HC Deb 10 March 1954 vol 524 cc2391-400

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Conant.]

11.32 p.m.

Mr. David J. Pryde (Midlothian and Peebles)

I wish to focus the attention of the House on the subject of a Question which I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland on 9th February—how many convictions for poaching had been registered under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act, 1951, and what amount of money had been levied in fines. I was informed that there had been 495 convictions and that there had been levied in fines the huge sum of £3,075. Some of us would like to know if the Government propose to finance the building of the Forth Bridge by collecting levies from the anglers of Scotland.

This question has aroused considerable interest all over Scotland. I am fully conscious of the many pitfalls one can fall into when discussing this subject on this Motion, but I am not seeking any new legislation, nor do 1 seek to criticise the judiciary. When we were passing the Act, I specifically defended our courts, and pointed out the great danger in which the Act would place them. It is interesting to study the reactions of various people. I have received a letter from the Blackface Sheep Breeders' Association of Scotland telling me that a man is punished far more for poaching than for stealing a sheep, and some people allege that the death penalty is still in operation in Scotland for sheep stealing.

I took the trouble to send on this letter to the Secretary of State, and I noticed from the Press that a Member opposite copied my example and did the same thing. We have both got the same reply, which was that the right hon. Gentleman was instituting an inquiry. I want to make that inquiry as wide as possible, because I have a letter here from one of my constituents, John Coffey, who served for five years in the Forces, was decorated six times for his services, and is a railway worker. John Coffey, according to the charge sheet, was found in possession of a cleek and a stick on the public highway. A cleek is a piece of twisted wire. which is sometimes used for the taking of salmon.

He being found in possession of this instrument, which according to the Act of 1951 could be used for the taking of salmon, it was interpreted that John Coffey had evil intentions by being near the river. He is hauled into court and is fined £8 for a first offence. That means that he is fined 12 days' pay and confined to the house. He gets as much for the first offence as he would if he had two railway rails and a lorry full of railway sleepers.

There was the classic example of the two men, Messrs. Hope and Ritchie, who were convicted at Selkirk sheriff's court on the evidence of a water bailiff with radar eyes, who saw round the bend of the river, and apparently that evidence was just too incredible.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not criticise the judiciary, for that would be out of order.

Mr. Pryde

No. I made it clear I had no intention of reflecting on the judiciary, I am in the position of defending it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I thought the hon. Member had complained about a fine by the judiciary, which is a criticism. I think.

Mr. Pryde

My next letter, of which I know the right hon. Gentleman has knowledge, is about a gentleman who was issued by the appropriate person with a fishing permit. His employee also was issued with a permit. The two of them decided they would catch the early morning rise, and this gentleman took his permit with him, but the employee unfortunately did not. When the water bailiff came on the scene, he sent for the police. The two of them were arrested and taken to the cells in a town in the west of Scotland. This gentleman pointed out he was a director of a firm, and his two co-directors were on the Continent, and he was required at his business at eight o'clock in the morning to direct his business. He was left in the cells until 11 a.m. That, I suggest, was a case that required some inquiry.

Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

Would my hon. Friend say, about that case, which received some prominence in the newspapers, whether the gentleman was caught illegally fishing or was it quite legal and he just did not have a permit?

Mr. Pryde

The tackle of both gentlemen was quite legal. They were said to be acting in collusion.

There is the classic example of the two boys of 14 years of age who were fined £2, with £1 8s. costs. In one case there was an intervention by an hon. Member of this House, and the fine was returned because it was discovered that it was outside the law. The other fine was never paid.

I have another letter from an English longshoreman, who threatens me with publicity in the Press if I miscall his water bailiffs. I have no intention of doing that, because I have also received a letter from a correspondent in Peebles telling me that the Tweed Commissioners have considerably improved their forces of water bailiffs. When my English correspondent threatened me with rushing into the Press, I thought I would examine the Press, as represented by the "Selkirk Saturday Advertiser." It looks very much like a Saturday night effort, because it cannot copy the words contained in the OFFICIAL REPORT. There was not much to bother about in that journal.

But he also mentioned the "Peebles-shire News," which is a reputable organ, and said that it made fun of any suggestion that there was excessive punishment for poaching. I examined the front page of that newspaper and found that the author of the article in question was actually inculcating into the minds of the young people of Peebles ways and means of charming the fish out of the water without using a rod. He called it the "Wanless method." I take it that he was having a quip at the expense of one of Britain's greatest experts in angling, Alexander Wanless.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Secretary of State for Scotland is not responsible for these newspapers. No Ministerial responsibility is involved there.

Mr. Pryde

I am only adducing evidence of the interest which this subject has aroused throughout the country.

My final example of hardship comes all the way from Lanarkshire. Four young men were touring the north of Scotland with their fishing rods, and they decided that they would have a cast. It was Sunday morning, and each of them was fined £40. They were fined £30 for fishing on a Sunday morning, £8 for fishing illegally with rod and line and taking one salmon, and £2, strangely enough, for being in possession of an otter board. Anyone who knows anything about angling knows very well that the otter board is the most deadly and effective of all the ways of charming fish from the rivers or lochs. They were fined only £2 for that, but £30 for fishing on Sunday morning. These lads were miners, working six days a week, and the only time they could get relaxation or recreation was on Sunday. They were kept in the cells from Sunday morning.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is now criticising the judiciary.

Mr. Thomas Oswald (Edinburgh, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I ask if it is not in order for an hon. Member to make his point? He is not criticising the judiciary, but simply pointing out that these men were incarcerated and then heavily fined.

The Deputy-Speaker

He may not be criticising the judiciary, but in any case he is suggesting alterations in legislation.

Mr. Pryde

Not yet.

The Deputy-Speaker

Then I do not know what he is doing.

Mr. Pryde

These men should not have been incarcerated, but they were, until eleven o'clock next morning, and £23 worth of rods and lines were confiscated. 1 ask the Secretary of State to widen his inquiries so that they take in not only one part of Scotland, but the whole of it.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I should like to support the plea of my hon. Friend to the Secretary of State to look at the working of this Act. I do not want to reflect on the decisions of the sheriffs who try these cases, but there is doubt as to whether evidence is presented to them in a way which gives the people charged every opportunity of getting justice. In the case of the Forth, about which the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr Malcolm MacPherson) and I have received considerable correspondence, the feeling has been engendered that people are not treated fairly in the matter of the presentation of their cases to the sheriffs.

These men, in some cases, have been fishing for 50 years on the Forth, and it is a very difficult matter to decide what is fishing by net and cobble, and what is fishing by fixed instrument. So difficult is this that the learned Lords of the Court of Session in Edinburgh took one view, and it was only when the case went to the House of Lords that it was laid down what fishing by net and cobble actually was.

During the Second Reading of the Bill which is now the Act, we discussed very carefully certain points, and I endeavoured to acquaint myself as to what was the distinction between legal and illegal fishing so far as the Forth is concerned. I had some discussion with people on the Forth Fishing Board, and I found that the very people who initiated these prosecutions did not themselves understand what was the law as to legal and illegal fishing on the Forth. So, I am quite convinced that they may prosecute fishermen for what they think are breaches of the law when they themselves do not know what is the law.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)

My right hon. Friend should make it clear that these people are not fishing for sport. but as a means of livelihood.

Mr. Woodburn

Indeed that is so. During the early part of the war it was my duty to put forward a plea on their behalf from the point of view of enabling them to secure fish for the feeding of the nation. It is not a case of people who are poaching for sport or to amuse themselves at the week-end. The distinction is a narrow one between those who earn their livelihood a little to the west of Kincardine Bridge and those who earn it in the narrows, and there is a feeling amongst these fishermen that they are being unfairly dealt with in order to protect the fishing rights of people a little farther up the river. The part I am discussing is the estuary, almost the open sea.

It is a difficult matter and I sympathise with those who have to try to administer the law and to safeguard the fishing of the river, but it is my experience that the men who are initiating these prosecutions are not themselves clear as to what is illegal fishing. Therefore the fishermen on the Forth have the feeling that they are being subjected not to the enforcement of the law, but to a kind of persecution against them because a simple change took place in the law which enables this to be done by a report to the fiscal instead of by interdict, as formerly.

One man who has been prosecuted is a highly respected member of the community. He, fortunately, was able to engage counsel, who was able to put the case properly before the sheriff and it was dismissed as not proven. There is a feeling amongst these people that they are not being dealt with fairly, but are being prosecuted when they are fishing legally, and that they are sometimes being convicted because they are not able to present their case to the sheriff and are not able to engage, at great cost, learned counsel to do it for them.

Therefore, the Secretary of State might look into the problem of the Forth Fishery Board to see whether it is not misusing its powers for the purpose of driving certain fishermen off the southern reaches of the river to protect those farther up it. That is an unfair discrimination, if it is the case, between one set of fishermen and another.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has no intention of providing a monopoly for certain people on the River Forth, and since these are the people who, I understand, control the fishery board, it seems quite wrong that one set of fishermen should have the right to persecute another set of fishermen. So I ask the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself, to look into the working of this Act in order to see whether the people who are pursuing these prosecutions should not be better instructed in the law and should at least not give the impression by their actions that they are prosecuting and persecuting people in that area.

11.54 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacPherson (Stirling and Falkirk Burghs)

I shall not take more than a minute to support my right hon. Friend. I would remind the Secretary of State that practices are now being the subject of prosecution which, before the passing of the Act, were carried on without being subject to prosecution. The nature of these people is unchanged, they have not become anti-social, but the legal position has changed and it is an almost accidental by-product of a law aimed against those poachers who use explosives.

My second point is that a number of the people in the area mentioned by my right hon. Friend feel that even amongst themselves a certain discrimination is being made. In other words, people are being selected as the victims of prosecution when they are not those who have been breaking the law most glaringly. I suggest that some kind of inquiry into the operation of this Act in regard to the lower reaches of the Forth would be well justified.

11.55 p.m.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian and Peebles (Mr. Pryde) referred to what had happened to four men in Lanarkshire. The Secretary of State has already heard about these men from me. I am certain that all hon. Members and the majority of people outside this House want to have law and order in our land, but when citizens find that the fines are almost savage they begin to wonder if the legislation is correct, and that brings the law into disrepute. It is from that point of view that I would ask the Secretary of State to examine very care-fully the cases that have been brought to his notice.

11.56 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. James Stuart)

I assure the hon. Lady that I have a note of all the cases to which she has referred and I will communicate with her further.

The right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) said that the operation of the Act should be examined and he asked whether people were receiving justice. He suggested that people on the Firth of Forth were not being fairly treated. I know the matter to which he refers very well, but I can only say at the moment that he knows that the 1951 Act under which we are now working was based on the report of the committee presided over by Sheriff Maconochie, which was in favour of curbing the use of "fixed engines" and said that moving nets should be used in the Firth, as elsewhere.

There is no desire on the part of anyone to put certain fishermen at an unfair disadvantage in comparison with others but the present position is that the law as it stands under the 1951 Act is being carried out. I cannot say any more on that point at this stage, but I should like to deal with the general operation of the Act since it came into force. The right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire will remember that I took some part in the debate on the Bill from the Opposition benches and I was frankly a supporter of the Measure which his right hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Mr H. McNeil) piloted through the House.

I know that the hon. Member for Midlothian and Peebles has rather strong feelings about the penalties that have been inflicted on certain members of the public. It was the general opinion of the House that legislation was necessary, particularly in view of gang poaching. I know that the hon. Member and his friends are more concerned with those who are genuine fishermen fishing on their own, but it is very early to suggest that any inquiry should be held at the present time.

I have all the facts and figures relating to prosecutions. In the great majority of what I would call simple poaching cases, that is those involving individual anglers and not gangs, the fines imposed since 1951 have been £5 or less, but where the offence is not confined to simple poaching but includes illegal methods of fishing I admit that the penalty may quite naturally be higher. Even so, taking that into account, the average fine since the Act came into being amounts to just over £7. Looking further into the figures, and statistics, I should like to call the attention of the House to the fact that there has been a reduction in the heavier sentences. Those involving imprisonment for serious offences numbered nine in 1953 as against 16 in the previous year and 18 in only seven and a half months of 1951.

I suggest to the House with all sincerity that we have not yet given the Act a long enough time to operate. What little experience we have had suggests that the trend of events is going in the direc- tion which the promoters of the Bill desired. Increased penalties were necessary, taking into account, for example, the increased value of salmon. The sentences passed under the Act do suggest that its effect is a deterrent. I hope that the trend will continue to be in the direction which the promoters desired and intended. I assure hon. Members that I am personally interested in the subject and that I shall watch the operation of the Act. If necessity demands it we will consider the matter and see whether any further inquiry or amendment is necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.