§ Order for Committee read.
§ MR. MILNER GIBSON
said, the Bill was for the purpose of carrying into effect a Convention between England and France in reference to the fisheries in the seas adjoining the two countries; and it appeared to him that the international Commission upon whose recommendation the Convention was founded had done good service. In its main provisions the Convention would be beneficial to the fishermen both of England and France, and in all respects it was a great improvement upon the existing state of things. At the present time by the law of England no fish might be imported into the United Kingdom in a foreign fishing vessel, but only in a merchant vessel, as ordinary mer- 1270 chandize, and in a vessel which had cleared out from some foreign port. Although by our tariff fish was free from duty, yet the prohibition to the foreign fisherman to enter a British port in his own boat for the purpose of landing and selling his fish was almost as effective a prevention of free trade as if there were a prohibitory duty. But there was an exception to this rule. Four kinds of fish—namely, anchovies, eels, turbots, and lobsters—might be imported in a foreign fishing vessel. If foreign fishing vessels were to be admitted by law to bring these more expensive kinds of fish into the ports of the United Kingdom, he could not see why they should not be allowed also freely to import the lower descriptions of fish, which constituted a description of food very much in demand amongst the population of the country. In fact, this was a question of the supply of food. Under the Convention which had been recently concluded, it was proposed by Article 31 that the fishing boats of each country should be enabled to sell their fish in certain designated ports of the other country; but unfortunately there was another article, to the effect that that arrangement was to be suspended until the two contracting parties should have come to a further understanding on the subject. They were, therefore, exactly where they were before. He was at a loss to know why any further understanding was necessary. It was obvious, so far as the commerce of this country was concerned, that it was desirable and in conformity with our commercial policy that we should permit the fishing boats of foreign countries to enter our ports for the purpose of landing and selling their fish. The right hon. Gentleman who had charge of the Bill (Mr. Stephen Cave) had, as he understood, said something the other night about a Customs duty on fish imported into France, and about waiting before they granted the permission to French fishing boats to enter our ports until the French Government had completely repealed their Customs duty upon foreign fish. But the consumers of this country had nothing to do with the French Customs duties. What they wanted was the largest possible supply and the freest competition, in full confidence that that was the truest principle for the interests of this country. He was prepared to admit that if the French Government were disposed to repeal or reduce their Customs duty upon fish imported into France, that would be a very advantageous 1271 thing for the French consumers, and that it would be beneficial to English fishermen; but it was a mistake to suppose that even the present duty, high as it was, was prohibitory altogether of a trade being carried on between our fishermen and French consumers. A year or two since the French Government, by way of experiment, opened their ports freely to our fishermen, and large numbers took advantage of the privilege. The fish we imported were shell fish, and principally oysters, but there was a duty upon them, and in spite of the duty the English fishermen carried on a very profitable trade, till the French Government, finding that we did not reciprocate, closed their ports again, and now there was a mutual expulsion of fishing-boats. It was wholly unworthy of the two nations to be treating each other's fishermen as if they were infected with a plague. It frequently happened that from the state of the weather a French boat with a full cargo of fresh fish could much more easily reach an English than a French port, and it would be monstrous in the present day to see a large quantity of valuable food actually destroyed because, according to the law of England, it could not be sold here. The main provisions of the treaty had been arranged upon most beneficial terms to both countries, and he was at a loss to understand why the operation of the valuable Article to which he alluded should be deferred. He also thought that our Customs authorities had not been very generous in the number of ports into which it was proposed that foreign fishermen should be allowed to bring their fish, seeing that the French Government had proposed to open nearly all their ports. He was aware that the difficulties were great with reference to the protection of the Customs revenue; but France had also a most elaborate system of Customs duties to defend. It was far from his wish to offer any opposition to the Bill; his object was rather to press upon the Government the expediency of immediately carrying into effect the provisions of the treaty.
§ MR. STEPHEN CAVE
thanked the right hon. Gentleman for his general support of the measure. The postponement of the admission of French fishing boats into this country for the present was very fully considered by the Commissioners. He did not deny that, strictly speaking, as a question of Free Trade it was of no consequence to us what duties France imposed in her own country, and that we ought not 1272 on that account, if we wanted their fish, to hesitate to admit them duty free, and to give them every facility. It was a matter of no consequence to English consumers whether the duty on fish in French ports was heavy or light, whether there was any duty or none; and if the Commissioners had only had the interest of that class to consider when they entered into these negotiations, they would, no doubt, have been quite ready to have admitted immediately French fishing boats to sell their fish at all times and places. But they had also to consider the interests of the fishermen themselves, who, when they went to a French port to sell their fish, which they would consider they were allowed to do in return for Frenchmen being admitted to our ports, would have found themselves saddled with a very considerable duty, from which the French were exempt. It was quite true that when the French admitted English boats with oysters to enter their ports—simply because they were very much in want of oysters—our fishermen competed with the French fishermen, but at that time, as he believed, the oysters brought in by English boats were not subject to any higher duty than those brought in by French boats. Whether that was so or not, the duty was levied in a different way, and it was so much less in proportion to price than the duty upon common fish, that our fishermen did not feel the unfair competition they might otherwise have done. What was pressed upon the Commission was that our fishermen, on going into French ports with common fish, which French fishermen took in free, would find the duty press so heavily that they would have to sell at an unremunerative price or even to wait for a market until the French fish was sold. The English fishermen were not such enlightened politicians as the right hon. Gentleman, and they might not be able to understand that they ought to submit to this unfortunate disadvantage, in order to carry out the principles of Free Trade, and it was feared that when the French fishermen came here, a feeling of hostility might arise against them, and that the police regulations prescribed in the Act might have to be put into operation to prevent a breach of the peace. The French Commissioners also intimated that if they could come to an arrangement under which the carrying these provisions into effect was made to depend upon an agreement between the two countries, with respect to duties, it would have a very beneficial effect upon 1273 their fishermen in inducing them to acquiesce in the reduction or abolition of these duties. They found that the French Commissioners were extremely anxious to do away with the duty altogether, but they were afraid of the feelings of their maritime population. It was perfectly well known that when, by stress of weather, French fishermen were driven into ports, they were allowed to sell a portion of their fish for food and for their immediate maintenance. [Mr. MILNER GIBSON: What becomes of the rest?] As a matter of fact, they sold it. [Mr. MILNER GIBSON: Then the law is not enforced.] Of course not: it was difficult to draw the line. No one could be more ready than himself to admit the absurdity of preventing fishermen from going into that port into which the wind took them. He was as anxious as the right hon. Gentleman opposite to see this additional Article entirely inoperative, and he hoped, in a short time, that they would see their way, either by the concession which the French might make to them, or by waiving the question of duty on the part of this country, to a flourishing trade on both sides of the Channel. He quite agreed that as compared with the French list, our list of open ports was comparatively small; but our Customs authorities had told them that looking to the safety of the revenue, only such ports could be opened as had sufficient Customs authorities to protect the revenue; otherwise the French fishermen would come with a certain amount offish, but a good deal more of tobacco and brandy. True, the French too had an elaborate system of Customs duties, but they had also an elaborate system of surveillance, and they could therefore with safety open more ports than we could. He did not, however, see why the Customs authorities should not, after a little while, give them an additional list of ports. The list might be considered provisional, for the 31st Article of the Convention contained these words, "Without prejudice to the opening by either country of any additional ports." What he had said, would, he thought, answer the petition presented by the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Waldegrave-Leslie). The reason why Hastings was left out, was that Hastings had been deprived of a Custom House, and of course it would not be deemed desirable to admit French fish into ports that were not looked after by Customs authorities. There was no reason whatever for excluding Hastings or any other port, beyond the obvious mo- 1274 tive of desiring to protect the revenue. Ultimately, he had no doubt, it would be added to the list.
§ MR. SHAW-LEFEVRE
said, the Commission of which he had been a member endeavoured to induce the French Commissioners to waive altogether the very heavy duty on English fish. The French Commissioners, however, were not prepared for such a step, although they expressed themselves favourable to a reduction of the duty from 10f. the 100 kilogrammes to 5f.
§ MR. SHAW-LEFEVRE
said, the reduced duty might appear very moderate; but, as affecting a low class of fish, it really became very heavy. Unless a boat could sell its entire cargo, it would be useless to enter a French port; and it was only with a first-class cargo that it would pay, under present circumstances, to run into a French port. Under pretence of stress of weather, however, French fishing boats even now find their way into our harbours, and there sell their fish, and he did not see why our fishermen should not have the power, in return, of going into French ports. For these reasons he felt inclined to advise his right hon. Friend opposite to allow the Convention to come into immediate operation. In course of time it was to be hoped that the influence of Free-trade doctrines would induce the French to abolish the duty which they now levied; but upon this point he did not feel sanguine as to immediate changes, for Free-trade doctrines seemed hardly to possess the same weight at present in France as they did a few years ago. He hardly anticipated any great results from the procedure laid down by the Convention with regard to the punishment of offences. All regulations as to the size of nets and modes of fishing were done away with, and the new Convention had reference solely to police regulations. In the case of a conflict taking place between French and English boats off the English coast, what was proposed was that an English man-of-war should have the power of bringing the French boat into an English port, where the depositions would be taken and sent on to the Consul of the port to which the French fishing vessel belonged. There the owner of the French boat might be summoned before the magistrates of his own country, and if the offence were proved, might be dealt with in manner provided. But such a circuitous proceeding was certain in the end to come to nothing. Under 1275 the old Convention he did not believe that any punishments had ever been inflicted for offences committed at sea, and he supposed the result would be similar in the present case. Until the two countries could trust each other's tribunals to administer justice impartially between the litigants, nothing effectual would ever be done. This point the Commissioners had not authority from the Board of Trade openly to discuss; but some private conversation took place with the French Commissioners, and it was found that they were quite indisposed at present to entertain the matter. The reason they assigned for their unwillingness was, that they could not for a moment believe that the French magistrates would do justice to English fishermen in their ports, and therefore they could not suppose that an English magistrate would do justice to French fishermen. As long as people had so little confidence in each other's administration of justice, he feared there was little chance that international police regulations would work smoothly.
§ MR. WALDEGRAVE-LESLIE
called attention to the wording of the Convention, and said, there were only thirty-five places in England where, in accordance with its terms, fish could be landed, as against 180 in France. Folkestone was not a fishing but a steamboat station, and between there and Newhaven, which was partly a fishing and partly a steamboat port, there was not a single place in the entire distance of sixty-five miles where the provisions of the Act would be of the slightest benefit in the way of bringing in French vessels. Last year, in a fit of economy, the Custom House at Hastings was done away with, and thereby the benefits of this Convention would be lost to Hastings, although it had a larger fishing trade than Dover, New-haven, and Shoreham put together, every one of which places was named in the Convention. In south-west winds it was impossible for French fishing boats to get back to France, and he wanted to know what difficulties there would be in the way of allowing the fish to be landed. The people of Hastings approved of the principle of the Bill, but, not without reason, hoped that their port would be included in it. It was thought rather hard that merely because the Custom House had been abolished, Hastings should be left out of the Bill. There was a large Coast Guard station, comprising some thirty or forty men, employed within five miles of Hastings, and he could bear testimony to the vigilance 1276 exercised by these men over all boats that approached the shore. According to the right hon. Gentleman's view, smuggling might be carried on with impunity at Hastings, if foreign fishing boats were allowed to land their cargoes. But he could only say, from what he knew of the Coast Guard there, grant them the powers which were formerly delegated to Custom House officers, and then let anybody smuggle if he could.
said, the locality which he represented lay very near Dungeness, where, as some hon. Members possibly had noticed, there was a very uncomfortable meeting of the tidal waves. For a distance of nearly sixty miles on this part of the coast, no port was named in the Convention; whereas Rye lay in the most advantageous position, and if chosen for that purpose would form an admirable landing point.
§ Bill considered in Committee.
§ (In the Committee.)
§ Clauses 1 to 5 agreed to.
§ Clause 6 (Confirmation of Convention.)
§ MR. WALDEGRAVE-LESLIE
asked, whether the Vice-President of the Board of Trade would include Hastings within the provisions of the Bill?
§ MR. STEPHEN CAVE
repeated the assurance he had already given, that there would be no hesitation about including the port of Hastings, as soon as measures could be taken to insure that tobacco and brandy would not be landed from the boats instead of fish.
§ Clause agreed to.
§ Clauses 7 to 26, inclusive, agreed to.
§ Clause 27 (Application.)
§ MR. BLAKE
said, that, without wishing to obstruct the passing of the Bill, he thought the portion of it referring to the oyster fisheries ought not to be proceeded with to-night. Some of the Irish Members were of opinion that the Irish oyster fisheries would be injuriously affected by the Bill if it passed in its present shape. A Return had been ordered which would afford additional information on the point, and a case had been submitted to counsel on which no opinion had as yet been given. He therefore suggested that the part of the Bill relating to the oyster fisheries should be postponed for a few days.
§ MR. STEPHEN CAVE
said, he was afraid that he could not accede to the wish 1277 of the hon. Gentleman, as it was necessary that the measure should be proceeded with without delay. He could assure the hon. Member that Ireland was expressly excepted from that part of the Convention and the present Bill which dealt with oyster fisheries. He proposed that the Committee on the Bill should be taken on Thursday next, and in the meantime he should be glad to receive any suggestion respecting the manner in which Ireland might be more completely excepted from the operation of the measure than it was as the Bill now stood.
§ MR. BLAKE
expressed a hope that the Committee would be postponed two or three days beyond the period named by the right hon. Gentleman, in order that communications might be made to those persons in Ireland who were greatly interested in this matter. He was afraid that if the Bill passed in its present form the French would go and fish out of season at the oyster banks off the Irish coasts, and he thought those oyster banks should be protected the same as if they were in the English Channel.
§ MR. STEPHEN CAVE
said, that if the hon. Member would compare the two Conventions he would find that the Commissioners had diminished the protection to the English Channel. They would have done away with it altogether, if the French had consented. They were sent to Paris to abrogate existing restrictions, not to impose new ones.
§ MR. SHAW-LEFEVRE
said, that the Irish Channel and the fisheries to which the hon. Member had referred, would remain precisely in the same condition as before the Convention and the Bill. For himself, he wished the close time to be done away with altogether, but the French Commissioners would not agree to this proposal. There was, however, no probability of the French going to fish upon the Irish coast.
§ Clause postponed.
§ Remaining Clauses agreed to.
§ House resumed.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Thursday.