HC Deb 21 March 1957 vol 567 cc621-40

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North) rose——

The Deputy-Chairman

The Amendment in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes)—in page 1, line 23, to leave out "appointed day" and insert "seventh day of November, nineteen hundred and fifty-six"—is out of order as it is beyond the scope of the Financial Resolution.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 3, after "unless", insert: the vessel conforms to such conditions as shall be prescribed regarding the standard of crew accommodation to be provided in any vessel in respect of which such a grant is made and". During the Second Reading of the Bill, which was very warmly welcomed by my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side, reference was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) and many other hon. Members who spoke from both sides of the House to the standard of accommodation of crews. It seemed to us that if the Government had to spend the amount of money which they are proposing to do in giving grants to fishing vessel owners—both the skipper-owners and the owners who are not sea-going owners, that is to say, generally speaking, the companies—some regard ought to be had in the Bill to the conditions under which the crews work.

I think it would be agreed by everyone on both sides of the Committee that during the last 30 years, which covers my connection with the fishing industry, the standard of crew accommodation has been very greatly improved. As I said on Second Reading, when I first made contact with the herring drifter fleet in Yarmouth, I was really appalled at the crew accommodation. Today one can see in my own port of Lowestoft wonderful trawlers being turned out of our shipbuilding yards, and one of the most impressive elements is the regard that is being paid to the accommodation and the amenities for crews.

This Bill is primarily concerned with conversion, and that obviously means in this connection the conversion of engines from steam to oil. Although that, of course, is the major object of the Bill, designed to eliminate from the trawler fleets and the herring fleets particularly the old steam drifter and the old steam trawler, it is related only to one section of the vessel—to the drifting power, motive power and catching power of the vessel.

I am sure that we on this side of the Committee and, in fact, all hon. Members—because this is not a political point —will agree that if we are to have a contented fishing fleet, and if the object of the Bill is to be pursued to its best ends, we must have not only the remuneration as provided for in the subsidy, but also a standard of amenities for the crews. Those of us who have known drifters and trawlers in the old days cannot possibly be satisfied that men should be asked to go to sea under those conditions when the industry is being subsidised out of public funds. The Amendment is the very modest one that where the regulations are put before the House, whether by Statutory Instrument or any other means as the Minister shall decide, some regard shall be paid to the amenities of the men who actually catch the fish.

It is very pleasant to sit in a nice office or to be in the market or in a fish monger's shop, but our concern is for the men who go to sea and catch the fish in all sorts of weather. Many of us know what fishing can be like in the winter months, particularly in stormy weather and in the ice of the northern waters of the North Sea, although this Bill does not concern those above a certain northern latitude. In any case, we all know that the conditions can be pretty rigorous. For that reason, we thought it wise to ask the Government to accept this quite reasonable Amendment to ensure that before the grant is paid they shall be satisfied by certain standards.

It is not our business to prescribe those standards. The Minister's Department has had a long experience in the standard of amenities that are available today. When we look at a modern trawler or trawler drifter—if I may say so without undue modesty, those made in Lowestoft and those made for the Russian Government—we find a very high standard of amenities in the accommodation for the crew.

We do not want to make this too controversial a matter—I am sure that the Bill will achieve a great measure of acceptance on both sides of the House —but we should like to ask the Minister that when he considers the regulations which he proposes to lay before us some regard will be paid to the standard of comfort and the amenities for the crews who go to sea.

I am quite sure that it is the wish of all of us to have a contented and happy fishing fleet. It is not only the financial awards that will make for the success of this Bill. The Bill is to encourage the development of the near water and herring fishing fleets, and the mere changing of engines will not attract men. The idea of this Bill, if I may be permitted to say so, is to retain in the herring industry those men who would drift into the white fish part of the fishing fleets and who, once there, owing to the subsidy, would not come back. We want to secure not only the financial rewards but to ensure that the personal comfort and the amenities of the men shall be safeguarded.

Mr. Hector Hughes

I hope that the Minister will see his way to accept the Amendment, which speaks for itself. Obviously, it is a beneficial one. It would not be right that public money should be advanced in respect of ships which were unfit for their purpose by reason of the lack of adequate accommodation for the crew. One would have thought that in drafting a Clause such as this, which provides that No grant shall be made in pursuance of a scheme under… the principal Act in respect of expenditure incurred in the acquisition of a vessel unless an application for the grant is approved by the Authority or the Board … some standard would have been provided for the Authority or the Board. No standard is provided, and that again is a defect in the Clause.

The Amendment provides a standard which would guide the Authority and the Board. We merely ask that there should be a standard of crew accommodation which will be satisfactory to the crew and, ipso facto, satisfactory to the owner of the vessel, who naturally wants to have a vessel which is suitable for the purpose for which it is provided. Therefore, it seems to me that the words, which we seek to have incorporated, complete and round off the Clause. There is a defect in the Clause, the words make good the defect, and I urge the Minister to take that view and accept the Amendment.

Mr. James Hoy (Leith)

I should like to support the Amendment, though I must say I am disappointed that we are not discussing the first Amendment on the Order Paper, which is designed to make the appointed day the 7th November, 1956. I am sorry that that Amendment should have been cut out, but I would not dare to challenge a Ruling by the Chair. I hope, however, that the Minister has not thought that I have forgotten the point. I hope that he also has not forgotten it.

The present Amendment has my wholehearted approval, but it is only right to say that the owners have certainly paid considerable attention to crew accommodation in the latest trawlers. I know that in my own area, where a considerable amount of new building has been done, even without the assistance of the Government in some cases, large sums of money have been spent in making these improvements. The hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Henderson Stewart) has visited one or two places in the area, and I am sure that he will agree with me. We are not, therefore, criticising what has been done.

We seek, through the Amendment, to improve the accommodation in the old trawlers. No one can gainsay the fact that a considerable improvement must take place if we are to retain men in the fishing industry. One of the ways in which we can do that is to ensure that when grants are made the owners are asked to pay some attention to the accommodation provided for their crews. In so doing, the owners will be well paid, because there is no more contented man than the one who has his comfort looked after, especially in the arduous conditions in which men work in this industry. The Amendment, though extremely modest, would make for a much more successful operation of the industry itself.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

I support the Amendment, which has been so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and so warmly supported by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy). In recent years much has been done to improve the welfare of the workers generally. I have no fishermen or trawlermen in my constituency, but I have always been interested in industrial health and welfare. The Bill is designed to help, first of all, with the conversion of these ships so that the industry will be able to do its work better than it has been able to do it up to now.

There is, however, another important point. We must ensure not only that we keep the men who are already in the industry, but that we do everything possible to attract others to it. This is heavy and arduous work which calls for bravery and courage on the part of the men who are employed in it. Since that is the case, we should try to make the conditions for the men working in the industry as good as they can be made.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leith that we cannot criticise in any way the great steps that have been taken by the trawler owners who, in recent years, have been able to build new vessels for this work. We give them all possible praise, but by means of the Amendment we are trying to ensure that if Government money is to be spent to help the industry there shall be attached to that grant the condition that improvements shall be made in order that these men's work shall be more congenial than it is at present.

7.15. p.m.

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

This is an important matter, and I am very glad that it has been raised and ventilated in this way. I realise the importance hon. Members opposite attach to it. It is very important that the conditions in which these men work should be adequate, and I am very glad that tributes have been paid to work done in this direction on new vessels. It is very encouraging to know that that work has been done and that its importance has been recognised.

I ask the Committee to reject the Amendment, not because the Government disagree with the feelings expressed by hon. Members opposite, but because the Amendment would not do exactly what hon. Members have in mind. The Amendment would be directed towards new vessels, which are the very ones that are being dealt with already. I am advised that the Amendment in these terms would affect new vessels only.

In any case, this matter is already covered in other ways. A similar Amendment was proposed in Committee on the White Fish and Herring Industries Act, 1953, but it was withdrawn when the assurance was given at that time that conditions of crew accommodation would be provided for in the statutory scheme governing conditions of grant.

Section 9 (3) of the White Fish Industry (Grants for Fishing Vessels and Engines) Scheme, 1955, accordingly prescribes that vessels should conform with any standards laid down under the Merchant Shipping Acts and should make such provision for the accommodation of officers and crew as the White Fish Authority may require in conformity with the best modern practice, appropriate to the class of vessel concerned, for sleeping, messing and sanitary accommodation, medical or first-aid facilities, store rooms, catering facilities and other accommodation.

That was what was done in that case, and a similar provision was made in the scheme governing grants to herring vessels. Any amendment of these grant schemes would require the approval of both Houses. I hope, therefore, hon. Members agree that it is unnecessary to make specific legislative provision for something which is being done already.

Mr. Edward Evans

Would the hon. Member clarify his earlier point about new vessels? Our point is that these conversion grants really make old vessels new vessels from a catching point of view, and surely what is applicable to entirely new hulls is equally applicable to a grant towards making an old vessel into a new vessel. I do not think that is an academic point. It is one which has a great deal of validity. I hope the Minister will have another look at the matter before he finally commits himself to reject the spirit of the Amendment. I say nothing about the words of the Amendment—subject, of course, to the Front Bench discipline to which we on this side of the Committee submit.

Mr. Godber

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. We are not rejecting the spirit of the Amendment. All I was saying was that its form of words relates the proposal to new vessels rather than to conversions. I was saying that we are in any case dealing with the matter in another way. I was pointing out that this has already been done under the previous Act, and we are proposing to do the same sort of thing under this Bill when it is an Act.

It will be done under the Scheme rather than under the Act, because the Scheme gives greater flexibility. There is a very wide variation in the types of vessels, and, in practice, under the Scheme it is possible to make proper provision for each vessel. We think that that is a more appropriate method of procedure and that it is the best way in which this can be done. It is for that reason that I was advising the Committee not to accept the Amendment. I ask the hon. Member to withdraw his Amendment, for we are entirely agreed about what it is desirable to achieve.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I hastily intervene to show that there is accord between the Front Bench and the back benches, and to say that I appreciate the explanation which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has made. I think it is clear that we all share the anxiety to see that what is the common objective is attained in the best possible way.

Mr. Edward Evans

In view of the assurance of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Willey

I beg to move, in page 2, line 37, to leave out "three-tenths" and to insert "two-fifths".

I feel a salty tang in the air and I am among people who have got the use of their sea legs, so I speak with circumspection. By this Amendment we are not seeking to make a partisan point. We are not questioning the amount of the global sum. Our object is to see whether we can make a better use of the global sum. I say that we do not seek to make any party capital out of this because I remember that when the principal Act was going through Committee the Committee as a whole persuaded the Government to change their views about the provisions which they had proposed.

The question we are concerned with is whether it would not be better to afford a greater inducement to achieving the purposes that the Bill is meant to further; in other words, whether the benefit should not.be spread rather more thickly, though that would, of course, mean that the grant would be used on fewer occasions. I claim no special virtue for the specific proposal in the Amendment. What we are trying to do is to open for discussion the question whether or not the Government are right in fixing the figure at three-tenths; whether that ought not, in changed circumstances, now to be reconsidered and possibly altered.

We are concerned about the overall interest burden upon the working owner. We have to pay attention to two factors, the interest rates and the proportion of the grant. I should have thought that in the light of present circumstances there was a case at least for reconsidering the grant, for not merely accepting the position as it is under the principal Act. The major question is what is the interest burden to be?

I put this tentatively, not dogmatically, but I think that the very fact that we have the Bill means that, at any rate, we are not altogether satisfied with the progress we have made, and that we realise that more has to be done and that more has to be done as quickly as we can accomplish it. I appreciate that we are, of course, governed by the building capacity. We have to satisfy ourselves that the present capacity is being fully utilised. I appreciate that any permissive limit is the maximum limit. If it is to be an inducement it must be, and the Government are bound to make it so.

In the rather changed circumstances, and because we have this Bill before us, I think that there is a case for a rather greater inducement to be offered than we have offered hitherto. That is the reason for the Amendment. It is also to elicit the views of the Government.

Mr. Edward Evans

As I shall try to show on another Amendment, if it is called, as I hope it will be, the fishing industry is now going through a very anxious time indeed. The rising cost of gear and oil, of wages and everything else, calls for the greatest consideration by the Government of the situation of the small owner.

Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee know that the lot of the small man is a very difficult one today. That is not only because of the cost of conversion and because the grants are not over generous. It is because of the alarming cost of gear, the alarming costs of day-to-day routine work. It is also because of the spasmodic character of catches, particularly of herring. The catches, particularly of the East Coast fishermen, in the last two years have been catastrophic.

For these reasons, we feel that we should like to press the Government to consider our figure of two-fifths, indeed, to accept it and so give an additional incentive to the men who have been the backbone of the herring industry. It was the small owner-skippers of the East Coast and in Scotland who were the prime catchers of herring. Those men are gradually being ousted by the larger interests. We hope that the Government will have another look at these figures and see whether they cannot raise theirs. I am no mathematician and I am a little baffled for the moment by calculating which is the larger, three-tenths or two-fifths. I hope that the Government will give me the benefit of the doubt and credit me with asking for the larger.

Mr. Godber

I sympathise with the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) in his difficulty. I would suggest that he reads the two amounts as 0.3 and 0.4 but that can be confusing, too—they have been called the "damned dots".

Since this Amendment was put on the Notice Paper we have given it the most sympathetic and careful consideration, because this is obviously a very important matter, particularly to the small working owner whom we are anxious to assist in any way we can. But it must be recognised that while costs have risen —I admit that—this is a percentage grant. Therefore, the amount of grant varies in any case. It is important to bear that in mind. It seems to me that the present arrangement is fair, and that there is no reason why an owner should be insulated against all increases in costs. Although we help to some extent, we must keep a sense of proportion in this matter.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) suggested that the applications were slackening because the cost burden was too heavy. That is not in accord with our information. The present sign is that over the last two months the rate of application for engine grants has been higher than at any time since the scheme began. That is encouraging and it does not lead one to expect that there is any need for any extra action on our part.

7.30 p.m.

There is another point in that the Bill removes the upper cash limits imposed on grants by the 1953 Act. Limits are still imposed by the statutory grants scheme—for working owners it is £5,000 for new boats and £1,250 for engines—but under the Bill they may in future be varied by a statutory scheme if necessary. There is no indication that the present limits are reducing demand for building or new engines by working owners, but we would be fully prepared to consider them on their merits, if it were felt that they were inhibiting the demand.

In the light of that assurance, I ask that the Amendment should not be pressed, because the position at present is adequate and we have to keep a sense of proportion. We want to give all we can, but we think that the present arrangement is fair and reasonable.

Mr. Hoy

I do not think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary adequately replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans). It may be true that at present the grants are sufficient, but the Parliamentary Secretary is bound to be aware of the considerable increase in costs in recent times. The fishing industry is now facing a further substantial increase in its day-to-day work on account of the proposed increase in the price of fuel oil. Considering those things, can we have an assurance that the Minister has the authority to meet those matters?

Mr. Godber

I have pointed out that this is a percentage rate, so that as the costs go up the grants go up. This is a capital cost, and while it is true that it impinges on the day-to-day costs I think that capital items should be kept separate from the general working. I have said that we would be fully prepared to consider on its merits any case at a later stage for raising the ceiling which we have taken powers to do. I think that we are covered in that respect and we will look at the matter most sympathetically whenever necessary.

Mr. Willey

We are much obliged to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary both for what he said about applications and the assurance he has given. We are trying to make the best use of the grants which Parliament is providing. It appears that the position is satisfactory at the moment and I gather that we have the assurance that if the position deteriorates the Government will look at this again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hector Hughes

I beg to move, in page 3, line 40, after "February ", to insert: nor later than the thirtieth day of June". The object of the Amendment is to make the appointed day reasonably certain "fore and aft"—if one may use that expression. It is made certain fore but not aft, because the Clause provides that the appointed day means: …such day (whether before or after the passing of this Act but not earlier than the twenty-eighth day of February, nineteen hundred and fifty-seven) as the Ministers may by order appoint. However, the Minister may delay and, in that way, prejudice the fishing industry. It is obvious that contracts will have to be made to carry out the work envisaged by the Bill. The owners of the vessels will have to make contracts, and in the making of contracts they must have some certainty.

There is no certainty as the Clause stands, but that certainty would be provided if the Government accepted the Amendment, so that the dates would be 28th February at one end and 30th June at the other. I am quite willing to concede that this is a good little Bill as far as it goes. It is not perfect. It will be remembered that another Bill was presented last November and withdrawn on 27th February because of its defects. I submit that the Amendment will help this little Bill towards perfection.

I ask the Minister not to follow the precedents which he has so far followed in asking us to withdraw every Amendment as it came along. I am sure that he has tried to judge those Amendments on their merits, but he has not had full regard to their merits or he would have accepted them. I ask him judicially to consider this Amendment on its merits and to accept it.

Mr. Hoy

This Amendment will improve the Bill a little. It does not go far enough to meet my point of view, but I do not want to get out of order in dealing with that topic. We have made wonderful progress tonight. I want to remind the Parliamentary Secretary of a case which may be omitted. When we were discussing this matter in November last year, I raised two instances, one of which affected my constituency, in which a grant was lost because of a difference of three days in the date laid down in the Bill.

In one case an owner had gone ahead at the request of the Minister—because earlier in the year the Minister had said that we must make progress and get conversions done and the fleet brought up to date. The man thought that the Minister meant it, and he got on with the job so quickly that he lost the grant. If people show initiative of that kind the Minister ought to do something to meet their needs. What my hon. and learned Friend is saying is that we should cover a similar type of case, that where the work is carried out by a particular date in June it should qualify for grant.

As the Minister has changed his dates from one Bill to another, I appeal to him to give a little flexibility to the respective authorities in these hardship cases so they can make awards to men who are not putting money into their pockets but taking money from their pockets and investing in the industry, modernising their boats, providing decent accommodation for their men and so improving the industry itself. The Minister will be repaid tenfold if he will take action of that kind and for that reason I support the Amendment.

Mr. Edward Evans

This is really a disciplinary Amendment, because in the Second Reading speech the Minister reiterated that it was his desire to state the appointed day as early as possible. We know how anxious the industry has been to get this date fixed. This puts a limit on the dilatoriness of the Minister —to use that expression with great respect—in putting off the appointed day. We are asking that the appointed day shall be no later than the date suggested by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). No great concession is asked. If the Minister cannot make up his mind by 30th June, I do not know when we will get the grants paid.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Derick Heathcoat Amory)

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) will not press the Amendment too far. I am not sure that he would be wise to do so, because I am not sure that he has the full support of his hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy), who said that he did not think the Amendment went far enough. I believe in discipline, but I prefer self-discipline, and I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will allow me to discipline myself over the date rather than try to force the date on me.

There is no difference between us about what we want to do. We want to make this part of the Bill in particular effective at the earliest possible date. At the present time, our oil supply position is improving, but I think all hon. Gentlemen would agree with me that the Middle East position is still in a very unsettled state, and I do not feel that we are yet in a position to fix a precise date when supplies of oil will be fully adequate to our needs. I hope it will be possible to fix an appointed day which will lie ahead within a matter of weeks and not in a matter of months ahead. I think that it would be unfortunate if we made a legislative provision so specific as to mention a precise date today and then some untoward development were to occur which would make it impossible to keep that date.

Mr. Willey

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman could agree to a date and thus put the burden on himself to come down to the House—I am not suggesting that he could do that under this Amendment, but if he felt like that—and ask for the postponement of the date by order. At any rate, he would have to come and face the House in that case, instead, as he might, postpone and postpone his obligation to come to the House and explain it.

Mr. Hector Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman has used the expression "a precise date". That is not what we are asking him to do. There is roughly a period of three months in which the right hon. Gentleman can make up his mind when to fix the appointed day, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has said, if he cannot do it in three months, when will he do it? I would ask the Minister to bear in mind that contracts depend upon it. The trawler owners will have to make hard and fast contracts with certain people and with specific ingredients in them. We are not asking the Minister to be fixed like that. We give him three months in which to make up his mind.

Mr. Amory

What the hon. and learned Member is suggesting is that a specific and final date should be put in before which the appointed day must be fixed. That is what I mean by a specific date, but, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has said, it would be possible, I suppose, to make a legislative provision which could be extended by order. I think that would be making heavy weather of this particular problem. We have said on three occasions previously—I said it on Second Reading, and I have repeated it today—that it is our intention that this Bill should be effective at the earliest possible date.

Mr. Edward Evans

This is a question of contracts, and the prices ruling today might not rule for very long. We know that we are in a very grave industrial situation today. The right hon. Gentle-knows very well that, from the date of the signing of the contract, the date of the operative effectiveness of the vessel may be three or four months later, and, surely, he cannot be so pessimistic about the oil situation as all that. I think we have put up a very reasonable Amendment, and that we should get some sort of assurance from the Minister that he has that point in mind, because the men went to sign the contracts as soon as possible in order to get the best terms they can.

Mr. Amory

I do realise that very clearly, but I know that the position is so uncertain that it would be most unwise, however hopeful I am—and I am hopeful —of being able to fix this appointed day in the near future, to fix such a limit. It is conceivable and possible that it might not be possible to keep to it. It is conceivable and possible that it might, in certain eventualities, have to be postponed, and the hon. Member for Lowestoft mentioned three months, which is quite a considerable time. One cannot be sure, and I hope that hon. Gentlemen will on reflection see the possibility of that happening and will accept the assurances we have given that it is our definite intention to fix this date at the earliest possible moment we can, and as soon as we can see our oil supply prospects sufficiently assured to make it a successful and safe thing to do. I hope that with that assurance the hon. and learned Gentleman will feel that it will not be necessary to press this Amendment to the point of dividing.

7.45 p.m.

Miss Herbison

We have tried to be most accommodating on this side of the Committee on the other Amendments, and we have accepted the assurances that have been given. However, on this Amendment we find it very difficult to accept this assurance. Here, we are asking for a date not later than 30th June, 1957, but that does not mean that on the 1st of July, 1957, there will be a great rush for extra oil for these trawlers. That is the date when the trawler owners can begin to make contracts in order to have the necessary work carried out on their trawlers. I do not know how long that would take, but my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) suggested that it might be three or four months. Indeed, it might be longer than that.

I have tried to link that up with the statements made on the oil situation in the House and the suggestion that has been made by other responsible Ministers in the House about oil, that if we add four months after July everything should be rosy as far as the oil situation in this country is concerned. It seems to me that we are not asking the Minister in this Amendment for anything that he should not be able to give us today.

There is the further point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland. North (Mr. Willey), when he suggested that if this date is put in here it will give us some assurance; and we are not unreasonable people. If the Minister discovers that, for some very good and valid reasons, he cannot operate as from that date, he has only to come to the House and give us the reasons. If the reasons are valid and good, I am certain that they will be accepted by Members on this side. For the reasons which I have adduced, I again ask the Minister to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Willey

I should like to reinforce the appeal which my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) has just made, because this is a matter of some importance and there has been a good deal of uncertainty about it.

May I make this suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman? We can expect that this Bill may receive the Royal Assent before Easter. Could we have a statement by the right hon. Gentleman when we resume immediately after Easter telling us what the position will be? At present, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North has said, we have had a good deal of buoyancy from the Paymaster-General about the prospects in the oil situation. I think this industry is entitled to know where it stands, so as to be able to proceed at the earliest possible moment with this work; otherwise, there will be a growing loss of confidence. Why could not the right hon. Gentleman at any rate work with us in trying to contrive a formula which will enable him at the earliest possible moment to make it quite clear what the position is and give an assurance to the Committee that that in fact will be done?

Mr. Amory

I am anxious to do anything I possibly can to meet the views of hon. Gentlemen opposite, because there is nothing between us at all. What I am sure would be unwise would be to make a specific provision, or any limit, in this Bill.

Short of doing that, I will do everything I possibly can. I am anxious to help people who are thinking of availing themselves of these grants. I shall be very ready to accept applications for grants straight away; to consider them and try to get everything done which can be done in advance, so that when the matter becomes effective there need be no further delay. It should help, to start with, to say that we will receive applications.

I will consider whether there is anything I can do in regard to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). He suggested that I might make a statement, about Easter, as to the prospects. I shall certainly consider doing that. By Easter I hope that I may be in a position to fix the appointed day. At present, may I say that if I am not in a position to fix the appointed day by Easter I will seek an opportunity of making some statement in the House explaining what is the position and what the prospects appear to be?

I want to meet the hon. Member's point, which was a very fair one, that these conversions will take some time in any case. I agree that we do not want any unnecessary delay in the placing of contracts. The hon. Members have made their points very effectively, and we must try to find some way of easing the position if we can and of making it as easy as possible for those who are anxious to take advantage of the grant not to lose or waste a day.

Mr. Hector Hughes

I very much regret that, conscientious and able as the Minister is, he has not addressed his mind to the fundamental argument in support of the Amendment, which is that the owners will have to make contracts, and those contracts will involve agreements between the parties upon specific points. They must be precise and definite. we are merely asking that the Clause should be so tightened up as to make it precise and definite also. The Minister will realise that at the one end it is precise and definite—" not earlier than 28th February "—but at the other end it is not precise and definite, because no date is given. The appointed day means: such day… as the Minister may by order appoint. The Minister may by order appoint 31st December, 1957.

However excellent his intentions may be, he is putting it completely outside the power of the owners to make contracts. That is the essential and fundamental point, and it is a very important one. It goes to the root of the usefulness of the Bill, and I beg the Minister to address his mind to it. I must tell him that I shall not withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I want to raise a point in connection with the working owner. As far as I could understand my right hon. Friend, he said that the matter was under consideration. Many of us in the past have raised the question of a working owner who, to all intents and purposes, is the working owner of more than one vessel. Subsection (3, b) reads: in any other case, one-quarter of the said expenditure. Will that apply to the family of such a working owner, or will he be deemed to be a working owner in more than one case? Perhaps my hon. Friend would be good enough to look into that point. I may say that I do not expect an answer.

Mr. Godber

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his kindness in not expecting an answer to what is a tricky point. If he had only kept talking a little longer it might have been easier for me to give him one. My initial reaction would be to say that only one boat would be allowable in the case of a one working owner. I do not think that it would be reasonable—certainly at first glance—to say that a working owner could be presumed to be working in more than one boat at once.

If we were to accept the other contention we should be very much widening the matter. I regret to have to tell my hon. Friend this—I realise the point of his intervention. I believe that I have stated the position correctly but if I am wrong, I shall be happy to advise him in due course.

Mr. Howard

Suppose the man has sons, and has more than one boat, and on one day he goes to sea in one boat and on another day in another boat? Why should he not be a working owner in both cases? He may go to sea on a Monday in one boat, with two of his sons, and on the Tuesday in another boat. He is still going to sea.

Mr. Godber

I have been considering this matter further since I replied to my hon. Friend, and I should think that he may well be right. He has to some extent convinced me that there is a case for such a working owner. Provided that he goes to sea in each of his two boats it might well be said that he qualifies. I may have been over-hasty in what I said, and I think that in the case which my hon. Friend now quotes he may well be right. But I do not think that we could continue this process ad infinitum. I should have thought that two boats would be as much as one could reasonably expect any working owner to be working in himself—and he must go to sea in each boat in order to qualify.

Mr. Hoy

This is a very interesting announcement. Supposing there are four boats. It would appear that the owner would then qualify for twelve-tenths. It reminds me of the man who, under Scottish agricultural legislation, received 110 per cent. of his outlay. Surely the Minister can give us a better answer than that. If what he says applies to two boats, would it not apply to three or four? If not, can the Minister tell us where we can find a definition in respect of this matter? It must be laid down somewhere. If there Minister can say that a working owner will qualify if he has two boats there must be something in the Bill which says so.

Mr. Godber

Each case is considered on its merits. I have tried to make it clear that I think that two boats would be the limit. It would not be a case of anybody getting 120 per cent.; it would be a case of 30 per cent. in respect of each boat, and there would be double the expense with two boats. I should have thought that two would be a reasonable figure to fix as the limit. I hope that the Committee will accept that explanation and will consider two as the maximum number. I would emphasise that the working owner must go to sea regularly in each boat in order to qualify.

Mr. Howard

I thank my hon. Friend for his further consideration of the matter.

Mr. Willey

I feel that we must make it known that we are in some doubt about this matter. What about the man with four sons? I do not see the logical reason for making two the limit. If I accept the Parliamentary Secretary's argument, the qualification would appear also to be related to the number in the family. I hope that during our further consideration of the Bill we shall receive a clearer ruling on this matter.

Mr. Godber

I think that it is quite clear. I hope that I can carry the hon. Member with me in regard to this rather involved family tree. It must be one business, and if it is it does not matter how many sons the working owner has. He will receive consideration only in respect of one or two boats. If each son owned his boat separately there would be separate businesses, and that would be a different matter. I do not want to fragment families in this way, but I must make it clear that in such a case there would be separate businesses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.