HC Deb 23 October 1986 vol 102 cc1397-9
Sir Hector Monro

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 7, line 4, leave out 'only'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 5, in page 7, line 8, at end insert— '(c) after consulting such persons as he considers appropriate.'. No. 6, in clause 7, page 8, line 4 leave out 'only'.

No. 7, in clause 7, page 8, line 8 at end insert— '(c) after consulting such persons as he considers appropriate.'.

Sir Hector Monro

Clause 6 deals with the annual close time. I am not arguing the case for that one way or the other. However, when we discussed the matter in Committee, the Minister opened the door to a system that can be adjusted.

According to the Bill, the Secretary of State can make a close time order only if he has been asked to do so by the district salmon board or, if there is no such board, by two proprietors of salmon fisheries in the district. It is conceivable that the proprietors of both upper and lower stretches could act in their own interests in declining to ask the Secretary of State to make an order, even though in the interests of conservation, and indeed in the interests of common sense, it is important to make such an order. I should have thought that hon. Gentlemen such as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who bailed out as quickly as he arrived, and does not seem to like boards and proprietors, would have been pleased if the Secretary of State could step in where it is obviously essential that he should do so.

10.45 pm

In this simple case, all we are asking in amendment No. 5— after consulting such persons as he considers appropriate"— is for the Minister to step in and deal with the matter if malpractice, inefficiency or incompetence is taking place. It is conceivable that two proprietors might be in cahoots and they may not wish to have an order made that might be to their disadvantage but to the advantage of the river. I quite accept that the board would be in a position to advise the Minister on its interests. However, I am referring to a case where there is no board and where proprietors might not be acting in the interests of the river.

Throughout the Bill, the Minister, off his own bat, or on the advice of the board, takes powers to do a whole host of operations, yet he is not prepared to do so in the case of close time or in terms of estuarial limits. I have considered what he said in Committee, and I wonder what his objection is to taking steps when it is essential to do so. If he says that the amendment is defective or that something is wrong with its drafting, I shall be all the more disappointed, because he has known, since the Committee stage, that I would put down an amendment. He might well have put one down himself. I shall listen with interest to his argument as to why he will not accept what seems to be a simple, logical and worthwhile amendment which everybody with whom I have discussed it in the fishing world thinks is admirable.

Mr. John MacKay

My hon. Friend's amendments have again raised the question of annual close times and the way in which the Bill seeks to change them. In Committee, I undertook to reflect on the points made by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, and to bring forward an amendment if I were more convinced about the case on reflection than I was at the time. I am afraid that the fact that I have not brought forward an amendment shows that I have not been persuaded by the arguments.

I do not think that any hon. Member would seriously wish that annual close times, which last for 168 days and have different dates for different districts, should be solely within the discretion of the Secretary of State. Annual close times have been fixed in the past according to local considerations, such as the timings of the runs of fish, and so on. Those changes in the dates that have taken place over the years have been made at the initiative of district boards which have had to petition the Secretary of State. I am not aware that any great difficulty has been caused by that procedure, other than in areas where there are no boards. We have sought to deal with this in future by enabling two proprietors in a district for which there is no board to apply for the sorts of changes for which the Bill provides—that is, for the extension to the period of the close time as well as changes to dates.

My hon. Friends would, in effect, wish me to provide that a board's decision not to apply for a change in the annual close time be subject to appeal to the Secretary of State. Presumably such an appeal would be made on behalf of local interests, but I wonder whether that would necessarily be the case. I doubt very much whether what should be a local issue would not be in danger of becoming a cause celebre of national proportions. The plain truth of the position is that, were we to go down the road that my hon. Friend invites me to go down, there would be little point in the power being given to the district hoards and proprietors in the first place. We might as well treat alteration to the annual close time as a national issue from the outset.

I understand that my hon. Friend's concern is about conservation and controlling the balance of exploitation between nets and rods. We should look, not to the extension of annual close time, but to the extension of weekly close time. In Committee, I undertook on many occasions—I am happy to do so again—to consult on weekly close time with particular reference to whether Saturday morning should continue to be part and parcel of the open time for net fishing as soon as the Bill was enacted.

My hon. Friend's amendments to clause 7 fall within the same general principles—the question of estuarial limits and so on. These matters should be left to local initiative and responsibility. Local boards should bring them to the Secretary of State. If the Secretary of State were to be given power to act without an application, we might as well give him all the powers from the beginning, rather than have the ball played first by the district boards.

I know that my hon. Friend will be disappointed, and that I have not managed to convince him in the past few weeks. However, on balance the Bill is correct. The initiative should come from the boards and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will have the power, after he has gone through the various consultation procedures, to act to ensure that all the local interests involved have their say.

Mr. Home Robertson

The Minister would say that, would he not? I was a little suspicious of the motives of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) in tabling the amendment. I wondered whether he sought to get round the rudimentary representation of the netting interests on the boards.

I welcome one factor in his speech. He recognised what we in the Opposition have been saying all along which is that in some circumstances the boards may note the most appropriate bodies as they are at present constituted to deal with the wider interests involved in Scotland's salmon rivers and lochs and to do the job that the House wants them to do. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's apparent conversion on that point and I am glad that he and some Opposition Members are raising questions about the efficacy of the boards.

Sir Hector Monro

I am disappointed in the Minister's reply. I am not arguing about the position of the district boards. They exist to advise the Secretary of State and to require him to make an order. I am concerned with the estuarial limits and the close time where there is no board and the proprietors may not be acting in the best interests of the river and of others who may wish to fish on it. I cannot see why in those special circumstances the Minister should not be prepared to take the decision into his hands, especially since he has already taken enormous powers under the Bill, many of which I welcome, particularly those relative to weekly close times. I cannot understand why he is prepared to bury his head in the sand or the water or whatever when a river may be being ruined by two proprietors who have got together and refused to take action. This is a simple, worthwhile amendment and I am most disappointed by his attitude.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

I know well the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and I have heard what the Minister has had to say. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to know that his reply is disappointing. A major criticism of the Bill is that it does not grasp the nettle of estuarial interests. It is feeble in that respect and I hope that we shall return to battle this out through the committee that is to be set up and persuade other Ministers on another occasion of the wisdom of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Amendment negatived.

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