HL Deb 02 April 1979 vol 399 cc1769-75

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the White Fish Subsidy (Deep Sea Vessels) (Specified Ports) Scheme 1979 which was laid before this House on 15th March 1979, be approved. The purpose of this order is to provide temporary aid to that part of the deep sea sector of the fishing industry based on Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby. In announcing his intention to seek the approval of Parliament for this scheme of financial aid my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food referred to the changes in the traditional patterns of fishing which have come about of late. I should like briefly to remind your Lordships about those changes.

Our deep sea fleet, based on these and other ports, pioneered distant water fishing. Their vessels ranged far and wide across the North and East Atlantic to the Arctic Sea. Icelandic and Norwegian waters were as familiar to our skippers as the North Sea, but then came the movement to extend fisheries limits to 200 miles. In the end it came quickly. Although it has had its benefits, in that Eastern bloc vessels have been excluded from our waters, it has also imposed heavy penalties on United Kingdom vessels accustomed to fishing in distant waters. It has posed a serious challenge for this sector of the catching industry which has invested heavily in ships and equipment specifically designed for operations in those fishing grounds. It has also hit a labour force of fishermen skilled in the fishing techniques required in those waters and prepared to accept the hardships involved.

Consequently, the deep sea sector is currently in the midst of a difficult period of adjustment to meet a new situation. The situation is complicated by the uncertainty about the full extent of fishing opportunities which will be available to the United Kingdom once agreement has been reached within the Community on a new common fisheries policy. This latter issue is one which my right honourable friend is pursuing vigorously in his negotiations with other member States of the Community. I am glad to say that both in Parliament and in the industry there continues to be wholehearted support for his endeavours to reach a settlement that is satisfactory to the United Kingdom position.

During the course of 1978, submissions were made by the Fishing Vessel Owners' Associations at Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby to my right honourable friend seeking Government assistance on a number of counts. Each submission drew attention to the fact that in these three ports the agreements made with British Transport Docks Board had the effect of concentrating all the fish dock charges on the diminishing number of vessels landing fish. Hence the charge per vessel was rising and was becoming an unsupportable burden for each vessel owner.

My right honourable friend invited the Associations to meet and discuss their common problems and to see whether, in consultation with the British Transport Docks Board, any solution could be found that would alleviate the problems. At my right honourable friend's suggestion, the presidents of each of the Associations met under the chairmanship of Mr. C. I. Meek, the chairman of the White Fish Authority. Mr. Meek's subsequent report supported the views of the Associations in relation to the burden of dock charges but no short term solution could be found except the injection of Government aid.

Mr. Meek also drew attention to a particularly serious situation which had developed at Fleetwood where a substantial reduction in the weight and value of fish landings combined with the increasing burden of dock charges had brought the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, a limited company, to the point of liquidation. The particular significance of this association is that it employs the fish landing labour force which consists of registered dock workers. I need not enlarge upon the unfortunate and damaging effects which liquidation of the association would then have upon the employment situation generally in the port and the future prospects of Fleetwood as a major fishing port.

Accordingly, my right honourable friend felt that a case had been made for providing temporary aid to the deep sea industry in the three ports. The announcement by my right honourable friend of his intention to seek parliamentary approval for this order has been welcomed by the industry. In Fleetwood, in particular, the announcement of the subsidy has been a material factor in enabling the existing Fishing Vessel Owners' Association to carry on until the end of March.

Turning now to the provisions of the order, the scheme is aimed only at those vessels for which a case for aid has been made out, namely, vessels of 80 feet and over in the three ports in question. Further, the scheme is being made under Section 49 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970. Under that section the Minister's powers are to be exercised with a view to promoting the landing in the United Kingdom of a continuous and plentiful supply of white fish. Hence it is necessary to provide that the benefit of the subsidy should be restricted to vessels which are still engaged in voyages for catching white fish on the date when the scheme comes into effect. I am aware that the effect of this particular condition will be to exclude from subsidy a number of vessels which have ceased operating from the specified ports, or perhaps have gone out of fishing altogether at varying times since the beginning of 1978. Many of these vessels will have incurred dock charges in 1978. But it would run counter to the intentions of the Act if vessels that have gone out of fishing were to receive aid. Finally, I would wish to emphasise that this scheme is temporary and exceptional. Our prime need is to clarify the future for the fishing industry and, as your Lordships know, my right honourable friend is continuing to make every effort possible in this direction. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Scheme laid before the House on 15th March, be approved.—(Lord Leonard.)

6.4 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his explanation. I agree with him that much of the detail which he has put forward is in the interests of fishing. I wish to speak tonight for two reasons: first, the noble Lord has just said that it is "exceptional" and, secondly, that it is "temporary". As he has said, this scheme is made under Section 49 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970. That section of the 1970 Act, which was a consolidation Act, re-enacted Section 5 of the White Fish and Herring Industries Act 1953, so I gather that the power to make schemes of this kind has been in operation for more than 25 years; but this is the first time that the benefits of a scheme made under it have been confined only to boats operating from specified ports. Because of this the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which I am a member, draws the attention of both Houses to the Instrument on the grounds that it constitutes an unusual use of power and is arguably ultra vires.

Section 49 is in general terms and contains no specific power to discriminate between boats operating from different ports. Moreover, all schemes under the section have been made by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales. This might suggest that such a scheme would apply equally to boats in ports from all parts of the United Kingdom because the three Ministries are involved. But in the evidence before the Joint Committee, departmental representatives indicated the reason why it was confined to boats operating, as the Minister has explained more fully today, from Fleetwood and Grimsby and Hull, all of which I should like to emphasise are British Transport Docks Board ports. We wanted to know why this had been done. We were told that they were benefited by the scheme because they were the only ones who asked for this money. Indications of need must be looked into carefully, and if departments are right in maintaining that the section allows the making of the scheme in favour of boats operating only from specified ports, they would presumably maintain that they would also be allowed to make the scheme for the benefit of boats belonging only to specified ports and specified owners.

The policy that is to be adopted in this case, of giving benefit only to those who ask for it, might result in making schemes in favour of particular boat owners who had asked for schemes to be made in their favour. That is why the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments were rather worried about the terms of this Instrument. We saw officials but we were still not really convinced that this was the best way to proceed. What the Minister has said today has not given me much extra information and therefore, when he replies, I shall be grateful if he can say why the order was introduced in this way, why it is exceptional and what is the meaning of "temporary"?

6.9 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Leonard, for the information which he has given the House on this Instrument, while I am also most grateful to my noble friend Lady Vickers for the way she has given us her views on this important grant to deep sea fishing vessels. At this stage I think it is important to pay tribute to the fishermen who go out into the North Sea in very bad conditions. I believe that few members of the public, when they have their fish and chips, realise the dangers that these men have gone through. Also the difficulty has been with the EEC, who are eventually to come to some conclusion with the United Kingdom as to how they are going to handle deep sea vessels. Then we have the difficulty of the 200-mile inshore fishing limit. So the deep sea fishermen have been faced with difficulties.

This scheme is limited to vessels of 80 feet and over, and also to certain ports. It was interesting to note that these ports are Fleetwood, Grimsby and Hull. My noble friend being a great expert in these matters, I was not sure whether she was going to include Devonport, but I am not sure that there are deep sea vessels there. In any event, this Instrument is a temporary step, until the EEC and the United Kingdom come to a conclusion. From these Benches we understand from the Government that this is only a temporary affair until conclusions are reached.

6.11 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his remarks, and I would wish to reply to the noble Baroness on some of the points which she brought up. The main point was the giving of consent under Section 49 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970. The Government at the time noted the observations of the Joint Committee on the White Fish Subsidy (Deep Sea Vessels) (Specified Ports) Scheme 1979. I am sure the noble Baroness would wish to join me in thanking the committee for their careful and vigilant examination of this scheme. Parliament did not, of course, have in mind any particular circumstances which would arise when giving consent to Section 49 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970. Since then the sea fishing industry has been beset by many problems which will be familiar to your Lordships. In particular, the difficulties which now confront the deep sea sector could not have been foreseen.

As I have already indicated, the situation which led to the announcement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on 7th December 1978, of a temporary and exceptional scheme of assistance to the deep sea fleet based upon Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby, was one requiring the most urgent attention. In considering the powers available, the Government concluded that Section 49 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970 was sufficiently widely drawn to cover the objects of the scheme before the House, and they still remain of that view. I can, however, assure noble Lords and the noble Baroness that the Government have taken full note of the comments made by the Joint Committee, and these will be borne in mind in any further scheme considered for the approval of Parliament under Section 49 of the 1970 Act.

With regard to the question of vessels of 80 feet and over, the point is that they had to arrive at some line; it had to be 80 feet, 90 feet, 70 feet, and after discussion they arrived at 80 feet. The ports that have been taken into this Bill, namely, Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby, were the ports for which a case was made out and on which a decision had been made. Let me say that no convincing case for aid to vessels under 80 feet has yet been made out. In response to inquiries from associations at Fleetwood and Grimsby, the Minister has, however, made it known, without commitment on his part, that he would be prepared to have his officials examine any detailed case which may be made for assisting such vessels, but so far no detailed case has been forthcoming.

The noble Baroness asked whether ports have to ask before they will be granted consideration. I do not consider it any great hardship on any port that has its interests at heart to make submissions to the Government. If submissions are made they will be considered on their merits. I do not think it is any crushing burden on any port, if it feels that it has a case, to make a submission.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask when this order is coming into operation?


My Lords, it is coming into operation as soon as possible. It is quite soon. I can tell the noble Baroness the exact time. It will come into effect on the day after it has received the assent of both Houses. It provides for claims to be made within three weeks of the scheme coming into effect, and payments will be made as quickly as possible thereafter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.