HL Deb 23 July 1969 vol 304 cc1000-6

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the White Fish (Inshore Vessels) and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme be approved. Your Lordships may recall that in recent years the subsidy scheme which has been presented for approval about this time has dealt with all sections of the white fish and herring fleets. Following a review of the methods of assisting the fishing industry, the Government decided that the subsidy for the deep sea section of the white fish fleet should be put on a new basis, and a scheme giving effect to that decision was passed earlier this year. The scheme now before your Lordships deals with the subsidy for inshore white fish vessels—in other words, those white fish vessels under 80ft in length—and all herring vessels, which, with one or two exceptions, are also under 80ft.

The inshore and herring fleets account for about a third of the value of British landings. In 1968 their landings of white fish and herring were valued at £18-4 million, an increase of nearly £1 million over that for the previous year. The herring element of the catch showed a small decrease in both the quantity and the value of landings, but I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships that in the first six months of 1969 herring fishing results are better than in the corresponding period of 1968. The fleets were generally profitable in 1968. In Scotland, where the inshore and herring fleets have a special importance, most sections made profits which on average were higher than those of 1967. The vessels based in England and Northern Ireland did not fare as well, but overall operating profits before depreciation were about 5 per cent. higher than in 1967. The Government consider that in the light of these results, the level of subsidy in the year beginning August 1, 1969, should be the same as in the current year, and the scheme is intended to achieve that end. Your Lordships may have noticed that the rates of white fish subsidy per day at sea are about 10 per cent. higher than at present. This is because a change in the conditions of subsidy will exclude certain days spent in port from the end of the voyage until the catch is sold. The two changes are estimated to be self-balancing, but will give a greater reward to days spent fishing. There is a slight increase in one of the herring subsidy rates, but this again is to compensate for a variation in the subsidy conditions.

Some reference has been made in the past to the number of Acts cited on the preamble to schemes of this kind, and the desirability of consolidation. I am sure it is the wish of your Lordships' House that the Bill introduced last month for this purpose will make good progress after a new start next Session. The inshore and herring fleets make a valuable contribution to our fish supplies and are also of considerable social importance in providing the economic foundation of many coastal communities, particularly in some of the more remote parts of the United Kingdom. The Government consider that this scheme gives them an appropriate measure of assistance and I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the White Fish (Inshore Vessels) and Herring Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme 1969, laid before the House on 10th July 1969, be approved.—(Lord Hughes.)

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Lord Hughes, for describing to us the purpose of this Order and I welcome it. As the noble Lord has indicated, on the global figures the inshore herring fleet is doing fairly well and slightly better than last year; but he was frank enough to acknowledge that there is some variation between one port and another, and I suspect that in some cases it may be considerable. I would therefore ask him whether it is the Government's intention to taper off this subsidy. The noble Lord has told us that the net effect of the rates this year is designed to be the same as it was last year; but the value of the subsidy has, step by step, been coming down over the last four years. I should like to hear from him whether it is the intention of the Government to try to taper off this subsidy completely.

I would ask the noble Lord a point about the manufacturing capacity for fish meal. As the noble Lord knows, this is a matter of some anxiety to inshore fishermen, especially in the more remote parts, and probably in Scotland particularly, where the markets are distant and the fishermen often have catches which they cannot easily get to market. I think it worth asking the noble Lord to look at this matter and perhaps to comment on it now, if he can. At the present time we are importing a large quantity of fish meal, some £29 million worth per annum. We are still, I understand, operating the type of regulation which requires fishermen to throw undersize fish back into the sea whereas our competitors who export large quantities of fish meal to us undoubtedly are manufacturing that meal mainly from undersize fish. I wonder whether it is quite realistic to keep on this regulation.

I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Scottish Department, will give some further thought to the possibility of financial help for the manufacturing process as being a sound way to help the fishing industry. I believe I am right in saying that the disposal price of fish for manufacturing purposes goes down to as little as 8s. a cran, which is not an economic price at all. Would it not help to put a stable bottom into the industry if the realisation price were somewhat higher? If this gave rise to a greater production of fish meal—for which we find a very ready market and save imports at the same time—would this not be of economic benefit to the country as a whole? This would be a very short step from subsidies in agriculture. I should think that there is still a good deal of fish meal which goes into fertilisers, and so we are very near the fertiliser subsidies; therefore it would be doing good at the consumption end. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would look at that point.

The slight technical adjustment in rates seems to make entirely good sense by giving a slightly higher rate for days spent at sea and cutting out days in port. I assume that it has been agreed with the British Trawler Federation. The last point I should like to put to the noble Lord concerns the minimum price scheme in the industry which, of course, has been discussed for many years. There are some in favour of it and some against. Personally, I have always thought that it would be a good scheme for the industry. I understand that the White Fish Authority are proceeding with a scheme for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Could the noble Lord tell us whether this means that the scheme for England is still under consideration, still in process of being worked out in discussion with the Departments, or does it mean that it has been dropped? I would favour a minimum price scheme. As the noble Lord has already generously acknowledged, this is a valuable industry, valuable in its contribution to our tables and valuable in providing employment for coastal communities throughout the country. They certainly have my best wishes. I hope that this scheme will continue to make their business profitable.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, the Minister touched on the question of the consolidation of sea fisheries legislation. It is certainly true that our sea fisheries legislation is, and has been for a long time now, in a state of complete chaos. If any noble Lord doubts it, let him read the opening paragraph of this Order, which is said to be laid … in exercise of the powers conferred upon them by section 5 of the White Fish and Herring Industries Act 1953 (a) (as amended by section 2 of the White Fish and Herring Industries Act 1957 (b), by section 37 of. and paragraph 18 of Schedule 2 to, the Sea Fish Industry Act 1962 (c) and by section 22 of and paragraphs 10 to 13 inclusive of Schedule 1 to, the Sea Fisheries Act 1968 (d)), section 3 of the White Fish and Herring Industries Act 1957 (as amended by section 37 of, and paragraph 22 of Schedule 2 to, the Sea Fish Industry Act 1962 and section 22 of, and paragraphs 16 to 19 inclusive of Schedule 1 to, the Sea Fisheries Act 1968), section 1 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1962 and sections 1 and 2 of the Sea Fisheries Act 1968 Her Majesty's Government are as well aware as I am of the need for the consolidation of this mass of sea fisheries legislation and I was glad when a Bill was introduced into this House for this purpose and given a Second Reading on June 26. That was pretty late in the Session, but I suppose that the Bill was introduced in the hope that it was going to become law during this Session. Obviously, it has been lost, and it is not the only Government Bill that has been lost in this Session. So the question arises: what hope is there that this sea fisheries consolidation legislation is going to be introduced in the lifetime of the present Parliament? All I can say is that I shall believe it when I see it.


My Lords, may I first deal with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale? What he has said amply justifies the four lines which I devoted to this subject in my speech. I do not propose to add anything, other than to say that when—not "if "—this legislation arrives, I will give it the same welcome as undoubtedly the noble Lord will give it. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, raised a number of points. May I first of all thank him for the welcome which he has given to the Order?

On the subject of the tapering of subsidies, I would draw your Lordships' attention to the statement of the Minister in another place on May 15 last year, in which he said: I turn now to the inshore and herring fleets. We look to this section of the industry for a substantial contribution to import saving. To this end, we propose to remove existing restrictions on grants and loans for inshore and herring vessels in line with the policy for the deep sea fleet. We also propose to increase the overall limit on the value of these grants and loans from 85 per cent. to 90 per cent. of the gross cost of a vessel. This will mean an immediate increase in the maximum loan from 40 per cent. to 45 per cent. The final lines directly refer to the noble Lord's question. The operating subsidies to the inshore and herring fleets are not subject to automatic reduction and will continue to be reviewed annually in the light of their profitability, their importance to local economies, and the import-saving objective."—[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/68, cols. 1314-15.] Your Lordships will recollect that though I pointed out that generally the level of profitability in the industry was higher in 1968 than in 1967, the Government are recommending in this Order that the rate should be made at the same level. So we are certainly not doing any further tapering this year.

On the subject of industrial fishing, I would point out that some encouragement has been given to industrial fishing. The 1968 subsidy scheme was amended earlier this year so that white fish subsidy can now be paid in respect of fish of a kind not normally sold for human consumption. The so-called 10 per cent. rule has been brought into our domestic legislation to enable the boats using a small mesh net for industrial species to land for reduction purposes an amount of undersized fish of the protected species up to 10 per cent. by weight of the industrial catch. Meantime, the fisheries laboratories, the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board are carrying out studies of various aspects of potential industrial fisheries.

I would point out to your Lordships that since fishing for the human consumption market for white fish and herring is itself an important saving, there is no advantage in switching part of the present fleet to industrial fishing. There may, however, be certain slack periods when industrial fishing could be fitted in by some boats. To augment the fleet with vessels intended entirely for industrial fishing would be a step which needed careful study, and the investigations in progress will help to assess the possibilities.

On the question of the assistance which is given, I would point out that the oil and meal subsidy is in addition to the operating subsidy enjoyed by herring fishermen. Its purpose is to encourage landings sufficient to justify the human consumption market by giving fishermen a better price than they would other- wise get for a limited surplus. To make the quota arrangements more generous would have increased the general level of assistance, and the Government considered that this was unnecessary. It was, however, possible to increase the rate by 1s. per cran by making an adjustment elsewhere.

The final point which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, asked me was about statutory minimum prices. The White Fish Authority has said that while it does not propose to proceed with a United Kingdom minimum price scheme, it considers that a minimum price scheme applicable to Scotland and Northern Ireland only should be introduced. A scheme was submitted to Ministers for confirmation recently and is currently under consideration. I regret, therefore, that I cannot go into the merits of the proposals this afternoon, but an announcement on this subject will be made as soon as Ministers have made a decision.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, could I ask him whether he would answer my question? Does this mean that a scheme for England is still under consideration, or has it been dropped?


My Lords, I do not know whether a scheme for England has finally been dropped, but no scheme is being proceeded with at the present time.

On Question, Motion agreed to.