HC Deb 23 October 1986 vol 102 cc1400-3
Sir Hector Monro

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 14, line 4, at end insert 'provided that such assessment shall not be assessed on any lower proprietor who has abandoned his fishery for a period of twelve months prior to the date of assessment.'. I feel equally strongly about this amendment and I hope I shall have better luck with it. We debated this issue in Committee, and while the Minister was not particularly encouraging, at least he did not shut the door in my face. Since then I have been in correspondence with him and I trust that he has given the matter further thought.

In debating the Bill tonight hon. Members have expressed concern about the need for conservation —how we want to get rid of nets, but without affecting existing fishermen. The amendment deals with proprietors and others who are buying out nets and abandoning them, the result being that the areas are not fished at all, and that must he in the best interests of conservation. The Minister seems to think, however, that an amendment to remove the assessment is inappropriate, and that the particular amendment is not best drafted. I have been waiting to be advised of a better word than "abandoned", and if that advice is forthcoming I shall be willing to amend the amendment, if there is time to do so. The dictionary tells me, however, that "abandoned" is the best word.

11 pm

We have a new organisation in Morayshire, called the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation. Some fishing enthusiasts have come together to form a charitable trust to purchase netting interests throughout the Moray Firth. That is what it has been doing, to allow more fish to enter the river so as to build up stocks. Surely that is highly commendable. The Minister should be saying, "Thank goodness that some people are doing what we all want to be done." No one is any the worse off, because the fish are coming up the river to add to the stocks to the benefit of the entire river.

When the assessment issue arises, however, the Minister says that he will not accept the amendment. When proprietors are doing good work, surely we should assist them by reducing what they have to pay in the form of assessment. I cannot understand why the Government are being so abstruse and objecting to the amendment. The principle is right, irrespective of the drafting, and I cannot understand why I am not receiving a green light from the Treasury Front Bench. I await the Minister's reply with interest.

Mr. Home Robertson

I understand what the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) is saying about the principle that there should be no assessment of what he terms "abandoned lower fisheries", but the thread of his argument is that there is a need to do away with some or all of these fisheries, which are the netting stations on our estuaries. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that proprietors who achieve that end are doing a good thing. I have no doubt that if we were to read the reports of the Highland clearances we would find that some said that it was a good thing to do away with crofters. That may be an extreme parallel, but the hon. Gentleman is talking about closing down traditional and properly regulated industries which provide part-time employment for a few people. We should be cautious before we take that path. Apart from direct employment, consideration must be given to the other benefits to local economies.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) knows the Tweed almost as well as I do, and I think that he would agree that the area would lose much of its attraction if it were no longer to be the scene of the catching of salmon by net in the traditional way—in other words, in a properly regulated fashion underneath the bridges of the Tweed. If the hon. Member for Dumfries is not careful, he will find that there is that loss.

I accept along with everyone else that there will need to be a restriction placed on the netting effort, but I want the restriction to be properly regulated in a way that is seen to be fair. I hope that the advisory committee under Professor Dunnet will be able to make sensible recommendations that will bear on all sectors of salmon fisheries. I am going rather wide, but I have been goaded by the hon. Member for Dumfries.

Mr. John MacKay

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) is being a little unkind to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) because he is talking about people giving up their netting right voluntarily.

I have some sympathy with the argument. Since the Committee stage we have obtained the views of the Association of Scottish District Salmon Fishery Boards. The association is concerned about the effect that the amendment could have on matters to which I referred in Committee — for instance, the possibility of proprietors of netting stations opting in and out of the fishery assessment and the difficulties for boards in deciding whether a fishery had in fact been abandoned.

The association has concluded that an amendment such as is proposed is not necessary and that the powers vested in boards under clauses 14 and 15 are sufficient. The association's views have reinforced my own doubts about attempting to regulate in this complicated area.

Clauses 14 and 15 were deliberately drafted to give hoards wide general and financial powers and my view is that we should rely on these. The association envisages that these powers would, for example, enable it to deal with the question of the fishery assessment on abandoned, or perhaps suspended, fisheries by administrative means. A board could levy the assessment in the normal way but make an annual payment to the proprietor, equal to the amount of assessment levied in the relevant year—always assuming, of course, that the finances of the board permitted that or that it had a chance, perhaps for a transitional period, to allow that to be done.

My main concern is that my hon. Friend's amendment for automatic exemption from the fishery assessment would produce immediate loss of revenue without the scope and time for arrangements which might he possible under agreements made between a hoard and a proprietor. Any loss of revenue would result in problems for the boards in enforcement and employing bailiffs.

The problem is not exactly black and white. Leaving each board and each proprietor to reach agreement according to the circumstances is reasonable. I am taking a close interest in what is happening in the Moray firth area where some nets have been withdrawn and problems are being caused. At this time of night I do not want to go into the complications.

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend twice, but I hope that he will accept that the machinery exists for a board to take action. Given the consequences that could befall a board if the automatic provision which he proposes were agreed, it is best to rely on the provisions in the two clauses.

Sir Hector Monro

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) should consider the analogy of an empty building. If one abandons a fishery, why should one pay a fishery assessment any more than one would pay local authority rates on an empty house? As the Minister said, we are discussing voluntary purchases and no one has been put out of work as a result.

Letters which I have received from the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust show that the initial operation has been successful. It is sad that assistance is not to be given for assessment. We are leaving the boards as judge and jury in their own cases. The boards are not likely to remove an assessment when they know that they will then lose money. I am disappointed. The Government's decision is a slap in the face for the conservation trust which is doing so much, and to others who are trying to buy out nets to improve the stocking of rivers. There are many conflicting interests involved in a Bill of this sort.

Amendment negatived.

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