HL Deb 28 March 1957 vol 202 cc887-96

4.22 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 provide for grants towards the conversion of coal-burning vessels of the near and middle water fishing fleet to the use of oil fuel; to extend the period during which white fish subsidy may be paid; and to provide for the payment of a herring subsidy broadly comparable to the white fish subsidy. The Bill is not concerned with the distant-water fleet, which operates without Government aid, but only with the near and middle water and inshore fleets. The objects of the Bill may at first sight seem rather diverse. But they are all designed to further our consistent policy of creating an up-to-date fishing fleet which can pay its own way after a period of help through subsidy while the old vessels are being replaced by new ones.

A major problem of the near and middle water fleet is the modernisation of the vessels and the replacement of the old coal-burning vessels by modern diesel or oil-steam vessels. To help the industry carry the heavy cost of this programme we have for some years past given grants and loans for new vessels and loans for the work of reconditioning and modernisation. These measures have met with considerable success; vessels built since 1940 now form a quarter of the near and middle water trawling fleet compared with a tenth in 1952. But, with their commitments to the owners of distant-water vessels, the building yards can at best build only about 30 new near and middle water vessels in any year.

However, the conversion of a suitable coal-burning vessel to oil fuel is a much quicker and cheaper operation than building a new vessel. We therefore propose, in order to speed up the modernisation of the fleet, to make grants available for such conversions. Clause 1 thus enables us to pay a quarter of the cost of converting a vessel's boilers from coal-firing to oil-firing or of replacing its coal-fired engine by a diesel one. These grants are available to herring boats as well as white fish boats. They will be administered, like the building grants, by the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board, in accordance with a statutory scheme which your Lordships will be asked to approve at a later stage. In another place emphasis was placed on the importance of seeing that crew accommodation is improved when vessels are converted. I can assure your Lordships that the statutory Scheme will make satisfactory crew accommodation a condition of grant.

The starting date for the conversion grants will be appointed by Ministers. I very much regret that I cannot yet say when this will be, but I can promise that it will be at the earliest moment that the oil situation permits. That will, I expect, be in a matter of weeks rather than months, but your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that, even though the actual work of conversion takes some time, we should be unwise—and unrealistic, in view of the continuing uncertainties in the Middle East—to encourage a start until we are satisfied that our oil supplies are again reasonably secure.

My Lords, I turn to Clause 2. The building and conversion grants are intended to encourage the modernisation of the fleet. The purpose of the white fish subsidy is to keep an adequate fleet in being meantime. We cannot afford to let the old coal-burners go out of existence too quickly; and they would certainly do so if the subsidy expired next March, as it would under existing legislation. Clause 2 extends to 1961 the period for which the white fish subsidy may be paid, and provides for its extension to 1963 if necessary. We hope that it will not be necessary. Indeed, we intend to withdraw the subsidy absolutely as soon as we consider the state of the industry justifies; and I am sure that the industry would not have it otherwise.

Finally, I come to Clause 3 of the Bill. This authorises a direct subsidy to herring fishermen. There are two problems here. The one is the state of the herring stocks. Just as the white fish fleets have been faced with the problem of declining fish stocks, which we are trying to resolve through joint action with our European neighbours, so also there are now disturbing signs of similar difficulties with the Southern North Sea herring stocks. We have started the necessary scientific investigations on an international basis and only this month we held an informal conference with the other European countries concerned to consider the situation. As a result, it was agreed to ask the Govenments to look urgently into what could be done by voluntary agreement to increase the survival of adult herring.

The other great problem of the herring industry is the decline in the number of vessels engaged in herring catching, and the tendency, particularly in Scotland, for the fishermen to turn over to white fishing, which is more congenial to them and is subsidised. The herring industry has, of course, received Exchequer assistance, through grants given to the Herring Industry Board to build oil and meal factories, to subsidise the price they pay for surplus herring, and to enable them to promote research and development. The direct white fish subsidy is, however, a powerful inducement, and it is not surprising that a number of dual-purpose boats have deserted herring for white fish.

The Government have therefore decided to pay the herring fishermen a similar subsidy to that paid to the white fish subsidy, and Clause 3 provides for this. The same time-limits are set as to the white fish subsidy, and the rates to be paid will be fixed by a statutory Scheme which will be subject to your Lordships' approval. The indirect assistance given to the industry by the oil and meal scheme will cease, and Clause 4 provides £17 million (which may be increased to £19 million by Order) as the total sum payable for the herring and white fish subsidy together under the White Fish and Herring Industries Act, 1953, and the present Bill.

I hope the picture I have painted has not seemed a gloomy one. If it has, then I have failed to paint a true picture. The courage our fishermen show in pursuing their arduous calling has become so familiar to us that we are sometimes in danger of forgetting it. Courage, backed by enterprise and the desire for independence, will take an industry far. The fishing industry possesses these three qualities in good measure, and that alone is, I think, sufficient guarantee that the transition to happier conditions will be carried through. The present Bill aims to hasten that; transition and to make it a smooth one. The Bill has had a warm welcome both from the industry and in another place. I trust that your Lordships will give it the same reception. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl St. Aldwyn.)

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Earl has said, this is an uncontroversial Bill which has been welcomed by everyone, including even the Liberal Party, in another place, and I do not think we want to spend much time over it. We are all looking forward keenly to discussions which will take place on the important Resolution to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, and we all wish to have sufficient time for its discussion. I have just one or two comments which I should like to make on the main provisions of the Bill and one or two questions to address to the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn.

Payment of these substantial subsidies to the fishing industry is justified on much the same ground as the payment of subsidies to agriculture. The fishing industry also makes a valuable contribution to our supply of foodstuffs and saves us foreign exchange; and we have a very real responsibility to the owners and crews engaged in this hazardous occupation. While in the case of agriculture none of us can foresee the time when that industry will be able to pay its own way and stand up to the full blast of competition from overseas, I very much hope (and from what the noble Earl has said I believe he shares my hope) that this is not true of the fishing industry. The main reason why it is uneconomic at the present time is because it is using obsolescent ships, and I think we should all expect—and I believe members of the industry would share the expectation—that when the white fish and herring fleets have been modernised the industry will be able to pay its own way.

I do not know whether the noble Earl can give us any idea of how long this process of re-equipment is likely to take or how soon it may be possible to start tapering off the subsidies. From that point of view the present Bill is not at all encouraging. It almost doubles the maximum subsidy permitted for white fish and herring, raising it from £10 million under the 1953 Act to £17 million, with the possibility of a further £2 million up to £19 million by order of the Ministers. It also extends the period of subsidy payments for another five years, to 1963. In another place the Minister said he hoped that the subsidy for converting engines from coal to oil would end in 1961 and that he did not intend this subsidy to be permanent. It seemed rather significant and ominous that the noble Earl did not make the same comment here about the extension of the white fish subsidy or the entirely new subsidy which will be paid for landed herring.

May I say a word about the business of conversion from coal to oil? Many owners of these vessels will be anxious to know the date from which the grant will be paid. It will be fixed by order and I understand that this will depend on the oil position. I had hoped that Her Majesty's Government might be a good deal clearer about the state of our oil supplies than they were when the Bill was introduced in another place, but the noble Earl did not take us much further. He said it was likely that the date would be fixed within a matter of weeks; but could he also say whether, in fixing it, the date may be made retrospective? If the oil supply position is better in a few weeks' time than Her Majesty's Government may expect at the moment, would it be possible to put back the date—I think that can be done in the terms of the Bill—instead of making it a future date or one coincident with the time when this announcement is made?

I should like to make one other point about these conversion grants. Owners will have to satisfy certain conditions in order to get the grant, and these conditions will include reference to the state of the ship's structure—and very properly so—and also to the expectation of life of the ship. But when the Bill was before another place the conditions did not include provision for reasonable accommodation for members of the crew. I feel, and I am sure noble Lords share my view, that every ship that qualifies for this grant should provide a proper standard of comfort and sanitation for the fishermen who man it. Modernisation of the mens' quarters is not only desirable to prevent hardship but is also equally desirable to attract young men into the fishing industry. This is an extremely important matter and I was very pleased to hear the noble Earl say that this would now be one of the conditions to be satisfied before payment of the grant. That is the most important new statement of policy which emerged from his speech and I am most grateful to him for it. I am sure that it will be very well received in the fishing industry.

The only other question I should like to ask the noble Earl concerns the herring industry. As the noble Earl has pointed out, the difficulties of that industry are partly due to the shortage of trawlers and also to the relative absence of fish. Herring seems rapidly to be disappearing from the North Sea. If the old fishing grounds are to be replenished and existing grounds preserved, it is obviously essential to find out why this elusive fish appears no longer to frequent its accustomed habitats. I am very glad that Her Majesty's Government have convened an international conference to study this problem. This conference has already met and I hope that the noble Earl may be able to give us some information about the results of its discussions, because this is one of the key matters. Unless we solve this particular problem and find the reason for the shortage of herring, the herring industry will not have prosperity, no matter how much we may help in re-equipping it. We support this Bill and wish for it a speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to delay my noble friend Lord Killearn, but I should like to say how delighted I was to hear what the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, said about the improvement of accommodation for the fishermen. Those men lead most arduous lives—I doubt whether any men in any industry lead more arduous lives—and we must confess that their comfort and convenience have lagged far behind modern ideas on those things. In connection with this conversion, is any new condition being laid down concerning the provision of life-saving equipment? In fairly recent days there have been very tragic and disastrous accidents to fishing vessels, and I should like to know whether the provision of completely adequate and up-to-date life-saving equipment, in the shape of boats and rafts will be made one of the conditions for qualifying for the grant for conversion.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has given fresh evidence of the fact, of which we are well aware, that there is no subject on which he cannot touch without adding to the enlightenment and entertainment of your Lordships' House. I was a little surprised to hear his slightly jocular reference to the support of the Liberal Party for this measure in another place, for there are perhaps no two Members in another place who have been more effective champions of the interests of the fishing industry in Scotland than Sir Robert Boothby, in the Conservative Party, and Mr. Grimond, the Member for Orkney and Shetland, in the Liberal Party. I know of no member of the noble Earl's Party who has rendered ser-vices to the industry comparable to those of those two men. Certainly, we, in the Liberal Party, support this measure. We are very glad that it has been introduced into Parliament.

There is something in what the noble Earl said about accommodation of the crews, but I would suggest that if he pays a visit to Lowestoft this autumn during the herring fishing season and goes aboard some of the drifters he will be well pleased with the accommodation he will find there. It is interesting to see how well the crews are provided for. Of course, as noble Lords know, this is largely an individualist industry. The boats largely belong to the fishermen themselves and they have seen to it that they are well-equipped, comfortable and thoroughly efficient boats. The old drifters are now giving place to the diesel-engined craft. I am very glad that the Government have found time in their programme to facilitate that important process. Of course, the boats are not trawlers. They go out after the herring, and they are, as I say, largely owned by the fishermen themselves, who look after their boats and ensure that they are very good craft, functionally suitable—to use the modern phrase—for the task which they have to perform. So I gladly join in the welcome which your Lordships have given to this useful Bill.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful for the welcome which all noble Lords who have spoken have given to this Bill. I will try to answer some of the questions which have been put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. He asked me how long it will take to taper off the White Fish subsidy. We hope that it will be possible to cease paying by 1961. The speed at which it can be tapered off will depend on the progress made in modernising the fleet. Naturally, there are a lot of unforeseeable circumstances, such as movements of costs and prices, connected with this matter. But that is our hope, and we sincerely trust that it will be fulfilled. The noble Earl also asked me whether the appointed day could be made retrospective. I do not think there would be very much point in so doing, because since, I think, November of last year, there has been a complete standstill; there has been no conversion going on; nor will there be until this measure has been passed. My right honourable friend said in another place that he hoped to be able to give the appointed day before Easter, and that, if he was unable to do so, he would make a statement in another place before Easter giving the latest information.

Lord Winster asked me about rafts and life-saving apparatus. Of course, all near and middle water boats have to carry life-saving rafts. I think I am right in saying that there are some new regulations made by the Ministry of Transport which will cover this matter. But it is really a Ministry of Transport affair and not ours.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me to enlarge on what I said about the informal conference we convened on herring stocks. This conference was held a fortnight ago, and all seven countries engaged in these herring fisheries were represented. Attention was concentrated on the fisheries for the adult herring stocks in the English Channel and neighbouring areas, which have greatly developed since the war and have lately been showing unfavourable results for all countries alike. These poor results were found to have continued this last season, and the meeting concluded that we could not count on natural recuperation to restore the stocks and that there is cause for anxiety.

All the countries represented therefore agreed to ask their Governments to examine urgently, with their fishing industries and their scientists, what measures might be taken, in the form of a voluntary agreement, to increase the survival of adult herring, particularly on the spawning grounds, where they are especially vulnerable. Our own representatives suggested that in the common interest the major spawning ground in the Channel should be closed to fishing during November and December, when the herring gather there to spawn, and this suggestion is to be considered along with whatever other measures the various countries may wish to propose.

We must not expect too much too quickly as a result of this conference. There is at present no internationally agreed convention allowing for protective measures for the herring, though a new convention covering the North Sea—and all the North East Atlantic—is now being negotiated, and this will cover the herring. Meanwhile, all that is possible are ad hoc agreements, based on the voluntary acceptance of conservation measures by the fishing industries; and we must allow time for the fishermen of all the countries engaged to be convinced that action should be taken before the warning signs lead to wreck and ruin. At least the problem has now been squarely posed, and all the countries have agreed to look it in the face. That is the first step, and it is often the first step that counts most.

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