HL Deb 19 July 1963 vol 252 cc393-9

11.6 a.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Herring Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1963, a copy of which was laid before Your Lordships' House on July 4, 1963, be approved. I hope that it will be convenient to your Lordships if I also speak now about the White Fish Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1963. At this time last year your Lordships approved similar subsidy schemes. My duty is therefore to draw to your Lordships' attention any major variations in the schemes laid for this year. The pattern of these schemes is, as your Lordships know, based on the 1962 Act. Total subsidy payments this year will run at some £4½ million which, in perspective, is about 9 per cent. of the total turnover.

To turn first to the herring industry, catches in 1962, as compared with 1961 suffered the normal fluctuations. Overall catches were only slightly better in quantity, but the total value of the catch was up by almost 20 per cent. Because of this improvement in earnings we have felt justified in reducing the daily rates by £1 a day for all categories. For the boats under 40 feet the stonage rate will remain unchanged. A variation under which we hope the industry will do slightly better has been made in the arrangements for the purchase of herring sold for conversion into oil or meal. Instead of selling their product to the Board the fishermen will now get a subsidy of 25s. per cran as laid down in paragraph 2, and they will make their own arrangements for sale.

The only structural change in the White Fish Subsidy is in paragraph 15. During the last two years the smaller inshore vessels qualifying for a stonage rate of subsidy have been able to claim the full rate of subsidy for fish sold for pet food and fish meal. The new lower rate of 6d. for such sales will discourage fishermen from landing large quantities of fish for which there is no market other than pet food and fish meal. The new rate applies only to ungutted fish and will still give a reasonable subsidy where the fisherman has not been able to find a market for human consumption.

There are of course necessarily changes in the daily rates for vessels over 80 feet. The basic subsidy rates are reduced by 7½ per cent., which is the minimum permitted by the Act of 1962. A change, we think for the better, has been made in the handling of the special rates which amount in all to some £350,000. Last year these rates were fixed for a year ahead and a balance was left to be added to meet need in the latter part of the year. This year less than half the sum has been fixed to meet need for the first six months period, leaving nearly £200,000 to be allocated, if and as necessary, over the last six months.

These then are the main changes. The current overall picture of our fishing industry is that, in England and Wales, the near and middle water vessels have been doing very much better in 1963 than in 1962, though there has been little improvement in Scotland. The distant water vessels have done worse in 1963. As always, the pattern is changing constantly. Subsidies can help but they cannot be regarded as a long-term solution to the problems of the industry. A permanent basis for prosperity can be found only by international agreement on trade, catching and conservation. As announced by my right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal on April 29, the Government are arranging to convene a conference of EFTA, E.E.C., and neighbouring countries at which these and related matters, including the question of fishery limits, will be discussed. I beg to move that the Herring Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1963, be approved.

Moved, That the Herring Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1963, be approved.—(Lord Craigton.)

11.10 a.m.


My Lords, I shall not detain you very long, but there are one or two questions I should like to put to my noble friend. He finished his speech with a moving peroration, if I may say so, in exactly the same terms as every Minister who has been discussing the fishing industry has ended every speech that he has made over the last forty years, by saying that he very much hoped for long-term solution, and that international conferences were duly to be convened to deal with the question of fishing limits and all the other problems involved. We have heard that again and again. But I got a specific assurance from Her Majesty's Government about three years ago that a special committee of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, upon which our own scientists would be adequately represented, was to be set up—had, I think, in fact been set up—to examine the whole problem of the shortage of herring in the North Sea generally, which is quite unprecedented. It has happened only in the course of the last six or seven years; otherwise, herring have been abundant since the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First without a moment's pause. The committee were to examine also the curiously erratic movements of the shoals, and whether this was due to over-fishing of small fish for industrial purposes—that is to say, for conversion into meal and oil, particularly in Denmark.

This committee seem to have been sitting, if your Lordships will forgive the expression, for a hell of a long time, and nothing has happened at all; we have not heard a word. I should like my noble friend to tell me, if he can, whether they are still sitting and whether he anticipates that any report from them will ever be made. That would be extremely interesting. All those concerned, the Danes and the Dutch particularly, and the Germans, are represented on this committee, and so are we. What have they been doing for all these three years? I believe they have been sitting in The Hague—a most agreeable town. But you can get some work done there, and it seems strange to me that no work of any kind appears to have been done for several years by this committee, and I am wondering whether they have just given up altogether, or whether they still sit, perhaps once every six months or so.

The second point was raised by the noble Lord himself at the conclusion of his speech—namely, the vexed question of fishery limits. This is the only other point I want to raise. Most other countries have now raised or extended their fishery limits—almost every country, I think, which has a deep interest in the fishing industry has extended its fishery limits. Why have Her Majesty's Government absolutely refused to do anything about this question for the last forty years? It is the biggest and greatest and most prolonged failure, among many failures, of my life, because I started asking the Government to extend the fishery limits in the year 1924, which is a long time ago. They, and they alone, will not do it. What inhibits them?

If they want an answer, it is, I think, the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office, as we now know well and learn every day, are extremely out of date. They are not up to it. To use a modern expression, they are not quite "with it" I think that is the best description one can give of the Foreign Office these days, and I do not think that they are "with" the fishing industry. I should therefore like to ask the noble Lord whether Her Majesty's Government are giving serious consideration to this question, because many other countries have extended their fishery limits, and I think we ought to do the same. I would just conclude by saying this. Foreign trawlers, not British trawlers, are allowed to go in and trawl the spawning grounds of the Minch and the Moray Firth. They have been doing that for forty or fifty years—well, indefinitely. That should be put a stop to. I believe it could be put a stop to without the slightest international friction of any kind. Why do not the Government stop it? They will not let our own trawlers in, but the foreign trawlers can come in, right up to Inverness in the Moray Firth, and go right through the Minch and through the great spawning grounds there. In conclusion may I say that if the Government refuse to take any action in regard to the protection of our own spawning grounds from the depredations of these foreign trawlers, which drag the whole of the bottom of the sea, then I should almost be driven to the conclusion that these subsidies are a waste of time and money.

11.15 a.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord asked what we were doing about fishery limits. I drew the attention of your Lordships to the announcement that my right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal had made. I think the noble Lord does not give us credit for the fact that it is we who are taking the initiative in this matter, and it is we who have only recently announced quite clearly what our position is regarding our own fishery limits. There is nothing I can add to the statements that have already been made.


My Lords, how can the noble Lord say that Her Majesty's Government have taken the initiative, when the other countries have actually extended their fishery limits, and we have done nothing at all?


My Lords, I am sure my noble friend does not suggest that the Government should take unilateral action in this matter. On the question of foreign trawlers there is some doubt, I am advised, as to whether much foreign trawling does take place within the twelve-mile limit. The noble Lord spoke about the committee and he asked whether they were still sitting. They are still sitting. Extensive explorations are being carried out with scientists of all the other North Sea countries under the auspices of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. I think I might also tell him that the North East Atlantic Fisheries Convention of 1959 has now been ratified by all the signatory countries, and the new Commission will be in a position to consider whether measures should be taken for the conservation of herring stocks in the Convention area. Any such conservation measures will, of course, depend on the scientific evidence as to their necessity. So I must tell the noble Lord that I think good progress is being made.


My Lords, I must say I find the attitude of the noble Lord much too smug in regard to foreign trawling. This has been a burning question in Scotland for a great many years, and I would add, in the interests of the Scottish fishermen that I hope the Government will show a little more energy than just talking about countries having ratified an agreement. Are the countries putting the agreement into practice? The information I have is that the position is still serious, and that if this goes on much longer the spawning beds may be permanently destroyed; and of course that means that the fishing industry goes with them.


My Lords, may I say one word on this? The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, asked what the Government were doing about fishing limits. No doubt the noble Lord is aware that there are certain Treaty obligations which affect the matter, and that notice has to be given of an intention with regard to those obligations. It is easy to criticise, but in fact we should have been doing wrong if we did not give the required notice; and the announcement referred to that particular fact of giving notice.


My Lords, before the noble Earl, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, speaks, perhaps I could say to the noble and learned Lord Chancellor that my only complaint was that we did not give the notice forty years ago.


My Lords, I am not quite sure that that is the only answer, either. When the Minister of State for Scotland talks about unilateral action, the important fact is of course that it is quite clear that in the last twelve years there has been a considerable extension of unilateral action—by Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Russia. Of course, Russia rides roughshod over everything. Russia is to be found with 3,000-ton and 4,000-ton manufacturing fishing ships in the English Channel and the North Sea. We get them in the fishing grounds around the North-East of Scotland, close in. I should have thought that the urgent thing, on many grounds, especially in the conservation of herring, is for the Government to take their own action in defence of their own fisheries and their own countrymen. I think that something ought to be done about that.


My Lords, there is little I can add to my noble friend's remarks. As he has said, we have taken what we consider to be the right action in the right way. We are not at all complacent about the whole position of foreign trawlers; we are very worried about it. But I can assure him that everything possible is being done and will be done.

On Question. Motion agreed to.