§ 2.15 p.m.
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD (EARL. ST. ALDWYN)
My Lords, grants towards the cost of building new fishing vessels, and of installing new engines in older vessels, have been paid by the White Fish Authority for the last two years under the White Fish Authority (Grants for Fishing Vessels and Engines) Scheme, 1953. The Scheme covers the inshore, near-water and middle-water fleets. The new scheme now before your Lordships makes certain changes in the conditions under which the grant may be paid and received. These changes have been agreed with the industry and with the White Fish Authority. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the White Fish Industry (Grants for Fishing Vessels and Engines) Scheme, 1955, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday, the 13th instant, be approved.—(Earl St. Aldwyn.)
§ LORD WISE
My Lords, before approval is given to this Scheme I wish to raise one or two points from this side of the House. We believe that the Scheme will be beneficial to the working owner and we therefore approve it. From what I have read of the Scheme it appears to help those owners already in the fishing industry and also those wishing to start. But I should like to raise the question of limitation of grants. Noble Lords will notice that under the Scheme the smaller owners will receive only three-tenths of the cost the remainder of the money will have to be found by them. Grants for the acquisition of larger ships may reach a sum of £25,000, as against the much smaller sum of £5,000 for smaller vessels. The grant of three-tenths may be insufficient for small owners who have to provide the remaining seven-tenths of the money.
Then, do I understand from the reference to the period until 1963 that the Scheme will definitely cease in that year, or is that merely the intention at the moment? The noble Earl may also be able, in his reply, to help me in regard to the question of the transfer of a vessel on the death of an owner. Under the Scheme, where there are joint owners one owner can benefit and the other may not do so. Suppose that the owner who benefits under the Scheme dies, and the vessel is transferred to the remaining part-owner. Do the Authority, in those circumstances, take action to recover the vessel, or is ownership automatically transferred to the other partner? Also, should a small owner die, a vessel owned in conjunction with the Authority may have to be sold for estate duty or other purposes. I am wondering whether, in those circumstances, there is any provision for the widow, or relatives, of an owner of a vessel to continue under the same terms as the original owner, although, in fact, they may not themselves be working owners at the time that the working owner died.
Subject to these comments, I believe that the Scheme will be beneficial. I notice that in another place it had the 954 approval of the Minister and of those Members connected with the fishing industry. I am sorry that I have not given the noble Earl notice of this point, but perhaps he may be able to give me some information. Replying to a Question in another place on June 23 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 542 (No. 13), col. 1492] the Minister said:I am delighted at the progress being made in building modern trawlers with efficient equipment and good accommodation for the crews"—that is important, of course—and that this progress has been facilitated and considerably encouraged by the loans and grants scheme.I wonder whether the noble Earl can tell us how much has already been spent under the original Scheme, how many vessels have been covered by that amount, and whether, in fact, the Scheme has been carried out as well, as ably and as beneficially as the Minister suggested in his reply.
§ 2.20 p.m.
§ LORD GRANTCHESTER
My Lords, yesterday we heard from the noble and learned Earl who leads the Labour Opposition of the value which an Opposition should have in this House. Today the Labour Opposition is not in opposition to, but is in support of, Her Majesty's Government, in regard to the subject matter of this Order. It therefore falls to us on these Benches to say a few words in questioning the wisdom of the Order. The cost falling upon the taxpayer in respect of subsidies to the fishing industry has been continually rising and I think it is now about nine times what was originally intended. So far as fishing vessels and engines are concerned, it started with loans and has since degenerated into grants. Until this latest Order any grant was repayable on the sale of a vessel. Now, even if the vessel is sold, repayment may be waived at the discretion of the Authority. Moreover, the Authority are granted new powers to enable them to accept or reject, at their discretion, any application for a grant of the taxpayers' money. The taxpayers' money is there put outside the control of Parliament. Surely if the taxpayers' money is to be given away it should be given away by Parliament, and this power should not be delegated to any authority, certainly not to an authority which is primarily concerned with trawler owners or their agents, their wholesalers, whose 955 interests must be at variance with those of the consumer. If Parliament is to make gifts, surely they should be made subject to definite, clear and precise rules, and should not be at the arbitrary discretion of anyone outside.
Subsidies are granted under other Orders to provide guaranteed returns from the use of fishing vessels. I think that next Tuesday we are to have one of them brought to our notice. Is not this sufficient inducement? Is it necessary or desirable to subsidise the purchase or fitting out of vessels in addition? It is not done in the case of tankers, for which a case might be made just as easily. I should like to know whether the cost of all these subsidies is not much greater than any advantage which accrues to the consumer in the form of reduced prices, for the fish he buys. Has not the time come to call a halt to these subsidies, to these grants, for the purchase of fishing vessels, and to leave the purchaser to finance his purchase in the market on purely commercial considerations, like any other trader? No attempt is made to make out a case for the continuance of these particular grants, and in the absence of such a case we feel that this practice should cease.
§ 2.24 p.m.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wise, asked me what happens in the event of a widow succeeding to the part ownership of a boat, and whether the grant can be transferred. The answer is that the White Fish Authority have a discretion to transfer the grant on the death of a part owner to anyone whom they consider to be suitable as a further part-owner. A widow is certainly eligible. The noble Lord said that this Order has been dealt with in another place already. In fact that is not so.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
I am sorry. I misunderstood the noble Lord; I thought he was referring to this particular Order. The position is that of the £9 million which was made available under the White Fish and Herring Industries Act, 956 1953, up to now £1,956,144 has, in fact, been approved in grants, and they cover some eighty near-water and middle-water vessels, 192 inshore vessels, and 140 replacement engines for inshore vessels. That involves some 30 per cent. of the near-water and middle-water fishing fleet. There is still some 70 per cent. which is over thirty years old, and needs replacing. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, raised some points about this money. As I have pointed out to the noble Lord, Lord Wise, this £9 million is available under the Act. The money was appropriated by Parliament for this purpose. It is not a question of Parliament's not having control. Parliament earmarked it some two years ago.
§ LORD GRANTCHESTER
If the noble Earl will pardon my interrupting him, may I say that there are no definite rules under which this money should be paid and under which it is paid. It is left to the discretion of a body other than Parliament to decide in a particular case whether money should be given or not. That, to my mind, is not correct.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
I think it is fairly common practice. Parliament cannot deal with each individual vessel whose owner makes application for a grant.
§ LORD GRANTCHESTER
Parliament can lay down rules and regulations under which a grant should be made. Parliament can define the terms. It is this present practice to which I have referred which is not desirable. To say that it is done in other cases is surely no answer.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
The White Fish Authority are not, as the noble Lord appears to think, biased on the side of the fisherman. They are a body who are responsible for seeing to the supply of white fish as well as for looking after fishermen. And, of course, there is the White Fish Advisory Council, a body which contains representatives of every section of the industry and of the consumers also. If I may go back to the noble Lord's point about regulations for giving these grants, I would say that there must be reasonable discretion to an authority to make a grant and assist fishermen as and when they think it necessary. Someone has to take responsibility. We cannot lay down the procedure too tightly.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.