HC Deb 31 January 1961 vol 633 cc925-9

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the White Fish Industry (Aggregate Amount of Grants for Fishing Vessels, Engines, etc.) Order, 1960, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st December, be approved.—[Mr. Soames.]

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

Certain questions were asked during the Second Reading debate which we have had today, which also included a discussion on the Fleck Committee's Report. I understood that this Order was also included in the debate, but the Secretary of State for Scotland did not seem to think it worth while, when he was replying, to refer to the speeches made on this very important matter.

He seemed to have been previously advised of the speeches made from the benches behind him, for he carefully replied to them, but he did not leave himself sufficient time in which to answer questions from my hon. Friends, and he completely ignored questions about this Order.

In the Explanatory Note, it is clearly stated that the White Fish and Herring Industries Act, 1957, extended the scope of such grants to include conversion from coal-fining to oil-firing of the boilers of fishing vessels, and the replacement of coal-burning engines of fishing vessels by engines which do not burn coal.

This is an important matter. While, of course, I agree that the Government have taken certain powers to take action, they are now more or less agreeing to spend another £2 million of public money to further the interests of the oil industry. The Minister of Power, in speeches in this House and in the country, has made it clear that the coal industry should be in a position to face fair competition, that it should not be subsidised, and that it should have the opportunity to Stand on its own feet.

We know that the coal industry is fighting a battle against various other competitors in fuel and energy. We must recognise that coal is a natural product of our country and think in terms of looking after it. But, by this Order, the Government are prepared to spend £2 million on having coal-burning vessels converted to oil. This might be a good idea and the Minister might be able to tell us that it is much more economic and in the interests of the fishing industry, but if it is much more economic why should not the industry itself be responsible for the cost of converting from coal burning to oil burning? Why should we spend the taxpayers' money on helping the oil industry in this way? This is unfair competition.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Why should not the oil industry provide the subsidy?

Mr. Steele

I accept my hon. Friend's argument—why should not the oil industry provide the subsidy? I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) will find other reasons during the course of the debate to show why something else should be done.

The coal industry is going through a difficult time and it is only right that, as an industry owned by the nation, it should he given every encouragement to modernise itself and to provide new methods and experiment with new methods of coal utilisation. However, the Government are asking for £2 million to enable fishing vessels to convert from coal to oil 'burning without any explanation why the industry cannot undertake the task itself.

Has the Minister consulted the National Union of Mineworkers about this proposal? Is he aware that local councils, local education committees and other similar bodies are receiving representations from the mining industry about proposed conversions from coal to oil burning? I am not sure that the Government's policy on this issue is sound. For many years we have criticised them for having no fuel policy.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

They have no policy.

Mr. Steele

I accept the amendment. Will the Minister explain why we are being asked to spend £2 million in this way on this industry? If he can give us some justification for it, we can then decide whether or not to agree to the Order.

10.54 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)

Only a small part of this £2 million extra will be devoted to conversions from coal burning to oil burning, because most of those conversions have been completed and most of the vessels left are too old to bother with. However, there are still a few to be converted. When the original sum—to which this is £2 million extra—was made available for loans there were many coal-burning vessels.

As to why the Government have chosen to give a subsidy for converting from coal burning to oil burning, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman, bearing in mind the agreeable arguments that we used to have across the Floor of the House about the Navy, and with his knowledge of the increased efficiency that comes from oil as opposed to coal burning, would have realised, without my going into the details, the benefits which the fishing industry would derive from having oil-burning as opposed to coal-burning vessels. Such a conversion would make the fishing fleet more efficient and able to stand on its own. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants that just as much as we do. We are anxious to give this help to enable the fleet to convent from a less economic to a more economic mode of propulsion.

Mr. Steele


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member 'has already spoken to the Question.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

I remember these subsidies being introduced to assist in the conversion from coal to oil burning. They were introduced when there was a shortage of coal. At that time we were importing coal. In recent times when we have discussed the problems of the mining industry and asked for some kind of protection for the mining industry against fuel oil being dumped in this country, the Minister of Fuel and Power has denied that fuel oil was being dumped here. Also, he has said many times that the mining industry must make its way in fair competition with other fuel industries, and that he would not put any impediment in the way of the oil industry.

All that my hon. Friend has said is that oil is more efficient for the purpose of firing these vessels. I think that we would all agree with that and would not want to stand in the way of this conversion from coal to oil burning for fishing vessels, or any other seagoing vessels, but to spend the taxpayers' money for this purpose at this time is to give the oil industry a decisive advantage over our own indigenous fuel industry.

Why is the policy in the Order so much at variance with the policy of the Minister of Fuel and Power, who considers that the coal and oil industries must complete fairly one with the other? When the subsidies were introduced in 1957, these two industries were not in competition. It was recognised and asserted by the Government in 1957 that the oil industry was required to supplement the energy requirements of this country beyond the point at which they could be met by our natural resources. In 1957 insufficient coal was mined to meet our requirements. Fuel oil was needed to make up the deficiency, and these industries were not in competition.

However, they are now competing one with the other. The Minister of Fuel and Power has said that there must be fair competition, but this Order will give support to an industry which is not our own, and one which does not seem to be in need of support.

Mr. Speaker

The Question is—

Mr. Fraser

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I think that the Minister wanted to reply.

Mr. Speaker

The Question is—

Mr. Fraser

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, the Minister certainly gave me the impression, from his facial expression, that he was anxious to say a word in reply.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Question is—

Mr. Fraser

With respect, Mr. Speaker, is not the Minister entitled to ask the leave of the House to make another speech?

Mr. Speaker

Certainly. But I am now putting the Question.

Question put and agreed to


That the White Fish Industry (Aggregate Amount of Grants for Fishing Vessels, Engines. etc.) Order, 1960, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st December, be approved.