HL Deb 05 March 1970 vol 308 cc531-6

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the White Fish Authority Publicity Scheme Confirmatory Order 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on February 5, 1970, be approved. It is an aim of our fishing policies to promote the development of a healthy and economic industry capable of landing a plentiful supply of fish. This in turn requires that the supplies coming forward, over three-quarters of which are caught by our own vessels, should sell at economic prices in competition with other foods. The fishing industry, like any other food producer, must be concerned with consumer demand. Since 1965 total British landings of white fish have not varied greatly in quantity. Despite a decline in the number of fishing vessels, and particularly of deep sea trawlers, the landed weight has remained fairly static at or in some years above 700,000 tons a year. Consumption of white fish has also been static since 1965, at between 16 and 171b. per head per annum.

Regrettably the average value of fish landings has been very far from maintained in real terms, and for important varieties there have even been falls in cash terms. The average value of cod landed by British vessels in Great Britain, for example, was 80s. 5d. a cwt. in 1965; it fell to 69s. 6d. in 1968 and recovered admittedly in 1969, but only to 74s. 5d. These are average values covering all the uses to which fish is put—human consumption, pet food and reduction to fish meal. Of course, when larger quantities have to go to the lower-priced outlets, then the average is pulled down. Although there has been some check in 1969 in the quantities of fish sold for other purposes than human consumption it was nevertheless over 44,000 tons, representing to the catcher a loss, at the average price, of nearly £3 million. That shows how big a difference it will make to our fishing fleets if even a little more of the catch can be assured of going to the human consumption market. Without this they will neither earn sufficient to encourage new investment nor have the inducement to land fish in the best possible condition.

This, my Lords, is why the White Fish Authority, after full consultation with various sectors of the industry, propose a publicity scheme on a substantial scale for advertising fish. The Authority believes that on a market where fish is in competition with other foods, often extensively, not to say expensively, advertised, it is right to collect a small levy to be spent on promotion on behalf of the whole industry. The Government have accepted this, and laid this draft Order to confirm the Authority's scheme. The scheme will impose a levy on first-hand sales at a rate of ¾d. a stone (or 6d. a cwt.), with proportionately higher rates for products. The levy is to be collected in the same way as the White Fish Authority's general levy, thus simplifying administration for both the Authority and the industry. I understand the yield is expected to be about £400,000 a year— modest, no doubt, in comparison with many advertising budgets nowadays, but a sum which the Authority believe can be spent to very good effect. Representatives of the various interests in the industry will of course be involved in what is done. Your Lordships will see the pro-vision for a Publicity Committee on page 4 of the draft Instrument before the House.

The scheme provides for the levy to apply to imports, including direct landings by foreign vessels, equally with home caught supplies. There is no discrimination in this respect. We must admit that if additional demand is generated it could benefit foreign suppliers in smaller or greater measure, but the opportunity will be there for the British industry to respond to improved demand. The Authority has, as I said, consulted all sections of the industry. Many of the representations received have been met by the detailed modifications which this Order will make in the scheme as first published over a year ago. I must, how-ever, concede that—as is not uncommon when we are dealing with the fishing industry—there are some dissatisfied interests, mainly among the port wholesalers. They would, I think, have liked to see the problems of the industry tackled in a different order, with an attempt to make statutory regulations about quality coming first. It is, however, the considered view of the Authority that it is right to start with this promotion scheme. They are active on quality standards—for example, in encouraging the proper boxing and handling of fish at sea—but it is often said that the definition of quality is that for which the market proves willing to pay, and if a stronger and more sustained demand can be created then the catchers will not be slow to respond. My Lords, this Scheme is to be commended for the prospects of a positive contribution to increased sales of fish. And an increased demand will justify the Government's policy, which is designed to encourage the industry's efficiency and self-sufficiency. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft White Fish Authority Publicity Scheme Confirmatory Order 1970 laid before the House on 5th February, be approved.—(Lord Beswick.)

5.54 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for explaining this Scheme to us, and congratulate him on making the levy and advertising campaign sound so promising. Nobody doubts that the White Fish Authority are doing this for the good of the fishing industry, nor does anyone doubt their good intentions, but, as the noble Lord delicately indicated, at any rate some parts of the industry are doubtful whether this expensive publicity campaign will be good value to the industry. The sum of £400,000 per annum is quite a lot of money to an industry which is now in a state of pretty serious depression. The British Trawlers Federation have agreed to the levy, but without enthusiasm, on a three-year trial basis. The inshore fishermen feel it has little value for them, as their quality fish make above the average price in any event. As the noble Lord has specifically indicated, the port wholesalers, from whom the levy will be collected, have refused to pay it. I agree with the noble Lord; I can remember occasions in the past when they have reacted similarly to other proposals. However, the big merchants, such as Ross, Mac Fisheries and so on, are rather unenthusiastic about it. They have agreed to go along with the levy, but they are not enthusiastic.

This is an attempt by the White Fish Authority to help the fishing industry out of the depression which has been hitting it hard, by improving demand and selling prices, and, as the noble Lord rightly emphasised, by trying to improve the quality of presentation. I most warmly agree with the noble Lord that anything that can be done to get the fish to the housewife in prime condition is well worth doing. There is no better dish than fresh fish, but there is nothing duller or more unappetising than rather stale fish.

However, the industry's troubles are more deep seated than an advertising campaign. This is not the time to go far into their troubles, but I should like to remind your Lordships that the costs of catching fish have been rising sharply. The noble Lord has given us the trend of prices over the last five years, which has certainly not been upwards—in fact, it has been downwards rather than up-wards—but in the meantime costs have been rising sharply for the usual reasons of increased pay to crews and high interest rates on loans for new ships. I believe there is now a strike at Hull, with the demand for an extra £2 a week for crews, which of course cannot possibly be paid out of existing takings. Costs have also been rising recently, particularly this season, for the unusual reason of shrinking stocks of fish. Our traditional fisheries have been heavily invaded in recent years by foreign fishing fleets, who not only reduce our catches but then proceed to depress the price in our markets here by their exports into the home market. Nearly all the other European markets are closed to imports of fish, so this is the market that is concentrated on, and although Government action has done something to limit imports, our market has undoubtedly been sharply affected.

In the face of this depressing picture for the industry there are two questions I should like to put to the noble Lord, which I believe are the questions being asked in the industry. On the short term, if prices rise here as a result of the campaign, will that attract in more imported fish, with a consequent fall in prices? On the longer term, if demand can be encouraged to increase in this country as a result of the campaign, can we be sure, with the depleted fish stocks, that there will be adequate supplies of fish to support the increased demand, or indeed even the present volume of supply? My Lords, these are exceedingly difficult questions to answer, but they are the questions that are being asked. There is a complex of difficulties in the fishing industry now. They really have greats troubles. Possibly the time is right to ask somebody like that very distinguished figure the late Lord Fleck to take another look at the industry. For the time being, these are the questions that the levy has sparked off, and if the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, can throw any light on them when he replies to the debate, it will be helpful to the whole industry. With these, I am afraid, rather unenthusiastic remarks, I nevertheless have pleasure in supporting the Order.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to have the noble Lord's general support, and I appreciate the tenor of his comments. As he said, the good intentions here are not matched by universal enthusiasm for the Scheme, and he put to me certain doubts. I must make it clear that the noble Lord is mistaken when he says that the port wholesalers have refused to pay this levy. What is happening is that one group of merchants are refusing to pay the general levy, and their refusal in that case is so far for a week only. There are various troubles there, which I think will have to be sorted out separately. But although they have refused to come in on some of the discussions that have been held by my right honourable friend, there is no indication that they refuse to pay the levy.

The noble Lord asked about imported fish and the effect that an increase in home demand would have on our imports. Of course this is one possibility, and I think I touched upon it in the remarks that I made at the beginning. If there is an improved demand at home, then the possibility is that there will be increased landings by the foreign-owned trawlers. But imported fish will be subject to this levy equally with the home catch. There will be no discrimination either in the collection of the money or, indeed, in the benefits. As I explained, it will be for the British industry to respond to the increased demand.

The noble Lord spoke about the situation that will develop if there is an in-creased demand, and asked about the price going up. He asked whether the catch will be adequate to meet this in-creased demand. In the first place, I think one must say that if prices go up to some extent, then it will be true to say that we are paying a fairer price for the commodity; and if there is a fairer price for the commodity it will, I think, follow that there will be greater readiness to consider the increased investment in the industry which is possibly required, and which alone can ensure that supply will match demand.

However, there is another point: that the demand fluctuates—it is one of the difficulties of the whole industry—in the same way as sometimes in bad weather it is more difficult to catch the fish, while, on the other hand, when the weather is particularly hot it is more difficult to sell the fish. This is one of the inherent problems of the industry. But, as I see it, it is intended here to be very flexible in the approach to the advertising of fish. It will be carried out on a seasonal basis. It will endeavour to stimulate demand at a time when an increased supply is expected and, given the competence—and there is no reason to doubt it—of those responsible for the advertising campaign, I think it may go some way to stimulate demand at a time when there is an adequate supply.

In this respect, I would refer the noble Lord to an extract from the leader in the Fish Trades Gazette, which I fortunately had put into my hand just before I came into the House. That states: For the first time in its history the White Fish Authority have been all but given the go-ahead to launch their first adult"— and they stress the word "adult"— publicity scheme geared within the limits of a tight budget". It goes on to say that the Authority have earned their fair share of criticism within the Fish Trades Gazette—but not this time. For them to concede to any advertising scheme which tries to sell fish purely because it would otherwise be destined to the fish meal factory would be sheer folly. The paper gives its approval to the type of scheme which is intended to stimulate the purchase of the sort of fish which can be caught and put upon the market.

I hope that, with those additional re-marks, the noble Lord will add to his general support and agree that this Order should be approved.

On Question, Motion agreed to.