HL Deb 07 May 1953 vol 182 cc323-35

3.5 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill which is before your Lordships this afternoon has three main objects: to encourage the rebuilding of our white fish and herring fleets; to provide for the white fish subsidy; and to make further grants to the Herring Industry Board. The fishing fleets may be divided into four parts: the distant water, near and middle water and inshore fleets—all of which fish for white fish—and the herring fleet. The distant water fleet is fully up to date, and the Bill is not concerned with it. I think I might say a few words about each of the others in turn.

The near and middle water fleet consists of the smaller vessels of between 70 and 140 ft. in length which fish off the Faroes, in the North Sea and in the waters nearer home. It is these vessels, together with the inshore fleet, which bring home the greater part of our prime and flat fish. Most of the vessels in this fleet are very old and need replacing. There are at present about 750 near and middle water trawlers, but of these only about 10 per cent. can be called reasonably modern, while 75 per cent. are more than thirty years old. In fact, most of them date back to the First World War. Many of these vessels are rapidly becoming unfit for service; and the strength of the fleet has been steadily declining for many years. In the last year or so the situation has worsened. During 1952, 65 vessels went out of commission, and in the first two months of 1953 the fleet has lost 16 more vessels. To offset these losses, only 10 new vessels were brought into commission last year, and at the present time 13 are on the stocks. Your Lordships will appreciate that, if this rate of replacement is not increased, within a few years the fleet will fall to a dangerously low level.

The trouble is that, for those prepared to invest capital in the fishing industry, the distant water fleet at present offers a surer return than the near and middle water sections of the industry. This is due largely to the over fishing of the North Sea, upon which the near and middle water vessels depend. The cost of building these vessels has very greatly increased and, with falling yields, their prospects are not good enough to induce owners to replace obsolete vessels. As your Lordships will know, the International Over fishing Convention of 1946 has now finally been ratified and the Permanent Commission, which is to be set up under the terms of the Convention, is in fact meeting in London at the present time. I am sure we all hope that those measures already agreed upon in the Convention, together with any other measures which may be adopted on the recommendation of the Permanent Commission, will be effective in restoring the stocks of the North Sea.

But, in the meantime, something must be done to encourage the building of vessels for the near and middle water fleets, upon which, as I have said, we must rely for most of our supplies of the better kinds of fish. It was with this object that the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1951,provided for loans to be made by the White Fish Authority towards the cost of building new ships. Loans were offered to cover up to 60 per cent. of the cost of the vessels, but I regret to say that the response was very disappointing. The Government have, therefore, decided to provide for grants—in addition to loans—towards the cost of building near and middle water vessels, and we hope that these grants will be enough to encourage owners to replace the obsolete ships. The present Bill provides up to a total of £9 million for grants towards the cost of building new vessels for the white fish industry, and of this amount rather more than £8 million is intended for near and middle water vessels. This is covered by Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill, which provide for grants up to 25 per cent. of the cost of building.

The inshore fleet consists of about 670 small vessels. Its contribution to white fish supplies is relatively small, but of high quality; and the inshore fisherman himself is a fine type of man, whose independence and self-reliance we should encourage. The inshore fleet is in better shape than the near and middle water fleet, largely because grants have been paid on new boats under the Inshore Fishing Industry Act, 1945, which expired in 1952. Even so, 30 to 40 per cent. of the boats are over thirty years old and need replacing. About £750,000 of the £9 million provided for in Clause 1 will be used for this purpose. In the case of owners who are working fishermen, we think it right that grants should be provided at a rather higher rate, and the Bill provides for grants to be paid to them up to a total of 30 per cent. up to a limit of £5,000, after which the grant will be paid at the rate of 25 per cent. For working fishermen, we are also proposing to offer grants up to 30 per cent. of the cost of new engines up to a limit of £1,250. This is because the diesel or petrol engines with which these small boats are equipped last only about half the lifetime of the vessel, and without these grants otherwise seaworthy vessels would be laid up.

The third part of the industry, the herring fleet, is in much the same case as the inshore fleet, Of 660 drifters, about 30 per cent. need replacing. Like the inshore fleet, the herring fleet has in part been rebuilt by grants under an earlier measure, the Herring Industry Act, 1944, which also expired last year, but there is still some way to go. Clause 6 sets aside £750,000 for this purpose. Most herring boats are, as your Lordships will know, worked by their owners, and like the inshore fishermen, the owners will mostly get grants at the rate of 30 per cent. We intend that these grants for new vessels shall be supplemented by loans made under the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1951, and the Herring Industry Scheme, 1951, and that both loans and grants shall be made by the White Fish Authority, or, in the case of herring boats, by the Herring Industry Board. These bodies will need additional power to finance loans by borrowing, and Clauses 3 and 7 of the Bill increase the borrowing power of the White Fish Authority and Herring Industry Board by £10 million and £1,500,000 respectively, for a period of ten years. The grants are to be made in accordance with a scheme to be drawn up by Ministers, which will be subject to an Affirmative Resolution of both Houses of Parliament. I have dealt at some length with the question of new vessels because this constitutes the main object of the Bill and forms the substance of the first three Clauses and Clauses 6, 7 and 11. I will now mention more briefly the other principal proposals of this Bill

The first of these concerns the white fish subsidy which we are now proposing to put on a statutory basis. This subsidy was originally introduced in 1950 as a short-term measure for six months only, and has subsequently been renewed at, roughly, six-monthly intervals. It has been paid under the general authority of the Appropriation Acts, and it has cost. on an average, about £1,600,000 a year. Its object is to help the inshore, near and middle-water fleets over the economic difficulties into which they have fallen, largely because of the over fishing of the North Sea. We think that it will be a few years yet before we can dispense with this subsidy, and for this reason we feel that it ought to be given specific statutory authority. Clause 5 of this Bill accordingly gives Ministers discretion to pay a subsidy during the period ending in March, 1958, up to a maximum of £7,500,000, with power to increase this sum up to £10 million by Order, subject to Affirmative Resolution in another place. The subsidy payments are required to be made in accordance with a scheme subject to Affirmative Resolution in both. Houses.

Finally, I come to the grants to the Herring Industry Board. In Clause 8 we seek power to make grants of a further £1,500,000 to the Board during the next ten years. The greater part of this sum is needed for financing the Board's scheme for converting surplus herring to oil and meal. Under this scheme the Board pay a guaranteed price to the herring fishermen for herring for which no other market can be found, and arrange for its conversion to oil, mainly for margarine production, and. meal for use as an animal feeding-stuff. The price offered though well below the price fetched in other markets, is invaluable to the fishermen in assuring him a minimum return on his catch, and by doing so encourages him to go all out for maximum production, instead of hedging against bad markets by laying up his boat from time to time, or indeed, by dumping part of his catch. This scheme at present runs at a loss and the grants have been used mainly to underwrite the losses. The losses are largely due to the need to spend heavily on transporting the herring to conversion factories which are far away from the ports. Our idea is that the scheme will become self-supporting when the Board have erected their own plants at the herring ports, with the help of grants from the same source. The Board already have three factories working but their programme is not yet complete; and until it is, grants will be needed to complete it and bear the losses on operating the scheme meanwhile.

The remaining clauses deal with matters of detail and I need not detain your Lordships with an account of them, though I shall be glad to answer questions on any points which may not be clear.

This Bill carries a stage further the work which was begun earlier under the Herring and Sea Fish Industry Acts. Perhaps it is on a modest scale, but I feel justified in claiming that it is fundamentally important to the fishing industry. It is in essence a rescue operation but if, in combination with the earlier measures, it is successful it will restore the home water fleets to their former greatness. The Bill, I may add, had a good reception in another place, where it passed through all its stages with only one Division, on a minor point. I trust that your Lordships will show the same unanimity in welcoming what I regard as a highly desirable and useful Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Carrington.)

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, this is not a contentious Bill but, as the noble Lord opposite has just said, it is a Bill of fundamental importance, because on its provisions will depend the livelihood of the many people at present engaged in our fishing industry. We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for the full account which he gave of the contents of the Bill and the reasons why the Government have promoted it. It is not contentious, because it is one of the examples, with which we are now familiar, of continuity of policy over a long period of years and at times when different Parties have been in power There is, I am glad to say, continuity of policy in regard to the fishing industry. When my Party were in office, we found it esential to give financial assistance to the herring fleet, and also to the other parts of our fishing fleets which work off our coast and in adjacent waters, because we realised as clearly as noble Lords opposite that these sections of our fishing industry could not be kept going on purely commercial lines. Therefore, when we were in power we passed legislation to authorise assistance from public funds. The present Bill simply carries on this work. It proposes to provide more money by way of grants or loans for the same purposes.

I should like to say a word about the broad policy behind this measure. Although some noble Lords may disagree, my feeling is that it is not possible to justify the subsidising of the white fish industry on the ground of the requirements of our food supply. I do not think that is in itself a sufficient reason. Most of the fish consumed in this country comes from distant waters. The loss of the better quality fish which we get from adjacent waters would be small in quantity, and I cannot imagine that we should not manage to import at least as much food with the money which will be paid out in the form of a subsidy. We all like sole, turbot, halibut and so on, but these are luxuries and not part of the ordinary diet of our population. Surely the real justification for a Bill of this kind, with the very considerable expenditure of public money which it involves, is on defence, social and humanitarian grounds. Our fishing fleets are the reserves of the Royal Navy, and everyone remembers the splendid and hazardous work which the men who man these vessels did in two world wars. A serious reduction in the number of our fishermen or of their vessels would weaken the defences of our coastal waters. Of course, conversely, the better equipped our fishing fleets become—as we hope they will become, under the provisions of this Bill—the more effective they will be in the event of another war.

The humanitarian or social reason for this measure is that without it many villages on the coast of England and Scotland would, in the course of time, lose the best part of their population. In most of these fishing villages there is no alternative employment, and if the able-bodied men were not able to go out in their trawlers and bring in fish the inhabitants would simply drift away into the towns in search of work. I hope, therefore, that if the need for subsidising this large section of the fishing industry continues, as it may well do, for some time, we shall continue to support it on the grounds which I have given, regardless of Party and without looking for a commercial return. I think it is important for the stability of this industry and the security of the men who work in it that they should know that this support will continue, whatever Party may be in power.

There are two matters of rather special importance arising out of this Bill to which I would draw your Lordships' attention, and about which I should like to ask questions. And perhaps the noble Lord may be in a position to reply when he winds up. I believe that we shall all agree that if these near and middle sections of our fishing industry are ever to become self-supporting—and we all hope that we shall not have to continue to subsidise them indefinitely—we must stop the over-fishing which is at present depleting the stock of fish in these adjacent waters. Over-fishing is the real source of our difficulties. I realise that the main problem here has been to get international agreement, and here I should like the noble Lord to give me some information. I believe that there is no general agreement yet about the introduction of a minimum size of mesh for nets. I do not know whether that point is covered by the North Sea Convention, to which the noble Lord referred, and I should like to know whether it is. I should also like to know whether agreement has been reached about this vital measure of prescribing the minimum size for the mesh of nets, and, if not, when such agreement is likely. I hope that if general agreement is not reached with the other countries concerned with fishing in these waters we shall set an example by obliging our fishing fleets to stop this destruction of immature fish. If, as a result of the passing of this Bill, we get a large number of much more efficient fishing trawlers, and this destruction of immature fish continues, the depletion of the stock of fish in these waters will become even worse.

The other matter about which I feel some doubt, and about which I should like to ask the noble Lord opposite, is whether we shall have sufficient control over the spending of these large sums of public money involved under the provisions of this Bill. It appears to me, from the terms of the Bill, that once a grant or loan has been made to a fishing company by a public authority which advances or gives the money, this public authority has no further say in its use. I wonder whether the Government would consider the desirability of the White Fish Authority, for example, being able to take shares as a condition of making a grant of money. I am not suggesting that the Authority should acquire a controlling interest—I do not think that is in the least desirable—but it might at least have a representative on the boards of some of the larger fishing companies. This would enable the White Fish Authority to be fully informed and to exercise some influence, at least over the expenditure of the money it advances. I believe that a procedure is required—not necessarily, of course, the procedure I have suggested—that would give public authorities more say in this partnership, which in itself is quite admirable, between public and private enterprise in the fishing industry. I hope that we may succeed in expediting this Bill and that it will receive here the common consent which it received in another place.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, I was glad to hear the noble Earl who has just spoken welcome this Bill and ask for it to be expedited. I would add my voice to that plea. I welcome the Bill very warmly and hope that it will pass through all its stages in this House, and become law, as quickly as possible. I do so for a specific reason. The Bill is retrospective to July 31, 1952, and a number of boats have already been laid down and are in building in expectation of this Bill. If the Bill is rapidly passed through its stages, it will release a good deal of capital for the fishing season which is just commencing.

With one point which the noble Earl made I do not agree. I regard this Bill as of great importance, because the food which we get out of the sea that lies at our door saves our importing from overseas other foods which cost dollars. Therefore, quite apart from the social consequences, which I entirely endorse, there is an economic reason for supporting the fishing industry. At the same time, there is one point which I hope will be particularly cared for in the administration of this Bill; and it is this. Towards the end of the period of office of the late Government and the commencement of this Government, the funds at the disposal of the Herring Board appear to have been exhausted. As a result, a great many fishermen who had been away serving their country during the war, who had come back and resumed fishing with their own old vessels, and who wished to get them renewed, were unable to get grants from the Herring Board, although other fishermen who had remained to carry on the business of fishing during the war had succeeded in getting grants. That led to a considerable amount of feeling amongst the men who had been refused grants: they felt that they had had rather hard measure, though no doubt it was dictated entirely by the financial stringency of the situation facing the Government. I do plead that war service should never be disregarded in the case of competent fishermen who are seeking assistance in building their boats.

There are one or two points in the Bill about which I should like to ask my noble friend and to which I should draw his attention. One is in connection with the provision of engines, dealt with in Clauses 1 and 6. I do not know whether Her Majesty's Government have considered the fixing of a period of time for the life of these engines before a grant for replacement is made. If something of this sort is not done, it is quite possible that fishermen who are careless of their engines will be subsidised at the expense of the rest. Then there is the question of working owners. There are many small associations which have been formed for working these vessels—and, I think, in some cases small limited companies also. It is not clear whether the Bill provides for these small companies and associations to qualify as "working owners." I should be glad of some explanation on that point from my noble friend. It is quite common to have partnerships, but there are these small companies which also are a kind of partnership.

Then, I ought to express a fear which has been indicated to me from the trade on the question of the White Fish Marketing Fund. Under the Bill, that Fund is to be wound up in ten years' time, and some sections of the trade would appreciate more information on this point. They are afraid that the system will be so embedded in the administration that the termination of the scheme in ten years' time will be impossible. There is a small point which I should like to mention, and that is the question of the mackerel fishermen. They are not a very large body of men but they are fishermen, and we do not know whether they are included as herring fishermen or as white fishermen. I am sure that they themselves do not know and they would like the point clarified.

In conclusion, I thoroughly endorse what has been said about over-fishing. I want to point out that the cure is two-fold: first, by increasing the number of fish, and secondly by not fishing them so heavily. I remember the condition of things which existed on our coast more than sixty years ago—or, at any rate, I have heard of it—and I am quite convinced, from facts that have come to my personal observation, that the breeding and feeding grounds of our fish are becoming much reduced. This is a matter which will be of the greatest possible concern to the country in the future, because, as it becomes more and more difficult to secure certain supplies of food from overseas, so the fisheries of our coast will be of more importance to our population. In particular connection with that, I would say that I think it is a scandal that foreign trawlers can come and fish the Moray Firth as they do. The Moray Firth is one of the best feeding and breeding grounds for fish on all our coasts, and in my opinion steps ought to be taken to safeguard the Moray Firth as a breeding and feeding ground for fish. If other countries are able to secure the fisheries off their coasts we ought to be prepared to do the same. The three mile limit has already gone by the board. The feeding of our grandchildren may depend very much on our taking time by the forelock. With those few words I should like to welcome the Bill very warmly and to wish it a speedy passage into law.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, for the way in which they have received this Bill. I am most grateful to them for the helpful remarks they have made. I think the noble Earl rather underestimated the importance of our food supplies from middle water and near water fishing fleets. It accounts for 30 per cent. of the fish we consume. I do not think that that can be written off as of no great importance to our supplies of food. The noble Earl asked two questions. One was whether we had reached agreement with other member nations of the North Sea Convention on the size of mesh. We have done so: we have all agreed upon this; but it will not come into force until next year or until such time as the fishing gear winch is being used is out of action. Otherwise, all this new kit would be wasted. The noble Earl also asked about the control of the spending of grants under this Bill. The answer is that this Bill is only the framework under which schemes are going to be made; there will, of course, be conditions upon which these grants will be given. I think the noble Earl will find that the conditions will be such that the White Fish Authority will be able to keep control over the money granted by them. I do not think it would be a good idea for us to adopt the noble Lord's suggestion for controlling these grants. The White Fish Authority would not wish in any way to interfere in the management of private companies.

The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun seemed a little worried about the grants of up to £1,250 for engines. He thought they might be misused; that some fishermen were careless about their engines and that those who were thus careless would get more benefit than those who were thrifty. The White Fish Authority will have a discretion to refuse or grant sums of money for new engines; and I think that on the whole it is better to leave it to their discretion rather than to put such a provision in the Bill. After all, all engines are not alike; some wear out more quickly than others; some fishermen use their boats more than others, and the engine, therefore, wears out more quickly. It is therefore difficult to put the matter in the Bill and limit it.


That is what I wanted to hear. None of that has been said. That is exactly what is required.


We are both pleased with ourselves. The noble Lord asked me about the question of working owners and whether it would be possible to extend the term "working owners" to cover small limited companies. The reason we have given working owners a rather higher percentage of grant is that they not only take the business risk entirely themselves but also share in the danger of the job. They are in a particular category and we think should be encouraged. It would be difficult to draw an exact definition; many of these owners, large and small, are not doing very well at present, and they might feel a little badly done by if we divide them into two classes. I think it is better to leave it simply as "working fishermen." The noble Lord also asked about the White Fish Marketing Fund. I think that that is rather a misleading title. The Fund is not, in point of fact, what it sounds like; it is really an accounting device employed by the White Fish Authority to draw their working capital. It will not necessarily be used for marketing. It is the working capital fund of the White Fish Authority.

The noble Lord suggested that help should be given to the export trade by advertising and things of that kind. He may have noticed that the White Fish Authority are in fact advertising fish in the country at the present time. Probably some of your Lordships have seen the advertisements. The Authority are now considering whether any similar action is needed overseas. I have not heard that the fish exporters have had any difficulty in obtaining credit for their businesses through the ordinary banking channels, but the White Fish Authority have the power, if necessary, to enable them to provide credit for fish exporters, and at the same time exporters will, of course, have the benefit of the facilities afforded by the Export Credits Guarantees Department. I think those are the only questions my noble friend asked me.


There was the question of the mackerel fishermen.


Yes, the mackerel fishermen. By definition, a mackerel is a white fish and not a herring.

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

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