HC Deb 08 July 1963 vol 680 cc1007-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. I. Fraser.]

10.24 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I am very mollified tonight by the receipt last week of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food informing me that the new Chairman of the White Fish Authority was shortly to visit the port of North Shields and to consider in detail, and, I hope, helpfully, the position of the fishing port of North Shields with a view to helping that port in the very difficult circumstances in which it finds itself. I was very pleased to receive this information, because having been fortunate enough in the Ballot to secure the Adjournment debate for tonight I had intended to deliver as powerful an attack as I might on the White Fish Authority, because, having observed its operations during the last few years, I had come to the conclusion that it was not operating satisfactorily, at any rate so far as the North-East coast was concerned.

After the publication of the Fleck Report, with all its important recommendations, and the attention that had been paid to the fishing industry by Lord Fleck and his colleagues, I felt that the White Fish Authority as constituted failed to live up to the recommendations and the work that had been done by the Fleck Committee.

I also felt that my right hon. Friend was much more interested in agriculture than in fisheries. I did not feel that, at any rate in my part of the world, since the distant water fleets and the middle water fleets had come under the jurisdiction of the White Fish Authority the middle water fleet had received as much support and help as it had had in the past. I felt that the distant water fleet had received far too much attention, to the detriment of other fleets. I felt—and I say this with regret, because I know of its struggles, just as I know of the struggles of the port of North Shields—that the White Fish Authority had granted loans to Aberdeen which resulted in there being too many trawlers operat- ing to the detriment of both Aberdeen and North Shields.

Indeed, I also felt—and I say this again with regret, because I am not an expert in these matters—that wherever one went in the fishing world the only people who seemed to be exercising any influence at all on my right hon. Friend was the Ross Group. It seemed to be flourishing. It may be, as I understand it is, a very important firm, but I am not one of those who like the big chaps to outdo the smaller chaps, and I did not feel that the Minister of Agriculture was really interested in what happened to my small port of North Shields.

Ever since I returned to the House in 1950 successive Ministers of Agriculture, both in the House of Commons and in Committees, have always asked what was going to be done to resuscitate the port of North Shields. We had an excellent record in the help that fishermen gave to the war effort but, for reasons which were not difficult to understand, the old trawler owners who had contributed their work in their own fleets to the fishing off North Shields had to turn to other occupations. None of the trawler owners appeared to have sons who were interested in going into the fishing industry to follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

Not unnaturally, a very steady decline in fishing set in at the port of North Shields and, as I have already said, successive Ministers of Agriculture continually asked me what was going to be done about North Shields which, as they said, was giving cause for great concern in the Ministry. I assumed that each Minister of Agriculture was only waiting for a move to come from the port of North Shields, and that any action in that direction would be welcomed with open arms.

After a very long period, at least there came a stir. The port of North Shields is unique in that the fishing quay is owned by a very competent local authority, the County Borough of Tynemouth, which takes a very great interest in everything that the fishing industry does, for it is an integral part of the livelihood of the people of the district.

When a son of a very well-known trawler owner, Mr. John Purdy, decided that he would like to come into the industry, we thought that he would be welcomed by my right hon. Friend with open arms and that everything possible would be done to help him to build up his father's fleet, for that would help not only the North Shields fishing interests but the local authority and the general revival of industry in the port. I was sadly disappointed, as were all those interested. We then entered a battle with my right hon. Friend which we have so far lost, but I am slightly mollified by my right hon. Friend's letter, which seems to indicate that the unpleasant things which have been said about the White Fish Authority and my right hon. Friend have at last begun to make an impression.

Mr. John Purdy is a very creative young man who has had wide technical training. He has great knowledge of the world and has certain interests, as has his family, in Australia. Because of his integrity and ability, he gets great support from certain interests on the North-East Coast. Before putting forward his ideas about grants and loans, he was joined in his enterprise by people with private money which they were willing to invest in the industry. As far as we could see, if the Ministry would be encouraging, we should be taking a step in the right direction.

I cannot comment on the technical design which Mr. Purdy put to the White Fish Authority, but there is no doubt that those who are technically competent to express an opinion said that there was great merit both in the design of the trawlers for which Mr. Purdy wished to obtain grants and loans and in his design for a fishing fleet.

We were all somewhat staggered when we met with a complete refusal to make any grant or loan. There are only two ports which, because of their peculiar situation, do not have to scrap a trawler when they get a grant or loan to build a new one. They are Milford Haven and North Shields, and this is an indication of our dire need.

Mr. Purdy was unable to make any progress and he then decided to ask for a grant and loan for building a trawler of what was called a conventional type. Nobody could see that there could be any objection to that, but the White Fish Authority refused a grant and loan for that, too. Again, this caused great consternation.

After what I had heard from the British Trawler Owners' Federation, it seemed to me that too many trawlers had been built. This related particularly to the port of Aberdeen. There was a feeling that the fishing areas could have been restricted and that those which were left were being over-fished. It seemed that the White Fish Authority, having over-aided Aberdeen, intended to knock the port of North Shields on the head. That did not suit North Shields or my local authority, or Mr. Purdy—and it certainly did not suit me. I hope that it does not suit my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend.

I thought that I would find out the proportion of grants and loans made to Scotland compared with English ports. I made the inquiry, and there was a very long delay. I must say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is a very slow Government Department—but possibly agriculturalists are slower than industrialists. After a very long delay and many telephone calls, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture telling me that I was quite wrong in thinking that Scotland had received favours at the expense of England. The curious thing was that in the analysis which he sent to me of trawlers which had been grant-aided there was mention only of England and Wales and no mention of Scotland. The word"Scotland" did not appear in the analysis at all, and this made me more suspicious than ever.

Next, my attention was drawn to the fact that the old system of asking for tenders by those who applied for grants and loans for building new trawlers had gone by the board. I have never heard an announcement that the old system of asking for tenders was being abolished by the White Fish Authority. It is true that when we have a debate on this subject it is nearly always at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Perhaps my right hon. Friend forgot to tell us that the White Fish Authority had abolished local tendering. When I went into the matter I also found that certain trawler firms were building trawlers in their own yards without tendering. When my right hon. Friend took the decision to allow—because of G.A.T.T.—trawler owners to build abroad if they so desired, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because I always adopt the technique that if I do not get a satisfactory answer from one Government Department, I set about going to another. I then compare the two letters, which sometimes produces the most interesting results.

The Minister of Agriculture told me that they had departed from tendering about 1954–55 but that he was considering reimposing the obtaining of tenders before a grant-in-aid was made. At the same time I had a fascinating letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer who said that he had read my correspondence on the matter of tendering with very great interest but that he always understood that the Trawler Owners' Federation thought that competitive tendering was impracticable. This was a conflict of opinion and of evidence which only reinforced my view that the White Fish Authority had got completely out of control and was not doing the job which it was set up to do by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

All these extraordinary things have happened and the total result has been that, in spite of the fact that we regarded it as something special if we did not have to scrap a trawler in order to build a new trawler, we in North Shields got no help at all, and all the energy and initiative of the son of a well-known trawler owner went by the board.

My hon. Friend may be interested in this next point, because I notice that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that we must get down to it and encourage youth. I hope that when he reads the debate he will realise that this is an opportunity. This young man is full of energy and knowledge. I am glad to say that he has now been put on a technical committee dealing with the design of trawlers. This is a move in the right direction. I hope that the Chancellor, who is young and interested in youth, will at least take the initiative in seeing that a young man who is anxious to build up a new trawler fleet at North Shields is given his opportunity. He is young, very active and very able, and I was delighted when he wrote to me and said that anybody who thinks that the port of North Shields will not fight for its position is living in a fool's paradise. I hope that my hon. Friend will remember that.

I want to make only one other observation, because I am longing to hear what good news my hon. Friend has for me tonight. I want to refer to a letter which the Town Clerk of the County Borough of Tynemouth wrote to the North-East Development Council on the subject of the port of North Shields. I approve of the letter. I have also made my representations to Lord Hailsham. The position of the port of North Shields has been the subject of deputations received by the Prime Minister from the local Conservative Members of Parliament and from the North-East Development Council.

My Town Clerk says this: During the period from 1945 there has been, much to the concern of the Council"— this letter was written on 1st May, 1963— and those connected with the industry, a steady and regrettable decline in the number of trawlers based upon and operating from the port. Compared with the average of about sixty trawlers prior to 1939, there are now only nine trawlers and fifteen seine net boats operating regularly from North Shields. After taking into account the increased efficiency and productivity of the nine new trawlers, it is still estimated that an average of between twenty and thirty trawlers supported by an adequate number of seine net vessels is required to make up for the loss in fishing capacity. To make good this deficiency in supplies, many wholesale fish merchants at the quay find it necessary to bring in supplies of fish from other ports to meet the demands of their inland customers, and they have given an assurance that if there was a regular and sufficient supply of fresh fish landed direct at North Shields, they would purchase their requirements locally rather than from other markets. That puts the position into perspective.

I am not quite certain how good the position of the wholesalers at North Shields is. It may be that my hon. Friend can make suggestions about that to us. All I want to know tonight—I want to know it absolutely certainly and with no equivocation—is that this disastrous position at North Shields will now occupy the attention of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend so that there will be no more complaints that the North-East Coast, to which we are giving so much attention now, is not being properly dealt with.

10.44 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

Luckily we shall be having the opportunity for a debate on the fishing industry next week in connection with the White Fish and Herring Subsidy Orders. I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) that I do not think that debate will be in the early hours of the morning.

In the short time left to me I will try to answer some of the main points my hon. Friend made. We will have to leave some of the more general points until next week's debate. My hon. Friend, as always, put her case extremely cogently and with great force. She persistently made the point that the trawler fleet of North Shields must not be treated any worse than the fleet of any other port. She is anxious that we should look into this matter with urgency.

It is vital, when discussing aid to fishing companies—about the supplying of loans and grants for building—to remember that it is aid for people who are willing to put up some of their own money and are thought to be able to carry out the obligations which this entails. Some mistakes are inevitable, I hope very few, but the White Fish Authority is necessarily much concerned with the financial status and efficiency—financial and technical—of applicants for these funds.

The Authority is under an obligation to use its judgment in these matters and the answer to requests for pressure to be put on the Authority must be that under the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1951, responsibility is vested in the Authority. We as a Government cannot intervene in particular cases, although the fishery Ministers may give directions about general policy.

We should, first, get the facts right. Grants and loans for near and middle water vessels were introduced in 1953. The Fleck Committee reported on the industry at the beginning of 1961 and, after its Report, everything was to some extent in the melting pot and the White Fish Authority stayed its hand. Up to the end of 1960 the White Fish Authority had received applications for the construction of 13 trawlers for North Shields firms. Of those 13, 12 were approved and one was rejected.

Regarding two approvals, for Messrs. Purdy, the White Fish Authority had found that, after two-and-a-half years, these vessels had not been commenced and, naturally, it withdrew its approval. That was the position up to the time of the Fleck Report. After the publication of that Report—that is, from then up till now—20 further applications have been received. Six of these have been deferred for further consideration and are still being considered. Of the rest, one was for an experimental vessel and was turned down by the Authority. Seven applications were from completely new entrants to the industry, which were turned down because the number of applicants was very high in relation to fishing resources. Twoapplications—from Messrs. Richard Irvin & Son—were approved. There were four further applications from Messrs. Purdy, which have also been turned down.

By the time that North Shields got into its stride in taking the opportunity to use the provisions of the grants and loan arrangements, there were already signs that firms were getting, or were likely to get, into difficulties in their repayments to the Authority. Further, changes in Government policy—-the"scrap-and-build"arrangements—were under discussion with the Authority, and the British Trawlers' Federation put in a request that no further assistance should be given to vessels of 139 feet. It is fair to say that the Authority was right, between 1961 and 1962, in being extremely selective in dealing with applications.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, Tynemouth Corporation owns the port. Officials of the Corporation have been in touch with the Authority and officials from the Ministry, on both general and particular aspects of this matter. I was pleased to see that my hon. Friend was slightly mollified by the fact that the new Chairman, who only took office on the 1st of this month—and this is a measure of his concern with the problems of North Shields—will visit the port on the 24th of this month to look into conditions there. I think that it is only right that, to some extent, we should await his appraisal of the situation on the spot.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the fleet had diminished, and that is true. There were 40 trawlers over 70 ft. long 10 years ago, most of them being coal burning, but now that the last of the coal burners has ceased to operate there are in this size group 10 trawlers, of which one is old and nine are new. In addition, there are, as my hon. Friend knows, three on the stocks. At the same time, the number of the smaller vessels, between 40 ft. and 70 ft., has risen from five to 22 in the same period. Of these, 14 have been helped by grants and loans from the White Fish Authority, so that the balance between seiners and inshore vessels has been changed. During the last five years the landings—which are much more likely to fluctuate when there are more inshore vessels—have not varied all that much. They have fallen by about 10 per cent. or 15 per cent., but the value of the catch has not fallen.

My hon. Friend was worried about the position of Messrs. Purdy, and here we must get the facts absolutely straight. Purdys put in an application to build two vessels of 115 ft. costing about £80,000 each, and the Authority approved the project in 1954. Between 1954 and 1959, only three applications had come in from North Shields of which two were approved and one was turned down. Although other proposals did come in during 1960 and 1961, it was not until 1962 that Purdy Trawlers Limited, which now has only one vessel, put in further applications, first for a 139 ft. experimental vessel, and then for four 139 ft. stern trawlers. I should like to make it clear that there is at present no application before the Authority.

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend has said about the need to encourage young people to go forward, and young Mr. Purdy is to be commended for his enterprise and initiative in doing what he has to resuscitate and get things really going again. I cannot go into all the details of this particular case but, as I say, the Chairman is to go to North Shields, and I hope that Mr. Purdy will take advantage of that visit to put forward whatever views and case he has to the Chairman himself.

My hon. Friend mentioned competitive tendering. The position is that the White Fish Authority has entire authority to deal with this matter, which is why no announcement was made to the House by my right hon. Friend. We are again looking into the question of competitive tendering for vessels built at home, but the Authority did find from its experience in earlier years that it was in a position, with the trawler owners, to assess the tenders that came in on the home side. Any tenders that come in from overseas—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.