Orders of the Day — White Fish Authority (Publicity Scheme)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th March 1970.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice 12:00 am, 10th March 1970

As the Minister has said, this scheme provides for a levy of 0·75 pence per stone for a publicity scheme costing £400,000. This is at the same time as the increase in the general levy from one penny to 1·2 pence per stone. So the total increase asked by the White Fish Authority is 1·95 pence. This seems a rather extraordinary figure. I wonder what will happen when we take to decimalisation.

The scheme does not apply to shellfish. The levy is returned on exports and it is repaid on fishmeal or fish used for canning, animal foods, and so on. I asked the Minister the other day whether this was not rather a clumsy idea, first taking the levy and then returning it. Paragraph 7 of the scheme makes provision for the collection, and I should like to know how much this will cost.

This is the third in the Government's trilogy—first the publicity scheme, second the increase in the general levy and third the minimum price for Scotland, which is needed to strengthen the market. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) who had asked what objections there had been to the scheme, the Secretary of State for Scotland said on 19th February: These objections, briefly, were that the prerequisites of an advertising campaign were a United Kingdom statutory minimum prices scheme, quality control of fish to be marketed and limitation of imports."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1970; Vol. 796, c. 191.] We on this side would largely agree with that suggestion. The minimum price scheme for Scotland has been approved by the Government in an announcement on 26th February, and we wonder what they have in mind for England and as regards the other two prerequisites.

I turn now to the White Fish Authority's view of the scheme. In the brief sent to many hon. Members, they say that this scheme was proposed 18 months ago, when there were rising catches and falling prices. Now the situation is exactly the opposite. They say that this has necessitated a redesign of the scheme and that its object now is To persuade housewives principally and other consumers secondarily to pay higher prices for fish; a food which people tend to look upon with a feeling of apathy and boredom; and about which many housewives lack confidence when preparing. They say that there had been certain important developments—first, the growth of prepacked fish, second, the decline in the number of fishmongers, third, the increased relative importance of the fish friers, and, fourth, the decline in the number of catchers, particularly in the distant water section of the fleet.

They conclude: We must now be concerned basically with changing attitudes to, and increasing awareness of, fish rather than primarily increasing consumption to eliminate a substantial surplus of fish landings. In other words, we want to educate the housewife to the fact that she must pay a reasonable price for her fish and not try necessarily to increase consumption. They intend to use the media of women's magazines, cinema and television to do this. They also say that the scheme has been agreed by the Publicity Liaison Committee of the White Fish Authority, except by the representatives of the wholesale fish merchants, who boycotted the meeting.

This view of the White Fish Authority was strongly endorsed in a leading article in the Fishing News of 20th February. It referred to an important conference in Canada, which said—this is the universal view now—that the trend is away from cheap fish and that attention must therefore be paid to marketing and advertising to the public that, although catches go down, that is no reason for relaxing advertising efforts and that the industry should try to turn housewives to new species of fish and that this may mean more expenditure than this levy, which is raising some £400,000.

The article concluded: This scheme would be a base from which to direct sales publicity to species which may still lack a market. It may also be used to tell people why they are having to pay more for their fish, and to encourage them to keep on buying. There is an opportunity here to raise the food status of fish, and to set the industry on a new level where all its members are adequately rewarded for their effort in catching and distributing it. The House will agree that that is a strong endorsement of the scheme as proposed.

I want to examine the four recent developments mentioned by the White Fish Authority. First, the question of prepackaging. It seems to many of my hon. Friends that large firms such as Bird's Eye and Ross do their own advertising and that, though the scheme will help, it may be of marginal help only. Second, the fishmongers, the National Federation of Fishmongers, wrote to me saying: … so far as the retail fishmonger is concerned this is a scheme for which the trade has been pressing for upwards of ten years and the sooner it can be got going the better". The federation also said that it hopes that it can be given a say in the running of the scheme and in regard to the content of advertisements. The friers take broadly the same view.

As for the catchers, the British Trawlers' Federation Ltd. is fairly neutral. It believes that the scheme might be of some help in taking up surplus stock and might well promote better prices. The Scottish Trawler Federation, I understand, takes much the same view.

As for the inshore men, I quote from a letter I have received from the Fisheries Organisation Society: All our fishermen's societies were consulted about the Authority's proposed publicity scheme. The most vehement objections came from those fishermen engaged in shell fishing. Their views were duly passed on to the White Fish Authority with the result that the latter agreed to exclude shell fish from the levy, thus removing the shell fishermen's objections.For the rest the fishermen who mainly depend on white fish raised no objections and some welcomed the idea of a scheme to boost the sale of fish. Broadly speaking, it can be said that it is a position of neutrality or of qualified approval, except for the fishmongers who are greatly in favour of the scheme.

The other side of the story are the views of the port wholesalers, who strongly oppose the scheme. They, too, have sent a brief to many hon. Members on both sides. The brief is a long one. I shall summarise five of their most important objections. They say, first, that the earlier publicity campaigns conducted by the White Fish Authority have not been very effective and certainly did not dispose of gluts of fish. They say that magazine advertising was tried before and failed; why try it again? They say that there has been little consultation with them and that, when objections were raised when the scheme was put to various merchants' organisations at the ports, their views were disregarded and that probably the total sum to be raised is too small to be effective. They say that in other parallel schemes—for example, for milk and eggs—the producer pays the levy, whereas in this scheme the middlemen is to pay the levy. They say that a quality control scheme would probably be of more use. They go on to say categorically that, if the House in its wisdom approves this scheme, they will not pay the levy.

I want briefly to examine these views. First, the allegation about the failure to remove a glut is answered by a comment in the Fish Trades Gazette of 28th February. I quote from two paragraphs from that publication: It is not a promotion scheme aimed to stimulate sales at times of glut, but one that will try and make the very mention of fish one that conjures up thoughts of a good meal rather than a repulsive smelly stop-gap snack…Therefore, if we are to sell fish at all it is important to convince the consumer that it is a luxury product and a food to be sought after. That should answer the first of the criticisms.

Then it is said that in this case that middleman is to pay, whereas the producer pays the other levies. I imagine that the cost of the levy will be passed on to the consumer; therefore, it is as broad as it is long. After all, the object of the scheme is to persuade the housewife that it is worth while to pay a higher price for fish.

Then there is the contention about lack of consultation. There was a failure of communication, it would seem, but I am not accusing the White Fish Authority or the merchants. Obviously, they have got very much at cross purposes. I hope that, if the scheme goes through, the wholesalers will not boycott it and will not refuse to pay the levy, which would be illegal, anyway. I hope that tact will be used on both sides and that there will be more co-operation, for the common good of the industry.

The final objection—that it is too small a sum to be effective and that quality control is needed before such a scheme is introduced—seems valid, certainly with regard to quality control. The Minister seemed to go some way towards this view. My hon. Friends and I suggest that the priority should be for quality control, that there should be a minimum price scheme for the United Kingdom and that some steps should, if possible, be taken for import control.

Incidentally these are all recommendations which were made by the fishery sub-committee of the Select Committee on Agriculture.

We therefore have doubts about the wisdom and timing of the scheme. We believe that the priority is wrong, that good fish does not necessarily need more advertising—indeed, if the scheme is concentrated on cod it could possibly have the opposite effect to that intended—and we believe that big firms which are the main users of cod already have their own schemes. The W.F.A. scheme may be of marginal assistance, but why sting the wholesaler on top of an increase in the general levy?

We are being asked to approve a levy which will raise £400,000, which is nearly as much as the W.F.A. spends on research and development, which I believe to be its most important function. Is this a justified measure or is it just a stop-gap to give the W.F.A. something more to do? We should bear in mind that the administrative expenses of the W.F.A. are already over £¼ million out of a total expenditure of about £1½ million. Would it not be better to consider the whole future of the W.F.A., as the Select Committee suggested?