HL Deb 08 December 1959 vol 220 cc152-67

6.37 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, before your Lordships embark upon the details of the Sea Fish Industry Bill I trust I may be forgiven for intervening. The past week has brought us grievous evidence of the perilous nature of our fishermen's calling. Your Lordships will have heard with deep regret of the loss, on Sunday night, near Duncansby Head, of the Aberdeen trawler George Robb. I am very sorry to say that all the crew must now, I fear, be presumed lost. There have also been other sad losses of life during the recent violent storms off our coasts. Now, although I have not yet seen the full reports, I have been informed of the loss of the Broughty Ferry lifeboat which was launched early to-day to go to the aid of a lightship. It appears that the entire crew of eight have been lost. I am sure your Lordships would wish me to take this opportunity of expressing the great sympathy of this House with all who have suffered or have been bereaved as a result of these disasters.

6.38 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think I need delay your Lordships long in moving the Second Reading of this Sea Fish Industry Bill. First, I should like to say that I associate myself completely, and so does my right honourable friend in another place, with the statement that has just been made by the noble Lord the Minister of State for the Scottish Department.

This Bill deals with two aspects of fishery policy. It deals with the financial assistance given to the near and middle water and inshore sections of the industry, and measures for the conservation of fish stocks, both of which subjects are familiar to your Lordships. Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill—and I will be as brief as I can—deal with the financial assistance, which takes two forms. There are the grants and loans for the construction of new vessels and the modernisation of old ones; and secondly, there are the operating subsidies, the white fish and herring subsidies. Between them these two forms of assistance are designed to help the industry during the period of transition while the fleets are being modernised.

These arrangements for loans have worked well. The new vessels which have been added to the fleet are in every way a great improvement on those they have replaced. They are more economical to run, they are more efficient catchers of fish, and they provide greatly improved working and living accommodation, which is so necessary for the men who follow this hard and hazardous occupation. But we still have some way to go, for there are still, I believe, some 200 of the old coal-burners in existence and it is clear that the funds authorised by existing legislation for grants and subsidies will not be sufficient to see us through.

In Clause 1 of the Bill there is provision for an increase of £5 million (from £19 million to £24 million) for the operating subsidies for the white fish and herring fleets; and Clause 2 provides for a further £5 million (from £9 million to £14 million) for the construction and modernisation of fishing vessels. These additions should, we hope, see us through and cover subsidy and grant expenditure to 1962 and 1963 when the existing legislation terminates. We are not attempting to look further ahead at this stage, because we should not wish to take any decisions on long-term policy until we have considered the Report of the Fleck Committee which we hope to have before the end of next year.

May I now turn, very briefly, to the conservation clauses, which are Clauses 4 to 8? We all recognise the fundamental importance of effectively conserving the stocks of fish on which ultimately the whole existence of the fishing industry depends. An important new step forward was taken in this field when a Convention was signed this year by the fourteen States, including the United Kingdom, who are concerned with fishing in the North-East Atlantic area. When this Convention has been ratified it will replace the existing Convention which was signed in 1946.

That 1946 Convention provided for only a limited range of conservation measures. It provided for the regulation of the construction and size of mesh of nets and the establishment of minimum size limits for fish. Moreover, some kinds of fish, notably herring, were outside its scope altogether. The new Convention has none of these limitations. It applies to every kind of fish and provides for a much wider range of conservation measures. It envisages the regulation not only of nets but of every type of fishing gear. It provides for the establishment of closed areas and close seasons and also for the regulation of fishing effort: for example, by limiting the number of ships which may engage in fishing or the time they may spend. Finally, in addition to providing for this much wider range of what I might describe as negative measures, in that their aim is to limit or control the drain of fishing operations on fish stocks, the Convention also envisages—and this is an entirely new feature—positive steps to cultivate and increase the natural resources at sea, by such means as the artificial propagation of fish and the transplantation of young fish. The purpose of the conservation clauses in the Bill is to give the Fisheries Ministers the additional powers which they may need to give effect to any measures which it may become necessary for us to put into force as a result of our membership of the Convention.

I do not propose at this stage to go into any further detail on these matters, but there is perhaps one subject which I should mention, and that is the subject of industrial fishing. We in this country have not so far legalised any kind of industrial fishing—that is to say (it is a little difficult to define), fishing for nonhuman consumption, the fishing of very small fish and sand eels for making meal, and so on—and the Government are very conscious of the potential dangers of this practice unless it is properly controlled. But while we should not defend indiscriminate industrial fishing, there may nevertheless be certain types of such fishing which could be permitted, subject to proper safeguards, without endangering either the stocks of fish for human food or the food supplies on which these fish feed. We feel, therefore, that it would be wrong for our legislation to bar the door completely to any sort of industrial fishing, and Clause 6 of this Bill would make it possible for the Government to legalise the practice, subject to whatever safeguards and restrictions might be necessary, if at some future date they decided to do so. The Government do not contemplate using these powers, except, of course, in strict accordance with our international obligations in relation to conservation and after full consultation with the fishing industry.

I might just mention that Clause 9 of the Bill brings the maximum fine for first offences into line with more recent legislation, and that, I think, is all I must say at this stage. The Bill does not, as your Lordships will see, introduce any fundamental change in Government policy. On the financial side it does no more than enable the present arrangements for assistance to the industry to continue for a further period. On the conservation side, while our fundamental aims remain unchanged, the importance of the Bill is that it greatly enlarges the range of measures which may be used to achieve those aims. With these additional measures the Government's hand will be greatly strengthened in securing the international co-operation which is essential for effective conservation. These are purposes which I feel confident will command your Lordships' support. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

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

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, we are much obliged to the noble Earl for his introduction of the Bill, though I must say that, while he has covered the points in heads, it was a good thing, perhaps, that some of us had read the Reports of the proceedings in another place, so that we could get a little more detail than we have been able to get to-night. However, may I say that in reading the Reports of another place my mind goes back over a long Parliamentary experience, and I think there are few subjects that come before Parliament on which there is so reduced an amount of Party controversy as the question of what should be done for our sea-fishing industry. There is no question about that, and the announcement made tonight of the disaster to another trawler and to a lifeboat engaged in rescue work on the same coasts, only emphasises the strong feeling of sympathy and constant anxiety felt about those who have their livelihood in these waters, and persuades us to do all that we possibly can to help them.

It is a curious thing that, whatever side of Parliament we hear from, we never hear very great objections to a subsidy to the private industry of fishing. Of course, we cannot afford to lose sight of the enormous trade resulting from the extension of Government finance to-day for private industry. While I am certainly not going to raise that question in relation to the sea-fishing industry as such, I think we shall have to come before much longer in our present Parliamentary Session to a general debate upon how far Government finance for industry should go without conditions.

As regards the fishing industry itself, there are continuing problems all the time. Apart from anything else, I would always justify some basic public help to the fishing industry and its trawlermen because of their repeated national service to our people, in times of war as well as in peace. No one who has sailed in a trawler on active service during the war, as some of us have done, to observe conditions, or who has any knowledge of the statistical detail of the service in the last two great wars, would doubt how great is the importance—and it still remains and is increasingly important, since probably our main danger in war in future will be from underwater attack—of the training, the life, the experience and the hardiness of the fishermen to our country. I remember in 1940, when we were getting the first real dive-bombing attacks on the East Coast, the tragedy it was then to feel that we had trawlers, coal-burning, frightfully slow, with no armament but the 12-pounder in the bows—a Lewis gun; I repeat, a Lewis gun—against aeroplanes. And so anything that adds to the efficiency, the modernity, of our fishing fleet to-day is something of a national strategic reserve, as well as an aid to the current industry.

With regard to the problems before us, I feel that to-night we are only passing in its final stage, the Bill having already gone through another place, a stop-gap measure. This is, in a way, a pity. We understand that the ground to be covered by the Sir Alexander Fleck Committee is very broad and very deep; but they have been sitting, I think, for two years at least, and I gathered from the debate in another place that we are not likely to get a Report until at least the end of next year. I therefore felt a lot of sympathy with those people who thought that we might have had an Interim Report in the meantime. When we have questions which urgently require to be dealt with, such as those which the Parliamentary Secretary has mentioned—the whole problem of conservation—we ought actively to be doing something about it now; we should not have to wait for a considerable time before we take any further definite steps. I hope that such steps are constantly being taken, though I confess that I do not know of any great ones except that there have been experiments in producing artificially the growth of fish by breeding experiments in the havens, and the like.

But with regard to the general steps necessary to be taken, I thought that the Parliamentary Secretary seemed a little less enthusiastic about the industrial side of it than perhaps some Members of both sides of the House in the other place—I am sure that that was only because he has had to give so much sympathetic attention to the industry of agriculture as a whole; the use of fishing for industrial purposes has such a very great effect, in many ways, upon the agricultural industry that perhaps he was careful in choosing his words. I am sure it did not go any further than that. But I feel that, if you are going to get satisfactory conservation, you have got somehow to get an international agreement which will not unduly restrict the fish-feeding food—the food that the fish breed and grow upon—by overdoing the obtaining of fish for this industrial fish market.

I was not quite clear, reading the Reports of the debates in another place, where the Government really stood upon the nature of the problem at the moment. I saw that two or three of the speakers in another place quoted from a Report which said that they were not wholly satisfied with the stocks, as it were, of fish such as haddock and whiting. When you begin to lose from the ocean stocks of fish of that type—a type so commonly consumed by the people—then it is pretty serious; and if it is a fact that large quantities of those types of fish are being over-fished for industrial purposes, then I think that the matter needs fairly immediate attention.

The other thing which I think is necessary if we are eventually to get the industry on to a firm basis of its own is to try to get some better deal with the intervening processes of marketing and transport charges. When fish is sold in a retail store or from a retail dealer at a price of 2s. 8d., 3s., or 3s. 6d., per 1b., for which the fisherman has perhaps got about 6s. a stone—an enormous difference in the price—that must interfere very largely with the ultimate result of those engaged in the hard and laborious side of fishing itself. Of course, there would be many other ways of reducing the prices if they were properly controlled. I think it is quite evident to anybody who reads about the industry that the whole tendency to-day is for the small man gradually to be squeezed out. The industry is going more and more into the ownership and control of quite substantial combines, or into collective ownership; and, therefore, the expenses which are being incurred between the actual dockside where the fish are landed, to the consumer are perhaps being intercepted on behalf of these large organisations—who, from their very size and their modern knowledge, should be better able than anybody else to arrange for a reduction in the charges, and for a general economy in the arrangements made to get the fish from the fisherman to the actual consumer.

The position of fish in our national life was never better seen than during the course of the wars: and, as to its benefit to health, I must say that I never imagined that we should ever get through a debate on the fishing industry without the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, taking part. He and I have been engaged in debates in another place on the fish industry for 35 or 40 years, but what we shall always remember with a quite nostalgic feeling is the detailed advocacy of the medical advantages of eating herrings as a contribution to physical health—though the price of the herring as I knew it as a lad, in the flush season: about 15 or 16 to the shilling; sometimes more—is very different now that they are sold at a fairly high price per pound. However, the herring is still an extraordinarily valuable food. I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, that I have had two herring meals this week—he used to boast that he had a herring meal nearly every day, I remember—and I found them not only very palatable but very strengthening. Yet, my Lords, what do we find? In the working classes that I knew so well when I was a lad we used also to eat a fish called sprats. But to-day we find that sprats also cost more per lb. in the shops than herrings—which only goes to prove what I have been saying about the cost to the consumer in the markets to-day.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about what the Government are doing now about these matters. Are they doing anything to try to get a better market for the fishermen themselves? Are they going ahead with conservation? Then (I have not referred to it in detail, because I do not want to keep the House at any length) I should like to know whether there is yet any view held by the Government as to the prospects of the Conference which is to be held on the law of the sea, to see if we can get over some of the difficulties which are operating in the case of Iceland and which might well be threatened in other places—such as the Faroes, Norway, Denmark, and the like.

My last word is a word of thanks to the part the Royal Navy, through the Fisheries Department of the Ministry, has played in co-operating to protect our fishermen in the last two or three seasons. It is fundamental. It is one of the duties which has been carried out by the Navy whenever required. Apart from the ordinary fishing inspection vessels, there is the actual protection which has been given. I do want to-night to say a word of thanks to them. I should like to assure the Icelandic people that we do not want to restrict or confine them in any way, or to take away their livelihood, but I feel that they are being extraordinarily exclusive in their present claims, until there has been a real revision of the law of the sea as a result of the World Conference which is being held. If the noble Earl could give us any report on the progress that is being made, it would be helpful. By the way he dealt with the introduction of the Bill, I felt that he was probably not well briefed, but we will excuse him that if he does his best to give us some information on this matter.

6.51 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes, but I should like to associate myself with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, about the series of tragedies which have accompanied the recent storm—indeed, the continuing storm. It reminds us that danger is part of the fisherman's calling, as it is part of the miner's calling; and, alas! we are being continually reminded of that fact. This has been heavy weather for those who go down to the sea in little ships; and I am sure that your Lordships' House will concur with the noble Lord in offering your deep sympathy to the families bereaved.

I should like to correct a possible misapprehension which may have arisen out of a supplementary question which I asked the noble Earl the other day. I asked whether it was worth while going on subsidising the fish industry, if we were going to acquiesce in the relentless destruction of the fishing stocks. The noble Earl replied, quite rightly, that he thought that subsidies were very necessary. But there was a faint implication in what he said that I did not myself think them necessary. I do, indeed; I think that they are vital. But I also feel full of apprehension about the destruction of stocks in the North Sea to-day; and it is to that subject, and to that subject alone, that I intend to address myself this afternoon.

By and large, I agree with the noble Earl—though there may be one or two exceptions—that industrial fishing, as such, is a deadly danger. The Permanent Commission of the International Fisheries Convention reported that: … although there was a reduction in the stocks of whiting and haddock, this was not so substantial as seriously to reduce the yield from these fisheries", and went on to say: A similar conclusion resulted from an experiment in the industrial fishery grounds for young herring in the North Sea. I would simply say that I do not believe it. Scientists are not always right. Very often they are wrong. They predicted a very good autumn fishing off Yarmouth and Lowestoft. It was the worst we have had in this country since the reign of Henry VIII. That limits my confidence in the predictions of scientists. It is the same with economists. They always disagree with each other. Sometimes one section or another is right; but I do not think that we should give them unlimited confidence. For my part, I do not give fishery scientists any confidence at all at the present moment.

I remember the days, some thirty-five years ago, when I first became Member of Parliament for East Aberdeenshire. We were catching 2 million barrels of herring a year, and exporting them all over the Continent of Europe, to Russia, Poland and Germany. This country exported over 500,000 barrels a year to Germany alone, not to mention Russia and Poland; and that in addition to securing ample supplies for the home market. To-day we are thankful for a couple of hundred thousand barrels. Something must have happened to bring about this extraordinary change, because the herring fishing industry is infinitesimal by comparison with what it was in this country twenty years ago, and for a century before that. It started in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and has never, hitherto, dropped back like this. It is now a comparatively minor industry; and it used to be a great one, not only in Scotland but on the East Anglian coast as well.

What can be the reasons? We can blame the tides, and the moon, which has an effect upon herrings, but which somehow or other remains in the sky, and the movement of plankton, and"what have you"; but I know what the cause is, and so do the fishermen whom I represented in another place for thirty-five years. It is the absolutely ruthless trawling of the spawning grounds in the Channel, and the fisheries which take the immature baby fish in millions for industrial purposes in Denmark. I have visited Esbjerg, and I have seen their factories. It is no good telling me that the pulling out every year of millions of immature fish, which has been going on for the last seven or eight years, has had no effect on the herring fishing, and on the stocks of herring in the North Sea. I know it has had a dreadful effect, on the Dogger Bank fishing in particular. This ruthless trawling does enormous destruction among the little herrings lying on the sea bed, and herring heavy with spawn; because a trawl goes down to them and in this respect it is quite different from drift net fishing. The trawling in the Channel by the Belgians and the French particularly, at the late end of the season, has also had a disastrous effect upon stocks. I am sure of this, no matter what the scientists may say.

So far as the white fishing is concerned, the North Sea has been fished out twice in the lifetime of most of us here, and saved by two world wars. It was fished out in 1913, and saved by the First World War; and pretty nearly fished out in 1939, and saved by the Second World War. Now it is being fished out again. I believe (and this is almost the last thing I want to say tonight on the subject of conservation, which occupies several clauses of the Bill) that in some respects the Icelandic dispute is basic. I do not want to sympathise with or approve of all the actions of the Icelandic Government; but I think that to some extent they have seen the need for a complete revision of the fishing laws. They may be a little premature. They may have overdone it a bit, but they have a point. As Sir William Duthie said in another place, the three-mile limit is archaic. It is based on the range of a breach-loading cannon shot, and was laid down heaven knows how many years ago. It has no relevance at all to modern conditions.

Without accepting, in general or in particular, the Icelandic case, I believe that new base lines are now necessary; and should be fixed by international agreement. I think that those base lines—and here I differ from the Icelandic Government—should take particular account of the breeding grounds, both of white fish and of pelagic fish. I think that there are certain things we ought to do in this country. We ought to be a bit tough ourselves, instead of complaining and howling all the time about what the Icelanders are doing. We ought, for example, to close the Moray Firth to foreign trawlers altogether. That is known to be one of the great breeding grounds. I have said this on and off, without the slightest effect, for thirty years. I shall say it for the remaining thirty years of my life; and perhaps thirty years after I am dead something may be done about it.

Apart from the Moray Firth, for which there are unaswerable arguments for its closure, not only to foreign trawlers but to all trawlers, I think that some control should be exercised over the Minch. I think that there should be a close season there, and that some limit should be put on the size of herring caught in the Minch and in Loch Fyne. The Loch Fyne fishery was one of the greatest we ever had in this country, and the quality of the herrings was unsurpassable. One could have lived happily on them for weeks on end, and never have wished to eat anything else. The flavour was supreme, far exceeding that of caviare. They have gone. Why? Because, I believe, no limits have been put on the catching of herrings in the Minch, and particularly in the Loch Fyne area. I think that we might well set a good example by going to this Conference which is about to be held and saying that we ourselves have certain proposals for restriction, in the interests of fish conservation, which we should like to see put into operation.

I would further suggest to your Lordships that the fishery cruisers should be allowed, under any international agreement that may be arrived at, to close all fishing vessels and find out precisely what does go on. They should not merely ask them to wave one net in the air as a sample; but should get aboard and see what nets are under the deck, because I have a feeling that there is a lot of showmanship going on when these nets are asked to be shown and that special nets are produced for the consumption of the fishery cruisers, and the nets that are really used are kept out of sight.

This is, as the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, has said, a"continuation" measure—an interim palliative measure—which continues the subsidies. As such, it is good. We are awaiting the Report of the Fleck Committee, and we are awaiting the Report of the Conference on the Law of the Sea. But we should, I think, be under a delusion if we thought that the Bill as such did anything but fill a gap. It is not the final answer to the problem of our fishing industry. I believe—and I do not think the noble Earl who is to reply will disagree with me—that the forthcoming Conference in the Spring on the Law of the Sea may well decide the fate of the fishing industry in the North Sea, because the preservation of the breeding grounds of both white and pelagic fish seems to me to be essential. This is a common problem shared by ourselves, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium. If the North Sea is denuded of fish, we all go down. Therefore I would conclude my remarks simply by saying that we are all in the same boat—we are all in the same fishing boat—and if it is realised at the forthcoming Conference on the Law of the Sea, which has, after all, very wide terms of reference, that we all fish or sink together, then I believe that something really good may come of it. But I hope Her Majesty's Government will go to that Conference with constructive proposals for conservation, determined to make a success of it.

7.3 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition if I did not speak for long enough. I thought that it was perhaps creditable at this somewhat late hour to be brief, and the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill is very full in itself. This Bill is, as the noble Viscount said—and I am quite unashamed of the fact—a stopgap measure. The finances were running out; the legislation was going to run out in 1962–63 without the programmes being completed, and it was necessary to produce a short Bill to enable us to continue the subsidies. I hasten to assure the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, that I never thought for a moment that he thought the subsidies were unnecessary. Neither of us thinks that the subsidies are unnecessary. I should like to make that quite clear, in case anybody should have misread the record. A stopgap measure was necessary, and we have taken the opportunity in this Bill greatly to increase the scope of conservation powers that may be needed by the Ministers, the Secretary of State and my right honourable friend. We hope that the Convention will shortly be ratified by the 14 nations that are signatories of it (it has already been ratified by the United Kingdom, but not I believe so far by any of the others) and will take the place of the 1946 Convention. We shall then need to have the powers which we take in this Bill to put the conservation measures into force.

Tho noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, asked me whether I would speak of prices and marketing, but I rather doubt whether that arises under this Bill. The White Fish Authority, I am sure, always give this matter their closest attention and will no doubt continue to do so. I doubt if it would be proper on Second Reading—perhaps it might come up on a clause, but I cannot quite see which—to go into that matter in any detail. What this Bill does is to see that the finance for the operating subsidies and the construction and modernisation subsidies is not prematurely cut off. That is the important financial point of the Bill.

Then, the noble Viscount asked me (perhaps he had his tongue in his cheek) whether I would say something about the forthcoming Conference on the Law of the Sea. I am quite unable to anticipate what will be the result of that vitally important Conference. We hope—and we have every prospect of our hope being fulfilled—that there will be a just and lasting settlement at this Conference of these questions of the breadth of territorial waters and the fishery limits.


Who is to represent this country?


I am afraid that I am unaware which particular Ministers will represent this country. But the Government will, as I am sure the noble Viscount will agree, take all the steps that are open to them to achieve a proper, lasting and just settlement of this vital subject. While I am on this matter, may I turn to Lord Boothby's question of fishery limits—the closing of the Moray Firth and so on. That surely is more applicable to that Conference than to the conservation measures in this Bill. The noble Lord will forgive me, therefore, if I do not follow him in detail on the points he raised there.


So long as the noble Earl suggests it.


The thanks of the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, with his past association with the Royal Navy, to that Service for the splendid work it has been doing are most appropriately given. So far as this situation is concerned, I cannot remember the exact words of my right honourable friend in another place, but he said something like this: if the world was a more sensible place, this would never have happened. That is the situation in regard to the trouble that has arisen in the Icelandic regions; and the tolerance of our fishermen and the great forbearance of the units of the Royal Navy are beyond all praise.

I turn now for a moment or so to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Boothy, which were chiefly concentrated on industrial fishing. Either the noble Lord or the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, said that they had been discussing these matters for some 30 years. I do not think, therefore, that anything I have to say is going to alter their continuing arguments, which I hope will go on for another 30 years. Both of those noble Lords are far greater experts on this matter than I am, however well I am briefed—and I have been well briefed. If I did not speak long enough before, it is not because I was not properly briefed—I want to make that plain. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, said:"I know what the cause of the failure of the herring is and I am not going to listen to anybody else's suggestions. I would never believe the scientists or anybody else." So I really think it would be idle for me to try and join in this argument: the noble Lord knows the answer.


If the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting, may I say that I listen to them, but I am convinced that they are wrong.


The noble Earl has listened to so many of them and has still remained unconvinced; so I shall not at this hour attempt to convince him any more. But I must, however, say this. As I said in answer to a Question put last week, the scientific evidence we have is that the industrial fishing, as done chiefly by the Danes at the moment, is not, according to the scientists, thought to be the major reason—may I put it as low as that?—for the decline of these East Anglian herring fisheries.

I do not know whether I have answered all the other points. I am sure that I have not satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, but I set out with no hope of doing that because, as he told us, he already knows the answers. If there are any other questions that I have overlooked and have not answered, I will try to do so by letter later.

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