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Fishing Industry

Volume 476: debated on Friday 23 June 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Kenneth Robinson.]

4.8 p.m.

I wish to pass from the light hearted subject of holiday resorts to the more serious topic of the fishing industry in the country as a whole, and in particular in Scotland. It was on 6th April this year that I had the privilege to initiate the last Debate on this topic. There has not been a week since then when either one of my hon. Friends or I have not put Questions to the Government and pressed this matter upon them with all its seriousness. I do not apologise for raising it once again today, because, despite the assurances of the Prime Minister and other members of the Government throughout the past 11 weeks, that the matter would be taken into serious consideration, and that some statement would be made—throughout all that time not one single constructive step has been taken in the midst of this crisis of a remedial character.

Nor does there seem to be any prospect of one constructive remedial step for a very long time to come. I hope that the presence today of the Secretary of State for Scotland, which we all welcome, indicates that we may get something constructive put before us. It may be that he will tell us that soon something constructive will be done.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Anxiety and mental distress is everywhere throughout the fishing ports of this country. I have never seen the men more perturbed than they are today—not even in the difficult periods between the wars. In addition, as we know, boats are being laid up almost everywhere. I read the other day that one of the biggest companies in Hull and Grimsby have announced that they are tying up the whole of their fleet from now until August. Surely, that is a very dramatic action. It indicates that something extremely grave is happening. Ten days ago we who represent fishing districts were officially informed by the fishermen's organisation in Aberdeen that "serious deterioration" has come upon the industry and that a "considerable quantity of fish is being dumped."

These are solemn facts which should cause us all to think most seriously. There is indeed every sign that unless some immediate measures are taken to counteract the trend, the deterioration may develop into something akin to disaster. What a strange thing it is—and here I am merely repeating sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby) with much greater eloquence than I can command—that we, of all countries in the world, should permit this unhappy and dangerous development in so vital a section of our national life. It is not only that the fish industry provides food of high quality in peace as well as in war, though that is very important. It is not only that the fishing industry is the repository of some of the highest and finest qualities of the British people—sterling character, independence of mind, fortitude and courage, moral virtues for which the whole civilised world is calling out now.

Over and above these considerations, this industry has a strategic value in the security of our country which we simply cannot afford to neglect. That has been said time and again, but it would appear that with this Government in power we have to rub in even such an obvious situation as this. The Secretary of State for Scotland is charged personally by this House and by the nation to maintain unweakened part of that essential element of British defence. What is he doing? Is he doing his duty on that account? Instead of building up that defence, it seems to me that he is seeing it, day by day, rapidly disintegrating. No other words can be used to express the facts that we see around us. Instead of increasing the manpower of this vital force, he permits conditions in which that manpower is steadily and rapidly declining. Instead of making the fishermen proud of and happy in their calling, he sees, apparently without any disturbance, the sons of fishermen shunning the calling of their fathers and leaving the industry whenever they possibly can.

How much longer can this very serious state of affairs be allowed to continue? I confess that I wonder if there is any chance at all of remedial measures as long as this Government remain in power. It seems that they do not appreciate the elementary facts of the situation. Incredible as it may seem, apparently they do not yet realise that the fishermen are being asked to operate and to catch fish in conditions which, on the whole, make impossible the attainment of what the Co-operative Societies call a modest "surplus," or even as much as to make ends meet.

I am in my division practically every week and I see my fishermen constituents regularly. I was at the market some days ago and saw the prices they got, and I know—there is no question of opinion about this—that these men today are not getting prices adequate to pay their running costs. That cannot go on. Some of the prices are better than in the control period. The prices of flat fish are up, but the bulk of the fish caught round our shores, and certainly in Scotland, are cod and haddock, and the prices of these fish are down. If 75 per cent. of the catch is well down in price, they are "in the red" all the time. That is what is happening. Conditions are such that there is scarcely a voyage which these men can take on which they do not lose money.

The fish which our fishermen catch has to compete with a whole range of non-luxury protein foods, such as cheese, meat and eggs, all of which are subsidised. That would be difficult enough in itself, but, in addition, their costs of production have risen higher than those of any other industry. The cost of nets, ropes and gear is rocketing, and my latest information from Fife is that the cost of ropes has gone up again in the last fortnight or so, and there is every sign that it will go up still further.

In addition to all that, the costs of transport are rising. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who many of us admire but who never seems to be right about anything that happens in Fife, said in the last Debate that East Fife need not worry about decontrol, because it did not send anything south of the border anyway, and that, in fact, the charges for transport would be less. It is the very opposite of the truth. We have always sent some quantity of our fish across the border, and the truth is that, instead of the cost of transport being lower, it is much higher. The cost of lorries has gone up, the railway charges are up, and these are the direct causes of our difficulties.

Here is a quotation from a letter which I received today from a fish salesman:
"The very sore question is, of course, transport charges. As you know, the buyers here cannot take the risk of sending fish to the commission markets such as Glasgow, and Billingsgate owing to the high railway charges."
I know that to be true; I have the figures and it is all very plain. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom market for fish is at times almost overwhelmed by overseas imports. These four conditions—the competition of subsidised foods, the high costs of production, the increases in tibie cost of transport and the frequent overwhelming nature of foreign imports—make it virtually impossible for fishermen, by and large and taking one week with another, to avoid losses.

The Secretary of State has a measure of personal responsibility for all these four conditions. His Government now operate rail transport and a large part of road transport, and cannot escape responsibility for these rising rates. His Government have imposed taxation and created fiscal conditions which are largely responsible for the increases in the prices of gear. His Government control the import of fish. Could they revert to the pre-war system, we would have much more cause for satisfaction than is the case today. Therefore, to some extent, he bears personal responsibility for these very serious conditions.

I most seriously invite the right hon. Gentleman to consider his own position. He holds a great position and has a great responsibility; and, though we may like him, we are not going to allow him to escape the responsibility for keeping that industry on its feet. It is no use telling us what was done before 1945, about the new boats which were brought along. We are not talking about that, although that is part of the problem. The fishermen were encouraged to buy new boats at heavy cost, and now they cannot make them pay. The right hon. Gentleman has to answer for that.

At the last election the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends issued various documents. One of them was called, "Labour Believes in Britain," in which were the following words:
"Our fishing fleets bring us food. They are a vital part of Britain's defences. They must never again be allowed to decline."
There must be bitter feeling among the fishermen when they read those words now, and when they see their boats tied up in the ports. It must be very galling to them when they see their men queueing at the employment exchange.

Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman has an additional responsibility. One does not expect him to work miracles, but it is not right that this great industry should have been decontrolled, and that the transport system and prices should have been altered without a thought being given to what was to happen thereafter. I charge the Government with gross mismanagement of a great industry, and I demand that the right hon. Gentleman gives us a reply.

4.23 p.m.

The House is fully aware of the seriousness of the position both in the white fishing industry and in the herring fishing industry. We have been promised a statement from the Prime Minister on the position, and we hope that that statement will incorporate Government policy. May I urge upon the right hon. Gentleman the fact that speed is absolutely vital in this matter? We have been urging speed for the last 12 weeks, and we are still awaiting some official verdict. Do not let us have to wait any longer. I sincerely trust that the coming week will see the necessary steps taken. Ample warning was given, and there is really no excuse for the delay.

I have seen the complete chaos that is reigning in the inshore fishing industry in Scotland. I saw 100 boxes of prime fish dumped at Lossiemouth because it could not find a buyer. The price obtainable from a factory would not have been economic. I trust that the Prime Minister's statement will cover such points as foreign imports, gear and operating costs, wholesale and retail price margins, and transport charges. I also hope that we shall have some constructive proposals for the setting up of a white fish marketing board with full powers as, otherwise, it would be idle to attempt to set up such a board.

The right hon. Gentleman knows what is happening in the herring industry. Chaos is reigning there. The Herring Board schemes have terminated, and I sincerely trust that the discussions which we have had with the right hon. Gentleman, and which have been evidence of the co-operative spirit which we on this side are showing, are going to do some good. Again, speed is the essence of the contract, and we trust that in the coming week we shall also have a statement from the right hon. Gentleman about the herring industry.

4.24 p.m.

I only want to add my testimony to that already given as to the very serious situation now facing all branches of the fishing industry, from the trawler to the lobster fisherman. We have heard the reasons for that—the high price of gear and transport charges, and falling prices. I feel that, more than ever, a great deal depends on the outcome of the present herring season, and I have considerable anxiety as to whether we shall not see the herring fleets tied up before the season ends. I ask that the Minister shall give us some indication as to what prices and agreements he hopes to be able to announce for this season.

As for the committee which is considering the whole question of fishing, I understand from what was said two days ago that it is confining itself to the white fish industry. I hope that it will also take into account the high price of gear and, if possible, the question of marketing and profit margins.

4.25 p.m.

The Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart) quoted from "Labour Believes in Britain," but he did not emphasise the word "again" when he quoted the words used in that document. He quoted:

"They are a vital part of Britain's defence. They must never again be allowed to decline."
It is as well to keep this in balance. The crisis in this industry has not just appeared in the last few weeks. It has been developing over a number of years. The obsolescence of the fleet is evidence of that. Take Scotland, but particularly Aberdeen; no trawler has been built by private industry for their home fleet in the last five years.

The hon. Member for Fife, East seems to lay all the blame at the door of the Government. What absolute nonsense. What had the important and vital factor of building new trawlers to do with the Government? It was entirely up to private enterprise to put its capital in and take the risk. Risk, after all, is the old Tory excuse for justifying profit. It did not do that.

Every appeal from the other side of the House is for more Government intervention and more help and planning. The industry is behind hon. Members opposite, or hon. Members opposite are being brought in behind the industry, in demanding that we should, for example, set up a White Fish Industry Board. Some herring fishing spokesmen are demanding that we should nationalise the herring industry to assure them a living wage. The Government have spent £32,000 and helped to save the lobster industry of the North-West. Grants and loans are given.

I appeal, nevertheless, on behalf of the industry to the Secretary of State to try and give us an early statement of fishing policy. There is an immediate problem as well as a long-term problem awaiting solution. As for the setting up of a White Fishing Industry Board, we on this side are entirely in favour and have advocated that long before hon. Members opposite ever advocated it.

4.28 p.m.

I understand the concern felt on this matter. Although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart) for his expression of admiration for me, I really object to being lectured by anyone from that side of the House, and particularly from that section of the House, about the present handling of the fishing industry. The hon. Gentleman used most extravagant language about this "vast 11 weeks."

That is a little more modest, but it is still absurdly impertinent, because the condition of the fishing industry in Scotland or the United Kingdom has not arisen in the past 11 weeks. When the hon. Gentleman was in a position to influence a Government—a Government which was tossed out of office—he did nothing about the condition of the fishing fleet in Scotland.

The right hon. Gentleman was not here. He does not know anything about it.

I need not have been here to know about the condition of the Scottish fishing fleet; nor need I have been here to know the supine part the hon. Gentleman's party played in past Tory Governments, which were in an unchallengeable position in this House.

The position of the fishing fleet is not a product of the last 11 weeks and nobody in the House believes that it is—not even hon. Members opposite. The hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart) does not even show a knowledge of the conditions in his own division. I am quite prepared to show him figures to indicate that conditions in his own constituency have improved a great deal in the last few weeks. I am even prepared to give him figures to show that the removal of the flat freight rate has meant that the average cost of transport per stone of fish in his own division—from the port of Anstruther—has dropped. I am quite prepared to put the figures before the House. The average cost of transport per stone of fish from Anstruther has dropped since the removal of the flat freight rate.

I will go further. The prices of the two categories of fish to which the hon. Member referred—cod and haddock-have improved since 15th April. The controlled price of cod was 38s. On 13th May it was fetching 50s. 6½d. at Anstruther. The hon. Gentleman cannot get away from that. The figures are on record. If he is to make an argument he must base himself on the figures.

The right hon. Gentleman has chosen to give only certain figures. They are not fair.

I have selected the figures of the two commodities upon which the hon. Gentleman chose to base himself—cod and haddock.

Let me take another day, a nearer day—3rd June. The price of cod was 42s. 1½d. as against 38s. and haddock was 77s. 7d. as against 48s.

The controlled price operated on Monday, Tuesday. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

I apologise in that I have been led away on an aside, but I think it is unfair to the House that the hon. Member should whip himself up into this state of righteous indignation about a situation which he knows is complex, which has a very long history and which will take much more than 11 weeks to solve.

Foreign landings was another subject mentioned. I agree, of course, that foreign landings have a disturbing influence on price and, therefore, on the general state of the industry, but what is the proportion of these foreign landings to which the hon. Member takes such objection? What proportion do they represent compared with the pre-war years? Are they equal, for example, to the figures for 1938? Will the hon. Member make a guess?

I need not guess; I have them all here. I will give them to the right hon. Gentleman in a minute.

Why does not the hon. Gentleman get to know them before he whips himself up into a frenzy? Why must he allude to the documents after his indignation and righteous temper? It is particularly unfair and verging on the dishonest to pretend that foreign landings are a predominant figure in this situation.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite unfair. Let me give one example. In 1938, 222,223 cwts, of cod were imported. In 1949 the figure was 1,321,490—six times as much. I could give all the figures.

Cod? Is that the figure we are to base the argument upon? Let us ask the hon. Member or Banff (Mr. Duthie), who knows this industry from a practical point of view. Would the hon. Member for Banff argue that the imports of foreign cod at this moment are really a vital factor in the industry? They are not. The Icelandic imports have been dropping away for the reason that is general to the whole fish trade—because prices have been dropping and because, let me admit freely, the whole fish trade is in a very grave situation. Because the situation is grave and because prices are lower, the price of cod has dropped. This is one factor but not the predominant factor. This is a disturbing factor which influences the whole price structure of the industry, but is only one of the factors which any sober body of people attempting to confront the situation must take account of.

I want to say one further thing. I am not at all happy about the 11 weeks. I do not pretend for a moment that I am otherwise than greatly disturbed about the condition of the fishing industry. I do not pretend other than that the Government is disturbed and actively concerned and working upon the industry. The hon. Member for Banff asked for constructive proposals. I give an undertaking that very shortly the Government will be in a position to put constructive proposals—I hope of the kind for which he asked—before the House in relation to this problem we are now discussing.

Will that relate to the herring industry as well as to the white fishing industry?

Do not let any of us pretend that there is any easy solution to this problem. Do not let any of us pretend that these problems and differences have grown up in the last 11 weeks or even the last 11 years. Let us agree that there are grave contradictions in the industry. In the distant water industry we have highly-efficient trawlers; perhaps too efficient trawlers, at any rate, trawlers bringing in too great quantities of fish. At the other end of the industry, we have the small boats—the very small men on whom the nation must depend in time of war or threat of war—which are not all efficient, yet which, in my submission, from a social and strategic point of view must be protected. The Government have plans, which I promise the House will very shortly be presented, which will attempt to deal with some of these contradictions in the industry, and which will range from the distant water trawlers to the inshore industry.

I think that the herring industry is in charge of the Herring Industry Board. It is a separate, although not unrelated, problem, but I am addressing myself at the moment to the white fish industry.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-two Minutes to Five o'Clock.