HC Deb 20 December 1963 vol 686 cc1614-34

11.30 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (Aberdeenshire, East)

First, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity to raise the subject of the very serious crisis in the herring industry Secondly, I want on behalf of the herring fishermen of Scotland and of myself to express our sympathy to my hon. Friend the Under-secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart), whose mother died so suddenly this week and who is unable, therefore, to be here today.

Our first problem in this matter has been to establish in the minds of those responsible for the administration of the herring industry that a crisis actually exists We have been met with an attitude of mind in high places that seems to regard this kind of question like a mathematical problem in an examination paper. It is not like that This is a question of life and death for men, for human beings The solution requires an exercise of the heart and will as well as the mind. Is my noble Friend, and are the Government, prepared to make that decision? Are they prepared to tackle what is wrong here and preserve the life of the herring industry in Scotland, or not?

This is no overstatement of the case. Let me make the nature of this crisis absolutely clear. This is not a debate about whether our herring fishermen make enough money, or whether they are always right in their analysis of the problem. Nor is this a debate about the generalities of Government support or even the history of that support. This is a debate about whether the herring industry, and in particular the drift net fleet, will continue or not. I remind my noble Friend that on that industry and on that fleet depends almost the whole present economy in the north-east of Scotland and in other parts of Scotland as well.

Since 28th November that fleet has been tied up. What else could the fishermen do? A boat which will prosecute herring fishing efficiently today costs about £30,000; 200 drift nets at £30 apiece; £6,000; and miscellaneous equipment, ropes, boxes and so on; about £2,500 Thus, a capital outlay of £38,500 per boat is no exaggeration.

But what was happening on the West Coast before the boats were finally forced to tie up? In addition to the capital outlay, it costs £100 a week to run one of these boats. In the last seven weeks before it had to tie up, one boat—it is a typical example; there are many more of them—made only £470. That boat's operaing loss per week on average then was about £33 What about the crews? For some the labour share worked out at £4 per week. They were the lucky ones. For some it was about £3 7s 6d. Others got nothing at all. When I was up in Fraserburgh, one man stopped me at the harbour and told me that he had earned £2 that week. He will not have earned a penny since. I am surprised that the fishermen were able to continue as long as they did But tying up the boats is not the answer. It cuts out their operating loss. It does nothing to meet their capital commitments. The boats themselves depreciate in value while lying in harbour. Above all, they have no earning capacity for the fishermen. Yet the fishermen still have to eat and still have to live How?

It is certainly true that the more fortunate men can make enough during the good times to tide them over the bad ones, taking the rough with the smooth; but even for them there is a limit. The deckhands cannot do this. Nor do they have the simple remedy of a building worker or a machine tool operator. They are not eligible for unemployment benefit. Any hope they may have had of Christmas pudding this year is dead. Their problem now is how to buy bread.

That is the question for the fishermen. What will they do? What will my noble Friend do? What the fishermen will have to do is obvious. They will have to seek alternative employment. Some will go over to the seine net. Some will seek work on shore Worst of all, some will vanish towards the industrial centres of our country and thereby frustrate directly the declared wish of the Government to sustain and develop employment in an area like our own.

Does my noble Friend believe that these men will return? Does she believe that there will be replacements for them? From where? Fishermen are born to their trade. It is a great trade, and they are great men But, alas, the stock is diminishing. There are no longer the reserves with the same qualities, the same backgrounds and the same conditions to take their place. This summer, and last summer, too, we have had the anomaly of a high percentage of local unemployment but real difficulty in some cases of finding enough men to form a crew.

That reserve supply of labour to man the fleet is no longer there It means that when once again there is a demand for herring and a harvest of herring, the resources of whatever fleet may remain after today will be inadequate to gather the harvest and meet the demand. My noble Friend must face that point. Does she realise that since the stoppage two boats have been up for sale already?

Even if there is a large-scale shift over to the seine net fleet, what will happen? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland told me in answer to a Parliamentary Question recently that he would not consider giving any help to those boats which seek to change over their gear. I understand his reasons, but I must make the fisherman's position clear It can cost about £1,000 to make that change-over, and that is a large sum. No man charged with the responsibility of running an economic enterprise will invest it without making sure that he will prosecute his new style of fishing long enough to gain some return on his £1,000.

Therefore, apart from those men who leave the fishing industry altogether and who will, I believe, prove beyond recall when the time comes, even those who go over to the seine net will not easily return to the herring industry. Let us not forget, also, that even those herring drifters who go over to the seine net will have to give up three or four of their crew apiece as well. Will they ever get them back?

Finally, on the point of the seine net, I hope that the Government will have in mind what will happen to the white fish trade of this country if even half the catching power of the present herring fleet is directed towards it.

So the men will have to leave the industry. It will mean the end of the industry. Do the Government really want that? That is the question the fishermen are asking, and they are asking it not bitterly but because they want to know the answer. Since this crisis broke I have put a number of questions to the Government. They were designed to point to the immediate solutions that lie within the Government's power. They could be the difference between a mortal wound and a healing scar. But I have had no success Unemployment benefit? No. No imports by foreign boats? No Complete subsidy on fishmeal? No.

Last year, according to the Secretary of State, it is estimated that the 4,166 crans of drifter-caught whole herring reported as sold in the United Kingdom for conversion to fishmeal and oil would have produced about 130 tons of fishmeal, or about 0.2 per cent of the total output of some 72,000 tons of fishmeal produced in the United Kingdom that year. This year, up to 30th November, 24,600 crans have already been sold—an increase of at least 20,000 crans. The percentage figure will be as high as 1 per cent of the total market.

Up to last year, fishmeal was always regarded as the safety net for fishermen, on the high wire of the more lucrative markets. Once the outlets for fresh, frozen, marinating, kippering, curing, redding, even pet food, etc., were satisfied, fishmeal got the rest. But then came a change. Not so much herring was caught. Less went to that market.

The Herring Industry Board ceased to be responsible for the fishmeal scheme. The subsidy became payable on only 20 per cent of the catch at 25s a cran. That meant that before the boats were finally forced to tie up they were getting 12s 6d a cran, minus the 3s 6d levy for the Board, leaving 9s net in Ullapool and 14s net in Yarmouth. That is the immediate reason why the boats have tied up. That is why I am asking the Government to allow the subsidy on 100 per cent of the catch meantime, till the end of January, in order to create an economic price for the fishermen during this crucial period.

In addition, I have asked the Secretary of State whether he will undertake a flexible guarantee system. At the moment, fishermen theoretically receive a subsidy on 20 per cent of fishmeal every day. Owing to the fact that there is so little fishmeal, this subsidy is never paid. Theoretically it belongs to the fishermen. Now is the time to use this money again to tide these men over their difficult period. I cannot believe that such a scheme would break the bank in the Treasury. The money has been allocated anyway. Incidentally, some fishing fleets base their whole operation on fishing for fishmeal and oil. Why is it such good business for them and apparently such bad business for us?

The main reason for this crisis is the state of the market. No one expects my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to buy herring herself. But why did she not foresee this situation months ago, and at least prepare for it? It was bound to come. If the autumn fishing in East Anglia had been any good at the usual time, it would have come much earlier. The summer fishing was good and the market, particularly the European market, was fully supplied What then was done? What market research was carried out? What efforts were made to stimulate new markets and retain old ones?

I ask this because, in its Annual Report for 1962, the Herring Industry Board told the fishermen that the market could absorb 40 per cent more herring than they had caught that year. What has happened to that 40 per cent, and why? The fishermen would like to know, and somebody ought to be able to tell them. Large sums of money are spent on research into ways of catching more herring. That is fine, but how much is being spent on research into ways of selling more herring?

There are those with great experience of the herring industry in my constituency who will tell one that 3,500 crans a day is the maximum that can be marketed for human consumption in Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Aberdeen. What happens then? The people who suffer most if the marketing arrangements are wrong are the fishermen. I wish for their sake that at least half the same ingenuity and activity shown in research on the catching side would now be directed towards the selling side, so that people begin to know where they are. They do not know now.

Let me take canning as an example, and return once again to the present crisis. Controversy began when the buyers at Ullapool said that the herring landed there were not good quality. The fishermen denied this and said that they were good quality. What were they? They were firm, plump herring with an oil content of from 12 to 15 per cent., but they were small. Therefore, they were not suitable for curing—what is left of that trade—or for kippering. But they were still good quality herring. Only their size told against them and in fact that factor makes these fish ideal for canning.

Last year at the same time the canners were taking between 400 and 600 crans daily from Ullapool. This year they are not taking any Export markets are uncertain, supplies have been short and prices high in previous years. The canners, too, like everybody else, have had a good summer season this year, whereas last year they did not. The particular problem, therefore, is to find a market for the small but good quality herring. How can it be done? Everybody has his part to play.

I am assured that canners could provide an increasing market if it were possible to re-establish the export trade on its former basis, by some assurance of continuity of supply at prices which would enable British canners to compete with other, cheaper, foreign fish. That is a point for the canners and for the fishermen. What about the Government? What have they done to expand this trade, and any other trade for any other sort of herring for that matter?

Take Australasia as an example. My information is that in that part of the world, as in many others, our herring trade faces a considerable threat from the Japanese and others who are flooding our traditional markets with a cheaper brand of fish. What is being done to meet this threat? And what is the principle involved where the Government seem prepared to spend any amount of money to assist fishermen to do what they do perfectly adequately anyhow—to catch more fish—but are not prepared to spend money on another, equally important section of the industry—to retain, expand and to develop markets for the fish being caught?

There is so much more that could be said. Let me repeat the immediate point of this particular crisis. It is whether we can retain the necessary manpower for a decent herring fleet. The immediate solution lies in the Government's hands. The answer is probably threefold. First, some interim control of imports; secondly, some interim control and direction of the catching power of the whole fleet; and, thirdly, a 100 per cent subsidy on the herring going to meal and oil.

Whatever the method, there is one answer which we will never understand—" Nothing can be done." That is never a statement of fact. It is always an excuse. If men care enough to do enough, they will find a way. Is my hon. Friend, with her undoubted brilliance, sitting there on the Front Bench in all the panoply and power of her high office, with the authority of Government behind her, going to tell me that she cannot help? If the Government care enough about the herring industry, they can help. Do they care?

Finally, the wider issue which the debate raises today. Is the country going to sacrifice its traditional skilful and basic industries and the men who work in them? The fishermen, farmers and the local traders have always been the backbone of Great Britain. No nation which refuses to sustain such industries will ever maintain its character and its quality. Nor will that nation operate for long economically. Compared with industries which today are in constant turmoil and dispute, fishermen regard their work responsibly. Night after night they ply their trade, risking their lives to feed this country, without any assurance of a permanent weekly wage packet Today these men are watching and waiting. Their lives are in the balance and so is their industry. Will the Government please tip the scales?

11.51 a.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

I listened to the stimulating speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr Wolrige-Gordon) with great interest and a great deal of sympathy for the fishermen. I was in this industry for 20 years and I left it 25 years ago when I came to the House of Commons. I remember, in my youth, the days of abundance and the great catches of herring all along the West Coast from Loch Fyne and also down the East Coast to what was known as the great East Anglian festival where the Scottish boats went to fish during the Scottish off season and caught great shoals there.

But from the end of the First World War increasingly there has been a shortage of herring. This is not something which has suddenly happened. The Port of Wick, which I have the honour to represent, was once the largest herring port in Europe. I can remember seeing, 50 years ago, a great many drifters going out of Wick. It was a great sight. There were no motor driven boats in those days and one could watch the many sailing craft earning in struggling to catch the consumer market, the fresh market which always paid more than the salt market. Today, not a native boat sails out of that port. The Fraserburgh people are among the last of the great herring groups around the coasts of Scotland. They are the largest, but they, too, have now reached the end of the road.

The cause is over-fishing. There is no other cause. The herring have not suddenly disappeared. My hon. Friend spoke of the small fish coming in at Ullapool. The fish were small because their mothers and fathers had been caught and fishing is now going on in the breeding grounds where the fish ought to be left alone. The fishermen catch these fish to overcome the high cost which the hon. Member explained so well.

I have made speeches like this in the House since 1939. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr Peart) must be getting sick and tired of hearing me make them. I said in one of my more recent speeches on this subject that I would not make another, but here I am at it again I am doing so because I know that it is true that the problem is mainly due to the unbridled catching of fish, whether good or bad.

Mr Wolrige-Gordon

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but he will appreciate that the problem in the present crisis is not the shortage of fish. The fishermen are catching all the fish they need.

Sir D Robertson

My hon. Friend talked about the failure of the East Anglian fishing this year. He rightly said that it was no good. He cannot contradict himself like that and expect to get away with it. It was an utter failure because of the lack of fish, but this state of affairs has been going on for a long time.

I have constantly asked the Government to stop trawlers fishing for herring. Herring are pelagic fish—they feed on the surface; but when they become heavy with spawn, they become, like animals and humans, inert, and then lie on the bottom.

I remember when this was accidentally found out Fleetwood trawlers going up the West Coast between Rathlin Island and the Ayrshire coast found that they could catch herring on the bottom. The news spread up to the Buchan coast and trawling for herring began. But that trawling should have been prohibited. It is right to protect trout and salmon and grouse and other game birds and nobody supports that more strongly than I do, and yet we have stood by and allowed this sort of catching which is infinitely more important.

This has been a difficult problem for successive Governments It is not easily solved. We had a recent conference which broke up without achieving anything—although the delegates are later to return. I remember the time when Britain was fighting for survival and planes were overhead almost every day and yet at that time the Coalition Government planned to bring about a great international conference of the sea so that all the fishing nations which fish the North Sea and the adjacent seas could discuss these matters High hopes were entertained of the great good which would come from that conference.

When the conference took place, the Labour Government were in power. I believe that there was a conflict in the Labour Cabinet, a very natural conflict. The late right hon. Member for Dundee, West, Mr Strachey, was then Minister of Food. It was his duty to get all the food he could, because we were still severely rationed—1s worth of meat per person per week. All the fish which could be caught were wanted. The former right hon. Member for Don Valley, then Mr Tom Williams, who is now in another place, was Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. He was all for the conservation of fish and for getting the nations attending the conference to agree to share what is a common heritage. He opened the conference, but it was then left to officials All that emerged from it was agreement on a bigger mesh. That was only a palliative, because any man who wants to make a mesh tight can make it almost a solid wall of cord. In the succeeding years, other conferences have ended the same way. All the ports have been hit, not only the herring, but the white fish ports as well.

The Government recently announced that they were giving notice that we were to extend our fishing limits. That will be a step in the right direction, but we all know that for years past herring have been caught simply for oil and for meal, as my right hon. Friend said. The oil yield from herring is very small. I was surprised to hear that it was as much as 12 per cent. Nothing could be more wasteful than industrial fishing of that kind, for it is taking human food and misusing it. It is becoming increasingly important around the Danish and other Scandinavian coasts. If it is right to protect salmon where rents are concerned, it is right to protect fish in the North Sea, where there are no rents. They are the giver of life, and if they are left alone there will be no problem.

The immediate problem must be desperately serious for the North Sea fishermen. It is rather sad to be told that there is no unemployment pay for the men in Fraserburgh because they are share men. I am rather surprised that that should still be the case. But just because they are share men earning £4 a week, that does not mean that they ought to be thrown on the scrap heap. Some provision must be made for them Provision is being made by the White Fish Authority for men to return their craft and for owners who cannot pay interest charges. It will not do to give that kind of benefit to those in one section of the industry and leave the other men to what must be almost starvation.

The hon. Member for Workington appears anxious to speak, but I will make my own speech, and finish when I want to; I know of no limitation of time here. A Member of my experience is entitled to speak in such a debate as this. I challenge anyone in this House or outside it to assert that what I have said today is not true. It is absolutely true. I have seen it in my lifetime. I was joint managing director of Associated Fisheries, which is the biggest fishing company in Europe, so we know something about it. We saw the same thing happen in North America—the Dustbowl there and the sea here are similar in this respect.

I assure hon. Members—and the pity is that there are so few present for a debate on such a subject—that there is nothing more important to Britain than British-caught fish, caught at sterling costs. We do not have to find dollars or any other currency for it. This is the finest fish imaginable. I ate a kipper this morning for my breakfast—it was caught last summer off Fraserburgh. Freezing is a tremendous asset to the industry. I must strongly contradict my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East—there is nothing wrong with the markets for good herring and good white fish. That herring I enjoyed so much this morning was caught all those months ago, and then sold at a very high price—which my wife is pleased to pay, because I enjoy herrings.

There is nothing difficult about this—all the knowledge is available. I strongly support what my hon. Friend has said about the men in Fraserburgh. I will go to the last ditch with them, for it will not do to have such good human stock so treated. Many sons of our fishermen have finished up in Harley Street, in the pulpits and in the professions; good stock—none better.

12.2 p.m.

Mr Frederick Peart (Workington)

I did not want to curtail the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D Robertson), to whom I have listened ever since I came to the House—and I have always been an attentive listener, because of his experience. I had no wish that he should curtail his remarks, but the fact is that this Adjournment debate is running behind time—it was scheduled to last from 11a.m until noon. It is not the fault of any hon. Member—we know that there was a Ministerial statement—but we are running short of time, and the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr Wolrige-Gordon) is entitled to a full reply I therefore make only a brief intervention.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East on raising this subject. He spoke with passion. Quite rightly, he defended the interests of his constituents. As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has said, we must not neglect the fishermen. They must be cared for I shall not argue about the three main points that have been raised, because I am sure that the Minister will give the Government's view. Control of imports is a very important matter, and we are having the same controversy in agriculture. The Bill presented only last week seeks to give the Minister of Agriculture power to control agricultural imports, and I should like to know whether a Bill dealing with the phasing of imports also covers fish imports.

There is a dispute on the subject of catching, and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has put his point of view I should also like to hear the Government's views on a 100 per cent subsidy for herring going for meal and oil I stress, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, that the main herring problem is still that of conservation. Can we get agreement here? We are dealing with a great industry concerned with a very valuable food product. We all like the herring, and as it is an important part of our national diet we are anxious to have plentiful supplies.

Above all, we are anxious that the men in the industry should have long-term security. This is not an easy matter. We have debated it over and over again, but, fundamentally, we come back to conservation. The present fishing conference has been adjourned, but I hope that we shall have some final conclusions from it; that conservation will still be the major issue, and that there will be agreement between the Western Powers at the conference—

Mr Wolrige-Gordon

I agree entirely with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D Robertson) and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr Peart) have said about conservation, but I again stress that the problem is not one of too few herring but of too many, and the need to find the markets in which to sell them.

Mr Peart

There may be a dispute here, because one thinks at once of what has happened this year in East Anglia However, the Minister will reply on that. This is an important subject, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East on his eloquence and vigour in urging the needs of his constituents and of the Scottish industry. I only hope that the Minister will be able to give a constructive and sensible reply.

12.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lady Tweedsmuir)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr Stodart) would much appreciate the sympathy expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr Wolrige-Gordon) about the very sudden death of his mother. It is for that reason that I have been asked to take part in this debate today In a way, I am rather glad to have this chance, since it is now over a year since I was denied an opportunity Prior to that, I used to speak on this subject very regularly This problem affects Aberdeen, in particular, much more than it has affected the near- and middle-water fleets, which go to the Faroes, Iceland and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East, has put his case with great vigour, and everyone must be concerned at the position in which the drifter men from the North-East ports have found themselves. My hon. Friend said, and I took down his words, "This is a debate which is not about money", but, surely, that is one of the matters which is of primary concern to the men whom he is discussing. The real point is that the proceeds from fishing have fallen off during the latter part of the year. They were at a very low point in November in comparison with what the boats were taking this time last year, and also in comparison with what they were taking in the summer.

It is very worrying for anyone in business to find receipts falling off, especially just before Christmas. No one under-estimates the fact that the rewards of a hazardous occupation with long hours are not princely, and I agree with both my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D Robertson) that, as a group, the fishermen are a very fine body of men Their representatives were very disturbed at the marketing position in November for drifter catches At first, they thought that the situation was due to foreign landings, but it turned out that foreign landings this year have not been exceptional In the middle fortnight of November, only 1,326 crans of fresh herring of foreign origin were landed at Scottish ports, and there were no foreign landings at all in the final week of November. The drifter fishermen in particular were still very much disturbed about future prospects. During the corresponding period of 1962 an important part of a plentiful catch was being taken, directly or indirectly, for export to the Continent. This year the Continental markets are well supplied. The Continental fleets have enjoyed good fishing in the North Sea during the summer and the autumn.

Representatives of the fishermen met officials of my Department on Friday to express their concern and to ask for emergency action. As a result of this meeting my right hon. Friend came to the conclusion that there was not at present a case for special action. However, my hon. Friend the Joint Under-secretary of State had a meeting on Wednesday of this week with a deputation representing the North East Coast fishermen, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Sir W Duthie)—who is himself the son of a fisherman and has always taken a leading part in our fishery debates—and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East My right hon. Friend has considered the further points which were made by this deputation, but he again has come to the conclusion that no change in Government assistance to the herring catchers should be made now.

The reason is that we have had, in what is a very variable industry, record earnings for the fishing year as a whole. We used to take part every year in these debates on the general levels of subsidies in the summer. A great majority of the men who go down to the sea in the drifter fleets are share fishermen. They have a stake in the venture and an interest in the proceeds, and the great bulk of what they get is sold by auction, and the market is not an easy one, for there are wide variations of supply and demand, especially as much of the catch is exported. Above all, the herring is a very unpredictable fish, and from season to season it may appear in large quantities or may virtually disappear. A well-known author called herring "the silver darlings," and they are silver darlings if they can be found. Consequently, there is a great variation in the proceeds of herring fishing, and hence in the shares which the drifter men take home.

The takings of the drifter men in the last month or so, when many of the boats were around at the north-west grounds, have been disappointing. On the other hand, if we look at the takings over the year, the average takings up to the time when they stopped fishing in November were better than for the same period last year, and last year, again, was a relatively good year. Of course, the average must conceal boats which have done better and others which have done worse.

The fishing on the East Anglian grounds and in the Minch this autumn has not been quite as good as the exceptionally profitable autumn fishing in 1962, but taking the year as a whole, the gross proceeds of drifter sales up to the end of November were about £60,000 more than in the corresponding period of 1962 It is difficult to make detailed comparisons of profitability and earnings until the accounts—including the cost figures—for the whole of 1963 are available. However, all the indications are that up to the time when they stopped fishing the drifters were doing as well as, if not better than, in the previous year.

For example, the information in my Department suggests that the average proceeds per drifter per week at sea for the seven months from April to November were around £430 this year, exclusive of operational subsidy, as compared with about £400 in 1962. Since September there has been a reduction of £1 a day—from £8 to £7—in respect of the length group to which most of the drifters belong and there may have been some marginal increase in costs. Even allowing for these adjustments, however, the drifters' income should not be worse, and may be better, for the seven-month period of fishing. Taking the landings of herrings at Scottish ports between 1st January and 23rd November, for the years 1962 and 1963—drift net only and not ring net—in 1962 the figure was 213,876 crans, valued at £1,202,350 and in 1963 there were 266,064 crans, valued at £1,297,975.

The hon. Member for Workinton (Mr Peart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East, asked particularly about the oil and meal sub- Sidies. Hon. Members will remember that this year the annual Order regulating subsidies to herring catchers included, as an innovation, a provision for the payment of 25s per cran on herring sold for reduction to oil and meal. As was then explained to the House, this, took the place of an arrangement which had operated for the previous four years or so, by which the Herring Industry Board purchased herrings for this purpose at fixed prices. The Government under-wrote this operation. In both cases the subsidy was limited to 20 per cent, of the total landings. The difference is that under the new arrangements the catchers bear the costs and also get the rewards of finding a commercial buyer for the herrings.

According to my information—and on this the catchers should be congratulated—they have succeeded in getting a much better margin out of the system, in spite of the fact that they have sold rather more than the 20 per cent figure, so that the balance has brought them in only the net commercial return.

They now request that the limitation which has stood for the last four years should be abolished until the end of January, so that they would get 25s on every cran sold for oil and meal. In money terms this is not a very large request. But we would be reluctant to make this change because it would alter the scope of the oil and meal subsidy in a drastic fashion. It is open to the herring catchers to sell any quantities of fish for reduction to oil and meal, but it is not desirable that they should be specially subsidised to catch fish for this purpose alone. As was brought out by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland, the Fleck Committee recommended that the subsidisation of sales for oil and meal should be abandoned altogether.

The position of the drifter section of the fleet is difficult, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that the picture is not as gloomy as he has painted. It is not quite what it seems. At the moment a good many of the drifter vessels which might, up till now, have been fishing in the Minch, have been put in for seasonal repairs. Meanwhile, fishing in the Minch is still being carried on by the ring net boats, and they have found very fair markets for their catches. No one can do more than speculate what the demand for herring would have been if the drifter crews had been at sea during the same period, because a great deal would depend on the quantities, and especially upon the quality, of the fish which they caught.

I agree that the chances are that more fish would have been sold for oil and meal, and that this might have substantially exceeded the 20 per cent of landings on which subsidy is payable. But I do not accept that, having had nearly 12 months of relatively prosperous fishing behind them, including the exceptionally good fishing in the Minch last winter, it would have been a disaster for the general run of share fishermen had this taken place.

The drifter men made their own choice to abandon the fishing early on this occasion I am sorry that on the very day that they left these grounds there was an accident on the road which resulted in the loss of several lives. However, they have taken an independent decision, as they were fully entitled to do, and I do not think that under those circumstances the Governmen can be asked to vary this spread of subsidy.

It is true that fishing for oil and meal can be profitable. It has been calculated by the Herring Industry Board that if the drifters in question had fished all out and had caught 50cran per boat per night five nights a week—which is reasonable—and sold the whole catch for oil and meal—which is the worst possible condition—they would have grossed £254 a week, and with a skipper and a crew of nine the crew members' share would have been about £8 a week As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland says, we do not want to encourage this sort of fishing, because it can be bad for fish stocks.

The effect on drifter owners was brought out by my hon. Friend—and I shall try to be as brief as I can because I see the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr Millan) waiting anxiously to start the next debate. However, I understand that as we started almost half an hour late we have a little flexibility. Since drifter earnings, which I have quoted, have been up to Novem- ber much the same as last year, I cannot really accept that drifter owners may necessarily have to sell up One has to remember that more than half the boats which tied up in November would have been able to turn over to seining for white fish if they had chosen to do so, and seining has been relatively profitable in recent months. Alternatively, they could have tried other grounds where better quality herring have been caught, for example in the South Minch. I must point out that the ring net boats, which have continued to fish for herring on the West Coast, have found profitable markets for their catches.

This involves the question of the importance of National Insurance, which has also been mentioned. Herring fishermen are not automatically classified as seasonal workers. Whether a person is treated as a seasonal worker depends on his individual pattern of work. I understand that there are a number of cases to be heard before the Aberdeen and District Local Tribunal on Monday next which will decide whether the men in these crews will be entitled to benefit. I cannot, of course, anticipate the result of these hearings, but I understand that, meanwhile, some of them will be paid benefit if their boats are recognised to be under repair.

On the question of average earnings, I must express a personal comment here, because I think it is a very great pity that in an industry where the average earnings, owing to the nature of the industry, vary so widely it is not possible in good times to keep a part back in reserve to tide over the bad times. If we take the month of November—which is the month we are talking about in particular, because it was on 27th November that these men decided not to go fishing—in the week ending 16th November, 43 boats fishing for six subsidy days produced an average labour share per man per week of from £23 to £24. The next week, 26 boats fishing for five subsidy days, four nights' fishing, averaged £9 to £10, and on the 30th, 61 boats fishing only for three nights got £7 to £8.

My hon. Friend asked why it was that the marketing arrangements were not gone into perhaps earlier or why they could not have been foreseen, and I think he made a criticism here of the Herring Industry Board. The fishermen, of course, have their own means of access to the Board and I am quite certain that they are never chary of making their representations to it. I think it is fair to say that the Board's functions do not include the marketing of a whole catch and still less can it really be expected to manage the industry in a way that a board of directors manages the output and sale of goods. I understand, however, that the Board has been making strenuous efforts to interest merchants, especially with a view to sustaining exports for the winter season.

On the question of research, which the hon. Member also raised, there is a great deal of research going on into the problems both of processing and marketing. The hon. Member quoted the Report of the Herring Industry Board, and he will find that on the research side the Board works with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at its Torry Research Laboratory in my constituency. The Board is very active in promoting export markets. I agree with the hon. Member that it would be a very good thing if production and marketing could be closely geared, but the herring is not susceptible to control and in some seasons is not to be found, or not in the right quality. A good deal has been done over recent years by the merchants, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland, and others to provide for freezing good quality herring when they are plentiful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland asked in particular about the whole question of fishery limits. As he knows, there was a European Fishery Conference assembled early this month in London at our invitation, and the conference stands adjourned until 8th January. Therefore, I do not really think there is anything I could usefully say now, or, indeed, that it would be proper for me to say at the moment, except that it obviously is a question of major importance and one which many of us have debated with enormous interest over many years While that conference is going on and while we are in the midst of discussions on the general question of our international obliga- tions on imports, I do not feel that it is profitable to say more I will just say to my hon. Friend that I am very glad he has raised this matter, but that I suggest to him that one must see a very difficult industry and its problems in the right proportion over the year, and, that being so, I hope he will feel that the problem is not as bad as he has sought to show.

Mr Wolrige-Gordon

My hon. Friend has obviously tried to show that I am misinformed about what is going to happen. May I, therefore, ask her what is her advice to the fishermen in the North-East of Scotland who are waiting for the outcome of this debate?

Lady Tweedsmuir

I think that I very fully covered every aspect of the problem and that, in the interests of other hon. Members, I should not pursue the subject.