.9 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn

Can the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland give us any information about the state of the vessels in the white fish industry? Does this subsidy include any direct or indirect assistance for reconstituting the white fish industry in respects in which it has been so badly deteriorating? It has been well known for some time that a great many vessels are becoming obsolete.

The point that strikes me is that in order to assist the white fish industry these subsidies need to be greater and greater if the industry is to be placed permanently on its feet. Unless the industry is brought up to date, both as regards its handling of the fish and its marketing of the fish, increasingly larger subsidies will be required to keep the industry prosperous.

I should be glad if, when he replies, the Minister would tell us what progress has been made in bringing this industry up to an efficient standard and what he hopes to be able to do in the future to make the white fish industry self-supporting by having suitable boats for dealing with the trade.

It is not only important from the point of view of industry itself. As everybody knows, this industry is one of the reserve assets of the Fleet for our defence in wartime. If the industry continues to allow its boats to deteriorate and become obsolescent, there are great national dangers involved in respect of the industry not being able to play its full part in the production of food and not being able to make its contribution to defence.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. M. MacMillan

I wonder, Sir Charles, whether it is in order to discuss that part of the Estimate which is repre- sented by grants in aid for the repair and construction of quays and piers.

The Chairman

The matter the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan) wishes to raise would be out of order.

Mr. MacMillan

But it does enter into the sum total.

The Chairman

It comes within the whole Estimate but we are here only dealing with a narrow point, and I think the hon. Member would be out of order.

Mr. MacMillan

I respectfully accept your Ruling, Sir Charles, but may I ask whether it could be discussed under the Development Fund?

The Chairman


Mr. W. G. Bennett (Glasgow, Woodside)

On a point of order, Sir Charles. We should like to listen to this debate if we could only hear what is going on. As it is, we have little idea of what the hon. Member for the Western Isles is saying. Does he want to increase the Vote?

The Chairman

No. The hon. Member was asking whether quays and piers mentioned in the original Estimate could be discussed now, and I was pointing out that Items D and H are the only ones that can be discussed on this Supplementary Estimate.

Mr. Bennett

This expenditure has only a fortnight to run and surely it is impossible at this time to increase expenditure, as the money has been spent already.

Mr. MacMillan

I was not trying to increase the Vote but to increase the scope of the discussion. I am sorry that the hon. Member did not hear what I said, though I do not think he missed much. Could we have some information from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, in connection with Item H, about the areas in which the white fish subsidy is being applied? For example, could we know how much was applied to or spent in the Western Isles and Shetland? This is particularly important in these outlying places owing to the difficulties of marketing and so on.

Could we have some details, or would it embarrass the Joint Under-Secretary to raise too many points of narrow local difficulties at this juncture? We have limited ourselves in this debate by getting each other ruled out of order, so that there is very little left that one can ask the Joint Under-Secretary. I am sorry that we have not been able to address ourselves to the all-important question of the transportation of white fish from these remote areas, and to the long-overdue grant-in-aid. I am sorry that there is not much sign of great success in obtaining comfort from the Government. I am sorry that apparently we cannot have some assurance from the Joint Under-Secretary, who was such an enthusiast in opposition for generous and adequate grants to help the fishermen in his own constituency and in mine.

9.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

I should like to be able to offer an affirmative and hopeful answer to the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan) on the issue of the rising cost of gear. As he has said, I myself have been much concerned about that matter in recent years. I think I may say to the hon. Member—and I think it will gladden his heart—that I am informed that during the last year, and particularly during the last six months, the rising curve of costs has flattened substantially, and I can only hope that that may continue. I cannot give any guarantee, but I am sure we shall all be very glad if that is so.

The hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) asked me about the disappearance of herring in the Firth of Forth. He inquired what was being done to discover the reason for the disappearance and whether there was any chance of the herring coming back. The Firth of Forth is for me, as it is for the hon. Member, a matter of great personal concern, and I have been much interested in this myself. In 1949—I ought not to say at my request, but certainly I helped to bring it about—there was started in the Firth of Forth an intensive research into the problem of the disappearing herring.

Since then there has been a persistent and unceasing research by the fishery cruiser "Cleupea" assisted by the Herring Industry Board boat, "The Silver Searcher." I am sorry to have to report to the Committee, as I am sorry to have to tell my constituents and those of the hon. Member, that the results have been very disappointing.

We cannot discover why the herring have left. There is some indication that broods are beginning to build themselves up again, but it is no more than an indication, and the scientists would not like to place any very strong emphasis upon this. However, there are some hopeful signs, and I can only say that we are doing our best to follow up the research.

The next thing the hon. Member for Leith and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan) asked me about was the effect of The Hague law case and the decision of the International Court. As the Committee know, the decision of The Hague Court, raises matters of very wide and serious concern. They affect not only the fishing industry but, as hon. Members will appreciate, they are at once the concern of the Admiralty, the Ministry of Transport and the Foreign Office.

That being so, it is not a problem that we can dismiss airily. I can assure the Committee that the Government, in all the relevant Departments, are giving this matter the most anxious and urgent attention, and although I cannot promise any early decision or action because of the complexity of the problem, I would like the Committee to believe that we are greatly concerned about this and will do everything we can.

The hon. Member for Leith asked me about Iceland. I understand that the Icelandic Government have announced today the new fishery limits which they propose to apply, as from 15th May next, to the coast of Iceland not already covered by the 1950 regulations which related to the north coast, but we have not yet received details of the new line. It may be that later on there will be more information to give to the Committee.

The next question raised by both the hon. Member for Leith and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South, related to over-fishing. I recognise at once, as I am sure the whole Committee does, the very valuable work which the hon. Member for Leith did at Strasbourg to facilitate some international settlement of this very anxious problem of over-fishing in the North Sea. Since the hon. Member was there, Belgium and Iceland have agreed to the Convention.

Mr. M. MacMillan


Mr. Stewart

Ratified the Convention. I understand that Spain is ready to ratify at any time. The trouble is that France has made suggestions that it might take her a fairly long time before she can implement the provisions regarding larger meshes. If we were to agree to that lengthy period the value of the Convention would be somewhat weakened and we are endeavouring to get some better understanding with France for some more limited period.

If that is achieved we are hopeful that the Convention will be ratified in all the countries concerned. There will probably have to be a protocol afterwards for slight additions but in that way we hope to be able to get on with this: I assure the Committee that we regard this as a matter of real importance and urgency and we are doing everything we can.

Captain Duncan

Is Germany now in a position to ratify a Convention like that, or do we have to wait for a peace treaty before we can get her in?

Mr. Stewart

I think that question should be addressed to the Foreign Office. I cannot answer that. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) asked me about boats, and he referred in particular to the case of Aberdeen. I suppose he was thinking about the McColl Report. That Report showed that unless there was a substantial improvement in the quality, the capacity and the efficiency of the fleet it was not at all likely that Aberdeen could face the future with any happiness. The right hon. Gentleman therefore asked a question which we are all asking: How can we, and how quickly can we, improve the quality of the fishing fleet?

I should be very pleased to deal with that question and answer the right hon. Gentleman, but it does not come under this Estimate at all. Therefore, I confine myself to saying that on another occasion, whenever the Opposition like to raise it, I shall be most anxious and eager to answer. I can say that we are now giving some consideration to the possibility of a scheme intended to assist fishermen, crews and companies to improve their vessels and, perhaps, to build new ones. We are not yet ready to announce a scheme, but it will be announced as quickly as possible.

Turning to the Estimate, the main items to which attention has been drawn are Items B and H. Item B refers to the cost of administering the white fish subsidy. It is not the cost of the subsidy, but the cost of administering the subsidy. The figure of £4,000 represents the cost of administering the subsidy from 1st August, 1951, to 31st March, 1952. That is all it is and I think that is clear. Item H—£400,000—refers entirely, as the hon. Member for Western Isles pointed out, to the subsidy which is called the white fish subsidy.

I cannot tell the hon. Member what part of that subsidy was expended in his part of Scotland or, indeed, in any part of Scotland, although I can, if he wishes, give figures for the whole of Scotland. The amount paid in Scotland in the nine months April to December, 1951, was £486,000. For the 12 months ended December, 1951, the amount was £629,000. If the hon. Member would like me to give the proportion which was spent in his part of Scotland, I will certainly try to do so.

Mr. M. MacMillan

I do not think that it was anything at all.

Mr. Stewart

That subsidy, as the Committee knows—and I think I have just time to explain it—was in two parts. One part referred to inshore fishing vessels, those not exceeding 70 ft. in length, and the subsidy in that case, as the Committee will remember, consists of the flat rate of 10d. per stone of fish landed and 8d. in the case of ungutted fish. The other part of the subsidy was intended for near and middle water vessels. It is a complicated subsidy taking account of the days at sea, total gross earnings, and so on, and I do not think that the Committee will want me to embark upon all that detail tonight.

The purpose of the subsidy, of course, was to ensure a better supply of fresh fish at a reasonable price. It was a subsidy introduced with the consent of the whole House some little time ago, and was supported in its various extensions by both sides of the House. We have announced that we proposed to extend it to the middle of this year, again, I think, with the consent of the Opposition, although we have not yet been able to announce the details of the scheme which we shall apply. I think that covers most of the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

Mr. Hoy

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would keep the House informed regarding the development which he has just announced concerning Iceland. Perhaps the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, who happens to be in Committee at this time, will also take due note of the steps taken by Iceland in this extremely important matter, which should receive the immediate attention not only of the Scottish Office but of the Foreign Office and other Departments.

Mr. Stewart

I can tell the hon. Member not only on behalf of the Scottish Office, but on behalf of the Foreign Office, that action is being taken.

Mr. MacMillan

As it is not yet 9.30 p.m., Sir Charles, would it be in order to discuss the herring industry, the restriction of fishing under the International Fishing Convention and other matters?

The Chairman

I am afraid that the time makes no difference to the Rules of Order.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £278,500, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1952, for salaries and expenses in connection with the administration of Scottish fishery services, including assistance to the near and middle distance and inshore fishing industry and to fishermen's co-operative societies, etc., and a grant in aid of piers or quays.

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