HC Deb 20 January 1953 vol 510 cc163-74

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Maldon)

Now that the big fish have been disposed of, I venture to draw the attention of the House to a more modest but useful creature—the sprat.

I was very glad today to find that sprats were again being served in our Dining Room in the House, and I was glad also to notice the other day, in the "News Chronicle," a letter from an anonymous gourmet who had been enjoying sprats at the Athenæum, that very distinguished club. He said that he had dined there, and had found smoked sprats at the top of the menu, and he added: Helpings were generous. … They set you back a modest Is. 6d. It is evident that sprats at the Athenæum are 3d. cheaper than they are in the Members' Dining Room of the House of Commons.

Arising out of those opening remarks, I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he can help to provide such education or enlightenment of public opinion as may be necessary on the merits of the sprat. Probably the first thing to do is to call them by their right name. I wish that the canners would not insist on—

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Driberg

—calling them by the Norwegian name of brisling. They should use the good homely English word "sprat." Although I think that the public generally do know about them and that a great many people eat them, there is still quite a lot of educational work to be done—not least, I am sorry to say, at the War Office, where there is very considerable ignorance. I had some correspondence recently with the Under-Secretary of State for War because I had learned that the Army were not buying any tinned sprats at all, and it was thought that they might do so. He wrote, rather unhelpfully I am afraid, and said that soldiers did not like sprats. He added: It seems that this type of fish finds no ready market with the public. I wrote back, of course, remonstrating with him, and he wrote again saying: I think part of the soldier's objection to sprats is that they are a rather fiddling sort of fish to eat. The soldier likes the larger type of fish, such as cod and haddock … Then he said, again: All the indications are that sprats are not popular with the public. That really is not so. The answer to it is, first, that if they are a "fiddling sort of fish "—I do not think they are, whatever that means exactly—so are sardines, which the Under-Secretary said, earlier in the same letter, were very popular with soldiers. Secondly, he says they do not find a ready sale among the public—but, in fact, 16 million tins of them have been sold in this country during the last two years; so it is quite evident that a number of soldiers must eat sprats in their own homes, even if they are not able to eat them in the Army.

Thirdly, the Admiralty buy large quantities of tinned sprats, and there is no reason to suppose that "sailors don't care" what they eat and that soldiers are more pernickety. As a matter of fact, the canners sent me a few tins of sprats with the request that I should open them here in the presence of the Secretary of State for War, but even if the right hon. Gentleman had been here I think that that would have been trying your patience, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, rather far.

Quite seriously, I hope that the other Service Departments, the Air Ministry and the War Office, will follow the good example of the Admiralty in this respect and will buy sprats. both canned and fresh—because there is no doubt that when they are fresh they are even better. They are quite delicious, as anybody who has tried them knows—best of all, of course, cooked in their own fat in the cabin of a boat a few minutes after they have been caught.

Colchester, a great garrison town, is only half-an-hour by road from Tollesbury, the fishing village in which I am particularly interested, because it is in my constituency; and I see no reason why, in the messes of the great garrison of Colchester, there should not be a frequent service of fresh sprats, while the season is on.

I am not raising this as a party issue at all. Indeed, the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden) asked me to say that, if he had been able to be here, he would have sought to intervene in general support of these observations. I am rather sorry, therefore, that the Minister of Food fell back, just before Christmas, in answering Questions on this matter, on the argument that he had "inherited" from the previous Government the large stocks of canned fish whose dumping by the Ministry on the market has been part of the cause of the present difficulty.

It may be true that he inherited these stocks, but he did not have to go on dumping them, or perhaps not so fast. Even if this is true, is it also true, as I am informed, that the global quota of imports of Norwegian canned fish for the first half of 1952 was fixed by the Ministry of Food and the Board of Trade at £150,000, but that owing to heavy pressure from Norwegian interests the figure was increased to £500,000, although it was subsequently reduced to £400,000? If that is so, it seems rather strange, in view of the policy pursued by the present Chancellor of keeping down imports as much as possible.

I know that the interest of the consumer and the interest of the ordinary housewife must be paramount in the considerations of the Ministry of Food, and I appreciate fully the force of some remarks made only half-an-hour ago in that connection by my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger). But I would tentatively suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that the principle of some protection for the domestic producer is accepted by both sides of the House in the case of fruit growers and vegetable growers.

One cannot draw a close comparison between two such totally different kinds of food-production as vegetable growing and fishing. Nevertheless, could not the Ministry try to work out some means of giving the fishermen at least roughly comparable safeguards during their winter season? Could they refrain at least from allowing imports, and from dumping canned fish on the market, during the winter and for a month or two before the spratting season opens in November?

I have referred to imports: take exports. Before the war there was a quite substantial export trade in sprats to Holland, Belgium, and Northern Germany. I do not think there is any now. Could the Parliamentary Secretary say why that is so? I have been told, and perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong, that no export licences are granted for this purpose now, or rather that licences are restricted.

What are the prospects now in Australia? It was the Minister of Food who told me a month or two ago that he attributed the present plight of these fishermen mainly to the most regrettable action by the Australian Government early last year in cutting their imports from this country. Following the recent Commonwealth Conference, is there any prospect that Australia will again be increasing imports of fish from this country, among other things?

But the domestic market is really the most important of all, and here there is surely room for considerable improvement. In Norway there are 300 or 400 canning factories turning out millions of cans of brisling. This is not a case in which the imported product is better in quality than the home product. The fish swimming around these coasts are identical with those that swim around the Norwegian coast. Why should we not have more canning factories in this country, canning our own fish, instead of buying the Norwegian product?

Whatever the real causes and whoever may have been to blame, if anybody, the result of what has been, in part, the policy of the Ministry of Food is that a number of fishermen in my constituency and in others on the East Coast have been unemployed during the last month or two. Just before the spratting season began in October they received alarming advice from the canning factory at Leeds, who are their principal customer, that it would be practicably impossible for them to take any fish at all this winter, so far as they could then see

This put the fishermen in a serious quandary. At the beginning of the season, before they start spratting, there is quite a lot of work to be done and a lot of money to be spent on the preparations. Engine overhaul, for instance, probably costs £30 or £40. In all, each of these quite small boats probably costs about £50 to £70 to get in order for the new season's spratting. Naturally, the fishermen do not make those preparations if there is no prospect at all of a substantial market. Therefore, most of the owners and crews of the 20 boats which now form the Tollesbury fleet—sadly diminished in comparison with what it was half-a-century ago—have been unemployed or on National Assistance for most of the last two months; and, meanwhile, the country has been losing this excellent food that should have been produced.

The announcement by the White Fish Authority on 15th December that the Herring Industry Board had agreed temporarily to extend the scope of their arrangements to include sprats was useful, so far as it went. The fishermen at Tollesbury and other small ports north of the Thames are now able to sell their sprats to the Board for fish-meal. I must point out, though, that the price they receive for that is £9 10s. a ton and that that price has to be reckoned minus about £2 a ton; that is what the fishermen have to pay for transport to the factories.

I have tried to reduce the economics of this to the simplest human terms, because it is rather complicated. Yesterday, for instance, they had a good day at Tollesbury. Eight boats went out and they landed about 1,000 bushels of sprats. This, fortunately, went for food; therefore, I should say that probably each fishermen who went out yesterday was in pocket by about £6 at the end of the day.

I want to emphasise that this is not an income of £6 a day regularly for the fishermen. On the contrary, that is a very rare and fortunate exception. Today, for instance, they were not out at all because there was a thick fog; as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, this is an industry particularly subject to weather difficulties. Last January, a year ago, they were able to go out on only two or three days in the whole month. It is very difficult indeed.

The point I am making now, however, is that if yesterday's catch had gone for fish-meal to the Board instead of for food, each man, instead of being £6 better off, would have been about £3 better off; of course, there is not the subsidy on the fish when it goes for fish-meal. It is better than nothing, but it does mean that they have to go out three times a week—and they are very lucky if the weather enables them to do that—in order to make a living at all, when it is going for fish-meal. They must be lucky enough, too, to get 25 to 30 tons of sprats a week per boat in order to make a living for the crew of four. That is not always possible physically or climatically; they have, after all, to go 20 or 30 or more miles from their home port.

Today, the Minister of Agriculture in a Written answer told me: "The market for sprats for canning has revived." I am very glad to hear it, and indeed I have heard from my constituents at Tollesbury that there had been some slight improvement. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not being too optimistic about this: my constituents have also received, only a day or two ago, a notice from the fish-canners at Leeds saying that, in order to help the fishermen, the company last week gave five ports open orders to fish full quantities of sprats for three or four weeks only. Large quantities are being obtained, but in view of the market conditions we shall be forced to stop the fishing again shortly. I am afraid that most of the fishermen at Tollesbury expect that within a week or two they will probably be on the dole and on National Assistance again.

Before I conclude, may I just mention two minor handicaps under which British fish-canners labour? First, they are not allowed to import olive oil, which is more palatable than the inferior oil that they have to use for canning fish. Secondly—this is a curious and might seem a trivial point, but psychologically it is quite important in salesmanship—the British fish-canners are not allowed to fit those little keys on the tins. The Norwegian imported tins, of course, are all equipped with keys to open them. It is quite obvious that the housewife will tend to buy the tin which is fitted with the convenient key.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

Would the hon. Gentleman tell us what is the season for sprats?

Mr. Driberg

From November to March.

In case any other hon. Member wishes to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, before the hon. Gentleman gets up to reply, I propose to finish now. I have no time to develop what is really the most substantial point, which is that we cannot think of this problem only from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) called the remunerative point of view. In these small fishing ports, just as much as in the large ones, fishing is a way of life and an alternative employment. I do not know how typical Tollesbury is, but if the experience of this season is repeated, it is unreasonable to expect that most of the fishermen there will try to keep going in future years, and it is certain that new young recruits will not be attracted into the industry. That would be more than a pity: in its small way, it could be a national disaster.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) for bringing up this subject tonight. I agree with almost all he has said. Last week, in company with the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Kaberry) and the hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Colonel StoddartScott) I went round the factory of the British Fish Canners in Leeds. We were all deeply interested and somewhat concerned to learn of the present state of trade. This company is by far the biggest in this country, but other members of the industry are also affected.

We know how flourishing the Norwegian trade is and how difficult it is here, and I feel that the Ministers responsible should take every possible step to harness the great source of this very delightful fish in our own waters. This is an industry which has been overlooked in the past by successive Governments and by Ministers of Agriculture and Fisheries one after the other.

At the moment, the trouble is caused to a great extent by the unfortunate massive dumping that has taken place. I do not want to be any more controversial than was the hon. Member for Maldon; but my sympathy is with the Ministry of Food, who have had to remedy the unfortunate mistake of placing those very large orders. I do not think any industry could hope to survive for very long if one year's production was dumped, or was attempted to be dumped, in one year. I ask the Ministry of Food to co-operate as much as possible with the industry to spread that terrible load over a greater period, and particularly to see that no fresh imports are allowed until 1st January, 1954. The six months suggested at the moment is not a long enough period. It cannot be the fault of the present Ministry of Food and it is certainly not the fault of the industry, and I hope that the Minister will bear that point strongly in mind. It is esential if this industry is to have a decent chance to put its business in order and afterwards expand it—and it could be expanded enormously to the benefit of the inshore fishermen.

10.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Charles Hill)

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) for his courtesy in intimating to me in advance the points he was going to make and for the reasoned and reasonable way in which he has presented what is undoubtedly a problem of some severity in the areas which it affects. As he has pointed out, one of those areas is the village of Tollesbury, within his own constituency.

He referred to the need for demonstrating to the doubtful the virtues of the sprat. and to its appetizing character when prepared under appropriate conditions. I may add that in simple nutritional terms the sprat has very high qualities. Indeed, four ounces of sprats contains the same amount of animal protein as an equal weight of meat, if not rather more—and four ounces of sprats contains rather more animal protein than a pint of milk. So on nutritional grounds the case for the sprat is fully made out, as is the case for not wasting so valuable as well as so appetizing a form of food.

If I may deploy the problem which confronts the Ministry of Food. I am sure the hon. Member will appreciate that I do so in no unsympathetic attitude to those he represents. It is as well to realise that the Ministry of Food are not putting sprats on the market in any form. The Ministry have a stock of sardines to dispose of, but in view of the price of these sardines it is doubtful whether their sale affects the particular problem raised by the hon. Member.

He has pointed out that the Ministry have substantial stocks of sild and to dispose of these without detriment to the market for sprats is the problem which confronts the Ministry. I will not go over the history of the purchase of these sild or attempt to fasten blame on anyone, though perhaps I may be permitted to say it was not the present Administration that bought them. They inherited them. Sales fell off in 1951 because canned meats from the Continent came in, and so these stocks were left.

The Ministry are anxious to get out of this business altogether. They have these stocks of sild, and much could be said of their nutritional value which is as good as that of the sprats. The Ministry are willing to sell sild to all who will buy them at 7½d. retail per four ounce can, which represents a loss of 3½d. per can. But the Ministry believe that the sooner these stocks are disposed of the sooner will the shadow, such as it is, over the market for sprats be removed.

Many arguments could be put forward as to the right way of tackling this problem. There may be some, certainly not the hon. Member for Maldon—who would suggest that they should be dumped at the bottom of the sea in order to remove them, but no one would reasonably suggest that. The alternative is to dispose of them slowly over the years. Even then the knowledge that these stocks were there and the continuous effect of their disposal would, it is thought, exercise an even heavier influence over the current market. So we try to dispose of them.

What has been the effect on the sprat market? Something like 95 per cent. of sprats are canned. The sale of home-canned sprats in this country has increased. I will not weary the House with the figures, but in the first nine months of last year more home-canned sprats were sold than in the whole of the previous year. What has happened is that exports have fallen greatly and the hon. Gentleman was accurate in referring to the fall in exports to Australia as being the biggest factor of all. If I might answer a question which he put on exports, there is no limit imposed on them at all.

The hon. Member referred to imports. He gave the figures for import quotas, but those import quotas were for E.P.U. countries as a whole and for canned fish as a whole without particularising either the country or the kind of canned fish. So, faced with this problem of the disposal, we are seeking at the earliest moment to get out of this business altogether and so to meet the criticism.

Now, the hon. Member referred to British Fish Canners at Leeds. He referred gratefully to what the White Fish Authority through the Herring Industry Board had decided to do in providing a period of purchase for fish meal. He did refer to some recent good news, although he feared that the contemplated purchase by British Fish Canners was for a relatively short time. I have been making inquiries, and I find that British Fish Canners in Leeds are now in the market for sprats from Tollesbury and several other ports at the usual level of prices, which is about £10 13s. 4d. per ton delivered in addition, of course, to the £6 13s. 4d. per ton in subsidy on all sales to British Fish Canners.

I want to speak with caution, but I understand the position, after inquiry, to be that the offer is for those sprats available in the rest of the season. I add the qualification, that is what I have gained from inquiry in the last 24 hours, and I hope that that is true, for that will solve the problem for the current season.

Mr. Hirst

Will my hon. Friend allow me? I must just explain. I know about the purchase, and I give the company credit. They have enormous stocks, and are trying to keep the inshore fishermen going although they have enormous stocks.

Dr. Hill

I am glad to say that it is the action of this company which, if it be as I have interpreted, will save the industry in the area in the current season. But I was about to pass on to the point, what about the season which begins in November of this year? We are disposing of our sild with all possible speed. If canners like to help us by purchasing large quantities of those sild at a price to be agreed we shall be delighted, but at the present rate we believe that before the end of the year, and I hope before the beginning of the season in November, we shall have disposed of the stocks altogether and so be out of the business.

I do wish to emphasise, though, that whatever may have been the effect of this inevitable sale by the Ministry of Food, the figures do suggest that the biggest factor is the fall in the exports of sprats from this country as the result of conditions over which we have no control. As far as the Ministry is concerned, it welcomes the opportunity of urging the consumption of sprats. As far as the Army is concerned, no doubt the further somewhat trenchant remarks of the hon. Member have been noted. But I hope the House will agree that it is ultimately in the interests of this industry and of the spratters for whom the hon. Member has spoken that we as a Ministry of Food should get out of this business altogether.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive my final word when I say to him that I am glad that he recognises what the evil effects of extended bulk purchase can be. I am glad that he welcomes the statement of our intention to depart from that field at the earliest possible moment. I sympathise with the hon. Member, and so far as our Ministry can help we shall be glad to do so, consistently with this public responsibility to dispose of the food which we have in our possession, and which we hope will be taken up with all reasonable speed and with the least possible embarrassment to the fishermen the hon. Gentleman represents and the canning industry generally.

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

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.