HC Deb 23 July 1958 vol 592 cc607-44

11.58 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Herring Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1958, dated 3rd July, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved. We are putting forward two Schemes tonight and I trust that it will be convenient to the House if we discuss with this the Motion, That the White Fish Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1958, dated 3rd July, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

That will be convenient.

Mr. Godber

I am most grateful.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On a point of order. Will it be possible to pass one Motion and to oppose the other.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Questions will be put separately and the hon. and learned Member will be able to vote for one and against the other.

Mr. Godber

Before going on to the details of the Scheme, I should like to remind the House of our policy about fishing subsidies. The basic problem is that of the large though steadily diminishing fleet of ancient coal-burning vessels which needs to be, and is being, replaced by modern diesel or oil-fired vessels. The essential purpose of the subsidies is to help the industry with its difficult transition problem and to keep the white fish and the herring fleets in economic balance with one another during that time.

Once we are over the transition, the new fleet should be capable of operating economically, and the Government have consistently said that it is not their intention that the subsidies should be maintained permanently.

We have, of course, appointed a Committee of Inquiry under Sir Alexander Fleck to assess the size, pattern and implications of an economic fishing industry. The Committee's inquiries are proceeding actively and when the time comes, we shall consider its conclusions. Our fundamental policy remains, however, the creation of an economic and efficient industry and we must continue to gear our subsidy policies to that aim.

The modernisation programme, which we are assisting with grants and loans for the construction of new vessels and the conversion of coal-burners to oil-fired or diesel propulsion, is coming along quite well. Since the beginning of 1953 about 160 new vessels have been added to the near and middle water fleet of trawlers and liners. In the same period, the number of coal-burners has been reduced from 675 to 298. As will be apparent from these figures, there has been a substantial decrease in the total strength of the near and middle water fleets, but because of the greater efficiency of the new trawlers, and also because of the expansion of the seiner fleet, there has not been a decrease in the quantity of fish landed. The catch was in fact larger in 1957 than in 1953.

When last year's subsidy schemes were presented to the House it was said on behalf of the Government that if the current rate of scrapping were to continue coal-burning vessels would be virtually eliminated within four years. The rate of scrapping has, however, fallen from 106 vessels in 1956 to 51 in 1957. I would ask the House to note those figures; they are significant. A good number of new vessels have been built, and the catch has increased during the past four years. We have therefore concluded that the steam trawler fleet could be allowed to run down a good deal quicker than it has done since the early part of last year without harm to the consumer and without damage to the industry, and that, indeed, it would be in the best interests of the industry as a whole for more of these old and costly vessels, one or two of which will celebrate their sixtieth birthday this year, to be scrapped.

Therefore, despite the fact that the costs of the coal-burning trawlers are likely to be somewhat higher in the next twelve months, we have felt justified in making a reduction in the subsidy to the coal-burning steam trawlers. Indeed, we felt that it was our duty to do so. The reduction, which will apply equally to the older oil-fired steam trawlers, amounts to about 15 per cent., varying from 15s. to £3 5s. per day according to the size of the vessel.

I should like now to explain the reason for a change in the subsidy to certain modern vessels. I am referring to the steam vessels in the 130–140 ft. class, built since 1952. We propose to place these vessels on a reduced subsidy of £11 a day as compared with the present £22 a day. These vessels, of which there are at present only four, are all oil-burners, and have been built with the aid of Government grants and loans. They are a very different type from the older steam vessels and are properly to be compared in efficiency with diesel vessels of the same size, although the diesels of this size receive no subsidy at all. Subject to a review of their operation during the coming year it is our intention that these vessels should be included in the same category as the diesels next year. In the meantime we propose this substantial reduction in subsidy.

Because it is our view that modern oil-burners are in the same class as diesels, we have provided in the Scheme that, although there are as yet no modern oil-fired steam vessels under 130 ft. in length, vessels of this kind coming info operation in the future will receive the same subsidy as diesels of the corresponding size.

We are proposing no change in the rates for the diesel trawlers and liners. These are the vessels which we expect will eventually become completely self-supporting. At present they are facing competition from the more heavily subsidised steam vessels, and it has to be accepted that some of them are finding it hard to run at a profit after allowing for depreciation, which is exceptionally heavy in the early years of the life of a vessel. Nevertheless, their overall position improved last year, and we have not felt justified in increasng the subsidy.

Leaving the trawlers and liners we come to the seine net vessels. We are not altering the subsidy payable to seiners which make mainly short voyages, but for those which regularly make trips of more than seven days—the eight-day seiners—we are proposing increases of 25 per cent. in the existing rates. These vessels, most of which are based on Grimsby, receive a subsidy during the winter only. Effectively over the year as a whole they receive much less subsidy than seiners making short trips. Last year was a particularly bad one for them, and although in the fishing industry, as in any other, there have to be rough times as well as smooth, we have decided that, as an exceptional measure, they should be given some extra help in the coming year. They are the only class to receive an increase.

The evidence we have collected about the results achieved by the inshore fishermen suggests that their position last year was not materially different from that of the previous year, and we cannot foresee any significant change in the coming year. We are therefore proposing to continue their subsidy unchanged.

So much for the subsidy rates for white fish. I should now like to mention two minor changes in the details in the Scheme which occasional experiences have made us feel to be necessary. One provides that where two or more vessels jointly operate the same gear, the weight of fish and the proceeds from its sale must be divided equally between them, and the subsidy due calculated separately for each vessel. The purpose of this amendment is to prevent the catch obtained by a pair of vessels, where one is over 70 feet in length and one under, being manipulated in such a way as to enable the smaller vessel to earn the stonage rate of subsidy on all the fish caught by the pair, while the partner, although it has no fish on board, claims the daily rate of subsidy.

The second change is proposed to enable us to pay subsidy for days between the day of arrival and the day on which the sale of the catch commences only if we are satisfied that such sale is not unduly delayed.

So far as the herring fleet is concerned, after the most careful consideration of the factors involved, we have felt that it would be inappropriate to make any change this year; apart from adding a provision similar to the one in the White Fish Scheme which covers vessels jointly working the same gear.

These are our proposals for the coming year, which I wish to commend to the House. They have been formulated in the light of our general policy, which experience suggests is the right one, and which has as its aim the establishment of an economically sound and self-supporting fishing industry.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

Even at this late hour I make no apology for reiterating the complaint made by hon. Members on both sides of the House at the attitude of the Government about providing time for debating the fishing industry. We never have a chance to discuss the problems of the industry in their widest connotation. Fishing is one of the three basic and fundamental industries, the other two being agriculture and mining, in which we wrest from nature that which nature has to give. All other industries depend more or less upon them.

Agriculture has its full meed of time and discussion and the same applies to mining. But, so far as I can remember, during the last few years it has been only once a year that, at a late hour and in a half-empty House, we have had a chance to discuss fishing problems. Even on these occasions we are circumscribed by the rules of order. The only time we can ask for information is during Question Time in the House. Only when something dramatic comes up is fishing ever mentioned. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to make a vigorous protest about the way in which the fishing industry is regarded in this House.

The problems remain and many of them are unresolved. From what the Minister has said, one must conclude that we shall have to await the Fleck Report. When will that be published? I suppose it means that we shall have to wait and just ask a few Questions of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

And get no answers.

Mr. Edward Evans

Or sometimes get a dusty answer. We shall have to wait until the Report is published, or until next year when these Schemes come up again, and we shall have the opportunity to make a few more circumscribed remarks. We give lip service to the gallantry of our fishermen, to the strategic value of the fleets and to their contribution to our economy.

There remain the problems of over-fishing, conservation—the Icelandic problem would, I assume, be out of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, even to mention—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is correct.

Mr. Evans

—although I hope, in a very mild way, to circumvent that—the discovery of new grounds, the location of the shoals, the problem of recruitment and training and, above all, the spectre of rising costs. All these topics could, and should be discussed in a general debate on fishing, in the same way that we had the other night an excellent debate on shipbuilding and shipping generally.

It is fair to say that the industry, as a whole, would like to give up subsidies. No great industry, and certainly not such a strongly individualistic one as fishing, can possibly feel contented when it has to rely on direct Government financial support to maintain itself. This industry is not, in any sense of the word, a public utility. It is commercial and competitive, and it is a sad reflection that it has to depend on State subsidies in order to carry on its activities.

When the new subsidies were published, I was not surprised to read in the Fishing News an immediate reaction. I saw, in large type: Cuts Made In Many White Fish Subsidies. Trawler Owners Dismayed. The article said: Aberdeen Trawler owners are dismayed by the cuts in the subsidy for steam trawlers, says The Scotsman. Only a very small number of the Aberdeen fleet are modern motor trawlers, and only the subsidy payment has helped to keep the older steam-driven vessels at sea. It would be invidious, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to go into the details of the trawler problem at Aberdeen, as I see two very distinguished people, one on each side of the House, who are certainly anxious to catch your eye on this issue. Many owners say that they cannot gamble on the ordering of expensive new trawlers when the whole industry is threatened by Icelandic and Faroese moves to close valuable fishing grounds. The cuts represent a drop in revenue of between £1,000 and £1,500 per vessel a year. With increased running expenses, owners of steam-driven trawlers will be faced with a drop of more than £2,000 in revenue per vessel in the coming year … The same is true of Milford Haven, which is a port, if I may say so with great diffidence, that has, at last, reawakened to its responsibilities to the fishing world, and could reasonably look out for a great expansion. The cutting I have here says: Milford will lose £30,000 by Subsidy Cuts. These are terrible things. Those are not my figures, but figures that I have taken from a trade journal. In regard to cuts in the steam trawlers, I find myself in some difficulty, because I well remember that when, two years ago, the subsidy on steam drifters and trawlers was raised to a very considerable amount, I stated in the House that it was a very considerable disincentive to steam trawler owners to recondition. If I were the owner of a steam vessel and were given a subsidy of £20 a day, it would take me a very long time to think of sinking capital into an oil-conditioned vessel.

The future of these vessels is by no means secure. We have the threat, and we must not minimise it, of restricted fishing for the distant water fleet, through the unilateral action of Iceland in closing some of our most fruitful sources of supply. It is estimated that the fall in catches over the whole of the country will be as much as 40 per cent. Who will suffer? Not only the trawler owners, but the merchants, the retailers, the fish friers and the consumers. Surely, it must be the aim of the Government so to strengthen the catching power of the fleets, that will now be forced far away, as to make up that loss. Therefore, it is important to maintain the catching power of the fleets even though the vessels are out of date. Many of these old vessels can still operate effectively.

Although I willingly concede the principle that we ought to try to recondition our fleets, to change from the old steam drifters and trawlers to modern vessels, particularly in regard to the accommodation of the crews which in some of the old vessels is quite disgraceful, I think that these cuts are too drastic and too sudden.

The object of the subsidy is to promote the landing in the United Kingdom of a continuous and plentiful supply of white fish. That is what the Minister said when he introduced the 1953 Bill. This has gone ahead in Lowestoft where we have the most modern fleets in the country. We took advantage of the grants and subsidies. In an adventurous way and having, fortunately, companies which had some capital behind them, we have completely reconditioned our fleets.

Other ports are not so fortunate, and I have no doubt that other hon. Members will elaborate on their difficulties. Many factors operate against the wish to rebuild. However good may be the intentions of the owner, we must remember that there are several factors which he has to take into account. One is the terrific rise in the cost of building during the last few years. This calls for caution because it has been found, time and time again, that the cost of building a new trawler or of reconditioning an old vessel is very much greater when the work has been carried out than was originally estimated.

Another very important point was put to me by representatives of the British Trawlers Association—the fall in the price of scrap metal. It used to be said that with the money realised by the sale of three old drifters or trawlers, plus the grant, one could build a new vessel. I am now told that the price of scrap metal has fallen to such an extent that it is necessary to sell eight or nine old vessels to produce the same financial return.

An immense risk is involved, and the Government by introducing these very drastic cuts in the subsidy at this time are doing a great disservice to these old vessels. As I have said, I concede the necessity for bringing the fleets up to date. If the fleets are not working to full capacity it means that the ports are working uneconomically and that all the ancillary and auxiliary trades must suffer.

The cuts in the subsidy mean fewer ships going to sea, which, in turn, means more losses. I would have hoped that instead of making these drastic cuts the Government would have tapered off the subsidy, thus avoiding the severity of the cuts. I am sure that we on this side of the House and hon. Members opposite would wish to ask the Government to think again about the matter and to bring in something new in about six months' time.

It was the custom a few years ago to introduce these subsidy schemes every six months or so. Although I concede that such an arrangement makes for anxiety and instability, because shipbuilders and owners wish to look far ahead, I think that the Government ought to look at the matter again in the light of present trends.

The fishing fleet owner has been faced during the last three years with depleted catches and the early disappearance of the herring, and I hope the Government will have another look at this problem of the fall in the herring catches. I am convinced that this unrestricted trawling in the North Sea where thousands of millions of young immature herrings are drawn out of the sea, not for human food but for fish meal, is a thorough disgrace to the whole industry. I understand, and I hope it is true, that the Government are taking steps to have consultations with the Governments concerned, and I hope that we shall hear something about that before the end of the debate.

There is a school of scientific thought which believes that it does not matter very much. I am sure the old skippers who have been on this job since boyhood will tell a very different story. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) looks at me. I think he holds different views, but I represent one of the major herring ports of the country. The hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) is here and he knows that the East Anglian herring fishing industry is vital to the economy of the East Coast towns, and we do not want to see that valuable fishing going to waste.

One of our greatest problems is to fulfil our contract with Russia, and that is sadly suffering from a shortfall. That is a very attractive contract, if only we could carry it out. The English drifter owners, and I am sure the Scottish drifter owners, too, have made strong representations to the Government. I am sure that in order to maintain the drifter fleet and to ensure the full catching capacity the subsidy should be substantially increased. I was hoping that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) would make his swan-song here tonight by a great panegyric on the herring, but I do not see him here.

We on this side of the House, who introduced the subsidy scheme, are proud of what it has done, but in order to secure its effectiveness in the face of present conditions which are unique and extremely difficult, we urge the Government to produce an improved and amended scheme both for white fish and the herring industry as soon as possible.

12.23 a.m.

Mr. W. S. Duthie (Banff)

I join with the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) in registering my personal protest against the time that is allotted for our fishing debates, and in particular at a debate of this importance having to take place at this most unseemly hour. I shall be very brief. There is much that I would like to say, but in fairness to the House, I do not think it is any good going into detail at this late hour.

First and foremost, so far as concerns the inshore, near-water and middle-distance white fishing vessels, we must get out of our minds the pious hope that was expressed when these subsidies were introduced that they were to be of a temporary nature to tide over a time while the fleets were to be rehabilitated, because that is just not true. The fishing industry today cannot get along without subsidies, no matter how modern the vessels may be. The quayside price for fish is too near the actual catching cost, leaving out of account the standing charges on loans to be repaid and interest rates. Gear and operating costs are still on the increase. The cost of new vessels is still going up and, as I have said before in this House, fishermen's earnings compare unfavourably with the earnings of skilled workers ashore in terms of hours worked. The answer, of course, is an equitable price for fish, but that would mean a very serious increase in the cost of living, which is something which any Government must view very carefully indeed before countenancing.

I do not know how far one would be in order in touching upon the possible curtailment of fishing grounds, but this is a consideration in making ends meet in the fishing industry. A most serious position is confronting vessels of all sizes, from the small, inshore vessels to the big trawlers, in the outlook as regards fishing grounds. Many owners have, in recent months, contracted for new vessels, on the understanding that the fishing grounds which we have enjoyed throughout history would be inviolate. With increased building costs and interest rates, these owners who have embarked upon new vessels are finding themselves out on a limb. Their position is very serious as a result of this new development. I had hoped that the Fleck Committee, at the behest of the Government, would have returned an interim report dealing with this particular matter.

It seems to me that immediate assistance should be given to those owners who find themselves involved in contracts which at the moment offer little prospect of eventual success.

Mr. George Jeger (Goole)

Has the hon. Gentleman any faith that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, under its present Minister and Parliamentary Secretary, would pay any more attention to the Fleck Report than it has paid since 1951 to the Heneage Report on drainage?

Mr. Duthie

It is to be hoped that the Fleck Committee will soon report, and that its report will be acted upon immediately it is received.

There is a great deal to be said for retaining the present subsidy for coal-burners, for this reason. The present trend of affairs in the fishing industry will mean fewer contracts for new vessels until the air is clear concerning the fishing grounds. If the subsidy is reduced on the coal-burners, more fishermen will be out. We shall lose crews. It is essential, in the period of transition, that crews should be kept together as sea-going units. That could be done by the retention of the present subsidy for the coal-burners. It would, at least, go some distance to help.

As for herring, the hon. Member for Lowestoft mentioned the Russian contract, but, although it is very nice to have the Russian contract, the unfortunate part about it is that the price associated with the Russian contract is debasing herring values in this country. The price attendant upon the Russian contract has gone a long way towards influencing many people to leave the herring industry. That is a fact. The prices that the Herring Industry Board could offer were based upon the Russian contract, and they have been far too low. It is to be hoped that ways and means will be found of marketing herring which will give a price more attractive to the fisherman. I do not want to go into a detailed discussion on the point, but I hold it as being absolutely true.

I come now to A and B ports. A very worthy section of the fishing industry is under a great disadvantage in this matter of A and B ports for fish meal. In an A port, the price for fish meal is 40s. a cran. In a B port it is 20s. a cran. In the whole Clyde area, there is not an A port. The herring fishermen start with that severe handicap, and it is quite wrong that this should be so. An A port should be established in the Clyde to take the surplus herring landed there. Ullapool, too, should be an A port.

The hon. Member for Lowestoft mentioned research. Of course, this is overdue. Lots of things are happening to the plankton-bearing currents and in the movement of shoals which we know nothing about. We have heard all sorts of theories concerning the absence of herring. If those question can be answered and if the scientists can find out where the plankton-bearing currents are in the ocean, we shall have gone a long way towards finding the shoals again.

The Scottish Inshore White Fish Producers' Association has made a perfectly good case for a 1s. a stone subsidy for gutted fish. The Scottish Herring Producers' Association has made an equally good case for increased subsidy for herring. At the present juncture I am prepared to accept the subsidies under these Schemes as a means of keeping the industry ticking over till we get the Fleck Report. I think the Fleck Report will be far reaching, and it will be up to the Government, no matter of which colour the Government may be, to pay immediate attention to that Report and implement, by action financial or otherwise, the recommendations contained in it.

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)

The two excellent speeches which have been made relieve me of the necessity for saying more than a very few words. On the general issue of reduction of subsidies I say only that I think we should recognise that it is desirable to arrange for scrapping of unduly old vessels, but, particularly at this time when, as has been said, there is a threat to production as a whole, we must envisage scrapping as part only of a policy of scrapping and building. There is a good deal of misgiving whether with the present arrangements there will be building. It may be that there will be scrapping, but if there is not building or if the fleet in the near water fishing has to make up certain losses in the distant waters that may be damaging to total production.

The only specific point I want to make refers to the Grimsby seiners. It may seem churlish to refer to the only section of the industry in which subsidies are going up and I think the Grimsby seiners are grateful for the improvement in the subsidy rate. Nevertheless there is a distinction between the different classes of sailors. The point I want to make is that the owners in Grimsby certainly feel that one distinction which does obtain is not quite a rational one. The difference between those who get subsidy all the year round and those who do not get it in the summer is in money terms, a pretty big one. On the other hand, the distinction between the costs of the two classes of vessel is relatively a minor one. I hope that when the Fleck Report comes out it will rationalise what at the moment does not seem entirely rational.

The plea I would make is that the results of those two classes of boats should be kept constantly under review and that perhaps when the Fleck Committee has reported it may be possible, if subsidies are to continue at all, to have a distinction which seems more reasonable to the people concerned. It is important they should see that there is justice in the way the existing subsidies are allocated. Despite the courteous reception which they had from the Minister when they went to put their case to him, they are not satisfied that the present distinction truly represents the real difference in costs.

12.33 a.m.

Lady Tweedsmuir (Aberdeen, South)

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) was quite right in feeling satisfied with the subsidy increase to the seine netting vessels, although there is a body of opinion particularly in Scotland which feels that perhaps the seine netting fleet are getting too large. We should at least thank the Government for having speeded up publication of the White Fish Authority's Report for the year, so that it is available in time for this, the first debate on the subsidies we have had. I hasten to add that is about the last thing I shall say that is satisfactory to the Government.

Last year when we discussed the question of the subsidies to steam vessels they remained stationary, and yet at the time it was considered that the problems of the fishing industry were so great that it was necessary to have an inquiry into the whole matter. I could not support the Government at that time, and nor can I now, because at this moment there are far greater uncertainties for the whole industry.

I have always thought that Aberdeen should do its best to modernise its fleet as swiftly as possible, and I am the last person to be content with the fact that we have 102 steam vessels which are over 39 years old. But Aberdeen has not done too badly in trying to modernise its fleet From 1st January, 1957, to 1st June of this year we have had 16 new vessels in the port of Aberdeen, and seven new diesel boats are to come into commission this year.

Therefore, I am not surprised that the White Fish Authority should say in page 12 of its Report: The greatest progress during the year in new building has been in Aberdeen and in Grimsby. It may well be that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will say that there has not been enough scrapping of old vessels. Let us consider how that has come about. The Authority says that it is probably due to the higher rate of subsidy in 1956 and what it describes as some better catches.

The hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) referred to another very practical reason, namely, the price of scrap which at present is only about one-quarter of what it was a year ago. In this country it is £6 10s. a ton. It is true that in Belgium it is £8 10s. a ton, but it takes £300 to £400 to take a ship over there to be scrapped. Other hon. Members have referred to vast increase in building costs. There is also the very practical reason that there is a limit to the rate at which new trawlers can be built. It is not every yard that will undertake such work.

Owners have no wish to run uneconomic boats. The costs agreed by the Department with the fishing industry shows that at known rates of rising costs today there will be a loss of about £2,000 per boat during the coming year, and costs which are not allowed by the Department include such matters as the increase in Aberdeen harbour dues of about £4,000, or about 80 per cent. and pay increases for net riggers and braiders, engineers and shipyard workers which affect not only the increasing costs of building but also repairs. There are also unknown factors such as the latest demands for further rises in pay by the fishermen themselves.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said that it is important to have the right balance between the old vessels and the new. I submit that in today's prevailing conditions of uncertainty the present reductions in the subsidies, particularly to the steam vessels, are really most unwise. I say this, not as an apologist to the House, from a constituency point of view, because one-sixth of the people of working age in Aberdeen are employed in the fishing industry or its ancillary trades. Whilst it is true that recent employment figures have shown a definite improvement, nevertheless we have an unemployment figure of well over 3 per cent. It is not surprising that the fishing industry as a whole should ask whether the objects of the subsidies are really being achieved.

I understand that the object was to provide a plentiful supply of prime quality fish, which I claim Aberdeen has always been able to give to its markets in the United Kingdom. The subsidies were also to be provided for a period during which the fleet tried to rebuild. I wonder whether I may have a reply to a question which I put in debate the other day—whether the terms of reference of the Fleck Committee are wide enough to include consideration of anything that may happen by way of alteration of the fishing limits off Iceland and the Faroes. While we accept that the Government are determined to ensure that our fishermen are legally protected within the twelve miles limit as from 1st September, what Aberdeen is worried about is any intention of the Danish Government or of the Faroese Parliament to extend their limits.

I feel, Mr. Speaker, that you are looking rather restive, and I suspect the reason why. Therefore, I will merely hasten to say that this causes us uncertainty for 70 per cent. of Aberdeen's catch comes from the Faroes. It causes uncertainty in the minds of all those in the fishing industry in Aberdeen because of the possible effects on their livelihood. It is because of that that I would ask that, if anything unfortunate happens in the coining year, the Government should bring forward new proposals to amend these subsidies, even if it is only half way through the subsidy year. That, surely, is the least that the industry can expect.

I should like to support what the hon. Member for Lowestoft said when he drew attention to the fact that we are concerned tonight with one of the few natural resources which this over-populated island possesses. We hear much about agriculture, but not very much about fishing, and I plead with my hon. Friend to fight the Treasury, if necessary, to ensure that the fishermen shall be given what they deserve.

12.43 a.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I am strongly of opinion that this new Scheme should be rejected and that the Government should take it back and reconsider it. There is ample time to do that, because it does not need to come into operation until 1st August. Between now and then, the Government can dwell upon the economic facts with a view to realising that it is wrong to reduce this subsidy at this time.

This Scheme purports to reduce the subsidy arbitrarily, without sufficient reason, and without adequate warning having been given, at a time when the industry is confronted with grave problems, both national and international. The House knows very well that these problems include the continuing high costs to which this industry is subject; and, so far as international matters are concerned, it has difficulties such as those arising from Iceland's attempt to fix wider territorial fishing limits. If ever there was a time—I do not know what the hon. Member opposite finds so amusing.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

The only reason why I was amused was the hon. and learned Member's skilful handling of the position of Iceland without going against the rules of order.

Mr. Hughes

As the hon. Member comes from a fishing area I should have thought that he would have treated fishing as a very serious subject and not as a laughing matter.

I was about to say that if ever there was a time for this subsidy to be reduced, that time is not the present, especially in view of the reasons which I have advanced. This new white fish subsidy at one stroke is an attack on the various ships of the Aberdeen fishing industry, on ship-owners, officers and crews, on the fish market workers, and the consumers.

This is not the time for the subsidy to be reduced. On the contrary, I ask the Government to take back the Scheme and in a new Scheme not only maintain the subsidy as at present, but consider the good case which could be made out for increasing it. Having regard to the lateness of the hour and the arguments already advanced, I shall not go into details, but I wish to put the case in a general way and I hope that the Government will seriously reconsider this prejudicial Scheme, take it back and produce a better one more helpful to this essential industry.

I join with those hon. Members who have protested at this debate coming on at this late hour. There should be some system of priorities in these matters. What would the House think if colonial or international matters came on at this time, a quarter to one in the morning, after a long day when hon. Members are fatigued after doing their legislative work all day? It is entirely wrong for the Government to do this, as they have done again and again. They should have some respect for the fishing industry and see that its problems are discussed in detail at a proper hour of the day.

12.47 a.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I will try to be as brief as possible as there have been many speeches which have more or less covered the subject. The Government have not been very popular tonight and I trust that they are taking some notice of what is being said. I want to add my protest against the fact that, as far as my memory serves me, this is the first time this year that we have been able to discuss the fishing industry and this, as has already been said, at quarter to one on a Thursday morning.

This is a very important industry and part of our food supply. It is part of our defences in war, and to have this measure of time to discuss an industry of this importance is something about which we must protest. I trust that the Government will take some notice of that protest.

In introducing the Schemes, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary focused attention by saying that the subsidies could not be maintained for ever. He gave the impression that the subsidies were related to the modernisation of the fleets and so forth and that ultimately—and it may well be not so ultimately—they would be whittled away. He gave the impression that he hoped that this would not take too long. If my hon. Friend is thinking that, he is deluding himself, because in the inshore fishing industry—and it is to that that the Schemes largely relate—it is extremely unlikely in present conditions that that will happen. I hope that my hon. Friend realises that.

The hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) gave the impression, I am sure unintentionally, that all subsidies were being reduced. That is wrong, because for a goodly proportion of the inshore fishing industry the status quo will continue. We must be clear about that. Consequently, whatever one might feel about certain reductions provided for in the Scheme, one can hardly contemplate voting against it, because to do so would be to vote against the very subsidies which are the mainstay of the fishing fleets at the present time.

Anxieties have already been referred to by nearly every hon. Member in reference to a certain island, which I will not mention again because it does not actually come within the terms of the Scheme. Nevertheless, it affects the Scheme in a way, because it is from the anxieties arising in respect of this island that we might find a certain retardation in the industry, which, in turn, might lead to a loss in the industry, because of which subsidies might have to be supported. Consequently the one is not altogether unrelated to the other.

I would draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 16 of the Scheme—which restates the subsidies which will apply specially to the inshore fishing industry—especially on the question of the subsidy of 8d. per stone for pilchards. The pilchard industry is of very great concern to the part of the world in which I live, and which I have the honour to represent. No doubt the Minister is aware that one of the reasons for the subsidy is the fact that fishing fleets are not able wholly to maintain themselves. One of the reasons why they are not able to do so is that the facilities for dealing with the catches, and the quantity of catch, from time to time, are not there. The Minister knows that, and knows quite well that the White Fish Authority is studying that problem from the point of view of its long-term policy.

It is not the future policy that I am worried about; the Scheme applies not to the future policy but to the present one, and it is the present policy that I am dealing with. I hope that the Minister will remember that one cannot go on for ever producing good policies for the future which may not be capable of being applied to the present.

My last point is purely factual. Mention has been made of the cost of subsidies, and so forth, and members have mentioned the reductions taking place in respect of coal-burning vessels. I wonder if the Minister would be kind enough to inform the House what is the estimated difference in the cost to the Treasury, comparing this year with last year. If we could be told that it would at least give us some idea what the reductions are, and what kind of figure the Minister is dealing with.

12.53 a.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

I do not know what the last question was meant to do, because there are changes in subsidies for different sections of the industry. While some sections may be getting increases there will be serious reductions for an important part of the industry.

Mr. Marshall

The hon. Member says he does not understand what the question was meant to do. It was put purely in order to get a figure of the estimated difference in cost to the Treasury, comparing this year with last year. Figures are interesting when they relate to costs.

Mr. Hoy

I still do not see anything in that question. No matter whether the total moves up or down, for a considerable part of the Scottish fleet the Scheme spells very difficult times.

We have heard a lot tonight about the reasons for the reductions in subsidies in respect of building of new boats. I would remind the House that on both the previous occasions when the Minister presented new Schemes, in 1956 and 1957, he said that one good reason for the less speedy building of boats was that the yards could not accept more orders. He said that the output of the yards was the limiting factor in the production of new vessels. Let us have no more nonsense about it. That was the one thing which restricted the new vessels coming into operation. It should also be remembered that even in 1956 the Minister said that because of this all these old coal-burners had to be kept going, as we had to have a balanced fleet, to provide the fish that the nation required. These were the factors which were operating.

Although in 1956 he increased the subsidies and defended them, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said the increased subsidies were in no way getting out of step with increased costs. He said that the industry was having to put up with increased costs in all directions. Do not let us pretend that those engaged in the industry were making increased profits. They were doing nothing of the kind. In 1957 the Minister said: In the past four years about half the coal-burners have been withdrawn and new vessels have been built as fast as the yards have been able to turn them out."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1957; Vol. 574, c. 740.] It is no use the Joint Parliamentary Secretary complaining that they have not been coming out fast enough. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the vessels were being produced as fast as the yards could turn them out. It is no use the Joint Parliamentary Secretary saying tonight that the industry has not been playing its part in this matter.

Mr. Godber

The only point I was making was that in the year referred to by my right hon. Friend over 100 vessels had gone out. In this year the figure is only about 50. It is a significant difference which I was entitled to bring to the notice of the House.

Mr. Hoy

But the hon. Gentleman has no right to deal with the matter as if it were the fault of the industry. I will tell him one or two of the contributing factors.

It was on 25th July last year that we discussed these subsidies which came into operation on 1st August. The hon. Gentleman will not forget that in the following month the then Chancellor imposed cuts. He said that we had to restrict credit and he put up the Bank Rate to 7 per cent. He made it economically impossible for people to enter into new contracts. No hon. Member will deny that. Because these conditions were created, it is a little paltry for the Parliamentary Secretary to say, "Because we imposed these cuts, you were unable to do the job, and because you were unable to do the job, we are going to cut the subsidy."

No hon. Member would argue that we should continue to use the coal burners any longer than is necessary, but let us be candid, and say that in present circumstances we cannot do without them. We shall not get rid of them by the present policy of the Government.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary did not deal with the case regarding Scotland. Last year, when he was presenting similar subsidies the present Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the one great difficulty he foresaw was the position of Scotland. There would be difficulties, he said, because of transport charges and different methods of fishing. I was surprised to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say that he was able to differentiate between certain types of seiners regarding subsidy. When, last year, I suggested to him that they might differentiate, he said that they could not possibly differentiate between one port and another, but that has not prevented him bringing in a different subsidy for four vessels—so he has wiped out that argument altogether.

Last year the Chancellor said that it might be that in Scotland, as a result of these workings, we might have to try some new type of vessel. Let me say that, in Scotland, it does not pay even with the new vessels. In my own port, even with seven new vessels last year, the certified losses were nearly £12,000—and that did not include the exorbitant interest charged for the loans. Every hon. Member knows that the charges have nearly doubled since this Government came into power. These losses have been incurred because of the cuts in the subsidy. Even on the old steam vessels, which still trade from my port, the present cuts will add about £22,500 to the £100,000 or so that they lost last year. This does not give them much courage to rebuild.

As I say, the Chancellor said that perhaps in Scotland they would have to adopt a new type of vessel. That may be so, but we were fobbed off last year with the story of the Fleck Committee. I must say that the Government have not waited on the Fleck Committee Report before cutting the subsidies. In Scotland we find that even the building of new boats is not encouraged.

As I have said before, I have in my constituency one of the most progressive trawler owners in the business—Mr. Croans. He has gone in for a new boat—building a smaller type of vessel—and, if I might say so in the presence of one or two hon. Members opposite from the North of England, we had a delegation from Tynemouth to Berwick the other day to look at this new vessel, in order to see if it might help them to overcome their difficulties.

Mr. Croans has had little encouragement. He writes to me: I have been in touch with the local Fishing Officer and would confirm that while the new class of vessel which I am building at Berwick, while trawling for white fish, qualifies for subsidy at the rate of £5 per day, whereas, had this class of vessel gone to the herring fishing or seine net, she would have qualified for subsidy at the rate of £6 10s. per day". It seems nonsense that people showing such enterprise should get this sort of rebuff from the Treasury, and I suggest that if the Parliamentary Secretary is in earnest he should tackle this problem, even now, and see that these people, in common fairness, get what is being paid to other sections of the industry.

Perhaps I might also suggest that he gives consideration to building these vessels to a pattern—say, in three sizes. Today, new trawlers cost over £1,000 a foot to build. That is an awful lot of money. If three patterns could be established, we might be able to have a much more economical building of boats, and make it possible for even the small owner to undertake new boat building. It is all the things I have mentioned that prevent rebuilding taking place.

The Parliamentary Secretary is wrong, once again, about the scrapping and replacement of vessels. In Scotland, with the exception of 1956, the number of vessels scrapped last year was the highest on record. His figures were really misleading for Scotland.

I think we can sum up the matter by saying that, as far as we are concerned, the earning power of the new vessels is not sufficiently attractive. Secondly, as has been mentioned by the hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir), the tremendous fall in the price of scrap has added enormously to their difficulties. If my figures are right, they bear out very much what the hon. Lady said. We cannot expect owners to scrap their old vessels at that price.

Certainly as far as the Scottish Office is concerned, the Joint Under-Secretary who, I presume, is to reply to the debate tonight, has to face this problem of Scotland's fishing fleets which the Chancellor said last year was quite different from that in other parts of the country.

In conclusion, I would say to the Minister that if he is really in earnest about this matter he must treat the industry seriously. We cannot expect people outside to treat it seriously if the Government think that one o'clock in the morning is the right time at which to discuss the matter. Altogether, the matter has been badly handled. It will give no encouragement to those in the industry. It certainly does not provide for the enterprise shown by certain people in my own constituency, and we can only hope that the Government will think again about the matter.

1.7 a.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I wish, first of all, to add my objections to the fact that we have to debate this very important industry at this time of night. It always happens that we have to do this late at night. I cannot help feeling, and I say this with very great respect to the Scottish Members who themselves have had a pretty good field day today, that we might have debated the subsidy Schemes as the first part of today's business rather than as the last part.

I have always thought that the Minister realises that it is to his advantage, if not to the advantage of the fishing industry, of which he has a great deal to say in favour, that we should debate the matter at this time of night, because there are very few Members in the House, there is very little interest taken by the Press and very little interest taken also by the public.

There are very few Ministers present. I should have thought that when there are such tremendous difficulties facing the fishing industry as a whole it would have been better to have had a full Front Bench rather than just a few Ministers who are anxious to get these Schemes through the House. There is, of course, another complication. The fact is that whenever we discuss subsidies the contributions that we can make are very limited indeed because we are never able to discuss the wider implications. There are some very wide implications today.

The British Trawler Owners' Federation very properly drew attention in its statement to the fact that nearly every fishing port in the Kingdom has a different problem and that it is extremely difficult to put forward all the problems relating to each port. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food addresses his mind to the whole question of subsidies in making a general statement which does not give us an opportunity to discuss the individual problems of the different ports.

The hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) referred to the difficulties of the fishing port of North Shields. That port has a familiar problem of its own because it is the only fishing port in the country where the fish quay is owned by the local authority.

In order to try to encourage the building up of an economic and efficient fishing fleet from North Shields, the local authority has put a large sum of money into the improvement, modernisation and expansion of the fish quay. The Parliamentary Secretary does not make any general reference to the problems of a fishing port like mine. He just talks about the matter in general, and my local authority as well as those directly interested in the fishing industry are very concerned about the future of the fishing port of North Shields.

It is very important to have a balanced fishing fleet; nobody would deny that, but it is equally important from the point of view of the national interest to ensure that there is an efficient fishing fleet in every port because so much depends on having a fleet from the point of view of national defence and the like.

I am not going to continue arguing at this late hour, but I should like to say, as I know those who are interested in the fishing industry in my part of the world would like me to say, that they do not think that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food takes nearly enough interest in problems of fishing as a whole. They feel that very strongly indeed, and I can only hope that on the next occasion when the hon. Gentleman comes to the House to discuss fishing matters the debate will take place at a proper time of day. I shall then be able to invite representatives of my local authority to come into the Public Gallery, and although they will not be able to intervene in the debate, they can at least listen to me intervening and trying to prod the Parliamentary Secretary into paying a little more attention to the needs of the fishing port of North Shields.

I am profoundly disappointed that we never have an opportunity of discussing this very important matter at a proper time. Above all, it seems most extraordinary that when fishing interests are facing one of the greatest problems that they have had to face for many years, this should be the moment when the Parliamentary Secretary should seek to add to their anxieties.

1.13 a.m.

Mr. George Jeger (Goole)

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary has certainly been having a rough time. I wish to add my voice to those who have protested that one o'clock in the morning is not the proper time for discussion of this important subject. The Parliamentary Secretary must be very pleased indeed that there is such a small number of hon. Members present. If everyone who has spoken so far—and I think mine is the ninth or tenth speech on this subject—has been so unanimous in attacking these Schemes, it should surely give the Parliamentary Secretary something to think about and should cause him to rise shortly and say that he agrees with the unanimous view of this House, even at such a late hour, and that he is prepared to withdraw these Schemes for further consideration. He cannot ignore the unanimous view of the House.

Not one of the speeches which have been made from both sides of the House has been in favour of these Schemes. We are precluded from voting against them—the hon. Gentleman knows that very well—because of the implications of the subsidy involved in this subject. Consequently, he is secure in the knowledge that we shall not vote against them. That is a form of political blackmail. One cannot, at the same time, legislate in accordance with those principles and expect to have satisfaction or contentment in the industry for which one is legislating.

The speeding up of the scrapping of the older vessels in the fishing industry will mean huge losses to the owners. Present scrap prices mean that they will receive merely give-away prices for what they are disposing of. Unless we have a balanced production of new trawlers side by side with the scrapping of the old, we shall, obviously, have a smaller fishing fleet. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary has paid more than glib attention to his own words when he spoke about this being a transition scheme in a transition period. For how long is it to be a transition period? When does it start, for how long does it go on, and when does it finish?

A transition period does not finish merely for the doctrinaire reason that the Parliamentary Secretary is, perhaps, opposed in principle to subsidies and, therefore, thinks that, the quicker he can get rid of a subsidy, the better it will be, for political reasons. As has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House who are intimately connected with the fishing industry, a subsidy is vital if the industry is to survive. This is, indeed, a transition period. It is a transition period not merely in disposing of old vessels and providng new ones, but it is a transition period in the industry itself, because there is so much uncertainty about its future.

The shadow of future fishing and in what waters that fishing will be done has been hanging over the debate, although any mention of the problem in detail or a discussion of the Icelandic situation would be out of order. The shadow is over this debate, and undoubtedly it hangs over the industry as a whole. It hangs over the trawler owners when they are considering whether they should invest their money in new boats or whether they should try to make do with what they have for a little longer until the situation becomes clearer.

The future of the fishing industry affects not only the trawler owners. It affects the crews concerned. They are in a state of uncertainty. Trained men, once they are dispersed, once they are dissatisfied with the prospects of their industry and go into some other work, are hard to replace. They are hard to attract back into the industry. Training takes time. If the fishing fleet is to be left in this state of uncertainty, if those concerned in it feel that they will have to put up with greater losses, and they have no certainty that they can recover the trained crews who have been operating the vessels after they have gone to seek work elsewhere, the future will be very dark indeed.

We have heard figures of the losses—anything from £1,000 to £1,500 a year drop in revenue, increasing the losses and, perhaps, making the difference between a small profit and a loss. If the new vessels are built, if there is a reversal of policy or, perhaps, a change in the general attitude towards the industry or a change in its general situation, it will take a very long time indeed to train new crews for the purpose. Skilled crews will be difficult to replace.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider the matter and realise that this proposal, although it may be a very good one in theory, to speed up the scrapping of old vessels and introduce a more modern fishing fleet, is ill timed and inopportune. The reduction of the subsidy at this particular moment is certainly premature. I cannot see why the situation cannot be left as it is for the time being. We know that the Fleck Committee has been appointed and we await its Report. I am surprised that the Parliamentary Secretary has so little faith in its Report that he is acting before it is issued and published. I know there are various preliminary views which have been expressed, but why not await publication of the full Report? Why not await the Fleck Report which has been talked about so long and which we have not yet seen, and then gauge whether the industry requires a thorough reorganisation, perhaps along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, with standardisation of certain patterns of trawlers and so on, in order that the industry may know where it is and be organised on a scientific basis?

I referred in an interruption a little earlier to the fact that the Heneage Report on drainage, which is an important one in agricultural circles, has been shelved for the last seven years. I hope that that is not to happen to the Fleck Report, but I have my doubts when the Parliamentary Secretary himself airily dismisses the Fleck Report and introduces to us at this late hour these Schemes which disregard completely whatever suggestions may be made by the Fleck Committee. I would urge him to take into consideration the unanimous view that he should withdraw these Schemes so that we may await the Report and then consider a much better proposal for the reorganisation of the fishing fleet at some future time.

1.20 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

The hon. Member for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger) has referred to the volume of criticism of the cuts in subsidies, but the House must realise the reason for the cuts. This subsidy is a temporary measure to tide the industry over the transference from the old steam to modern motor vessels and is due to end about 1961 or, if it is prolonged by the House, at the latest by 1963. Surely it is reasonable to tail off the subsidies as we approach the 'sixties?

The nub of the problem is the ratio of the scrapping of old steam vessels to the replacement with modern motor vessels. I think I am right in saying that during the last three years well over 50 per cent. of the steam vessels have been scrapped but the replacement with modern vessels is under 50 per cent. We must remember that even the reduced number of steam vessels still land 12½ per cent. of the total white fish brought to this country. Therefore, they are still fulfilling an important function.

The cuts in the subsidies will, I believe, result in a reduction of about £1,000 or £1,500 per year per vessel. That will greatly increase the scrapping of steam vessels. My hon. Friend said he would accept that because the more efficient motor vessels will keep up the general level of catches and so the housewives will not go short of fish. I suggest to him that the danger lies not in increasing the scrapping of steam vessels but the slow replacement by modern vessels. There are three reasons for this. One is the high costs of replacements. The second is the fall in the price of scrap. To recover the cost of one new vessel one must scrap nine old ones now, whereas some years ago the ratio was three. The third reason is the uncertainty over international fishing limits.

I agree with the hon. Member for Goole that it seems extremely dangerous to be faced with a run-down in the total numbers of the fishing fleet due to increased scrapping of steam vessels and to reduced replacement with modern vessels before we get the Fleck Report. I hope the Minister will deal with this problem when he winds up, as it is one which greatly concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House who are interested in the fishing industry.

Distant-water vessels do not have a subsidy, but if international action is taken which reduces their catching capacity by 40 or 50 per cent. then indeed the distant-water fleet which glories in its independence may join the queue for subsidies. I hope this thought will add strength to the elbow of the Minister when dealing with the Icelandic Government.

1.24 a.m.

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

I do not wish to detain the House for long at this late hour. I am glad to see the Patronage Secretary is here. I would add my word to help persuade him that there would be no need to detain the House late if we could have a debate on the fishing industry at a reasonable time of day.

The theme of the debate has been the appalling difficulties which face the industry now. There is the question of base lines and fish concentrations about which we are not entitled to speak under the rules of order. It is quite wrong, therefore, that at this time of grave anxiety in the fishing industry this should be our sole chance, once a year, in a limited form of debate tied down by Standing Orders.

Article 13 of the White Fish Scheme refers to the days of departure and arrival of vessels being reckoned as days at sea. There are difficulties and anomalies about insurance in the fishing industry in connection with this matter which the Fleck Committee should take up very carefully. There are anomalies between port and port, and through the Fisheries Organisation Society, of which I am a governor, I have asked that evidence be submitted to the Fleck Committee, which should deal with the matter. The anomalies should be ironed out and the difficulties put right. Registration is a difficult and complex matter. It is time that the regulations governing it were altered.

Article 13 (b) states that days spent at a port other than that at which a catch is landed should be excluded from the reckoning of days spent at sea. Does that mean that if a small boat has to go into port in bad weather the time spent there is not to count? It is a little unfair that a day on which such a vessel is away from its home port should not count.

What does Article 14 mean? It provides that No grant shall be payable in respect of a voyage if the proceeds from the sale of white fish taken on that voyage amount to less than half the gross proceeds of that voyage. I do not understand what it is considered they would be doing other than catching fish. I hope that we can have an elaboration of that point.

I know that at the moment the Government's views cannot be stated. I know that this is an extremely difficult time in international relations, bearing in mind what is going on and may go on in the matter of plans for future conferences, but we really must have an opportunity for proper debate on this subject. A very large section of a large and important industry is vitally concerned. It is not good enough to have only an hour's debate at about 1.30 a.m. to discuss an industry which is so vital to the country.

1.28 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

We are well into the second hour after midnight and therefore I propose to do little more than support what has been said about the herring industry by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) and others. If I were to say anything about the problems of Great Yarmouth it would take at least half an hour. Quite apart from the fact that all sorts of people's eyes are upon me, which is slightly "off-putting"—

Dame Irene Ward

My hon. Friend should not worry.

Mr. Fell

—and quite apart from the fact that one is conscious of keeping many people out of their beds, it is certainly true that it is quite impossible for any Parliamentary Secretary, be he a superman, to work from nine or ten o'clock in the morning until two o'clock the following morning and be really sensible at that hour. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary has been attacked unfairly on a number of occasions tonight. I add my voice to those others who have attacked him, but only in the sense that they have asked him to consult with his right hon. and hon. Friends—even with the Patronage Secretary, if necessary—in order that we may get something done about having a decent debate on the whole question of this industry. If the industry were in an easy state I do not think it would matter if it was debated at six o'clock in the morning. But it is not in an easy state; it is in a very serious state and I suggest that we should have a full debate and that we should have it fairly soon.

1.31 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

We have all enjoyed ourselves tremendously on the subject of the time at which this debate is being held, and as a member of the union of Parliamentary Secretaries and ex-Parliamentary Secretaries, I object most strongly to the fact all the bricks seem to have been dropped on the head of the Parliamentary Secretary, when they should have been aimed at the heads of others; perhaps, as the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) has a habit of doing, on the head of the Patronage Secretary. It is he who must accept responsibility for the fact that time after time this industry has to be discussed at this sort of hour.

I believe that it is quite wrong for an industry of this importance to be dealt with at this hour in the morning. It could surely be so arranged that this industry could have a reasonable time allotted for discussion; full discussion, and not something limited to the field offered by Schemes of this type. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that all the rest of the responsible Ministers in the Government should give some consideration not only to arranging for the debating of matters of this sort, but for seeing that reasonable time is given so that hon. Members with deep constituency interests may debate the subject at a reasonable hour.

To turn to the Schemes, it seems that they are, in fact, designed sharply to increase the scrapping of the old steam vessels. That seems to be the purpose in the alterations in the amount of subsidy. I do not think that any hon. Member who has spoken tonight has suggested that they would disagree with the Government's intention to secure the modernisation of our fishing fleets. The White Fish Authority does, and I join with the hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) in welcoming the fact that we are debating these Schemes with the Authority's Report before us. I am also glad that it took some notice of her recommendations when we discussed the industry last year.

But the Authority has admitted frankly that the near and middle water fleet is predominantly an old fleet. Nearly three-fifths of it consists of coal burners of an average age of more than forty years.

It is not merely that they are uneconomic vessels which worries me. It is the fact that so many of them are sea slums, not fit for men to go to sea in. We have had reports from responsible authorities and medical officers of health from the ports to indicate that men going to sea in these things are subject to diseases to which they would not be subject if they went to sea in modern vessels. That is an important consideration for the House to note and for the Government to continue to act upon.

Having said that, we have to consider whether in all the prevailing circumstances the Minister is acting fairly and wisely in trying, through the reduction in the rate of subsidy on the steam vessels, to speed up the scrapping policy and the rebuilding of our fleet. "In all the prevailing circumstances" are the operative words.

The then Parliamentary Secretary, speaking of the near and middle waiter craft, said on 23rd July, 1953: … it is among those that the serious problem exists, and it is there that we are most urgently concerned with getting large-scale rebuilding. We are aiming at rebuilding something like 500 vessels over the next 10 years, so we must hope for something in the region of 50 new boats a year. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July, 1953; Vol. 518, c. 742–3.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) wisely said, 50 new boats a year depends on the capacity of the yards. The present Chancellor of the Exchequer, then the Minister of Agriculture, said on 18th July, 1956: These new vessels are being built as fast as the building yards can turn them out. But even so only about 30 boats are being built a year; so the capacity of the building yards for the present seems to be deciding the speed at which the fleet can be replaced. The total fleet now is about 590 vessels and, of these, 433 are steam vessels. We have had it in mind all along that there should be a ten-year programme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July, 1956; Vol. 556, c. 1267.] At the Minister's estimate of building capacity, it would take some fourteen years from the date of his statement to replace the steam vessels in the near and middle waters fleets by modern vessels.

Added to the difficulty of building capacity, there are the effects, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South, of the drop in the price of scrap. That drop is making it much more difficult for the owners to scrap vessels and, with the help of the subsidy, replace them with new ones. The old figure was three to one, but I gather that it is now nine to one, an owner has to scrap nine old vessels in order to build one new. That makes it virtually impossible for owners to replace their fleets.

Another factor is that owners' costs have continued to mount, especially with the old steam vessels. That is the equivalent of a subsidy cut and the Government ought not to have added a subsidy decrease to the increases in costs which have continued throughout the period. As everyone knows, costs have risen sharply.

To that must be added another factor mentioned tonight. There has been a sharp increase in rates of interest. That adds to the difficulties and it is within the control of the Government and should have been taken into consideration by the Minister in framing these Schemes. This was one of the factors which must have counted. Added to that, the cost of building has increased enormously. Without straying outside the bounds of order I must say that, added to all those difficulties, the owners are bound to think in terms of the threat hanging over them from Iceland and other countries which are proposing an extension of their territorial waters, to the disadvantage of our fishing fleet.

All this boils down to the fact that the Minister is trying too rapidly to force out of production coal-burning vessels by means of this cut in subsidy. Unless we are every careful the people of this country will be very short of fish, and we cannot afford a shortage of this very valuable and vital food. First-class men engaged in the industry might be facing unemployment as a result of this speeding up in the scrapping of steam vessels by this means.

Finally, I would stress a point made by a number of hon. Members. Surely we ought to have awaited the Report of the Fleck Committee before taking action of this sort. That Committee was set up by the Government, and its terms of reference were To assess, in relation to the developments in fishing and the marketing of fish, the size and pattern, and implications, of an economic fishing industry in the United Kingdom. The Government have set up this Committee, but they are not waiting for its Report before taking this action. Here is a Committee which may be able to advise them as to the sort of fleet we want in order best to serve this country, but, having set it up, the Government take this sort of action. They are not being fair to the Committee in taking that action, any more than they were fair to the Cambridge Committee in proceeding with rents under the Agriculture Bill recently, without waiting for the Report of the Committee which they had set up to look into the very problem of rents in the agricultural industry.

I end by joining other hon. Members in protesting at the decision that the Government have taken to cut the subsidy for steam vessels without thoroughly going into all the implications of such an action. I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to take this Scheme back, or, if he will not do that, to consider it afresh, within the six months suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft, having regard to all the factors which have been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

1.44 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord John Hope)

My hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) was good enough to express sympathy for the Minister who had to wind up the debate at this late hour. In spite of his suggestion that I might be feeling a little too run down to wind up the debate properly, I shall do my best. I think that the House will acquit me of ever trying to skip my answers to a debate. I have always tried to answer every question that I have been asked, but on this occasion, although I shall do my best to answer the main points, I shall deal with those which I do not answer by way of correspondence, if I may. There are one or two detailed questions—such as those asked by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard)—which I should like to go into and let him have the answers later.

The hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) pleaded for us to keep up the catching power of the fleet. At least part of the answer to him and to his question, which seemed to imply that we were not doing so, is that the volume of the catch was higher in 1957 than in 1953. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) asked an important question about an A port for Clyde fishermen. It is the fact that the Clyde fishermen have done better out of the new subsidy than they would have done with the old oil and meal subsidy.

The noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) reminded us that there are far greater uncertainties at the moment than ever before; from which she deduced that the present reductions in subsidies are most unwise. I do not wish to minimise the uncertainties, it would be wrong to do so. But might not it be that the greater the uncertainties, the more it is necessary to go ahead with modernising and aiming at maximum efficiency in the shortest possible time? That is what lies behind our policy, parts of which have been criticised tonight. The noble Lady also asked a question about the terms of the Fleck Committee. Those terms are To assess, in relation to developments in fishing and the marketing of fish, the size and pattern, and implications … etc. Therefore, they must be able to take note of any developments during the course of the Committee's sittings.

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) asked for comparative figures of subsidies for this year and next year. The figures are £3,154,000 on the one hand and £2,701,000 on the other, a difference of £453,000. Those are the overall figures. The hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) dwelt on what he called the particular difficulties of Scotland. Those are what the Fleck Committee was set up to examine and to make recommendations about. There is no secret about the fact that it was the particular difficulties of Scotland which were foremost in the mind of the Government when they decided to set up that Committee.

The hon. Member made a number of allegations against the Government which he sought to support by a good many figures. I should like to examine the points he raised and communicate with him later. Meanwhile, I assure him that he need have no qualms about whether the Government are treating the industry seriously. Of course they are.

Mr. Hoy

I do not object to the noble Lord saying that he will reply to me by letter, but if he looks at the OFFICIAL REPORT of debate last year, he will see that he made a similar promise then. I have been waiting a long time for a letter and it has not arrived yet.

Lord John Hope

I think the hon. Gentleman's memory must he at fault. If it is not, all I can say is that I am not sure that he does what he conceives to be his duty in waiting a whole year before telling us that we have not answered a letter—but that we can go into.

In conclusion, may I say just three things. First, it should be remembered—because, after all, we all want to take a balanced view of the pros and cons of this matter—that the total United Kingdom white fish catch from the near, middle and inshore waters has increased from 6.4 million cwt. in 1953 to 7.1 million cwt. in 1957.

Secondly, I think that the anxieties behind many hon. Members' speeches tonight have proved, if proof were needed, the wisdom of setting up the Fleck Committee. Thirdly, and finally, perhaps I might make just one point about the factors which lie behind the decisions we have to take, as a Government, on these matters every year. The Icelandic problem has not figured in our present assessment of subsidy needs for the inshore, near and middle water and herring fleets.

Almost all the fishing at Iceland is carried on by the distant-water fleet, which gets no subsidy at all. In any case, the subsidy determinations are necessarily based on known facts, such as the performance of the fleets over the past year and current movements of costs, and not on hypotheses such as we would be dealing with in the Icelandic fishery limits problem. In that connection, of course, we, as a Government stand firmly by our declaration of 4th June—

Mr. Edward Evans

In view of what the noble Lord has said, would he undertake to review these subsidies, and come back in six months?

Lord John Hope

I do not think that any such specific undertaking could be given, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the whole situation is being, and will be, watched very carefully during the whole of this time.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Herring Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1958, dated 3rd July, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.

White Fish Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1958, dated 3rd July, 1958 [copy laid before the House, 7th July], approved.—[Lord John Hope.]

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