HC Deb 04 March 1986 vol 93 cc230-46

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

8.55 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John MacKay)

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

When the Government announced our intention to bring forward salmon legislation, there were critics who accused us of wasting parliamentary time on a minor issue when we had so many other problems such as unemployment. Leaving aside the point that legislation does not create employment, other than perhaps for the bureacrats, I believe that this attitude showed a considerable ignorance of the Scottish rural scene. While those employed directly or indirectly in the salmon industry may not add up to a lot of people in Glasgow or west central Scotland terms, they add up to a lot of people in the remote rural corners of Scotland, often in the most fragile economic parts of the countryside.

Angling in general is the biggest participation sport in this country. It is a multi-million pound industry. Salmon angling is the most sought after and often the most expensive part of the angling scene and, dare I say it, often the most unrewarding. There have been many efforts to quantify the value of salmon angling to Scotland. Figures have been put variously at between £22 million and £140 million per annum. If the true figure is somewhere in the middle that clearly indicates the importance of salmon angling to many parts of rural Scotland. In addition to ghillies, boatmen and keepers directly employed, hotels, self-catering, shops, restaurants and all parts of the rural economy benefit from the angler. That angler will come, and continue to come, only if he feels he has a reasonable chance of catching fish, and that depends on how well we conserve the stocks of salmon.

The legitimate netsman is equally an important part of the rural economy. I can think of parts of my constituency, and I am sure other hon. Members can do of theirs, where the netting forms a very important part of the annual fishing cycle, enabling fishermen and their families to make a living in the country, often, in my case, on islands. Their survival is linked, critically, to the survival of the salmon and in sufficient numbers to allow them a reasonable catch.

The Bill has a direct impact on employment in the countryside. Its aim is to improve the protection of the salmon so that the legitimate netsman and the angler can have continuing livelihood and sport.

The Bill has three main objectives. The first is the modernisation and improvement of the administrative arrangements in Scotland. The management of salmon stocks is the responsibility of district boards, which are composed of an equal number of upper, or rod, proprietors and lower, or netting, proprietors with the person owning the fishery with the highest rateable value being automatically the chairman. We propose to modernise and democratise the arrangements by providing for the chairman to be elected by a meeting of proprietors in the district and for the co-option of representatives of anglers and tenant netsmen who have a significant interest in the proper management of salmon fisheries.

Because of their substantial financial investment, the Bill provides for a constitution that gives proprietors a majority of the votes. The Bill also provides for amalgamation of districts where the proprietors consider that this is necessary to create a more viable management unit. All told, we hope that the new provision will encourage greater coverage of Scotland by district boards. At present, there are in existence only about half the boards in the 108 districts for which the existing legislation provides.

The second main objective is the streamlining of the arrangements for the regulation of salmon fisheries. It is intended that certain changes which at present require primary legislation may in future be achieved by statutory instrument, subject to parliamentary approval where appropriate. This will allow a quicker response to changing circumstances, for example in relation to the length of close times and the prescribed methods of fishing.

Thirdly, there are further measures to combat poaching through new offences of being in possession of unlawfully taken salmon, and also the powers enabling the Government to bring forward salmon dealer licensing schemes.

This is, of course, not a purely Scottish Bill, although the major part of it deals with the situation in Scotland. From the outset it was recognised that, as regards the new possession offence, the measures could be effective only if they applied throughout Scotland and England and Wales.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Will the Minister accept that severe problems face the future of salmon in Wales, and no doubt in England as well? Why do the Government not see fit to take more radical steps to safeguard the interests of salmon and salmon fishing in Wales and England, as well as in Scotland?

Mr. MacKay

As I continue my speech the hon. Gentleman will see that we are taking important and radical measures in England and Wales. The main thing that we are doing in Scotland is to improve the arrangements for the district fishery boards, and, I hope, improve their role. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will touch on the hon. Gentleman's point about England and Wales when he sums up.

As some, at least, of those here this evening will know, the Bill has undergone fairly rigorous scrutiny in another place. One of the outcomes of this was the inclusion of powers which would enable the introduction of a dealer licensing scheme in England and Wales.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Following on the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), Welsh salmon conservation is important. Clause 28 will be important for Welsh salmon interests. Will the Government introduce a scheme urgently? Will the Minister advise the House that the obvious authority to implement the scheme is the Welsh water authority, which has the fullest knowledge of and involvement in Welsh fishing interests?

Mr. MacKay

I shall come later to the licensing scheme, especially with regard to Scotland, but I know that the hon. Gentleman has to be in a Committee, so I say to him that in both Scotland and Wales we hope to act as quickly as possible. In Scotland we have the mechanism, which I shall explain when I come to that part of my speech. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food hope to act as quickly as possible in England and Wales. I think they recognise that the water authorities look like being the appropriate vehicle, but some thought will have to go into that because it is a new concept. In Scotland we already have dealer licensing, as I shall mention when I come to it.

The Bill has been criticised by some as falling short of what was required. It is a fact, however, that there has to be a limit to any piece of legislation, and I am in no doubt that the Bill addresses itself to the main elements of salmon fisheries which require attention. I hope that the Bill will commend itself to the House as an appropriate and practical response to what is needed.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

Before the end of the Minister's speech, may I declare an interest — an unsatisfied interest—as a fisherman in west Wales. We want better conservation measures. Will he consider sympathetically in Committee an amendment to provide that when rivers in Wales, or indeed in other parts of the country, are very low, all fishing should be banned for a short time in order to conserve the salmon and ensure that they arrive in the river at the appropriate time?

Mr. MacKay

I appreciate that some time will be spent in Committee on this difficult question of drought, just as there was in another place on the same subject. As a fellow fisherman, I appreciate the point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am sure he is aware that there are major problems of definition and area. The simple proof of the oft-repeated statement that low water means that net fishermen take a disproportionate amount of salmon and that this has a deleterious effect on the stocks, is difficult to obtain. This is an important issue, and I shall listen sympathetically to the points that are made about it. I look forward to an interesting debate. However, the right hon. and learned Member was a little premature if he thought that I was about to sit down.

I said that the Bill was an appropriate and practical response to what is needed. It is practical because, down the years, there have been a variety of views on what should be done about salmon management, conservation and other matters. It would have been possible for the Government to rest on the fact that, beyond general principles and statements of intent, there could be said to have been a lack of real and general consensus over a number of areas. We have, however, focused on the areas of importance, and the general response in another place was that the Bill is a worthwhile measure.

In deciding to build on the existing structure and arrangements in Scotland, we were conscious of the fact that the Scottish legislation, essentially the Acts of 1862 and 1868, has stood the test of time in many respects, and one must acknowledge the far-sightedness of those who drafted these provisions. It is also worth noting that, despite the effects of activities such as high seas fishing and large-scale poaching, our salmon stocks have been remarkably well maintained. It is interesting to note—certainly as regards Scotland—that the fluctuations in catches over recent years are not novel. There were short-term variations in the 1930s, and at the end of last century, every bit as great as that in the 1960s and 1970s. However, we cannot be complacent, and in particular we must continue to give a lead to other countries when it comes to national conservation measures.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

I acknowledge the point about variations in given years, but surely my hon. Friend will accept that world stocks of salmon have declined by about 50 per cent., as indeed they have in Scotland, over the past 20 years.

Mr. MacKay

I accept my hon. Friend's point about the world stocks of salmon. However, if my hon. Friend were to look at the figures in the most recent statistical bulletin published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, he would see that over the past 30 years there was first a marked increase in the salmon take and then a decline. The current figure is not too far from the figure for the early 1950s.

I know that there are debates on how the cycles are caused, and these debates have gone on for a long time. There are mysteries about salmon, including these cycles. It is important that we take all possible steps to conserve salmon and make certain that we can, as far as knowledge permits, control these cycles, which would be to the benefit of both the legitimate netsmen and the salmon angler.

Before I describe the various clauses I should like to draw the House's attention to the four particular points.

The first is the possession offence, to which I have already referred. As the House will know, poaching is no longer confined to small local operations, but is carried out on a large and well-organised commercial scale. The provisions in the Bill will allow action to be taken against those involved with the outlets for poached salmon and should have a significant effect on the level of poaching by making it more difficult to dispose of illegally caught fish. Clauses 21 and 29 set out respectively provisions for Scotland, and England and Wales. The fact that the wording is not identical reflects a difference of starting point. In the Scottish case we have chosen to build on the existing provisions in the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Protection Act 1951, whereas in England and Wales the approach has been to build on the Theft Act.

The net result of both clauses is to ensure that it will no longer be the case that someone can be in possession of salmon, believing, or having reason to suspect, that it had been illegally taken, and not be convicted. Hitherto, this has been a major gap in the enforcement of salmon legislation. The new clauses strike the right, and essential, balance between improving the prospects of convicting those involved in the illegal handling of salmon, without going so far as introducing measures which could lead to the conviction of innocent people.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Can the Minister think of any comparable clause in our legal system that attributes guilt on the basis of suspicion?

Mr. MacKay

There are some examples, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) may be able to find them. I cannot put my hand on them while I am making this speech, but they are there. It is sensible to take this small action to make sure that people cannot get away with large-scale poaching of salmon. Perhaps the hon. Member approves of that, but I know that most hon. Members do not. In my constituency we could greatly improve the chances of catching people and bringing them before the courts and, if the evidence is properly there, of getting convictions, if the House passes the two clauses.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Is the Minister suggesting that it has been acceptable to poach one for the pot, as was said in the debate in the other place, but that larger-scale poaching is unacceptable? If he is claiming that, he is flying in the face of historic evidence about the treatment of poachers.

Mr. MacKay

The hon. Gentleman should know that it is a question of scale. The Bill is being approached from a conservation point of view. The person who goes out and gets one for the pot is not endangering the species, but those who poison rivers or net rivers by setting miles and miles of monofilament net are endangering the species. That is especially true of the poisoner. If the hon. Member has ever seen a river after a poisoner has been at work, he will know the deep feelings of bitterness in the breasts of countrymen when they see the havoc that has been wreaked down river.

Dealer licensing will be a valuable complement to the new possession offences, and it is the intention to have detailed schemes under subordinate legislation brought forward as soon possible after the enactment of the Bill. These schemes will be subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses. Here again the net result will be the same, although the starting points north and south of the border are different. In Scotland we are building on the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982. In England and Wales, where there is no similar legislation, the provisions will have to be made in another direction. I have already said that the water boards are one possible direction in which my right hon. Friends in the south will be thinking of moving.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend. The dealer licensing scheme is crucial to the effectiveness of the Bill in dealing with poaching. Will it be possible for the Committee to have some information about how it will operate?

Mr. MacKay

I note what my hon. Friend says. It depends on how readily and quickly we can move with our consultations in Scotland with COSLA, as it is directly involved through the Civic Government (Scotland) Act and the police, and in England and Wales where the Government will have to talk to, among others, the water authorities. I cannot promise my hon. Friend that we shall have any more details in Committee about how we intend to implement this. Of course, that point will come to the House for debate under the affirmative order provision.

I was about to mention my third point concerning water bailiffs. There has been much ill-informed comment in Scotland about the role of water bailiffs in the dealer licensing scheme, including the suggestion that they be given the power to enter and search dwelling houses. Let me scotch—if I may use that word—that suggestion once and for all.

With regard to unlicensed premises, which include dwelling houses, the police have a power of entry and search under section 6 of the 1982 Act. They have, however, to satisfy a justice of the peace or sheriff, on oath, that there is reasonable ground for suspecting that an activity for which a licence is required is taking place there. If satisfied, a warrant may be granted by the sheriff or justice of the peace. That power of entry and search is one reserved to the police and there is no intention of extending the power to water bailiffs in the context of salmon dealer licensing.

The fourth point concerns clause 33 which commits the Government to a review, three years after the enactment of the Bill, of the salmon net fisheries in the north-east of England and in the Scottish east coast salmon fishery districts as far north as the river Ugie. This review embraces the undertaking given in my hon. Friend's statement of 7 November 1985 to review the effects of the new measures being introduced in the north-east English drift net fishery. The decision to introduce this clause was welcomed in another place, and I hope that it will commend itself to this House, and the conflicting interests in it.

I hope the House will find it helpful if I describe briefly the specific provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 creates new salmon fishery districts but builds upon existing districts by retaining existing coastal limits and existing names. The new districts will include, not only the major rivers flowing into the sea between the existing coastal limits of the district but all other rivers that do so. Regulatory provisions are applied to minor rivers as they presently apply to the major rivers in any district. Subsection (2) as read with clause 2 will enable districts to be amalgamated. There is, in subsection (4), the power to make minor adjustments to district boundaries.

Clause 2 and schedule 1 provide the power and procedure for making a designation order to abolish salmon fishery districts and create new districts. This power can be used, as I have said, to enable districts to amalgamate or, where the extent of existing districts is considered to be unsatisfactory in some way. The procedures to be followed before a designation order is made, are set out in schedule 1 and include provisions for consultation, publication and the receipt and consideration of objections.

Clauses 3 to 9 deal with the regulation of salmon fishing. Clause 3(2) deals with technical matters such as the construction and use of cruives and dams and the mesh of nets. Clause 3(3) deals with the duration of the weekly close time and enables changes to be made by regulation subject to annulment by resolution of either House. At present, any such change would require primary legislation. This change provides flexibility which has long been asked for.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I hope that the Minister recognises that there are anxieties about this part of the Bill, not that it is not right that the Minister should from time to time update these specific rules. However, fishermen may find that, when the Minister makes a change in a permitted fishing method, the only recourse open to an aggrieved person is to ask a Member of Parliament to pray against an order. There may be a repetition of the position that exists now over the monofilament net ban, where large sections of the industry believe that they have not been consulted and their Members of Parliament have no means of voting against the provision.

Mr. MacKay

That is the usual cry when all consultations are carried out. If people do not agree with the results of the consultation, they say that the consultation has not been adequate. However, this is the way that Parliament works and it is the only way that the changes to legislation that are needed from time to time, for example in the close time, can be made.

It will be observed that, whereas the annual close time for all districts except the Tweed is currently a fixed period of 168 days, although it may commence on different dates in different districts, clause 6 provides that in future the

annual close time will be a continuing period of not less than 168 days". There is no change in the provision that angling may take place after the start and before the end of the annual close time. However, as a district may in future, as a consequence of a designation order under clause 2, include more than one major river, we felt it prudent to provide that there might be different close times for different rivers within a district. It will be noted that a change in an annual close time may be made only on the application of a district salmon fishery board, or on the application of any two proprietors within a district where no board is in existence. The procedures in schedule 1 contain safeguards with regard to publication, notification and so on. Alterations to estuary limits under clause 7 will also depend on an initiative at district board or proprietorial level.

Clause 9 provides that regulations made under clause 3 will, in general, apply to the Tweed. The present annual close time of 153 days for that river is retained but, as in the case of other rivers, as a minimum period in future.

Clauses 10 to 12 deal with salmon fishery proprietors and their qualifications to vote for and be elected to a district salmon fishery board. The present distinction between upper and lower proprietors and their power to appoint a mandatory to act for them are retained. Clause 11 provides for the unusual position of there being only one proprietor of a salmon fishery in a district, and where, following enactment, he ceases to be so because other rivers and proprietors are included in the district.

Clauses 13 to 17 provide for the constitution, membership, powers and duties of district salmon fishery boards, clause 13 and schedule 2 deal with elections to and the constitution of a district salmon fishery board. The concept of an association is new in salmon legislation, but I am advised that we are on sound and desirable grounds in requiring proprietors to form an association and elect a committee which will then become the district salmon fishery board.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Minister clarify the relationship between the Government and brown trout interests?

Mr. MacKay

That is opening up the much wider issue of the relationship between salmon fishery boards and brown trout interests. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the legislation deals specifically with salmon. We may have an interesting debate in Committee about whether brown trout should come within the scope of salmon fishery boards and their names altered, or whether we should consider an alternative to preserve brown trout fishing which, at the risk of digressing from the motion, is equally important to many people and the tourist industry.

As at present, boards will be voluntary organisations so that they will be created only at the wish of proprietors.

The procedure for setting up boards is set out in schedule 2. We have retained the existing procedure for weighted voting, but have updated the valuation figures which determine whether a proprietor is entitled to multiple votes. We have also provided that, however small the valuation of a fishery, the proprietor will be entitled to one vote. Provision is made in the schedule for the co-option of representatives of anglers and tenant netsmen.

I have already mentioned our intention to introduce a salmon dealer licence in Scotland. The enabling power is clause 19. The intention is that district and islands councils will be the licensing authorities. At an earlier stage in our consultations the idea of a dealer licensing scheme was welcomed in principle by COSLA and the Association of Chief Constables. My officials will be consulting further with these and other bodies, and I shall certainly try to get some of the details for the Committee stage.

Clause 20 adds to section 2 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act 1951 permitted methods of fishing for salmon in the sea. Power is given to define by regulation the terms net and coble, bag net, fly net or other stake net. This should be a useful provision.

Clauses 21 to 27 deal with offences and introduce new penalties in Scotland. Clause 21 provides the new offence in Scotland of a person being in possession of salmon either believing that it has been unlawfully taken or possessing it in circumstances in which it would be reasonable for him to suspect that it had been unlawfully taken. Clause 29 provides for the offence as it will apply in England and Wales. Although worded slightly differently in places, the effect of the clauses will be essentially the same and provision is made so that prosecution may take place regardless of which side of the border the original offence took place. It will be a defence to show that no relevant offence had been committed.

Clause 22 will enable a court to find an accused guilty of any one of the specified alternative offences if satisfied that the accused did not commit the offence charged but committed the alternative offence.

Clause 23 makes it an offence to introduce salmon or salmon eggs into inland waters in a district where there is a district board without the board's consent.

Clause 24 provides for exemption from certain offences where a person has the permission of my right hon. and learned Friend. It will be noted that he may give his consent only where all affected proprietors in a salmon fishery district have also consented. That provision will, for example, enable an otherwise illegal method of fishing to be used in individual cases—for example, salmon ranching or other developments in salmon fishing.

Clause 25 adds to the present exemptions for acts done for scientific purposes or for the purpose of protecting and improving salmon stocks.

Clause 26 provides for the application of clauses 24 and 25 to the River Esk and to the River Tweed.

Clause 27 removes the right of a clerk to a district board or any other person to prosecute offences relating to salmon. In future prosecutions will be undertaken solely by the procurator fiscal. Clause 28 enables a dealer licensing scheme to be introduced in England and Wales.

Clause 29 makes it an offence in England and Wales for someone to receive or handle salmon where be believes, or it would be reasonable for him to suspect, that it had been taken illegally. This clause parallels clause 21 which relates to Scotland.

Clause 30 will remove the unnecessary requirement under section 30 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 that fish farms in England and Wales must obtain the consent of the water authority before they introduce fish or spawn into their waters. This is a change which was forecast in the 1981 consultation paper on inland and coastal fisheries in England and Wales.

Clause 31 modifies the penalties under the 1975 Act for fishing with an illegal or unlicensed instrument, removing a distinction between acting alone and acting with another.

Clause 32 amends the provisions of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 regarding fishing of licensed nets by authorised servants or agents of the licensee. The effect will be that, in areas where the number of licences issued is restricted under section 26 of the 1975 Act, the servants or agents must be accompanied by the licensee when they fish with the net. The only exception will be in the case of illness or injury.

Clause 33, as I said earlier, commits the Government to a review, three years after the enactment of the Bill, of the salmon net fisheries in the north-east of England and on the Scottish east coast.

Mr. Morrison


Mr. MacKay

I will finish, if my hon. Friend will allow me.

In the course of my remarks I have dealt with schedules 1 and 2. I should also refer briefly to schedules 3, 4 and 5. Schedule 3 is a necessary provision to allow existing district boards to continue in operation in their present form for a period of up to three years if the proprietors so wish. Boards can, of course, be reconstituted in terms of the provisions of the Bill within this period. Paragraph 6 of schedule 4 will remove some of the restrictions which currently apply to the publication of salmon statistics. Schedule 5 is a list of repeals and from them the House will be able to judge the extent of the modernisation contained in the Bill. We are repealing entirely seven Acts, with removal of sections of some other Acts.

One of the features of the Government's approach to consideration of the Bill has been the willingness of Ministers and our Departments to listen to the views of salmon and other interests and where possible to take these into account. That has, I think, been acknowledged as a constructive and essentially non-political approach and I very much hope that this attitude will be reflected in our debate today and in the succeeding stages in this House.

9.28 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The Under-Secretary of State may well be hopeful, but I may be about to shatter some of his hopes, because I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Salmon B ill [Lords] on the grounds that it would extend the powers and privileges of private proprietors of salmon fisheries without making adequate provision for anglers or for the wider public interest, and that it is an inappropriate and inadequate measure to deal with the urgent need to conserve salmon and other fish species, and to protect the environment of rivers and estuaries for the benefit of the whole nation's sporting, recreational and environmental interests. I should declare an interest in the Bill because it would, as I understand it, extend my rights and privileges as one who happens to farm land adjacent to a Scottish river. I do not fish on the River Tweed or derive any benefit from it—nor do I want to—but the Bill will give me a greater say in the administration of the river than it gives to the people who fish on it. It is amazing that, in this day and age, legislation should entrench the powers of absentee landlords, foreign investors and, in this case, a Labour Member of Parliament while doing practically nothing for local fishing interests. That is absurd, and that is why I have tabled the amendment.

I acknowledge the obvious fact that the number of salmon in our rivers has fallen disastrously in recent years. Urgent action is needed to protect these magnificent fish from the threat of extermination. Scottish Office statistics published in December last year show that the total recorded catch of salmon and grilse in 1984 was the lowest since records started in 1952. The trend since the mid-1960s has been extremely worrying. With that in mind, obviously I welcome the fact that the Government have decided to do something about it, but that is about as far as I can go.

The Government, in presenting the Bill and using this parliamentary time, have given themselves an opportunity to bring Scottish freshwater fisheries legislation into the 21st century, but instead they have opted to stay in the 19th century. They are simply building on failure by readopting the discredited framework of the Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Acts 1862 and 1868 which concentrated all power in the hands of the private proprietors of salmon fishing rights, the riparian owners.

It is a bit much for the Under-Secretary of State to say that he is democratising Scottish district salmon fishery boards. The franchise will be extended only to the people who own the fisheries. How that can be called democratisation is beyond me. Even supposing that those riparian owners never took any account of their own private interests in exercising their powers on district salmon fishery boards, it is inevitable that others will see the district boards as protectors of the landlords' interests. Similarly, bailiffs appointed by such boards are bound to be seen as the landlords' men. I believe that this fundamental inequity in the constitution of the Scottish district boards is a significant factor in the lawlessness afflicting so many rivers in Scotland.

The concept of the private ownership of a wild fish which happens to be swimming in water adjacent to someone's estate is pretty absurd. That is why most people —this point was raised earlier—have a certain sneaking respect for the traditional poacher who catches a few fish in the laird's water. He may be breaking a law which most people believe is silly. That is all very well when we talk about the one poacher catching the one for the pot about which we hear but, because the law has fallen into disrepute, there is a big poaching industry using sophisticated gear and marketing techniques. We have only this discredited law and these laughable district fishery boards to deal with the problem in Scotland.

We want a new type of river authority with genuine representation for all the people with legitimate interests in the river, including elected local councillors. I believe that the token presence on the existing boards of co-opted representatives with no power to outvote the riparian owners is hopelessly inadequate. We need genuine representative river boards wich will command the respect of all concerned. The Bill simply restores the failed and discredited structure of Scottish river boards from the 1860s legislation. I believe that that fundamental flaw will undermine the conservation objectives in the Bill.

As we all know, the crisis facing the Atlantic salmon has international dimensions. We now have a fully fledged international organisation—the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation — based in Edinburgh working on this problem. If we want NASCO to succeed in its efforts to get Greenland, Iceland, the Faroes and the other north Atlantic countries to observe their quotas and to control the fishing efforts in their waters, we must put our own house in order. That means firm and fair control of all our salmon fisheries, both in our rivers and at sea. The thrust of new legislation should be to conserve salmon for the benefit of all concerned, but I doubt very much that the Bill can measure up to that objective.

As for the detailed points of the Bill, first must come the proposal to extend the annual and weekly close times to allow more fish to get to the spawning grounds. That is a sensible objective, although the Salmon Conservancy and the Salmon and Trout Association want that principle to be further extended. There may be a case for a more flexible approach, based on scientific evidence, in a particular year or in a particular river, in much the same way as certain sea fisheries are regulated from time to time. However, when referring to any of these restrictions it has to be pointed out that there is no close season for those who ignore all of the regulations with absolute impunity.

The licensed net fishermen on the River Tweed—the river that I know best because I live on it—voluntarily have postponed the start of their season during the current year, but when I went for a walk along the banks of the River Tweed near my house last Sunday I saw plenty of evidence of the continuing activities of the poaching fraternity.

I agree with the Government that poaching will probably be most effectively and fairly deterred by controlling the trade in salmon. There are two ways to control that trade: either by tagging salmon, as is the practice in New Brunswick, Canada or, as the Government have decided to do, by introducing a dealer licensing system. Given the right framework, either of those systems could work. However, it would have been absurd if the licensing system had stopped at the English border. I am happy to notice that the Government have already accepted that point by introducing an amendment in the other place.

The regulation of dealers should go hand in hand with properly constituted, staffed and funded district fishery boards. I have said something about the shortcomings of the constitution of these boards. I must now say something about the fact that there is to be no Government funding of the boards. I must also express concern about the staffing of the boards, in particular about the appointment of water bailiffs. The landlords who control the district boards can appoint whomever they like as bailiffs. The Bill will provide the bailiffs with very extensive powers. Clauses 21 and 29 establish powers to search vehicles and premises. The courts will be able to convict upon the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness, presumably the water bailiff. There is to be the disturbing extension of a recent precedent whereby an accused person can be presumed guilty of the offence of handling a poached fish until he can prove that he is innocent. Clause 21 says that a person who is in possession of salmon in circumstances in which it would be reasonable for him to suspect that a relevant offence has at any time been committed in relation to the salmon shall be guilty of an offence". Even if it is reasonable to suspect that he might have known that an offence had been committed, he can be guilty of an offence. We should be thankful for the small mercy that the Bill also says: It shall be a defence in proceedings for an offence under this section to show that no relevant offence had in fact been committed in relation to the salmon. However, it also says: It shall be lawful to convict a person charged under this section on the evidence of one witness. It may be too difficult to get somebody prosecuted for poaching now. However, with that kind of legislation on the statute book I fear that it could be rather too easy to get innocent people convicted. It may appear to be attractive to set that kind of legislative precedent in order to stamp out particularly heinous crimes such as drug trafficking, but is it justifiable to undermine some of the fundamental principles of Scottish, and for that matter English, justice, in order to make it easier to prosecute poachers who are after salmon?

I appreciate that there is a need to provide effective control over the trade in contraband salmon, but the House should consider carefully the civil liberties aspects of that part of the Bill. The Government are challenging the Scottish principle of corroboration. The principle that somebody is innocent until he is proved guilty is also being undermined.

If water bailiffs are to he given that kind of power and authority, I want to be absolutely certain that the individuals concerned will be properly selected, trained and controlled—if necessary, with the sanction of police authority. In England and Wales, bailiffs are appointed by properly constituted public water authorities, but in Scotland we are back to our old friend, the riparian owners on the district salmon fishery boards. It is right to demand that the bailiffs should be properly controlled and supervised.

On the licensed netting operations in river estuaries and off the coast of the north east of England, I have some sympathy for the 182 licence holders who are carrying on a long established traditional fishery off the Northumberland and Yorkshire coast. But with modern monofilament nets their catch has increased dramatically from about 15,000 fish in 1965 to over 50,000 in 1984 at a time when the overall number of salmon running in the rivers has been falling spectacularly. Obviously something will have to be done. Clause 33 provides for a review of the fishery. I understand that the Government may be considering the possibility of phasing out that drift net fishery.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

There is no question of the Government considering that. The Government are considering what they have put into the Bill. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to put any such words into the mouth of the Government.

Mr. Home Robertson

That was not my understanding, but I am grateful for that assurance from the Minister of State. I believe that the traditional netting techniques, subject to proper controls, are a valuable part of the local economy in the areas concerned and, indeed, form an attractive part of the local scene in those areas. Those fisheries provide regular seasonal employment and are part of the tourist attraction of the area. So it should not be necessary to hound out of existence those people or the licensed drift net fishermen that I have been talking about. I am glad to hear that that is not the intention of the Government.

The Government may not be thinking about closing down the fisheries, but I know that my old friends the riparian owners are making strong representations about the closure of licensed net fisheries. I am not happy about such a suggestion. The riparian owner lobby want to build up a lucrative business with rich seasonal visitors. We must ensure that wherever possible regular employment is protected.

Mr. John MacKay

That last remark is uncalled For. If the hon. Gentleman were to read the reports of the debates in another place, he would see that some of the major owners in Scotland were happy to go along with the amendment that is proposed. In fact, no division was called in the other place on going down the road that the hon. Gentleman has conjured up. His attack on the riparian owners in this regard is uncalled for.

Mr. Home Robertson

I read the reports of the debates in another place. It was a fascinating catalogue of vested interests. I have also read the representations made by some of the fishing interests. It is clear that, although they might not put it in writing, many of them would like to do away with the netting operation. I hope that it will be possible to achieve a compromise which will conserve the salmon and provide a fair share of the available catch to all legitimate interests. In passing, I should like to see considerably more public access to salmon fishing and rather less emphasis on the exclusive rights of the very rich on some rivers.

I conclude with a general observation about the restrictive scope of the Bill. It started off as a largely Scottish Bill. It was expanded somewhat in another place but it is worth quoting the words of the Welsh Water Authority in a recent report: Illegal fishing is possibly the most important single factor affecting Welsh fisheries. I have had similar representations from the North West Association of Sea Angling Clubs, and the Bass Anglers Sports Fishing Society makes the point that the Bill should be extended to other endangered fish species such as bass and trout, which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). It has also been suggested that the Bill could deal with the problems of pollution and acid rain. Those subjects can be touched on in Committee.

I am greatly indebted to all the organisations that have taken the trouble to comment on the detail of the Bill and in particular to the River Doone Angling Improvement Society and the Scottish Anglers National Association. All in all, it is a sadly unsatisfactory Bill. The anglers are disappointed by certain aspects and the debates in another place show that even their Lordships could see certain flaws.

The Bill is supposed to deal with the critical situation which is facing Atlantic salmon in Scottish rivers. I fear that it will fail for a number of reasons, especially because of the fundamental lack of credibility of the unrepresentative district salmon fisheries boards which will have to apply the law in Scotland. It is for that reason that I urge the House to support the reasoned amendment.

9.45 pm
Mr. John Corrie (Cunninghame, North)

First, I declare an interest in the Bill. I have a mile and a half of salmon fishing on the River Dee in the south-west of Scotland, which is open to anyone who wants to fish it. Children from the local village fish it free of charge at any time if they want to do so.

I give a warm welcome to the Bill. It makes a start to conserving salmon, and that is vital to the whole of Scotland, especially for the tourist industry. We should like to see much tougher legislation directed to netting at sea. We must accept that if we are to continue to have salmon in Scotland we shall have to continue to talk to representatives of countries where our salmon return each year. Only if we reach agreements with them shall we have salmon returning to our rivers.

I pay tribute to the existing river boards and those who look after them. Much work is done even now to try to ensure that our rivers still have salmon in them. Much is spent on restocking rivers, by seeding and ensuring that there are fish who return in future. The river of which I have a mile and a half has a hydroelectric dam at sea level within the tidal area, which makes it extremely difficult for the fish to get up the river.

Droughts present a problem, and it is tragic that when rivers are low we are allowed to continue fishing. Something must be done about that. When there is stale water in the rivers in my area, the salmon will not face it. The same fish will move up and down the estuary on numerous occasions, and every time they come back up yet more are caught by the nets in the estuary. Until the fresh water runs, the fish will not go up the river, and there is the danger of disease setting in. I hope that we can consider possible ways of closing off rivers when there are serious droughts.

I shall not go through the Bill clause by clause. I am aware that many hon. Members wish to participate in the debate and I shall try to be brief. However, there are a number of questions which I wish to ask. One of the most damaging features in most rivers in Scotland is acid rain. The damage can be reduced by keeping trees well away from the sides of our rivers, especially at the heads of the rivers where there are large pine forests. When we have the new boards, will we have any powers even to advise those in the upper reaches where we have the spawning beds that a piece of simple conservation in keeping the trees back from the river heads will do an enourmous amount to help to protect our fish?

We must protect our salmon from commercial poachers and the methods that they use. My river was contaminated with cyanide only two years ago. It is only when one sees the destruction that that causes, from the point where it is put in the river downstream, where it killed every living thing apart from the salmon that it was supposed to kill, that one ceases to have any sympathy for the poachers.

It is important that the salmon get up the rivers and it is vital that the smolts get down the river. That was reasonably well covered in section 19 of the 1968 Act. However, there is a new dimension that we must consider. Many rivers in Scotland have fish farms on them and most of the fish farms draw their water off the river through sluices. We must seriously consider putting grids on sluices to ensure that the smolts are not passing through to the fish farms. If that happens, it is guaranteed that they will die quickly from the diseases that are to be found in the farms. The smolts are of no use to the farmers of trout.

I see that the Bill covers salmo salar and salmo trutta. Herling is mentioned in many of the Acts of Parliament which are affected by the Bill and I wonder whether it is also covered here. Trout are a game fish in the rivers that flow into the Solway, but I assume that they are not covered by the Bill.

The Bill is intended to improve salmon management and to improve and conserve stocks. I am pleased that the option of tagging has not been dropped. That would have led to legalised poaching. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Member for Agyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay), knows that I pushed very hard for a licensing system. Like the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), I am pleased that England and Wales will now be covered, because there is no doubt that much of the fish that is poached in the south of Scotland is taken to England and sold.

It is important to consider the Bill's approach to the illegal taking of salmon and the carrying of salmon. We shall have to wait until the Committee stage to consider that matter more deeply, but it worries many hon. Members. I also wonder whether the Bill covers the theft of all salmon. We have salmon from the river, salmon from nets on the coasts and fish farms. Theft from fish farms is a new industry. Will those who steal fish from fish farms attract the Bill's penalties?

There has been a substantial increase in the tonnage of fish produced by fish farms, and that will continue. A scarce commodity commands a premium price. I hope that, as fish farms produce more fish, the pressure on poachers will diminish. It is too late to go into a long debate on drift netting but, tomorrow, before the House will be a Statutory Instrument banning the carriage of monofilament nets in Scotland. It must be galling to all Scotsmen to think that the shoals of salmon which go down the east coast of Scotland, where they cannot be caught by such nets, are slaughtered when they reach the north of England. We must scrutinise netting in that area. The numbers that have been quoted already show that the stocks are diminishing in those areas.

I am not sure what happened in another place regarding the owners of smokers for salmon and roe. Will they be licensed? I hope that anybody who abuses a licence will lose it and be liable to punishment.

Rod fishing is undoubtedly one of the fastest growing leisure sports in Scotland. Although some beats are extremely expensive, many other rivers are cheap and easy to fish. However, such rivers will be useless unless the fish come back. I sincerely hope that the Bill will help to conserve salmon. Those of us who enjoy fshing and perceive the growing requirement of fishermen for rod and line want it to succeed.

9.53 pm
Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)

I welcome the Bill, but I must express my disappointment over the fact that, on the major issue of salmon conservation, it falls far short of the demands that many of us have made over the years.

Now that the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation is being established in Edinburgh, we must prove that we take the problem of salmon conservation seriously. It is a pity that, having at last obtained a slot in the legislative programme, the Government have produced such a timorous and half-hearted measure. I must admit, however, that some progress has been made. Thanks to the expertise and detailed knowledge of a number of Members in the other place, the Bill now before us has been improved.

On the question of salmon conservation, the Minister must constantly be aware and repeatedly be reminded that three major steps must still be taken: nylon monofilament gill nets should be banned, poaching should be drastically curbed and drift netting off the north-east coast should eventually cease if we are serious about salmon conservation. In 1984, 7,700 salmon were taken by this method, compared with about 2,000 in 1959. This is a sign of the rising take of salmon by this interception netting technique. It is bound to have a calamitous effect on salmon stocks, on conservation and on legal salmon fishing off Scotland.

The Government have recognised the seriousness of the situation and, albeit slowly, are starting to impose some controls and restrictive measures, in alliance with the Yorkshire and Northumbrian water authorities, to curb the exploitation of the system. The licensee has to be present when a salmon is netted—and not before time. Too many licences have been issued with not many checks on who is using them. The Bill will help to curb some of the abuse. Night fishing by drift nets is to be banned, and we are to see the introduction of standard close times. As the Ministry said, this should help to control the problem—control, but not get rid of it.

I am aware that some fishermen's livelihoods are at stake here, but there is no reason why over a phased period of time, with proper compensation for those drift netters who are likely to suffer, the Government should not be able to set a date for the ending of drift netting off the north-east Yorkshire and Northumbrian coastline. According to the 1985 Yorkshire water authority board, 29 drift net licences were issued for the 1984 season, and these are to be reduced to 22. It is interesting to note in the report that due to low river flows at the time when fish would normally run, they remained at sea, where high numbers of salmon were caught, no doubt by the drift netters.

Yorkshire has one major salmon river, the River Esk, linked by Whitby to the sea. Because of the poor rod catches of salmon in past years, the Yorkshire water authority has introduced 30,000 salmon smolts into the middle and upper reaches, of which 1,000 were tagged to assess the numbers returning to the river. It will be interesting to see how many do so.

Mr. James Tinn (Redcar)

My right hon. Friend refers to phasing out, with compensation by the Government, of the drift netters off the north-east coast in order to conserve salmon stocks. He accepts that idea, but I certainly do not. Would he apply that principle in order to conserve coal stocks and phase out some of the Yorkshire mines, with compensation for the miners?

Mr. Mason

That is exactly what has been happening. The Government have been managing to run down the coal mining industry by providing financial compensation. The 23 nets involved off the Yorkshire coastline should be adequately compensated, but given time to phase out their operations. I think that this will be a worthy step in the cause of salmon conservation.

Mr. Beith


Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt raise the same point as he raised on the last salmon Bill, and I shall give him the same reply.

Mr. Beith

It is a slightly different one. What is the logic of phasing out the drift net fishery at sea, as opposed to phasing out the net fishery or even the angling in the rivers? Why should any one section be removed?

Mr. Mason

It is obvious from the figures that I have given that the drift net fisheries off the north-east coast of Yorkshire and Northumbria, taking 7,700 salmon which are searching for the estuaries and the rivers and never getting the chance to spawn, are having deleterious effects on stocks.

Mr. Gummer

Why does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that that 35 per cent. should be phased out and the other 65 per cent. ignored? I find that difficult to understand.

Mr. Mason

I do not want it to be ignored. I am just making the point that drift netting should cease in relation to Yorkshire and the River Esk. That should apply also to the Northumbrian coastline. It should be phased out with financial compensation.

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