HL Deb 19 April 1951 vol 171 cc430-9

5.25 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I can only wish that my Bill may be given as smooth a passage by your Lordships' House as that given to the Bill moved by my noble friend Lord Morrison. I must admit that I have prepared a rather lengthy speech. Such a speech would be inevitable if I were to cover the whole of a rather long Bill, but I think it will be your Lordships' wish that I should shorten my remarks and cover only the essentials of the Bill.

I am extremely fortunate that my first duty in connection with fisheries in your Lordships' House is to commend a Bill which promises to do so much for the fishing industry. I wish I could feel that my good fortune was matched by my knowledge of the industry itself. But even those who know little about its operations recognise the important part that it has played, and still plays, in our national life. Millions of consumers want a plentiful supply of fish at a reasonable price. This need is particularly urgent at the present time, because fish provides a protein factor in our diet which can compensate for the shortage of meat. Moreover, like all islanders, we are by nature and long tradition a seafaring people. The qualities of the men who go out in our fishing fleets are typical of much that we value in our national character. Hard living, risktaking and the spirit of adventure are developed by the seafaring life. I know your Lordships will agree that we should try to safeguard the future of our fishing community by giving the industry stability at a reasonable level of prosperity. Your Lordships will not have forgotten what the fishing industry did to defend the country in the last war. Out of a total of 1,030 steam trawlers in existence at the outbreak of war, 800 were keeping open our sea routes at one time or another while the war lasted. They suffered much damage and loss of life, and everyone hopes that we shall not have to call upon these vessels and their gallant crews again. It is well, however, that they should be available in case of need.

There is no need for me to detain your Lordships by describing at length the difficulties of the industry. They are still essentially those mentioned in the Report of the Duncan Commission in 1936. Various unsuccessful attempts have been made to deal with the industry's difficulties on the basis of the Duncan Report. In 1938, an Act was passed setting up a White Fish Commission, and providing for marketing schemes covering separately the various sections of the industry. But in 1939 war broke out, and the Commission's work had to be shelved. It has since become clear that the industry needs more help than the Commission were able to give within the limits of their authority. There is, I think, a general feeling, both in Parliament and in the fishing industry itself, that its problems require tackling by a co-ordinated plan. Such a plan can be drawn up only by a central authority for the industry, with suitable powers in relation to production, marketing and distribution. The revival of the White Fish Commission would not now be enough to restore the efficiency of the industry. The Government have decided that responsibility for reorganisation should be given to a strong independent body, with sufficient power to ensure that the job can be effectively carried out. That is the line that has been followed in the Bill, more particularly in the first six clauses, to which I would especially invite your Lordships' attention. Clauses 1, 2 and 3 deal with the White Fish Authority, the Scottish Committee, and their Advisory Council, while Clauses 4, 5 and 6 describe the powers that the Authority will be able to exercise.

Clause 1 provides for the establishment of the Authority, and gives a general outline of its functions. In this Bill, we propose that it should be a small, independent and impartial body. It will take advice from all the interests concerned, but will be subject only to the authority of the Ministers and Parliament. The proposed Authority will consist of five members, appointed jointly by the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the Minister of Food. No person may be appointed who has any financial or commercial interest likely to affect him in the discharge of his duties. The chairman and members are in no sense representatives of the industry or any section of it. The views of the various sections of the industry will be represented on the Advisory Council which is set up under Clause 3. The members of the Authority are individuals chosen for their personal qualities and wide experience. The chairman and members were appointed as a designate Authority last September. As your Lordships will be aware, Admiral Sir Robert Burnett and his colleagues on the board have lost no time in acquainting themselves, on the spot, with the circumstances of the industry. They have already made an excellent impression wherever they have been.

Clauses 2 and 3 provide respectively for the Scottish Committee and the Advisory Council. As your Lordships have already heard at some length, the fishery problems of Scotland differ in some important respects from those of England and Wales. This Scottish Committee will be able to advise the Authority on peculiarly Scottish fishing problems, and also to exercise delegated powers. The Advisory Council will be widely representative, and will be a permanent link between all sections of the white fish industry and the new Authority. The main powers and duties of the Authority are set out in Clauses 4, 5 and 6. Those in Clause 4 are needed immediately, and will be exercisable as soon as the Bill becomes law. The powers in Clause 5 will not operate until the regulations are confirmed by Ministers, and, of course, they can be annulled by a negative Resolution of either House. The wider powers under Clause 6 require not only the approval of the Ministers, but also affirmative Resolutions in both Houses.

Clause 4 gives the Authority a fairly long list of powers for immediate use. Some of these, such as the power to carry on research and experiment, need little explanation or justification. But there are powers in subsection (1) (c) and (1) (d), the need for which may not be quite so self-evident. The Authority will not, of course, as a rule, act as agents for the first sale of white fish. It will not usually undertake the purchase and sale of fisher-men's requisites, or necessarily become the sole agency for the sale of white fish and fish products abroad. This is the important condition attaching to the activities of the Authority in these respects. Where it is clear that existing facilities are adequate, the Authority cannot use these powers. But conditions in different places vary considerably, and powers of these kinds are likely to be needed in some of the smaller inshore ports.

The powers in this clause to provide fishing vessels to be operated, under charter, to give financial assistance by way of loan for the provision of fishing vessels, and to acquire shares in companies which operate them, will serve the important purpose of re-equipping the industry. A great deal of scrapping and replacement will have to be done in the near and middle water fleet if it is to be made efficient and economic. Over 80 per cent, of the vessels in this class are more than thirty years old. This section of the industry is vital, because it produces most of the best quality fish. It is beyond the strength of the industry itself to finance the rebuilding programme without out-side help. That help might take the form of loans. It might also be given by the Authority taking shares in fishing companies, or itself acquiring vessels and letting them out under charter. Grants for this purpose have been rejected by the Government because the money, once paid out, is gone for ever. One alternative, proposed in the Bill, is to provide for help by means of loans. But it might sometimes be better either to equip fishing vessels for charter, or to take shares in fishing companies, because either of these ways would provide greater security and more effective control. I should like to make it clear that there is no question of this power to take shares being used compulsorily. The Authority will have no power to compel anybody to part with shares if he does not wish to do so. The power to operate fishing vessels will also be subject to consent. The terms on which the Authority can do this will have to be agreed, and the limited provision for them to operate fishing vessels temporarily is intended only to safeguard their financial interest and that of the Exchequer. The powers set out in this Clause are extensive, but similar to those already possessed by the Herring Industry Board. It should be noted that they do not involve any element of compulsion on anybody.

Clause 5 gives the Authority power to make regulations after consultation with the industry, mainly for improving quality. One of the most important provisions in this clause is to arrange for the timing of landings, so as to secure greater regularity of supply. This is a difficult task, but the Authority believes that with the co-operation of the trawler owners something can be done to reduce gluts and shortages. Clause 6 authorises the Authority, again after full consultation, to prepare schemes for the better organisation, development or regulation of the industry as a whole, or of any part of it. It is, of course, impossible to see in advance just what ground these schemes may have to cover. Their scope is therefore described in the general terms which I have already mentioned. This is a far-reaching power, and it is right that it should not be used without most careful consideration. Your Lordships will, I feel sure, know of the safeguards which are provided in this clause, which I will not detail at length, because they are there set out: and I have no doubt that those of your Lordships who are interested in the Bill have already studied them.

I will not say anything about the subsequent clauses, but I will gladly answer any questions which your Lordships may wish to ask about them. In spite of its modest size, this is an important measure which has raised little controversy in the industry or elsewhere, and it appears to have been received with general approval, and even with enthusiasm. I hope that your Lordships will be willing to give it an equally cordial reception. The chairman and members-designate of the Authority have now spent six months in making themselves familiar with the conditions and problems of the industry. In doing so, they have found plenty of good will and desire to co-operate, and have left behind them everywhere an impression of their keenness and capacity. The Government are grateful to them for undertaking this important task, and I am sure that we shall all wish them every success. I know that your Lordships share our hope that the partnership between the new Authority and the fishing community will bring about a real and lasting revival in this great industry. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

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

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House support the aims of this Bill and the general principles contained in it. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said, the purpose of the Bill is to arrest the general decline in the near, middle and distant fishing, and to improve the marketing of fish. As the noble Earl has also said, it is a great industry, and I feel that we on this side should not allow this Bill to pass without supporting his words of commendation for the contribution that this industry made during war time, and is now making to our economic problems in peace time. The noble Earl said that he knew little about the fishing industry. I share with him that ignorance, but I am comforted in the knowledge that in another place a member said that he had been connected with the industry for twenty-two years, and still knew virtually nothing about it.

This is largely a machinery Bill. The conflicts which existed between the various interests—what I may term the port interests—have been resolved in another place during a protracted but co-operative Committee stage. To-day we see the result in this Bill. There are two points which I should like to make. The first is that it seems to me that, complementary to the passing of this Bill, the Government should press for the 1946 Convention to be ratified by an ever-increasing number of countries, because until that happens we are to some extent limiting the power of this Bill for doing good to the industry. My second point concerns the import of foreign fish. As I understand it, the position is that there is at present an open general licence for the import of foreign fish, and that is in accordance with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to which this country is a signatory. This General Agreement provides, however, that we can impose restrictions upon the importation of foreign fish, provided that we impose like restrictions upon the landing of our own fish. Here is another example of how our policy of blindly signing that General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is limiting our ability to help our own people. We cannot impose any restrictions upon the importation of foreign fish unless we impose like restrictions upon our own. At the moment, with the food position as it is, foreign importations of some 10 per cent, do not worry us, because there is a ready market for all the fish caught. But there may come a time when that position will change, and when that time comes I believe we shall regret the economic policy of His Majesty's Government which led us to sign that General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

There is one blot on this Bill which we shall have to deal with in Committee. It is in Clause 18, and relates to the prosecution of members of a corporate body. I am not going to argue that particular point now, because it is a legal point and I believe that my noble friend Lord Simon is going to deal with the matter at a later stage in the Bill. I should like to tell the Government, however, that we on this side of the House feel strongly about that provision in Clause 18. We had hoped that the thoughts of the Solicitor-General for Scotland would have turned in the direction of making a Government proposal for an amendment of that provision, and it is not too late for the Government to do so now. But if they feel unable to do so, then on the Committee stage we shall be forced to take a positive and firm line upon that particular point. I felt it only right that I should tell the Minister that. Subject to those remarks about Clause 18, about the need for other countries' ratifying the 1946 Convention, and the rather sad position in which we have placed ourselves in restricting our ability to limit foreign imports, I give full support to the proposals in the Bill, and I share the noble Earl's hope that its effect will be helpful to this great history which has contributed so much both in peace and in war.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, may I seek your Lordships' indulgence in addressing the House for the first time? I do not intend to make a speech, but there is a question I wish to ask my noble friend the Minister in charge of this Bill. The supply of fish to our country, like the supply of many other necessary foodstuffs, is characterised by shortages and gluts. Consequently, I think it is an eminently suitable product to come under the provisions of a Bill of this kind. I should like to ask my noble friend whether, under this Bill, the White Fish Authority will be able to pro-mote measures for the provision of quick-freezing storage facilities at suitable fishing ports up and down the country. The introduction of the quick-freeze method of storage has proved to be most beneficial in many kinds of foodstuffs, but it is particularly satisfactory in white fish and herring. If provision for that method is not included in this Bill, I suggest that it might be considered, because I am sure that it would be of the greatest benefit to the industry and the country as a whole. I should like to commend the measure generally to the House.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will all wish me to congratulate my noble friend Lord Macpherson upon his maiden speech. The noble Lord has a long record of interest in business and politics, and I am sure we are all delighted that somebody with his experience is able to spare the time to take an active part in our proceedings. May I say how grateful I am to the House for the welcome it has given to this Bill? I am particularly glad, because I think it will give considerable encouragement both to the industry and the Authority.

I should like to answer some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, and the question which was asked by my noble friend Lord Macpherson. We are just as anxious as Lord Balfour that the provisions of the 1946 Convention should be implemented at the earliest possible moment. As he knows, the difficulty is that certain of the signatories have not yet ratified this Convention for preventing over-fishing in the North Sea. We are doing everything we can to impress upon those countries who have not yet acceded to the Convention the importance of doing so. I took careful note of what the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, said about the important matter of legal principle raised in Clause 18. I agree with him that it is a matter of very considerable importance. As a layman who is not fully instructed, I should not like to put forward a case on behalf of the Government. I should prefer to reserve my reply until the next stage of the Bill. I can assure the noble Lord that between now and then this matter will be carefully examined, not only by our own legal advisers but by the Law Officers of the Crown, and we shall be glad to have his assistance if he cares to discuss the matter with us.

The noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, wanted to know whether the Authority will have power to process fish by quick-freezing them in the ports after they have been landed. I understand that the answer to that question is, "Yes." The words "quick-freezing" are not used, but I am told that in Clause 4 (1) (f) the word "processing" (and processing is one of the powers which will be given to the Authority) includes quick-freezing. Of course, the Authority will not do this, any more than the other things which it is empowered to do. if there are existing facilities for achieving the same object. The noble Lord can be satisfied that in appropriate circumstances, where there are no facilities already, the Authority can do this.

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