HL Deb 28 June 1948 vol 157 cc4-14

4.11 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a small Bill, but, I suggest to your Lordships, an extremely important one. It is designed to provide assistance to our fishing industries and to help to procure those fish which are so necessary to the diet of our people. A major part of this Bill deals with the question of overfishing. As your Lordships probably know, before 1939 overfishing had become particularly bad in the North Sea and the catches were decreasing to such an extent that it looked as though fishing would no longer be a commercial proposition. Something had to be done about it. The War then intervened, and we had hoped that the resting of the fishing grounds during the war years would have increased the stocks of fish so that we could have gone on fishing for a considerable time without any appreciable depletion. It is true that in 1946 very large catches were taken out of the sea. But towards the end of 1946 and 1947 catches again began to go down, and it became quite obvious that, unless some measures were taken we would arrive at the same position as was reached in 1939.

As your Lordships know, a Conference was convened in 1946 to discuss this problem, the nations attending being all those actually concerned in fishing in the North Sea. This Conference eventually drew up a Convention which recommended an increase in the size of the meshes of nets. There was no difference of opinion in the Conference as to the desirability of taking very energetic measures to conserve the fishery; where the difficulty arose was in deciding what measures to take, as naturally many points of view were put forward. But it was finally agreed that enlarging the size of mesh would have an extremely beneficial effect and this proposal was adopted. The Overfishing Convention of 1946 has been ratified by His Majesty's Government and the Governments of Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden, while ratification is still awaited from Belgium, Eire, France, Iceland, Portugal and Spain. It is earnestly hoped that these countries will conclude and ratify the Convention at an early date.

In order to comply with the terms of the Convention we ourselves have had to take powers to regulate the size of mesh in territorial waters as well as outside such waters. It so happens that the various conditions of fishing of other nations make this necessary in order to obtain agreement on the matter. Therefore, under Clause 1 of this Bill we take powers so that the local fishery committees can inspect boats to examine the sizes of the mesh of nets, and if necessary can institute proceedings against the owners of the boats. It should be pointed out that in all cases the master of the boat will be given every opportunity to be present if and when such an inspection takes place. That, I think, is the main and perhaps the most useful part of the Convention. It was proposed to take further steps, but here a difficulty arose because, although, as. I said before, there was general agreement as to the necessity of taking measures, there was considerable disagreement as to the exact nature of the steps to be taken. In fact, beyond this question of the size of the mesh, no other point could be agreed.

After a good deal of discussion, however, the various nations agreed to follow lines of action which the scientists confirmed would be more or less equivalent to each other; for example, one nation agreed to enlarge the size of its mesh; another, to close certain grounds for certain months, and so on. Our own undertaking was that we should not allow the size of our fishing fleet to be increased beyond 85 per cent. of the pre-war figure. This is a good deal larger than the fishing fleet as it exists to-day, and although perhaps, at first sight, your Lordships might question this provision, I would emphasise how extremely important, yet how difficult, it is to secure agreement on this subject. I may say that this Convention has been agreed and signed by the following countries: Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and France, and also by His Majesty's Government. We are still awaiting acceptances from Belgium, Eire, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland. I am sure your Lordships will be with me in wishing that the signatures of these countries may be obtained in the shortest possible time so that we can go ahead with the necessary work.

Much preparatory work will have to be done in order to institute a system of licensing to keep down our fleet to this figure of 85 per cent. Therefore, powers are taken in Clause 2 for the licensing of British boats fishing for white fish in the North. Sea. Boats fishing for herrings are not included, because there is no problem of overfishing of herrings. It has been agreed to exempt certain boats not used by way of trade or business, and the Ministers also have power to exempt other types of boats. Boats engaged on research of different kinds would, naturally, not come under this Bill. Small boats of forty feet and under, or boats fishing for mackerel, sprats, pilchards, herrings, shell fish or salmon will not have to be licensed. The appointed day for this order to come into operation will be fixed by the Ministers when they are satisfied that other countries are taking other appropriate steps. The Report of the Standing Advisory Committee which made the recommendations on this subject has been published in Command Paper 7387.

I will pass from those matters, which I hope will meet with a certain measure of agreement, to the inshore fishing industry. This is the next subject with which the Bill deals. Although a relatively small industry it provides excellent fish and also a considerable amount of employment for the men round our coasts. Clause 3 provides more money for the purpose of the Inshore Fishing Industry Act, 1945. As your Lordships will remember, this Act provided that grants up to a total of £500,000, and loans up to £800,000, should be made to fishermen in order to buy boats and gear. At the time these provisions were made it was expected that these sums would be enough to last up to December, 1950. Two things, however, have happened. I am glad to say that fishermen have built larger boats, which will allow them to remain longer at sea. On the other hand, I am sorry to say, costs and expenses have gone up considerably.

These factors have necessitated increasing to £1,000,000 the amount for grants, and to £1,800,000 the amount for loans. I think your Lordships will remember that assistance under the Inshore Fishing Industry Act, 1945, was limited to vessels not exceeding seventy feet in length and fifty tons gross. It is also interesting to note that some 920 fishermen have received assistance to purchase 182 new boats and 41 Admiralty fishing vessels, while 269 second-hand boats have been purchased or reconditioned. In 1947 the inshore fishermen of Great Britain landed over 1,750,000 cwt. of highest quality fish, a little over 10 per cent. of the total quantity of white fish caught by British fishing vessels. I am sure, therefore, that your Lordships will agree that these prospective grants and loans are well worth while.

Clause 4 provides for loans to fishermen's co-operatives—a highly desirable development which we want to encourage. Clause 5 deals with the herring industry, and increases by £1,250,000 the amount of grants which may be made by Ministers to the Board. Of this sum, £1,000,000 will be required for new projects for converting herring to meal and oil. Obviously, this is very necessary and will help to ease the position as regards animal feeding-stuffs. Subsection (2) of Clause 5 provides for the payment of the salaries of the Board from monies provided by Parliament. This should give the Board that measure of independence which we believe is necessary if the interests of consumers are to be safeguarded. Clause 6 merely removes the limitation of 200,000 placed on the amount of the Herring Marketing Fund. This sum, of course, comes within the £1,700,000 already provided by the Herring Industry Act, and no new financial provision is involved. In view of the loss of some of our foreign markets we have to maintain an energetic policy, and the removal of the limitation on this Fund will, I think, assist the herring industry in carrying out their plans.

Clause 7 gives Ministers the initiative in preparing schemes. It should be pointed out that all concerned will be given full opportunity of expressing their views, and schemes must be laid before Parliament for approval. Clause 8 provides that Ministers may give directions to the Board of a general character on matters affecting the national interest. Clause 10 brings the Minister of Food into the picture—into formal relationship with the Board which was set up before the war. With the other Ministers, he shares responsibility for preparing or amending schemes and the giving of directions to the Board.

I suggest to your Lordships that this, though a small measure, is a most important one for the fishing industry. It should lead to the conserving of stocks of fish in the North Sea, which is an extremely necessary thing to do. It provides for the assistance of the inshore fishing industry, and will encourage the development of, and enterprise in, the herring industry. Owing to the fact that the industry has lost some of its traditional markets, it will need that encouragement. Therefore, I suggest that this is a much-needed Bill, and I hope your Lordships will give it a speedy passage through this House. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Huntingdon.)

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think it is necessary for me to detain you on this Bill for any great length of time. Its provisions have been laid before your Lordships with great clarity by the noble Earl. He described it as a "small Bill," but it is small, I think, only in the sense that it is virtually agreed. Any of us who realises the size of the industry which we are discussing will know that we are dealing with an industry which is of immense importance. I am not sure how many noble Lords, or how many people in the country realise that, whereas before the war we as a country imported from South America something like 500,000 tons of meat per annum, we were eating something over 1,000,000 tons of fish. That gives some idea of the scope of this problem. Your Lordships all know that this problem is not new; so far back, I think, as 1933, I myself piloted through the first fishing Bill dealing with this subject.

There is only one point that I should like to make as a caveat—to some extent, the noble Earl dealt with it—namely, that this Bill can hope to have an effect only on our own sea-fishing industry. It is most important that we should not do anything to restrict the efforts or the takings of fishermen in this country unless we are absolutely sure that any such sacrifices will be made effective by the full cooperation of other nations. The noble Earl has said that the Minister does not intend to decide the appointed date until other nations have come in. I would ask: Suppose they do not? In that event, the problem still remains. If the noble Earl can tell us what steps the Government intend to make to meet that problem, I think it will be helpful. Whether it is practicable for us to cease taking the fish of these other nations, or whether we are at present in a position to refuse anybody's fish, I do not know.

With regard to the other clauses of the Bill, especially that making provision for the development of the herring industry and oil and meal, I would mention just this point. Obviously, we want to see this oil and meal processing pushed forward so far as possible; but I sometimes wonder whether we have, even yet, taken sufficient trouble to see that—as distinct from processing herring—there is the fullest possible consumption of herring as a food. Apart from those two questions, I cordially, commend this Bill to your Lordships as a thoroughly workmanlike measure.

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, I venture to agree with the noble Earl opposite that this is by no means a small Bill. Indeed, I do not think that its importance can be exaggerated. It is of tremendous importance to the fishing industry of this country. I had the honour for some years to represent the greatest fishing port in the world, and I learned something about the industry apart from previous knowledge gained at sea myself. I would remind your Lordships that not only does the fishing industry of this country supply excellent nourishing food, and provide a great deal of employment; it also provides a most valuable Reserve for he Royal Navy. What we should have done without the trawler men and drifter crews in the First and Second World Wars I do not know—and I can speak with some experience of the First World War. These men were an irreplaceable source of strength to the Royal Navy and their vessels themselves were of great value.

I must apologise to the noble Earl who moved the Second Reading of this Bill for not having given him previous notice of the one or two points I am venturing to raise. The reason for that is that I have been out of the country, and did not have an opportunity to let him know that I proposed to speak on these points. The crux of the prosperity of the fishing industry—this matter is not dealt with in the Bill, though I know it is very much in the minds of the Government—is transport: transport from the ports in suitable vehicles, refrigerating tracks and so on, to the inland districts. Until that problem is solved, we shall have continually the scandal of gluts of fish, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inland districts badly needing fresh fish. The problem has never really been properly tackled. I myself have been hammering at this for many years. I was Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Party on Deep Sea Fishing for some years, and this was one of the matters with which we always tried to deal. Much still requires to be done, although there has been some improvement. Now that the railways and road haulage are national undertakings, it should be easier to tackle this long-standing question. In the past, the railway companies have said "We cannot provide more refrigerated trucks because they are used only for a certain time of the year, and it would take too long to amortise the cost." Now, we can look at it from the national point of view, and I hope that my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport will be sympathetic towards providing this necessary improvement in the means of transporting fish.

The aeroplane could be used far more for carrying fresh fish. In 1939, I flew from Sydney to Singapore in an Imperial Airways machine. The tail of that machine was filled with Australian oysters on ice going to Malaya. When we reached Singapore, I had the pleasure of eating some of those oysters, which were in excellent condition. That was in 1939. They were transported over an immense distance. In the interval since then, aircraft have become more reliable and cheaper. It should be possible to utilise air transport for fish to a far greater extent than is now practised. So much for transport. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, spoke about overfishing. It is, of course, well known that but for the two world wars, which gave a " holiday " to the North Sea, there would now be a serious depletion of the fishing grounds. It was the Hull trawlers which led the way to new fishing grounds off Iceland, Bear Island, and the White Sea. They were the pioneers there, and they were continually having to have faster and more seaworthy trawlers as they went further and further afield. We started fishing off the West Coast of Africa and also off the Spanish coast. I am glad that certain measures will now be taken to avoid overfishing.

I have one specific question which I should like to put to my noble friend Lord Huntingdon. The Bill gives power to fishing committees to inspect the nets of fishing vessels in ports, to see that they are not fishing with too small a mesh. That applies to British fishing vessels. Does it apply to foreign fishing vessels which sometimes use our ports for handling fish? Shall we have the right to inspect the nets of these vessels, and to take steps if they are fishing with too small a mesh? It will be very hard on our fishermen if the foreign fishing vessels are allowed to proceed with their nets not inspected. In any case, foreign fishermen are not over-welcomed by the fishermen in our ports, but will it be fair on our own fishermen if foreign vessels are to be entirely free from inspection? That is a specific question which I think is most important. I should be grateful if my noble friend could answer it.

I particularly welcome the better arrangements to be made for the orderly marketing of the herring catch. That is a good example of national planning which should be a great boon to the highly important herring industry. My noble friend also mentioned—and it is referred to in the Bill—the question of better arrangements for the extraction of oil and other by-products from fish. There again, Hull has been the pioneering port in that respect. We were the first to build two fine modern factories for using surplus gluts of fish, and fish that had been spoiled, for manufacture into cattle food and for extracting oil. We are only at the beginning of the more scientific use of fish for the extraction of oil. It is a most valuable foodstuff. In another place, I see that several interested Members referred to the great ground-nuts scheme in Africa, and compared it with the proposals for extracting oil from our own fish from our own waters. While I do not in any way attack the ground-nuts scheme, for I think it is a splendid scheme, we have in the fish around our coasts a great, though neglected, source of edible oil in various forms.

A scheme of this sort has grown up in South Africa. There, a great industry, utilising small sharks, has grown up. Fleets of fishing boats go out; they catch many hundreds of small sharks. And from the livers of these fish is extracted a valuable oil which is sold all over the world and which has great nutritional value. That is the sort of thing which can be done with fish that are unpopular or are not easily marketed, but which contain valuable oil products that can be extracted or which again can be turned into very valuable cattle food. I join with the noble Earl who spoke for the Opposition in giving a general welcome to this Bill. It received a general welcome in another place. I am certain that it will do a great deal for the fishing industry of this country.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely pleased with the friendly welcome that this Bill has received from all sides of the House. I feel sure that everyone recognises that it is a most useful measure. I should like, if I may, to answer some of the questions that were raised in the course of the speeches made by the noble Earl opposite and by my noble friend, Lord Strabolgi, who sits on these Benches. The first question was, What will happen if the other nations do not ratify the Agreement? I suggest to your Lordships that this is perhaps a case where it is better not to jump your fence before you come to it. We have no reason to suppose that the other nations will not ratify the Agreement. Certainly, there have been no indications that they will not. We are trying to urge them to ratify the Agreement as quickly as possible, but if they do not, obviously we shall have to think again in terms of what food supplies there are, what the world conditions are, and so on. We have no real reason, however, for fearing that these other countries will not ratify the Agreement. Then the noble Lord who sits on this side of the House raised the question of transport. That, of course, is an extremely important matter and is one in which much remains to be done. I am glad to say that there is a committee upon which the Ministry of Transport are represented, which is at present considering steps to improve the transport of fish throughout the country. In particular, they are looking to the procurement of more refrigerated trucks, but they are also considering any other measures which might improve transport. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, delighted us with a story of oysters being carried by aeroplane. I must say that it certainly whetted my appetite, particularly the mention of the oysters being on ice.

Certainly I think there is a big chance of developing the production of oil from fish, herring more than any other kind, because herring are available in almost unlimited quantities. I cannot quite recollect the last point raised by the noble Lord——


I raised the question of the inspection of the nets of foreign fishing vessels.


The answer to that is that we do not inspect foreign fishing vessels in our ports. Altogether, it is an extremely difficult question, but we think it wiser, generally speaking, to allow countries to inspect their own boats. We hope to have a thorough co-operation in regard to policing the waters. We have considered schemes for a sort of international police but we hope to leave the actual inspection and policing of boats as much as possible to the nations concerned. We are hopeful that we shall get some measure of reciprocity on that subject. I do not want to keep your Lordships any longer on this question. I feel that there is a large measure of agreement about this Bill and I now ask that you will give it a speedy Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.