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White Fish Industry (Governments Proposals)

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 4 July 1950

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36.

asked the Prime Minister whether he now has any statement to make on the white fish industry.

37.

asked the Prime Minister whether he has now any statement to make on the white fish industry.

38.

asked the Prime Minister if he is yet in a position to make a statement on the problems confronting the Scottish fishing industry.

39.

asked the Prime Minister if he is now able to make his promised statement on the white fish industry.

40.

asked the Prime Minister if he will now make a statement on policy with regard to the white fish industry.

41 and 42.

asked the Prime Minister (1) whether, in view of the urgency of the matter, he is now able to make a full statement on the measures the Government propose to take to assist the inshore fishing industry; and

(2) whether, in view of the grave developments in the Far East, he can say what steps are being taken to keep the fishing fleet at sea, in view of its importance as a producer of essential food and of its record of service in times of national emergency.

Yes, Sir; with permission, I propose to make a Statement at the end of Questions.

Later—

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement in answer to questions on the white fish industry.

The difficulties of the white fish industry are basic, complex, and of long standing. There is, therefore, no simple solution to them. The view has often been expressed in this House that their difficulties are not likely to be overcome by the industry itself. The Government agree with this view and have decided to promote legislation to set up an Authority with adequate powers to regulate, re-organise and develop the white fish industry. It will be composed of independent members and will have statutory powers, but it will naturally work in consultation with the industry. Consideration is being given to the detailed powers which the Authority will need if effective measures are to be taken to make the industry pay its way. Meantime, as there will be much preliminary work to be done involving consultation with all sections of the industry, steps will be taken to appoint the members of the Authority in advance of legislation, so that they may quickly begin this preparatory work. I am sure that the House would not expect me to go into details at this stage.

The difficulties of the industry have been aggravated by a fall in demand, and the Government will continue to do all they can to encourage the greater consumption of fish.

The Government have also decided to initiate discussions in O.E.E.C. with a view to evolving a common policy regarding the excessive landings of cod and other coarse fish from the distant waters, and the prevention of overfishing in the North Sea and other areas.

As an immediate measure, the Government have decided to use part of the food subsidies to assist catchers of white fish in the near and middle waters, including inshore fishermen, for a period of six months. In the case of catchers using vessels not exceeding 70 feet in length, the subsidy will be lOd. per stone on white fish landed, payable under conditions broadly similar to those in force before the 15th April last. Catchers using vessels over 70 feet but under 140 feet in length will not be paid according to the weight of fish landed, but will receive payment on scales rising to a maximum of £12 per day and varying according to the gross earnings of each voyage and the number of days taken.

It is estimated that the cost of this scheme should not exceed £1.7 million on the basis of present prices, and may well be less if fish prices should recover. This subsidy is designed not only to secure improvement in the fishing ports meantime and until the White Fish Authority is able to apply long term remedies, but also to encourage the catchers of prime fish to maintain supplies of the better kinds of fish and, because it will profit them, to shorten their voyages to make that fish available to the public in even fresher condition. The underlying objective is to ensure the continued supply at reasonable prices of fish which is a vital element in the nation's diet; that is why the subsidy will be treated as a food subsidy and will come within the food subsidy ceiling.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that statement will revive in the fishing industry hopes that were well-nigh dead? Is he also aware that much regret will be expressed in the industry because there is no mention in the statement of fishing gear costs? Is the House to understand from the statement that the control of imported boxed fish will be in the hands of the statutory body which is to be set up? I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that gear costs and imported fish are two of the basic causes of the unrest in the fishing industry today.

That detailed question had better be put to my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that my hon. Friends have not had an opportunity to consider his comprehensive statement, but may I put three points to him? First, is it contemplated that the board, like the Herring Industry Board which was set up before the war, will be on a United Kingdom basis? Secondly, what terms of reference does the Prime Minister propose to give to the members of the board whom he proposes to nominate, and when may the House have details of those terms of reference? Thirdly, we understand that it is not proposed to introduce any legislation before the autumn at the earliest. Is that so?

The answer to the first question is: Yes, it will be a United Kingdom board. The terms of reference are now being worked out. In reply to the third point, it will not be possible to introduce legislation before the Recess.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement announcing the setting up of an over-riding authority will give great satisfaction to those of us on this side of the House who have •consistently pressed for this measure? Will he indicate whether this board will have adequate powers to control both the production and distribution sides of the industry? Also, with regard to the grant of subsidies to the industry, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there will be very strict governmental control of the spending of the money?

Yes, clearly, on that point there will have to be very close control to see that the subsidies do not go into the wrong hands. On the other point, I cannot go into details at present as to the exact limits of the authority of the board.

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that the condition of the herring fishing industry is just as grave as that of the white fish industry, mainly owing to the lack of markets? Will he give the House an assurance that this matter is also being considered by the Government as a matter of urgency?

I understand that this matter was considered by the Government with the Herring Industry Board and that agreement was reached.

In joining my colleagues in expressing satisfaction at the acceptance of proposals for the setting up of a white fish industry board which we have consistently urged for many years, may I ask whether it is possible to take any action to protect the fishermen and others engaged in the catching side of the industry from what ¦amounts now to sheer exploitation by several private interests in respect of fishing gear? Is any action possible to bring down the cost of gear, which is a vital part of the whole problem?

In view of the Prime Minister's statement that this financial assistance will be limited to a period of six months, may I ask whether the Government are satisfied that the legislation and other necessary measures can be in operation by 1st January, 1951?

We shall have to do our best. At the end of the six months the matter will have to be reviewed.

Pending the coming into full operation of the board, which I am glad the Prime Minister is setting up, will he consider protecting the producer and the consumer—the producer by fixing a minimum price for fish landed in the market, and the consumer by fixing a maximum price for the fish sold? Does the Prime Minister realise that the only real long-term solution of these problems is the nationalisation of the fishing industry?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say when he expects to announce the names of the board?

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the necessity for giving this board adequate powers to ensure that any agreement signed between the trade unions and the trawler owners is carried out? I ask this because of the strike which is at present paralysing Mil-ford Haven.

Within the six months period until the board is set up, is there any possibility of assistance being given in relation to freight charges?

Will the subsidy extend to Northern Ireland? Further, when the board is set up, will Northern Ireland be represented upon it, and will due consultation take place with the appropriate Minister in Northern Ireland before legislation is introduced?

This will not apply to Northern Ireland. No representation has been received from that Government on this matter.

May we have an assurance that this subsidisation of private enterprise will not draw from the Opposition the criticism of "jobs for the boys"?

Are we to understand that this new body will have the same authority over inshore fishing operations as it is intended to have over other white fish operations?

Did not the Prime Minister say that this would be a United Kingdom board? Does not that include Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman said that it was to be on a United Kingdom basis, but in his answer just now he seemed to imply that it would not be. If representations are received from Northern Ireland, will he consider them, or, in the alternative, will it be open to Northern Ireland to pass appropriate legislation? They pay the same taxes and presumably ought to enjoy the same benefits.

Consideration is always given to representations from the Northern Ireland Government.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the needs of those smaller fishing villages in which, even if they cannot make such a substantial contribution in food as the great fishing fleets, fishing is none the less a way of life and an alternative means of employment, though it has been declining for many generations?

Does the Prime Minister mean that the deep sea trawlers over 140 feet in length will get no help at all?

There will be no-financial help for the bigger trawlers and long-distance trawlers.

When may the fishermen expect to benefit from this subsidy? Can the right hon. Gentleman give the approximate date when it will come into operation?

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the amount of the subsidy was decided on the basis of the losses-incurred by the fishing industry prior to the lifting of price control?

I understood the Prime Minister to say that the subsidy would be based on 10d. a stone on the catch for those vessels under 70 feet and for those over 70 feet it would in some way be based on the vessels. Could the Prime Minister state what proportion of that subsidy flows to those vessels under 70 feet?