HC Deb 21 November 1950 vol 481 cc296-307

8.26 p.m.

Mr. Donnelly (Pembroke)

This House has a long tradition of extending a very generous hearing to problems of small groups of people, so I know that I have to make no apology tonight for raising at this late hour the problem of the coracle fishermen on the river Teifi, which runs between the borders of Pembroke-shire and Cardiganshire and which winds itself round the borders of Carmarthenshire.

The history of this problem is, very briefly, this. The coracle fishermen on the river Teifi have plied their trade there since time immemorial. We have all read in our school history books about how they fished there, and this trade is still being plied on the river Teifi today. It has gone on for more than a thousand years, and it would be going on still without any threat were it not for a serious incident which took place before the war.

In the 1930's, as a result of the outcry of some sections of the community—the rod and line fishermen, who operate further up the reaches of the river—this trade had a limitation placed upon it by the Teifi and Aeron Fishery Board, who passed a local bylaw, which was confirmed by the Tory Minister of Agriculture at the time, following a public in- quiry in the district. That bylaw said that no further licences would be granted to coracle fishermen, and that those held would die out with the existing holders of the licences or would lapse if any of the fishermen happened to be convicted of an offence of any kind.

Before the war there was some hope of the matter being re-opened as the result of a proposal to abolish coracle fishing altogether on the Teifi, but this was postponed owing to the war coming along. As a result of the gradual dwindling of licences and the dying out of the holders of licences, we have now arrived at the situation where there are very few holders of licences under the age of 70, and in a very few years' time, unless something is done quickly to reopen the matter, coracle fishing will be a past memory and we shall have forgotten all about it.

It seems to me that there are two main issues involved. Foremost is the fact that the coracle fishermen earn their living, or at least a great proportion of it, by coracle fishing. On the other hand, the rod and line fishermen, for whom I have no bad feelings at all, carry on their fishing as a kind of sport. It seems to me, as one who considers the social and economic aspects of this problem, that those who are economically affected should have their interests considered before those who are concerned purely with amusement. Therefore, I submit to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the first issue involved is this question of those who are affected economically and those who are affected from the point of view of amenity, sport and amusement.

Then there is a second issue involved. I am not a Welshman, but perhaps somebody outside can sometimes see these things as clearly as those who have lived in Wales for a long time. I have been very impressed by the fact that coracle fishing has a symbolic interest for the people of Wales. It is one of the great ancient heritages of Wales. People from all over the world come to see this coracle fishing going on in exactly the same way as it has done for so many centuries. The Welsh Tourist Board have made a considerable feature in their brochure, drawing attention to it. People come from America and other parts of the world to see how it is carried on, and to see crafts- men making coracles. It has been of considerable interest to historians and sociologists and, at the same time, it is a matter of considerable pride to the people of Wales that this craft should continue to exist.

Therefore, the second issue involved is that here is an ancient heritage which is now beginning to die out completely, and will die out totally in a matter of a few years. I do not want to take up too much of the time of the House. The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins), if they are fortunate enough to take part in this debate, may have some words to say about the more detailed aspects of this problem. But it is a matter of considerable urgency as far as many people in my constituency are concerned, and I should like to stress this.

I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries two questions, which I hope he will be able to touch upon when he comes to reply. The first is: How can this matter be re-opened? I understand that the new West Wales Rivers Board is to come into operation very shortly, in the new year. This will be taking over many of the operations of the Teifi and Aeron Fishery Board and of other boards which it incorporates. Is it possible to have this matter re-opened with that Board by representations from the district, or can the Minister, within his powers under existing legislation, do anything to re-open the matter so that there may be some opportunity for a completely fresh consideration, now that we have a totally different Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and a totally different Government in power?

The second question is: Is it possible to consider appointing a representative of the coracle fishermen on the Teifi to the West Wales River Board? I understand that other sectional interests, such as the seine net fishermen of the Teifi, are to be represented. I hope the Government will consider very carefully, and in a friendly manner, the possibility of appointing a representative of this section. It is perfectly true that it is a small section of fishermen on the river who are involved, but it is a very important section and a very widely publicised one.

This matter is one of considerable importance to the people of Wales and to all those who have a feeling for Welsh culture and Welsh history. It will be a profound tragedy if, in our own time and generation, the coracle fishermen of the River Teifi—a unique throwback to years gone by—were allowed to disappear finally from the scene without any action being taken by the Government to enable this kind of trade to continue in the future.

8.34 p.m.

Mr. Bowen (Cardigan)

I wish to indicate my general sympathy with the observations of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly). It is unfortunate, however, that he should attempt to attach any party political significance to this issue. It is an old question. It has never taken on any party significance, and, from the point of view of the interests of the men concerned, it would be most unfortunate if, in any way, it should be given a party slant.

Perhaps I should declare my interest in this matter. Ever since 1938 I have been the standing counsel to the Teifi Net Fishermen's Defence Association. This is a voluntary body, set up to attempt to protect the rights of coracle men in respect of the River Teifi, and in particular, of course, to see that their interests were safeguarded in so far as they conflicted with other fishing interests on the river.

I should also declare my interest in this subject in that I have taken a small part in this manner of fishing ever since my boyhood days. It is a matter of great pride to us that this ancient craft, the construction of which is a work of art, and the skill and ingenuity of this form of fishing, should continue. It would be a great sorrow to people who are not fishermen, but who have respect for matters of antiquarian interest and for craftsmanship in any sphere, and particularly for the skill and ingenuity of these fishermen, if this industry, this way of life, were to be abolished.

I do not want to go in detail into the history of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Pembroke. Unfortunately, as a result of the outbreak of the war, the full-blooded inquiry which should have taken place in September, 1939, was postponed. As a consequence, I believe that the full merits of the coracle fishermen's case have not been the subject of inquiry since 1934, since when there have been many developments which would assist them considerably in their representations. It seems to me that the immediate point upon which we can ask for the Minister's assistance is the representation of this body of men on the new river board which is about to be set up and which includes within its jurisdiction the functions now exercised by the Teifi and Aeron Fishery Board.

I should like to refer first to the Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries Act of 1923. Section 47 (1) of that Act governs the position with regard to representation until the new river board operates. The Act reads: In every fishery district in which there are any public rights of fishing, and such rights are exercised by fishermen duly licensed to fish for salmon otherwise than with rod and line, there shall in each year be elected such number of members representative of the holders of such licences on the fishery board for that district as hereinafter mentioned; I will not trouble the House with the details, but it will be seen that in that Act there are adequate provisions for the representation on the fishery board of the coracle fishermen, quite apart from rod and line fishermen and seine net fishermen; there is adequate provision in the Statute for separate representation for coracle fishermen.

I turn now to the provisions which will operate when the river boards come into existence. It seems to me that the relevant Section is Section 2 of the Act of 1948. The Act refers to the appointments as follows: An order establishing a river board shall provide for the appointment of such number of members not exceeding forty as may be specified in the order, who shall be appointed as follows: The part to which I want to draw attention reads as follows: The remainder of the members shall be appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and shall consist of— (ii) persons appointed to represent fishery interests in the river board area after consultation with any association or person appearing to the Minister to represent a substantial fishery interest in that area. While it is true that the overwhelming fishing interest in the area is that of the rod and line fishermen, it would be most unfair and certainly unkind to say that the coracle fishermen do not represent a substantial fishery interest in the area. Quite apart from the principle that the Minister should act in accordance with the provisions and the spirit of the Act of 1923, where it was laid down that the body which was to govern these matters should have upon it a representative of the coracle fishermen, I think it is equally important that, now that these functions are to be taken over by the river board, that board should have upon it someone who is capable of speaking for and representing the interests of the coracle fishermen. That is right in accordance with the general principle of fair play.

It may well be argued that it could be justified on the basis "no taxation without representation." After all, these coracle fishermen have to pay for licences. The rules governing the conduct of their fishing will be laid down by this body and I respectfully suggest that natural justice dictates that these men should be represented on it.

It is important, from another point of view, that they should be represented. The question of their future existence and their future right to fish on the river may well arise. The question of the continuance of the present stringent conditions relating to these men and whether the industry should be perpetuated may very well come under consideration and it is most important that the Board which has to consider that question should have upon it representatives of this section of fishing interests. It is all the more important for this reason, that one of the reasons why any controversy has arisen in this respect is that there is a clash of interest between the rod and line fishermen and the coracle fishermen. It will place the coracle fishermen in an invidious position if the board which is to determine this matter has ample representation of the rod and line fishermen concerned and none from the coracle fishermen.

I would ask the Minister to consider this matter. The appointments are his responsibility. I am certainly not asking him to act without, in the words of the statute, consulting any association of persons appearing to the Minister to represent a substantial fishing interest in that area. I hope he will have further consultations, and that as a result he will see—for, after all, the final word rests with the Minister—that coracle fishermen are given representation on the river board. I feel we are placing the Minister in some difficulty in asking him to make any pronouncement on the position relating to the by-laws, but I hope the Minister will invite the river board to consider—and consider most sympathetically—the revision of the present position, with a view to seeing that the use of these ancient craft for fishing is preserved.

It is only out of fairness to the men concerned that they should be considered. The economic arguments that could be used against them have been weakened, because most of the men—I believe all of them, but certainly most of them—have other occupations now or are retired. The sentimental arguments, the antiquarian arguments, the historical arguments, and the arguments on the ground of the picturesque, are stronger than ever. I hope that the Minister will first see that the coracle fishermen have proper representation, and afterwards do all in his power to see to it that the board engages itself in revising the position to see to it that this ancient pursuit is continued on the River Teifi.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

Colleagues of ours reading HANSARD tomorrow will be wondering what we have been talking about tonight—coracle fishing on the River Teifi. Perhaps it would have been better for those interested had a coracle by some means been brought to the House of Commons. I am sure it would not have gone very well on the River Thames because it flows too swiftly. However, unless we do get redress from the Minister after this Debate it will be a good thing to get coracle fishermen to bring a fleet of coracles to the Thames for the Festival of Britain.

I intervene because I am interested from the Welsh standpoint. The two hon. Members who have spoken already have done a great service to their constituents. This matter is of considerable interest to the Welsh Tourist and Holidays Board. The Board took the subject up with the Welsh Parliamentary Party last March and, as secretary of that body, it was my duty to bring the matter to the notice of the Minister of Agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture sent us a reply stating that when the new fishery board was set up the matter would be reviewed. I find that the South-West Wales River Board now has been set up, but that nothing has been done about this matter, and I understand that unless something is done very soon the whole problem will not be able to be tackled at all.

I suggest there are two things that the Parliamentary Secretary should look into at once. First, there is the question of the by-law itself. Provision is made for the new authority to take over the bylaws of the old authorities. If the Minister feels there is not sufficient evidence to continue that by-law I do respectfully suggest that another public inquiry should be held, rather than that he should decide that that by-law can no longer exist. The other matter is this. I am sure that the constituents of both the hon. Members who have already spoken will be glad that they have raised this point, which was raised very effectively by the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen), about the representation of interests on the Board itself. It was my intention also to quote from the 1948 Act, but there is now no need for me to do so.

I do hope that the Minister will look at this again, not only from the point of view of the coracle fishermen but also from the standpoint of Welsh tourism. In the three Counties of Pembroke, Cardigan and Carmarthen, all along the banks of this river and right away inland, there are such places as "Coracle" cafes and other places all deriving their names from the picturesque coracles. We in Wales would be very disappointed if this industry were to go by the board. I do hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some enlightenment as to how something can be done, whether by the river board or not, in the next couple of weeks—not leaving the matter for as long as months—to give us satisfaction on this matter.

8.48 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Hale (Rochdale)

I think that the Englishmen present should not be regarded as Philistines in the eyes of the Welsh on this matter. As a Member representing a Lancashire constituency, I envy people who have rivers in which fish can exist. I should have thought that it would have been in the interest of the Ministry to preserve this very picturesque way of catching fish. The coracle, of course, is something we usually associate with our early history. It is gratifying to me to know that there are some people who, perhaps for economic reasons, still preserve this very ancient way of extracting fish from the rivers.

I believe it would be to the advantage of all in these islands if we could do anything at all to preserve this very interesting and ancient means of earning a living. The Welsh, of course, are among those who love ancient customs for ancient customs' sake, and I think that we near-Englishmen should give all the help that we can in preserving a way of life which is dear to some of us as well as to them.

8.51 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)

One would need to be a Philistine and to have no imagination at all not to have enjoyed the last half-hour's debate, with its picture of an industry and a way of life, as I think someone called it, which, in many ways, is quite unusual to many of us in these islands. I had quite a nostalgic feeling of holiday time, and I almost convinced myself that the winter was not upon us while listening to this description of Welsh rivers and this wonderful way of going on which several hon. Members described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly), who opened the Debate, told us he is not a Welshman. I must say that the Celtic vigour with which he pursues the various claims of his constituency and impresses them upon me has long caused me to regard him as nothing but a Welshman. I think that only a Welshman could fight so violently for what he believes to be in the interests of his constituents.

This is not so easy a problem as, I think, several hon. Members have pretended. There are a number of conflicting interests which come into this picture, and perhaps I ought to say a word, before suggesting how we can deal with it, about the problem generally. The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) told us the history behind this matter. The Teifi Fishery Board, as we have been told, includes not only [...]oracle fishing but all the other fishing industries. In 1935, it made a by-law prohibiting all netting in the non-tidal waters of the Teifi. There was a row about it, and, subsequently, a public inquiry was held. The then Minister confirmed the by-law, with a proviso, arising out of the public inquiry, which continued licences for a certain class of coracle fishermen on the waterfront above Llechryd Bridge. This, obviously, had an affect upon the interests of other people.

I mentioned that not to state the obvious, but because it has not been mentioned in the Debate and has a bearing on something which I want to say. As I understand, the prohibition only applied above the bridge, which I have named once and will not attempt to pronounce a second time. Between that bridge and Cardigan bridge, I am told that the use of the river is limited solely to coracle fishermen, and, if that is so, there would seem to be no reason to assume that there is any immediate risk of this picturesque industry dying out, quite apart from the fact that I understand that it is quite a well-known feature of other rivers, including the River Towy.

Mr. Bowen

I think that the Minister is misinformed about the position in that respect. I understand that the operation of this by-law will, in time, mean the complete elimination of coracle fishing in the River Teifi.

Mr. Brown

That is not my information. We do not feel that it is quite as sweeping as that. I do not think that anyone has denied that it was the Fishery Board's point of view in 1935 that, in time, coracle fishing would disappear altogether, certainly above the bridge. That is what they were intending to do.

As to what can be done about it, the first thing to be made clear is that any initiative can only come from the area and not through my right hon. Friend. This question is covered by the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1923, which, for this purpose, is not affected by the River Boards Act of 1948. Therefore, any proposals would have to come from the locality. My right hon. Friend's only function in the matter would be to act in a quasi-judicial capacity on representations made to him from the area. He would have to ensure that, whatever the proposition, it was, broadly speaking, fair to all the various fishing interests concerned, and that it was consistent with the principles of fish conservations. The Fishery Board have not seen fit to take the initiative, and the Board will be going out of existence in due time. The new board is in process of being set up, but it has not yet taken over.

As the Fishery Board are not likely to take the initiative, the only other source from which it can come is, for example, the county councils, which, I am told, under Part IV of the 1923 Act, have power to ask for an order. If that were done, it would be for my right hon. Friend to take into account the various issues. One of the matters to be taken into account would be whether the decrease in the number of coracle fishermen since 1935, and the decrease in the fishing in that part of the river, has led to any great increase in the stocks of salmon. That would be the kind of question my hon. Friends could inform themselves about, as it would be rather useful in any discussion that takes place.

With none of these bodies taking any initiative in the matter, there is not much that we can do here. It is impossible for me to commit the South Wales Rivers Board to a policy when it takes over. Our view is that this kind of argument and grievance which has been going on for a period of many years is unhelpful. It is a sort of thing that we do not desire, which does not improve or add anything. Our view would be to look hopefully at any proposal which, without creating a new hardship in the place of the one it removes, would, nevertheless, bring about sympathetic and fair settlement of this long-standing problem. I go further than that and express the hope that that point of view will be taken into account by those with power to do something about it.

As to the question of representation of coracle fishermen on the Rivers Board, in regard to which my hon. Friend drew attention to the difference in the provisions for representation under the 1923 and 1948 Acts, it is fair to draw attention to the vast difference in the size of the respective boards, their responsibilties and their finance. The responsibility of the Rivers Board is so much greater than the fishery boards because the amount of money they will have to handle is so much greater. It is bound to be the case, with a small board, that we shall have fewer members left to represent purely fishing interests. On the other hand, the fishing interests will be much better looked after than in the case of a board with a large number of representatives.

The position is that the fishery interests are to have nine members. The appointments have not yet been made, but in making the appointments we shall certainly give due attention to the principles the hon. Member read out. I can give an undertaking that we will consult the fishery boards in the area about the initial fishery appointments. We shall most certainly consult the local interests and honour the undertaking I gave to consult the fishery boards. I cannot commit my right hon. Friend to the appointment of any one of the nine members to represent any one group. Those fishery interests to be covered by the nine members are very wide interests indeed. I am told that they cover the whole of three counties and part of a fourth, with a very wide range of different types of fishing interests—coracle and other net interests, anglers of different types, riparian owners, and so on.

It would be wrong for me to commit myself to the allocation of any one appointment of the nine members, but I promise that we shall consult the local interests and certainly the fishery board. My right hon. Friend will do his best, having regard to the limited number of members and the wide interests to be covered, to give the fishery interests a fair representation, having regard to all the set-ups in the area. I cannot go very much further than that.

It is a difficult problem, but not because of any administrative shortcomings at this end. It is difficult because of some deep-seated and fiercely held local views and conflicts. That is the sort of problem which is much better settled in the area. I would suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) that instead of bringing his armada of coracle fishermen from South Wales to interfere with the Festival of Britain, he should get them to settle the matter in a spirit of compromise in the area. We, for our part, will do nothing to prevent or spoil the effect of such an agreement.