HC Deb 23 October 1986 vol 102 cc1389-94

`(1) The Secretary of State by order shall have power to establish District Salmon Fishery Boards for such districts containing a fishery as he shall designate and shall provide that a majority of members of each board shall be nominated by the relevant local authority or authorities in such numbers as he shall deem appropriate, the remaining members of each board being elected in terms of Schedule 2 to this Act. (2) A district salmon fishery board shall have the powers and duties conferred—

  1. (a) on them under this Act; and
  2. (b) by any other enactment on a district board within the meaning of the Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Acts 1862 to 1868;
and references in any enactment, other than in this Act, to a district board within the meaning of the Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Acts 1862 to 1868 shall be construed as references to a district salmon fishery board.'. — [Mr. Donald Stewart.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

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

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 12, in page 12, line 6, leave out clause 13.

No. 13, in clause 14, page 13, line 37, at end insert— (1A) The press and the public shall be admitted to all meetings of district salmon fishery boards.'.

Mr. Stewart

Amendment No. 12 is consequential and I am happy to support amendment No. 13.

In his reply to the previous debate, the Minister said that conservation should come first. The Bill has little to do with conservation. When it was first published the Salmon Conservancy said: The balance of influence on the boards still remains in the hands of the major proprietorial interests whose eligibility for election to the board is determined by the value of the fishery. Co-opted anglers and tenant netsmen have restricted power only. It is clear that under no circumstances can co-opted members outnumber proprietors.

The purpose of the amendment is to change that position. We want to make a start, albeit minimal, on community involvement in salmon fisheries.

Mr. Home Robertson

We made our position on the composition of the district boards very clear in Committee. As the Minister will recall, the Opposition voted against schedule 2, which provides for a 20th century re-enactment of a medieval system of proprietorial authority, with only a token presence representing other interests and without any voting power or authority.

All relevant interests, including the public, should be represented on the boards. However, having flogged the issue to death in Committee and voted against the Bill on a reasoned amendment on Second Reading, I could not think of much to add on Report. However, the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) has come to the issue as fresh as a daisy and tabled an uncharacteristically reasonable new clause to provide for proper representation and accountability for the boards. We welcome his support for the case that we have been putting to the Government for a number of months. We endorse the objectives of his new clause. As he may have noticed, I have added my name to its list of sponsors.

Amendment No. 13 stands in the name of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who is apparently unavoidably absent tonight. He will have noticed that I have added my name to his amendment. I wholeheartedly agree that district boards, which in effect will be statutory public authorities, should conduct their proceedings in public and that the press should be free to report on their deliberations.

Had the hon. Gentleman been in his place in Committee to move his amendment, I would have been happy to support him. As he is again not with us tonight, I am happy to say in his absence that, in principle, the Opposition are prepared to support his amendment.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

I wish to follow the example of brevity set by the two previous speakers. I wish to support new clause 12 because the considerable argument about the right balance on the boards between riparian owners, netsmen and anglers has convinced me that the proposed structure that locks co-opted members into a minority position should not be accepted.

As the Government have argued that they are trying to increase democracy through this measure, it is inappropriate that the rather dubious democratic structure that they propose will mean that that majority using the facility will be in a minority position.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)


10.15 pm
Mr. Kennedy

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman knows all about minority positions, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not give way.

The co-opting of anglers and tenant netsmen is something of a token gesture towards increasing representation. Efforts to introduce election rather than the system of co-opting have failed. However, there is no doubt that the balance of influence still remains in the hands of the major proprietorial interests whose eligibility for election to the board, as the right hon Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) said, is determined by the value of the fishery. Therefore, there is restricted power only for the co-opted anglers and the tenant netsmen.

Other interested parties, such as local businesses, hoteliers and representatives of local tourist boards., do not seem to be having the major input that we would wish, especially given the importance of the industry to the Highlands and Islands.

The Federation of Highland Angling Clubs and Association has been extremely diligent in keeping its local Members of Parliament and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) who served on the Commitee, well informed of its views. I am extremely grateful on my behalf and on behalf' of my hon. Friends from the Highlands and Islands to Mr. Bill Brown of Strathpeffer, who, as well as serving with the federation, is secretary of the Scottish Anglers National Association. He has been extremely active on behalf of that association. The Federation of Highland Angling Clubs and Association put it extremely well when it said: Our criticism must be in the clause which says that anglers should be 'co-opted". It points out that in opposing co-option it has made several suggestions, one of which would be that the Secretary of State should appoint co-opted angler representation. The association looked to the system which operates with the purification boards as a comparison which the Government could have looked at. Concern has been expressed by groups such as the Highland regional council and, I am sure I am right in saying, by the Western Isles council and other tiers of local authority in the Highlands and Islands.

In taking this step forward to establish district salmon fishery boards under the guise of democracy, the Government have given insufficient input to local angling interests and local fishing interests as a whole. Essentially, within the new structure, they have consolidated the power and hold, which is not democratic, of those who have the biggest cash control and personal stake and interest in the industry. It is disappointing that the Government have not gone further.

Given that there is such a great deal of interest in the decisions which the boards will be taking, in the activities they will be carrying out and the functions they will perform, it is only right, especially given the long drawn out arguments, that if the Government are going down the road of democracy, which is what they argue, that meetings of the board should be open to the press and the public. In that respect I endorse amendment No. 13 which follows on from new clause 12 and stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I do not see that there is any convincing argument against openness of Government decision-making in this respect. It is sad that we do not have more openness in general in the composition of the fishery boards that are to be established, and, through that, more genuine democracy of the type that the Government have claimed.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I had no intention of making a contribution to the debate, but as the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) would not give way I shall make one point. It is an extraordinary argument that rests on democracy and suggests that Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all should be involved in the deliberations of the boards. The hon. Gentleman is not arguing that the National Farmers Union, British Wool Marketing Board, the Red Deer Commission or other such organisations should have Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. No doubt he would argue that, in the case of the NFU, it is appropriate that decisions about farming and representations about farming should be made by those involved in it and who know something about it. There is ample provision in the legislation for outside interests to be represented.

The hon. Gentleman does not come to the House and tell us that more people should he involved in decisions about forestry or any other activity. It strikes me as an odd notion of democracy that says that everyone should be involved in the business of deciding how best to run or manage our rivers. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not give the considerable credit that is due to the many people who, as riparian owners, put in time, money and effort to make sure that our salmon interests are preserved and enhanced to the greater benefit of the community and to the considerable benefit of Scotland. The hon. Gentleman is simply perpetuating the old class war and playing to the gallery rather than looking at the interests of salmon fishing in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman made no attempt to say how all these various democratic groups would make their financial contribution. Presumably, once again he is looking to the ratepayer and the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Mr. John MacKay

The new clause does what the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) wishes it to do. It changes the composition of the boards. We intend to retain the influence of owners on the boards because of their ownership of fisheries and their direct contribution to the boards' finances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) is right. The interest of proprietors has been essential. Not all of them come from Burkes Peerage or the House of Lords. Most of those who own parts of rivers or rivers in my constituency are ordinary farmers or are in the hotel business or the like. They are not people like the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), and their holding in the land is much more modest in size and value than that of the hon. Gentleman.

Such people have done a splendid job, and it is because of their efforts over the years, both collectively and separately, that the salmon stock in Scotland is not at the level that some of the pessimists would have us believe they would be. There is a great deal to be said for the principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune. We have recognised that other interests should be represented on the newly constituted district salmon fishery boards, which is why we have introduced representatives of the anglers and the tenant netsmen, who will have voting representation and play a full part in the operation of the boards.

It is not clear whether the local authority nominees which new clause 12 would require would have voting rights, but I presume that to be the intention. That would be manifestly unjust. One might see the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) that those in the hotel and tourist trades, who have a direct interest in the fishery trade and looking after it and making sure that it prospers, should be involved but many of the proprietors and anglers on the board will have that interest.

Giving local government a majority on the board would change the balance of power entirely, from those who own the fisheries, pay the fishery assessment and are interested in the fishery assessment, to others who, however worthy they may be, do not. By their weight of numbers they would be able to cause the board to incur expenditure, perhaps great expenditure, without contributing a single penny directly or through the authority that they represent. The wise course is to stay with clause 13 and not support new clause 12.

I have given amendment No. 13 careful thought. I have some sympathy with it. I remember when I joined Oban town council many years ago fighting a battle to open council meetings to the public. However, I have concluded in this case—and I hope the House will agree—that it would not be appropriate to require the boards to open their meetings in the way that the amendment seeks. The co-option of anglers' representatives to the board can be expected to ensure a wider scrutiny of a board's activities, for example, through the reporting back procedure which the anglers will have for those whom they represent. There is nothing in the legislation to prevent the boards from inviting the public or the press to attend meetings. Perhaps newly constituted boards will bear that in mind.

It has been argued that as the boards receive no subsidies from public funds and are therefore not, as local authorities are, accountable to the public in a financial sense the reasoning that justifies opening local authority meetings to the public does not apply to the boards. Some hon. Members must know that many smaller boards hold meetings in the offices of their clerks. That may be the boardroom of the firm of lawyers who act as clerks.

I believe that it would be unreasonable to expect a board to incur avoidable expenditure by hiring halls just in case members of the press or public wish to watch the board's deliberations. That is not a sensible thing to ask the boards to do. That is not sensible expenditure or a sensible use of money and I hope that the new clause will be withdrawn.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The Minister has a remarkably aristocratic view of the Highlands. The idea that the proprietors of the salmon rivers are the only people endowed with an understanding of what is in the public interest is preposterous. The suggestion that ordinary chaps are thoe who own stretches of salmon rivers bears no relation to the Highlands reality. I wish that the Minister would not try to pull the wool over our eyes. He will certainly not be pulling the wool over the eyes of his constituents, never mind the eyes of the constituents of my hon. Friends who represent the majority of the Highlands and Islands constituencies. If he continues to act in that way, he had better look to his laurels.

Local authorities are elected by the public in the areas and are well placed to represent the interests of those concerned that the fisheries should be managed to the benefit of the community. The new clause is a modest proposal. The Minister's lack of sympathy for the objectives of the clause will be noted throughout the Highlands. He has done nothing to ensure that there will be representatives of the tourist industry on the boards. He has also done nothing to ensure that there will be representatives of local anglers' associations or representatives of those who may have a specialist knowledge of the fishing industry but who have no commercial interest themselves. The constitution of the board is to be decided entirely by the disposition of those who happen, frequently by inheritance, to have acquired rights of ownership over rivers — rights often exercised exclusively, not for the benefit of the public.

The Minister is living in the last century, and it is about time that he woke up. It is about time that he recognised that not for much longer are the Scottish public prepared to see the God-given inheritance of these fishing waters disposed of as the private property of a handful of people whose forebears acquired them through no virtue other than their acquisitiveness.

If the Minister continues to dig in his heels and set his face against popular involvement in decisions about the preservation and improvement of fisheries in Scotland, he will reap much more drastic remedies.

10.30 pm
Sir Hector Monro

I had not intended to get involved in the debate until the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) got to his feet and behaved in an astonishingly ignorant way. He did not appear in the debate until 10.25 tonight and has taken no obvious interest in the Bill since it came to the House many months ago. The hon. Gentleman displayed his total ignorance of the management of the rivers in Scotland by quoting his own local boards and suggesting that that was the case throughout Scotland.

Does the hon. Gentleman know that the chairman of one of the best river boards in the south of Scotland, on the Annan, happens to be a school teacher and a local councillor? Is he aware that there are anglers on the local board? Is he aware that people interested in tourism are on the board? Just because the hon. Gentleman apparently has a particular dislike of the owner of a river in Thurso, he reckons that it is the same throughout Scotland. He ought to apologise for making disgraceful statements that are totally without knowledge of boards throughout Scotland. They do an exceptionally good job, manage the rivers well, let angling associations have adequate water and provide adequate water themselves.

As I told the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) hours ago, he could fish on some of the best salmon rivers in Scotland for £5 a day — on privately-owned water as well as on association water.

The House should take no interest in the criticisms of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland who has turned up at this late hour.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Sir Hector Monro


Mr. Donald Stewart

I introduced the new clause much more briefly than I would normally have done, and I am glad that other hon. Members have raised points that I wished to make. I am sorry that the Minister has turned down the new clause in such a cavalier fashion.

The Minister repeated some of the myths connected with the Bill. The myth that the working class in Scotland have beats on salmon rivers as a diversion from the darts club was effectively demolished by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). The other myth is that until recently these owners accepted that a man could take "one for the pot" and that nothing would he done about it. I cannot recall such a situation. They still believe that anyone poaching a salmon should be sent to Botany bay. They seem to regard this as more heinous than some of the worst crimes on the statute book.

The Minister also referred to what the owners had done for.salmon stocks. I do not agree with salmon fishing off the north-east coast of England, but the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made a valid point when he said that we should stop the netting of salmon in Scotland before we do so elsewhere.

I know a number of these owners who are netting their rivers. That is where conservation should begin. They are shipping the fish out to Billingsgate for a fast buck. If that were stopped there would be many more salmon going up the rivers. What the poachers are taking is a drop in the ocean, and I am sorry that the Minister did not accept the new clause.

Question put and negatived.

Forward to