HC Deb 03 July 1957 vol 572 cc1258-64

11.47 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godlier)

I beg to move, That the White Fish and Herring Industries (Conversion Grants) Scheme, 1957, dated 27th May 1957, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th May, be approved. I do not wish to detain the House at this late hour, but may I just remind it that Section 1 of the main Act which became law just before the Whitsun Recess amended the White Fish Order, 1953, so as to enable the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board to make grants towards the cost of converting coal-burning fishing vessels to the use of oil fuel. The scheme which I am now commending concerns arrangements for paying these grants. I think that it is quite straightforward. Although I have no wish to detain the House, if any hon. Members have points which they wish to raise, I naturally should be very happy to deal with them.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)

There are one or two questions which I wish to ask about the Scheme. I think that the House ought to be reminded that we had a previous one and that it was cancelled by the Government. Indeed, its cancellation caused some concern in my constituency, certainly to one firm, which accepted the word of the Government that the Scheme would go through. But then, it will be remembered, we had some trouble in the Middle East and the Scheme was cancelled. As a consequence of that, considerable loss was caused to a firm in my constituency. I am sorry that this Scheme is not antedated sufficiently at least to recoup the firm for loss sustained mainly as a result of Government action I think that on this occasion we are entitled to ask for an assurance that there will be no further cancellation, and that any firm that undertakes the work will receive the subsidy.

I should like an explanation of paragraph 9, which says that the Government are to take powers to inspect the work as it is being done. In other words, they want to see that it is a proper conversion, and that the money is properly spent. On a previous occasion—I admit that it was in the years immediately following the war, and the Under-Secretary would, perhaps, know about it—certain engines had to be installed in these boats because what the industry regarded as the best type of engine could not be obtained.

As a result, certain of these boats have had to be taken out of commission altogether. I mentioned on a previous occasion that a constituent of mine, because of the very bad condition of the engine—the only one that he could secure—was put out of business, and that the White Fish Authority was attempting to extract payment of some thousands of pounds for a vessel which was no longer of any use to the purchaser. If the Government are to take all the powers of inspection contained in the Scheme, I want to know if they will also accept responsibility should the engines prove to be not successful.

The Government say also that they will give grants only to such types of vessels as they approve. In other words, they retain the right to restrict payment to certain vessels. Does that mean a type of vessel? The trawler industry is asking what is to be its future, because of the competition it is getting from the seine net vessels. I know that we raised this matter quite recently with the Joint Under-Secretary, but is it the intention of the Government to differentiate in this Scheme between types of vessels? If so, perhaps they would make a statement on the subject. Does it mean that the grants are to be limited to particular types? That is very important. The industry would certainly like to have a Government statement on the wider issue, but perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary will be prepared to make a statement as to exactly what is meant by these words.

In view of the lateness of the hour I will not say anything more, except, perhaps, to add that any step which provides for the conversion of these boats from coal to oil burning is, of course, a step in the right direction, and to that extent the industry welcomes what is now being done.

11.54 p.m.

Sir Robert Boothby (Aberdeenshire. East)

I rise only to say, in a sentence, that I very much hope that in this busi- ness of grants for fishing boats the Minister will take steps to secure greater co-operation between the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board. That applies not only to these present grants but to all grants. As a matter of fact, I believe that, in making these grants, there is no co-operation whatsoever between those two bodies, and that unless there is greater co-operation we shall never get the balanced fishing fleet that we want. In the re-conversion of coal burning to oil burning, and generally throughout the whole range, I should like to see a far greater degree of consultation and co-ordination between the two bodies. I can assure my hon. Friend that I know of cases where, if the owner of the boat does not get a grant from one authority, he will go to the other in the hope of getting it there, and will very often succeed.

We are spending a lot of public money on these conversion grants, and it is vital that there should be the closest coordination and joint policy on the part of the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board, so that there shall not be overlapping and confusion, with no plan or design in mind. We are attempting to build a new fishing fleet, and "fishing" is a wide term, because boats are dual-purpose and can move from herring to white fishing and back again. Unless there is greater co-ordination and some design and policy, I think we shall get into deepening chaos. I hope we shall get some assurance on that from my hon. Friend

11.56 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)

I wish to add only a word or two at this hour, on the subject which my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby) has introduced. Between the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority there may be many duplications of function. It seems to me that we have got to think on the lines of whether it would be possible to merge these two bodies, so that instead of having one in Edinburgh and one in London, they could be merged together as one authority in London, with an office in Edinburgh, if desired.

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and the Government on carrying out the Scheme, on which they set their minds, and in connection with which they promised, before the Whitsun Recess, to give a specific date for starting these grants and loans. Many of us have been pressing for a long time for the conversion from coal to oil in these older fishing vessels, because, I think, all the industry wishes to get rid of the coal-burning type. With the increasing price of coal those vessels are no longer economical, and the sooner they change over to oil burning the better it will be.

1 should like my hon. Friend to bear in mind the difficult situation of these two bodies, the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority, and to see whether he could consider the possible amalgamation of them. Both have been doing a good job in their own particular sphere for the fishing industry, but some of us think they could do a much better job if they were amalgamated, so that we could cut down expenditure and coordinate the various applications for grants and loans, which are, after all, to help the fishing industry as a whole.

12 midnight.

Mr. Godber

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to reply to one or two questions which hon. Members have raised. In reply to the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) I would say that I am aware of the case to which he referred, and I have a certain amount of sympathy for it, but to put the matter in the right perspective I would remind him that when the original Bill was brought in owners were warned that they ought not to put conversions in hand without consulting the White Fish Authority or the Herring Industry Board. I think it well that that should be remembered.

If the case I am thinking of is the same as the one the hon. Member has in mind, I can say that all that has happened is that the ship has been gutted. Provided no contract was entered into for the provision of new engines before 18th April, the operative date, it will still rank for grant for the main part of the cost. That ought to he of some help to the hon. Member's constituent.

As to type of engine, I do not think I could give an undertaking that if any engine failed the Government would be held responsible. I think the hon. Member was being a little hopeful in suggesting that. I would remind him that this is only for conversions from coal to oil burning engines, and any company seeking to make such conversions will, as a matter of normal prudence, endeavour to get the right type of engines. Naturally the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board would give any advice they could on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby) and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) brought up a fairly large problem, the co-ordination of these two bodies. I do not think it would be proper for me at this time of night to enter into a discussion of that very important subject. I noted what my two hon. Friends said. I would remind them that the functions which these two bodies were set up to perform differ in many substantial respects, although I can quite understand what my hon. Friends said and we shall naturally take heed of what they have said.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives for his words of thanks. I am sure the Scheme will prove helpful. I do not say it is a big Scheme, but it will be helpful.

Mr. Hoy

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that I raised a rather important question on paragraph 11, which says: In the payment of grants in pursuance of this scheme, the administering authority shall have regard to the needs and interests of the white fish industry or that section thereof to which the applicant belongs.… I was asking, is there any intention to limit these grants to any section of the industry? That is an important question.

Mr. Godber

We are not limiting it to any section of the industry. We are limiting it only by type of boat to come within the Scheme—that is, coal-burning boats which could reasonably be re-equipped with oil fuel engines. There are not a great many, I am advised, which will qualify, because of the terms of the Scheme. Many coal-burning boats are very old, and it would not be reasonable to re-engine them.

Mr. Hoy

I do not want to take this matter too far at this hour, but the type of boat is outlined in paragraph 2, and then there is this further qualification in paragraph 11. I want to know, is there a difference between these two things?

Mr. Godber

No. I am saying we are not limiting it in regard to types. There is no intention of limitation. Each case will be looked at on its merits by either of the bodies concerned, and will be considered from the point of view of the justification of expenditure on re-engining. There is no intention of limiting it by type.

Mr. Tom Fraser (Hamilton)

My hon. Friend (Mr. Hoy) is asking a very proper point. Paragraph 2 sets out the vessels which qualify. Paragraph 11 states: In the payment of grants in pursuance of this scheme, the administering authority shall have regard to the needs and interests of the white fish industry or that section thereof to which the applicant belongs… What my hon. Friend is asking is whether this qualifies what is written in paragraph 2. If this means anything at all, surely he is right in making the assumption that if an owner belongs to a particular section of the industry, the authority concerned might very well take the view that, in the circumstances and conditions obtaining at the time, a vessel ought not to be assisted, and a grant not paid. Surely that is the purpose of paragraph 11?

Mr. Godber

It has got to be an economic proposition. I think that possibly the words go a little wide in that respect, but it is the intention to see that no uneconomic proposition should be included. That is the sole purpose of the wording in the Clause. Hon. Members need not be unduly alarmed by it. Such boats that are reasonable propositions will come within the terms of the Scheme.

I am afraid the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Leith in regard to conversion was not the one I was thinking of, so that in the assurance which I gave earlier I went perhaps a little too far. I understood that it was a case which was well known to us. But, as I have said, the warning was given on this particular matter that no new conversion could go ahead without consultation, and I am sorry if the constituent of the hon. Member for Leith suffered in any way.

I have tried to answer the various points raised this evening and I hope that, with these explanations, the House will approve this Scheme which will, I be- lieve, make a real and valuable contribution to the welfare of the white fish and herring fleets.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the White Fish and Herring Industries (Conversion Grants) Scheme, 1957, dated 27th May, 1957, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th May, be approved