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Mackerel, Price

Volume 439: debated on Monday 23 June 1947

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Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

10.11 p.m.

I rise to make a plea to the Minister either to alter the maximum price of mackerel or to decontrol the price altogether. The House will, no doubt, remember that a short time ago, on 9th June, I put a Question to the Minister asking him to consider this matter in view of the very great rise in the price of gear. The Minister gave me an answer. When I put a supplementary, I thought his reply was unreasonable, as he used the expression, "If and when." Secondly, he rather gave the impression that his views were primarily advanced because someone had suggested a rise in the cost of mackerel. I should like here and now once more to put in front of the Minister the fact that I feel quite satisfied that no one in this country wishes the fishermen to catch fish at completely uneconomic prices. It is with the intention of putting before the Minister to- night the cost of catching the mackerel that I have raised this matter on the Adjournment.

First, I should like to take this opportunity of reminding the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry that she received a delegation not a very long time ago at which these points were placed in front of her and her Department; and I should like to take the opportunity of thanking the Parliamentary Secretary and the permanent officials for the courtesy which we received upon that day. In fact, I myself came away with the view that she had fully realised how high these costs were. I should like to bring the attention of the House to the fact that I spoke in my maiden speech on the Inshore Fishing Bill, on the question of the vital importance of our fishing fleet. I pointed out that in Cornwall it had so depleted that, whereas at the beginning of the 1914–18 war 2,000 men were available for the R.N.R., at the beginning of the last war there were only 200 men available; and I said that it is a vital necessity to keep these ports alive, the small shipyards alive—and the men who man them.

At the present moment, the maximum controlled price of mackerel is 3s. 7d. a stone. I want to remind the Minister of this fact, that the maximum price does not necessarily mean that the fish will not, in fact, fetch a price lower than the maximum price. I do hope that I have made that perfectly clear—that because we fix a maximum price at a certain price it does not mean the fish will not fetch a price lower still. Now the price-is 3s. 7d.a stone. No doubt, the Minister is aware that, in a stone, one gets approximately 30 mackerel, and she can calculate very easily herself what that runs out at a mackerel apiece. It may interest the Minister to know that in 1768, according to the "Annual Register" it was stated:
"Fine large mackerel were sold in London at three halfpence each. A premium set on foot by Sir S. T. Janssen, Chamberlain of London, for encouraging the mackerel boats to bring their fish to market, has greatly contributed to reduce the price, and that reduction has had the effect upon the price of meat, which is likewise fallen a penny in the pound."
That was in 1768—and the price was the same as it is today. It may well be that the Minister will retort to me that that was probably at a date when prices of other things were very different. But if we look further at the "Annual Register" we shall see that there was a man renting a small room over a stable in South Audley Street at £5 per annum. I refer to the point because it proves the value of money at that time.

Now, the Minister, according to the "Fish Trades Gazette" on 10th May, said:
"It is our policy in the Ministry of Food to remove controls as soon as conditions permit."
She then sent me a letter—a letter that I was delighted to receive—round about the same date, and in that letter she used these words:
"Our fishermen deserve all the help we can give them. The last of the hunters, they are also among the finest of our navigators."
She went on to say:
"Food harvested in such conditions should be valued by all of us. When it is such good food as fish brought in by our own fishermen at a time when many other foods are scarce it is doubly welcome."
In answer to that letter I wrote her a personal letter thanking her for her consideration, and stated that if at any time I had any difficulties I felt quite satisfied that she would remember the words she had used.

Coming to the actual cost the fishermen have to bear today, the chairman of the Looe Fishermen's Committee wrote to me, and I hope the House will forgive me if I read a passage from his letter, because he puts it so clearly:
"There are two kinds of fish we consider should be better priced; that is, mackerel and ray, considering the cost of catching, which I presume should have some bearing on the decided price. The mackerel is the most damaging fish we catch in a drift net. They are very hard to unmesh and tear a lot of holes, although they swim hard and very often nets are lost when they strike. The cost of a net now is £26 10s. before it is cured and put on the rope for fishing, which means that it costs at least £30 to put a net in the water ready for fishing."
I checked this up during the weekend, and these nets have gone up from £26 10s. to £28 10s.; so the rise is still going on. One of the chief questions in regard to mackerel is in relation to bait. It is used for bait; which means to say that if the mackerel is not obtained the fishermen are short of bait for catching other forms of fish.

For a moment I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the rise in everything which is concerned with gear. Take the question of hooks, now 4s. 6d.

and 5s. 6d. per 100 against is. 6d. in 1939; cotton, 5s. per lb. against is. 6d. per lb. in 1939; rope is three times as much; oil has increased considerably; coal is now 91s. 6d. a ton. All these matters are of great weight. Fitting out the type of boat in which we fish in Looe and Polperro at the present moment will cost £360 in gear alone. Also, nets are lost due to the ferociousness of the mackerel caught. The West Cornwall Fishermen's Council have written to me, and the letter puts it extremely well:
"I feel that, without being presumptuous, the present policy is a short-sighted one, besides being extremely unfair to the fishermen. To my mind, a policy of penalising one producer of food and rewarding another is utterly wrong; and further I feel that if prices are to be regulated in an inverse ratio to the cost of production, the only result must be a disaster in the industry."
These are only some of the points; in fact, there are many others. I received another letter from a similar source, which says:
"In addition, the increased costs of production and the general increase in wages and the cost of living do not seem to have been taken into account. Mackerel fishing, to be started again and made to pay, can only be done by an increase of price to about 6s. per stone."
They go on to say—and here is where I wish to stress the question of bait—
"In the old days, when the East Coast drifters used to come to Cornwall for the spring mackerel fishing, there was no lack of bait. These East Coast men cannot and will not come unless the price of mackerel is from 5s. to 6s. per stone."
I feel I have really made out a case tonight on a purely economic basis. The Minister knows full well that the major part of the food we eat in this country is subsidised, but mackerel is not. When we come to fish of this description, we have to make up our minds on two things: Do we want the mackerel; and do we want it for bait? It will mean more food for this country. Either put up the maximum control price or decontrol it altogether. It will mean more food for the country, both from the question of bait and from the point of view of giving mackerel to the housewives. Frankly, the amount for which I am asking is comparatively small, when it is remembered that across the Floor of the House not long ago I asked the Minister why Grade II salmon had gone up from is. 9d. to 2s. 9d., and I received no reply, other than it had gone up in price.

Because of this quibble about price the people are not getting the mackerel. I will conclude, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Beechman) wishes to speak. I feel that I am speaking for the small ships the "Our Daddys," the "Our Girls," and all the others in Looe, Polperro and all the other fishing ports on the coast of Devon and Cornwall, as well as for those people in our country who would like to be able to eat mackerel.

10.21 p.m.

The case put forward with so much cogency by my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) concerns not only the fishermen, but the whole of the community. I wish to make it plain to the Minister that the mackerel are there—I was assured of that by talking to those concerned in the industry at Newlyn this weekend. I can also assure the Minister that the demand is there, in London and in the other great centres. The people are not getting mackerel, a fish which is so interesting from the point of view of variety in diet. It is absurd that the people cannot get the supplies they demand. It may be said of this fish that it is so full of fat that it can pretty well fry itself. It provides a form of food of the most useful type. I sometimes hear it said that mackerel do not travel. That is a superstition. It happens that in May they are full of spawn so that the fish sometimes split when travelling, but even during the month of May there was a demand for them.

If matters were put right, mackerel would be available from now until September. It is fantastic that the price to the fishermen is only 3s. 7d. a stone, whereas before the war it was between 5s. and 6s. a stone. It is fantastic, when we consider that the cost of all matters affecting the fishermen have trebled and quadrupled, that they should be getting less than they got before the war. In 1920, we landed at Newlyn, £208,000 of mackerel, whereas in 1946, which is a date comparable to 1920 in relation to the second war, only £200 worth of mackerel were landed. The reason the fishermen do not catch these fish is because it is impossible for them to catch them It is not that they would not make enough, but simply that it is not possible for them to take mackerel from the sea at the present prices People are clamouring for this fish, and it would be of great benefit to them if only they could obtain them.

10.24 p.m

I confess I am a little surprised that the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) should have thought fit to bring this matter up tonight, in view of the fact that quite recently, as he reminded the House, I received a deputation consisting of him and another hon. Member interested in the subject, when we had an exhaustive discussion. Every point he has raised tonight was considered, and I undertook that the Ministry would do what they could to help inshore fishermen engaged on mackerel fishing That was only a few weeks ago. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those promises were not empty ones. In fact, already I have arranged for a survey to take place of the inshore fishing industry so that we shall be able to obtain certain information which we have not in our possession.

The hon. Gentleman reminded the House that the mackerel is a fish calculated to destroy nets very quickly. We do not deny that that is so. We recognise that the cost of gear to the inshore fisherman is very high in proportion to the return he gets for his fish, and that nets are very often fouled by wreckage of ships or aircraft We are anxious to find out exactly the conditions which obtain in different parts of the coast, so that, when the time comes perhaps to make some readjustment in prices, we can assess them fairly. The survey is about to take place. I hope, therefore, to gain very considerable information. Furthermore, I have already told the hon. Member why we feel that we cannot adjust prices at this moment. Soon we shall have the peak period of the Scottish herring fishing. We feel that it would be a little unfair to the herring fishermen, whose welfare we have at heart, just as we have at heart the welfare of the mackerel fishermen. They might naturally experience some little resentment because of the fact that herring prices remain the same when we had adjusted the mackerel prices.

Of course, the Minister does realise that it is not a question of being able to catch mackerel or not. It is not economic to catch them. What the Minister is saying at the moment is deny- ing to the country more mackerel, and iherefore more food

the iron. Gentleman was just as emphatic when he was at the Ministry. I think he will agree that I listened to him very courteously and that not for one moment did I ask him to desist We discussed this matter, as I have already said, exhaustively. We quite agree with what the deputation said about the food value of mackerel. What I said in the letter which the hon. Gentleman has quoted I mean. We recognise that the inshore fisherman has had rather a difficult time and, in the autumn, we shall be prepared to look at these price-again. I am stating a sound case when I say that this is not the time to do it, just before the peak period of the Scottish herring fishing. When the peak period is over, we shall be prepared to look at those prices. We are having a survey of all fish prices in the autumn, and I hope that, as a result of it, the hon. Member for Bodmin will be more satisfied with the treatment which we afford to the inshore fishermen.

I must remind the House that these fishermen have been given certain considerations in the past. We have in the past re-adjusted the maximum price schedule in order that they should have a higher price for the wings of ray and skate than for the whole skate. That has been very helpful to them. Last winter we increased by 7d. a stone the first hand price of soles, turbot and brill. Furthermore, mackerel is always given the most favourable rate of transport levy, enabling catchers to have increased prices during the winter. I need not remind the hon. Member about pilchards; I have always felt that he has pilchards written on his heart. I think he must have discussed pilchards with me during the last two years on at least a dozen occasions. We have released from control pilchards, sprats, and red and grey mullet. This has enabled inshore fishermen to reap the benefit of occasional increases when market conditions were not in their favour and this has helped them when prices have been much lower. Furthermore, we have released from control shell-fish par ticularly high-grade crabs and lobsters which now fetch prices more appropriate to their quality. I think the hon. Gentleman will see that the Ministry of Food has at heart the welfare of the in- shore fisherman, and in the autumn when we readjust our prices, we are going to give them further consideration.

But, finally, I do not believe that this will solve their problem—this readjustment of prices. They have to compete, one must remember, with the more efficient fleets of trawlers and the modern methods of distribution and preservation, and I think they will survive in the future only by co-operative organisation; they will survive only if they learn that they must co-operate both on sales and purchases, and I will welcome the hon. Member if he cares to come to the Ministry again, and I will teach him the principles of co-operation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.