HC Deb 13 February 1951 vol 484 cc312-22

(1) No person shall fish for or take salmon during Sunday.

(2) No person shall fish for or take salmon (except during Saturday or Monday, by rod and line) during the weekly close time.

(3) The weekly close time shall extend from the hour of twelve noon on Saturday to the hours of six on the following Monday morning.

(4) If any person contravenes this section he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act.—[Mr. McNeil.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. McNeil

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I am not quite clear about the easiest way to deal with the Clause. Perhaps I might explain that we have had conferences offstage in various parts of the Committee and that I think the Clause meets most wishes. I have no doubt that the proposition which I offered originally—that we should have a close time of 48 hours—was a better one. However, we all saw clearly from the beginning that there would be difficulties in operating a close time from, say, 6 a.m. on a Saturday to 6 a.m. on a Monday. We cast about to try to find methods of meeting the practical working difficulties of that proposal. We have met those difficulties, and also the objections which were offered by the associations actually working this kind of method, by reducing the proposed weekly close time from 48 to 42 hours.

It will also be noticed that in offering this concession—because I think it is a concession—I have departed from the ancillary proposition which I offered at one time of having local variations. If we are doing so much to meet the interests of the companies and of the associations, I think we had better do it flatly and make sure that the full benefit of the 42 hours is secured. It will be observed also, although it is not strictly relevant to the Clause, that I am adhering to the undertaking I gave that the operation of the scheme should be reviewed.

There is good reason to believe that this extension of the close time will, in a number of years, benefit the stocks of all and benefit the operators, both employers and employees, but it would be better, since there is no hard and fast and inescapable scientific evidence on the subject, that we should review it at an appropriate time and that I am proposing to do. I will be glad to try to answer questions if necessary, but I know the Committee are so familiar with the subject and various aspects of it that I have moved the Motion in this comparatively brief fashion.

Mr. Boothby

I know the Committee are anxious to get on and that we are all anxious to get through the Bill, but I wish to say that as a representative of a constituency which has substantial fishing interests, both at sea and inland, both of net fishermen and riparian owners, that I think this represents the most satisfactory compromise that could have been reached. There was, naturally, a clash of interests; there always is in these matters. I think this the best compromise and for my part, and on behalf of my constituents, I welcome it. No one is completely satisfied and that makes me feel that it is probably the best thing that could be done.

Captain Duncan

I am prepared to accept this compromise, particularly when I notice the heading of the next proposed new Clause: Inquiry into working of weekly close time. I accept it in the nature of an instalment and I am not convinced that it should be 42 hours for ever. I am not convinced that 42 hours will be enough. I have particularly in mind cases where the sea is netted and the river is netted and, under certain conditions of spate and tide, the fish may not be able to get both through the sea nets and through the river nets in the slack time. Forty eight hours may well be necessary in certain rivers, at any rate where river netting is carried out as well as sea netting.

While accepting the proposed new Clause, I would urge that inquiry under the next proposed new Clause should be carried on at the earliest possible moment so that we can assure ourselves that stocks of fish are not being eaten into too much even to the extent of the slack we are to have under this Clause.

Mr. Manuel

I am sorry that the Secretary of State has altered his mind from the original provision of the Bill. Angling clubs have pressed for many years that these nets, particularly at the mouths of rivers, should be off for a much longer period. While it is true that 42 hours is a fairly lengthy period, we have also to remember that a further six hours might make all the difference to the run of fish getting up a river.

To enable the fish to get up to the upper reaches and within the ambit of angling clubs inland, we must have, in addition to nets, the necessary flow of water and spate conditions, in some instances, to allow the sea trout or salmon to get into these upper reaches. I feel that there has been a complete consensus of opinion throughout Scotland, at any rate so far as the angling clubs are concerned. We are fortunate in the type of angling clubs and club members which we have in Scotland. They are always out to see that the best in angling is retained, and decry the ulterior methods which are sometimes employed to extract the fish.

The Secretary of State has certainly said that this proviso will be reviewed not earlier than 1956. But a large volume of opinion in Scotland will be deeply disappointed that the provision of 48 hours is not coming fully into operation now, to allow for more and greater movement of fish, and better spawning conditions to attract more fish in future years.

Lady Tweedsmuir (Aberdeen, South)

I have great sympathy with the remarks of the hon. Member for Ayrshire, Central (Mr. Manuel), because I have already put my name to an Amendment which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Stewart) and which supported the Secretary of State in his original declaration that he wished the close time extended to 48 hours. Our Amendment is only to have the hours put forward from six on Saturday to six on Monday to the hours of noon and noon.

I must here declare an interest as I have for many years enjoyed the right to fish the River Don in Aberdeenshire, and the right also to fish the River Dee. I know from that experience that when the owners on the River Dee got together and managed to buy off some of the nets at the mouth of the river, it had a very salutary effect on the stocks of fish in that river. So far as possible I have tried to take a balanced view on this matter, because in my constituency in South Aberdeen I have many people who are interested in the commercial side of fishing.

The whole object of the Clauses of the Secretary of State, both the old one and the new, is to preserve the stocks of fish in the river. I know what has gone on behind the scenes and of the many different interests he has tried to reconcile. I have come to the conclusion that I shall support him in the new Clause which extends the time merely from 36 to 42 hours. Taken together with all the difficulties, I feel that that is an average compromise.

I am glad he has decided that he will review this matter in five years' time, which, of course, is the cycle of life of the salmon, because it is not until five years hence that we shall be able properly to judge the damage which has been done by the fish gangs; and to what extent the small fry and the life of the river has been desecrated. I hope that if in five years it is proved that that is not an adequate period, he will again take his courage in his hands—although I am afraid he will not be there—but whoever is there in a Tory Government will take his courage in his hands and review the matter again.

Mr. McNeil

The hon. Lady will forgive me, but I cannot help remarking how many Tory Governments have missed that chance.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes

It would be unbecoming of me, representing my constituency, if I did not express some observations upon this new Clause. I congratulate the Minister on the compromise he has arrived at. The 48 hours close season proposed by the Bill as introduced was too long. The present close time of 36 hours has worked well. The Bill proposed to make it 48 hours, and this new Clause now makes it 42 hours. That is a satisfactory compromise and I wish to congratulate the Minister upon it for a variety of reasons which it would take a considerable time to explain; but I do not propose to go into detail in the circumstances, and I content myself with saying that I thank him for this new Clause.

Lieut.-Colonel Boles

I want to give a warning on the subject of the inquiry into the working of this new Clause. It must be remembered when statistics are taken of the returns of fish caught that we shall have one of the nine-year cycles in 1951, when the catch is likely to be very small compared with other years. Apparently, there is a nine-year cycle when the catch is very small, and one of those years will be included in the statistics. That should be taken into consideration.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I do not doubt the mathematics of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), but no one has yet expressed the opposite points of view in support of 36 hours. I have considerable diffidence and reluctance in adding my name to the compromise, but in the circumstances, it is a sensible compromise which may well be accepted. In fact, in my part of the world it eases one difficulty, which was that there were different hours in operation on the north and on the south of the Solway. That position has now been equalised, which is a good thing in itself.

It occurred to me that, when considering the main purpose of this Bill, which is the suppression of poaching, this change of hours would make it difficult to arrive at any proper conclusions. Two factors will have their effect on the fish population, and it will be impossible to separate them. Perhaps it would have been better—and it will be better when next this matter is reviewed—to consider what is the state of the fish in various years and to take the necessary action about close time as a result. It might well be that a suitable close time for some rivers would be 48 hours: for others it would be 36. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, or whoever deals with this matter when it comes to be reviewed, will bear in mind that consideration.

Mr. McKie

I should like to confess a personal as well as constituency interest in this matter. I am very glad that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), has also taken the opportunity of presenting the minority view. It is a very old axiom in this House of Commons that the Opposition point of view should be adequately expressed. I fully support what my hon. Friend has just said about the grave apprehensions expressed by those engaged in the Solway stake net fishing with regard to the extension of time to 48 hours instead of the 36 hours which has been in operation there for such a long period.

My personal interest which I mentioned concerns the stake net fishing, but I have the larger constituency interest so far as the rivers are concerned, and it is shared by my hon. Friend who has just spoken. Perhaps it is not generally understood on the other side or in the Committee generally, because we are presenting the views of a very few people who are engaged in the stake net fishing industry, that peculiar conditions prevail in the Solway Firth. Owing to the very swift ebb and flow of the tides, the closing period which has been in existence for so long has, in fact, been a 48-hour period all through, and the Secretary of State will realise that, by this extension and this compromise, these people will suffer an additional hardship.

However, we have founded much of our legislation upon the spirit of compromise, and I think that all parties should agree to this extended period. I hope that the review will soon be undertaken, and that, as a result of what has happened—I see the Secretary of State shakes his head, but he should not be too sure—

Mr. McNeil

I would merely point out that, under the next new Clause, if it is accepted, there will be a statutory limit as to when the review should take place, and I could not undertake to do it earlier.

Mr. McKie

I hope that the review will take place as soon as possible, and that, as a consequence, if there is any hardship concerning this small but very important section of the fishing industry, that hardship will be taken into account.

Lord Dunglass

May I shed a tear with the Secretary of State over his original proposal? I thought it was a good idea that, if any provision of this kind was to be made, it must be imposed from above, because it is quite impossible to expect people engaged in industry and commerce to take a long view.

I think that, for the purposes of the record, it might be interesting to give certain figures which we have obtained from the Tweed in the last few months, looking back over the years, because I think they show the amount of damage and waste which we have to make up as a result of the war years. We took a section of the river and compared these figures for the five years before the war with those of the five years following it. The result is that the spring fish caught by the rod are down by 30 per cent., and the autumn fish caught by the rod are down by 70 per cent. On the coast, as far as net fishing is concerned, salmon and grilse are down by 52 per cent., and sea trout are down by 67 per cent.

These figures indicate the extent of the damage and waste which we have to make up, and therefore I wish that the Secretary of State could have stuck to his original proposal. However, as he says, anything in this direction is an improvement, and this is admittedly a working compromise. I hope the statistics which he will collect will enable the five-year review period to provide for the review to be made and appropriate action taken. Therefore, I suggest that we should agree with the present proposals.

Mr. Pryde

I am not very happy about the compromise on this new Clause, especially in view of the contribution made by the noble Lord the Member for Lanark (Lord Dunglass). I think this is a lamentable confession of failure on the part of the Tweed Commissioners. Everyone agrees in Peebles that there are fewer butchers than ever before, and also that salmon in the Tweed are fewer than ever before. The contention of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) is a logical one. If there is a 48-hour free run for salmon, there will be more fish in the river. I do not see why there should be any interference at all with rod and line fishing. Indeed, years of experience have proved that no damage is done to the breeding of salmon in the River Tweed by even the biggest catches when using the legal rod and line.

The fact is that, so far as this Committee is concerned, this Bill has become a River Tweed Bill. The greatest dis- appointment of all is the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie). In the debates on the Gracious Speech, he put the blame for this legislation on his hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson), and said that it would be legislation from the least reactionary section of the community. Tonight he is adding fuel to the fire by telling us that from his experience it is far better to be more reactionary than the most reactionary elements of the community. Surely it would have been far better if my right hon. Friend had listened rather to the angling clubs of the country, to men with experience. I deeply regret that my right hon. Friend has committed this side of the Committee to a compromise.

Mr. McNeil

I am very grateful for the sympathy of my hon. Friend and not ungrateful for the sympathy of the noble Lord opposite. I have no doubt that my original proposal was a better one than that offered today, but my job is to get a Bill which is acceptable, as broadly as possible, to the people concerned, and one which will be operable. I hope that my hon. Friend, whose interest in this subject is passionate and well-founded, will not believe that I have committed a heinous crime. I have done something which is quite normal in the shaping of a Bill. I have tried to achieve an end which will have some merit, and which will be acceptable to the people who are to be affected by it. That is quite commonplace, and, while I am grateful for the sympathy extended to me, I hope that my sin will be understood and forgiven.

Clause read a Second time.

Brigadier Thorp

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed new Clause, in line 7, at the end, to add: (5) Except that subsection (3) of this Clause shall not apply to so much of the River Tweed as is outwith Scotland. I have no hesitation in moving this Amendment, because I think there are special things which affect the portion of the River Tweed towards its mouth which is outwith Scotland. I do not wish to delay the Committee by repeating what I said during the Second Reading debate, but I am very disappointed that we are not to remain as we were with regard to the 36 hours. I have figures from the fisheries at the mouth of the river which prove conclusively that over a period of a season's fishing the average number of hours lost through using the nets will be over 50 a week. That is with a 42-hour week.

9.30 p.m.

The Secretary of State shakes his head, but the fishermen have helped to draw up this Amendment and I believe them. Those are the ebb tide hours. At the flood periods the number of hours lost per week will be 55. That is also with the 42 hours a week suggested in the new Clause. It will mean that the fishermen will be off the river at flood tide for an average of 55 hours per week, and during ebb tides for 50 hours. That is a very big drop in the amount of working hours in which these men can earn pay. It therefore means a very big drop in the amount of money they will get for their fish. I suggested, on Second Reading, that the drop would be something like 15 per cent. I think that that was correct, if not an under-estimate.

There is certain fishing at the mouth of the River Tweed, on the pier and on the south bank, which is very dangerous to operate at night time. In fact, these places are so dangerous that there has been practically a stoppage on using them when there is a flood tide. This means that these fishers will have to give up extra time or else we shall drive them to dangerous work during the night under the provisions of this Clause. I want the Committee to know what may happen in that case. Men have been lost before, and it may be that if they find their money has dropped and they have to go and work extra time men will be lost again.

Another reason why I have raised this matter with reference to the River Tweed is that, as I have mentioned before, we are the subject of a considerable anomaly with regard to rates. The nets pay rates on the English side, which includes practically all the salmon fishing there on both banks of the River Tweed. On the Scottish side and in Scotland, however, the net fishings are free of rates. That is completely unfair to those net fishers who operate on the English side of the river. I hope that something can be done very soon about it.

Mr. McNeil

I regret I cannot accept the Amendment, for reasons which I think are quite obvious. With great respect, I submit that this picture of lost hours is scarcely presented in its proper context. Flood tide and ebb tide, late dawns and early nights—these will occur whether the closing time is 36, 42, or 48 hours.

Brigadier Thorp

Six hours more.

Mr. McNeil

Six hours more, I admit, but I suggest that this pathetic picture of the loss of 55 hours does not arise from the Bill. It is presented in the wrong context. What we are discussing about flood tides, ebb tides, late dawns and early nights is whether or not we are to extend six hours to the English part of the Tweed as we do to the Scottish.

Brigadier Thorp

Does not the right hon. Gentleman also consider, when he is putting through a Bill like this, that extra hardship may be caused? Is the Bill the only thing? Is he not human as well?

Mr. McNeil

I admitted on Second Reading, and I have already admitted twice this evening, that, immediately, the additional close time of six hours is a hardship, but that that is the utter, inclusive and complete measure of the additional hardship per week. Secondly, I suggest that it would be utterly unfair that the Scottish netters should be asked to observe a closing time of 42 hours and the English netters on the same river—

Brigadier Thorp

What about the rates?

Mr. McNeil

If the hon. and gallant Member wants to address himself to that subject I am sure he will, but not inside the context of this Bill.

I would think it unjust that on the one river we should have operating two systems of close time. I certainly would not agree that the worse half should be visited upon the Scottish nets. If this brings benefits upon a river and the stocks in a river in a few years' time, it will do so upon the river as a whole; one section of the river will not benefit more than another. In imposing these additional six hours it should be conceded that the people who will benefit as a whole—that is, every net on the river—should, as a whole, agree to equal hard- ship, if hardship there must be. I cannot accept the Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed new Clause negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.