HC Deb 23 July 1970 vol 804 cc883-93

11.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I beg to move, That the White Fish (Inshore Vessels) and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th July, be approved. This scheme provides for the payment for the 12 months from 1st August of white fish subsidy for vessels under 80 feet in registered length and of herring subsidy for all sizes of herring vessels, most of which are also under 80 feet. As the House will know, subsidy for the deep-sea fleet has been dealt with separately and—if I may stray for a few seconds, Mr. Speaker—the scheme providing for that was a three-year scheme, with a year still to run, and is not, therefore, before us tonight.

It has been the policy of successive Governments over a considerable period to settle the rates of subsidy for the inshore and herring fleets each year after reviewing their degree of prosperity as revealed by the operating results. After considering the Fleck Report in 1961, the Government of that day decided to continue this practice; and the last Administration carried this on, and, indeed, reaffirmed it in 1968 after their review of the support policy which resulted in new subsidy arrangements for the deep-sea fleet.

Though there have been differences in emphasis, the object has been to provide for these important sections of the fishing industry the backing needed to ensure tolerable conditions and rewards.

My right hon. Friends have, therefore, laid this scheme, in the same way as previous annual schemes have been laid, though we shall be taking a closer look at the policy in due course along with that for the deep-sea fleet the operation of which right hon. Gentlemen opposite had in any case undertaken to review before the end of this year.

Over the years the general state of prosperity of the inshore and herring fleets has enabled subsidy rates to be reduced from time to time by Governments from either side. On this occasion, though I am glad to say that the overall position is reasonably buoyant, the scheme before the House will continue the support at the current level: it makes no changes in the voyage rates of subsidy, and the slight changes it makes in the stonage rates, which are linked with decimalisation next year, are expected to result in a slight increase in overall payments.

Before I say more about the details of the scheme I would like to set it against the general state of the industry. The value of the white fish and herring landings in the United Kingdom in 1969 by the vessels covered by the scheme was £19.3 million, an increase of £1 million compared with 1968. Overall this is not an unsatisfactory position.

The level of white fish landings was helped by the good 1967 haddock brood, of which more of marketable size began to appear in the catches, but this was, unfortunately, offset to some extent by exceptionally bad weather at the beginning of 1969.

The herring catch, which increased by 28 per cent. in value compared with 1968, was greatly helped by the strong European demand in the Scottish west coast fisheries resulting from generally poor catches in the North Sea and elsewhere.

The impact of these favourable factors has been chiefly in Scotland, so the increase in the white fish and herring landings has been mainly in Scotland, with only a marginal increase in England and Wales and a marginal decrease in Northern Ireland.

I now turn to the operating results in 1969. It is probably appropriate that I should refer to Scotland first, since over two-thirds of the landings within the scope of this scheme are made in ports there. I am glad to say that for Scottish vessels the average profit before depreciation was 16 per cent. higher in 1969 than it was in 1968. In England and Wales, on the other hand, 1969 turned out less well than 1968. Average profit before depreciation fell by 20 per cent. Northern Ireland vessels, like those in Scotland, had a good year. Their average rose by 19 per cent.

The Fishery Departments, of course, discussed these results with representatives of the inshore industry from all parts of the United Kingdom, so that we could see what the overall position was in perspective.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker (Banff)

Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether the consultations took place before or after the General Election?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to to my hon. Friend for his intervention. These consultations have been continuing since the end of 1969. The operating results that we are discussing were the results of the industry during 1969, and these consultations with the industry have been continuing since that time.

The overall position of the United Kingdom fleet as a whole is certainly not unsatisfactory. United Kingdom landings and profitability have both risen. In those circumstances, we do not believe that a general increase in subsidy could be justified. However, I want to deal fairly with the representations that have been made to us for higher rates either for England and Wales as a whole, or, as I know my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) is interested, for particular regions or ports. I would, in fairness, point out that if we were to provide for differential rates either on a country basis or on a port basis, not only would this be a departure from the usual practice of applying the subsidy rates uniformly throughout the United Kingdom, but it could also, we feel, be open to objection as a matter of principle.

I am sure, as all who have experience of the inshore fishing industry know, that the inshore fishermen are versatile and can prosecute the kind of fishing, methods of fishing and, to some extent, the area of fishing that suit them best. On the whole, we think it right that they should be free to do so without the distortion of preferential rates favouring this or that section of the industry.

I appreciate that there are bound to be variations from year to year in the relative success of different groups and classes, but it follows that there must be an element of taking the rough with the smooth. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite have, I think, resisted special treament for particular groups on these grounds in the past.

We have noted with satisfaction that up to the end of May landings of white fish and herring by inshore boats in England and Wales were up by £½ million compared with 1969, representing a 25 per cent. increase, against a 22 per cent. increase in Scotland in the same period. In the circumstances, we have come to the conclusion that the right course is to leave the subsidy rates for the coming year much as they are now, with the minor adjustments in stonage rates which I have mentioned.

The changes in the rates of stonage subsidy are slight, and the new amounts will convert conveniently to the new currency next February. We have increased from 11d. to 1s. per stone the rate which applies to most white fish used for human consumption. Most of the stonage subsidy is paid at that rate. The other rates have been slightly reduced. Balancing the rates together, we estimate that the changes in stonage rates will be almost self-balancing; and, taking the overall position, the scales tip slightly in favour of the fishermen.

I have dealt with our proposals for rates of subsidy, but the scheme also sets out the conditions of payment, and here we are not proposing any major changes this year. Last year there were some changes in the qualification required by some of the smaller boats to make them eligible for voyage rate subsidy. The simplification is being continued, and the boats concerned will be paid subsidy at voyage rates if they earned at least £250 in subsidy in 1969.

This year we have decided to do some weeding out of earlier schemes which are now spent, and this is the reason for the revocations provided for in paragraph 2 of the scheme and for the list of schemes in Schedule 4. I should, perhaps, mention the omission of a provision contained in the 1969 scheme dealing with the manner in which subsidy should be disbursed among crews subject to existing agreements. This was paragraph 9 of the scheme. The reason for this omission is that since recognised sharing arrangements already exist in the inshore and herring fleets, the provision is unnecessary in a scheme dealing solely with these fleets.

I have mentioned some of the points in the scheme and some of the differences in anticipation of issues hon. Members might raise, and I hope that this will be of help. It is our intention to promote the prosperity of the industry. We believe that the proposals embodied in the scheme will assist in this direction, and I therefore commend the scheme to the House.

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrew, West)

In some respects I felt as though I was looking at a mirror reflection of myself as the Under-Secretary gave his analysis of the fishing situation and of this Instrument. I felt the same when I read the scheme, for, despite the changes which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the position is virtually unchanged. However, it would be ungracious of me not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being appointed to his present office, a post which I occupied for three extremely happy years. I wish him well.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will get a good ride tonight, particularly as he has virtually adopted my scheme. But I warn him that I may not be able to say the same in future. I was interested in his comment that the Government intend to sustain the efficiency of the fishing industry. We received the approval of both the Under-Secretary and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with a certain amount of trepidation. Some of their hon. Friends will be a little anxious. In the similar debate to this last year, the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) quoted the Fishing News as saying that the rates of subsidy for the coming year are likely to cause disappointment to many Scottish fishermen.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st July 1969; Vol. 787, c. 1423.] He was referring to identical figures to those for this year; yet there has been no change or upward move.

The only change has been impelled by decimalisation. Mostly it has been a rounding up. I hope that this will be looked into on the prices side. I am glad that it has been rounded up, but to the same extent we would like to see some helpful lead on prices. This is extremely important, especially in the present situation. This Order comes in a period when there is intense interest as to the effect of the present emergency on food prices.

I have not been made particularly happy by some earlier announcements by the Minister of Agriculture, who seems to enunciate high prices as a matter of policy. The phrase quoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) about the right hon. Gentleman was: the nation has been molly-coddled for too long by receiving cheap food". It does not encourage us at a time when every housewife is anxious about prices and the Minister is identified with a policy of high prices. Nor have I felt particularly happy that he has been identified with a policy of ending subsidies. He said that he would like to see the Government working towards a system of no Government support for the fishing industry. and that if food prices rose the industry would be in a more healthy position."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July, 1966; Vol. 732, c. 2127.] Whereas in agriculture up to now Tory policy has been for a reduction in the guaranteed prices and a move over to a levy system, nevertheless, they have decided to maintain production grants. Of course, the equivalent of production grants in agriculture so far as fishing is concerned is the grants we have before us. Therefore, whether the Minister rejects an extension of subsidies, as he did a year ago, and the Tunstall proposals for guaranteed prices, we are given cause for anxiety. If, however, he brings forward schemes identical to mine, we will forgive him and give him support. I hope that he will deny his Prior commitments.

Dr. J. Dickson Mahon (Greenock)

Very good.

Mr. Buchan

It is not very good, but it is perhaps the best one can produce after such an extraordinary day.

We often use these fishing industry debates to get information, and I should like to get a comment on the Cameron Committee. When will its report be published? There is one big omission which I have noticed. For a long time the hon. Gentleman, and certainly his hon. Friends, have continued with a barrage on what they regarded as an anomaly—having a levy for shellfish but no subsidy for shellfish. I hope that the Minister will explain why a subsidy is not included for shellfish.

With whom have the discussions taken place? The important point is when the Ministerial decisions are made. With the 20 per cent. change in the English and Welsh situation, it is the year's workings that the Government should have been more concerned with rather than with the improvement, which we all welcome, in the English and Welsh situation since January of this year.

Another reason for anxiety in the industry relates to the appointments.

In a recent debate on a Measure giving further support to the White Fish Authority the two tellers for those opposing the Measure were the present Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Therefore, we shall need an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that some of his previous comments about the authority were merely late night games. Earlier this year, referring to a publicity scheme by the authority, the right hon. Gentleman said that he could not criticise the scheme because it had been produced by a former publicity officer of the Conservative Party. The right hon. Gentleman then said: I have no hesitation in saying that he made a much better job of publicity for the Conservative Party than he is ever likely to do for the Authority or the industry. … I do not like the Authority at all. I think that it is a useless organisation. The extraordinary thing about the Authority is that one cannot find anyone to say a good word about it. If responsible people in the House are prepared to say such a thing about the authority, it is no wonder that nobody can be found who will say a good word for it. The authority has done a good job. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will retract those words.

In the past certain hon. Members opposite have been antagonistic to subsidies and to organisations which have carried out research. We shall certainly expect to have a rapid disavowal from the right hon. Gentleman tonight. He ended his speech on the publicity scheme with these words: It would be much more sensible of the Government if they recognised the facts and gave up support of the White Fish Authority, disbanded it, and allowed the very capable people who are members of it to do other jobs and to serve the country to greater advantage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1970; Vol. 797, cc. 1277–80.] The Minister can tell us more about that tonight. The industry will be curious to hear the answer.

There has been much discussion as to whether there should be amalgamation between the two relevant authorities, the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority. No reference was made to that earlier. If the Government will drop, as they must, their opposition to the authority and the board, the question of amalgamation arises. I ask the Under-Secretary to remember that inshore fishing, and, above all, on the herring side, is extremely important to Scotland. If there is to be amalgamation, I expect him to secure the kind of Scottish interests which we have through the separate Herring Industry Board. There is also the question of the location of the headquarters, which I hope will be in Scotland.

Finally, there is the question of industrial fishing. With a fish meal and fertiliser industry which involves us in £32 million of imports every year, I have always wondered why we have never managed to put the kind of resources into solving this problem that we have devoted, for example, to the smelter. I offer this as a task for the recess for the Under-Secretary: if we tackled this on a large scale instead of only on a small scale with one factory on the west coast, it might help us to get over the hump of the problem.

I have stuck very closely to the scheme. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he presented it. I hope that it suggests that he has turned over a new leaf. I hope that his right hon. Friend in winding up will demonstrate that his earlier expressions were merely young spirits and that he is treating this as responsibly as we shall expect him to.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

I have assisted—as the French say—at the passage of white fish schemes off and on for about 20 years, and this is the first time that I have ventured to address the House on the subject. I have assisted at that passage in a more or less passive way over these 20 years with varying degrees of bewilderment and incomprehension, and I am stimulated to intervene tonight by a faint moment of comprehension during the speech of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I understood him to say that the fishing fleet this year was reasonably buoyant, which I found reassuring.

After all these years as a Member representing a constituency with a substantial electorate which does not catch fish, except sometimes in the River Avon if the pollution level falls reasonably low, and does not process fish, but does eat fish, I felt that the time had come to put a question to my right hon. Friend which would enable me once and for all to decide how I ought to vote on this scheme.

There has been a great deal of talk about subsidies and white fish. Could my right hon. Friend simply tell me, taking a reasonable cross-section—if that is the right fishmongering term—what sort of percentage of the price which my constituents pay is represented by the subsidy which they also pay? This, I think, is a reasonable question for any consuming constituency to ask. I do not think it should be very difficult for my right hon. Friend to give me an answer, and I hope that he will.

11.42 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) for intervening in this debate. I thought he was going to ask far more difficult questions than that. He might even have asked me about some of the speeches I have made on white fish over the years, as the hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) did. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paying me the compliment of referring for the third time today to a remark that I made in 1966 when discussing white fish subsidies, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to save you the embarrassment of having to call me to order I do not intend to get involved in that subject tonight.

We are tonight debating a very small, closely defined scheme which deals with the inshore fleet, and it would be wrong if I strayed into a discussion of the White Fish Authority or other bodies. All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that, as I said in reply to a Question on Tuesday, in due course I shall be having full discussions with the Chairman of the White Fish Authority and with the Herring Industry Board and, as I think I said on that occasion, under our new style of Government we shall take our time in making up our minds what to do, and then we shall come to the House and announce it.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The right hon. Gentleman has repeated the answer that he gave on Tuesday about his new style of Government, but it means that his new style of Government is involved in considerable public expenditure. It also means that many people who have interests in the industry will be watching very carefully the type of decisions that are made from the catching side, right through to the wholesale and retail side of the industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman make his statement on the future of the White Fish Authority by the end of this year?

Mr. Prior

It is likely that by the end of this year I shall make a statement. In fact, I can give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking now that I shall make a statement before the end of this year about the White Fish Authority and other bodies, as I think it is very important that the authority and the people who work for it, as well as the fishing industry, should not be kept—

Mr. Buchan


Mr. Prior

—dangling, if that is the right word, for too long, but for the moment this is outside the scope of the debate, and I should not want to get further involved in that issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. He asked about the subsidy on shellfish. The hon. Gentleman claimed a little earlier to have been the author of this document. As he, as the author, did not put in any subsidy for shellfish, and as it is outside the context of the Act on which the scheme is based, I imagine the hon. Gentleman knows that the answer is that we are not going to give a subsidy on shellfish.

Mr. Buchan

I made that clear. My point was to ask the right hon. Gentleman how he explained his decision to his hon. Friends who had been pressing us to include shellfish. It was they who were pressing us. I resisted it. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman did the same. He is right.

Mr. Prior

A little while ago the hon. Gentleman was asking whether I would give more subsidy. Now he praises me for resisting a subsidy. Now one way, now another: that just about sums up the Opposition's position now.

The hon. Gentleman asked me with whom there had been consultations. The answer is, with all the inshore associations in Scotland, plus the Fisheries Organisation Society, generally representative of inshore men in England and Wales, and, as is customary, separately with the Grimsby Seiners' Association. I hope that he is satisfied with that answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked how much subsidy went towards the price of fish. We are dealing here with only a section of the industry, the white fish section. The subsidy is about 1s. a stone on the smaller landings, although it is done on a voyage basis for the larger ships. It varies according to what the fish are, but at 1s. per stone, if my hon. Friend takes the average price which the fish make per stone, he can work out the percentage. It is a comparatively small percentage. On the whole, fish is cheap and in plentiful supply, and at present it is a most valuable commodity for the housewife.

Although this is a narrow debate, it is, perhaps, fortunate that the scheme should come before the House at this time, when hon. and right hon. Members can be reminded of the job that the inshore fleet, just as much as the rest of the industry, does.

Perhaps I may end on a personal note. I have taken part in fishing debates in the House over a good many years. I am proud to represent a fishing constituency. I have made it one of my aims that I shall be Minister responsible not only for food and for agriculture but for fish as well. I have undertaken that this will be one of my jobs in the Department, and I shall look forward to the many debates which will take place on the fascinating subject of white fish.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the White Fish (Inshore Vessels) and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th July, be approved.