HC Deb 15 April 1914 vol 61 cc256-78
Colonel BURN

I beg to move, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is expedient, in the interests of the trawl fishermen of Brixham and Dartmouth, to appoint a Committee to inquire into the existing conditions governing the fishing industry in Start Bay, with a view to the opening of a portion of the bay to the trawl fishermen while retaining existing rights in the other portion for the crab fishermen of Hall Sands and Bee Sands."

I wish to thank the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) for withdrawing his Blocking Motion and giving me the opportunity of bringing forward my Motion. This is a question of Start Bay in South Devonshire. There are two other bays, Torbay and Teignmouth Bay. These three bays are under the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee. In 1893 that committee issued an order that these three bays were to be closed to trawlers on account of their bays being nurseries for young fish. The committee claimed that if trawling went on in the bays the immature fish would be caught in the nets, and the stock would be depleted. That was held to be a reason for closing the bays. That continued for some time, until the specialists and scientists went thoroughly into the matter and gave it as their opinion that the trawling did not spoil the fish, or, rather, that it did not kill the young fish; that really when the trawlers plied their trade in the bays the fishing was improved, because it prevented the bays from getting foul, food for the fishes was in greater abundance, and instead of the operations being detrimental to the fish supply it really improved it. The contention of the Brixham fishermen, whom I represent, is that trawling should be allowed in a portion of the bay; that there is suiffcient ground for both parties, not only for the Brixham fisherman, but for those who represent the crab industry of the two villages of Hall Sands and Bee Sands of Start Bay. The contention of Hall Sands and Bee Sands men is that if the trawlers ply their trade in Start Bay they suffer severe damage; they lose their crab-pots, and it spoils their means of livelihood.

The bay is of considerable extent. There is ample room for the trawlers in the north portion of the bay to use their trawls and for the crabbers to have secured to them the ground round about the Skerries, which are rocks in the south of the bay, where the crabs are caught. The trawlers do not desire to go near that ground, because it is rocky and rough, and they would lose their trawls by doing so. What I am going to ask this House to do is to appoint a Committee to inquire into the conditions existing there in regard to the crabbers and the trawlers, to weigh all the evidence on both sides, and to decide whether it is not advisable that my contention should be carried out—that a portion of the bay should be given over to the trawlers, while securing the other portion to those who fish for crabs. The contention of the Brixham men is that they are being deprived of a portion of their livelihood by not being able to put down their trawls in Start Bay. I do not say that they would occupy the bay on a great many occasions, but it is at their very door, so to speak, the door of the Dartmouth and Brixham men, and when the weather is bad, and they cannot get away to their proper trawling grounds, which are many miles distant, they could lay down their trawls there, and it would add very materially to their welfare, and the possibility of making a livelihood out of their trade. Recently the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee held an inquiry into this matter at the villages of Hall Sands and Bee Sands. The reason that was urged for keeping Start Bay closed was that the crabbers' business would be ruined, and their means of livelihood taken away if the trawlers were permitted to ply their trade in that bay. It was not contended at all that this was a nursery for fish, and that thereby the supply of fish was being depleted. What was claimed was to have the other portion of the bay in order that they might catch fish as bait for their crab-pots. If their trade is that of the catching of crabs I think it is rather hard that the entire bay should be reserved to them for this, and that the northern portion, which is very good fishing ground, should be kept for them simply that they may get bait for their crab-pots.

The committee subsequently continued their inquiry at Brixham. It was suggested on behalf of the Brixham fishermen that as the original object of closing the bays was to protect the fish, and as that theory was now proved to be an exploded theory, the only reason apparently for keeping the bay closed was to protect the men who fish for crabs at Hall Sands and Bee Sands. It was also contended on behalf of the Brixham fishermen that the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee had really no power to keep the bay closed for such a reason. I may add that at the inquiry Mr. Prior, who represented the Chief Inspector of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, put questions to the witnesses which certainly showed that he was of the opinion that the committee were justified in keeping the by-law in force to prevent the crab-pots being damaged by the trawlers. The whole of the evidence at that inquiry, and the whole of the discussion of the members of the committee, was directed to one point, namely, the protection of the crab-pots belonging to the men at Hall Sands and Bee Sands, while on behalf of the Brixham fishermen it was demonstrated to the committee—and it was not seriously contested—that from the scientific point of view the closing of the bay was not sound. That the destruction of immature fish was a failure and that no protection was given to the fishing industry by closing this bay, and at that inquiry opinions were read from experts and from gentlemen of the Marine Biological Association from 1896 to 1893—all eminent scientists who gave us their opinion definitely that the immature fish were not being hurt by the trawls being put down there. Then the other bays, Teignmouth Bay and for Bay had also been closed by an order of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, and these two bays were opened and the only one that remained closed was Start Bay, and I ask that this House should decree that a Committee should be appointed to inquire into the conditions and to decide thereon whether the trawling shall take place or not. Subsequently a sub-committee was appointed by the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee to make inquiries and to draw up a report, which they did, and which was recently brought before a meeting of the full committee. I should just like to give the House the result of that sub-committee's inquiries and what they decided. The report that they brought before the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee was:— (1) That the petitioners the crabbers have undoubtedly sustained serious loss through the destruction of their crab-pot and gear, which destruction has been alleged to have been caused by the illegal trawling carried on in Start Bay by the Brixham trawlers, but in the opinion of the committee such losses are not entirely due to such cause, as they considered the petitioners have also lost gear from passing steamboats and through bad weather conditions. (2) The closing of Start Bay is not necessary or required from a scientific point of view in the interest of the preservation or the breeding of immature fish. That on general grounds it is unwise in the interests of the whole public that valuable fishing grounds should be closed to trawlers; that a comparatively small portion of Start Bay is used by the crabbers of Hall Sands and Bee Sands except for the purpose of catching bait for their crab-pots, which is principally done by senis. (3) That Start Bay afford." very productive fishing grounds and that the opening of part of it to trawlers would be au immense boon to the smaller class of trawlers, enabling them to fish there when prevented by stress of weather from going further out to sea. That the committee consider the opening of a portion of the bay to trawling will tend to promote a better feeling between the two classes of fishermen as it would remove a long-standing grievance by the trawling industry, and the Brixham fishermen would, it is believed, in that event loyally respect an area set aside for the sole use-of the crabbers, as in fact at the inquiry held at Brixham the fishermen definitely pledged themselves to do. That the area proposed can be easily patrolled and watched and the interests of the crabbers protected by the committee. That, I contend, is just and fair. The Report of that Sub-Committee puts the case in the best way, and what I ask this House to do is not to give any hasty decision about this question, but to appoint a Committee to weigh the pros and cons and to see what right and justice there is on both sides. I think if we consider the number of people employed in Brixham and in Hall Sands and Bee Sands Bay, this House-will come to the conclusion that there is justice on the side of the Brixham and Dartmouth men. In Start Bay and in the villages of Hall Sands and Bee Sands there are some sixty or seventy men who make their living by crab-fishing. They have twenty boats, and it is a fair value, and, indeed, a liberal calculation, to put the boats as being worth £30 apiece, making a total of £600. Now, at Brixham, which is really the home of the trawling industry, there are 210 fishing smacks, employing 800 hands, and I think there is a capital of not less than £128,000, which, with the insurable value of the steam apparatus on board amounting to another £20,000, makes a total of £148,000 invested in the industry at Brixham. If you consider the number of men employed—sixty or seventy—at Hall Sands and Bee Sands, and 800 at Brixham, and add the Dartmouth men, this House will agree that the Brixham and Dartmouth men have a fair and just case. I do not want in any sense to wipe out the crabbing industry. I wish them to have absolutely fair play and to have a ground where they can put down their crab-pots apportioned to them, and marked in a way by old anchors, or anything of that sort, so as to secure their ground from trawlers. If that limit is clearly defined, then it will be on the heads of the fishermen at Brixham and Dartmouth if they infringe the Order or move over the boundary. They will thon suffer the penalty of the law, and they will deserve it.

I think everyone will admit that the fishermen have a very hard life. They are constantly exposed to all weathers, and on many occasions to great danger. I do not suppose that a month or a week passes where there are not deeds of gallantry performed by these brave men. Surely of all men the fisherman justly earns his living, and many of us think and feel that he does not get his real reward even under present conditions. Trawling ground is not to be found everywhere. They have to go many, many miles on many occasions in order to get to the ground, and only recently some of the best trawling ground was for a time almost out of bounds on account of the sinking of the wreck, the "Empress of India"—the ship that was sunk as an experiment to see the result of certain gunfire on a battleship. She was sunk in the middle of the best trawling ground. I am very grateful to the Admiralty for putting up a gas-buoy in order to mark that spot, but it was not done before four or five trawlers were seriously damaged and had lost their gear through the wreck. That is a thing of the past, however, and now the buoy exists. Trawlers have a very hard time to earn their livelihood. They have so much to compete with in the way of bad weather, and in getting their fish back to market, and the chance so often of being becalmed and unable to bring their catch in, that I say it would be of the very greatest advantage to these men, in certain conditions of weather, to be able to put down their trawls in the northern part of Start Bay; and, while I do not desire to hurt the industry of the Hall Sands and Bee Sands men, at the same time the ground that they have to put their crab-pots down—the ground about Skerries—is proper ground for them, and although the loss of gear and damage to gear is invariably put down to the trawler, it must be remembered that in the summer time, when steamers ply between these Devonshire ports, very often indeed, in crossing the ground where the crab-pots are—because the crabbers very often put their crab pots down outside the Skerries and almost in the fairway—these steamers have certainly on more than one occasion cut up the crab-pots. I think, at any rate, this House will agree that a Committee should be appointed to inquire into this matter. All that the Brixham and Dartmouth men desire is that this question should be thoroughly gone into, that everything should be weighed and put into the balance, and then I feel certain this House will conclude that the Brixham and Dartmouth men ought to have a portion of the bay reserved to them, while the Southern portion should be resented for the crab fishermen of Hall Sands and Bee Sands.


I rise to second the Motion.

No one can deny that the crabbers have rights in Start Bay, but we think that the remainder of the bay ought to be open not only to the trawlers of Brixham and Dartmouth, but also to the trawlers of Plymouth. In Plymouth we have a number of fishermen who are law-abiding citizens who have not been accused of illegal trawling, and who have not tasted the sweets of Start Bay for a great many years. Start Bay is noted as a great place for fish, more especially plaice and sole. This bay was closed in 1893, the reason being that it was then thought not only that it was a nursery for young fish, but it was supposed to be the place where the fish came into to spawn. That theory has, however, been exploded, because it is now known that the fish spawn in deep water. The Devon Sea Fisheries Committee passed by-laws which have been approved by the Board of Trade prohibiting trawling near the coast, but many complaints were made by the crabbers. In 1904 there was an inquiry, and in 1905 the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee opened the other bays but not Start Bay. The trawlers tried to get Start Bay opened, and they claimed that a certain portion should be allotted to the crabbers and the remainder to the trawlers. Two gentlemen from the Fisheries Board decided that it would not do to have Start Bay partially opened, because it would be more costly and more difficult to police it. It is not necessary to keep Start Bay closed merely for the fish preservation question, because the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee reported in February last as follows:— We do not consider that the closing of Start Bay is required from a scientific point of view in the interests of the preservation of fish. Knowing that I hope the House will see fit to appoint a Committee to examine into the rights of the crabbers and the trawlers, and they will find it will be a great deal better for the crabbers that their position shall be protected, that the place should be better policed, and that the trawlers should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of Start Bay.


I beg to move to leave out the words "expedient, in the interests of the Trawl Fishermen of Brixham and Dartmouth, to appoint a Committee to inquire into the existing conditions governing the fishing industry in Start Bay, with a view to the opening of a portion of the bay to the Trawl Fishermen while retaining existing rights in the other portion for the crab fishermen of Hall Sands and Bee Sands," and to insert instead thereof the word?, "inexpedient to interfere with the discretion of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, the Local Statutory body entrusted with responsibility in these matters, or with the ultimate authority of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, especially in view of the fact that the question of the validity of the excluding bylaw is sub judice at the present moment in the Court of Appeal."

It is not unnatural that as Start Bay, the bone of contention, is situated in my Constituency, I should be very deeply interested in this matter. However, I cannot quite agree with the views put forward by the proposer and seconder, although I have no fault to find with the tone of their speeches. I am really surprised that the hon. Member for Torquay (Colonel Burn) should move this Resolution at this moment, when by his own action and the action of the Brixham fishermen whom he represents, the question of whether or not the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee have power to make this bylaw at all is sub judice in the Court of Appeal. Of course, if he is successful in the Court of Appeal he gets his own way, but it would seem that he has not much confidence in his case. It is really childish to suggest that the Sea Fisheries Committees all around our coast have for years past been passing bylaws which they are not legally entitled to do.

What extraordinary procedure does he suggest? He asks that a Committee, and I presume he means a Committee of this House, should be appointed to over-ride the decisions of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee with ail their local knowledge, and also to over-ride the view of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, which Board invariably, before confirming the by-law, holds an inquiry at every spot concerned and hears everything that is to be said against that by-law. This Committee is presumably to dictate to the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee and the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. I think the representative of the Government here this evening will have something to say on that point. I wish to say a few words upon the merits of this question. The villages on the shores of Start Bay are inhabited by very poor families, the men of which have the greatest difficulty in gaining a living, some as longshore fishermen, others by fishing, especially for crabs and lobsters, their crab-pots being mainly set on the Skerries Bank, a spit of sand within the confines of the Start Bay. They are very poor men, they live at a great distance from the railroad, their means of communication with the market is very poor, and at the best of times they had great difficulty in earning a livelihood. Let me say here that Start Bay is a breeding ground for dabs, and a nursery for plaice, soles, and other sea fish; and I cannot understand on what authority the proposer and seconder have taken upon themselves to contend that trawling in this bay would do no harm to it as a nursery. I assert in the strongest possible way that the exact contrary is the fact.

I will not detain the House at any length. It suffices to say that a great many of the fishermen for years past have had to complain of the destruction of their crab-pots by trawlers. To cut a long story short, the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee some years ago, with the double object of protecting a spawning ground and nursery for sea fish and of safeguarding the fishing ground of the longshore fishermen, passed By-law No. 7, excluding trawlers from Start Bay, which by-law was approved and confirmed by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries after an inquiry on the spot at which all objections were heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth (Mr. Shirley Benn) said that Plymouth was law-abiding, and that they had not been caught in any illegal action in Start Bay. No, I do not think they go there to any extent. Plymouth is a long way off; it is the action of the Brixham men of which complaint has been made. Ever since that by-law excluding them from Start Bay has been in force it has been disregarded by certain trawlers to an ever-increasing extent, so that now it is no exaggeration to say that there is a real reign of terror in Start Bay. Emboldened by their immunity from punishment, they have ceaselessly harried the longshore fishing grounds, and they would seem of set purpose to trawl over this very ground where the crab-pots are set. The consequence has been, to quote a passage from the Harmsworth Committee Report, that from 900 to 1,000 crab-pots were destroyed in the season before last. Mr. Ford, the clerk of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, in prosecuting offenders recently, said that there was a loss of 1,000 crab-pots in one quarter of the previous season, so that the fishermen had no gear with which to go on fishing.


Is that in Start Bay?


Yes, that is in Start Bay. When it is remembered that each crab-pot costs 6s. 6d. in raw material, it can be seen what distress this means. I went to the bay last Whitsuntide, and I find considerable difficulty in adequately picturing to the House the state of affairs I found there. Many of the families were absolutely destitute. The men work hard, but work as they may, they cannot get a living, if day after day their stock-in-trade is continuously destroyed. There are many cases of hardship I could give to the House, but I will only take two at random. Thomas Steer, seventy-five years of age, and fifty years a fisherman in Start Bay, had in the previous season when I was there, lost more than sixty crab-pots at a loss to himself of over £16; and having lost his all, and deeply indebted himself to local tradesmen for new gear, he had at the very beginning of the new season already lost ten of his new crab-pots through destruction by trawlers. This man was a hard worker. He did not know which way to turn, and he was in despair at having to look on day after day at the destruction of all he had in the world by trawlers, without having the power to interfere. He said with truth, for his story was confirmed by ministers o£ religion, both Church of England and Nonconformist, that in the previous winter he and his family knew for the first time what it was to lack bread. He gave evidence in Court, and he was cross-examined, and it came out that between 6th July and Christmas he had lost fifty-five crab-pots at a cost of £16 4s. in gear to himself, without counting the loss he had sustained through not being able to catch the fish.

There was another case of a fisherman, who had been in the Navy, who was suffering from consumption, and who for many years had supported a mother between seventy and eighty years of age. He had lost the whole of his gear, and he was absolutely destitute. Every boat in these villages starts with something like 120 crab-pots. I found when I was there that there was one boat which had lost all but thirty crab-pots already, and expected to find those gone when they next went. I was appalled at the state of affairs there. The men were at their wits' end to know what to do. They were nearly all in debt to local tradesmen for new gear, and many families in the previous winter had known what it was to want for the necessaries of life. While I was there it was stormy and they could not get out, and they had to watch the trawlers raking the Skerries Bank. A week afterwards, when the weather was better, they all went out and recovered part of their gear. They found it floating about cut to pieces and completely useless. On one occasion two dozen fishermen suffered a loss of £30. This sort of thing repeated again and again means starvation for these men. Let me say that I am no partisan in these matters. I have, as the hon. Member for Torquay (Colonel Burn) will admit, co-operated with him and worked hard for an improvement in the past in the interests of these Brixham trawlers, although they are outside my Constituency. I have done my best to help them to get better harbour accommodation and to provide themselves with auxiliary motor craft. I have for twenty-nine years past co-operated with other Members for Torquay when they have not been of the same political persuasion as myself.

I am not a partisan, but I do want to see justice done in this matter, and it is with a full sense of my responsibility in saying it that I declare that this damage by trawlers has been wilful and deliberate. All the information which comes to me, and I have taken a great deal of trouble to sift it, shows me that the trawlers, knowing that something like 1,500 crab-pots are set upon the Skerries Bank, deliberately trawl over that ground with a view to raking up crab-pots, abstracting the contents, and cutting them adrift. How is it possible that the losses are due to easterly gales when the record damage was done at a time when there had been no gales from that quarter for many months? Moreover, the condition of the rope attached to the cork, when picked up, shows that it has not parted through stress of weather, but has been deliberately cut by a knife. Let me say here that, in consequence of the complaints which reached the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee after my visit to Start Ray, they appointed the sub-committee which has been referred to. I have some complaint to make of the constitution of that committee. Its constitution of necessity caused it to lean in a certain direction. I do not say that the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee intended that, because I have the greatest respect for the committee, with which I have long worked, but on the subcommittee was the most militant advocate of the trawlers, a gentleman known to my hon. Friend, and a gentleman for whom I have the greatest respect and with whom I have frequently worked, and there was no representative of the Start Bay men. While I am not finding fault with this, I do say that it was rather hard on the Start Bay men. The sub-committee sat at Bee Sands and heard the longshore fishermen's complaint, and they sat at Brixham and heard the trawlers' complaint. Witness after witness at Brixham said that 80 per cent. of the crab-pots are set outside the limits of Start Bay. That is not so. A few may be set outside in a part called the "Baltic," which is so rocky that it cannot be trawled over; but nobody who knows the circumstances—and I have been studying them for years—can deny that the bulk of the crab-pots are set within Start Bay. Moreover, the Start Bay men know well enough that if they set their pots outside the Start Bay they do so at their own risk, and cannot complain of losses. How can it be pretended that pots have been destroyed by passing ships? The only steamers which enter the bay are pleasure steamers. These do not enter after 1st October, and it is after 1st October that the great bulk of the damage is done. It was at Brixham, out of the mouth of a trawler witness, that we had confirmation of the Start Bay men's contention that the damage by the trawlers has been wilful and deliberate. What said Thomas Bellett, a trawler witness? "Crabbers will tell you that they never lost so many crab-pots as since the bay has been closed. Start Bay men have lost a hundred for every one they lost before." Mr. Ford, the clerk of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, then said, "So they destroy them wilfully now?" Bellett replied, "They must do so. They have got to make a living, and if you put twenty bogey-men "—that is, police officers—"there, you won't keep them out." Up jumps Mr. Hutchins, the legal representative of the trawlers, to say, "I repudiate him entirely," but Bellett was his own witness, called by the trawlers themselves. He had quite given their case away, and had made it clear how fully justified are we in contending that the damage is wilful and deliberate.

9.0 P.M.

These trawlers coolly defy the law and treat it with contempt. We have it in evidence over and over again that they have habitually trawled without lights in Start Bay, to the danger of all other shipping, and covered over their identification numbers with canvas. Does that not show that they know they are acting illegally and doing what they ought not to do? The by-law is a dead-letter. It is not the fault of the fisheries police officer, who has got no motor boat, and who can only hire a small type of tug boat from Dartmouth. The captain of that boat may refuse to go out if he does not like the climatic conditions, and it may take some time to get up steam. The trawlers know when he is going out. They have a system of prearranged signals, flares are lit, and, of course, the trawlers clear out of the Bay. It is difficult to catch these gentlemen in the act. Many of them carry on the deck an old trawl, and when they are caught, which does not often happen, and the police officer boards the trawler they slip the trawl with the corks upon it, and point to the old trawl upon the deck, saying, "How can you say we have been trawling? "They are willing to run the sporting risk of capture in view of the valuable return. On such days as trawlers are brought into Court by the fisheries officer the other trawlers have a good time; they know he will not be in the Bay, and they do incalculable damage. Here let me say how sorry I am that the President of the Board (Mr. Runciman) is not here, especially on account of the cause which keeps him away. He has always met me with the greatest sympathy, and he knows a great deal with regard to this question. I have always represented to him that as the Board confirmed this by-law they cannot say they have no responsibility for its enforcement. They ought not to acquiesce in its being set at bought and ignored in the way it is. After the Report of the Sub-committee of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee which has been referred to, the Committee, which has fishermen and representatives of all kinds, came to the conclusion that the bay ought not to be further opened, and from that moment the Brixham people set to work to fight the decision of the Committee. They appealed, and they tried to make out that the Committee have no power to make by-laws. They made it quite clear in other ways that they intended to defy the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee. The "Western Daily Mercury," of Plymouth, has weekly fishing notes, and many of these are inspired from Brixham, and this paragraph appeared in these notes:— There would be a determined effort to evade the by-law, and the fishery officers will find their hands pretty full as a result, and it will be followed by the infliction of a lot of damage to crabbers gear. Smacks dodging about on moonlight nights without lights cannot see crab-pot fleeters nor probably, if they could, would they be particularly careful to avoid them. Now, I ask, is the House going to abet this lawlessness? What does my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Colonel Burn) suggest? He suggests, I think, that trawlers should be admitted to the bay, so far as a line between Bell Buoy and the shore, a line so near to the spot where the crab-pots are set that it would be 500 times easier in the future to slip over it, especially in the dark, and to inflict incalculable damage with impunity. There is no light on the Bell Buoy, and there would be no possibility of knowing where the line would be at night when most of the damage is done; so that if the trawlers have chastised the crabbers with whips in the past, they will chastise them with scorpions in the future. And this is to be the reward of the trawlers for all the damage, all the suffering, all the misery that has been caused by them in Start Bay in the past. All I say is that if the House facilitates such action it would complete the ruin of these men. Who are these men? They have a great claim upon the State and the regard of this House, because they furnish so many men to the Army and Navy. They send more men—these two villages of Hall Sands and Bee Sands—to the Navy and the Army than any villages of similar size in the United Kingdom. Many sons of these fishermen have attained high rank in the Navy as war-rant officers and even in commissioned rank.

My hon. Friend compared the money which is invested in the two industries, and he argued that the capital involved in an industry representing £1,000 should not receive preference over one with £148,000. Without endorsing these very disputable figures, I would point out that the trawlers of Brixham have the wide seas in which to fish, whereas all the capital, all the stock-in-trade of Hall Sands and Bee Sands is deposited in the Bay. These men are the small holders of the sea, and at a time when we have done so much to protect small holders of land, surely it would be cruel to take this protection away from them and to leave defenceless the small holders of the sea. These men require protection a hundred times more than the trawling syndicates. The real question is whether or not the trawlers are to be given facilities in future to trawl illegally over the Skerries Bank and thus completely to destroy the means of livelihood of these Start Bay crabbers? If only hon. Members could have heard, as I did, these men at a meeting on the shores of Start Bay, as the sun was sinking down, recounting in their own language the sufferings and losses in the past and their fears for the future, I am certain they would have been deeply moved to espouse their cause. They have nobody to look after them. There is no man with much money within miles. These men have faced their misfortunes with a reticence and self-restraint which has been quite admirable, and with a patience which has been all the more pathetic in that it would seem to have been the patience of despair. A fund was raised to tide them over the winter and help them with new gear, but they do not ask for charity. All that they want is that they should be allowed some glimmering of hope, some possibility of earning by their own hard work a living for themselves and those dependent upon them. I am really ashamed at having troubled the House at such length, but I hope I may be forgiven, for these Start Bay men move one's pity in an extraordinary degree, so wonderfully patient are they and yet so absolutely hopeless with regard to the future. The new season is just beginning. If they have to go through again what they went through last season, and if, indeed, this House is to consent to any course which would increase their difficulties, then they will be completely done for.


I rise to second the Amendment. I am comforted by the opportunity, limited though it is, of discussing the interests of a body of men who have just as much claim as the industrial operatives of the country to the consideration of this House, but who, because they are unorganised, get very little satisfaction. I have some diffidence, not being a Devonshire Member, in intervening in this domestic controversy. I am desirous of making it perfectly clear that I have the fullest sympathy with the Devonshire men. I recollect that a few months ago I was upbraided by the hon. Member for the Totnes Division (Mr. Mild-may) in his local Press because, as he thought, doubtless under a misapprehension, I was endeavouring to stop his friends from getting money out of the Treasury. Nothing was further from my thoughts. I was very glad that the President of the Board of Agriculture has considered the case of the Devonshire fishermen, and my only anxiety was that their Scottish brethren should have equal success. The Devonshire men have obtained in the matter of the installation of motor power in fishing vessels the sympathetic consideration of the Board of Agriculture, and they have got thousands of pounds from the Development Commission, while we have not got a single penny for similar purposes in Scotland.

With special reference to the matter put down for consideration to-night, though some hon. Members may have been inclined to think that the very interesting Debate to which we have listened furnishes, perhaps, the best argument to which the House of Commons ever listened for the institution of an English local Parliament, yet the matter has a somewhat wider application. I desire to say this about trawling—it is the special reason for which I have risen—that, as the hon. Member for the Totnes Division said, I do not think the hon. and gallant Member for Torquay (Colonel Burn) who introduced this Motion had the slightest warrant for saying that trawling does not very seriously damage the spawning grounds and nurseries for young fish. We who have argued this rather technical question over and over again in this House on, perhaps, more suitable occasions, have maintained, and I believe have proved, that the practice of trawling is gradually depleting the inshore fishing grounds, that it is destroying the spawning beds and the nurseries, and that it is eating up what I would call our capital of national fish supplies.

Colonel BURN

All the scientists admit that Start Bay is not the breeding ground of the fish and that trawling does not hurt it. The Devon Sea Fisheries Committee themselves admitted it, and they opened two other bays in consequence. They do not claim that these are breeding grounds or that immature fish are caught in the trawls.


I must naturally bow to the local knowledge of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I have already stated my diffidence in intervening in a purely local Debate, which, I am afraid, cannot be allowed to remain a purely local Debate, because we, who represent Scottish line fishermen in these matters, are extremely reluctant to let these opportunities pass and perhaps see these matters made into precedents. We think that this method of trawling is wasteful and destructive, and should be very closely watched, because we have established by long usage a three-mile limit inshore, and, what is more, the closing of bays which are not more than six miles in width. Beyond that there is a very considerable body of opinion which wants a larger limit of territorial waters, and also a wider definition of what is a bay. It appeared to me on reading the Resolution of the hon. and gallant Member that he was trying to extend the principle of the opening of bays, to which we are firmly opposed. I have had a little experience of this matter in conversation with Scottish fishermen, and the general opinion is that this case of limiting the operation of trawling is, as the hon. Member for the Totnes Division well put it, the case of the small men against the more fortunate capitalist organisations. We find that the trawlers are continually encroaching upon the existing limits of trawling. Many hon. Members of this House have introduced' Bills for exacting penalties from the trawlers, and, while we wish well to the fishermen of Devon, on behalf of the line fishermen of Scotland and the consuming population generally we have to say that we cannot agree to any extension of the area of trawling in Home waters, as we believe it would mean an increase in the depletion of the fishing beds at Home which, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman who introduced the Motion said, has driven the trawlers further and further abroad to fish in foreign waters, and that pending further international agreement we must maintain our attitude of confining trawling within existing limits, because it is a method of fishing which we believe to be wasteful and destructive.


I rise to support the Motion proposed by the hon. and gallant Member for Torquay. I can claim to know something about this matter, because since I was a very small boy I have been out both in the crabbers and trawlers and with most sorts of fishermen. I cannot see any justification for continuing to keep the whole of Start Bay closed against trawlers. We have heard a good deal about spawning beds, the spoiling of young fish, and so on. If that is any argument at all, it is this: That it is unfair, while in other places trawlers are allowed to come in and spoil the fish, that in one particular part, and that part very near a very important centre of the trawling industry, they should be barred. If you are going to bar bays altogether, that is one thing. If you are going to bar one particular bay and spoil the fishing of a very deserving body of men, I say that is not fair. If you are going to do it at all it should be done in a systematic and wholesale way. The hon. Member (Mr. Mildmay) has drawn a very moving picture of the sufferings and so on of the fishermen of Hall Sands and Bee Sands. It is very well known indeed, and not only in Start Bay, but all over the coast, that by far the larger number of crab-pots are lost by bad weather. The hon. Member himself said that by far the greater number of crab-pots are lost during the time of year after 1st October, when the pleasure steamers have stopped running. I am quite aware that there are pleasure steamers running there, but surely the hon. Member knows that a very large number of steamers are continually going in and out of Dartmouth.


They do not go in over Skerries Bank.


That is exactly what they do. I have done it myself. They go inside Skerries Bank. There is a well known passage, and any ordinary steamboat can and would find its way there rather than go round. We also have heard a good deal about the experience of the Devon Sea Fisheries. I should be very glad if the hon. Member could tell us how many representatives of fishermen there are actually on the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee. I have heard the complaint over and over again that the fishermen are not properly represented there, for the reason that they meet at Newton Abbot, which is quite inaccessible to a large number of fishermen. From that point of view it is quite impossible.


It applies to both sides.


Quite so. The hon. Member said that the fishermen were amply represented on the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee.




At any rate he said that the fishermen were represented, and I say they are not sufficiently represented. He also made a great point of the capitalists of Brixham against the very poor crabbers of Hall Sands and Bee Sands. The hon. Member (Mr. Harcourt) was probably quite correct when talking about capitalists, because I believe in Scotland, and certainly on the East Coast, the trawlers are very largely owned by companies, but, unless I am very greatly mistaken and unless things have altered very much, the Brixham trawlers are very largely owned by the men themselves, and they are no more capitalists than the crabbers of Hall Sands and Bee Sands. Really it is not a case in the least of capital against labour, or anything of that sort, but it is all one class of men who are earning their livelihood in different ways. I know that district pretty well, and I know that there is a considerable demand for the opening of part of this bay to the trawlers, and I should like to support what the hon. Member (Mr. Shirley Benn) said about Plymouth men having a right to go to Start Bay. I do not know whether the House understands that the Brixham trawlers have now to go perhaps 30, 40, or 50 miles before they can get to-a trawling ground, and in Plymouth, where things have been extremely bad for many years past in the fisheries, it would be a very great boon indeed if Start Bay could at any rate in part be opened. I know something about it, and I cannot see why a portion should not be reserved for the crabbers. No one wants to interfere With the crabbers, and no one wants to destroy their livelihood. Losing pots, I am afraid, is part of the incident of putting down pots at all.

We have also heard from the hon. Member (Mr. Mildmay) how, when the bogey-man was at Plymouth prosecuting someone or other, these trawlers descended like wolves on the fold and filled Start Bay. But, of course, that is absolutely impossible. The Hall Sands men are not blind. The trawlers do not only carry their numbers on their bows; they have them on their sails, and they have their names under their counters, and if there was wholesale poaching in the bay they would be caught. I do not know what kind of slow tug the hon. Member refers to, but the tug which used to be used by this policeman has lately been sold to Constantinople, so perhaps the police gentleman will be able to get a fast tug from Dartmouth or elsewhere. One would imagine that there was an extensive use of signals, lanterns, flares and bonfires whenever this man goes out, but really I can not conceive that I should have lived for some time at Dartmouth and not heard of these flares and bonfires. I have never heard a word of them, and I do not believe they exist. On the whole, I hope the House will allow the Motion to go through. An inquiry can do no harm. The hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Burn) has asked for nothing more than an inquiry, and I cannot help thinking that in common justice, both to the trawlers and to the crab men, this inquiry should be held.


We have had a very interesting Debate from the protagonists on both sides, and we all listened with pleasure to the hon. Member's (Mr. Mild-may) eloquent defence of those whose interests he represents. I share with him to the full the regret that he expressed at the absence of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Runciman). The hon. Member who brought forward this question has asked the House to condemn a by-law to which he referred, and to set up a Committee, and he has asked the House to recommend very specifically indeed to that Committee what its decision should be. I have seen a great many terms of reference in the course of my life, but I have never seen terms of reference quite so specific and precise as those which the hon. Gentleman suggested that the House should pass this evening. The administrative machinery which has already been set up by this House exists for the purpose of deciding questions like that which has been brought forward by the hon. Member. Under the Sea Fisheries Act of 1888 sea fishery districts were constituted all over the country and committees were appointed to administer to those districts. One such committee was appointed for the coast of Devon on the side of the English Channel and on the side of the Bristol Channel. It was a very large and representative committee, consisting of forty-two members, appointed by the County Council of Devonshire, by Plymouth, by Devonport, and by other places, and a number of members were also added, and were very carefully selected indeed, to represent the various interests by the Board of Agriculture.


How many representatives of fishermen serve on the committee?


I cannot say the exact number on the committee itself. They are representatives of the county of Devon as a whole, and of both coasts, and a committee appointed in that way must be regarded as one which would not deal in a local and partial way in a matter of this kind, but in a judicial way and on broad principles. That is the committee set up in pursuance of action taken by this House with which this House is asked to interfere, and I am going to ask the House not to set up a Select Committee of its own for the purpose of dealing with this purely local question, but to allow the local machinery to work as it was intended to work by this House. That committee has full power, if it thinks fit, to pass a new by-law repealing the by-law which already exists. They may pass a by-law proposing the opening of the whole or of a part of Start Bay to trawlers, and if such a by-law should be made in the future, and it is not by any means impossible that a new by-law may be proposed in the future—I understand that the Fisheries Committee were fairly evenly divided on the question on the last occasion when it came before them—then it will be for the Board of Agriculture to confirm, with or without modification, such modification as may be assented to by the local fisheries committee, or to withhold their confirmation as in their judgment the facts of the case may require. I ought to explain that there is absolutely no power for the Board to initiate in this matter. The initiative must come from the local committee. I am wholly unable, even if I wished to do so, to enter into the merits of the question brought before us this evening. I am unable to do so because it is the function of the Board of Agriculture to act, at any rate, in a semi-judicial spirit. They have to consider in a judicial spirit the facts of the case when presented to them, or the form of a proposal of a new by-law. That being the case, it would be quite impossible for me to enter into the relative merits of the trawlers' case on the one hand, or the crabbers' case on the other. It is the function of the Board of Agriculture to hold the scale evenly and impartially between them, and to make such local inquiries as may be necessary. It is my concern to ask the House not to interfere with the machinery set up, and I would appeal very strongly indeed to the House not to set up a Select Committee to decide this purely local question. Generally the trawling question has been referred to. May I remind my hon. Friend who raised it that a Departmental Committee under the presidency of the present Postmaster-General has been appointed for the purpose of considering that question in all its aspects.


Can my hon. Friend find it convenient to tell the House how many Committees have been set up?


My point is that a Committee is actually considering the question at the present moment, and, that being so, it would really seem absurd for the House of Commons to set up another Select Committee for the purpose of considering a very small portion indeed of the general question that is under consideration. There is another matter to which I am free to refer, and that is the fact, as stated by the hon. Member for the Totnes Division, that this question is now sub judice. It is now engaging the attention of the Courts, and under these circumstances, I think it would be quite improper to pass a Motion of this character. May I also say that a Departmental Committee—I hope I shall carry my hon. Friend with me on this particular point—has been appointed to consider the question of inshore fisheries, and to advise the Board of Agriculture as to the steps that can be taken with advantage for their preservation and development. That is not the Hobhouse Committee. The Report of that Committee is, I understand, on the verge of being published at the present time, and that I think is another reason why the House of Commons should not proceed to the appointment of a special Select Committee for the consideration of this local question which has been raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite. He has had the opportunity of bringing before the House the grievances of those whom he represents. The hon. Member for the Totnes Division has spoken in reply, and I trust that the hon. Gentleman who moved the Resolution, having done that, will not put the House to the trouble of a Division on this question. The time is not propitious at the present moment for the appointment of another Select Committee to deal with this matter.

Attention called to the fact that forty Members were not present. House counted, and forty Members being found present—

Colonel BURN

I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley)

An Amendment is now before the House which was moved by the hon. Member for the Totnes Division. The hon. Member cannot withdraw the Motion unless the Amendment be first withdrawn.


I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Colonel BURN

I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.