HC Deb 03 February 1978 vol 943 cc954-82

Order for Second Reading read.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I beg to move. That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies), who has just had the good fortune to obtain a Second Reading for his Bill, if I have offended him in any way by denying him a second speech, but it is a tradition in the House that Private Members accord each other equal opportunity of success in the ventures that they undertake.

It seemed to me from what the Minister said that the hon. Member had persuaded the Government that his Bill should have a Second Reading. The hon. Gentleman conceded from his long experience that he had persuaded the House. I hope that he will feel that in accordance with the strictly non-partisan traditions in which Private Members' business is conducted, there is no discourtesy in one hon. Member suggesting to another that we are all entitled to an even chance.

I raise no objection to the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but I am happy to think that I should now have what should be ample opportunity to advance with the same success the case of the Bill which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Morrison), who has a pressing constituency engagement and cannot be here today. My hon. Friend deserves and will, I hope, receive the thanks of all hon Members and all the citizens of this country who are concerned with angling in general and angling for salmon in particular if the Bill commends itself to the House as a whole, as I am sure it should.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester has kindly let me take his place in advocating the Bill. I am particularly happy to do so, though I should declare an interest of one kind or another in so doing. I am myself an angler. I am in a very small way a riparian owner. I am—this is perhaps most to the point—a member of the council of a body called the Salmon and Trout Association, of which I am sure the Minister has heard and which is dedicated to the conservation of stocks of salmon, sea trout and trout in British waters.

As the Minister will know, the Salmon and Trout Association has done a great deal in recent years to advance the cause of salmon conservation. In the context of the Bill the Minister will also know that the council of the association, and the chairman and secretary in particular, have been most assiduous in putting the arguments to his Department for the measure that is now embodied in the Bill. I am correspondingly grateful to his officials and to himself for the time that he has given to us in the discussions which have preceded this debate.

On behalf of the Salmon and Trout Association I pay tribute to the secretary, Jack Rose, who has put in a great deal of time with the Minister's officials in trying to resolve difficulties which they identified in some of the proposals which we put forward in the earlier draft of the Bill.

The Minister will know that whereas these proposals originally embodied provision for the licensing of salmon dealers and for a statutory obligation for the keeping of registers by salmon dealers. Those were two proposals in particular to which his Department raised objections. As sponsor of the Bill, the Salmon and Trout Association has been anxious to meet his objections, and so neither of those provisions appears in the Bill as it now stands.

I hope that it is generally understood that our concern is to produce a simple piece of legislation which will pass rapidly on to the statute book. I do not believe that it needs much explanation to anyone who is at all familiar with the situation relating to salmon and sea trout in British waters, but in case there are some who feel that a little explanation is needed may I say that in recent years there has been mounting and widespread concern about the future of our stocks of Atlantic salmon.

Last year there was a conference in London held under the auspices of the Salmon and Trout Association to discuss the dangers which threaten Atlantic salmon and possible remedies. It was attended by experts from all regional water authorities in England and Wales, from the Association of Scottish Salmon District Fishery Boards, from the Republic of Ireland and from Ulster. There were also representatives of commercial fishing interests. All those expert gentlemen were generally agreed that stocks of salmon were gravely threatened and that various courses of action were essential if they were to be protected. This small Bill is one outcome of that conference.

I am sure that the House is familiar with the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon and the dangers that it faces as a result. It starts its life in rivers; it then spends one to three years on feeding grounds at sea. It returns as an adult fish to breed in the river where it started its life. The feeding grounds where it spends time at sea may be in the Faroes or off the coast of Greenland. In either case there are threats that have developed and intensified in recent years from intensive fishing and the commercial exploitation at sea.

It is common ground that, in the last 100 years, salmon stocks in individual rivers on both sides of the Atlantic have been totally eliminated or severely reduced by over-exploitation and industrialisation. This has been particularly true on the seaboard of the United States. Rivers that once had great runs of fish have long since lost them. Unfortunately, the same is true of the European coast. The Rhine was once a great salmon river, but it is no longer. Rivers in France that used to have substantial runs of salmon are now down to a mere trickle of fish running up to spawn.

Man is not the only enemy of the salmon. There are predators—fish, birds and, particularly, seals. A major threat facing salmon at sea results from the population explosion of grey seals. There were a small number of seals off the East Scottish coast 60 years ago, but now there are 45,000 in the breeding colonies. Anyone who advocates reasonable treatment for the grey seal population—an objective with which many of us sympathise—must recognise that the consequences of the growth of the population of seals has been an increased predation of fish, particularly salmon.

Salmon face threats from diseases as well. The most unpleasant disease of UDN, which first appeared in the South-West of Ireland about 15 years ago, has taken a tremendous toll and virtually wiped out runs of salmon in some rivers, such as the River Eden, which used to be a great salmon river but now has only small runs.

Another threat is posed by nets at sea and in the estuaries. No doubt most are operated legally and properly by licensed commercial netsmen, but they will tell anyone who is interested that they are getting to the situation where as much as a quarter of the salmon they catch may have already been damaged in other nets. Many, if not all the fish in question, will have been damaged by illegal netting operations.

The pressure on the salmon is intensified all the time, mainly because of the rewards that are available to people who are prepared to catch salmon illegally. The reasons are not difficult to appreciate. Between 1975 and 1976, the average wholesale price of salmon in this country doubled from about £1 per pound to £2 per pound. At peak times, the price that can be obtained for the fish in this country, and, significantly, on the Continent, may be up to £4 per pound.

That inevitably leads to great increases in salmon poaching. By their very nature, illegal netsmen and poachers do not render returns and there is no way in which we can be sure of the number of salmon that are stolen in this way. But we can be fairly sure that the number of successful detections by the thin force of enforcement officers and the number of successful prosecutions represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even so, reports from regional water authorities refer to many other incidents in which bailiffs have located hauls of up to 100 salmon killed by Cymag poisoning of a river. In one case, 1,100 sea trout were picked up after being killed by the same method. That report is vouched for by the water authority in the North-West.

In Wales, the poaching problem is growing to the point where it pays gangs from the Midlands or South Wales to come to Mid-Wales, take accommodation over the weekend, poach water at night and sell the fish they catch in markets far away from the areas in which the bailiffs operate.

Between 1972 and 1976, fisheries inspectors in Yorkshire discovered and seized 148 illegal nets on the River Esk alone. Some, when discovered, held up to 10 salmon each. In the South-West, the water authority reports that the illegal catch is now estimated to equal the legal catch. Off the Scottish coast, where drift netting for salmon is illegal, many boats are known to be fishing for salmon with "invisible" synthetic nets of up to four or five miles long. Last year, the estimated value of illegal salmon catches off the Scottish coast was £750,000.

Against that background, it is clear that all conservationists and everyone whose livelihood is bound up with the stock of Atlantic salmon must aim in the long term for a general ban on the netting of salmon at sea and a situation in which all cropping takes place in the estuaries and rivers of origin, so that stocks can be managed on a river-by-river basis, cropping can be properly controlled and conservation can be properly secured.

However, this must be a long-term objective. The Minister has not made any short-term proposals to that end. If he does so today, I shall be delighted to hear them, but from my discussions with him in the past I am driven to conclude that he identifies any solution to the threat facing salmon as a long-term solution in which international agreement must be reached. That indicates that no quick solution to the netting problem is likely to be achieved.

In the meantime, something must be done to check the growing threat of salmon poaching. I accept that it is out of the question to employ an army of law enforcement officers or a fleet of protection vessels or bailiffs in the estuaries in numbers which would exercise constant control over the illegal netsmen there. It seems to me and to others who support the Bill that the best method of control available is to control the outlets for the sale of illegally caught salmon and that this is the best, the cheapest and likely to be the most effective means.

In the Republic of Ireland and in Ulster legislation already provides for the licensing of all salmon dealers. I accept that that does not completely control illegal netting and poaching, but it acts as a useful deterrent, and many people believe that we should adopt a similar system here.

But, as I have said, it is evident that the Department sees objections to that, and other hon. Members may also see objections. So, with the support of all the 10 regional water authorities in England and Wales and with widespread support in Scotland, this Bill proposes to introduce a measure of control over the sale of salmon and sea trout which does not embody licensing provisions but which should, at the same time, be effective.

I say that it should be effective. The Minister told me yesterday that the question of prosecution for offences concerning dealers in illegally caught salmon was not one for his Department and that it was essentially one for the water authorities and the authorities directly concerned with fishery protection activities. So, since they support the Bill, I hope very much that the Minister will not say that they are wrong in believing that the proposals which they back will be effectively enforced by them because the responsibility for enforcement rests upon them and not upon his Department.

Looking at the Bill, we see that it is as simple as I have suggested and that its main provision is simply that an existing principle should be extended to operate throughout the year. The existing legislation contained in Section 22 of the Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries Act 1975 provides that, during the five months from 31st August to 1st February, the burden of proving that any salmon bought, sold, exposed for sale or in the possession of any person for sale shall lie on the person buying, selling, and so on. So the Bill simply seeks to extend to the whole year the provisions of the existing law as it relates to deals in salmon and salmon, for this purpose, would include sea trout. The Bill would extend to England, Scotland and Wales.

I commend the Bill, stressing that there is no question of employing an army of snoopers or of introducing a new or objectionable principle.

Mr. Michael Ward (Peterborough)

If the hon. Member is not proposing to have an army of snoopers, how will he pursue the retailer who has a salmon on his slab and who says that it came from a wholesaler but that he does not know the actual origin of the fish? How can he pursue this matter without some form of investigative machinery to trace the fish back to the wholesaler and then to whoever supplied him in order to identify the fish as having been stolen or improperly obtained?

Mr. Onslow

I am not sure how knowledgeable the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward) is about the manner in which large supplies of salmon are bought and sold. The whole transaction is not carried out on the back of someone's cuff or on an old envelope. It would be surprising if there were not some form of record of such a transaction. It would be unusual in any other form of trading not to have records.

The purpose here, however, is not to adopt the de minimis approach which the hon. Gentleman seems to envisage. It is simply to enable inspectors who already exist to pursue their inquiries effectively by stipulating that, if someone is found to be selling fish in quantity to a hotel or to a wholesaler—it is really the poacher about whom one is concerned in this instance—he should be prepared if requested to establish that the fish were caught legally. How he will establish that may vary from case to case. It is not easy to catch a salmon legally in this country without taking out a licence from someone. The position in Scotland may not be precisely the same. But at any rate it is not difficult for anyone who has caught a salmon legally to say "I was fishing such-and-such a piece of water with the permission of the owner, and I caught the fish by fair means."

The main purport of the Bill is to prevent that defence, which would be a sound one, being abused by a gang of poachers who may be found on their way back to Birmingham by car with 40 fish in the boot, where, frankly, the presumption that they had acted illegally would be very strong and where placing upon them the onus to prove that they had caught the fish legally would scarcely seem unreasonable.

If the hon. Member for Peterborough is in doubt about this matter, I shall be happy to argue further with him in Committee. But I do not think that that is a substantial objection. Indeed, some of the objections that I have encountered are on the ground that the Bill does not go far enough. The Minister knows that one reason why the name of one of his hon. Friends does not appear on the Bill is that in his opinion it does not go far enough. To object to it on this ground may be reasonable, but it is hardly constructive.

I know that there are one or two netting interests which are still nervous. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) has been in touch with netsmen on the Severn estuary who are anxious, partly because. I think, they have not seen the Bill in its present form. They seem to have been considering an earlier draft containing provisions about registers, licences and so on. But I hope that they will accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, South, which he has expressed to me, that the right course is to allow the Bill to go into Committee where these anxieties can be discussed fully, and I should certainly welcome him as a member of that Committee.

I assure legal fishing interests that there is no intention in the Bill to make life more difficult for them. The object is only to make their position better and more secure by protecting stocks of salmon against the depredations of criminals. I might add for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) that in soliciting support for the Bill I was glad to get the consent of one of his hon. Friends to his name appearing on it.

In the interests of anglers, of commercial licensed netsmen, of hoteliers, of anyone who wishes to promote tourism in these islands, of people who want to come here to fish our incomparable rivers for the finest fish that there is to be caught by rod and line, and of the conservationists who want stocks of these splendid fish to be preserved, I hope very much that the House will agree to allow the Bill to go forward to Committee and that the Minister will give it his blessing.

2.58 p.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

The hon. Member for Working (Mr. Onslow) says that there have been objections that the Bill does not go far enough. In my view, it goes very far beyond the existing laws in a way to which I am entirely opposed. The hon. Member spoke about conservation, but some of the people who want the Bill to go through are in no position to talk of conservation. I know of several estates where salmon are killed in a wholesale way for sale to Billingsgate. They are in no position to talk about conservation or sporting methods of fishing.

Salmon are being caught in the open sea, and one of the greatest offenders is our EEC partner Denmark. The hon. Member mentioned the departure of the salmon from European rivers such as the Rhine. That is largely due to pollution, a problem which has occurred in many other places. I agree with him, therefore, that there has been a widespread decline of this fish. This is a sad departure from the days of the last century when Scottish shepherds, gamekeepers and estate workers used to insert a clause in their agreement saying that they would not be fed salmon more than three times a week. That was before the days when the estates started shipping the fish out. The workers became tired of being fed salmon.

Mr. Onslow

The same is frequently said of apprentices in London at the time the Thames was a salmon river. If the right hon. Gentleman could produce an original document containing that stipulation, I should be extremely interested to see it.

Mr. Stewart

Now that the question has been raised. I shall look up the historical reference. I hope to satisfy the hon. Gentleman on that point, but I cannot do it at the moment.

It is curious how promptly laws can be introduced in this House to stop the poaching of salmon and deer. Many things that have been desirable for many years hardly ever get a look in, but if there is ever a way of protecting the landed estates there seems to be no problem in getting legislation through.

My constituency includes a good number of excellent salmon rivers. One of them is on the Grimersta estate, which holds the record for the United Kingdom since the 1880s for the largest number of fish caught in one day on a rod.

The Bill seems to introduce a new principle that the police will be used more as wardens on behalf of the estates. I am totally opposed to the purpose and aim of the Bill. First, I think that the statutory restraints on poaching are already stringent enough, and in some ways too stringent.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

Will the right hon. Member explain how the restrictions on poaching are too stringent?

Mr. Stewart

I remember a community in my constituency pressing for a pier to be built for inshore fishermen. The agitation had to continue for 90 years before the pier was finally built. I remember, too, agitation about deer poaching. A law was passed through the House of Commons within two years. I say that the laws are too stringent because the fines are already high enough. There is a section in existing legislation providing that if a poacher takes a car along with him it can be confiscated as part of the punishment. Even a small car can cost £2,000, and that is a pretty severe fine. The existing laws, therefore, are too stringent.

Mr. Peyton

The right hon. Gentleman has said not a word to explain why they are too stringent. He must take into account the fact that the Bill does nothing to extend or increase the penalties. It merely extends the operation of the provision in the 1975 legislation. The right hon. Gentleman is surely straying into making a case for the poacher.

Mr. Stewart

I shall come to that point in a moment.

The Bill refers to "any salmon", and this could mean one fish. "One for the pot" is a hallowed tradition in many places, but a fine of up to £500 could be imposed for that under the Bill.

Mr. Onslow

The Bill deals with possession of salmon for sale or disposal for gain. The right hon. Gentleman should doubt whether that would cover "one for the pot".

Mr. Stewart

I am dealing with that point too.

The Explanatory Memorandum refers to placing upon any person who has salmon in his possession for sale the burden of proving that the salmon was not acquired or taken or landed illegally". A person in possession of a fish, perfectly legally, has to go to the trouble and possibly the expense of proving that he acquired it in a perfectly legal way. It is also an infringement of the old axiom of the law in this country that a person is innocent until proved guilty. It seems to me that a prima facie case will exist at that stage purely at the instigation of the landlord. Indeed, the position is even more objectionable than that, because in many cases we do not even know who these landlords are.

Together with other hon. Members, I have been pressing the Government and previous Administrations for a land register in Scotland so that we know who owns the land. At the moment, as I have indicated, when a man is called upon to explain where he got the fish, he does not know who are his accusers, and the police are used as auxiliary watchers for the estate.

I shall be quite frank about it. I am not certain that I would accept that a salmon in the sea is necessarily the property of landlord A as opposed to tenant B or anyone else. I am far more in accord with the man who said at one time that poaching in the Highlands was not a crime but a moral duty, although I deprecate the sale of salmon taken illegally. But there are ample safeguards in the present legislation against the selling of substantial quantities of salmon taken illegally.

I object fundamentally to increasing the powers of the landlords. My aim is to clip their wings, and I oppose the Bill.

3.6 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I very much agree with what the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) has said, but it strikes me as rather peculiar, despite his remarks, that one of his colleagues, the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick), has sought to sponsor the Bill. The hon. Member evidently thinks that there is some merit in it, but I intend to side very much with the right hon. Gentleman.

One of the most honourable professions in the Highlands of Scotland is that of the poacher. I do not believe that he is thieving at all. The thieving went on at a much earlier date, and the poachers are taking something that is their right. I should like to see all fishing in the Highlands open to all the anglers. One of the most disturbing and retrograde things in Scotland is the restriction placed upon the humble angler by private landlords, who in many cases are unknown. Very often they are alien landlords. At the present time they are coming in shoals.

If there is one thing on which I agree with the Scottish National Party—and there are very few matters on which I agree with it—it is on its radical proposal to deal with this kind of abuse of land ownership, including lochs and rivers, and the privilege which goes with that abuse throughout the length and breadth of the Scottish Highlands.

I have one or two misgivings about the Bill. I do not know all that much about it, although I have had some experience of the restrictions, and my friends have had first-hand experience of the sort of thing to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

We all, of course, wish to conserve the stocks of salmon. Even if the rivers, the lochs and the sea were open to every angler and every fisherman, there would still need to be conservation. Indeed, there is provision for conservation in existing legislation, but the Bill goes far beyond a mere extension of Section 22 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975, which I understand was the proposition put forward originally by the sponsors of the Bill.

Moreover, I think I am right in saying that there has not been very much consultation with the interested parties by the sponsors of the Bill. I stand open to correction on that. I should be interested to know precisely which organisations were consulted by the sponsors of the Bill before it was introduced.

Mr. Onslow

I can save the hon. Gentleman time. Would he care to name an organisation he knows which has not been consulted?

Mr. Hamilton

The onus is on the sponsors of the Bill to tell us. I should have thought that the Second Reading of the Bill was an eminently suitable occasion for telling the House. We have a right to know which organisations were consulted and with what result.

Mr. Onslow

If the hon. Gentleman had heard the opening of my speech—I cannot recall whether he was present then—I think that he would know that the Bill is supported by all regional water authorities in England and by the fisheries' representatives from Scotland. They themselves consult widely and have consulted widely. Rather than exhaust the patience of the House by reading out a long list, I would sooner say to the hon. Gentleman that if he knows of any body that has escaped the net, I should be happy if he would tell me about it, and I would undertake to have full consultations with any such body prior to the Committee stage.

Mr. Hamilton

I very much doubt the veracity of what—

Mr. Onslow


Mr. Hamilton

I say frankly that I very much doubt the veracity of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I do not believe that all the authorities and all the organisations that he alleges have been consulted have agreed to the Bill. But, even if they have agreed to it, I believe, for other reasons, that the Bill is unworkable.

Let us consider Clause 1(2) and the burden of proof. I think that it places an impossibly heavy burden on persons who are charged with being in possession of illegally acquired salmon. Let us suppose that a salmon appears on the slab of a fishmonger in Birmingham or Manchester, or appears in a hotel in London, Someone could say "That is an illegally caught salmon." The fishmonger or the person in possession of it would be obliged to prove that it was acquired by his wholesaler directly or indirectly from someone who had used neither a wire nor a snare to catch it; nor a light, nor a net with an illegally small mesh. He would be obliged to prove that it had not been caught even by the throwing of stones at it; nor by using fish roe as a bait; nor by means of an unauthorised fixed engine, weir, or dam. There are all those possibilities. The onus of proof that none of those methods was used is placed on the retailer.

Even if the clause were amended to require the summons or indictment to specify the illegal method by which the salmon was alleged to have been taken, it would still require the defendant to prove a negative, and that is a very difficult matter. The requirement itself would, I presume, go a very long way to, nullifying the Bill's essential purpose.

Moreover, in addition, one of the principal difficulties in operating the Bill would be of identifying any particular salmon in the possession of a wholesaler or retailer as the same one that was illegally taken by someone else on some earlier occasion. How is that to be proved? It is an impossible situation in which to put the retailer.

It is interesting that a Bill of this kind, which would create a whole army of snoopers, comes from the Tory Party, which accuses my party of being the party of bureaucracy and snoopers.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

The hon. Member has spoken about the burden of proof in Clause 1(2). If that subsection were washed out and if the burden of proof were put the other way, would he then support the Bill?

Mr. Hamilton

The provision about burden of proof is one of the major purposes of the Bill. The Minister will reply to that point. I am not qualified to say "Yea" or "Nay" to it. All that I am saying is that, looking at the Bill as a layman, I am trying to put myself in the position of the retailer or wholesaler suddenly faced with someone who says "You have on your slab a salmon caught illegally." That innocent fellow immediately has to prove the opposite. That is intolerable.

I turn to the principles asserted by the Leader of the Scottish National Party, the right hon. Member for Western Isles. I have never agreed with him more than on this issue. His party and mine could have a profitable unholy alliance if his party stuck to this kind of good, common-sense radicalism instead of the kind of rubbish churned out day after day by SNP Members in the House. There is a great future for us if the right hon. Gentleman will stick to the question of the landed proprietors in Scotland and their virtual monopoly of land owning and fish owning in the Highlands. Let us get together to cut out the nonsense of an Assembly and flog the Government on those issues. If we do that, there is a much brighter future for Scotland than there is with the kind of rubbish the SNP is now churning out.

3.16 p.m.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

As the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is a little shy about rising to intervene, perhaps I may venture a few comments on the Bill, which was introduced in such a succinct manner by my hon. Friend the Member for Working (Mr. Onslow), who identified the problem and the need for the Bill.

My hon. Friend particularly called attention to the danger in which the salmon species now is. I was unconvinced by the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart). However nasty or nice landlords may be—and we are here not to argue about that but to argue about the preservation of the salmon species—the right hon. Gentleman seemed to be carried away by his dislike of landlords into a realm far from the Bill and far from one of his hon. Friends as well.

The right hon. Gentleman contended, and held to the contention when I interrupted him, that the penalties for poaching were already stringent enough. I entirely acquit him of any desire to help bad people. I think that he is dwelling sentimentally, as he so often does, in the mists of the past. He is thinking of poaching as quite a small exercise instead of a nasty form of big business which should be discouraged, to put it mildly.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) went in the same direction. I was sorry that he was so uncharacteristically abrupt in his refusal to believe the assurance given by my hon. Friend the Member for Working.

In considering this small and modest measure we must bear in mind whether we can learn from experience in this country and in other parts of the world. If we let matters drift, we shall inevitably be left with deprivation and regrets at the end of the day. It would be a good thing if from time to time we attempted to learn from experience and did not allow events such as the loss of this valuable fish to occur. We should all deeply and bitterly regret its loss.

The 1975 Act was, in effect, an acceptance that the situation was serious enough to put upon a person selling a salmon, or seeking to sell a salmon, the burden of proving that the fish was not caught unlawfully. But that provision had effect only between 31st August and 1st February.

Despite what the right hon. Member for Western Isles said, there is no principle involved here. Those who oppose the Bill have upon their shoulders the onus of proving that the 1975 measure, passed by the Labour Government, has been fraught with great administrative difficulties and has been the cause of injustice. If that is the case, I concede that it would be a substantial argument. As I understand it, that is not so. I ask the right hon. Gentleman at least to recognise that the intention of the Bill is to make life more difficult for those who make a living out of stealing in large quantities and those who are only too happy to pick up at a bargain price goods which they almost certainly know come from crooks.

I hope that the Minister will take a reasonably sypmpathetic view of the Bill. I can see that he may feel that there is a need for some safeguards. If that is so, the procedures of this House afford ample opportunity for such safeguards to be inserted. I very much hope that he will not take the wooden attitude of saying "I do not like the Bill and therefore it should not receive any further consideration". I do not wish to discourage the Minister by being offensive, but if he were minded to rely on the argument that the measure is difficult to enforce or is not grounded wholly in common sense or has some imperfections, I would remind him that that objection would apply not only to the 1975 Act but to a large part of the legislation which the present Government and others have pushed through the House in recent years.

I hope that on this occasion the Minister will take a fair and liberal attitude. I see that he has an ominous quantity of papers before him. I hope that he has been able to listen to the arguments that have been put to him and will adopt an open position towards this modest and reasonable proposal.

3.23 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

I welcome this opportunity of taking part in the debate on the Bill. The House has not had a full opportunity of expanding on its merits and demerits. I have every sympathy with the Bill's objective. I know that country folk especially in the North and in Scotland, have a particular interest in salmon and the sporting activities connected with it. They may well have misgivings about the extent of the problem with which the Bill seeks to deal. We have to bear in mind that, because of the present position in the fishing industry, more and more people will be anxious to supplement their income by taking fish from any source.

The hon. Member for Working (Mr. Onslow) is to be commended on his desire to deal with conservation and with poaching, which is a violation of conservation. There is little control on the taking of salmon, although there are times of the year when this fish ought not to be taken.

I recognise the tributes that the hon. Member has paid to my officials and myself for the consultations we have had with him and with members and officers of the Salmon and Trout Association. We met them a few months ago when they expressed great anxiety about the problem with which this measure seeks to deal. On that occasion there were discussions about a review of netting—the size of nets, and the materials from which they are made—but I shall not weary the House by taking that point any further. I pay tribute to the association for the way in which it has accepted our anxiety about dealing with this problem.

The House should consider more deeply the actual wording of the measure. This is a very simple Bill. Basically it is only two clauses. Clause 3 is about the definition of the word "salmon". The Bill begins by saying: Without prejudice to the provisions of any other enactment, if any person shall sell, expose for sale, or have in his possession for sale or disposal for gain, any salmon which has been acquired or taken or landed in the United Kingdom in contravention of the provisions of any enactment regulating the killing or taking of salmon or of any byelaws, regulations or orders made under any such enactment and for the time being in force he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £500 and on conviction on indictment to a fine. The next clause is most important. This may be a Friday afternoon with few hon. Members here to deal with a small measure of limited nature, but—

Mr. Peyton

I hope that, since the Minister is pursuing this line of argument, he will deal with the point that the Bill contains no new principle. What we want to know is how it is that a principle that was acceptable in 1975 has become unacceptable now.

Mr. Bishop

I appreciate that point. I was coming to it.

Clause 1(2) says: The burden of proving that any salmon sold or exposed for sale or in the possession of any person for sale or disposal for gain has not been acquired or taken or landed in contravention of any of the provisions of such enactments, byelaws, regulations and orders shall lie on the person selling or exposing it for sale or having it in his possession for sale or disposal for gain. Obviously, as the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said, if one is involved in any way with salmon, one is liable to very severe penalties. However, before the House can discuss legislation of this kind it must know what is in it. The right hon. Gentleman calls in aid legislation that is already on the statute book and says that there is no change in principle. I suggest that there is.

I am not sure whether this Bill ties in with the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975. I think the Bill makes reference to that legislation somewhere, but that Act is rather different from the provisions that we are discussing today. Section 22, which is the main plank of the matter, refers to the sale of salmon and trout. That refers to the close season. That is the time of the year when everybody agrees one should not take salmon.

Mr. Peyton

The principle is the same.

Mr. Bishop

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to interrupt, he may do so

Mr. Peyton

The Minister is not answering the point. I am saying that the principle enshrined in the Bill is not, so far as I am aware, dissimilar from that in the 1975 Act in that the onus of proof is put on the person who has fish in his possession or exposes it for sale. Therefore, the onus of proof is put on him by the 1975 Act. The Bill extends it to a period of a whole year. Will the Minister say what he finds so objectionable in the 1975 legislation?

Mr. Bishop

It is no good the right hon. Gentleman saying that we were responsible for the principle, because I understand that this legislation goes back as far as 1923. Therefore, there is a long and established principle which all parties have accepted.

When Section 22 of the 1975 Act is called in aid, I would point out that it says: Subject to subsections (2) and (3) below, any person who buys, sells, or exposes for sale or has in his possession for sale any salmon between 31st August and the following 1st February; or any trout other than rainbow trout between 31st August and the following 1st March, shall be guilty of an offence. The section then says: Subsection (1) above shall not apply to any person buying, selling or exposing for sale, or having in his possesson for sale any salmon or trout which has been canned, frozen, cured, salted, pickled, dried or otherwise preserved outside the United Kingdom". Clause 1(1) of the Bill refers to: any salmon which has been acquired or taken or landed in the United Kingdom in contravention of the provisions". Therefore, the provisions of Section 22 of the 1975 Act refer to salmon which has been canned, frozen, cured, salted and so on. I shall not go through all the various sub-divisions. The Bill does not say that such fish would be exempted. Will the hon. Gentleman say whether the categories in Section 22 are included? He is not very clear whether, if one takes salmon out of a tin, one can eat it without a guilty conscience, but that if one eats other salmon, one may be guilty of an offence.

Mr. Onslow

I do not like to say this to the Minister, but I think he is being a little silly. If he believes that this should be spelt out, I shall undertake to do so in Committee, but let us get on with the matter now.

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman says that these are Committee points and that perhaps I should try to get on to the important point of principle. This is a situation in which somebody may be acting innocently. I have a rural constituency which contains many anglers. Angling is a growing sport, and I would not like it to be thought that anybody who wishes to eat salmon, trout or sea trout will be liable to become a criminal—that is my reading of the measure—if he sells or offers for sale salmon that has been illegally caught.

Mr. Onslow

The Minister must have been advised what fish are to be included in salmo solar and salmo trutta. I wish that he would turn his attention to the Bill instead of frittering away time on this minuscule point.

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to recognise that the principle here is a complete change in English justice. I do not recall in Magna Carta or in any of our legislation since then any suggestion that one shall be guilty of an offence until proved innocent. Section 22 of the 1975 Act, which has been questioned by the right hon. Member for Yeovil, relates to a limited period only, during which anyone who has salmon for sale is thought to have caught it illegally.

Mr. Onslow

I am sorry to interrupt again, but a principle is a principle. The right hon. Gentleman has conceded that the principle is embodied in the Act, which was a consolidation measure bringing together legislation over many years, although not necessarily Magna Carta or going back as far as that. No new principle is involved here. I do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman is not dealing with the practicalities of the Bill.

Mr. Bishop

The Bill as printed omits some of the provisions about which we talked to the hon. Gentleman when he met us. It is limited to making it an offence for any person to sell or have in his possession for sale any salmon", including sea trout, which has been illegally caught. If the hon. Gentleman claims that that is a good principle because it is already in legislation, he should recognise the extent of the limitation of the Act, which I do not think anyone here would dispute.

What many hon. Members and others outside who care for their rights will certainly be opposed to is any suggestion that, if one is in the retail or wholesale trade and one is conveying salmon on the railways or any other form of transport, or if it is taken to a hotel, restaurant or any other place where salmon is sold for eating, one shall be guilty of an offence—and one shall be guilty until one proves that one is innocent. The prosecution does not have to make a point. It does not have to say "This salmon was caught in a certain place illegally and, therefore, you are committing an offence." In effect, one is guilty until one has proved that one is innocent. I can imagine restaurateurs being really concerned about this. I am not sure whether someone consuming salmon would be included—probably not—but those concerned in the sale or merchanting of salmon would have severe doubts.

Mr. Peyton

Surely the right hon. Gentleman is in danger of saying that principles vary with the season of the year, even with breeding seasons. They do not. Principles remain the same throughout the year. He still has not explained why something which was acceptable for the 1975 Act is not acceptable today. I hope that he will take a broad view of this matter and allow any reasonable qualifications that he feels necessary to be included in Committee, instead of rejecting the whole thing outright now.

Mr. Bishop

That is precisely why I have taken the trouble to quote from the 1975 Act, which goes back to legislation of 1923. There is no point in saying that we are responsible for the provision I am quoting. When someone has salmon for sale or gain, one has to know what that means. For example, suppose that one does not sell a salmon but exchanges it for half a hundredweight of potatoes or something else—in other words, one barters it. That is one way round.

Mr. Onslow

indicated dissent.

Mr. Bishop

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. He knows that in the countryside it is quite common to exchange one commodity for another. One can give a bag of potatoes or something else—indeed, some other fish—for salmon, and that is all right according to the Bill; it is not sale. Therefore, people who poach and want to get round the legislation may have that way of doing it. I do not say that they will, but to my mind it is a possibility.

Clause 1 refers to salmon or sea trout landed, taken or acquired in the United Kingdom. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Working, whose Bill this is, is more of an expert on this than I am, but on looking into the matter one finds that salmon are taken not only in this country but elsewhere.

Therefore, a person having a salmon would have to try to ascertain the area of origin. It would be necessary to have a letter of intent or letter of origin passed down from those who caught it to the person buying in the market place, the wholesaler, the retailer and so on, saying that the salmon was legally acquired.

But there is a problem there, too, because we are not speaking here only about whole salmon. I take it that the Bill refers to pieces of salmon as well. The reference is to salmon, not to whole salmon. Therefore, if someone had a salmon which had been cut up into slices, or however it was prepared, he would have some difficulty in saying whence it came.

Moreover, one has to recognise that although, for the most part, salmon inhabit the temperate and arctic zones of the Northern Hemisphere, they may come from the coasts and rivers of New Zealand as well as from the Mediterranean and the Antarctic Ocean, down to 2,000 fathoms, so I read. Therefore, a salmon may be brought quite easily by aircraft from Canada, Europe or somewhere else and be landed in this country, with the result that the poor person who has had the job of passing on the salmon for sale and consumption will have substantial difficulty in proving whence it came.

My hon. Friends the Members for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), as Scottish Members, will probably say that they know a Scottish salmon when they see it. Perhaps there are ways of telling, but once a salmon is cut up, who is to say where it came from, what species it is and so on? How can one tell, and who will have the job of deciding the species and origin? It will certainly not be those who will bring the prosecution.

Under the Bill the burden of proof will lie on the person exposing for sale, so the prosecution can lay a summons and sit back. I can imagine the dilemma facing a lot of people, because from then on they have the task of saying what kind of salmon it is and where it may have been caught, and of having to prove that it was caught legally, either in or out of season.

Mr. Donald Stewart

There is also the in-between situation, which I know exists, when a gamekeeper has a fish which he gives to one of his friends. The friend would have some difficulty in explaining where it came from.

Mr. Bishop

The right hon. Gentleman introduces another problem. I can envisage many broken friendships. Someone who was sent a salmon as a present would have to be quite sure that his friend was honest and, not only that, that the people he may have got it from were honest as well so that he could identify the area whence it came. I should not like to say "I cannot accept your gift because, although I do not question your integrity and trustworthiness, I have to know where you got it from, and you must assure me that you are satisfied about it, because if you cannot do that we shall both be in trouble." That is hardly the sort of gift that anyone would welcome. I imagine that there would be many sleepless nights if that were the case.

Mr. Onslow

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Bill is about the sale of salmon, not about giving salmon away? If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman is in grave danger of revealing that he has not read the Bill at all. I invite him to look at the Explanatory Memorandum. He will see that the Bill is intended for none of the purposes which he envisages. Its purpose is clearly stated, and I draw attention to the words: Section 22 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 places upon any person having salmon for sale between 31st August and 1st February the burden of proving that the salmon was not caught in the close season. Clause 1 is an extension of that principle. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Explatatory Memorandum, or does he reject the principle? Will he give us a precise and clear answer to those questions?

Mr. Bishop

The legislation is on the statute book. To what extent it is used is another matter.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Surely the point is that in the close season nobody should be able to have a fish whether it is described as a legal or an illegal fish. There is no dispute about that. Anybody who has a fish in the close season is in trouble, and ought to be in trouble. That does not mean to say that it ought to apply to the other part of the year when the season is open.

Mr. Bishop

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has emphasised and underlined the point I am making, which I cannot seem to get home to the hon. Member for Working. Nobody queries the need to accept the principle that if a salmon is sold in this stated period it has been illegally caught. At least one knows that. The point is that Section 22 has limitations. It exempts from any possible guilt any person buying…any salmon…which has been canned, frozen, cured, salted, pickled, dried of otherwise preserved outside the United Kingdom". If one gets a salmon and puts it into a tin, will the person selling it tinned, canned, pickled, or whatever it is be liable to be regarded as an offender if he is acting outside the close season? The Bill does not say so. We are not at all clear about that. It is no good the hon. Member for Working saying that this can be sorted out in Committee.

I come now to the main point. I would not query these things, important though they may be, if I were not concerned about the very important principles which are involved. That is the point that I have already made about the onus of proof that an offence has not been committed, not only in the close season, which is already covered, but all the year round. I presume that Labour and Conservative Members would accept this.

The right hon. Member for Western Isles is quite right in saying that no one would query the provisions as to the close season, but the Bill extends it throughout the whole of the year when it is not a bad thing to catch salmon. By this Bill we shall turn upside down the whole principle of English justice, as we see it, all the year round because we feel that something should be done to discourage the poaching of salmon.

I do not argue with the need for conservation. I want to talk in a moment about some of the existing measures. Hon. Gentlemen would be right to ask me what action is being taken already to deal with the problem. What is the extent of it? I was dealing just now with the habitat of salmon. Hon. Members may already know that The salmon inhabits the North Atlantic and its tribuary waters. It is known to extend as far north as Scandinavia, Lapland, Iceland. Greenland and Labrador". Hon. Members can have a look at the Encyclopaedia Britannica just as I can. I took the trouble to look up the areas from which it came.

The Bill talks about salmon and sea trout taken or landed in the United Kingdom". Who can tell so whether it is taken or landed? Is there any special identification to say that a salmon is clearly taken in the United Kingdom? How does the man or woman in the street or market place who is buying a salmon know whether it is caught in the tributaries of Lapland and all those other exotic places I have mentioned? I want to protect my constituents at least from those dangers. I do not know what qualification they would need—whether they would need O- or A-levels or degrees—to be able to decide from where the salmon comes and enable them to continue to shop in the care-free manner to which they are accustomed. We are now dealing with a very important principle. If right hon. and hon. Members who are not present but who are working in their constituencies were to realise that under the rather harmless heading of "Sale of Salmon Bill" it was proposed that a principle be enacted which I am sure that the whole House would rise against during the week, they would hastily come here to express their views.

I do not want to be partisan, because this is not a political matter and I do not want any red herrings brought in at this stage, but I wonder whether the hon. Member for Working is speaking on behalf of his party. He may claim that he introduced the Bill as a Back Bencher, but he was advocating the principle that a person is guilty until found innocent. This changes the criterion of human rights, and he may claim that it is justified because we are dealing with the problem of salmon. If the hon. Gentleman believes that, perhaps he will say so. I would not like to discredit his party by attributing to it this change in attitude towards human rights, freedom and justice.

That is the major defect of the Bill. A grave onus of responsibility is placed on anyone connected with salmon. We are entitled to ask whether the hon. Gentleman intends that the principle that a person is guilty until proved, by himself, to be innocent should be extended into other areas. Hon. Members can imagine the cost of litigation that would be involved if people had to satisfy the prosecution that they were not criminals but merely people who liked salmon.

The principles advocated by the hon. Gentleman exist only in relation to emergency measures and matters of grave security. Few would question their use in those circumstances, although they are rightly questioned at times because we should be on our guard and vigilant against any attempt to change the basis of English law. Our courts could be jammed by the cases that might be brought as a result of the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman says that he does not expect that many prosecutions, he can hardly justify the measure in the glowing terms in which he introduced it.

The hon. Gentleman said that we could sort out the problems in Committee. He has paid tribute to my officials and myself for our co-operation with the Salmon and Trout Association.

Mr. Onslow

I withdraw that unreservedly.

Mr. Bishop

We said that there were problems and that when salmon could fetch £2.50 per pound there was a great temptation for people to take it illegally. However, there is already legislation providing that those who fish for salmon must have a licence and the consent of the person or authority in whose waters they want to fish. Under the Bill, a person who wishes to buy salmon would have to be sure that it came from a licensed fisherman and had been caught in an authorised area.

Existing legislation provides the necessary safeguards. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that the existing law, which is much less horrendous than his Bill, is operated fully, let him say that local authorities and water authorities should employ more bailiffs to enforce the present provisions. The hon. Gentleman wriggled a great deal when introducing the Bill. Indeed, I have never seen a salmon wriggle more. Whether he will get away, I do not know. But we really have not had the evidence that we want.

In the discussions, it was suggested that we should go in for the licensing of salmon. This method of control has been recognised by the hon. Gentleman's association as impracticable in British circumstances. It applies in the Irish Republic and in Ulster, although it has been recognised as not being a practical way of dealing with the problem.

Then it was suggested that there should be a register. However, it was pointed out by my officials and me that a register would mean that a lot more officials would be wanted to deal with it. We are always being lectured by the Opposition about public spending, bureaucracy, snoopers and so on. I am surprised not to hear cries of "Hear, hear" coming from Opposition Members. Their silence today suggests that some of them have not gone into the real merits of this proposed legislation.

The other factor which must be mentioned is that the Bill makes no provision for powers of entry for enforcers, and its terms seem unlikely to assist materially in the difficult problems of enforcement. In my view, they are designed to cause the maximum of friction and ill will to very little purpose.

Mr. Peyton

Do powers of entry exist in the 1975 Act? If so, are they not carried over?

Mr. Bishop

I do not know. We are not discussing the 1975 Act. I am sure that I should be ruled out of order if I attempted to discuss legislation which is already on the statute book.

The Bill has an Explanatory Memorandum which makes a side reference to this as a reason to justify the case put forward by the hon. Member for Working, but it does not call in aid the fact that the 1975 legislation is tied up to the Bill. It is not. I have not time to go through it. It is up to the Opposition to tell me. It is their Bill. They are trying to employ the same principle of British justice to me today. It appears that I have to justify their Bill in the same way as I should have to justify prosecution if I were to buy a pound of salmon, tinned or otherwise—I do not know whether tinned salmon is exempted; the Bill does not say.

Clause 1(2) appears to place a very heavy burden on persons to prove their innocence when charged with having in their possession for sale or disposal for gain salmon acquired in contravention of any enactment, and so on, and on the fishmonger charged with having such a salmon on sale in his shop. He would be obliged to prove that he had not acquired it directly or indirectly from someone who had offended against the various provisions of the legislation.

The hon. Member for Working said that he had been in consultation with the water and other authorities. Has he been in consultation with them and obtained their approval? I rather feel that probably he has consulted officials of the regional water authorities. I do not know that he has any support from the authorities themselves. Perhaps he will tell us.

Mr. Onslow

I have all the support that the regional water authorities have thought it appropriate to give, which is a great deal more than the right hon. Gentleman appears to be giving.

Mr. Bishop

That appears to be an exclusion clause. I had the impression that the hon. Gentleman had consulted all the water authorities and that, after meetings of their members, they had given their support to this legislation. Now it appears that the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with their officials, and with only some of them.

I make it quite clear that the Government recognise the need for action on this front.

Mr. Onslow

Pull the other leg.

Mr. Bishop

However, I suggest that we have legislation which can deal with this and that the answer lies in the powers of and enforcement by the authorities concerned. We want action to be taken. We have sat down with the hon. Member for Working, which is not always done. I have met him twice, and I have met his officials. My officials have spoken to his officials and we have asked how we can help. But it is no good the hon. Gentleman saying that if we do not like the Bill we should give it a Second Reading and then degut it—if that is appropriate term to use for salmon. All the salmon interests have a legitimate interest to express, and we want to help them. I do not think, however, that I can recommend the Bill—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 17th February.

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