HC Deb 28 March 1961 vol 637 cc1267-72

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Willis

When we were interrupted I was explaining to the House why Scottish Members were very much concerned about the manner in which the grants under the Bill were to be distributed, and I was supporting the plea, made in a very eloquent manner by my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles, that great care should be taken not to strengthen the powerful units in the industry at the expense of the smaller ones, particularly the inshore fishing fleets.

During the Second Reading debate I explained at length why I feared that this might happen. Precisely at the moment when we are extending the grants to the distant water fleet we have the Fleck Committee making certain recommendations which will limit the size of the fleet. We have also lost extensive fishing grounds as a result of the Icelandic Treaty. These two facts suggest that the inshore and near water fleet is seriously threatened by powerful pressures and, as a result, the inshore fleet, in particular, may suffer considerable damage.

This is a serious prospect for Scotland, where 50 per cent. of the catches are landed by the inshore fishing fleet. We cannot afford any diminution in the size of these fleets or any loss of employment in the small ports from which the boats sail. During the Committee stage of the Bill we had a debate on Clause 2 about the possible effect of certain actions already taken by the White Fish Authority in limiting the grants and assistance to the seine net fleet. As a result of certain steps which have been taken recently, the fleet will be kept at its present size, more or less, and this creates a serious position in the ports and among those employed in the boat building industry.

These things cause great concern, because year after year we have been faced with the problem of fishing villages which are dying. One can go round the coasts of Scotland and see these villages where there is practically no fishing carried on. We have suffered because of a drift of the population from these villages into the central parts of Scotland and into England. We cannot afford to allow this process to continue. As the Joint Under-Secretary of State will know, in the Highlands we have lost about 10,000 members of the population during the past ten years and every year we lose part of the population which is not replaced. The hon. Gentleman also knows what happens in these small fishing villages, which is similar to what happens in the smaller Scottish burghs.

Professor Cairncross produced a report on the problem of the decaying village and the small town which lost its industry, or where industry did not expand and there was no employment for the children. The young people left the area as a result, the population aged and people lost their employment. This has happened in a number of fishing villages in Scotland already. We cannot afford to see that process go on. We cannot afford that if we have any consideration at all for the future development of Scotland.

I seriously reinforce the pleas made by my hon. Friends. This is a serious matter for us. We want to keep these fleets in being. We do not want to see any diminution in their size, but they are now challenged by this powerful and serious threat. Unless the Government make up their minds quickly on the size and shape of the fleet and determine the part which Scotland is to play—which must not be smaller than it is playing at present—we shall be facing very serious consequences in the areas about which I have spoken. I wanted to stress that again, because it is a matter of great concern to all Scottish hon. Members.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Soames

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has supported the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Malcolm MacMillan). They made the same point, and I may be able to reply to them first about the threat they inferred could arise to the middle and near water fleets by virtue of an operational subsidy being paid to the distant water fleets. I can assure the hon. Members that they need have no fears on this count at all.

The distant water fleet is no happier than anyone in this House about the situation which has arisen whereby it is necessary for a subsidy to be paid to it. It has always been a source of great pride to it that of all the sections of the fishing fleet it has not had to call on the Government for a subsidy. It is no fault of that section that it is in the position of needing this subsidy. The situation has arisen by virtue of movement of international forces, extending the territorial limits for twelve miles, and our endeavouring to stabilise the long-term position, which is the most important of all factors to the distant water fleet.

We have had to do that in making arrangements and agreements with Norway and Iceland in order to give up the benefits in the short period of some of the traditional fishing grounds of the distant water fleet. We are putting ourselves in a position to be able to pay this subsidy to indemnify those in the fleet for this considerable loss which will fall upon them quite rapidly both in Norway waters, where they will have to move from four to six miles out and in Icelandic waters the same, losing much of the water in which they could fish, from six to twelve miles.

Mr. Loughlin

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Member made a long speech and I shall come to the point he made when I shall gladly give way to him.

This distant water fleet will not, as the hon. Member for Western Isles feared, be "pinching" the water of the near water fleet because these vessels are not equipped for that. They are equipped for travelling long distances to fish. I do not think the hon. Member need fear that the traditional waters of the small fishing vessels which ply over comparatively small distances will be interfered with by the trawlers, especially as they get bigger—as undoubtedly they will—with freezing plants in them and so on.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

I am obliged for the reassurance, which I should like to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in a position to reinforce, but we were not thinking purely of the inshore fishermen. We were thinking also of the overfished and depleted near and middle waters.

Mr. Soames

These vessels will be fishing off Iceland, in the Barents Sea, and, to some extent, off the Faroes. They will seek to find new fishing grounds in other distant waters. That is what there will be a good deal of concentration of thought upon in the next few months. They will not be setting their sights on the near or middle waters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) referred to the oil and meal subsidy. He made his point with great energy and determination, in spite of considerable provocation from the Front Bench opposite. I must tell him that the oil and meal subsidy does not form part of the Bill. I can set his mind at rest by telling him that anything about which he had anxiety is not in any way affected by the provisions of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) said that he opposed the Bill because he objected on principle to the payment of subsidy to the distant water fleet. He said that he thought it was doing splendidly and there was no need to give it a subsidy. We are putting ourselves in a position to be able to pay the subsidy to the fleet. This is a holding Measure, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) said, to tide us over a period of time. The Bill will last only until April, 1963.

What we are faced with is the immediate situation. Up to this year the distant water fleet had access to a good deal of water to which from this year onwards it will not have access. The fishermen used to be able to draw fish from this water. They will not be able to do so now. We think that it is fair and right that we should put ourselves in the position of being able to pay them a subsidy. This was their legal right. It has been taken away from them by virtue of a bilateral agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Iceland. We think we should put ourselves in the position of being able to pay this operating subsidy.

Some hon. Members—including, I think, the hon. Members for Gloucestershire, West and Edinburgh, Leith—said that the subsidy should be made available to skippers and crews and not only to owners of ships.

Mr. Loughlin

I did not say that.

Mr. Soames

I think the hon. Member for Leith did.

Mr. Hoy

No. What I said was this. If conditions are to be improved, those who man the trawlers are as much entitled to a part of the improvement as those who own them. That is what I suggested.

Mr. Soames

That is very much better put than the way in which I tried to put the words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth. That is what happens with the subsidy at present paid to the middle and near water fleets. As we envisage it at present—the Bill does not do this; this will come later through the Order—the operating subsidy to be paid to the distant water fleet will be on the same basis as that paid to the near and middle water fleets.

Mr. Loughlin

I am very interested in the argument the Minister is now advancing. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) and I argued that subsidies could be used for improving the working conditions of the people in the industry. Does that happen at present, except for that section of the cost of the ship where subsidy is involved, which affects the crew's poundage? Will the Minister develop his argument that at present the subsidy paid in respect of near and middle water vessels results in benefit to the crews, except for that portion which is or might be included in the lowering of the ship's costs and which reflects itself in the crew's poundage?

Mr. Soames

No. This has nothing to do with the Bill. It is not in the Bill. It is certainly not a Third Reading point. I was merely meeting the point made in the debate that we should endeavour to ensure that the subsidy is paid in such a way as to bring about what the hon. Gentleman was asking for.

Mr. Willey

I appreciate that the Minister is taking powers to give subsidy assistance to the distant water fleet because that fleet is prejudiced by what has happened in Icelandic and other waters, but does he face up to what he is doing? Against whom is the distant water fleet prejudiced? If it is prejudiced against other fishing fleets, I would say to the Government that they have given concessions to the Norwegians, for instance, in regard to frozen fillets. It seems odd to give a concession to Norwegians and then to ask the British taxpayer to give a subsidy to redress that.

On the other hand, if the distant water fleet is prejudiced against the other sections of the fleet, those sections are already subsidised and, again, it seems odd to adjust the subsidy in the fleet by giving an additional subsidy to part of the fleet that is admittedly badly hit by what has recently happened in fishing waters.

Mr. Soames

No, the distant water fleet is not prejudiced, as we see it, against anyone, be it other sections of the fleet or the Norwegians. It is merely that, in future, as the result of the agreement made between Governments, the distant water fleet will not have access to certain very valuable waters where it could get heavy catches.

In general, this Bill, as has been said more than once during its passage through the House, is a holding Measure. It will not be one of the great fishing industry Acts of Parliament, but in the next few years it will play a valuable part in holding the situation and giving the loans and grants on which we have made an Order. In addition, this ability to pay an operating subsidy to the distant water fleet will give valuable assistance of a temporary nature to the fishing fleet, while we are studying the subject, and bringing forward Measures to implement part, at least, of the Fleck Report, in an endeavour to put the fleet in a position in which it may continue to render great service to the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.