HL Deb 15 July 1948 vol 157 cc880-5

4.48 p.m.

Order of the day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Huntingdon.)


My Lords, before this Bill becomes law, I should like to make a few observations. It was very fully debated in the other place, and a number of honourable Members who represented fishing constituencies, constituencies all the way from Cornwall to (oddly enough) Aberdeen, brought a good deal of interesting opinion to bear. This is a small Bill but it concerns a most vital matter. I must say that we on these Benches are all extremely pleased that His Majesty's Government recognise the matter for the important one it is. The sea, after all, is not an inexhaustible reservoir of fish. In the last century, when the whaling industry was at the height of its prosperity, nobody ever foresaw that one day this beast would be virtually extinct. The whale has been so pursued that the species have been virtually wiped out in the North Latitudes, and the prosperity which it once brought to Hull and Dundee is now a mere memory.

The prosperity of the fishing industry is a matter of vital importance to this country. In pre-war days a quarter of the fish landed from the North Sea was landed in England, and it amounted in volume to twice the amount of the beef we produced in this island. But over-fishing has been proceeding steadily, and, even with the respite of the war, the North Sea is rapidly becoming a wasting asset—wasting with tragic momentum. There is only one real law of nature, so far as it affects living species, and that is that what is destroyed must be replaced, or allowed to replace itself. Any breach of that law must inevitably end in the disappearance of that species. If these seas become completely denuded of the fish upon which we depend so largely, the effect upon the economy of this country will be disastrous. The effect upon our fishing population, which is large, will be equally disastrous. It is a population for whom I think we all have the greatest respect. I have respected it ever since, sixteen years ago, I was myself a deckhand on a trawler.

On this side of the House, we welcome this Bill. But it will be effective only if all the other nations who are sitting round the table at this Convention are prepared to agree to a joint approach to the problem, jointly work out the optimum amount of fish that can be taken from these seas and jointly agree to limit their fishing effort accordingly. Those are agreements that must be not only enforceable, but enforced. We in this country have agreed to limit ourselves as regards the mesh of our nets. We have agreed, also, to limit the tonnage of our fishing fleet. We may have given some hostages to fortune in that regard but, after all, it is for us to set an example, if this agreement is to work. It is an agreement which is an apparent paradox, in that we seek to restore abundance through imposing restrictions. His Majesty's Government's responsibility in this is very clear: to secure that abundance they have to make foreign Governments realise the vital importance of this matter. We have imposed restrictions upon ourselves. I would like to know what restrictions those Governments have accepted, or have said that they were prepared to accept, in return.

This is an entirely non-Party matter. I think we are all agreed that not only ourselves but what one might call the North Sea nations will in the future depend for a great deal of their domestic economy upon the restoration of the fishing banks of those seas to the abundance which they once possessed. We all equally agree that we want a high and stable level of employment among the fishing population of this country. It is a population that is scattered all the way from the biggest centres down to the smallest fishing hamlets. They are probably the hardiest citizens of this country in peace, as they are a tremendous bulwark of our sea power in war. In these days I suppose that, among our many shortages, the shortage of oils and fats is one of the most predominant. We are spending millions of money in Tanganyika and elsewhere to try to produce, from the ground-nuts schemes, the raw material from which oils and fats are extracted. But in the herrings in the seas around our own coasts we have the raw material for producing oil and fat. The processing of herrings is giving us an increasingly valuable export. We are all agreed that we should push on with scientific investigation, so that we may husband more wisely than we do at present the resources of these seas. If we need more legislation to do it, then let us have it quickly. I hope that the passing of this Bill will be a signal for His Majesty's Government to redouble their efforts to try to obtain that agreement from foreign Powers without which no legislation that we pass in this House can possibly be effective.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, before this Bill passes into law, I should like to add a word in support of what my noble friend has just said. I should like to say something from the angle of defence, and to welcome this measure which assists a class of men who give their very best to this country in time of war. My claim to speak upon this Bill is that I am a kind of absentee-stepfather to a part of the measure. In 1941, I was invited by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Tom Johnston, to be Chairman of the Joint Herring Industry Inquiry. The following year, I did what the Scriptures tell us not to: having put my hand to the helm, I looked back, and went to India, leaving my task unfinished. Colonel Elliot, however, took over, and brought the ship safely into harbour. Part of the Bill is based upon the recommendation of the Elliot Committee.

I welcome this measure especially in that it goes further than the Bill of 1944 in helping the herring industry with grants. I welcome it particularly from the point of view of the assistance which it gives to the fishermen who are of such value to our country in time of war. All round the coasts of England, Wales and Scotland, in war time, the fishermen perform manifold duties of the highest importance. Many of them are in the Fleet Reserve, and in many cases their boats are requisitioned for Admiralty purposes. If your Lordships will allow me, I should like to tell your Lordships a story which illustrates the very fine calibre of these men. In the winter of 1939, I faced an angry deputation at Peterhead. It has been my lot to face angry deputations at various places from time to time, but seldom have I faced so stubborn a deputation as on this occasion. It was composed of old drifter skippers. They were too old to be taken with their ships when their ships had been requisitioned by the Admiralty for minesweeping. I well remember one old skipper saying to me: "Isn't it a shame that my son is away on a steady job and I am left here?" I inquired "What steady job?" He said "Minesweeping." The type of man who can call minesweeping in the North Sea in winter a steady job, is one to whom all Parties in this House would wish to pay tribute.

One of the points that we looked into when I was Chairman of the Committee was the type of boat suitable for Admiralty purposes. The old steam drifter, though useful in war time, is going out of favour for fishing nowadays. It is being replaced by the motor vessel. And that has reactions upon the uses to which the Admiralty can put those boats. I do not ask for any reply at the moment, but I trust that His Majesty's Government are bearing in mind that aspect of the situation—the type of vessel which may be both suitable to the fishermen for their craft in time of peace and of real and practical service to the Admiralty in time of war. With those few words, I welcome this measure.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, it was with great satisfaction that I heard the remarks of both the noble Lords from the Bench opposite in welcoming this Bill. I think that on all sides of the House noble Lords have recognised the importance of this measure. I can assure your Lordships that any remarks which the noble Lords have made will be carefully considered. I cannot now give an answer to the question of the type of vessels, but the matter is receiving earnest consideration. This problem of overfishing is obviously not a new one. If we go back to the earliest times we find that this same problem existed then. I believe that the early, primitive tribes of the Pacific used to solve the problem by placing a taboo in specified seasons on certain fish, and also on other supplies of foods. It was a religious offence to infringe this taboo.

The only solution to the problem of maintaining a supply in this case—and at the present time—is to impose some restriction. As the noble Lord, Lord Tweedsmuir, has pointed out, however, the difficulty is not the merits of the case for restriction: we all recognise that we need control and must stop overfishing. The only difficulty has been to reach agreement among a number of large and independent nations who all admit the merits but are not altogether in agreement on what are the best measures. I think we ought to congratulate the Convention, which did reach a considerable measure of agreement. I can assure noble Lords that His Majesty's Government, by every means in their power, are trying to persuade the remaining nations to ratify the Agreement, so that we can put these measures into operation as soon as possible.

The only outstanding point which I would mention is the question whether, purely as a method of strategy, we should wait until other nations have taken a lead, or whether we should rather set an example and take steps, on the assumption that other nations will follow. I believe the second is the wiser course. We have no reason to think that other nations will not ratify the Agreement, or that they will not come in. We are doing everything we can to give a moral lead and, by propaganda and persuasion, to impress these other nations with the urgency of this matter, so that this Bill will become something more than a mere piece of paper. I do not think I need go into the other questions which have been fully debated in your Lordships' House, except to say, once again, that we fully appreciate the importance of this measure. We are glad it is not a Party issue. We mean to give it as much force as we can, and as soon as possible. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give this Bill a Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.