HL Deb 21 November 1961 vol 235 cc800-6

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the White Fish and Herring Industries (Grants for Fishing Vessels, Engines and Conversions) (Amendment) Scheme, 1961, be approved. This Scheme will affect the previous Schemes of 1955 and 1957. The 1955 Scheme, which was known as the White Fish Industry (Grants for Fishing Vessels and Engines) Scheme, revoked entirely the earliest of this series of Schemes, that of 1953, when the payment of grants in order to encourage the acquisition of new fishing vessels and of new engines was initiated. The grants were, of course, continued under the 1955 Scheme but the period of control over grant-aided vessels was extended. In 1957 the White Fish and Herring Industries (Conversion Grants) Scheme provided grants for the conversion of engine boilers in fishing vessels from coal-firing to oil-firing.

The grants paid under these Schemes were made to the vessels of the middle water fishing fleet but not to those of the distant water fleet and therefore the distant water vessels were protected against unfair competition by means of restrictions being placed on the grant-aided vessels. These grant-aided middle water vessels were not allowed, and still are not allowed, to make more than three voyages to distant waters in one year and those voyages must be made in the 6-month period March to August. Any infringement of this regulation imposes an inescapable duty on the White Fish Authority to demand repayment of the grant wholly or in part, according to the number of years that have elapsed since the grant was received by the offending vessel.

It is now proposed in this new Amendment Scheme, for which we are asking approval this afternoon, to give the White Fish Authority powers to waive the penalty clause in the 1955 and 1957 Schemes. In fact it is proposed that the White Fish Authority need not demand repayment of grants, either wholly or in part, from any vessel exceeding three voyages a year into distant waters. However, my right honourable friend the Minister does not intend that this concession shall be unlimited, and he proposes to put it to the White Fish Authority that it should not make any claim on these vessels up to five voyages instead of the present three. Both the British Trawlers Federation and the White Fish Authority have agreed to this concession and also to its limitation in the manner stated. Furthermore, these voyages will be permitted at any time of the year and owners will be allowed to transfer entitlements to voyages between their own vessels if they are over 105 feet in length and are at the same port.

There are two reasons why this Amendment Scheme may be considered both necessary and fair. It is necessary because the middle water vessels, particularly those fishing the Faroes, have done very badly in recent months and therefore they are anxious to extend the possibilities of improving their catch by being allowed to fish more often in distant waters. The Scheme is fair because in the first place the middle water vessels will be able to voyage into distant waters only five times a year before incurring any penalty, and in the second place because distant water vessels are included in the Sea Fish Industry Bill, which was given a Second Reading in another place last week, and they will, when that Bill is passed, be eligible to receive grants, in which case there will be no cause to complain of unfair competition.

There is only one more point which I think requires some explanation. Legislation will be required in order to enable the White Fish Authority to vary the terms of the agreements between owners and themselves relating to the conditions upon which grants are made. This legislation is provided for in Clause 27 of the Sea Fish Industry Bill to which I have just referred. Nevertheless it will be some time before that Bill can be passed, and in the meantime the matter of relief for the middle water vessels is urgent. Therefore my right honourable friend has resorted to the present method; that is to say, the presentation of an Amendment Scheme coupled with agreed instructions to the White Fish Authority, as a way of giving immediate relief. My Lords, in all the circumstances I trust that all your Lordships will now approve this Scheme. I beg to move.

Moved, That the White Fish and Herring Industries (Grants for Fishing Vessels, Engines, and Conversions) (Amendment) Scheme, 1961, be approved.—(Lord Hastings.)

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might just ask my noble friend two questions before we approve this Order. First of all, is it the normal practice for public money to be given away by Special Order?—which is what this amounts to—because, although the trawlers have already received the money, had they transgressed against the number of trips allowed, or anything else laid down, when they originally received the money they would have had to repay it. It seems to me undesirable that there should grow a practice of public money being spent by Special Orders. Secondly, I was wondering whether this system applied with any other subsidies, such as agriculture or cottage improvement grants, and whether the duty to repay money if you transgress against the conditions under which it has been given to you, can be rescinded in those cases.


My Lords, speaking personally, and I think for those on this side of the House, I am rather pleased with this amendment. It is not an extremely important or serious amendment, but it seems to me to be a rational and commonsensical one which will undoubtedly make the administration of this form of assistance to trawlers rather more simple and more just. For that reason we are glad to see it. But I do not think that we should lose sight, particularly at this stage, of the main objectives of the main scheme of assistance to trawlers. After all, as I understand it, it is something which is being done in order to assist a section of the industry which is, and has been for some time, going through a pretty difficult time. But the main object is surely not to assist the industry itself but, in the long run, to assist the consumer; in other words, to bring about a state of affairs where more and better and cheaper fish will be brought into this country. I think that this is a step in the right direction. As the Fleck Committee quite rightly pointed out, it should not be something which is a permanent subsidy which goes on indefinitely, but something which is going to help the industry once more to get on to its own feet after the difficulties of the postwar period, and to fulfil its services.

But I think there is one point which is worth remembering here—namely, that in spite of such assistance as has already been given to the trawler industry this country is one of the countries with the highest cost of fish in the whole of Europe. Figures which were prepared by the International Labour Office (how they arrived at them I must confess I do not know) show that last year the average price of fish in this country was only a fraction below 3s. a lb.—in fact, 34.95 pence per lb.—whereas the price in the European country with the cheapest fish, not far away, the Netherlands, was just under 1s. 6d. a lb. In other words, it was only about 50 per cent. of our price. The average for the E.E.C. countries was 2s. 6d. a lb. That should make us wonder whether what is being done for the trawler industry to-day is in fact being effective; whether it is enough, whether it is working in the right direction, and whether there are not other things that we could do in order to ensure not only a reasonable living to the people who are engaged in what is at times an extremely unpleasant, and at other times an extremely dangerous, occupation, but also that when fish comes to the table it is going to be cheaper fish.

At this stage, I would urge the Government once more to consider on this Bill the question of the three-mile limit. A great deal of fish is now being taken from British territorial waters by people who are coming along the three-mile limit. When one is so close inshore it is difficult to distinguish a matter of one-tenth of a mile one way or the other, either deliberately or entirely in error, especially in foggy weather, without up-to-date navigational aids. I wonder whether we cannot, like some other countries, extend our limit. That would give inshore fishermen, particularly, a far greater opportunity than they have at present. In conclusion, I would say that this minor amendment seems to us a worthwhile amendment, and we welcome it.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies I should like to ask two questions about this particular Order. The first one arises from what the noble Duke opposite said a moment ago about payments. I understand that the Accounts for the White Fish Industry are not yet public. But I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell us what part of the amount of money provided for by the original Act of 1953 has been expended by the White Fish Industry, and what amount, if any, has been refunded by those owners who have misread the three journeys to the North. The original Act provided that the money should be paid out of the Exchequer and refund should be made to the Exchequer if one were in defect. I should like to know something on that particular point of amount. So far we have been referring only to the White Fish Industry. The original Act provided also for the herring industry. I wonder whether this provision will arise in regard to the herring industry as well as to the White Fish Industry.

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the three noble Lords who have shown interest in this Amendment Scheme. If I may first of all deal with the point raised by the noble Duke, he was suggesting that my right honourable friend was giving away public money by Special Orders, arid he was querying whether he had the right to do so. Of course that is not really the fact in this case. What my right honourable friend is doing is merely excusing the White Fish Authority from demanding repayment. No more money is being given out; it is merely a question of extending the possibility of making a waiver so that the penalty clause should not come into operation. There is a clear difference between that and what the noble Duke suggested. I would point out, of course, that the main Bill, the Sea Fish Industry Bill, which will be coming before your Lordships' House in due course, and in not too long a time, has this clause which will put the legislation on a proper footing. This is only a makeshift order to give temporary relief where it is due until the whole matter is settled in conjunction with the rest of the Sea Fish Industry Bill.

In regard to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, I think the answer to be given in the short time available to me is that practically the whole of what is permitted has been expended and that there have been few compulsory refunds. As for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, I am grateful to him for his general approval and welcome of this scheme, which he recognises as a mere amendment of a minor nature pending a review of the whole industry. His speech ranged over wider topics which there will be a full opportunity to discuss on the Sea Fish Industry Bill. It will be possible then to thresh out much more fully many of these points—as for example, that this is a high cost fishing country, what is proper for the fish industry itself, the question of the three-mile limit. All such matters will, I think, properly be discussed when the Sea Fish Industry Bill comes here. Therefore, I hope he will excuse me if I do not follow him into a lengthy discussion on this rather small scheme which we are now asking to be approved.

On Question, Motion agreed to.