HC Deb 04 February 1965 vol 705 cc1365-80

7.43 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. George Willis)

I beg to move, That the Salmon and Migratory Trout (Prohibition of Drift-net Fishing) (Extension) Order, 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th December, be approved. The purpose of the Order is to extend the operation of the present prohibition on drift-net fishing for salmon for a further year after the expiry of the present Order on 15th February. As hon. Members know, this prohibition was first introduced in September, 1962. The Order was introduced by the previous Government and we criticised it strongly at the time, as we thought that the prohibition was unfair and that the Government should have waited until the Hunter Committee, which they had set up, had reported.

The Government replied that they were bringing in the Order because it was feared that the practice of drift-net fishing for salmon, which had developed rapidly off the coast of Scotland in the two preceding years, would seriously damage the stocks of salmon and the salmon fisheries.

What did seem to be clear, however, was that the state of scientific knowledge did not enable anyone to say definitely what the effects of drift netting were or were likely to be on the stocks of salmon and that it was virtually impossible to distinguish the effects of this form of fishing from the many other things which can affect salmon stocks and can make the catches vary from year to year.

The Government of the day knew that they had insufficient information. They were obviously in very great doubt about what they ought to do and recognised that further investigations into the whole matter were necessary before a final decision could he taken. They limited the duration of the Order to the 2frac12; years up to 15th February next and, before the prohibition was introduced, the then Secretary of State for Scotland appointed a Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Hunter to review the law relating to salmon and trout fisheries in Scotland and particularly asked the Committee to give priority to the question of the regulation of fishing for salmon, including fishing by drift net.

The Hunter Committee did this and in the summer of 1963 submitted an interim Report, dealing mainly with the drift netting issue, which was published by the Secretary of State that July. In this Report the Committee stated that it had reached a number of conclusions about drift-net fishing for salmon. It noted that if drift-net fishing were allowed an increase in this form of fishing would probably come about and that the trend of catches could be expected to rise very sharply indeed in a favourable season. The Report went on An unregulated drift-net fishery could quickly deplete salmon stocks in some rivers. The Committee thus made it clear that, in its view, an unregulated drift-net fishery would offer no secure future either to traditional salmon netsmen, to anglers or to the drift netters themselves. It therefore proceeded to consider the practicability of some form of regulation which would avoid the dangers of a totally uncontrolled fishing and to examine various possibilities such as weekly and annual close times, licensing of nets or boats, catch quotas and restrictions on length or mesh of nets.

In the end, the Committee had to report that none of these methods would, either by itself or in combination, be a satisfactory means of control and that it had not been successful in finding a system of control which it thought would be workable under the existing law. But any question of altering the existing law would, of course, bring in all the methods of fishing for salmon and mean considering all aspects of the law relating to salmon and trout fisheries. Since the interim Report, therefore, the Committee has been engaged on a more general review of all aspects of the law relating to salmon and trout fisheries, in the course of which it will be considering the effects of all forms of salmon fishing and not only drift netting.

I know that this work is being done with all reasonable speed, but the salmon laws are nearly 100 years old and the work of the Committee is naturally of some complexity. I understand that it hopes to be able to let the Secretary of State have its final Report by early summer.

The House will understand that this presented us with a rather difficult situation. The Order prohibiting drift-net fishing for salmon was due to expire on 15th February. We had the choice of putting an end to the present situation, which was not of our making and which we do not much like, or continuing the prohibition for a further period.

To alter the present situation now would mean taking a decision on this matter within a few months of the Hunter Committee's final Report. After considering this very carefully in the light of the various representations made to us, it seemed, particularly in view of the conclusions of the Hunter Committee in its interim Report, that the only reasonable and sensible thing to do was to continue the prohibition of drift-net fishing for salmon for a time until we had the Committee's final Report and could see what recommendations it made.

The effect of the Order is, therefore, simply to extend the duration of the present prohibition on drift-net fishing off the coast of Scotland for a period of one year. The present Order expires on 15th February and the new Order would renew the prohibition until 15th February, 1966. We hope that this will give us time to consider the recommendations made in the final Report of the Hunter Committee and to decide what action should then be taken. By making this Order now, we are not committing ourselves to retaining the prohibition any longer than we think is necessary.

One of our main criticisms against the Order when it was introduced was that it was preventing our own fishermen from fishing for salmon in an area outside our territorial waters where foreign fishermen could fish if they liked. There was a great deal of discussion about allowing other nationals some things and at the same time prohibiting our own nationals from the same activity. However, the passing of the Fishery Limits Act last year has now extended our fishery limits to 12 miles from new base lines, and so foreigners are not allowed to fish for salmon in this much greater area. The position is, therefore, a little less anomalous than it was when the first Order was introduced.

I realise that this decision will be rather disappointing to those fishermen who successfully engaged in drift-net fishing for salmon before the prohibition was introduced. I have already been told that in my own constituency. I should like to assure the House and the fishermen themselves that we have carefully considered whether it would be right, as some of the fishermen's associations have suggested to us, to allow some limited drift-net fishing after the present Order expires, but, after full consideration, we have reached the conclusion that it would simply not be a wise proposition in the circumstances.

In conclusion, I assure the House that when the Hunter Committee's Report is received, we will examine this matter again very fully and urgently. Meanwhile, I hope that the House will agree to continue the main Order for another 12 months.

7.53 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (Aberdeenshire, East)

I personally object very strongly to this Order, firstly because of the length of time. The Order prohibiting drift-net fishing for salmon off the coast of Scotland was made in September, 1962, and the Committee set up under Lord Hunter to review the Scottish salmon and trout laws was asked to look at the question as a matter of urgency. The original Order was made until February, 1965. Now we have this extension to February, 1966.

I perfectly well understand the case which the Minister of State was making about the time-table, but in July, 1963, the Hunter Committee produced an interim Report. Even by then it had been able to collate all possible evidence on Scottish salmon fisheries. Since then, almost two years have elapsed and now we are to let a third slip past. What has been happening and what is the Committee to do in this third year which is to be different from what it has done in the past two years and which can justify this extension?

Meanwhile, the prohibition of all drift netting for salmon in Scotland is to go on. Many people, and they are not only fishermen, feel that to be unjust. The main reason is that drift netting for salmon is allowed under licence in England. Why should such a practice be lawful for the English and not lawful for the Scots?

I asked the new Government this question as soon as they had had time to look around their offices. The reply I received did not indicate that they had done very much else. I was told that the situation in England was not parallel, because drift-net fishing under licence off the English coast was the traditional method of catching salmon. That is no reason, of course. That is tradition converted by prejudice into an argument.

Then I was told that drift netting under licence in England did not offer an additional threat to salmon stocks. But is it true that such a threat was offered by drift netting under licence in Scotland? Let me quote the Hunter Committee's interim Report which in July, 1963, said: On the evidence submitted, it could not be conclusively demonstrated that Scottish salmon stock had so far been harmed by drift-net fishermen. The Committee went even further. On whether drift netting hindered spawning escapement, it said: Information about catches and spawning does not allow any reliable conclusion to be drawn about the effect of drift-net fishing on that escapement. On the extremely important point of whether drift netting robs other men of their livelihoods, the Report pointed out that in 1962, when drift netting was at its height, coastal and river nets on the east coast had a record catch—323,000 against 297,000 in 1952. while rods took 50,000 as against 32,000 in 1952. In fact, drift nets captured less than a quarter of the total catch.

Finally, I was told that in effect drift netting in Scotland presented an unmanageable problem. Why? I accept, and I think everybody does, certainly the fishermen do, that unregulated drift-net fishing for salmon means a risk of over-fishing. Nobody wants that. However, the Hunter Committee's argument was that in spite of its careful search into ways whereby the fishery might be regulated, it could not suggest an workable method of doing so under the law. Again, that is not an argument. At the moment, there is no law saying that steel ought to be nationalised, but that does not stop the Socialist Party making every announcement that it is to bring one forward—it would be far better employed dealing with this important issue.

Fishing is already regulated. England regulates drift-net fishing for salmon. Scotland imposes regulations on the size of vessels fishing within three miles in certain specified areas and protection vessels have the duty of preventing unauthorised fishing. It is nonsense to say that regulation is impossible and nonsense to say that fishermen would not adhere to it if they were given the chance. As it is, the fishermen feel that they have been condemned without trial and without justice. For 2frac12; years they have waited, hoping for and expecting a fair hearing. The nets on which they spent money which the could ill afford still moulder away in sheds, useless and almost valueless. Now comes this extension for yet one more year, and I for one deplore it.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. George Y. Mackie (Caithness and Sutherland)

I agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) that this has taken a long time, but I should like, in speaking of this extension, to admit the tremendous importance of the industry to Scotland. Not only is the catch of 3frac12; million lb. worth, at 7s. a lb., about £1 million, but salmon fishing is of infinitely greater value in attracting tourists to the Highlands, to my constituency, and elsewhere.

There are many urgent problems awaiting solution. I agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East that the Hunter Committee is taking a great deal of time to produce its Report. It has already reported on drift netting, but many more urgent problems are awaiting solution. For years, anglers have told me that the nets at the mouths of the rivers have taken far more fish than they should and are constantly spoiling the upper reaches of the river. There is a great deal of feeling about this throughout Scotland. There is a great deal of feeling that the rivers are not properly managed. The law and the management of rivers is appallingly out of date. Only three years ago the law appeared to be operated entirely in favour of the proprietors of the rivers.

While the Hunter Committee was asked to make a complete investigation, the very first thing which it was told to do was to justify the imposition of a ban on people who were carrying out a perfectly legal pursuit outside territorial waters.

The set-up of the river boards, which consists solely of proprietors who do not even need to be appointed, is hopelessly out of date. A month ago the Tweed Commissioners at Selkirk caused the blowing up of some cols across the river in order to facilitate the passage of salmon—they had the power to order the town council to do this—with the result that the bank of the river has been weakened, endangering a housing scheme. We need entirely fresh legislation to protect the whole of the salmon industry and the catch for its monetary value and its value to the tourist trade. I hope that the Government will not wait for the Hunter Committee's recommendations before they start thinking about this extremely important subject. We need to take into consideration the needs of the whole community.

We have just given a Third Reading to a Bill to purify the waters of the rivers which will cost a lot of people a great deal of money. There is no doubt that we need new river boards with a great many more people represented on them and with more power to breed fish and create hatcheries and to regulate the rivers of Scotland for the good of the whole community. This prohibition takes from people a perfectly legal right to earn their living. It may well be that it is impossible to allow drift netting in any form. If so, it is extremely urgent that, if we accept this Order, the Government should give an undertaking that they will proceed with all speed to put right the many other things which are wrong with this important industry in Scotland and to produce legislation of a comprehensive character within the year.

8.5 p.m.

Mr. J. Bruce-Gardyne (South Angus)

My only reason for intervening in this debate is that it has been impressed on me that a number of members of the fishing community in Scotland, including quite a number of my constituents, feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been, through this Order, the victims of selective and discriminatory legislation. I would not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon), but I am aware that many fishermen believe that they have been denied the right to use a method of fishing which, as my hon. Friend said, is authorised in England and other parts of the world. They also believe that they have been denied this right in order to protect the exclusive rights of the coastal fishery proprietors, and they claim that the ban imposed in September, 1962, left them with no hope of recovering the expensive investment which they made in new equipment for drift netting, as long as it remained in operation.

I believe that the previous Government were right to introduce this Order and that the present Government are right to continue it. I am glad to hear the assurance of the Minister of State that we can expect to have the final Report of the Hunter Committee this summer and that the Order will not be continued beyond the period needed to enable the Government to consider this Report.

The 1962 catch by the drift nets reached proportions which, given the very limited state of our knowledge about the salmon and the salmon's habits at that time, made it reasonable to fear that a serious threat existed to the continuation of salmon fishing in Scotland and the arrival of salmon in the rivers which they went up in order to spawn. Nor do I accept the fishermen's belief that they were suddenly faced by the ban which made it impossible for them to obtain any return on their expensive investment. In fact, I know that in my constituency my predecessor went out of his way to ensure that the fishermen should be forewarned that the ban was likely to be imposed, and I have every reason to believe that in most cases they achieved a very satisfactory return on their investment before the ban was imposed.

There was another consideration which, with respect, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East, perhaps, tended to overlook. Understandably, the fishermen themselves tend to overlook it. I refer to consideration of the position of the coastal fishery proprietors, who are not insubstantial employers of labour. My hon. Friend said that the coastal fishery proprietors and the river fishers enjoyed an excellent season in 1962.

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

May I correct my hon. Friend? I was quoting the words of the interim Report of the Hunter Cormmittee.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I accept that. But there are reasons for thinking that conditions in 1962 were generally exceptional. Clearly, we cannot base a calculation of what is likely to happen in future if drift netting were continued on a substantial scale on the experience of a single year.

For the drift netters this was a sideline—highly profitable, but nevertheless a sideline. There are those who believe that it encouraged these people, whose trade is essentially with the inland waters fishery fleet, to neglect their regular trade and that if they had continued to concentrate on the drift netting, there was a danger that this trade might be permanently damaged in eastern Scotland.

Nevertheless, we must subject to scrutiny the continuation of an Order which leaves a number of people feeling, whether rightly or wrongly, that they have been discriminated against, and that they are the victims of punitive legislation. This is particularly desirable on the day after we have given a Second Reading to what was, in my opinion, a lamentable Bill which could not be described as anything other than discriminatory and punitive.

It seems to me that two main problems are raised by the practice of drift netting for fishing. The first is the inadequacy of our knowledge of the habits of the salmon. I hope very much that when the Hunter Committee has completed its examination—it was bound to take a certain amount of time in view of the complexity of the subject—it will be able to answer some at least of the questions which were unanswered in the past and that we may be better able to judge the tolerable level of the total salmon catch which we can permit in Scotland.

That leads me on to the second problem, that of control. The fishermen themselves accept the need for a measure of control over drift netting if it were to be permitted once more: but there are legitimate doubts about whether the proposals which they have made for control of these operations would be adequate.

As we have been reminded this evening, the Hunter Committee in its interim Report formed the opinion that, given that state of our knowledge of the habits of the salmon, it was not possible to devise an adequate system of control. I am not entirely convinced by that part of the interim Report. In particular, I do not feel that the Committee entirely substantiates its rejection of control by the system of catch quota. I should like to see a further examination of this possibility and I hope that the Government will consider this when the Hunter Committee's final Report is published.

Even if an effective system of control could be devised, it seems to me reasonable that the fishermen should contribute towards the cost of such control. It seems reasonable also that they should be required, like the coastal fishery proprietors, to pay a rent or licence for permission to use this method of fishing for salmon. Finally, it seems to me reasonable that they should be required to make a contribution towards the cost of improved—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. The hon. Member is getting very far from what is before the House: the question whether the Order should be continued for another 12 months.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I wanted to suggest, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that if we allowed drift netting to be resumed, the obligations which should be placed upon the fishermen towards the cost of a system of control and towards the improvement of fisheries in the river areas of Scotland might make this method of fishing much less attractive than it appeared to be in 1962. It therefore seems to me that if we permitted a catch quota system, we might find that the quotas were not taken up.

I am satisfied that we must now await publication of the Hunter Committee's Report and I therefore fully accept the case for renewal of the Order. I hope that when the Hunter Committee has reported, the Government will seriously consider the possibility of devising a system of control which will enable the inland waters fishermen to participate to at least a small extent in the overall salmon fishing in Scotland without, at the same time, jeopardising the employment of those who are employed by the coastal fishing proprietors or driving the salmon away from our coasts.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Michael Noble (Argyll)

History inevitably produces quirks and in politics, perhaps, that happens more quickly than in many other ways. I appreciate the Minister of State, in his opening remarks, saying that he found himself in a somewhat embarrassing position.

Mr. Willis

I did not say that.

Mr. Noble

The hon. Gentleman used words which clearly gave that indication. I certainly appreciate that, because when my predecessor, now Viscount Muirshiel, introduced the Order, I appreciated that there was a good deal of opposition from those benches. I do not think that anybody who knew my predecessor had the slightest doubt that the reason for the action he took was that in the state of knowledge which was then available, and with the rapidly descending number of salmon which were being caught each year, he felt it right, for the protection of what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. George Y. Mackie) has stressed as being tremendously important to Scotland as a whole, to put a barrier against continued catches until more information was available.

Nobody in this short debate tonight has suggested that the Hunter Committee is delaying its Report for any other reason than that a great deal of complicated problems must be solved. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) should not be too unkind to the Hunter Committee when he says that he does not feel that the Committee was as conclusive as it might have been in saying that something could not be conclusively demonstrated. As my hon. Friend knows very well, one of the hardest things in fishing, in the open sea as well as in the river, is to get conclusive evidence of any kind.

I think, therefore, that the Government are right to decide to wait for another year. I am certain that when the Hunter Committee has reported the Government will look carefully at the position, because I know that a great many Members on their benches, too, thoroughly enjoy fishing. I rather hope that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) had a good catch in 1962. I remember four days, the only four days' fishing I got, and I certainly would not like to base my decisions on the whole problem on four days in one year. I think, however, that the Government are right and I hope that the House will pass the Order.

8.19 p.m.

Mr. Willis

Let me say right away to the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble) that I do not feel any embarrassment about this. We opposed the Order in the first place because we said that the Government did not have sufficient information on which to act. Everybody has said this tonight. Everybody has agreed with it. We asked for a committee to be set up to give us this information. We pressed for this during the whole of the Committee stage of the Sea Fish Industry Bill. It was not until that pressure had come from us for a considerable time that the Secretary of State appointed the Committee which everybody now says was so necessary.

We have nothing for which to apologise. We were right then in drawing attention to the fact that the Government did not have the evidence on which to base their hasty action. I think that we were right then to ask the Government to wait for the first interim Report, but perhaps that is a matter of opinion. Certainly we could do with a Report now.

Mr. Noble

I do not want to prolong this discussion, but I took down the words used by the hon. Gentleman when he began his speech. He talked about, "altering the present situation which we do not much like". All I meant was that it must be slightly embarrassing to do something which one does not like doing.

Mr. Willis

I said that it was introduced by the previous Government, and that we criticised it strongly at the time because we thought that the prohibition was unfair and that a committee should have been appointed to tell us more about it prior to that happening. That is rather different from saying that we were embarrassed.

We have been right about this, and if it had not been for our pressure to set up a committee, this prohibition would have been in force for ever because the Government had nothing else to offer. Once the prohibition had been introduced, it would have been there forever, or at any rate until somebody asked, "Is it not time that we looked at this?"

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

Do we understand that the prohibition will be taken off in 1966?

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman must wait arid see. We are discussing the events about which he spoke, and I am saying that that Committee was appointed as a result of pressure from us when we were on that side of the House. What would the position have been without that? When would the position have been reviewed? In the light of what information would it have been reviewed?

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) waxed so furious about this, because he was one of those who instigated this movement. He rushed down here to get into action to prohibit this type of fishing. He enlisted the aid of the former Member for South Angus, and between them they panicked the Government into hasty statements and hasty actions. That is what happened. We remember, too, the debate in another place at the time, when we had all sorts of backwoodsmen journeying to London for the first time for years to see that something was done about this. That is the past history, and in the light of all that, and in the light of what has happened since, we have nothing about which to be apologetic.

The hon. Gentleman said that this process was taking too long. That was the burden of the speeches of several hon. Gentlemen opposite. This is a difficult subject. The law on the matter is very old. It covers a number of activities, and covers something about which it is difficult to get accurate information. Even today this has become increasingly obvious. In the circumstances, I do not think that we ought to be too critical of the Hunter Committee. It will report in the early summer, and, as I have said, we will consider the Report as quickly as we can to decide what should happen when this Order expires.

The hon. Gentleman asked why Scottish inshore fishermen could not be given the same rights as English fishermen round the shores of England. He knows the answer to that question. The position is quite different. This has been a traditional form of fishing activity round the shores of England for a long time. It has created no problems at all, and it is because the situation which suddenly arose in Scotland in 1960 created serious problems that action had to be taken. This was the argument put forward at the time by the Government, and the reason why the necessary legislation was passed and the Order was introduced. The situation being different in Scotland, one would expect it to be treated differently.

The hon. Gentleman also said that in its interim Report the Hunter Committee did not produce enough evidence to show that it was impossible to regulate or to control this activity. He quoted one or two passages from the Report which showed that the Hunter Committee was itself weighing up the arguments about this matter, but I do not think that he can ignore the conclusion, which is emphatically stated in paragraph 162. Having weighed up the facts, the Hunter Committee said: The position we have reached is that we are in no doubt that an unregulated drift-net fishery cannot by permitted and we have been unable to discover any workable system of regulating a drift-net fishery under the existing law. That is a pretty clear statement of the Hunter Committee's conclusions.

The Committee did not say that there might not be one. It said that it had been unable to find it, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Committee devoted a number of paragraphs, from 131 onwards, to examining the various proposals which were made by the interested bodies to find some means of regulating and controlling this activity. But that was the Committee's conclusion, and I think that we are bound to accept it until the Committee has examined the problem in its wider aspects.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. George Y. Mackie) also said that the Hunter Committee had been sitting for a long time, and that he wanted the matter to be treated as one of urgency. I agree with him. This is a problem in Scotland which calls for action. The whole question of salmon fishing in Scotland is being examined. It will have to be tackled.

It is one of our assets, and we must use it in the best possible way, both for the areas concerned—for their economic health and prosperity—and also in the wider interests of the people as a whole. The hon. Member can be assured that we have the matter very much in mind. When we receive the Hunter Report we shall waste no time in considering it and seeing what ought to be done.

The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) made a number of suggestions about the type of control that might be exercised. Before we discuss that question, however, we should see what the Hunter Committee has to say about it. It might adopt some of the hon. Member's proposals; we do not know. We ought to wait until we receive its final Report before we speculate about what should be done. If we wait until then we shall have something concrete on which to work. We shall have many more facts than we have at present. Other people's minds will have been applied to the situation for a long time, and, judging the calibre of the Committee, I would have thought that it ought to be able to make some suggestions into which we can get our teeth, and which can form a basis on which we can act.

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

How can the Hunter Committee produce any further recommendation for regulations, or any fresh thinking on this point, which is any different from what it has already produced in the interim Report?

Mr. Willis

What it has been doing is to consider the question in isolation. What it is now doing is to examine all the other aspects which enter into the problem—the interests of coastal fishing proprietors, river fishers and anglers. It is considering the problem in the wider context in order to try to produce a better solution than the present one. We hope that it will be able to do so.

It will also be able to consider in what way the law may have to be altered in order to enable us to make whatever changes are necessary. I hope that the changes will be significant ones.

I have dealt with the main points which have been raised in the debate. It may be that I answered rather aggressively in the case of the right hon. Member for Argyll but I have tried to answer all the points, and I hope that the House will now agree to the Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Salmon and Migratory Trout (Prohibition of Drift-net Fishing) (Extension) Order, 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.