HC Deb 29 July 1974 vol 878 cc187-216

10.58 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I am not sure whether the Minister knows of the problems which exist in our fishing ports. They are not too bad in Hull, but I advise him, if he has time, to go to ports such as Milford Haven, Buckie in Scotland, Brixham in Devon and others, and although the deep sea fleet is holding its own the future is not too certain and the inshore fleet is in difficulty now and has been for some weeks.

If the Minister wishes to know the extent of the pessimism, perhaps he will look at the annual report of the White Fish Authority. Charles Meek is a very able, experienced man, but his report this year is what I would term, without being unkind, almost a book of gloom. Certainly it is a document of doom. The Trawling Times stated that Mr. Meek told pressmen that there are now over 100,000 tons of fish in cold store in this country and if they are held there much longer considerable sections of the industry will go out of business altogether. Now the market has taken a very sharp downturn indeed. A kit of cod was fetching £18.50 in January which was admittedly exceptional but it was £15 in December and is now down below £12 at the end of May. There is a bad time coming for the fishing industry. I do not share that gloomy view. Last year was the best year in living memory. It is amazing how quickly we have switched from optimism to pessimism.

For the last three years there have been no subsidies. The system is complicated, but no subsidies are payable if the fleet's gross profits are more than £7.8 million. So the fleets have had quite a good time. Now we have gloom. Prices are depressed, cold stores are bursting and inflation is eroding whatever profits are being made. Some people are asking whether the industry needs support. I am the last man to wish the industry to be propped up by the Government.

I should like to ask the Minister one or two questions in the light of the information he has from his officers at the ports. Do the Government think that the fishing boat operators, particularly in the smaller ports, are going or will go to the wall? The Minister must be getting facts and figures from his staff at Milford Haven, Lowestoft and Aberdeen. Townspeople are sceptical. They know that cod was fetching 75p a lb not long ago.

Skipper Taylor—a well-known, almost internationally well-known skipper—came back with £64,000 worth of fish not long ago. He got about £6,000 for his share of the catch, of which he paid £3,750 in tax. Like a boxer, he decided that for the time being he would not fish because if he did he would have to pay too much tax.

Skipper Taylor is one of my constituents and I know him well. He has appeared on television. My job is not to judge him—his employers can do that later—but he has been very foolish in Icelandic waters. He has been politically foolish because his actions will encourage the Icelanders to make more conservation belts, and none of us wants that.

Skipper Taylor has been having a difficult time and I want to defend him. I was told to look at the Daily Telegraph—it is not a paper I like to buy—and I have discovered that he was given orders how to behave. The vessel came directly back to the Humber and lay for two days inside the estuary, as all vessels do which are in ice and which are bound for St. Andrew's docks. In the docks there is still water which can have a temperature of 50 degrees and can sometimes melt the ice. The boats lie out in the Humber where it is much cooler. In the last week Skipper Taylor has been knocked about a bit by the local Press. He has had a bad time and something should be said for him. These men face the elements and danger. Not many of us would like to go to the Arctic, and it is our job in this House to give these fishermen some care and attention.

The fleet as a whole lands 1 million tons, worth about £150 million. There are 23,000 full-time workers, involved in the industry. It must be said that the fishing industry is four to five times more important to Scotland in terms of manpower, boats and catches. The inshore fleet catches something like 46 per cent. of the total and accounts for 5,500 vessels. I hope and believe that the men in the industry will obtain the help they require.

I am not completely at ease when I think of the amount of cold storage that is undertaken. We obtain around 450,000 tons of fish from the deep-sea vessels and if the North-East Atlantic quotas bite and we catch less there will be a greater outflow from cold storage. We may face something of a bogy in this respect, but I believe that there will slowly be an outflow as our catch becomes less. If it is said that we should send our boats into the North-West Atlantic off Greenland and Labrador, we must remember that the quota there is down to 28,000 tons. Therefore, not many vessels will be able to go there to catch very much fish.

It is difficult to predict the future of the deep sea fleet. I believe that we shall phase out some of the older vessels which will become unproductive in the near future. If they have to steam 5,000 miles to the North-West Atlantic, they will be in difficulties in trying to get back and make money on the trip, even with a £40,000 catch. With fuel at the price it now is, I am told that some of the older vessels use £100,000 worth of fuel in a year's work.

Following the advent of the 200-mile limit—some collective decisions on this matter will be taken at the Caracas conference—there is no doubt that we shall phase out some of our older vessels. Even more significantly, however, we shall find that our vessels from Hull, Fleetwood, Aberdeen and Grimsby will be coming back to fish in nearer waters. This is inevitable. We no longer make vessels like the "Arctic Buccaneer," which was 270 ft. long and cost £1½ million to build and equip. The day of that size of vessel has gone. I do not think the future structure of our fishing fleet envisages vessels of the kind built by the Japanese or Communists—large vessels which scoured the world in search of their catches. Owners such as Michael Bolton of Hull are now building small vessels.

The present situation poses enormous difficulties for the smaller ports and inshore fleets. Although the catch will be much the same in value, the catches undoubtedly will be different if we are fishing within our 200-mile limit and in the meantime have expelled aliens, in much the same way as the Icelanders wish to expel us. We have the pelagic fish, such as the herring and mackerel, rather than the demersal fish that are found in Icelandic waters, off Norway and elsewhere.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what he thinks about swapping arrangements which will involve, say, our having licences to catch 50,000 or 100,000 tons off the Norwegian or Icelandic bank and others in return being allowed to fish in our waters.

I cannot see our fleet in the future getting as far afield as the South Atlantic or the North-West Atlantic. We may get new species off Western Islands, Porcupine and Rockall Banks, but to talk of them is to talk of a situation which is years ahead. In that connection my hon. Friend the Minister might look at the possibilities of blue whiting. I am told that there are 10 million tons and that most are females—which is a good augury for the future—from North-West Ireland up to the Shetlands, and that there is a future for them. If we can get the machinery to gut them, we can make good use of them.

I want now to say a few words about the inshore fleet. I think that it faces very difficult times. Does the Minister believe that the difficulties are acute in the face of the overheads which it faces? It is not merely a question of nets, which are now costing much more. Inshore fishermen are now paying three times as much for their fuel, which my people are not doing. On the Humber we have a contract for our heavy fuel, and that will last until 1975. I understand that the smaller men are in difficulty. I do not want to be personal about the constituencies, but I should hate to think that the frugal, independent and hardworking people in a place like Buckie were likely to have their way of life undermined by a situation such as that which hit the herring fleets in the 1930s when men were forced ashore to live on the dole.

On the subject of finance and what is happening today, my Scottish colleagues will correct me if I am wrong but on a family boat, which has a skipper and seven men, their money is their own. If we get out of Icelandic waters and people in Hull like Associated Fish and some of the other "big boys" invest here, more and more of the small men will disappear

I ask the Minister to look at legislation in Norway. Norway is a Socialist State. A long time ago it passed legislation providing that of the money which went into a boat, 51 per cent. was fishermen's money. The Norwegians have never had the problem of enormous concerns like Associated Fish, BTF and the like. I am much happier with the Norwegian economy than with the one we have at the moment. For some years I have advocated nationalisation or at least a State sector in our fleet. However, there is no chance of getting that, with or without a Labour Government.

I should hate to see large capitalist concerns on the Humber investing money in the inshore fishing fleet and then twisting or altering people there—

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Surely the trend of my hon. Friend's argument is that we want a recognition of communities which depend upon the fishing industry, wherever they may be, and subsidies paid to their interests. That is what we want from our Government to maintain life and industry, especially in remote areas, but also on parts of the Yorkshire coast.

Mr. Johnson

Perhaps I was being clumsy, but I thought that I was saying that.

The Norwegians have family boats and a way of life which has not been spoiled by large investments from concerns such as those associated with our deep sea fleet. I hope we shall not find our smaller family boats being ousted by the "big boys". I fear that if the money cannot be invested in catching fish off Iceland, it will be invested in catching fish closer to our own shores. We must watch this carefully.

Lastly, will the Minister tell us why there is such a culpable neglect of fish farming? Do the Government have a policy on fish farming? They seem totally negative at the moment. The previous Government were the same, not the worst.

Many years ago I went with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to Lowestoft. We were excited by the possibilities of fish farming. Why are we not pushing ahead with it? I am told that there is a snag regarding local government finance because no one seems to know how to treat a fish farm or how to give planning permission.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

If the hon. Gentleman has not yet fixed his summer holidays—I cannot believe that he has not—and would care to consult me later, I can give him a good itinerary which would take in five or six fish farms in the western and north-western areas of Scotland. He would realise, having seen them, that this industry is flourishing and expanding. I should be delighted to give him the necessary information.

Mr. Johnson

I am sure that I could not have a nicer guide. Of course the Japanese are a much older civilisation and have been fish farming for 40 centuries, but Norway and France are now passing us in this area. What are the Government doing about fish farming? I think we should be doing more than we are.

I come back to my main theme. I ask my hon. Friend to pay close attention to what I believe will be the oncoming plight of the inshore fishing fleet.

11.17 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

We normally have our annual fisheries debate on the subject of subsidies. There are now no operational subsidies and the building subsidies have been phased out for a short period. Therefore, we are grateful for this opportunity to discuss this matter on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent agricultural constituencies will know what a problem agriculture can be. People are asked to produce butter and we have a butter mountain. They are asked to produce beef and we have too much beef. Fishing represents an even more difficult problem, because apart from fish farming it is a hunting industry. We have to hunt what we catch. Therefore, the industry has violent ups and downs.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) said that 1973 was a record year with £152 million worth of fish landed in this country. That was 40 per cent. up on 1972. This year the position is not so good. I understand that there is 100,000 tonnes of fish in cold store at the moment. If that is suddenly released on to the market we shall have a lot of trouble.

There is a growing restriction on fishing. Quota fishing has been introduced. I am not complaining about that as it is important from the conservation point of view. But restrictions will increase.

We also have the appalling problem of fuel costs which will add £20 million to the fishing industry's bill this year. It amounts to as much as £100,000 per vessel per year for some of the older vessels.

The point of referring to these facts is to remind the Government that they must react quickly to the problems of the fishing industry. Sometimes it is up and at other times it is down. The Government must therefore come in and act. They have done well by reintroducing building subsidies which were suspended temporarily by the previous Government. However, I hope that they will not have to reintroduce operational subsidies, but we shall have to wait and see whether a fuel subsidy becomes essential if the high price continues or increases.

I should like to refer briefly to two problems affecting the distant water section of the industry and to four problems affecting the inshore water fleet. The first point concerns Iceland. Both sides of the House will welcome the decision of the International Court of Justice on the Icelandic dispute. It completely underlines all the points which have been made on both sides of the House—this has never been a matter of party politics—to the effect that British fishing vessels had an historic right to fish in the waters in question and that the Icelandic Government were wrong in their unilateral action.

The Icelandic Government have said recently that an area 12 miles by 50 miles on the north Cape of Iceland should be closed to fishing. This was one of the areas which, under last year's agreement, British vessels were allowed to fish. Is there to be consultation about this matter? I hope that there is to be no question of unilateral action by Iceland. If there is to be genuine consultation on a matter of conservation, no doubt we shall agree. I hope that the Minister will confirm that there will be discussions on this point. The 1973 agreement is, I believe, to last for two years. It is to be hoped that by the end of two years the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea will have made a definitive finding.

It has been said during the recent election campaign in Iceland that there is to be an extension unilaterally to 200 miles. I hope that that was said in the heat of an election campaign and that the Icelanders will not provoke another cod war. I am certain that they will not do so and that Mr. Geir Hallgrimson whom I know well, would wish to negotiate and would not attempt any such unilateral action similar to that taken by the former Icelandic Government.

I want to refer briefly to the Conference on the Law of the Sea. We on this side believe that there should be an exclusive economic zone of 200 miles which would allow us to exchange certain areas of fishing with other countries so that we could have a good spread of certain types of fish. We believe, secondly, that we should exercise jurisdiction within the exclusive economic zone off our own shores, and particularly over inshore waters.

We believe that the sea bed beyond the EEZ should be controlled by international authority, possibly the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, and that such an authority should issue licences to companies for the exploitation of the sea bed. Revenue would be reserved for the Third World, and land-locked States would have certain specified rights in this area. We also believe that territorial waters should be extended to 12 miles, provided that there is international agreement to preserve in all international straits the rights of passage of merchant ships and warships. We believe, lastly, that no country should take unilateral action on any of these matters until the Conference on the Law of the Sea has come to a definite decision.

I believe that there is no dispute about these matters and that that is the line that the Government are now pursuing at Caracas. It is as well to underline that this is not a matter of party politics. This enhances its importance.

I hope that the Minister will remind his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign Office of the importance of the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic. British fishing vessels have to go great distances to catch fish and they are beginning to take a great interest in the Antarctic, particularly in the Falkland Islands. If there is an EEZ of 200 miles, that area will become of great importance. This underlines the importance of the wish of the Falkland Islands to remain part of the British Commonwealth.

I come to my four points on the inshore industry. I said that we on this side believe that there should be an EEZ of 200 miles and that territorial waters should be extended to 12 miles. Those are two separate issues. We must also have separate protection for our own vessels within those 12 miles, or perhaps within 18 miles.

The Fisheries Organisation Society has said that we should retain exclusive use for British fishing vessels within 12 miles of our shores and that this should be negotiated with the European Economic Community. That is the ideal. It would have to be done by negotiation; as historic rights would have to be phased out there would have to be give and take. I hope that the Minister will agree with the Fisheries Organisation Society that this matter is important both from the point of view of conservation and from the point of view of our inshore fleet.

The previous Government decided, just before the General Election, to have a temporary ban on beam trawling. The present Government have not reinforced that decision but have prevaricated for a long time about the banning of this type of trawling. In the last reply I received from the Minister concerned, he said he was awaiting a decision by the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission on the matter of quotas. The Commission has now met, and I wonder whether the Minister has received a report. I should like to know what he now intends to do about beam trawling.

It is a controversial matter but I should like to quote from a letter from a chief fishery officer who is in favour of the banning of beam trawling. He says about the beam trawling situation: Many local fishermen now feel if the Minister does not soon seek a sensible solution to this problem the only answer will be to join them. But all agree (even those with beamers) should only half of our inshore fleet revert to this method of fishing, the effects on our already declining sole stocks would be astronomical, and general feeling is unanimous that the inshore industry would be non-existent in less than five years. In other words, whether one believes that beam trawling is bad for conservation or not, it is one of the most efficient forms of inshore fishing and fishing stocks might be quickly fished out if everybody went in for beam trawling. There should be temporary ban until we get more information on the matter. I emphasise that if it is allowed to continue more ships might take to beam trawling, and that would be disastrous.

Professional fishermen are under great pressure at present because a large number of semi-professional fishermen are taking shares in inshore fishing vessels and are fishing at week-ends and causing a further decline of fish stocks, including white fish, in inshore waters. There is a strong feeling that there should be a proper registration system for the professional fishing vessel. At present anybody can register a fishing boat. I suggest that only those who are full-time fishermen and who can be ascertained as such by means of their national insurance classification should be allowed to use commercial fishing gear. This would not prevent amateurs with their rods or lines from continuing to enjoy fishing. These licences could be issued to full-time fishermen by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food after appropriate consultations with fishery officers. I am unable to refer to this matter at length now, but it is a matter of growing importance around our coast and I hope that the Minister will consider the situation and my suggestions.

I turn finally to a matter relating to the National Dock Labour Board and the definition of an inshore vessel. The only definition that we in the House have is given in the legislation on subsidies, and this is that an inshore fishing vessel is one of less than 80 ft. Some time ago, in 1960, the National Dock Labour Board excluded inshore fishing vessels from its responsibility and allowed crews to unload their catch. At Fleetwood in 1972 a regulation was introduced to define an inshore fishing vessel as being under 60 ft. —not under 80 ft.—and under 40 tons.

This does not matter very much to the fishermen in Fleetwood, because I understand that they have their own quay and do not normally use the Fleetwood local dock labour board's port. But problems arising from this are spreading to other ports. At Grimsby a dispute has gone on for over a year. The local dock labour board is saying that it will charge inshore fishermen for unloading fishing vessels of under 60 ft. and under 40 tons which fish for more than four days, which is a more restricted definition that we use in the House. This means an increased charge on small vessels, which are generally owned by the skippers and crews which could amount to £125 for 100 bits plus dock charges and the rest. If it is done in Grimsby it will spread to other NDLB ports and eventually over the whole country. This would be very injurious to the inshore fishermen, and I hope the Minister will look at this point.

As this may be the last Consolidated Fund Bill debate before a General Election, it is perhaps an appropriate time to say that fishing has never been a matter of party politics. We have always managed to tackle it as a united House of Commons. Long may this continue.

11.31 a.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Fishing may be outside party politics when we discuss the industry's prosperity and the safety and earning capacity of the crews, but the way in which Government subsidies are used is very much a matter of party controversy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) has called for at least a partial nationalisation of the fleet. Many of us would go further than that with the deep and middle water fleets. Because of the industry's importance to local economies and the national diet, it should not be left to the vagaries of the market. Although the reintroduction of building subsidies by the Labour Government has been welcomed, we should want greater scrutiny of the way they are used and the use to which companies put their profits.

I agree that the cost of oil is a problem, particularly for the inshore fleets, which play a great part in the economies of scattered communities. These are mainly small family concerns making short-term profits. They do not have the economies of size of the larger firms and they are bound to feel more deeply the quadrupling of the cost of oil.

Exclusive economic zones may be agreed at Caracas, but they will not come from Vienna. Our problem is how to hold the line until we get realistic agreements on principles decided at Vienna. We must look carefully at the whole question of conservation, tied up as it is with the 200-mile EEZ.

My union is concerned with the prosperity and well-being of the industry, and we believe that the time has now come for an inquiry into labour relations, the need for decasualisation and proper contracts and conditions of employment, particularly for those on the deck and in the factory hold.

A matter of current interest on Humberside but which raises issues of principle for the whole industry is the case of the "C. S. Forester". My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and I "nobbled" the Under-Secretary of State for Trade for a few minutes in the Lobby and told him of our concern about a number of aspects of this case. The vessel was allegedly fishing within the Icelandic 12-mile limit. A number of questions arise on points of principle. The incident involved a Hull vessel, but it could have involved any trawler. Since it was a Hull vessel with a Hull skipper and a Hull crew, the incident will be associated with individuals. I declare my interest in the matter by saying that I am a member of the union which sponsors me in this House and which organises the industry.

The questions which arise are these. What instruction is given to trawler skippers whose vessels are challenged for allegedly fishing within the 12-mile limit? Why in this case did the skipper continue to risk his ship after it had been fired on with eight shells, two of which went into the engine room and one into the water tank? The Hull Daily Mail, that excellent organ which kept us informed on this matter, reported the commander of the Icelandic vessel "Thor" as saying that the skipper would be caught only if the trawler was sunk and that when the vessel was stopped it was listing slightly. There were a lot of men on that ship and presumably their lives were at risk.

Why did the skipper refuse to answer questions on the radio telephone until the relief ship "Hausa" arrived on the scene? Why did he refuse to answer questions from the patrol boat "Thor", the Icelandic coastguard and even his owners? What was the effect of this on the safety of the crew? Why were the interim agreements about procedure in the event of a dispute in Icelandic waters not followed? An important question in view of the effect of tiredness of the skipper in this vessel is his position in regard to making an accurate judgment of the situation. Why was two days' fishing ordered on the crew after the vessel had left Iceland? What is the position of the crew under the Merchant Shipping Act over their refusal to fish when they left the Icelandic port?

What is the relationship of the skipper, its owners, the Government and the crew in incidents of this nature? I understand that the skipper will appear before the United Kingdom Trawlers Mutual Insurance Association on the question of having hazarded his ship and endangered his crew, but is it sufficient to leave the matter there? Surely the Government have an important part to play in an inquiry.

I would have thought that there was a duty upon the Government to establish their own inquiry. I have put down a Question on that matter to the Secretary of State for Trade today. Here is a skipper taking certain decisions. I put the point as neutrally as that. Under the Merchant Shipping Act, if the men were to put the ship at risk they would be subject to an industrial tribunal which would represent the owners and the people employed, but more than that they would be subject to the jurisdiction of the criminal courts.

I am not concerned with the particular skipper. His record is known. There is, however, a principle involved. Can we have legislation that penalises members of the crew and lets the skipper go scot-free? A number of inquiries are going on concerning various vessels in the past year which need careful examination. One hopes that the inquiry that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced to the House will look into the whole matter.

There is also the position of the owners. Did they order the ship to fish after it had left Iceland? Did they say that the crew had to be penalised for refusing to fish by staying outside the dock before the ship could land its catch? Why was not the ice room on a new vessel sufficient to hold the catch and maintain it in its condition, despite the arguments about the various degrees of temperature within the dock, if it came in a few days early?

These important questions must be considered. They are important in terms of not only international relationships but the whole of the industrial relationships within the industry, an industry to which we have just said we shall advance more subsidies. We are entitled to ask these questions.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

I shall do my best to accord with your justified request for short speeches, Mr. Speaker, as there are still about 40 debates to go. It has been made easier for me by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) but less easy by Labour Members talking about nationalisation. However, I shall not be drawn by what I may describe as a red herring.

I shall argue from the particular to the general by talking about the port of Fleetwood, which I am proud to represent. I must disclose an interest as president of the Fleetwood Inshore Fishermen.

It has been said that the fishing industry is complex. Indeed it is. Within the industry and without it we have many problems to face. I rather agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) that there is too much gloom about. We have faced greater difficulties in the past and we have come through, and I dare say we shall survive the present situation. That does not mean that we do not face formidable problems in the short and the long term, but it is a tough industry and one that has the habit of surviving.

In my own port of Fleetwood we are in the aftermath of the longest industrial disputes we have ever had in the port, after many years of industrial peace. But I will not rake over that ground; there is no point in opening old wounds. What I should like to see is the bitterness cut to a minimum and a continuing dialogue taking place between the owners and the men to see that problems can be dealt with before they reach that point again. That could happen, with good will on both sides, because there is a good future in Fleetwood for both the inshore and the deep sea fleet.

We are extending the Jubilee Quay where the inshore boats dock. The size of that fleet has doubled within a year, and I think we shall see a further increase. I hope that will be so, because the pattern of fishing will change. I believe that Fleetwood is a port that will accept that change, go along with it and still remain viable. After the Law of the Sea Conference we are bound to face a different situation for both our inshore and our deep sea fleets.

I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice that it is not only the 200-mile limit about which we must be concerned. If that is the limit that is established, we must have a limit of exclusive jurisdiction of at least 12 miles or even 50 miles so that we shall be able to control conservation in that area. With only one nation patrolling such an area, it would be much more likely to be controlled effectively than if it were under the terms of some airy fairy international settlement.

At Fleetwood there is the extended Jubilee Quay and the modernisation of the fish dock for the other trawlers. I see a great future. In addition, we are extending our dry cargo facilities. That will help to make it a much better balanced port. However, I repeat what I said in an agricultural debate and what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and possibly by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West: that the price of food and the price of manufacturing food is changing quickly.

The Minister probably knows that the White Fish Authority, for example, has estimated that in the coming year the addition to the fuel bill for the industry as a whole will amount to approximately £20 million. That shows that the Minister needs to keep a careful eye on the cost of fish. I crave in aid the steps which the Government took, which I welcomed very much, with the horticulture industry which was faced with a similar problem. In addition to fuel costs, as the White Fish Authority points out, there could well be a considerable increase in the cost of fishing gear because some of it is made from synthetic materials that are produced from oil.

The burden of my argument is that it may well be necessary, especially for the inshore fleet which has no long-term contracts with the oil companies, for some sort of operating subsidy or fuel subsidy as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) recently suggested. I ask that such a subsidy should be considered as a matter of urgency. I do not expect the Minister to commit himself to such a scheme tonight but I ask him to promise to keep the matter under close review and to act before damage is done.

The people in my port and in many other ports look upon the fishing industry not as a job but as a way of life. That applies not only to the fishermen, who have a difficult, dangerous and arduous job, but to their wives and families. Anyone who doubts that has only to come to my constituency, to Fleetwood, on a grey cold, bitter, windy day in the winter to watch the fishermen's wives waving goodbye to their husbands going off to sea to realise that they have a special claim on any Government to ensure that the ships are well-founded and that the men's labour is well paid. This can only be done by a prosperous industry which gets the right price for its products and a fair rate of return for its labour. I am sure that both sides of the House are agreed on that. I therefore ask the Minister to keep a close lookout on the industry and see that it remains prosperous.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

In speaking of problems facing the Scottish fishing industry I want to deal with four points. The first is the question of the increase in fuel oil prices. In the past two or three years fishing has been very profitable. The fishermen themselves are the first to agree that that has been so. But the money they had coming in then has gone out just as quickly because of rapidly rising costs. A boat is now costing as much as £3,000 per foot. For herring fishing, the cost of the net is no less than £30,000.

I ask the Minister to see to it that our fishermen quickly get a subsidy on the operating fuel costs. The precedent has been set by the subsidy on fuel costs to the glasshouse industry, and I hope that the Government will make the same concession to the fishing industry.

Secondly, there is the situation developing between oil exploration and fishing. The oil explorers go into an area, push down a rig, drill for a time and then go away leaving a great deal of debris behind. I would like to see each oil company being responsible for cleaning up the sea bed after it has ceased drilling and being made to trawl an area of four square miles around where its rig has been working so that the debris will not ruin the nets of fishermen of my constituency.

Thirdly, there is the situation of the herring industry of Scotland and the quota of 109,000 tons of herring taken off our shores which is to operate from next year. My fishermen have no quarrel with the quota. They believe that it is in the interests of conservation that there should be a quota. But they are particularly concerned with the situation wherein boats which have up to now been fishing in distant waters are turning back, coming to the inshore grounds and trying to get part of what has up to now been a lucrative industry.

The 109,000 or so tons of herring brought in annually in the past years have been taken mainly by the herring fishing fleet off Scotland. I am therefore talking not of a small industry but of a vital and viable part of Scotland's economy. In a more general context, I remind the House that last year Scottish fishermen took no less than 47 per cent. of all the fish landed in the United Kingdom, so that while this industry is large on a United Kingdom basis it is even larger in the Scottish economy. I should like the Minister to license the boats which will take part in the catching of the 109,000-ton quota so that the boats with a long tradition of fishing in these waters for the herring shoals get the first chance to catch this quota.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the problems that he has mentioned, which is a serious problem, arises because one of the effects of other countries extending their limits unilaterally has been to push back some of the deep sea industry, including our Scottish industry based at Aberdeen and Grantown, to fish in these waters? The support which the hon. Gentleman's party has given to the unilateral action of other Governments has very serious consequences for the fishermen in his constituency.

Mr. Watt

I am very well aware of the present situation. I realise that boats are being pushed back into these waters. But the point raised by the hon. Gentle- man is not the way to look at this matter. The way to look at it is that the British should look after the British first. That is something which we have not done in the past. I for one would welcome the day when we have a 200-mile limit around our shores, when we can license foreign operators to come in and catch a certain quota and when we have complete control of all fish taken within 200 miles.

However, I am talking of the present and the herring fishing of next year. I should like to see licences granted to boats which have a tradition of fishing in this area so that they have preference. My constituents are also concerned about the operation of foreign boats at present fishing outside the Minches and elsewhere cutting the flow of the herring shoals into the Minches.

I come lastly to the question of the prawn fishers of the Moray Firth. These prawn fishermen are very often men who have given a lifetime to fishing, who are not yet ready to give it up but are keen to keep on fishing for the last five or 10 years of their fishing life. They are older men, very often operating older boats. They are very concerned that at present they are cut off from the prawn grounds because much of the prawn grounds lie within the 12-mile limit.

I ask the Minister to look again at the Cameron Report and to implement the recommendation in that report so that these prawn fishermen are allowed to fish between the 12-mile and 6-mile limits. They would then have access to the traditional prawn grounds. At present some of these older boats, although they may be bigger, are under-powered for present-day fishing but they are being forced to turn away to distant waters off Shetland and such places. Thus the boats and the crews are being put in danger.

Finally, I should like to ask the Minister to come to meet some of my fishing constituents as soon as possible so they can put their problems to him and put their case more forcibly.

12 midnight.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to some of the difficulties affecting the inshore fishermen of Sussex. Many of them feel that they have a justifiable cause for concern about beam trawling. There have been lengthy and somewhat frustrating efforts by many of my hon. Friends to deal with this subject, including my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemp-town (Mr. Bowden), Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), Hastings (Mr. Warren) and Shoreham (Mr. Luce). They have all brought this subject to the notice of various Ministers with responsibility for fisheries.

The fishermen can judge from their catches that their landings have been declining and that their trade is threatened. They question whether this has been brought about by beam trawling, whether by our own boats or those from continental ports. There is no doubt in their minds that the weight and speed of beam trawling churns up the sea bed to an extent which not only damages the fish but also damages unborn fish.

I urge the Minister to investigate the pros and cons of beam trawling and to try either to reassure the fishermen of Sussex that beam trawling is not doing the damage they think it is or, on the other hand, to ban beam trawling from British waters, so that my constituents can pursue their livelihood in the way to which they have been accustomed over many generations.

I ask the Minister to give some sort of decision about beam trawling and measures to police this practice up to at least the 12-mile limit by strengthening the fisheries protection squadron and by reviewing the EEC rules about beam trawling. Lastly, I suggest that the Minister should apply to the inshore fleet the conservation proposals of the recently-held Law of the Sea Conference which would provide reassurance to the fishermen of Sussex about their future livelihood and prosperity.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure we are all delighted to see the Parliamentary Secretary here to answer the debate. Following this debate there is to be a debate on agriculture, which we regard as being even more important. We regard the points raised in the fishing debate as being of immense importance. The next debate, however, is of great importance, particularly because it comes towards the end of the present Session, when we are likely to go into recess for some time.

Would you agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if the Minister were to seek to reply to the next debate he would need the leave of the House? We are most anxious that the Minister of Agriculture, or the Minister of State, should reply to the debate on agriculture. I hesitate to say this and to appear to be belligerent towards the Parliamentary Secretary. We do not wish to be tiresome and boring. A Government Whip is present on the Front Bench, and I hope he will make it clear to the Minister or to the Minister of State that in view of the importance of the next debate we would have the greatest possible reluctance in agreeing that the Parliamentary Secretary should have the leave of the House to reply to it.

This is fair and adequate warning to the Government that if the hon. Gentleman is to reply to this debate the Minister or Minister of State should reply to the following debate. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will agree that the hon. Gentleman must have the leave of the House if he intends to reply to the second debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Without knowing the Minister's intention about the succeeding debate, may I say that it is perfectly proper for him to reply by leave of the House. Technically we are debating the Second Reading of a Bill, but it is customary to reply by leave if a Minister proposes to reply to more than one debate. The hon. Gentleman's other point is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Parliamentary Secretary has been given notice in fairly broad terms that he will not receive leave to reply to the second debate, and it would therefore be prudent of him to get the appropriate Minister to come to the House. There is no reason why the Minister or the Minister of State should have gone on holiday already or why one of them should not wait on the House. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary does not entertain any doubt about whether indulgence will be extended to him, because it will not be extended to him.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair or a point of order.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

It will become a point of order if the hon. Gentleman endeavours to speak without leave.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps we should see how we get on.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

It would, I think, have been courteous for the Opposition to have given notice of this point and—

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Further to that point of order—

Mr. Bishop

I have not finished my reply.

Mr. Morrison

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise if the Parliamentary Secretary was raising a point of order, but he did not say that. I thought, therefore, that he was replying to the debate. If he wishes to raise a point of order, I shall give way.

Mr. Bishop

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I protest at the Opposition's tactics, despite their good wishes to me. In case anyone should think that the suggestion of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) about Ministers having gone on holiday is correct, may I point out that my hon. Friend, the Minister of State will be abroad on agricultural business until the end of the week; he is in Argentina. My right hon. Friend the Minister is this week involved in very important discussions with the New Zealand Minister of Agriculture, who is in this country. Therefore, the Ministers are not present tonight. I hope that if I ask for leave to reply to the next debate it will be granted.

Mr. Charles Morrison

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House has great respect for the Parliamentary Secretary, but his explanation of the absence of the Minister is totally inadequate. It is difficult to believe that important negotiations with the New Zealand Minister of Agriculture are taking place at this hour. Secondly, even if that were so, with the greatest respect to the New Zealand Minister, we feel that the Minister of Agriculture should be here to reply to the subsequent debate which concerns matters of great import- ance to the whole of the agriculture industry.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has made his point, although it is not a point of order. It is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Bishop

I hope that the House will accept the explanation I have given. I understand that the Opposition were informed today of the reasons for the absence of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, and I hope that the House will accept them.

If I may reply to the debate—

Mr. Jopling

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hesitate to labour the matter, but in view of the state of the agriculture industry it is of immense importance. The Opposition are concerned that the Minister is not to be here. Will the Parliamentary Secretary use his good offices within the next few moments to ensure that the Minister is here in time for the next debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

A debate is now developing on a matter which is not the concern of the Chair. We should pursue the original debate and not points of order.

Mr. McNamara

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you tell me how many Ministers of Cabinet rank replied to Adjournment debates and debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill when the Conservatives were in office?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That again is not a matter for the Chair.

12.12 a.m.

Mr. Bishop

I hope to finalise the points of order by saying that the Opposition knew at 2.30 this afternoon who would reply to all the debates. If they feel so strongly, it would have been for the convenience of the House if they had taken action at the right time.

The subjects of this and the subsequent debate are of great importance. I regret that some Opposition Members have seen fit to suggest that I am not able to deal with them and that the appeals that have been expressed will not be passed on to my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am sorry that the House has lost some time on this matter.

On the subject of the debate—the future of the fishing industry—several contributions have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. In the short time available it is not easy to give a balanced picture of the problems facing the fishing industry. My Ministry is not the only one concerned. I am thinking not only of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and of the shared responsibility in Wales but of important questions affecting the vessels and their crews which are the responsibility of the Department of Trade. They include the safety of the fleet. None of us who are concerned with the industry can forget the questions posed by the tragic loss this year of one of the most modern and best-equipped trawlers ever to sail from the Humber.

However, it is internationally that Governments tend most frequently—and rightly—to be involved with the interests of our fishing industry. We are concerned to see the rule of law at sea. That is why we hope there will be the necessary measure of agreement in the United Nations conference now in session in Caracas. Of course I cannot say what the outcome will be. It will not necessarily help our negotiators either to speculate or to say in too great detail what Government policy would be under new circumstances. But I am glad to give an assurance that the Government are keeping in close touch with representatives of our fishing industry and will have their interests constantly in mind.

I should like now to deal with the "C. S. Forester". My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade, who is present on the Government Front Bench, is also concerned in this matter. The observations of hon. Members on that trawler will be borne in mind, but these are matters which mainly concern the owners and representations can be made to the industry by the trade unions of which some of my hon. Friends are Members. I understand that the Department of Trade is inquiring into the matter, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade is inquiring into it. He hopes to have some comments on the situation in the next few days.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend says that it is the responsibility of the Under- Secretary of State for Trade. Nevertheless, in my opinion it is not sufficient to say that these matters are mainly the concern of the unions and the industry. These matters relate to the safety of the people employed. They are matters of international law involving British vessels fired on by the vessels of foreign fleets. These are not merely matters of domestic concern between employers and unions. They are of concern to the nation as a whole and involve the safety of our constituents, for whom Her Majesty's Government must have a responsibility since they license those people to fish they specify the conditions under which they work.

Mr. Bishop

I thank my hon. Friend sincerely for his comments. Inherent in what I said was the fact that this is a matter for the trawler owners; it affects those who go to sea in trawlers and it therefore concerns the unions. In saying that it is a matter of concern for the Secretary of State for Trade, I was implying that it was a concern within the national interest. My hon. Friend has put the position very well indeed.

Mr. Wall

Normally the prodecure is to have a local inquiry through the insurers in Hull. After that the Minister, having seen the evidence, will decide whether to have a governmental inquiry. Is not that procedure to be followed in the present case?

Mr. Bishop

If we await the inquiry which is taking place under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, we shall have information in a few days and be in a much better position to judge the situation. The fact that the Ministry stepped in at this early stage is an indication of the anxieties we share on this matter. The situation is under the control of the Government and all the others who are involved.

Perhaps I may turn to some of the other points which have been made. I wish to refer to some comments made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs at the opening of the Caracas conference. On 4th July, speaking at that conference, he emphasised our firm opposition to unilateral extensions of fishery limits. This point was taken up by the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) who sought assurances about unilateral action. In this as in other matters we need agreement, and our overriding concern is to help to establish a generally acceptable convention.

To that end my right hon. Friend said: We are now ready to discuss positively and constructively the concept of an economic zone of 200 miles as a measure of progressive development of international law"; He went on, however, to say: But if we are to create new rights, it is reasonable to look for balancing obligations. Our position therefore is conditional on the establishment of satisfactory rules for such a zone as well as on the freedom of navigation". I want to underline how important it is not to quote what my right hon. Friend said about 200 miles without adding that our position is, as he said, conditional on the establishment of satisfactory rules for a zone of this breadth.

The outcome of the United Nations conference will obviously be important for the common fisheries policy of the EEC, because there is concern about some aspects of the arrangements negotiated by the previous administration. There are aspects of the common fisheries policy, for example, on marketing, on which the need for modifications in the light of the realities of the fish market is already being discussed in Brussels. These discussions are not only with Government representatives but with people from industries in member countries, including the British industry—distributors and processors as well as producers.

With regard to common access to the SFP, I recognise the continuing concern, especially about what is left open after 1982. We therefore consider very carefully whether there were questions to be added to those which we are currently reconsidering with our Community partners, but we decided that it would not be in our interests to negotiate for specific modifications before the future position under international law was much clearer. Obviously this will have to be looked at afresh in the light of the new situation created by the conference.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) spoke about labour relations, decasualisation and so on. This is primarily a matter for joint negotiation between the two sides of the industry, and any questions for the Government which may be thrown up are likely to be mainly for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. However, my hon. Friend's comments will be borne in mind.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House were concerned about fish farming. I think I can give some information to relieve the anxieties of those who feel that action should be taken by the Ministry. The basic research into hatching and rearing problems is being undertaken in the departmental fisheries laboratories. Development of farming techniques is also undertaken by the White Fish Authority. Research is concentrated on the most valuable marine species—that is, turbot and sole—although there is also a considerable effort on shell fish such as oysters and prawns. Major problems remain to be overcome in fish husbandry, nutrition and genetics. A number of commercial interests are investing considerable sums in fish farming, but a great deal of this effort is being applied to salmon in Scottish waters.

As for the rating of fish farms, I cannot hold out any hope of an extension of derating, which is a method of giving a subsidy at the expense of other ratepayers.

We also had some reference to planning. I am not aware of any planning difficulties which are impeding fish farming. If we are told of planning difficulties, I am sure we shall be prepared to consider them.

Another matter raised in the debate concerned beam trawling. The reply given to the hon. Member for Haltemprice on 23rd May is still relevant. My hon. Friend the Minister of State stated at the time that discussions were being held with representatives of all those engaged in or affected by beam trawling. He said: This has wider implications than the use of any particular gear or fishing by United Kingdom boats alone. The Government will, therefore, press for satisfactory international quotas at the meeting of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission next month."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd May 1974; Vol. 874, c. 215] The president of the commission will shortly be circulating proposals for conserving sole and plaice and we shall give careful consideration to the matter when we know whether the proposals meet our requirements. The short answer is that the matter is still under review. We hope to make a decision in the near future.

Several allegations have been made about the future of the industry. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West started by mentioning the annual report of the White Fish Authority. That report can be called gloomy about the future. There are various aspects in it which show that in the past things have been better than they are now, but it may indicate the way things change from time to time. In the introduction of the report we are told that cash returns to the fishing fleets in the calendar year 1973 were remarkable. There have been changes since. The future of the industry and the present situation are being watched closely by the Government.

The hon. Member for Haltemprice referred to the ruling by the International Court of Justice. I welcome the finding, as did the hon. Gentleman, because it establishes a point that we have maintained all along. We see no reason why it should adversely affect the interim agreement, which lasts until November 1975. I think that the hon. Gentleman queried the duration of the agreement. The Icelandic conservation area is outside the terms of the interim agreement. Therefore, we cannot order our trawlers to obey it. We have made this clear to the Icelandic Government, and also that our policy is to honour the interim agreement in both letter and spirit. In addition, we believe in proper measures for conservation. It seems to us that the two Governments should discuss the situation, and we have put that matter to them.

The hon. Member for Haltemprice will recall the reply which my hon. Friend the Minister of State gave to his question about vessel grants and loans. On 27th June the hon. Gentleman was told that my hon. Friend had that day revoked the directions which imposed a temporary moratorium on approvals by the White Fish Authority. I think that that announcement has been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The ending of the moratorium means that the WFA and the Herring Industry Board can, during the rest of 1974, issue approvals for assistance on the same basis as before.

On the post-1974 position, we are talking about approvals issued before the end of 1974 but for vessels to be built much later, probably after 1975. Regarding approvals from January next, we shall be consulting the industry as soon as we can about what is to follow the expiring scheme.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to subsidies. It will be recalled that there was an operating subsidy until July last year. For various reasons the previous Government decided to discontinue that subsidy. However, we must look at the situation not as it was then and the reasons for discontinuation but as it is today and decide whether any other aid can be given to the industry.

We must all appreciate that dearer oil will be a fact of life, not only in the fishing industry but in other industries. I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg), who asked whether we should not give the same consideration to fishing as was given to horticulture, which received a subsidy of 6p followed by one of 4p to end at the end of this year. Special aid was given to suit a special situation, but it is to terminate at the end of the year.

In 1974 fishing costs have risen when earnings have not. In 1972, and more especially in 1973, it was the other way round. A few moments ago I quoted from the annual report of the White Fish Authority. Most boats did well then.

Some sectors may be getting cheaper oil than others under bulk contract. It is difficult to justify the use of public funds either to equalise costs or to cheapen fuel artificially at the same rate for everybody. Other countries' priorities for public funds are not necessarily the same as those in this country. In any case, our industry tends to forget that as regards consumer grants and loans it is the foreigner who may be jealous. So far there is no evidence of shortage of British landings harming consumers or attracting imported replacements to our industry's detriment, but we shall obviously continue to keep a close watch on the situation. As in the case of horticulture, we shall be ready to act as we see fit.

On the matter of prices, one of my hon. Friends referred to the industry being up against the wall. The industry has seen better times than in the last year or so, but there are now grounds for optimism. One of the factors which we should bear in mind in considering the industry's future is that August usually brings a seasonal rise after the May to July trough. Even with the industry's cold stores piled up and with the industry understandably trying to secure its needs against uncertainties, there is no question of permanent over-supply.

Because of the enthusiastic publicity for relatively small experimental catches of unfamiliar species, consumers may not have realised that what is on regular sale comes from the kinds of fish we have always known.

It is hard to judge the influence of beef prices on the fish trade, but some people in the fish trade think that this influence is important.

These are some of the main points which have been made. I conclude with one or two observations on conservation. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced on 24th July, representatives of the fishing and oil industries are to join the Departments concerned in a new consultative group which should soon have its first meeting in Aberdeen. It is sensible to run this from Scotland where the oil companies are based, but this is Great Britain machinery and both the BTF and my Ministry will be taking part.

With regard to the North-East Arctic Agreement, the United Kingdom, under tripartite agreement with Russia and Norway, is fishing under the quota, which in 1974 is 77,000 tons. The agreement is conditional on non-signatory nations restricting catches also to 50,000 tons, and it is likely that this limit has been exceeded. We shall be meeting the USSR and Norway soon to review the agreement in this light.

With regard to North-East Atlantic quotas on cod, haddock and whiting, the United Kingdom will press for catch limitations of these species at the special North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission Meeting in November. In relation to sole and plaice, at the June meeting of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission the United Kingdom pressed for an international catch limitation. Agreement has not yet been reached but a proposal is to be circulated for a postal vote and it is hoped to have quotas in 1975. With regard to herring, a limitation scheme has been agreed for the North Sea and a similar scheme is being considered for the West Coast.

The question of a ban on beam trawling has been under consideration for some time, but we have not yet arrived at a decision. However, the comments of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) and others will be taken into account. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Haltemprice shares the concern of a number of other Members on this matter.

I think that I have covered most of the questions raised. I shall not weary the House further at this time but I hope to write to hon. Members after we have studied their comments.

This would be a fitting occasion briefly to pay tribute to all those in the fishing industry who contribute to the nation's food supply. We admire the enormous courage they display in the hazardous situations in which they work. It would be only right to assure them and the House that the Government will bear in mind the situation of the fishing industry, as it changes from day to day, in order to deal with problems which might arise and to ensure continuing viability of this important industry.

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