HL Deb 23 July 1964 vol 260 cc807-11

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the White Fish Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1964, be approved. I suggest that it might be convenient for your Lordships if we were to discuss at the same time the other Order relating to the white fish industry, the White Fish Industry (Grants for Improvement of Fishing Vessels) Scheme. I think it might be useful for me to give first of all a brief account of the considerations that have led us to fix the rates of subsidy for white fish contained in this scheme.

I am very pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that there has been a considerable improvement in the financial returns for fishing since we last discussed subsidies, about a year ago. The value of white fish caught by all sections of the British fleet in 1962 was just under £45 million. In 1963 it was £47¼ million, an increase of £2¼ million. This improvement has been continued in the first five months of 1964. Comparing January to May, 1964, with January to May, 1963, there has been a further increase in the value of the catch of £1.4 million. This increase in value has not been due to scarcity, as the quantity of the catch has remained much the same.

Most sections of the fleet have shared in this improvement. The financial returns for the trawlers, that is the vessels over 80 feet in length, have improved considerably, starting with the near and middle water trawlers in 1963 and distant water vessels later on in that year. The results of these vessels have continued to improve in recent months. Our estimate of profits for the six months ending March 31, 1964 (our latest figures), shows that all but one of the main sections of the fleet were making profits, and in some cases quite considerable profits. There were, however, certain exceptions at some of the ports in England and Wales. Turning to the inshore section of the fleet, we again find this improvement but with perhaps more exceptions.

These are the facts on which the Government has based the subsidy proposals contained in the Scheme before your Lordships. As your Lordships know, under the Sea Fish Industry Act basic subsidies have to be reduced each year by between 7½ per cent. and 12½ per cent, of the rates as originally fixed in 1962. Your Lordships will, however, remember that we agreed with the leaders of the trawler owners in 1961 that the first two reductions should be at the minimum rate laid down in the Act, that is, 7½ per cent. This year is the second of these reductions, and the basic rates in the Order have been fixed in accordance with this agreement.

We have, however, had to consider whether we should pay special subsidies in addition to these basic subsidies. The arguments for this were examined very carefully, in the light of the results which I have just indicated to the House, and the Government came to the conclusion that no special payments were justified for any group of vessels operating from the Scottish ports, and only for a very few groups of vessels operating from ports in England and Wales. These are set out in Part III of Schedule 1 to the Scheme. This position will be reviewed again in the autumn, as fishing results can change rapidly. We also decided, taking into account the varied experience of the inshore section of the industry, that it would be right and proper to make no change in the subsidies for inshore vessels.

The second Order before the House is something quite new. We have given grants in the past for new vessels and for new engines and existing vessels. This Scheme—the Fishing Vessels Improvement Scheme—extends the system of grant to improvements to existing vessels. Your Lordships may know that this is a part of the proposals made some time ago by the Chairman of the White Fish Authority, and I should like to tell your Lordships something about the rest of his proposals.

In the first place, Mr. Matthews proposed an increase in the amount available for subsidies, and the House will understand from what I have just been saying about the 1964 Subsidy Scheme why we think that there is no need at present to make any radical change in existing legislation. Nor have we felt it possible to meet Mr. Matthews' requests for financial assistance to wholesalers and retailers in the fishing trade, as we do not do this for other food trades. We have, however, agreed to meet Mr. Matthews' request for further help on research and development.

Mr. Matthews is also going to discuss with the industry his ideas on improvements in quality and on a statutory minimum price scheme, together with his suggestion of support prices for fish of good quality that cannot find a market. The Government have agreed that he should discuss these proposals with all sections of the industry and the trade, and then come back to us with the results of his discussion. But as my right honourable friend has said in another place, the Government do not feel able to give any advance commitments as to their attitude to these proposals. We must keep an open mind until the Authority has had its consultations and come up with its conclusions.

I am, my Lords, very gratified to be able to report the improvement I mentioned earlier in the position of the fishing industry. I trust and hope that it will be a lasting improvement. But this is a hunting industry and no one can forecast future catches or the prices they will fetch. I hope your Lordships will agree with me that the subsidies proposed are right and that the new Fishing Vessels Improvements Scheme could make a substantial contribution to increased efficiency. I therefore commend these Schemes to your Lordships for approval.

Moved, That the White Fish Subsidy (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1964, be approved.—(Lord St. Oswald.)

3.21 p.m.


My Lords, the White Fish Industry Schemes are now becoming a hardy annual, but it is nice to know that year by year improvements take place. Both Schemes have been ably referred to by the Minister. In some respects they are difficult for the layman to understand, but at any rate the Schemes have been well received in another place. They were fully discussed by Members there who have fishing interests and represent fishing constituencies, and they were approved without any objection whatsoever.

In regard to the first Scheme, this replaces two previous Schemes, the first of which related to August 1, 1963. That particular Scheme was not found to be sufficient for the purposes required and was revised by a subsequent Scheme on February 1 of this year. That particular Scheme ceases to be operative after July 31, next week, and the Scheme which we are now considering will take its place. It is therefore necessary that we should accept this particular Scheme so that it can operate on the appointed day. As I said, the Scheme has been fully explained; it is explicit in regard to the conditions which have to be complied with. No doubt they are understandable by those who have had experience of past Schemes and by those who have benefited from them. Naturally, as the Minister has explained, the financial provisions follow upon those of the past and apparently are acceptable to the industry. For that reason also I think we can accept them. I was glad to hear the reference to Mr. Matthews, and I hope that the negotiations which are taking place will be successful and beneficial to the industry.

It is essential that we should keep our fishing industry in good form, with the ability, the manpower, equipment and improvements necessary to provide the nation with an important article of food. Fishermen are subjected to hazards and hard conditions and their rewards should be fully adequate. Apparently they are becoming more adequate as the years go by. Lean times have not been unknown, and, of course, they may come again. Catches may be unremunerative or disappointing; so subsidies or grants cannot at this time be denied for the purpose of continuing fishing operations and keeping the fleets afloat.

It is the province of the Government to protect both the producers and consumers and, at the same time, not to overburden the economy with excessive expenditure. Improving catches in fishing does not always produce additional profits, and we must bear in mind that rising costs, as in other industries, operate in the fishing industry. I commend the Scheme.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House will welcome the statement made by the Minister indicating the substantial improvement in the fishing industry over the past twelve months. While I have no comment to make concerning these Schemes, I was particularly interested in the statement that further negotiations are taking place with the industry in regard to securing increasing developments of the fishing interests. I wonder how far these discussions are concerned with research into the protection of existing fishing fields and the development of new fishing fields.


My Lords, so far as I know, no particular frontiers have been set to these discussions. They are, of course, in the early stage. I do not know of any restrictions such as the noble Lord asked about.

On Question, Motion agreed to.