HL Deb 17 May 1962 vol 240 cc744-57

3.0 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I will be as brief as I can in moving the Second Reading of this Sea Fish Industry Bill, but as it is a Bill which deals with a wide variety of matters of importance to the industry I am sure your Lordships will wish me to give fairly full explanations of some of its provisions. Although there have been a number of Acts connected with the fishing industry during the last decade, these only give us legislative authority to pay white fish and herring subsidies and grants for vessels until May, 1963. The industry is, unfortunately, still in need of assistance, and it is therefore necessary to introduce new enabling legislation.

The Bill has four main purposes. The first, which is contained in Clauses 1 to 9, is to give effect to certain proposals for financial assistance to the fishing industry during the next ten years. These proposals were announced in a White Paper (Cmnd. 1453) of August, 1961, and they followed the Government's consideration of the Report of the Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Fleck, which was published as Cmnd. 1266 in January, 1961. I am sure that at this juncture your Lordships will wish me to pay tribute to the very valuable, comprehensive and lucid Report produced by the noble Lord and his colleagues. The noble Lord has written to me to say how sorry he is that he is not able to be in his place to-day, and I am sure we all very much regret that; I hope he will be able to be present at later stages of the Bill.

The second main purpose of the Bill—this is in Clauses 10 to 18—is to extend Ministers' powers to regulate sea fishing for several reasons, one of which is the need to control fishing for salmon and trout at sea. The third purpose is to introduce certain measures for checking the spread of shellfish diseases and improving shellfish stocks; that is in Clauses 19 to 26. Clauses 27 to 38, the fourth part of the Bill, contain a number of miscellaneous provisions; nevertheless, some of these are very important.

If I may take first of all the first part of the Bill, Clauses 1 to 9 dealing with financial assistance, your Lordships will be familiar with the present arrangements which provide for two main forms of financial assistance—what are known as operational subsidies, and grants and loans for vessels and engines. The arrangements for the payment of operational subsidies have been in force since 1950 and those for the payment of grants since 1953, or, in the case of herring and inshore vessels, since the end of the war. When this Government assistance was originally introduced we hoped that by now the industry would be able to operate without further help from the Exchequer. But for a number of reasons this is not the case.

In the first place, our trawling fleets, including the distant water trawlers which until last year were unsubsidised, have been faced with the loss of some of their most prolific fishing grounds, by reason of extension of fishery limits at Iceland, Norway and Faroe. Secondly, there have been scarcities on the nearer grounds of some of the more important species of fish, notably haddock, whiting and herring, partly owing to natural causes and partly in some cases because of over-fishing. This country has for long taken the lead in promoting international conservation measures, but those measures on which it has so far been possible to secure international agreement, valuable as far as they go, have not gone as far, or in all respects been so watertight, as we should have liked. We are continuing by every means in our power in the appropriate international bodies to seek improvements, but meanwhile the consequences of over-exploitation of stocks remain with us.

The Fleck Committee thought—and we agree with them—that, because of the difficulties facing the industry, a further period of assistance was necessary. They recommended, as your Lordships will remember, that subsidies, based on a uniform percentage of gross proceeds for all sections of the fleet, should be continued for ten years, with a guarantee that subsidies should not be reduced by more than a certain amount in any one year. They recommended also that there should be a system of supplementary payments to meet any special difficulties that might arise in this period. The Committee also recommended that grants and loans for building vessels should be extended to distant water vessels and continued, subject to a review at the end of five years. The 1961 Act which we brought in recently did not extend grants to distant water vessels but only operational subsidies. They thought that there was a reasonable hope that these provisions, together with a number of additional recommendations, would enable the industry to reorganise itself and become self-sufficient and self-supporting in ten years.

The White Paper published in August last year and the Bill now before your Lordships are broadly based on the recommendations of the Fleck Committee, though, of course, there are some differences in detail between our proposals and those of the Committee, which I shall point out as I come to explain the various provisions of the Bill.

My Lords, there is an important distinction between the trawling side of the industry, with its commercial organisation into companies, some of them very large, and the inshore and herring vessels, smaller in size and mostly owned by the fishermen themselves. The larger vessels, defined in the Bill as those over 80 feet in length, land most of the British-caught fish. We think that with the assistance proposed this part of the fleet should become self-supporting in ten years. We have therefore provided in this Bill that the basic subsidy should be reduced each year by a percentage of the rates laid down in the first scheme made under the Bill. Supplementary payments as recommended by the Fleck Committee will be available to meet special difficulties, but these payments will be subject to maxima of £350,000 in any one year and £2½ million over the whole ten year period. For this section of the fleet we have broadly accepted the Fleck Committee's concept.

One difference here is that, whereas the Fleck Committee recommended that grants should not be reduced by more than 10 per cent. in any one year, we propose that there should be a reduction of not less than 7½ per cent. and not more than 12½ per cent. in each year over the ten-year period. A second difference of detail is that we have not accepted the recommendation that the annual rates of subsidy should be based on proceeds. The trawler owners laid very great stress on certainty in the discussion we had with them. Variation of subsidy rates in line with proceeds would mean that the industry would have little idea of the future trend of rates. We thought that this was a valid point and we therefore decided that daily rates should be fixed when the new arrangements came into force and that, subject to the annual reductions, these should be the basis for the rates payable over the whole of the ten-year period. So much for the trawler fleets.

When we turn to the inshore and herring fleets we find a different picture. We did not think it would be realistic to assume that this sector could do without assistance at the end of ten years. We must never forget that such vessels, the smaller vessels, are the main support of many small fishing communities all around our coasts, and a rapid run-down in this section of (the industry could create serious problems of unemployment and, indeed, depopulation.


My Lords, it has already taken place.


Not to the full extent that it could take place if remedial measures were not taken; and they are what this Bill intends to take. Therefore, so far as the smaller white fish vessels and the herring industry are concerned, the intention is to continue subsidies on the existing basis; that is to say, the rates will be determined in the light of circumstances each year. There will be no pre-determined reduction, as there is to be for the trawling fleet, though our aim, of course, is to reduce the extent of the industry's dependence on State support as the years go by.

Grants and loans for all sections of the fleet will also continue, although steps will be taken to see that they do not encourage the maintenance or construction of too large a number of vessels. For the trawler fleet, for instance, we shall adopt a policy of scrap and build—two tons scrapped for one ton built.

I should not like your Lordships to think that in this part of the Bill we are concerned purely with bolstering up the industry by means of subsidies, and waiting for something to turn up. There is a positive and constructive side too. The industry will have to adapt itself to new techniques. We wish to help it by research and experiment. Accordingly, Clause 4 enables grants and loans to the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board to be continued and extended. These will be used, among other things, to finance exploratory voyages to new fishing grounds, to finance trials with new types of gear and so forth. Another example of the constructive measures we envisage is the powers we are giving to the White Fish Authority in Clause 30 in connection with ice-making plants, which should help to improve the quality of fish, particularly at the smaller ports, on which the Fleck Committee rightly laid so much stress. These measures are all designed to enable this important industry to become self-supporting in due course.

I now turn to the second part of the Bill, that is to say, Clauses 10 to 18, which concern "Regulation of fishing for, and landing and commercial use of, sea-fish." This part of the Bill deals with several aspects of the regulation of fishing. The most important of these clauses are 10 to 13, which make alterations in the Government's powers to restrict fishing or the landing of fish, and to require fishing vessels to be licensed. These additional powers should help this country to make conservation measures, particularly within our territorial waters, more effective.

It is these clauses which will enable us to control drift-netting for salmon. This method of catching salmon was virtually not used at all off Scottish coasts before 1960, but since then has increased very rapidly indeed. The number of salmon taken by drift net off the Scottish coast has increased from a negligible quantity in 1959 to some 28,000 in 1961, and it is estimated that already this year—we are only in the month of May—about 35,000 have been caught in this way. Because of this increase there is anxiety about the possibility of damage to salmon stocks and thus to the very valuable salmon fisheries at the river mouths and to the angling interests, which together provide employment for a large number of people.

Your Lordships will recall that we had an interesting debate about this matter in this House on June 22 last year. I think that the weight of opinion was strongly in favour of the adoption of some measures of control. I am glad to be able to say that the Government now intend, when the Bill becomes law, to introduce orders. My noble friend the Minister of State, who will speak later in the debate, will be dealing in more detail with this aspect of the Bill.

I now turn to the third part of the Bill, which contains provisions, in Clauses 19 to 26, to help the shellfish industry. On many parts of the coast shellfish are of great importance to inshore fishermen, and there are considerable possibilities of development. One of the recommendations of the Fleck Committee, with which we agree, was that the Government should take steps to control the spread of shellfish pests and diseases. Power to do so is given by Clauses 19 and 20. Your Lordships will know that some types of shellfish are farmed (if I may use that term) and are cultivated in beds. Not only do these clauses control the deposit of these shellfish but they also provide against the accidental contamination of the beds and the introduction of disease through imports. There are also powers in this part of the Bill to cleanse public fisheries of shellfish pests and diseases, and to restock them, and to give financial assistance to the owners of private shellfisheries to help them to do the same kind of work. These measures should go a long way towards improving the standards of management and increasing the profitability of our shellfish resources.

Other provisions to encourage the better exploitation of shellfish are also largely based on the recommendations of the Fleck Committee. Clause 23 lays down a simpler procedure for obtaining exclusive rights to fish for, or to regulate the fishing for, shellfish. This is desirable because shellfish beds cannot be properly looked after unless they are in the hands of some person or body with exclusive rights to take the shellfish or to regulate the fishing, and we hope that the simpler procedure will encourage applications. Clause 24 clarifies the Minister's right of inspection to ensure adequate exploitation of the rights given. Clause 25 enables grantees of regulated shellfisheries to be given the power to limit the number of persons allowed to fish, in the interests of conservation. It has been found that, even where a fishery is regulated, unrestricted fishing by the public is often harmful to the stocks. This clause was suggested by the Association of Sea Fisheries Committees. Clause 26 is concerned with giving grants and loans to this section of the industry. So much for shellfish.

I do not think that I need to burden your Lordships by referring to many clauses in the fourth part of the Bill, which comprises Clauses 27 to 38. I have already mentioned the powers that will be conferred on the White Fish Authority in Clause 30 in connection with ice-making plants. I could have mentioned Clause 5 earlier—perhaps I should have done. Clause 5 of the Bill empowers us to make grants to the White Fish Authority towards the cost of establishing or operating fish processing plants. This, again, is intended to help the inshore fishermen. There may be some instances where a freezing plant or a canning factory would be of immense help to fishermen and would lead to an increase in local fishing activities, but where the immediate commercial prospects might be such that the investment would not be attractive in the short term. Government assistance may enable the Authority to provide factories or freezing plants in such cases. This power to pay grants applies, as I say, equally to those processing plants and the ice-making plants mentioned in Clause 30.

Finally, the only other point to which I need draw your Lordships' attention on this part of the Bill is Clause 29, which deals with the composition of the White Fish Authority and Herring Industry Board. Your Lordships will remember that the Fleck Committee recommended that these two bodies should be merged into a new Sea Fisheries Authority. But we felt, having considered the views of all interests concerned, which were strongly expressed to us, that the problems of the white fish industry, on the one hand, and the herring industry, on the other, were sufficiently distinct to justify the retention of two separate bodies. We agree, however, that there is scope for greater co-ordination between them and that this would be facilitated by having a larger number of members common to both bodies. Accordingly, with that end in view, we are taking powers to add to the membership of both bodies. We shall also be able, by means of this provision, to add to the number of Scottish members on the White Fish Authority, a step which is acceptable to the Authority and its Scottish Committee, and which will, I am sure, meet with your Lordships' approval and with the approval of the industry.

I have tried to be brief, my Lords, but I hope I have made the outline of this Bill reasonably clear. It is a Bill introduced after long and careful consideration and with the benefit of the advice given to us all by the Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Fleck. It deals with the problems facing our most important and world-famous sea fishing industry, and it deals with these problems, I hope your Lordships will agree, in a comprehensive way. I commend this Bill to your Lordships, and hope that you will agree to give it an unopposed Second Reading.

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

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, it is rare that we can pay the Government a compliment for doing something useful, and it is a real pleasure to be able to compliment the noble Earl this afternoon upon this Bill. It is true that there may be strengths and weaknesses in the 34 clauses, but, on the whole, we think that on this occasion the Government have reached the right sort of balance, and I promise the noble Earl that we shall not delay the passage of the Bill forward to the Statute Book.

May I take this opportunity also of paying my tribute to the Fleck Committee for their painstaking, meticulous and detailed review of every facet of this difficult and complicated industry? Thanks to their voluminous Report—171 pages of closely printed matter—they have left nothing untouched, and I am glad to know that the Government have founded their new Bill on the Report. The Report made it comparatively easy for the Ministry to prepare a Bill for the next stage—that is the next ten years of the development of our fishing industry. I must say, however, having seen the original Bill as introduced in another place, that it is a merciful blessing they had a long Committee and Report stage in that House, because I am convinced that the Bill is to-day infinitely better than it was before it entered either Committee or Report stage. It is, I think, a measure that will commend itself to your Lordships in all parts of the House. One good result of that is that it has reduced my potential speech by at least two-thirds. That ought to be gratifying to every noble Lord in the House! Nevertheless, I am satisfied that this sort of legislation, which has now been current for twelve years, is still necessary and I think that the Fleck Committee, in this very long document, give us all the reasons why.

In 1948 I had the privilege and pleasure of introducing perhaps the first edition of this kind of legislation relating to fish. That was designed to help and encourage owners of inshore, near and middle water fishing fleets to replace or modernise their obsolete out-of-date vessels and to provide better living conditions for the crews—those brave fellows who face the storms so that we may enjoy the fish that they land. My recollection—though I am referring to twelve years ago—is that at that time, of the 850 vessels fishing in these middle, near or inshore waters, about 620 were between 30 and 40 years old; others were even older. The following year similar assistance was provided for deep-sea trawler owners, and, while vast sums have been invested in rebuilding or modernising fishing vessels of every category, from the ordinary small inshore boat to the deep-sea factory trawler, I am afraid that according to this Report there is still a long way to go if our fishermen are to be able to cope with the rapid changes which are taking place in their industry.

I think the whole situation is summed up by the Fleck Committee, on page 151, paragraph 351, of their Report. It is a rather long quotation, and I almost apologise for making it. However, it does contain the real substance of the findings of the Committee and their recommendations. They say, in paragraph 351: Our consideration of the long-term prospects of the fishing industry has led us to the conclusion that the fleet as a whole is unlikely to attain economic operation at its present level and with its present structure, but that with the modernisation of its vessels and the rationalisation of its structure—including an increasingly close connection between the catching and the processing and distributive sides of the industry—there is reasonable hope of its future prosperity. Later, they say: The fleet is moreover facing difficulties which increase the urgency of re-equipping it with vessels more suited to present conditions, while at the same time making it the less likely to continue at its present level of catching while the necessary measures are taken. Then this last part of my quotation is of great importance: The form of the fleet must, we think, be left to the commercial judgment of its owners; but we believe that in order to exercise their judgment effectively they must be assured of a certain minimum level of financial support for the next ten years. That, my Lords, seems to sum up the whole story, the findings of the Committee and their final recommendations. As I understand it, that is exactly what this Bill sets out to achieve.

I should like to congratulate the Minister on this occasion upon taking the long view and extending the period for grants, loans and subsidies to ten years instead of confining it to two, three or four years, which always tends to leave an amount of uncertainty within the industry. These ten years should produce the maximum confidence of all sections within the industry. I personally think that it is a golden opportunity for the industry to work out its own salvation, and I hope that the fishing industry as a whole will take full advantage of it.

On page 158, paragraph 367, the Committee say: … we think it important to stress that unless those engaged in the industry are willing to do a good deal towards putting their own house in order, no amount of help from the Government or from statutory Authorities will assure them of comfortable and secure surroundings. I think that comment ought to be repeated time and time again. If the industry were to imagine that each ten-year period is going to bring a continuation of grants, loans and subsidies that would, perhaps, be misleading itself. Therefore, I hope that the industry will take the warning which the Committee gave. From my point of view I regard the subsidies, grants and loans as an investment in the efficiency of the fishing fleets and an insurance against scarcity of quality fish, which can and will pay good dividends, both to the consumer and to the nation.

The noble Earl has dealt with all the financial readjustments in Clauses 1 to 8, and it would be a waste of your Lordships' time if I were to repeat all that the noble Earl has said. All I need say, therefore, with regard to those clauses is that, in my view, the Government have on this occasion reached the right balance. We also agree, however, with two Amendments in Clause 1, extending the subsidies to vessels engaged in processing and transporting white fish and herrings, caught by vessels registered in the United Kingdom and intended for landing in the United Kingdom; and, secondly, extending the herring subsidy to vessels over 140 feet in length. These and many other Amendments are made in the light of experience gained over the past twelve years, and I think it is right that we should take advantage of experience gained to bring us up to date in a modern, fast moving world.

We also welcome Clauses 10 to 16, which give the Minister power to restrict fishing within all our territorial waters. They also give powers as regards fishing for particular kinds of fish by particular methods, and enable prohibitions to be applied during particular seasons. I think that it is a wise move which the Government have made there. Salmon I shall leave to noble Lords beyond the Border, who cannot know less about it than I do. I know much more about tinned salmon than I know about smoked salmon, which I see only when I am invited out to a lunch or a dinner. I am sure that noble Lords will deal with salmon and migratory trout much more efficiently than I could hope to do.

My Lords, Clause 15 deals with immature fish, and that I regard as a very important clause. But I hope that the authorities will not hesitate to exercise their powers more effectively, perhaps, than they have exercised the powers they had previously. After all, the powers taken in these clauses are not an unwarrantable interference with fishermen as such, but are an effort to avoid diminishing returns or killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

So far as I can recall, this is the first time that shellfish have been dealt with in a sea-fish Bill, and we are grateful to the Fleck Committee for devoting so much of their valuable time to this small but very important section of the industry. While it may represent only a microscopic part of the total value of all fish landed, shellfish can be of vital importance to a minority of fishermen around our coasts. Therefore we welcome the powers to be taken in Clauses 19 to 26, which deal with research, disease and other problems affecting shellfish. We hope that the White Fish Authority will not hesitate to exercise their new powers and help to increase the production of these delicacies.

Although the Fleck Committee reviewed fully the shell-fishing industry—and it is for our joy that they did so, since we know more about shellfish, the value of the catch, where the mussels are, and where the cockles might be than we knew before—they shied when it came to recommending any direct financial assistance. This culminated in a very heated debate in another place, where the Government escaped defeat only by 26 votes, after those in support of some assistance to shell-fishermen had put up a stout case. I cannot help but think that there is a good deal of substance in the shell-fishermen's case, both on economic and social grounds. We ought never to forget that the inshore fishermen are the same men who man almost all the lifeboats around our coasts. They are ever-ready to render service to the nation and to its units, and we ought not to hesitate, if a good case can be made out, to help them in their travail.

The Fleck Committee in paragraph 160, on page 76 of their Report, after saying they would not advocate assistance unless there were reasonable prospects of economic operation, said: It would of course be possible to argue that assistance would be justified on grounds of social need even if economic prospects were poor; but this is not a consideration on which we can comment … So that is one of the recommendations the Government have accepted. I understand, from those who seem to know much more about it than I do, that to provide for the shellfish industry financial assistance on a somewhat similar basis to that provided for inshore, near middle water, and trawler fishermen would cost only about £50,000 a year. The noble Earl will know more about that than I do, but if that is an accurate figure, and the assistance required could be given for so small a sum, then I think it would be well worth doing. That is perhaps one subject to which we might return at a later stage.

Also in another place there were prolonged debates on the need for more welfare provisions, such as baths, washing facilities, canteens and so forth, at our fishing ports. While there was no lack of sympathy for the proposal, even from the Minister, it was established that the White Fish Authority already possessed the power to call together all the elements within the industry, and to discuss and adjust these questions. But my Lords, the Authority must have had the power for ten, eleven or twelve years, and they seem to have done precious little about it. I hope that the Minister, having secured the withdrawal of the appropriate Amendment in another place, will not hesitate to tell the White Fish Authority that they must do something about providing more welfare facilities for fishermen at our docks. After all, we ought to do something to make life sweeter for those engaged in this very smelly industry, and it seems incredible to me that so little has been done over the years. I do not know what the noble Earl would feel like if, having spent six or seven hours among fish, carving them up and carving them down, he then had to travel two or three miles to his home on a public bus, smelling every other passenger almost out of the bus, merely because no such welfare facilities had been provided for him. I am sure the noble Earl would not like it, and I am sure he would not stand for it very long.

If I have refrained from dealing with the details clause by clause, I hope that I shall be excused, but had I done so I could only have repeated almost all that the noble Earl said when moving the Second Reading. I have ignored them not because they are unimportant, but because they were well "brainwashed" in another place. I should like to repeat to the noble Earl that we welcome the Bill; we wish it well, and we shall not hinder its passage from here on to the Statute Book.