White Fish and Herring Subsidies

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th July 1961.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Crosland Mr Anthony Crosland , Grimsby 12:00 am, 14th July 1961

I support in general the speeches of preceding speakers, but I regret the exaggeration that some of those speeches have shown. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Banff (Sir W. Duthie) referred to what he called the desiccated official mind. It is a great mistake for people connected with the fishing industry to think that all its troubles arise because some civil servant has never seen a trawler. I also support the general case of the industry—though not solely because of, but in certain respects in spite of, some of the representations we have been receiving from the industry. I received this morning in common with other hon. Members a memorandum from the Aberdeen Trawler Owners Fishing Association and I take the greatest exception to the tone of one paragraph in it.

Generally, I think that the fishing industry on this, as on previous occasions, does no good to its case by persistent exaggeration of language. If I hear one more reference to the industry being sacrificed to the interests of political expediency I shall go quietly out of my mind. There is an assumption in the industry that any agreement which the Government are compelled to make with some friendly democratic Western Government is an act of expediency implying something immoral, whereas when the fishing industry wants something on its own behalf, that is not expediency, it is morality. This kind of exaggerated language does no good at all and I wish that the industry would moderate the tone of its statements.

Having said that, I think that on the main point it has got an extremely strong case. The Minister said, quite rightly, that no one could design a scheme which would satisfy everybody. But I think it would be hard to find a scheme which would create more opposition than we have here. It is probably true that the Minister would like to have given some additional help at the last minute to the midde water fleet, but was prevented by the Treasury; in this sense he is the victim of the economic crisis into which the Chancellor's policy has landed us.

I want to speak briefly and almost entirely on the question of the middle water section of the fleet. The distant water section, with the provision of£17 per day, does not have any legitimate cause for complaint. It has probably come off rather better than it expected. The main complaint in this debate revolves around the question of the Faroes fleet. That has been a problem section for some time, because although it made a modest profit for some years, the White Fish Authority Report for this year shows that there has been a steady decline in the average catch for some time. But now the situation has worsened catastrophically. I did not recognise the figures which the Minister gave for 1960 because I think he lumped the whole of the middle water fleet together, whether fishing in the Faroes or in the Western Isles, so that his figures did not isolate the problem relating to the Faroes.

I should like to quote one or two figures which I have obtained from a firm in Grimsby, a firm which I know particularly well because it was on one of its ships that I went fishing off the Faroes a couple of years ago. Comparing the first few months of 1961 with the first few months of 1960, the drop in catches and in earnings is catastrophic. That is the only word that one can use. Taking the average catch of the ships in this fleet, the drop in kits per day is of this order of magnitude: one ship 38 to 16, another ship 32 to 16 and another ship 42 to 25. If one takes it in terms of earnings per day, the drops are from£149 to£104,£181 to£156 and so on. These figures are not in dispute.

The Minister conceded that comparing 1961 with 1960 there has been a really serious drop in the profitability of the Faroes vessels. But he made the point that this drop occurred after a time lag and not directly after the extension of the limits. That is true. Although the results for the Faroes vessels in 1960 were much worse in terms of profitability compared with 1959, a number were making a small credit balance. I think it is often true of fishing that if something is done such as extending the limits, this is not reflected instantly in reduced earnings. I think there is a time-lag effect. But it is the 1961 figures that we have to go on.

It is not, as one or two hon. Members have pointed out, only the trawler owners with whom one is concerned. There are also the skippers, mates and crews. The organisation of skippers and mates in Grimsby has calculated that the average earnings of skippers off the Faroes have dropped from£5,000 a year before the new limits agreement to£3,000 today. The position of mates has also become very serious indeed. Some mates are earning less than third hands, and are signing off as mates and signing on as third hands. This is a ridiculous state of affairs and is the consequence of the serious situation in the Faroes.

I agree that one cannot definitely prove that the very serious losses in 1961 are due solely to the extension of the limits, since there is this time-lag effect. All one can say so far as Grimsby is concerned is that it is the unanimous view of the skippers, from their experience in the Faroes, that by far the biggest reason for the drop is the extension of limits. This is not answered by the Minister saying that one of the reasons that the results per trawler are worse in the Faroes is that more trawlers are fishing a limited area. This fact itself is due to the extension of limits. As a result of the limits being extended, all the trawlers are pushed out towards the shelf and are forced to fish in a steadily narrowing corridor. Inevitably the catch per trawler will decline due to the narrowing of the corridor and due 4.1so to the fact that the quality of fish caught outside the 6-mile limit is inferior to the quality previously caught inside the limit—lots of coley but much less prime fish. This must be attributed to the extension of the limits.

If this is the background to the matter, it cannot be denied, in view of the figures with which we have been furnished, that the new subsidy rates are totally inadequate and particularly so in the case of 130-ft. to 140-ft. trawlers which are concerned mostly with the Faroes. I am not prepared to say that the figure of£30 a day, which the owners propose, is justified. I do not commit myself to that figure, but one can say that, bearing in mind the results which we have seen, a figure of£5 a day is grossly inadequate and is in striking contrast to the treatment given to the distant water section. That section has been quite generously compensated for the loss of the Icelandic grounds, and, compared to that compensation, the treatment given to the middle water section of the fleet is ungenerous indeed.

It is rather ironic that, proportionately speaking, the middle water section of the fleet has probably lost more off the Faroes than the distant water section has lost off Iceland, and yet it is being compensated much less generously. I concede that when one deals with Government subsidies there must always be anomalies and apparent injustice but this seems to go beyond an anomaly and is really a tragic blunder.

What will the consequences be in a few months' time if the Minister does not change his mind. One consequence will be a very serious drop in the earnings of skippers, mates and crews. Another consequence, which has not been referred to, is that we shall have proved to have wasted a good deal of public money which, with the support of the House, has been put into the middle water section of the fleet, and which we are now turning into an unprofitable investment as a result of the niggardliness of Government subsidies. It is a gross waste of public money to create an investment and then to act in such a way that the investment becomes unprofitable.

By far the worst result to which I wish to draw attention is that I fear that some of the smaller firms connected with the middle water section will be driven out of business. This raises a most important point when we are considering subsidies. I admit that the Fleck Report says that there should be more rationalisation of the fishing industry. I agree that there may be some ports where there may be too many small firms. But this is not the case in Grimsby where we do not have a mass of very small firms. What we have is a number of small-to-medium firms whose existence alongside the large firms is vital to the health of the industry. It would be wrong if we got to the point where -the industry was monopolised by, say, three major units. It is essential that surrounding these large firms there should be a number of small-to-medium firms in a healthy condition constantly competing with them.

The people whom I am worried about in Grinisby—I am talking still of the middle water section—are those firms, for example, with seven trawlers, or four trawlers or two trawlers. There is a serious danger that at these subsidy rates those firms will be driven into bankruptcy in twelve months. They are very nervous that they may not be able to meet their commitments for loan repayments to the White Fish Authority this autumn. The only comfort that the Minister could give when he mentioned this point was that the Authority would consider each case when it arose. That is cold comfort indeed. The fact must be faced that the Minister is in danger of driving some of the small-to-medium family firms into the hands of the larger units of the industry.

This seems a curious policy for a Conservative Minister to pursue. After all, the Conservatives are always preaching about how they support the small man in industry and it is, therefore, curious that the Minister should pursue a subsidy policy which has the danger of concentrating the industry into a tiny number of very large units.

There are two things which the Government could do. The first thing—and this would alleviate the position and I hope that the Minister who will reply will refer to this—would be to remove or, at any rate, to relax, the present ban on middle water vessels fishing in distant waters. At the moment the authorities allow them two—although this year they will allow three—trips in a year outside the middle waters if they are grant-aided. Many people in the industry consider that the position could be greatly alleviated if that restriction was relaxed. We should improve the earnings both of the trawlers which went further a field, and of those which stayed at the Faroes, where there would now be less over-fishing.

But mainly I hope that the Minister will make it quite clear that, on the present figures, he will increase the rate of subsidy, particularly on the 130-ft. and 140-ft. vessels. In any case, the position cannot go on as it is. I do not feel satisfied with the tone of the right hon. Gentleman's assurances. He said that he would consider this again in the light of what takes place during the coming six months, and I am not so happy with those assurances as the hon. Member for Banff appeared to be. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks certainly did not satisfy me about the future.

The fears and feelings in the industry would be better alleviated if the Minister, in replying, would give a quite definite assurance that this whole matter will be reconsidered during the coming six months and brought back to the House at the end of that period. Otherwise, hon. Members should vote against the Government.