HC Deb 17 March 1893 vol 10 cc448-62

I have to bring before the notice of the House a subject which I hoped might have been disposed of by answers to questions which I had addressed on more than one occasion to the Secretary for Scotland. The Motion is— To call attention to the Report of the Departmental Committee on Solway White Fishings; and to move, That, in the opinion of this House, effect should be given to the recommendations of the Committee, or by some other means, to enable the fishermen to carry on an ancient and profitable industry without molestation. Unfortunately, the answers of the right hon. Gentleman to the questions which I addressed to him—while they show every sympathy with, and, if I may say so, an intelligent interest in the subject—convey, to my mind, the impression that there is in his mind no apprehension of the principal bearings of the subject. I preface the few remarks I have to make by saying they differ in one respect from Motions on this Order that are frequently brought before the House. Generally, I may say, Amendments brought forward that you leave the Chair, Sir, are connected with subjects affecting the constituency of the Member who moves them. That is not the case in this instance, as not one of my constituents cares a snap of his fingers for the white fishing in the Solway, because, though geographically my constituency is within the bounds of the Solway, the mode of fishing to which I wish to call the attention of the House is confined to that portion of the Solway which borders upon the shores of the counties which I have not the honour of representing. The general physical features of the estuary are tolerably well-known to Members of this House; it is a large expanse of sand at low water and a shallow muddy sea at high water. Within that area, on the northern or Scottish side, are conducted two industries which of recent years, and of recent years only, have come into direct conflict, and it is in behalf of the weaker party in this conflict that I now appeal to the House, and to Scotchmen in particular. The Solway, and especially the salmon fishing of the Solway, has been the subject of legislation, if not from time immemorial, at all events, from the time of the union of the two Kingdoms. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland (Sir George Trevelyan), in reply to a question I put to him the other day, seemed to assume that the Salmon Fishery Laws were inextricably mixed up with the laws affecting the white fishing. I venture to say that is not the case, that they are absolutely distinct in their sphere and operation, and it is only by the action of interested persons on either side—I will not specify who they are—that the laws have become confused in the minds of the public, and, apparently, in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman. The peculiarity of fishery legislation in the Solway is this: that whereas in most parts of the Kingdom the object of legislation has been to effect the utmost benefit, the object of fishery legislation in the Solway has been to effect the utmost damage to the property. English legislation has been directed in a hostile spirit towards Scotch interests, and Scottish legislation has been directed, up to the time of the Union, in a spirit hostile to English interests. I am not going to enter—Heaven forbid that I should!—upon the vexed question of salmon fishery legislation in the Solway, but it is necessary to touch upon it at one point. By the Solway Act of 1867 it was enacted that no fixed engines should exist within the estuary— fixed engines, that is to say, for the capture of salmon. But there was this exception on the Scottish side which an Act of Parliament could not touch—namely, those fixed salmon engines which fell under Royal Charter. Every fixed engine for the capture of salmon was swept away by the Act of 1867, and every fixed engine went off the English shore in consequence of that Act, but there remained upon the Scottish shore certain fixed engines which were constituted by Royal Charter and by immemorial usage. There were other fixed engines not erected for the purpose of taking salmon, or, us they are known in Scotland, as red fish, but for the purpose of taking white fish, which include flat fish, whitings, haddocks, and so on. This industry, the capture of white fish, has been for many centuries the occupation of various communities along the Scottish shores of the Solway; from time immemorial they had exercised the industry which, though humble, was a profitable one to them. It had been recognised by various Acts of Parliament. In the year 1705 there was an Act of Queen Anne recognising their right to take these white fish and making various provisions for their pro- tection from interference. And the rights so set forth and defended by the Act of Queen Anne were further recognised and extended by the Act of the 29 George II., c. 23. Now, no interference took place with these white fish fishermen until the year 1877, 10 years after the passing of the Solway Salmon Act. The means by which these white fish are taken is specially recognised in the Act of Queen Anne and the Act of George II., and they are, in fact, miniature fixed engines, miniatures of the same stake or bag nets used in the capture of salmon. A certain proprietor, urged, I believe, by his tacks-man the lessee of the salmon fishing, in 1877 lodged an action for interdict against the white fish fishermen because they were fishing with fixed engines which might, and sometimes did, capture salmon, though not set for that purpose, and were of a kind prohibited by the Act of 1867. Mr. Mackenzie, in the interests of his tacksman, lodged an action for interdict in the Court of Session, and the Court of Session held that these paidle nets were fixed engines in the meaning of the Act of 1867, and as such were illegal. The interdict was granted, and certain of these fishermen were prohibited from prosecuting their industry. Well, Sir, if nothing further had taken place, it might have been held that that was a hard law; that that was a law which extended certainly further than the framers of it intended it should go, because it extended to the capture of fish other than salmon. But the Court of Session took a very strong line. They subsequently appointed Inspectors to go down and see what the action of these fixed engines was. Undoubtedly they were fixed engines; the local name for them is paidle nets. One of these Inspectors was directed to fish with a paidle net to see what the result was on these salmon, and what did he find? He fished with one of these nets from the 21st September to the 10th October, 1885, eight years after the first action for interdict was brought forward, and what was the result? Why, that this agent fishing one of these nets for 17 days, although he caught 28 stone and 11 lbs. of white fish, valued at £1 16s. 6d.—a considerable sum to a poor fisherman—he did not see one single salmon in that net the whole time. That was not sufficient for the Court of Session, actuated I know not by what abstruse principle of law, while they granted the interdict against this improper mode of fishing as being prohibited under the Solway Act of 1867, they adopted the report of their agent and laid down certain limits within the Solway, within the estuary, where fixed engines are illegal, and they said that in these limits the fishermen might use the paidle nets. The position is clearly this: If the paidle net is illegal anywhere in the estuary, it is illegal because it is a fixed engine; if a fixed engine is illegal in one part of the Solway, it is illegal in the other parts; and, therefore, I cannot but think this decision of the Court of Session is incapable of being supported by any sound argument, and has resulted in much unmerited hardship upon a humble and industrious class of persons. In 1890 a Committee was appointed by the predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman opposite—a Departmental Committee over which I had the honour of presiding—and we went down and made a most minute inquiry—and I venture to assure the House a most impartial inquiry—into the conflicting interests involved in that dispute. We visited the nets when they were fishing; we took evidence from salmon fishers, from proprietors, from tacksmen of salmon fisheries, from white fishers, from landlords, from land agents, from every class in the community who could by any means be connected with the inquiry, and the conclusion that we came to unanimously—no question of Party politics was involved, for I remember the Member for North East Lanark (Mr. Donald Crawford) who sits on the opposite side of the House was a Member of that Committee—was to the effect that a grievous injustice had been done to a deserving class of men, and that a blow had been inflicted—apparently unintentionally—upon a profitable industry. I am quite aware it is said that it would be impossible for men to fish these nets profitably except on the chance of occasionally catching a salmon and thus infringing the rights of the salmon fishing proprietors. We inquired into that, and we found at one village alone, where 12 fishermen were occupied in this industry, the returns of white fish taken for six years varied from 287 cwt. m the year 1886, which was the lowest, and valued at £215, to 880 cwt., the highest, in the year 1888, and valued at £465. Now I venture to say if you strike the mean between the £215 and the £465, and divide that between the families of the 12 fishermen, you have no inconsiderable source of income. The conclusion we came to without any hesitation was this: that it was quite possible to carry on that industry—that ancient industry established by Acts of Parliament and traditional in the district—without doing the slightest harm to any other farm or property or any other industry in the Solway. We made several recommendations, but I will not trouble the House by entering upon them just now further than to say that we recommended that powers should be conferred on the Secretary for Scotland to create a representative Board, a Board elected partly by the County Council, partly by the District Salmon Fishery Board, and partly by the white fishers themselves, whose duty it should be to issue regulations under which this white fishing should be conducted, to issue a licence for the privilege of fishing, and generally to see that this industry was carried on without interference with any other more important trade in the Firth. That seemed to us to be a solution of the difficulty, not only just but acceptable to both parties in the dispute. We found that both the proprietors of the salmon fishing and the white fishers themselves expressed themselves willing to accept that solution. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland has said that this matter must stand over until the whole subject of the Salmon Fishery Boards of the Solway is overhauled by Parliament. Does he know what that means? has he any idea of the complexity of the salmon legislation of the Solway? has he any idea of the present state of the case? does he know that now there is a most hitter feeling on both sides of the estuary? does he know that the English fishermen obtain licences to fish, and carry on their industry in Scotch waters; and has he any idea of the intensity of the feeling existing between the two sides of the Firth? If he has not, let me assure him that if he touches the question of the Solway salmon fishing he will regret the day he was advised to do so. But this question, I maintain, ought to be dealt with quite apart from that of salmon fishing, which should not be brought into it at all, and I maintain that the Committee over which I presided dealt with the question entirely apart from the question of salmon fishing. There are other questions which might be dealt with in the same measure. I do not know why this subject was not dealt with by the General Deep Sea Fishery Bill that has been introduced by the Government—why they did not deal with and provide for fishing in the estuaries as well as the deep sea. There is one provision in the Bill of the Government, which, I think, is specially fitted to deal with this question—namely, the provision for District Boards or Councils. I have alluded to an elective Board dealing with the work of the Solway, but I am quite certain the great majority of the persons interested in this question would be perfectly content to place their interests in the hands of one of the District Boards provided for by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. Before I leave this subject there are two other most important facts connected with it that I wish to bring before the attention of the right hon. Gentleman—one, which I had almost forgotten to mention, is as almost as vexed a question as that of the salmon; it is the regulation of trawling in the Solway. Trawling cannot be carried on in an estuary like the Solway without immense injury being done to other modes of fishing. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that one of the facts that impressed my Committee most forcibly while in that district was the immense destruction of the fry of valuable species by the trawlers. It is quite true that some of the trawlers are careful to return the fry to the water; but what is the use of that if other trawlers are careless in that respect? and if there are no means of compelling them to do so the destruction will go on. I venture to say that the very slightest acquaintance with the nature of the fishing in that district will convince anyone the first and most important object is the protection of young fish; after the fish have got to a certain size they will take care of themselves. The fishermen at Annan have agreed amongst themselves to use a mesh of a certain size, but what takes place? They use that minimum mesh, but fishermen coming from the other side of the Solway and other parts use the smaller mesh and thereby destroy u great many young fish. To anyone who knows the district the provisions relating to trawling are absurd. Trawling is prohibited in the Cree, but it is allowed in the estuary of the Annan, and there is an old grievance that has arisen from this peculiar geographical limitation. I am obliged to import into my remarks a little local colouring. There is one small species of fish in the estuary of the Annan which in pre-scientific days was regarded as white fish, but it has now been announced as one of the migratory salmon species. It is known to Scotchmen as the sparling, and in England as the smelt. They were always regarded in my early days as white fish, but undoubtedly they are members of the salmon family. They are migratory, and the result has been that since the passage of the Act of 1867 they have been claimed as the monopoly of the proprietors of salmon fishing, thereby to a great extent depriving a number of people of a means of livelihood. This sparling, or smelt, is one of the most valuable fishes we have. It is a most delicate and delicious fish, and fetches from 4s. to 6s. a pound in the market, but unfortunately it is protected by no legislation at present. There is no close time, and what I wish to urge upon the right hon. Gentleman is this: that he will be conferring a great benefit upon the Solway if he will, first of all, adopt our recommendation to the effect that, although scientifically the sparling is a salmon, and, therefore, a red fish—that practically and commercially it shall be treated as a white fish, as it always has been treated. All the persons connected with the matter—the proprietors, the lessees, the fishermen, themselves, are all agreed, as will be seen by the evidence taken before our Committee, that there ought to be a close time. This fish ascends the rivers early in March; it spawns in the tidal water, and is then practically unfit for capture. But, unhappily, it has then got into rivers claimed by lessees or proprietors who do not have an opportunity of catching it any other time of the year; therefore they do their best to catch as many as possible. The result is, that this valuable fish has become almost extinct in the Annan; it has become almost extinct in the Nith; it is considerably scarcer in the Cree, and unless means are taken to preserve it—means which nobody opposes, for everybody is agreed there ought to be a close time from the 1st March to the 1st August—this valuable fish will altogether disappear from our waters. I would not have ventured to bring this matter before the House unless I had believed it to be a genuine grievance. I hope, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will not put off action upon this subject until that illusory time when he believes he may take up a Solway Salmon Fishery Act, but that he will take immediate steps to bring in a separate Bill, or to favour a Bill I shall be happy to lay on the Table of the House, in order to protect a useful, an honourable, and a profitable industry.


The hon. Baronet began by assuring the House that he had no interest as a Member of Parliament in this question, and that it was not on account of his constituents that he took it up. Whoever doubted that—I do not know anyone that would—I should be the very last to do so, because the hon. Baronet has distinguished himself not on this Committee only, but on another Committee, the Crown Fisheries (Scotland) Committee, by having vindicated in the boldest and broadest way the rights of the community against antiquated privileges in fishing. I am quite certain the only object with which the hon. Baronet has brought this matter forward is because of the great interest he takes in this matter of the white fish in the Solway, and in the welfare of a most valuable class of fishermen in Scotland. The hon. Baronet described certain matters of which he thought I was ignorant in spite of the answers given in Parliament. I can assure him I was not ignorant, of them, but it was because I was conversant with them and others that I have been very anxious to deal with this question. The interests of the Solway and the Tweed I am satisfied, for the reasons which the hon. Baronet has given and for many others, can never be finally determined with satisfaction until both the shores of this river are placed under one authority and under One law. The hon. Baronet gave one or two instances of the discrepancies in the law on the two sides of the Solway. I could give several others besides those which he named. There is a difference in the annual close time and in the weekly close time; there is a difference in the size of the not, and there is the great difference of fixed engines being allowed on one side and not on the other, and the fact that summonses do not run in all the counties. It seems to me that these very great differences in the law on both sides of the water, which ought to be governed by the same law, are in themselves quite sufficient reason for looking forward to the time when this river may be put under the general law of the country, and I hope that country will be Scotland. I know something of the bitterness of feeling caused by the diversity of legislation, and the difference in administration of the law relating to this question of fishery in the Solway, and those who are interested in the fishery on both sides would be very glad to have it dealt with under one law. That is the reason why I look forward to the day when the Deep Sea Fisheries Act having been passed we may approach the question on the river fisheries of the Tweed and Solway. But that does not exhaust the question. The hon. Baronet has given excellent reasons why there should, if possible, be some prompt remedy applied to the evils which affect the white fisheries of the Solway. I shall not enlarge upon these evils, except to say that I am sure the sympathy of the House will be aroused when I tell them that in the course of 10 years of the comparatively small number of the hardworking fishermen who were employed on the white fisheries, no fewer than 46 were put in the position of criminals for pursuing a business which they themselves believed was their hereditary right. There is something really pathetic in several of these law cases which have been reported in the Minutes of Evidence and Appendices to the Report, signed by the two hon. Gentlemen opposite and by my hon. and learned Friend behind me. If hon. Members will look at the case in which the complainant was named Mackenzie, they will there see that three hard-working men were sent to prison for two months for, as they show, catching fish in the same manner as their fathers had caught them long before. This is a state of things to which, if an immediate remedy could he applied, the Government would be very glad to apply it. The hon. Baronet thinks that that remedy should be found in the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill, and he likewise believes in the possibility of the Government bringing in a special Bill upon this subject. As to that the hon. Baronet has watched the proceedings of the House, at a late hour during the last two months, and he must have seen what the chances are of the Government bringing in a non-contentious Bill. At this moment, we have before the House a non-contentious Scotch Bill—a Bill that is to amend an Act passed by a gentleman who does not agree with us in politics; a Bill called for by a great number of the burghs in Scotland, opposed by not a single Scotch Member, supported by the ex-Law Officers of the Crown for Scotland, but which during the last two months has been blocked night after night, in no ease by a Scotch Member, but always by an English Member, not one of whom, I will venture to say, has the least idea of the contents of the Bill. I refer to the Local Loans (Scotland) Bill, to amend the Act brought in by Mr. Finlay, formerly a Member of this House. I think, after that, the hon. Baronet will allow the Government are not in a position to bring in a non-contentious Scotch measure, but what the Government are prepared to do is to consider any Amendment which the hon. Baronet may have to move on the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill, and if, on reflection, they come to the conclusion that that will meet the object of the hon. Baronet, they will agree to include the counties to the north of the estuary of the Solway in the South-West District of Scotland. In the recommendations of the Committee, over which the hon. Baronet presided, a Board is suggested constituted out of the County Councils, the District Salmon Fisheries Board, and members to be elected out of the white fishing community. I take it the hon. Baronet and his colleagues would be contented with a Board elected half by the County Council and half by those interested in the fishing district. That Board would have the power of passing bye-laws conversant with the nature of the fish in their district, and I should imagine we could give them power to deal with that question of the sparlan or the smelt of which the hon. Baronet spoke. On the Second Reading of the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill, which I hope will be very soon, an hon. Member opposite has got an Amendment to extend that Bill to salmon fishing in the sea. That Amendment will be considered with great interest, and, for my part, with the greatest sympathy, and, therefore, if this Amendment is adopted, not as traversing the Bill, hut in the shape of an Amendment, afterwards to be made in the Bill in Committee, then the District Fishery Committee will be able to deal very effectively not only with the white fishing in the estuary, but likewise with the salmon fishing as far as it is called deep-sea fishing. I cannot say more until I see whether the House is prepared to go with us, but we are perfectly prepared to make into one district under the Fishery Bill those counties which border on the estuary to the North. That is the only way I can possibly find to meet the hon. Baronet, whose labour, energy, and courage in these fishing inquiries entitle him to our gratitude. I earnestly hope, after the manner in which I have met him, this Debate may not be prolonged.

MR. J. W. LOWTHER (Cumberland, Penrith)

My hon. Friend, in introducing this Motion, said he thought he was right in bringing it forward, because his constituents were not interested in any way in the matter. My justification for intervening for a few moments in the discussion is the fact that my constituents are interested to a considerable degree in what takes place in the estuary of the Solway. I desire at once to say that I recognise the spirit which prompted the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland to say he admitted the bitterness which existed between the fishermen who inhabit the Cumberland shore and those who inhabit the Scotch shore of the Solway. I am afraid that bitterness is very deep-seated, and, to a certain extent, it is justified. There are faults on both sides of this question, as there are in most quarrels, and those faults are due to the fact that very important differences exist between the respective laws which govern the fishery on the north and on the south side of the Solway. My hon. Friend, in the last paragraph of the able Report which he drew up in March, 1892, pointed out certain of those differences, and, in addition, there is the very difficult question of the fixed engines obtaining on the Scotch shore, and the fixed engines having disappeared from the English shore. But, Sir, I ventured the other day, in a question to the President of the Board of Trade, to suggest that there were three points upon which a solution might promptly be arrived at. I acknowledge that the question of fixed engines is a very difficult one; that it will require some considerable time, a great deal of discussion, and probably a considerable amount of money will have to be spent before that difficulty can be solved. But there are three points in dispute as to which English fishermen feel very strongly, and which are really of comparatively minor importance. There is the question of the annual close time, the question of the weekly close time, and the question of the different sizes of the meshes of the nets. The Scotch fishermen use a net of 1¾ inches from knot to knot, but the English fishermen are not allowed to use a smaller mesh than one of 2 inches. Then there are differences in the English and Scotch close time, both annual and weekly, and, although these differences may be small, they are differences which cause a great deal of trouble, and I suggested to the President of the Board of Trade the other day that it would be very desirable if, without going into the whole question which my hon. Friend has opened up, some steps could he taken to solve these much smaller difficulties. It must he done, as it seems to me, by legislation, but I cannot help thinking that legislation upon a matter of that sort—where those who are interested both on behalf of the English and Scotch fishermen were thoroughly agreed, would be considered as non-contentious, and would occupy very little of the time of the House. What we want is that there shall be uniformity, and if we obtain uniformity I do not think it matters very much whether we have a 2-inch or 1¾-inch mesh, or whether the close time begins at 6 o'clock in the morning or 6 at night. I made that suggestion to the President of the Board of Trade the other day, but he did not seem to rise at it; and I am afraid, also, notwithstanding the comforting words we have listened to from the right hon. Gentleman opposite just now, that it would be impossible to bring this matter, in any shape or form, as an Amendment to the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill to which he has referred; therefore, it would be impossible to deal with the Cumberland interests in that manner. But I do wish to press upon him as strongly and as urgently as I can that this matter is causing a deal of friction and unpleasantness; it is most desirable in the interests both of the Scotch and English fishermen that it should be removed, and I firmly believe it might be removed in great part by dealing with those three minor points to which I have referred.

MR. MAXWELL (Dumfriesshire)

would like to say a few words on this matter, which affected his constituency. He thanked the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland for the intimation that he would look with favour on any proposal made on the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill for dealing with this matter. The question of white fishing might not affect a very large population, but it was a question of local importance. The Solway had, from historical causes, been in an exceptional position with regard to the fishing laws, and it had been exempt from those laws which prohibited fixed engines in estuaries in other parts of Scotland; therefore they had fixed engines for both salmon and white fish. This right to take white fish by means of stake nets had been established in the clearest possible manner by a decision of the Court of Session; but, unfortunately, the Commission appointed in 1887 ordered the removal of a large number of these nets, and after that followed several actions to prevent white fish being caught by these stake nets on the ground that they injured the salmon fishery, and the contest had gone on till the present time. But the inquiry which the Committee presided over by the hon. Baronet (Sir H. Maxwell) carried out clearly demon- strated that these stake nets used for taking white fish could be used, under certain conditions, without the least injury to salmon fishing, and they had indicated a way in which these stake nets could be licensed so as to free them from interference by the owner of the salmon stake nets. Whilst he thought that some of the conditions in the Report of this Committee were much too stringent, still they indicated broadly the lines on which these licences might be granted. He thought the licences ought to be granted free to all the inhabitants of a certain district along the coast, and he expressed the opinion that the Committee proposed to be set up in the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill would be a better Body for issuing licences than a Committee constituted in the manner suggested in the Report of the Committee which inquired into the subject. These questions of taking white fish with stake nets might very well he dealt with apart from the larger question of the Solway referred to by the Member for Penrith, and, for his part, he believed they might very well be dealt with in the Deep Sea Fisheries Bill.

The subject was allowed to drop.