HC Deb 04 March 1981 vol 1000 cc313-33
Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 30 at end insert— '(4) Where the Ministers give a direction under this section, they shall lay before Parliament a statement setting out the direction.'. The amendment represents our response to the point that was put to me in Committee by several of my hon. Friends. We do not expect to use the power of direction that we have under the clause other than in exceptional circumstances. Hoewever, if it were used Ministers would wish—as the Committee wished—its terms to be made public. Indeed, one of the justifications for making such a direction is that it should be in"the public interest". I therefore considered that was the point raised in Committee, and the amendment ensures that Ministers will bring any directions to the attention of Parliament, and thereby to the public, by laying before Parliament a statement setting out the direction. I hope that the amendment meets the wishes of the House and of those hon. Members who rightly raised the matter in Committee.

Mr. Strang

I welcome the amendment. We made it clear in Committee that it was right that the Government should have the power to issue directions to the authority, which would be spending Government money and be responsible for the research and development programme of the industry. The Minister said that the power would be used only in exceptional instances and that he would avoid giving directions to the authority in so far as that was practicable. We agree with that, but we feel that it is important, for the sake of open government, that if the Government give a direction to the authority it should be clear, explicit and widely known throughout the industry. We therefore welcome the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Strang

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 33 at end add— '(5) It shall be a duty of the Authority to establish and operate a deficiency payments scheme to protect the livelihoods of those involved in the sea fish industry.'. The amendment seeks to give the authority the power to introduce a deficiency payments scheme to protect the livelihoods of those involved in the sea fish industry. Our purpose is, first, to argue the case for a deficiency payments scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will wish to speak on this matter. Secondly, it would be remiss of the Opposition not to take this opportunity to emphasise the gravity of the financial state of the industry. It is some months now since the Government announced the temporary financial aid scheme. Last August we welcomed that aid, but we made it clear at the time that we viewed it as a temporary measure, and that if there were no improvement in the fortunes of the industry the Government should take further action to help the industry by giving it additional money and/or taking action to control cheap imports.

The position is now worse than it was last August. There is even greater anxiety about the future of the catching sector. Last August there was the blockade. In recent weeks, fishermen, who are by no means militant by nature, have taken desperate action to focus attention on the plight of the industry. It is vital that the Government act quickly. I know that they are considering the whole question of cheap imports. I think it is accepted on all sides of the House that in some instances these imports are what are described as"black" fish—fish that have been caught illegally in British waters by foreign vessels flouting our conservation measures. The prices that have prevailed of late in our ports have not been adequate to give the industry anything like the return that it needs to pay for its labour, to service its capital or to provide the profit that it needs for future investment.

6.15 pm

I repeat that the Government must move quickly. In my view, there is no alternative to a package of financial measures and direct action to control imports. I see no hope of the European Community stepping in in time to save the British industry. It is highly unlikely that there will be any settlement on the common fisheries policy until after the French presidential election.

We realise that the Government are considering the matter very carefully, and we know that a committee is considering the whole subject of imports, but fishermen cannot wait for long. They are desperate. The whole British fishing industry, including the processing side, is almost in a state of collapse. The Government must therefore take bold interventionist measures to protect an industry that is important in terms of its contribution to our national wealth and in terms of employment, particularly in some areas where a significant element of the local population is totally dependent on the fishing industry. Moreover, the fishing industry is part of our heritage—the heritage of a great seafaring island nation.

We therefore hope that the authority will have power to intervene in this area. In particular, it should have the power to operate a deficiency payments scheme. The Minister of State is familiar with the operation of deficiency payments schemes. Indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House are well aware of the way that these schemes have operated in the past in agriculture. As a result of the renegotiations by the Labour Government and of the present Government's agreement on the fisheries regime, deficiency payments schemes are now operating for beef and sheep, albeit in a limited form.

This approach, which seeks to give a guaranteed return to the fishing industry for the fish that it catches and lands in Britain, may well be the right way to provide a secure future for the people who work in the industry. The amendment does not spell out all the details. It will not be enough simply to give the authority power to operate a deficiency payments scheme. Other elements will be needed in this method of supporting the industry.

The industry's future is vital to this country. A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who takes a great interest in this issue and is clearly very concerned about the future of the Aberdeen-based industry, wish to support the amendment.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

The amendment represents an attempt to grapple with the most serious problem now facing the industry, that of marketing, which constitutes a threat to the livelihoods of large sections of the industry, particularly those on the catching side. This serious threat has developed over the past two years and the need for it to be resolved is more desperate than is the need for a settlement in Europe. Unless the industry gets efficiently regulated markets and a proper return on its catches, companies and individuals will once again be brought to the point of bankruptcy, will stop fishing and will lay up their vessels. That will reduce our catch and curtail our ability to catch.

The proposed deficiency payments scheme is an attempt to grapple with those circumstances. We have chosen the new authority as the most reasonable framework within which to operate such a scheme. The problem of markets is basically the problem of price, which is caused partially by a falling off of demand, but also by the threat of imports, which rose steadily through the late 1970s. They were rising again last year, and according to the latest report of the White Fish Authority research unit, they have risen again substantially in 1981. The effects on the industry have been cataclysmic. The authority's latest report, dated 26 February 1981, emphasises that the prices of imports are below the prices prevailing in January 1980 and in January 1979. Dutch cod entered this country at an average price of £509 a tonne last month, compared with £555 a tonne in January 1979 and £519 a tonne in January last year. Even more astonishing was the decline in the price of fresh or chilled plaice and of cod fillets, imports of which have been a serious threat to the industry.

That is the basic threat, and we are attempting to surmount it by regulation of the markets. Fish imports are attracted here by our open market, but, more specifically, by the overvaluation of the pound. The slight slide in the value of the pound in the past couple of weeks has done nothing to improve the position, because the overvaluation has developed over four years. It has produced a crisis in fishing because it has meant that fish can be imported more cheaply than our industry can catch it. Fishing, therefore, with a whole range of other industries, is becoming uncompetitive, through no fault of its own. Yet, like those other industries, it has been subjected to the usual sermons from the Government, and particularly from the Prime Minister, about how to make itself competitive when that is impossible because of the over-valuation of sterling.

The other aspect of the problem is the undoubted over-fishing and cheating on the quotas by our so-called partners in the EEC. They are breaking the gentlemen's agreements on quotas and on the marketing of fish, and are swamping our markets as a result. That poses a threat to the livelihoods of those in our industry, which in turn produces the stoppage that we witnessed in January and which is certain to resume unless something is done to rectify the problem.

The Grimsby fishermen made it clear that they were giving the Government eight weeks in which to come up with an answer or the stoppage would resume. That threat hangs over us all. The only way to solve this crisis is to manage the markets. The minimum price scheme, as a means of doing that, has broken down in Grimsby and Scotland. It: does not solve the problem, because it simply attracts imports since they, too, can secure the minimum price. Deficiency payments are therefore the only answer.

Under such a scheme a price would be set to reflect the cost of catching the fish. If the fish does not make that price in the market the fisherman would be paid the deficiency payment as a means of keeping him and the industry going. The price would have to be varied by species, quality and size. It is no use stimulating deliberate over-fishing and encouraging the catching of rubbish fish to be dumped on the market simply to obtain the payment. We do not want to encourage that. There would therefore have to be differentiation by size and quality, but it is possible to devise a scheme that does that while giving a better base level to the whole market, moving prices upwards and keeping the industry going in these difficult times.

There could be no better way of helping the industry. I said earlier that there are doubts in the industry about the Bill, but there can be no more effective way of making the new authority acceptable to the industry, which is in desperate straits, than by allowing it to operate a deficiency payments scheme of this nature, with the Government providing the necessary finance.

The authority is the appropriate body to handle the scheme. I therefore hope that the House will accept the amendment and bring much-needed respite to the industry in its difficulties.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The fishing industry has always been governed by supply and demand. It is probably one of the few parts of our economy that experience the full effect of market forces almost from day to day. The one fact that is agreed upon in the fishing industry is that although there were good times and bad, and although the bad times were sometimes dreadful, over a period the good times outweighed the bad. For a considerable time after 1945 the industry had a secure financial future and there was prosperity in our fishing ports such as they had never seen.

Everyone in the fishing industry is now agreed, irrespective of the view taken about the EEC or about how the problems may be resolved, that the industry is lurching from crisis to crisis. The length of time between crises gets smaller every time. We have just witnessed a time of militant action by fishermen—not the traditional militant action that we sometimes think of. A myth has grown up that a militant means some son of Left-wing coal miner. The militancy in the fishing industry was shown not by working fishermen, but by the vessel owners. They initiated the action and were strongest in their attempts to force the Government's hand and bring about change.

We have experienced a time during which fishermen have been concerned about the low level of prices on the quayside. Although they fluctuate from time to time, there is no doubt that quite soon the market will be back in the chaotic conditions of not so long ago. That state of affairs cannot be allowed to persist. Like many hon. Members who have fishing interests in their constituencies, I have had discussions with both sides of the industry. I have talked to the Aberdeen Fish Curers and Merchants Association, to the chairman of the fishermen's action committee, to the representatives of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association and with others. They are all of the same view—that the industry must find some system whereby those in it, instead of pulling against each other, work together.

6.30 pm

The difficulties facing not only the owners, but everyone working in the industry, are best illustrated by a story that I was told by a skipper in Aberdeen. He operates on a share basis—the men who go to sea receive a share of the value of the catch. He told me that in the week before the stoppage he and his crew were at sea for 95 hours. After he had paid the running costs of the vessel, such as fuel—he did not pay his bill for the lubricating oil—and various other things, all that he was able to make available to the members of his crew was £42 each. That was less than 50p an hour. I should be surprised to learn of any industry in Britain where the pay is less than 50p an hour.

When we consider the safety aspects of the Bill, I am sure that it will be recognised that going to sea is a dangerous occupation.

Those 95 hours were spent working in miserable conditions. It is not pleasant going out into the North Sea at this time of year, even on fairly calm days. It is bitterly cold. It is very nasty work. The skipper was apologetic because that was all that he could afford to give his crew. Nobody knows how the crew can afford to live on £42 a week. A scheme must be introduced that guarantees a certain level of return, so that men are properly paid.

The interests of the owners and the men who go to sea as working fishermen—not only share fishermen—are paramount. Those interests are coming closer together. Everyone believes that we must stop the chaotic conditions from recurring again and again. Whole fleets are being destroyed. In Aberdeen, the lamentably small number of 11 to 13 trawlers now sail from the port. In my young days we could walk across that harbour from vessel to vessel because there were so many of them. The fleet has been more than decimated. It is considerably smaller now than it has ever been.

In such a situation all sorts of allegations of bad faith are made. The men who go to sea believe that one reason for the low price of fish on the quayside is that the merchants are operating a ring to drive down prices and keep them low in order to maximise profit. That allegation is as old as the industry itself. Fishermen have always felt that, whatever the price of fish—even when it was high—they were not getting enough return because the merchants cobbled together a price that they were willing to pay.

The merchants argue that they do not operate in that way. I am not saying that they have never operated in that way. I hasten to say that I am not referring to merchants in my constituency. However, I know of merchants in other parts of the country—

Mr. Buchanan-Smith


Mr. Hughes

I shall not mention any area. I do not want to start any tribal rivalries. We have enough trouble as it is, especially with Mr. Speaker in the Chair. Merchants have had the means available to operate a ring to hold down prices, but they say that that does not happen. They say that they are as much governed by market forces as is anyone else.

That leads me to describe how the merchants view the price of imported fish. They argue that the volume of imports does not have such a great effect on the price available at the quayside as does the price at which the imports come in. They phone their customers, mainly in England, in the mornings and offer them cod at, for example, £8 a stone. The customer says that he can get imported cod for £4 a stone. If every merchant tried to buy imported fish at that price he would not get it, because it is not available in sufficient quantities to satisfy the market. If the customer says that he will not pay the price that the merchant asks, the merchant goes to the market and bids as low as possible, because that is the only way to sell the fish. Everybody is in the business to sell fish. There is a real need for a system that will bring order and some certainty into market conditions.

During the past six or seven years the industry has had close contact and discussions with Ministers, under both the Labour Government and this Government. Ministers are readily accessible to the producers. When they go to Brussels for negotiations, deputations of fishermen also go, and discussions take place. The merchants feel that they are left out. To some extent they are being blamed for the chaos in the industry and for the bad prices, yet they do not have access to Ministers.

A deputation from merchants' associations has asked to see the Minister. It may also wish to see Lord Mansfield, the Minister of State, Scottish Office. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, as the Minister responsible for fishing, will agree to meet the merchants, so that they can put their point of view. I hope that he will give me an answer to that this evening. They are not asking for handouts. They want fair competition. They believe that the industry can survive, given fair competition. Without it, they believe that it cannot survive, even in the unlikely event of a settlement in the common fisheries negotiations that are due to take place next week.

I am horrified by the suggestion in some of today's newspapers that the meeting scheduled for next week may not take place. It is being suggested that the meeting will be cancelled because there is no prospect of agreement and that to register failure once again would be worse than continuing the negotiations. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will tell us what is happening on that issue.

All sorts of factors affect the price of fish. We argued in Committee about how much fish should be landed ungutted—the so-called problem of rounders. Because of the lifting of regulations about the landing of rounders, almost every vessel is now landing them. The merchants say that that has two consequences. First, if the rounders are landed by trawlers there is a serious deterioration in the quality of fish reaching the market. Secondly, when rounders have been landed by inshore fishing vessels an additional cost must be paid by the merchant for cleaning, gutting and filleting the fish before they are sold. The merchants want a temporary ban on the landing of rounders.

I see that you are looking rather quizzically at your Notice Paper, Mr. Speaker. You may be wondering what this has to do with the deficiency payments scheme. All those conditions affect the price in the market. The price fluctuates from day to day and from catch to catch. No one knows what will happen. Above all else, the industry is desperate for an assurance that it has an existence and that it can pay its way.

We know the tremendous debt that vessel owners have to pay—especially those who have built vessels in recent times. We know that the cost of servicing the borrowing has risen as has the price of oil. Those factors affect the price that the producers acquire on the market. What the industry needs is stability. In my discussions with the various fishing interests, that is the one thing on which they hold together, but I accept that not everyone is in complete agreement on how we are to get that stability.

I confess that there is one weakness in the proposed deficiency payments scheme, and that is that it has to be paid for by somebody. That somebody will be the Government and the taxpayer, so the Government may try to resist the amendment on the ground that such a scheme would be enormously expensive. I do not think that that is necessarily so, although if there were a deficiency payments scheme related to a bottom price on the market it is possible that, in the knowledge that the difference between what they bought at and the deficiency price would be made up by the Government, there would be a tendency for merchants to bid even lower, because the difference would not come out of their pockets.

Having discussed the matter with merchants, I think that they are aware of the difficulties. They say that it is not in their interests to allow the present conditions to continue, nor to have a deficiency payments scheme and then to bust the scheme by not paying enough, and thus landing the Government with an enormous bill. The amendment is a serious attempt to look at all the different conditions that I have described and find a way out of the impasse. This would be a satisfactory scheme. It should be possible for the Government to accept the amendment and at a later stage in another place to put a ceiling on the amount of money that would be made available for the scheme.

The industry would welcome this scheme. It would give it stability and enable it to plan ahead. It would allow all those in the industry to know where they are going. Above all, although in these debates we tend to concentrate on the technical aspects of how fish are marketed, how the price is arrived at and on the need for proper earnings for people who go to sea, and so on, the one thing that should interest every hon. Member is the importance of fish as a food.

I am disappointed, as I have said on earlier occasions, that it is always the same people who take part in debates on fishing. Fish is a high protein food which is valuable to the health of the nation. If people ate more fish and less of the so-called convenience foods, which are really rubbish foods, they would be much healthier. Here we are speaking about the health of an industry and also about the health of a nation. For those reasons I commend the amendment to the House and hope that hon. Members will accept it.

Mr. McNamara

I see that you, Mr. Speaker, are looking quizzically at Members on this side of the House. We seem to be adducing most of the arguments in this debate.

Mr. McQuarrie

The hon. Gentleman is at it again.

Mr. McNamara

I am just trying to redress the balance. Earlier the Minister of State said that not all hon. Members supported certain amendments, although we vouchsafed support for them. Therefore, I thought that the best thing I could do would be to speak where and when I thought it appropriate on matters which were of interest to my constituents and which you, Mr. Speaker, decided were in order. I thought I had better get that in quickly.

If I were to point out a deficiency in this amendment, particularly on the question of applying for a deficiency payments scheme, it would be that we have talked about it without putting it into the context of the general market for fish and the position within these islands on the import of fish. One cannot talk about a deficiency system which would work efficiently and well and which would meet the need so adequately and eloquently put forward by my hon. Friends if one does not control the imports from EEC countries and elsewhere.

If we are merely to subsidise our own fish, we are leaving ourselves wide open for subsidies from elsewhere disguised in one way or another. Therefore, I add my plea to that of my hon. Friends that in introducing a deficiency payments scheme we must also have a market controlled specifically to import quotas, the price to be charged and the nature of the fish that is landed. Conceivably this might appear to be a rather bureaucratic scheme, although I believe it could be done simply by having proper regulations and certain ports of entry.

6.45 pm

It is important that we should have some system of this nature. It is not sufficient to give licences to boats to go to fish perhaps in Norwegian waters, as trawlers have gone from Hull recently not knowing whether, when they return, they will have covered the expenses of their voyage. In some cases, members of my union owed the trawler owners money because the catch had not realised the price that they had hoped it would achieve. Therefore, there is the strongest case for a deficiency payments scheme.

If we are to protect the industry, we must link the scheme strongly and purposefully with control on imports. That is fundamental when looking at this sort of scheme. We cannot do it in isolation. We can protect the livelihood of people engaged in the sea fishing industry and guarantee for them the degree of security that we would like to see in whatever aspect of the industry, whether in relation to catching, processing or distributing, only if we are able to control the price at which the commodity is sold in the English market. The two—import control, and a deficiency payments system— must go hand in hand. One without the other is useless.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I should like to respond to the debate in two parts—first, in relation to the amendment itself, and, secondly, in relation to what I think lies behind the amendment—the natural concern, which I share, about the marketing of fish.

On the amendment itself, there are already powers in the Bill for the Government to provide money for any kind of financial scheme for the industry. In clause 13 the Government have powers to give financial aid to the industry, and the range of the powers is fairly wide. Therefore, Government assistance could be available to the industry under the Bill as it stands. Equally, it is within the power of the Government to ask the authority to administer a scheme of financial assistance, or the Government themselves can carry out directly a financial scheme. So there is power for financial assistance without need for this amendment. The Sea Fish Industry Authority could be used to administer that power. To that extent, the amendment is not necessary.

Secondly, this amendment is in one sense rather more specific than what I have indicated in what I said about general powers to make provision for financial assistance for the industry. The amendment specifically relates to aid to the industry by means of a deficiency payments scheme. I waited for most of the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) to find out what he meant by a deficiency payments scheme. The hon. Member indicated in general terms what he meant by it. but he did not give any details of how such a scheme could work. It was left rather more to his hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) fairly expressed doubt on how a deficiency payments scheme might work because of problems relating to the way that auctions operate and so on. There is no doubt that, given the nature of the marketing organisation within the industry, more thought would have to be given to how such a scheme could work.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) went even further and touched on the heart of the matter. I think that it would be dangerous for the Government to embark upon a scheme of this nature unless at the same time there were certain other controls. It is not a question of being either opposed or committed to intervention in the industry. No Government could enter a scheme of this nature without some knowledge of the financial implications to which they might be committed. That is why the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central did a service to the House by drawing attention to the fact that to make such a scheme work we would need other financial controls. Otherwise, the scheme could be open-ended. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Aberdeen, North and Kingston upon Hull, Central for highlighting some of the practical problems in a scheme of this nature.

Mr. Robert Hughes

What I should like to hear from the Minister is not that there is the possibility under clause 13 for aid to be made available to the industry and therefore that the amendment is unnecessary because the Sea Fish Industry Authority could make arrangements under its existing powers, but whether the Government are serious about having discussions with the industry on such a scheme. Knowing the industry as I do, I can say that it has hitherto always resisted this kind of control over its activities. But now, for the first time in all the years that I have know the industry, I believe there is a strong desire within the industry seriously to examine a deficiency payments scheme as a way of resolving its present difficulties.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was coming to that point. I have made two points so far. First—the hon, Gentleman summarised this point for me—I said that there is no necessity to take power in the way suggested in the amendment to introduce such a scheme, because the power already exists.

The second point, which I was just finishing when the hon. Gentleman intervened, is that the introduction of a deficiency payments scheme would require a great deal of preparation and consideration because of the genuine practical difficulties mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central.

I acknowledge that deficiency payments schemes have worked satisfactorily in the agriculture industry, but that is not totally comparable with the fishing industry. However, such a scheme in this area would raise many complexities. I should not like to give any encouragement either to the House or to the industry for believing that such a scheme could easily be contemplated and introduced.

That leads me to the second major part of the debate—financial aid generally to the industry. This matter is under consideration and is being discussed between responsible Ministers and representatives of the industry. The Government were already committed to a financial review of the industry at the end of March. Acknowledging the real difficulties being experienced by the industry, we brought the review forward by several weeks. We have already had a meeting with the industry on this matter, and it has put forward a number of suggestions to us.

One of the suggestions is not precisely a deficiency payments scheme, but what might be called a variation of it regarding market price support measures. One of the Scottish organisations put forward that suggestion. I should add that at the meeting at which that proposal was put forward, not only Ministers but other sections of the industry expressed deep reservations about the effectiveness of such a scheme and about whether public money spent in that way would be a good use of funds to help the industry. I mention that in passing as a matter of fact.

I assure the House that the scheme that has been suggested by one organisation in the industry will be carefully considered. However, I do not want to mislead the House. I say no more than I have already said to the industry. I see considerable difficulties. I have so far done nothing to encourage the industry to believe that the suggested scheme, or even a variation of it, might be adopted. Not only do we see real difficulties, but we have genuine doubts about whether aid for the industry in that form would stabilise the market or ensure that the finance would be effectively deployed. Despite these misgivings, I assure the House that the proposals put to us will be carefully considered.

We are still considering the proposal put to us by the industry. We have a number of alternatives to consider apart from whether aid is necessary. We must consider how, if aid is to be given, it should be provided. The means will be considered. However, I do not rate the chances very high, because our assessment does not encourage us to believe that it is a useful or sensible way to proceed.

I do not think that it is necessary to deal with the technical nature of the amendment. I re-emphasise that I have misgivings about the practicality of the scheme suggested here. The Government, in co-operation with the industry, are considering this matter. We recognise the industry's financial difficulties. I hope shortly to be in a position to respond to the proposal put to us by the industry. I must ask the House not to accept the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:

The House divided: Ayes 125, Noes 169.

Division No. 93] [7 pm
Alton, David Leighton, Ronald
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Lestor, MissJoan
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)
Beith, A. J. Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Lyons, Edward (Bradf'dW)
Bottomley, Rt Hon A. (M'b'ro) Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Bray, Dr Jeremy McCartney, Hugh
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'&P) McElhone, Frank
Campbell-Savours, Dale McKay, Allen(Penistone)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McKelvey, William
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stolS) McNamara, Kevin
Coleman, Donald McWilliam, John
Concannon, RtHonJ. D. Marks, Kenneth
Cowans, Harry Marshall, D(G'gowS'ton)
Craigen, J. M. Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Crowther, J.S. Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cryer, Bob Maxton, John
Cuniiffe, Lawrence Maynard, Miss Joan
Dalyell, Tam Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) Miller, Dr M. S. (EKilbride)
Deakins, Eric Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dempsey, James Morton, George
Dewar, Donald Newens, Stanley
Dixon, Donald O'Neill, Martin
Dobson, Frank Palmer, Arthur
Dormand, Jack Park, George
Dubs,Alfred Penhaligon, David
Duffy, A. E. P. Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Prescott, John
Eadie, Alex Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
Eastham, Ken Richardson, Jo
Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n S E) Roberts, A;bert(Normanton)
Ellis, R. (NED'bysh're) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Evans, John (Newton) Robertson, George
Ewing, Harry Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Fitch, Alan Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Fitt, Gerard Sever, John
Flannery, Martin Short, Mrs Renée
Fletcher, Ted(Darlington) Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
Freud, Clement Silverman, Julius
George, Bruce Skinner, Dennis
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Spearing, Nigel
Ginsburg, David Spriggs, Leslie
Gourlay, Harry Steel, Rt Hon David
Grant, George (Morpeth) Stewart, Rt Hon D. (WIsles)
Grant, John (IslingtonC) Stoddart, David
Hamilton, W.W. (C'tral Fife) Strang, Gavin
Hardy, Peter Thorne, Slan (PrestonSouth)
Harrison, RtHonWalter Tinn, James
Hattersley, RtHon Roy Wainwright, E. (DearneV)
Haynes, Frank Wainwright, R. (ColneV)
Hogg, N.(EDunb't'nshire) Welsh, Michael
Home Roberts'on, John White, Frank R.
Homewood, William Whitlock, William
Hooley, Frank Wigley, Dafydd
Howells, Geraint Williams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)
Hughes, Mark(Durham) Williams, Sir T. (W'ton)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Woolmer, Kenneth
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Jones, Barry (East Flint) Tellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Mr. James Hamilton and
Kilfedder, James A. Mr. Austin Mitchell.
Lamborn, Harry
Alexander, Richard Berry, Hon Anthony
Ancram, Michael Best, Keith
Arnold, Tom Bevan, David Gilroy
Atkins, Robert (PrestonN) Biggs-Davison, John
Atkinson, David (B'm'th, E) Blackburn, John
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Braine, Sir Bernard
Banks, Robert Bright, Graham
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'oay) Brinton, Tim
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Brooke, Hon Peter
Brotherton, Michael McQuarrie, Albert
Brown, Michael (Brigg&Sc'n) Major, John
Bruce-Gardyne, John Mates, Michael
Bryan Sir Paul Mather, Carol
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus
Buck, Antony Mawby, Ray
Bulmer, Esmond Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Meyer, Sir Anthony
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n) Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Chapman, Sydney Mills, lain (Meriden)
Churchill, W.S. Mills, Peter (West Devon)
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Moate, Roger
Clark, SirW. (CroydonS) Montgomery, Fergus
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Morgan, Geraint
Cockeram, Eric Murphy, Christopher
Colvin, Michael Myles, David
Cormack, Patrick Neale, Gerrard
Corrie, John Needham, Richard
Costain, Sir Albert Nelson, Anthony
Crouch, David Neubert, Michael
Dean, Paul (North Somerset) Newton, Tony
Dorreil, Stephen Onslow, Cranley
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Osborn, John
Dover, Denshore Page, John (Harrow, West)
Dunn, Roben (Dartford) Page, Rt Hon SirG. (Crosby)
Dykes, Hugh Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Elliott, Sir Wiiliam Pollock, Alexander
Emery, Peter Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Fairgrieve, Russell Prior, Rt Hon James
Faith, Mrs Sheila Proctor, K. Harvey
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Rees-Davies, W. R.
Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N) Renton, Tim
Fookes, Miss Janet Rhodes James, Robert
Forman, Nigel Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Rossi, Hugh
Garel-Jones, Tristan Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Goodlad, Alastair Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Gorst, John Shelton, William (Streatham)
Gower, Sir Raymond Skeet, T. H. H.
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Speed, Keith
Gray, Hamish Speller, Tony
Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N) Spence, John
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Grist, Ian Sproat, lain
Grylls, Michael Squire, Robin
Gummer, JohnSelwyn Stainton, Keith
Hamilton, Hon A. Stanbrook, lvor
Haselhurst, Alan Stevens, Martin
Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Stradling, Thomas,J.
Hawksley, Warren Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Heath, Rt Hon Edward Tebbit, Norman
Heddle, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Thornton, Malcolm
Holland, Philip (Carlton) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Hooson, Tom Trippier, David
Hordern, Peter Viggers, Peter
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd) Waddington, David
Howell, Ralph (NNorfolk) Wakeham, John
Hurd, Hon Douglas Wall, Patrick
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Waller, Gary
Kimball, Marcus Ward, John
Kitson, Sir Timothy Warren, Kenneth
Lamont, Norman Watson, John
Lang, Ian Wells, John (Maidstone)
Lawrence, Ivan Wells, Bowen
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Wheeler, John
Lee, John Wickenden, Keith
LeMarchant, Spencer Winterton, Nicholas
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Wolfson, Mark
Luce, Richard Younger, Rt Hon George
Lyell, Nicholas
Macfarlane, Neil Tellers for the Noes:
MacGregor, John Mr. Donald Thompson and
MacKay, John (Argyll) Mr. John Cope.
McNair-Wilson, M.(N'bury)

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. McNamara

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 34 at end insert— '(5) It shall be the duty of the Authority, if requested by any section of a trade union representing any section of employees in the industry, to publish reports comparing the employment practice in the industry with other industrial workers.'. The purpose of the amendment is twofold: first, to draw attention to the situation within the industry, and, secondly, to try to devise methods by which the industry can perhaps be better organised, and certainly more information can be given about the industry. This is a very general industry. At one end there are a number of large multinational companies for which fishing may be a small though important part of their enterprise, and at the other end of the spectrum there is the one-man concern, the fisherman going out in his coble, perhaps with a long-line, seeking to supplement his income by a couple of hours' fishing.

The fishing industry cannot be compared with, for instance, the motor car industry. If there be an industry with which it can be compared in terms of organisation, perhaps the best example is the building and construction industry. We see the same chaotic state of organisation in the building industry as we see in the fishing industry. At every level, in every type of firm and in each part of the industry, there is the same degree of confusion—in the catching of fish, in processing, in distribution and in retailing.

Thus, the first major problem confronting anyone seeking to examine the industry is the result of its economic organisation, whatever type of firm or enterprise is involved. This creates all sorts of difficulties. It creates a problem for people seeking to act in a representative capacity, whether in employers' or employees' organisations, or acting as representatives speaking for constituencies as we do in this place. We have already seen among hon. Members the confusion of interests that can arise between different elements within the fleet and different groups among the merchants.

We know the problems, but I believe that they have a particularly evil effect in relation to various employment practices within the industry. We shall at a later stage consider the specific questions of accidents in the industry and the effect that decasualisation has upon the availability and provision of various social security benefits and employment defences for workers in the industry.

My concern at this point is to see that a duty is laid upon the authority to oversee what is happening in the industry as a whole. What are the rates of pay? What are the hours of work? How do they compare with what happens in other industries in the United Kingdom with comparable work practices? How do workers in the industry stand in terms of social, fringe and other benefits?

I am referring here not just to the catching side of the industry, but to the whole gamut, from catching to retailing. How do workers in the fishing industry fare in comparison with workers in other industries in the United Kingdom?

This matter is of particular importance because of the nature of the industry and the way it works. North of the border and, indeed, in parts of England, many of the firms are in small factories or processing shops, places that lack much organisation—sometimes among employers and sometimes among employees—and which are often isolated, not always knowing what goes on in the rest of the industry and unable to make comparisons.

In essence, what I seek is a general power. I am concerned that the Government do not know what the practices are, and neither do the various representative organisations in the industry. There is no uniformity of employment or work practices, of wages or of all the other matters that concern us in this place and, I believe, concern people in the industry.

7.15 pm

No records exist. There is no examination of the industry in that way, and I believe that the new authority should have such a responsibility laid upon it. That resonsibility can be laid upon it very properly and effectively if, as we propose in the amendment, a section of employees within the industry ask for these various matters to be brought to the attention of the authority and for proper comparisons to be published.

As I have said, we shall consider later amendments dealing specifically with accidents and with decasualisation, but my present concern is that a general duty should be laid upon the authority. Some of my hon. Friends will, no doubt, if they catch the eye of the Chair, draw attention to certain anomalies that they have found to exist in recent times, quite apart from the old and continuing sores which will be the subject of later amendments.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I wish to draw attention to an extremely topical employment practice in the fishing industry which, frankly, would not stand up to any comparison with other industries. I refer to the treatment of employees when they have been laid off. I refer not so much to employment practices as to unemployment practices, together with the treatment of fishermen by the Department of Employment. I am sure that it would be useful if the authority were to have power to examine these practices.

By the very nature of the industry, it stands to reason that fishermen are frequently unable to work, sometimes for quite long periods during the winter, because of bad weather. They have to be laid off by their employers. During my two years as Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian, where there are several small fishing ports, it has been my experience that far too many fishermen have been laid off for one reason or another and have run into difficulties when claiming unemployment benefit.

It is particularly topical to raise this issue now since a number of fishermen were laid off during the recent dispute when the entire Scottish fishing fleet was tied up for weeks. The crewmen who normally man those vessels were subjected to a number of demoralising experiences during those weeks. For a start, it must have been demoralising for them to pick up their copy of Fishing News of 20 February and read the headline telling them that the Belgians had"hit the herring" and that in only one day 1,900 50-kilo boxes of herring had been landed in Ostend. That must have been especially demoralising for them when they are not allowed to think about herring, never mind catch the wretched things or land them.

But it was even more demoralising when those fishermen went along to claim their unemployment benefit. Since their skippers had voluntarily tied up their vessels and laid off their employees, these crewemen were unquestionably unemployed, but far too many of them are now, almost a month later, still waiting for the first payment of unemployment benefit in respect of that period.

I have taken the matter up with the Department of Employment in Edinburgh, and the problem appears to be that fishermen are treated as special cases when they claim unemployment benefit. I understand that what is to happen on this occasion is that the insurance officer will have to give individual examination to a test case in respect of one employee from each and every boat which was involved in the tie-up before the rest of the employees on each vessel will receive their benefit. This could take a long time.

That is why I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) in bringing forward the amendment. It would be useful for the Sea Fish Industry Authority to have the power to examine employment practices and, indeed, the way in which employees in the fishing industry are treated by the Department of Employment during temporary or protracted spells of unemployment which occur through no fault of the employees concerned.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

The intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) and myself in putting forward the amendment was to provide more information about the fishing industry. It is our belief that the best ally of the industry, particularly at the present difficult juncture, is information being put out about conditions in the industry, the prices fetched, and the kind of return that skippers and fishermen make on their extremely tough and difficult job. When people are given that information the sympathy of the country goes out to the industry. The best way of improving the position of the industry is to provide information about what is happening to it and the type of conditions in which people are working.

I am not talking about the romantic"Red Sails in the Sunset" view of fishing; I am talking about the sheer, bloody reality of broken limbs, lost lives, appalling working conditions and the intolerable situations that fishermen face on returning to port. Employment practices in the industry leave a great deal to be desired.

One of the problems in obtaining information is that there is no clear responsibility for provision of the kind of information upon which a case for improvement can be made. People in the industry therefore have no leverage, no point on which to work, and no source for the kind of information that would improve their position. One has to say that many of the problems would not have occurred if the information had been available and widely known. It is in an attempt to provide that information that the amendment has been put forward.

I cite briefly four classic examples of situations that would probably not have arisen had there been the continuous invigilation and the constant source of information that the industry so badly needs and that could be provided through the authority.

The long delay in decasualisation has been an abomination. The arguments have gone on for so long, with so little end result, that an industry in which the unions and the fishermen are crying out for a scheme of employment is still without that scheme after all these years. The accident rate shows that it is by far the most dangerous industry. It is far more dangerous than coal mining. The figures should not merely be collated but should be made known, because that aspect, too, is part of the employment conditions.

Occasional, intermittent anomalies may have disastrous effects upon people's lives. For instance, a drowning may occur, or a death may occur on a vessel on which insurance has not been paid. There is the type of responsibility that can then arise, and the tragedy for the family of the man who is killed.

I raised a further case in Committee. I was grateful for the Minister's undertaking that he would look at it. I shall certainly send him the information. I refer to the DTI log book for vessels. In the case of share-fishermen, it does not specify the share of the catch that is payable to them. That has been described by one spokesman for the Grimsby share-fishermen as a licence to steal, because, in effect, shares can be changed at will in the course of a voyage. All those anomalies need to be highlighted. They need the focus, the flow of information, and the leverage that would be provided by the clause.

The diminishing number of fishermen employed in the industry has been paralleled in inverse ratio, as it were, by increasing anger of the kind that exploded in the January stoppage. It was interesting to note that in Grimsby the skippers decided to go back three days before the men could be persuaded to do so, so strong was the anger about the situation that they and the industry faced and so wide had the gulf become between different sections of the industry.

What is needed is not the rush of sympathy that comes every time there is a film about fishing, about the conditions in which people work and about the death rate in the industry. What is needed is a body that has specific responsibility for collating and providing that information, a source of leverage for the unions and other sectional groups in the industry to acquire the kind of information that will help them to put forward a case for the improvement that is so vitally needed in the industry today.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I wish briefly to put on record my support for the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) has a very long history of fighting for changes for the fishermen and for his own union's interest in these matters. As a seaman back in 1966, I used to go to my hon. Friend to ask him to do the same for seamen as he was doing for fishing. I was glad that I was able to relieve him of some of that burden when I entered Parliament in 1970.

Mr. McNamara

So was I.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend, too, was relieved. We have worked together in the interests of fishermen. I therefore wish to put on record my admiration for all that he has done for seamen and, in particular, fishing.

The amendment reflects matters about which my hon. Friend was campaigning a number of years ago and on which we have considerable agreement, such as the great difficulty in attempting to bring about the normal advances that are given to industrial workers, and in some cases to seamen, but which for some reason are not given to fishermen.

When I first came to the port of Hull as a seaman in 1966, I was amazed to see that fishermen still carried their mattresses away to sea. Indeed, I understand that in some cases that still continues today. That is a terrible practice. It is difficult to believe that in this day and age one still has to turn up with one's mattress. The problem has to some extent ceased in the port of Hull, because very few fishing ships are now putting to sea. Nevertheless, it is an indication of how fishermen have lagged behind in conditions which have been given to other maritime workers, particularly seafarers.

I generally welcome the proposal in the Bill to set up a central authority. Indeed, in a report entitled"Fishing into the Eighties", I and a group of other people advocated a central authority of some form. I therefore welcome this provision in the Bill. I believe that one of its most powerful duties should be that recommended by my hon. Friend in his amendment, namely, the duty and responsibility to examine employment practices in the industry. Those employment practices may reveal not only deficiencies in the way in which benefits are paid to fishermen but also, as my hon. Friend said, in regard to safety benefits and employment practices. A considerable amount needs to be done. Other amendments may provide the opportunity to explain in detail what needs to be done.

Nevertheless, this amendment places upon the authority the responsibility to compare practices in similar industries. Seafaring is not entirely the same, but it is similar in some of the circumstances and in the environment in which fishermen work. If one compares the safety figures for industries of this kind, fishing, seafaring and diving have an accident and death rate 40, 50, 60 per cent. or more above that in the most dangerous occupation ashore, which is normally considered to be mining.

We believe that much of that is due to the fact that extra safety precautions have not been introduced in this industry. In the past, the philosophy has always been that greater discipline means greater safety. The irony is that workers in this industry have always laboured under the greatest discipline exercised in any work force and at the same time have had the worst safety record of any work force. That is the central philosophy behind a great deal of the legislation against which we have fought relating to those workers.

I am glad to say that some changes have taken place as a result of the Merchant Shipping Acts. Nevertheless, there is value in having a central authority, because it would be able to look at the problems constantly complained of by the workers in the industry and produce a useful report covering the peculiarities of the industry.

7.30 pm

Mention has already been made of the disadvantages experienced by workers in this area, particularly in relation to benefits. The speeches of other Labour Members reflect the different types of fishing which exist in different ports, be it share fishing, industrial fishing, or a mixture of fishing, which I believe is the position in Grimsby.

Benefits can vary according to the type of industry. For example, there is the question whether one is considered to share in a catch and, therefore, to be classed as self-employed or whether one is an industrial worker for redundancy purposes but is required to serve two years on the vessel. Of course, the articles in the contract of employment of a seafarer or fisherman cover a period considerably less than two years. In reality, while a man may work in the industry for 20 years, he may not be eligible for redundancy pay if he has moved around from company to company or from ship to ship. Therefore, the authority could consider the problem of what articles seamen or fishermen should sign.

My own industry was able to get a cumulative consideration under a special redundancy scheme which allowed us to be exempt from the State scheme. That dealt with the peculiarities of shipping. Exactly the same argument applies to fishing, but fishing has never been given that exemption. While on the one hand the industry would argue"Of course our benefits are very good and are the same as what a shore worker gets", the difficulty is that a fisherman is not eligible because he does not meet the two-year requirement because of the nature and circumstances of his employment.

That is one small example. Hon. Members have mentioned others. We think that it would be useful if a central authority were able to look at the advances given to other workers when this House passes legislation. Instead of saying"It is difficult to apply it to seamen or fishermen", a body which deals with fishing could identify the peculiarities and suggest how those advances could be achieved in the same legislation in order to overcome the difficulties which are normally used as arguments for not granting those advances.

A classic example is the use of gangways on ships. Because pilots and men who must gain access to a vessel cannot use a gangway at sea, we introduce special legislation to define the gangway and to make it a requirement. When it comes to a docker going on board a ship, there is a requirement for a gangway to be provided as a statutory responsibility. Unfortunately, when it comes to seamen and fishermen who eat, sleep and live on board ship in different parts of the world, we are told that the rise and fall of the water in the docks make it difficult to provide a gangway and that, therefore, there will be an exemption which inevitably means that a gangway is not provided. It is an excuse not to provide it. For too many years, such anomalies have contributed to a deterioration in fishermen's conditions.

I very much welcome the amendment. It is useful in order to expose the anomalies relating to marine workers, be they divers, fishermen or seafarers. We could even learn something from the Community. Some Community countries are prepared to tie aid to an improvement in workers' conditions. Very little notice has been taken of that in all the money that has come from Government to the industry, particularly in the port of Hull. According to many letters which hon. Members receive, fishermen are aggrieved that, while a lot of money has been given to the industry, they have been denied such things as redundancy and benefits which they feel they have sacrificed as a result of the decline in the industry. Parliament has done nothing. It has simply taken the easy way out. It has allowed these anomalies to continue, which means exemption, as a result of which the fishermen have been denied these benefits.

The amendment would place a most useful responsibility on the authority. It is one that I would very much welcome.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

In considering that amendment, it is important that we look first at the powers of the authority under clause 3. I direct the attention of the House to those powers, particularly those contained in clause 3(1)(a) and (b). As the Bill stands: The Authority shall have the power—

  1. (a) to carry out research and development with respect to any matters relating to the sea fish industry;
  2. (b) to give advice on any such matters."
Therefore, the Bill as drafted gives wide discretionary powers—I acknowledge that they are discretionary—to study matters affecting the industry, through research and development. As a consequence of having carried out that research and development, the authority can then give advice on any of those matters. Therefore, in a wide and comprehensive sense, what the amendment seeks to do is wholly within the powers of the Sea Fish Industry Authority as the Bill is presently drafted. As a result, the powers contained in the amendment are already covered in the Bill.

The amendment puts on the authority the duty that in relation to important aspects for fishermen, it could be required to carry out certain work and research and to publish reports in relation to employment practices. I should point out that as drafted the amendment states: It shall be the duty of the Authority, if requested by any section of a trade union … to publish reports. To that extent it goes further than the discretionary powers, in that the authority would be"required" to do so.

Although the authority has this wide discretionary power and could cover the matters that the amendment covers, we must also remember that the authority that we are appointing will have a majority of representatives from the industry. As I have said, its duties are framed in general terms in order to permit the maximum scope and to grant it power to establish its own priorities for action, expenditure and so on. My view will probably come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman, because I resisted similar amendments in Committee. I do not think it appropriate to try to impose narrow responsibilities on the authority. Having established the authority, and given the nature of its composition, the House and Ministers should leave it to work out its own priorities. It must decide what to do in light of representations received, either from outside or from within the authority. That is the appropriate way for the authority properly to carry out its powers.

The discretionary powers of the authority were drawn up on purpose. That was done consciously, so as to give the authority the discretion to decide its own priorities. Without in any way trying to belittle or minimise the importance of the matters covered by the amendment, I believe that it is better to let the matter rest where it is at present. We should let the authority decide its own priorities, having regard to its own views and the representations that it may receive.

In saying that I do not belittle the topics covered by the amendment. My answer would be the same with regard to any other topic. This is very much a matter of principle about the way in which we should conduct the affairs of the authority. Therefore, although I understand the feelings that led to the amendment, I must advise the House to reject it.

Mr. McNamara

I listened to the Minister with a degree of sadness. I understand his attitude and accept that we sought to impose a duty rather than a discretion, as exists under the provisions of clause 3. On more pointed amendments, we shall drive this home to a Division. I am sure that the new authority will read carefully what the Minister has said in this important subject. However, on this occasion, I suggest that we should not divide the House.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) for the kind things that he said about me. However, the House should bear in mind that in recent years several vessels have been lost at sea for reasons that remain unknown. The owners were compensated for their vessels, for what was known to be the catch, and for every material part of the vessels. The dependants of crews received nothing for that loss of life. Nobody could be blamed. I merely ask whether that is a good employment practice. Perhaps the new authority should direct its attention to that and should ensure that those who go down to the sea in ships should know that if they perish their next of kin will be properly compensated.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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