HC Deb 15 July 1994 vol 246 cc1308-26

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered; reported. without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

11.43 am
Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)

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

This is an important measure, which has received all-party support in this House and in the other place. In the Standing Committee, I welcomed the support given by the hon. Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), and I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) here on behalf of the Scottish National party.

The Bill would introduce changes to fisheries legislation to allow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to control all fishing activities in inshore waters, where it seems to him that such control is necessary to preserve stocks, or prevent disputes between fishermen using different and incompatible types of fishing gear.

Those powers are already available to my right hon. Friend where fishing is conducted from fishing vessels. The recent growth in land-based dredging operations, however, has allowed a coach and horses to be driven through the control measures that Parliament put in place in the Inshore Fishing Act 1984. That has meant that the full weight of stock conservation has fallen on one group of fishermen who are prosecuting the stock in question. There is broad agreement in Scotland that that is inequitable, and I believe that the House will share that view.

It is clear that the law should be changed to ensure that all who profit from an activity also contribute to the long-term survival of the resources that they are using. Only by that means can real sustainability be assured. Developments in other parts of the fishing industry have shown that sustainability can be difficult enough to achieve when all concerned are contributing to sensible conservation measures. It is clear that, without that solution, no conservation measures will work. If there is no conservation, there will be no long-term industry.

The problems of land dredging arise in many parts of Scotland, but the activity has proved most worrying on the Solway firth. That is partly because of the vast sandbanks that are exposed at low tide. They often stretch as far as the eye can see—about three or four miles. The sandbanks are ideal for populations of cockles and, in recent years, a fishery has developed to extract them.

In the beginning, a small number of local vessels adapted their fishing equipment to take cockles, but, as increasing numbers of tractors also joined in the fishery, it became evident that the cockle stocks were diminishing. That reduction was brought about and aggravated by the situation across the sea in Holland, where the Dutch Waddensee cockle fishery closed in 1992. Some of the Dutch fishermen decided to come to Scotland to prosecute the stocks there.

The hydraulic suction dredgers used are tractor-drawn. That is a highly efficient method of harvesting cockles, but unfortunately the dredgers sort, and almost entirely remove, cockles of a certain age and size, which significantly reduces the biomass of stocks within a site. The survival of the remaining cockles is good only if they are left undisturbed. Unfortunately, with that method of extraction, they are not.

Dredging has an impact not only on cockles, but on the other flora and fauna found in the sea bed. The magnitude of that impact will depend on the frequency of dredging, on the depth at which it occurs and on whether the fauna is able to move away from the site of disturbance. The damage is significant environmentally and has an impact on the life of the sea bed.

The stock reduction may in part have resulted from entirely natural fluctuations in stock levels. I understand that cockle stocks are especially vulnerable to large fluctuations in their numbers. I do not intend to go into details of the reproductive cycle of a cockle—

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I do not want to encourage my hon. Friend to go into the sex life of a mollusk—exciting or dull though that may be. The obverse, however, is that, when sensible conservation measures are taken, the refreshment of stocks can be very rapid for precisely the same reason.

Mr. Kynoch

My hon. Friend raises a valid point, but he will recognise that the reductions that can occur naturally and through the aggravated process of dredging mean that it is necessary to have conservation measures, and that is what the Bill is about.

I was talking about natural fluctuations, which are a part of the natural biology of the cockle. It is clearly a factor within which fishermen have to work and, as my hon. Friend said, they must take cognisance of it. It is not impossible that some of the falling stock levels were due to natural and environmental reasons, entirely unrelated to either the land-based or vessel-based dredging activities. However, surveys of the cockle beds showed beyond doubt that the population had shrunk considerably.

Because of that, my hon. Friend the Minister had to judge whether the existing levels of fishing could safely continue, given the changing size of the cockle stock. A letter put out by the Scottish Office on 10 June 1993 referred to the stocks situation in Solway: Updated scientific assessment of cockle stocks in the Solway have just become available. These indicate that the biomass has improved slightly from its low in 1991…though stocks remain well below the 197m per square km detected in 1990. However much of the latest increase stems from good spat settlement in 1992 and these very young cockles form a very high proportion of the total stock biomass. Stock assessments of older cockles indicate a steady and continuing decline… After two poor years, the good spat settlement in 1992 is encouraging. However, the exploitable stock biomass remains at very low levels and is, in fact, below the level at which the fishery was closed last year. As result of the statistics, the Minister extended the fishery's closure beyond July 1993 and has said that it will remain closed until August 1994. I understand that he has renewed that closure, because the situation is still poor. Of course, that applies only to vessels which fish from the sea.

It was at the point when my hon. Friend acted that local vessel owners pressed him and the Scottish Office to control the activities of all cockle fishermen, to make sure that sufficient population levels remain for stocks to regenerate themselves. They fully realised that they would have to be affected by any controls as well and their motivation was not to put an end to land-based dredging while they continued regardless. They accepted that, in the absence of powers to control tractor dredgers, it would be themselves alone who would have to stop fishing, at least in the short term.

I applaud the fishermen for the responsible attitude that they have shown to stock conservation and I also sympathise with them because they have had to suffer one-sided controls for so long. I know that they are eagerly awaiting the completion of the Bill and that they are equally eager for the powers to be used as soon as possible, to bring all fishing activities under the existing controls. I hope that my hon. Friend will say something about how he envisages the powers being used and how quickly and effectively they can be brought in.

Concerns have also been raised by other interest groups. Cockles are an important foodstuff for many coastal bird populations. The south-west of Scotland is particularly rich in bird wintering and nesting areas. It is not the only part of Scotland which is affected by the measure and which has cockle areas.

I received information from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—it has been extremely helpful in the preparation of the details of the Bill and in providing background information to myself and colleagues who have approached it—that cockling areas that are of international importance for wild birds include not only the Solway but Dornoch firth, Cromarty firth and Otterswick in Orkney.

The areas are spread throughout Scotland and while the problem at present exists only in the Solway firth, it is likely that it could be aggravated, and could spread to other parts of Scotland. The Press and Journal of 28 April 1992 states: Pirates plunder Tain shellfish". Tractor dredgers must have already got up to that part of Scotland.

The activities of tractor dredgers and, to some extent, other fishing activities, obviously upset the fragile balance which exists within the eco-system. In particular, dredging activities conducted at low tide can disturb roosting birds during the winter months, as well as the foreshore when it is exposed or covered with shallower water than would be the case with vessel dredgers. That means that overturned sand that has been left to dry out could have a serious impact on many other marine organisms that live in the same stratum of the foreshore as cockles.

If there are not enough cockles for birds to eat, they can starve to death. In the Dutch situation to which I have referred, there was a significant death rate among the eider ducks that fed in that area. Undersized cockles that are returned to the sea as part of the process of suction dredging are less likely to survive if they are returned to parts of the beach that have dried out.

On the other hand, vessel dredgers return small shellfish to the sea bed while they are still covered in water and that allows them to burrow easily back into the sand. Another clear impact on local bird populations—this applies equally to vessel dredgers and tractors—is caused by the fact that the number of cockles remaining for local bird populations is reduced. It must be obvious that that may have an impact on breeding success and can in extreme cases lead to the short-term survival of adult birds.

The House knows that much of rural Scotland has outstanding beauty. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am pleased to hear my hon. Friends from south of the border agreeing with that; may many more of them come to see the beauties of Scotland. In particular, they may like to see the beauties of the Solway firth.

The countryside is a valuable natural resource in its own right, but it is also of inestimable value in attracting tourists to areas that otherwise would have limited means of income generation. Tourists come for a wide variety of reasons, but one is to see the wild animals and birds that thrive in those areas. Any potential impact on birds would therefore be worrying in its own right, but could also have an impact on the long-term income generated from the tourism industry.

The Annandale Herald of Thursday 3 December says: Scottish Office environment minister, Sir Hector Monro, announced international conservation designations for the Upper Solway Flats and Marshes this week. The site, which straddles the Scottish/English border, has been made a Special Protection Area for Birds and a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar convention.

People will come to visit the Solway firth not just to see the bird life but to experience the peace and quiet which is so natural there. I know that the RSPB has circulated hon. Members with photographs of what the beach at the Solway firth looks like with the monstrosities of tractors and dredgers. There is a man in the photograph and it clearly shows that the suction dredger is more than double the size of that man. These objects go charging up and down the beach, ripping it to pieces, and they have an effect on the peace and quiet of the area.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The measures that the hon. Gentleman is proposing are generally thought to be constructive. Is it not all the more a pity that, the last time they came before the House, they were caught up in the disreputable attempts by his hon. Friends to delay and stop discussion of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill? Is not the point that we should take from this that constructive measures such as these should not become a part of the tactics used in this place to stop other hon. Members' constructive measures?

Mr. Kynoch

If the hon. Gentleman had been present on that occasion, he might understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) raised valuable points about the problems related to ownership of the tractors and leasing commitments. He raised valid points about which there was concern and he contributed significantly to highlighting the importance of the details of the Bill.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

My hon. Friend will no doubt recall that the only reason that the Bill failed to complete its Committee stage on that day was that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) called an unnecessary Division, which meant that the Bill was lost.

Mr. Kynoch

I agree; that is why I want to ensure that we get the Bill through today.

I do not believe that all land-based dredging need necessarily be prohibited, but it must be controlled. That will ensure a proper balance between it and other types of fishing. The powers in the Bill will be used to ensure an overall balance between fishing activities generally and the flora and fauna that would be affected by any activity.

Land-based dredging techniques are in their infancy and I do not believe that anyone can say at this stage that that activity must be curtailed for ever more throughout Scotland and at all times of the year. It is important, however, to ensure that the Minister has flexible powers available to use in whatever way is necessary in the circumstances that face him. In this case, he should have the power to address the anomaly whereby conservation measures affect those who fish from vessels, while, unfortunately, they must watch as tractors on the beach continue to deplete the stocks of cockles.

The Bill has, therefore, been carefully drafted to allow seasonal controls and for those controls to apply to certain parts of the coastline only—for example, in areas of particular sensitivity to bird life. That flexibility is similar to the powers already available in the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984 in relation to vessels. Those powers have worked well in the past 10 years and it can only be right that, when the Act is extended, similar flexibility should exist in its revised coverage.

The Bill has support from both sides of the House and from all fishing organisations. I was speaking to Bob Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, just last night and he reconfirmed his support for the Bill. I therefore believe that it should reach the statute book and pass into law as quickly as possible.

12.2 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) once again raised the canard about why a number of Conservative Members are keen to speak about the Bill. I will not weary him once again with an account of those reasons; I simply refer him to column 1039 of the Official Report of 20 May, which gives a full and adequate account of our concerns about the Bill.

Mr. Salmond

I am sure that the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) did not realise what he was saying when he referred to my non-attendance on 20 May. I am sure that, on reflection, he will recall that that was the day of John Smith's funeral and will want to withdraw his imputation.

Mr. Luff

I will happily give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) if he wishes to help to clear up this matter.

Mr. Kynoch

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. If the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) had been here on that day, he would have realised that we were sympathetic about the fact that Opposition Members were not present. I was not implying anything about his absence, but he was suggesting that that sensible debate had been totally unnecessary. If he had read Hansard fully, he would have appreciated that the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) were valid. I do not want to imply that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was absent through lack of interest and if that is what I did imply, I do not want it to be on the record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I think that those mutual explanations will suffice for the moment. Can we now get back to the Third Reading?

Mr. Luff

I agree entirely with your judgment, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The two basic themes behind the Bill are environmental and economic. One deals with protecting birds and the other with protecting the activities of responsible fishermen. Both those needs are extremely urgent. It is my great regret that we were unable to give the Bill its Third Reading on 20 May, so that it could reach the statute book. Conservative Members, at least, know the reason for that.

There is an urgent need to act. I should like to quote from a leaflet entitled "The Solway Firth" produced by English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. It states: Today the Solway's highly productive and largely unchanged environment continues to play a key role in many people's lives. With careful management, some of the more traditional means of earning a living such as those in the fishing industry may contribute to the local economy for a long time to come. At the same time the relatively unspoilt coastline with its combination of mudflat, rocky shore, sea cliff and sandy beach is attracting new commercial activities that include tourism, bird-watching and industrial development. To manage all the Solway's rich resources wisely so that they are still there for future generations to enjoy and use, will require a careful balancing of all present and future needs. That sums up the purpose that lies behind the Bill.

About 19 months ago, the Scottish Office announced enhanced protection for the upper Solway firth. On 10 December 1992, the Galloway News quoted the Dairy-based RSPB conservation officer for Dumfries and Galloway, Chris Rollie, as saying: The RSPB are delighted that the Government has at last recognised the international importance of the Solway and we hope that this will increase the impetus for proper regulation of the cockle industry, for example, to take account of the internationally important birds and other wildlife. On 5 May, The Herald contained a long report on concerns about marine pollution and human activities, particularly as they affect bird life. It reported David Dick, the RSPB's species protection officer as saying, points to 75,000 seabird deaths along Scotland's East coast in February. Scientists are fairly sure the birds died from starvation. They suspect bad weather played a part. But the scale of the deaths has confounded them. Mr. Dick is also concerned at the increases of some bird populations and the decreases of others. It all points to further signs of an eco-system tilting out of balance. 'It shows just how little we know about how the sea works' he says. I underline those points. I am sure that hon. Members will have noted Mr. Dick's observation that starvation on the other side of Scotland may have played a part in the deaths of those sea birds. The Bill is aimed at preventing that fate.

In the same article, Bob Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, is reported as saying: fishermen are all in favour of participating in campaigns to sustain a healthy marine population, but he warns that they are being locked into 'a straitjacket of bureaucracy'—of regulations and directives from Brussels. 'The last thing we want is a whole new set of rules,' he says. 'If they are coming to talk to us as fishermen about ways we can help them to sustain bird population and other forms of marine life, fine. But they have to appreciate that the industry is in many ways fighting for survival.' Against that background, the federation's support for the Bill is all the more admirable.

Controls are urgently required to protect not just birds but, as the quote from The Herald suggests, fishermen. Fish Trader of 5 to 18 March states: Cockle beds in the Solway have also been closed and new by-laws are proposed for the Dee. Fortunately cockle stocks in the Burry Inlet, South Wales have been protected by a strict quota system and the fishery, centred on Penclawdd, remains productive. Ups and downs in stock levels are typical in this fishery and cockle beds can regenerate quickly after a good `spatfall'. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside. The article continues: But many fishermen fear the cockle bonanza will be over unless stricter controls are introduced soon to protect the declining stocks. In other words, this is a problem not just for the Solway firth and for Scotland but for the entire United Kingdom. That is why I am here, representing an English constituency.

My first question to the Minister is the same as that posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside. How soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent will its provisions be enacted? The need for action is urgent. In a recent letter to me, the Minister with responsibility for fisheries in Scotland said that, because we had lost the Bill more than a month ago, part of this season's stock has already been lost to effective protection. How quickly does he intend to introduce the measures in the Bill?

I have also received a series of specific questions from the RSPB, some of which I have written to the Minister about. He has been kind enough to reply in writing. As part of the RSPB's new and welcome marine life campaign, it published a document earlier this year, entitled, "Recommendations for the Protection of Seabirds' Marine Habitats", in which it spoke about the need to establish protected sea areas under United Kingdom law. It states: Biological targets should be established to judge the success or failure of management. Depending upon the objectives in protecting a site, targets could be in terms of richness of the seabed invertebrate community, fish stock characteristics or wildlife populations. There must be a basis in law for managing all activities, even existing rights which are not compatible with site management objectives. Fisheries authorities must have proactive powers to manage fishing activities, both in the interest of the fishery and for ensuring fishing in an area is compatible with other uses of the site. The Government is being called upon to protect marine wildlife and fisheries from various threats, such as tankers, offshore development etc. A coherent programme for identifying sites needing protection and controlling threats must be established by the Government, rather than the current ad hoc site protection measures.

The Bill is welcome—I hope that it will receive the approval of the House—but it is an ad hoc measure in respect of the RSPB's overall marine life campaign. Under the new European habitats and species directive, the Government are obliged to designate and protect coastal and marine areas, including the Solway, Cromarty firth and the Severn estuary, rather nearer to my constituency of Worcester.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would say whether a decision has been made on which coastal and marine areas should be designated under the habitats and species directive and what new measures will be introduced to control fishing in such areas. The Association of District Councils in England and Wales and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have asked repeatedly for certain activities below low-water mark, including fish farming, to be brought within the jurisdiction of local authorities. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister would repeat what he said to me in his letter about the intention of legislation to extend the jurisdiction of local authorities below the low-water mark.

The regulatory mechanism for fisheries in Scotland is determined by my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, and in England and Wales fisheries regulations are determined at local level by sea fisheries committees. Will my hon. Friend comment on an intention to introduce sea fisheries committees in Scotland?

I also press my hon. Friend the Minister about the levels of fine in the original 1984 legislation which are not addressed in the Bill. The levels are referred to in section 4(2), which states: Any person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £5,000 or, on conviction on indictment, to a fine. Does my hon. Friend regard those fines as truly adequate 10 years after the original Bill? Was consideration given, in advising my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside, to the need to uprate those fines to provide an effective deterrent?

Several amendments that I have tabled have not been selected for debate. I do not challenge your decision on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurances about the issues that those amendments address, particularly the advice that is given to fisheries officers. The unselected amendments deal with reasonableness in enforcement. I seek a simple assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that fisheries officers are advised to act reasonably at all times.

We know that the federation supports the Bill—hon. Members heard me quote the article in The Herald—and we heard of the federation's concern about the straitjacket of regulation and bureaucracy that it considers that it suffers from and the fight for survival that it is engaged in. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would agree that we must not harass fishermen unnecessarily. Fisheries protection vessels—one of my family has served as a fisheries protection officer, so I know something of the subject—can engage in fairly intimidating tactics to stop illegal fishing. They can fire blanks, they can call up a frigate, they can buzz a vessel with a helicopter, and so on. Long chases can be quite exciting experiences. I hope that, at the end of a chase, there is no temptation to vindictiveness on the part of fisheries officers.

What would constitute unreasonableness? An intimidatory approach to searching individuals or cabins, excessive intrusions into privacy and so on all need to be considered. The Bill confers remarkable powers on fisheries officers—powers which I am sure that officers use with discretion. The House will be a little surprised to know that—I say this with no sense of flippancy—this is the only legislation that confers on fisheries protection officers, and sometimes naval officers, an absolute right to ask a pretty girl to submit to a strip search without giving any reason whatsoever. That might be a fanciful example of the powers in the Bill, but my hon. Friend the Minister will have to concede that it is factually correct. I hope that he will be able to assure me that the guidance given to fisheries protection officers deals fully with that point.

This is an important Bill for Scotland; the issues that it raises are important for the whole of the United Kingdom. I commend it to the House.

12.14 pm
Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) on introducing this subject. It is obviously greatly important to him and to other Scottish Members. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has raised the matter throughout the country. My eight-year-old son, who is a member of the RSPB, has brought the matter to my attention in the way in which only small children can, and he will no doubt do so in respect of other environmental subjects.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), who obviously has an in-depth knowledge of the subject. I should be interested to learn the answer to his question about strip searching and whether it is true or nothing more than a fishy tale.

I represent a land-locked constituency, but my constituents are not land locked; they travel widely—for example, to Scotland and to other parts of the country. I am conscious from their comments on this and many other environmental subjects just how such issues are becoming increasingly important to everybody, wherever they may live. There is a need for conservation. There is also a need for people to be able to go about their normal course of business and earn their livelihoods. Often, there is considerable tension between those two requirements, but I suspect that that is not the case in respect of the Bill, as the intention is to do in Scotland what has already been done in England and Wales. Often, Scottish Members complain that legislation is introduced first in Scotland and then later in England and Wales. This legislation mirrors what already exists in England and Wales or can be implemented in England and Wales.

There has been an advance in cockle fishing techniques since the introduction of the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984. I suspect that it was not visualised then that cockle fishing could take place in other ways—for example, tractor dredging, which can be very destructive not only for cockle fisheries but for estuaries generally. I have always understood cockling to be a traditional activity in many estuaries in Scotland, England and Ireland. We all recall the song that we learned at school —[HON. MEMBERS: "Sing it."] I will not sing it, but it goes something like, "In Dublin's fair city, where the maids are so pretty". I am sure that hon. Members can finish the first verse for me.

The tensions and difficulties arise not in the traditional activity of cockling but in the suction dredging technique, which the Bill would control. An extremely disturbing survey undertaken by the university of Aberdeen showed that heavy exploitation by whatever technique of such fishing would result in, perhaps, a short-lived, high-yielding fishery but then periods when stocks were too low to support a viable fishery. Those who indulge in such techniques ruin the livelihoods of others.

The problem occurs elsewhere. Disturbing reports have been brought to my attention, in particular one in The Independent in June 1993. It was reported that more than 20 men were travelling the country in search of cockles and were using two articulated trucks, tractors and an all-terrain vehicle, and that they were attempting to take cockles from an estuary in Wales. The problem is more widespread than has been mentioned so far. The report goes on: a local cockle picker said of incoming gatherers: 'They have no right to come here. We want to gather cockles here for the next 40 years and not just for a couple of weeks'. That demonstrates succinctly exactly what the Bill seeks to achieve. An article that appeared in a newspaper a few months earlier said that fast-moving pirates from the south of England are going to a bay in Scotland, which is rich in shellfish, to take the shellfish in a short period, thereby destroying the fishing there for the future.

Clearly, tractor dredging is causing great disturbance. It is not only destroying normal fishing but causing many difficulties for other wildlife, particularly birds. Hon. Members will agree that it is much easier to destroy than to conserve, but it is essential for the future that measures be available so that conservation can be dealt with in a sympathetic, clear and coherent manner. I support the Bill.

12.20 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

It is surprising that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who criticised hon. Members who wanted to speak in this debate for filibustering to keep out another Bill, has vanished now that the discussion is under way.

It is a pleasure to discuss a Bill on conservation, as we rarely have an opportunity to discuss conservation relating to a matter that commands widespread support from both sides of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) said, this is an important Bill. As an English Member, I step into this debate somewhat reluctantly as I want to discuss the Solway firth, which the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), knows like the back of his hand. If I make an incorrect statement about it, I am sure that he will correct me immediately. I know the Solway because it is near my constituency. It is a wonderful part of the country and its estuary is of unique value to the landscape and wildlife of the British Isles, so it needs careful protection.

The area is also popular among tourists who go there to see the wildlife and landscape. I know of only one tourist who did not like the area. He was a local man called Paul Jones, who went on to become the commander-in-chief of the Confederate Navy during the American civil war and was responsible for the last invasion of these islands. Funnily enough, the area that he chose to invade was Kircudbright which is on the Solway, and he bombarded the town. So that tourist went back to the area with an evil intention.

The protection of wildlife in the area through the control of the cockle fisheries is essential. Hon. Members may not know that the other side of the Solway is England, where cockle fishing has been controlled for many years. The English have a much better record on conservation than the Scots. For instance, we took off the salmon nets in about 1865, whereas the Scots still have the right to take salmon with nets on their side of the Solway. I believe that the Scots refused to take off their nets in the 19th century because they were frightened that Englishmen would come and steal their fish. So rather than have Englishmen steal their fish, they would fish it themselves, regardless of the conservation consequences. That is a typical Scottish attitude.

The Scots had a fascinating way of catching salmon. I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that a salmon is a little larger than a cockle, but it is linked by fishing. The Scots used to ride on horseback and spear the salmon in the shallow waters of the Solway, so there is a long history of fishing in that area.

One of the problems faced by the Solway cockle is the change in status of the humble cockle. We have had a good discussion on the cockle this morning, although I was hoping to hear a little about its sex life. I read up on that interesting subject, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside rightly spared the House the intimate details. Whereas the cockle used to be eaten by Cockneys when they went to Southend-on-Sea, it has now moved up a scale and become a shellfish delicacy, particularly on the continent. Because the Dutch closed their cockle beds, the price of cockles has been forced up to such an extent that it has caused a bonanza for tractor dredgers on the Solway and other areas.

I have visited the Solway at night [HON. MEMBERS: "What for?"] I confess that I went there for wildfowl.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

Will my hon. Friend pursue a little further the interesting question of why the Dutch had to close their cockle beds? Was it because of the overfishing, which the Bill is designed to prevent in this country? Or was it for some other reason, such as disease, environmental damage or pollution, from which we could learn a useful lesson to safeguard the future of our cockle industry?

Mr. Atkinson

I understand that it was because of pressure from environmentalists. Overfishing and the knock-on effect on bird life caused the Dutch Government to introduce regulations to ban cockle fishing in a substantial number of traditional cockle beds. The Dutch have a passion for fish and shellfish and are determined to buy it everywhere. Interestingly, Dutchmen are behind the tractor dredging industry on the Solway. Locals will confirm that, although the tractor dredgers are locals or southerners who come up to fish, they sell their cockles to Dutch merchants who wait in the area and pay large sums of cash for bags of cockles, which are rapidly moved overseas to Holland. There are also reports of Dutchmen using British-licensed boats to fish cockles in the sea. So the high prices and the increasing demand for cockles are problems faced by the poor mollusc.

The effect on bird life has differed according to the species of bird. I am grateful to the RSPB, which has been helpful on this matter. Curiously, although the overfishing of cockles is causing a decline in most species, particularly wading birds, the population of the pintail seems to be going up, perhaps because it feeds on smaller cockles which sea fishermen are putting back into the water. I hope that, during the period of consultation that will follow the Bill's enactment, we can examine that phenomenon so that that problem can be dealt with.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside on piloting it through the House. I wish it a speedy passage today and hope that it will be enacted as soon as possible so that the wildlife and traditions of the Solway firth may be preserved.

12.27 pm
Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make a few comments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) on promoting the Bill so effectively. It seeks to amend the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984 to make provision for the control of fishing in Scottish inshore waters by vehicles or equipment. As my hon. Friend said, it brings the law in Scotland in line with that in England and Wales.

Many threads in the Bill are being examined today. One thread involves the livelihoods of those affected by cockling and the decline in cockling stocks in the Solway firth area, the good husbandry of stocks for the future and the closing of loopholes that destroy those stocks. There is a broader environmental picture. We are talking about wildlife conservation, fisheries development, business and leisure, all of which have conflicting demands.

The problem is not unique to Scotland. My hon. Friend referred to the experience of the Netherlands. Such was the decline of cockle stocks in the Waddensea, in the North sea in the Netherlands that a closure was made. That action was taken because birds in the area were consuming 13,500 tonnes of cockles per annum—more than the stock. That shows the importance of the cockle stocks, not only to individuals who wish to consume them, but to bird life.

The Solway firth is an extremely important natural habitat, particularly for oyster catchers, knots and sea ducks, which eat cockles. The Solway firth is a natural habitat for many species of bird life. We must balance the needs of the bird life with the needs of fishermen who make their livelihoods in the area.

I believe that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were in the Chair when I initiated an Adjournment debate on a landlocked subject—metal detecting, which causes big problems in my constituency. Due to that experience I empathise with those in the Solway firth area. Illegal metal detecting destroyed crops in my region—a phenomenon that is not dissimilar to the destruction of fishermen's livelihoods and the depletion of cockle stocks in areas such as the Solway firth. The environmental damage caused is similar and parallels can be made between the two—the spirit of the Bill is the same as the spirit behind that Adjournment debate.

In 1985 and 1989, orders were introduced to make necessary adjustments to the 1984 Act. They stressed that fishermen should voluntarily restrict their actions. The Scottish Office displayed a willingness to be flexible. We now know that the cockle fisheries were closed and the ban has been further extended.

Research was done in the "Netherlands Journal of Sea Research" in 1990 and it was found that considerable damage could be done and recovery could be quick. But it was found that if the action was repeated regularly, it caused irreparable ecological damage. Suction tractors are a new innovation and cause extensive damage when used on an unsustainable basis. The aim at the heart of the Bill is to prevent the terribly damaging effect of tractor dredging that undermines fishermen's livelihoods.

Cockles landed in 1991 in the United Kingdom totalled 40,000 tonnes; by 1993, it was down to 20,000 tonnes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) said, cockles have ceased to be the staple food of cockneys and have become designer food in fashionable restaurants. It is not only the birds that have suffered from the lack of cockles, but people's wallets.

The RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage have pressed for the measure. The Solway firth is the largest continuous area of inter-tidal habitat in the United Kingdom and is a vital resting place for migratory birds. It is the winter home to many waders and wild fowl. Oyster catchers are particularly keen on eating cockles and 34,000 of them live in the Solway firth. In addition, there are many barnacle geese from Spitsbergen, as well as pink-footed geese. Some 120,000 different birds live in the Solway firth at different times and the ecological balance of that vital area of the United Kingdom is under threat from tractor dredging. The RSPB has pressed for the Bill, which has been introduced so successfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside.

There is considerable resentment among local people at the activity of individuals who appear to own or operate the tractor dredgers. They are called dolers by some local people because they appear to operate in some sort of grey economy with their bull-nosed motor cycle tractors and they are regarded by traditional fishermen as fly-by-night operators with no sense of feeling or love for the sea and its bounty.

The statistics are frightening. The tractors can collect 1.5 tonnes of cockles per hour. We know from research into rates of depletion how damaging that can be. The Bill exposes that unwelcome activity. It highlights the importance of a balance in marine life. Cockle stocks on the Solway firth dropped by about 80 per cent. between 1990 and 1992. That drop must be halted. The Bill will control tractor dredging and, in helping to ensure that cockle stocks are replenished, will play a vital part in the ecological balance in one of the most beautiful parts of these islands.

12.35 pm
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The Solway firth is well known to me—I often take family holidays there—and I have had the opportunity to see tractor dredgers in operation. Such a sight would destroy any romantic idea that one had as a child of shrimping or cockling. It looks more like opencast mining.

The tractor dredgers are very efficient and quite ruthless in the way in which they take cockles from the surface and nothing much is left behind. My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) mentioned that cockles that do not meet the necessary size requirement are cast aside. That is different from what happens on boats. Cockles are cast aside onto the beach. Whether the molluscs survive depends to a great extent on the state of the tide. In observing the tractors in operation, I did not take the view that I was watching an operation involving biodiversity or recycling in the sea.

Given a good season, cockle beds quickly regenerate, but there must be an optimum level at which they cannot form. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmonds (Mr. Spring) talked about the Dutch experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) asked whether it was a question of disease or fishing. Therein lies one of the principal dangers of not passing the Bill. The nature of over fishing means that if a disease is introduced into cockle beds—which one hopes will not happen—the constitution of those cockle beds will make them less able to survive.

We live in a constantly changing world. Cockle beds in the Wash in East Anglia, an area which I represent, have been out of action for a whole season, but fishing is about to restart. Cockling has been taking place in the Solway firth for generations and fishermen have adapted. They, too, operate a dredging system. We should not lose sight of the fact that sustainable communities in the Solway firth rely on fishing. Our fishing industry has diminished, but communities can survive, and we can look forward to their being there for the next 40 or 50 years. Communities rely on fishing and enjoy untold benefits from it which extend across the region.

I do not take the xenophobic attitude that was perhaps displayed by some of my hon. Friends. I do not mind who eats the cockles, whether it is Scots, the Welsh, the English or even the Belgians—if I could differentiate between Belgians and an oyster-catcher. The importance point is that if the Belgians are paying for cockles, that money is coming back into the local economy. That is part of the process of ensuring that such economies can be sustained. It is right to try to influence control at the source rather than seeking to control the vessels or tractors that extract the cockles.

Mr. Quentin Davies

My hon. Friend has not mentioned what appear from the debate to be important consumers—the birds. What are we to do about them? We have heard that birds ate more of the Dutch stocks than the annual replenishment rate. Over-consumption by birds and not over-fishing by humans destroyed the Dutch stocks. Surely no conservation measure applied to this cockle fishery will be effective unless we can cope with the problem of birds. What does my hon. Friend suggest?

Mr. Pickles

On that matter, I must defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds who has great knowledge of the subject. It is a matter of common sense that if vehicles are removing molluscs at the rate at which my hon. Friend the Bury St. Edmunds referred, stocks for birds will be diminished. For birds to take cockles is natural. Long before dredgers entered the Solway firth and before my hon. Friend became a Member of the House birds were taking cockles there, but nature has a way of sorting out populations. Dredgers are artificial and destroy the balance of nature. That is the reason for fishery conservation.

Some 100 or 200 years ago, there was cockelling along the Solway firth, but the way in which the cockles were taken from the sea was quite different and not as efficient as current methods. If old methods were still used, the balance of nature would be preserved. The central theme is that this practice is an important part of the economy of the Solway firth. Communities rely on it and we must do our best to ensure that the balance of nature is maintained. That is why the measure is important.

I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) has returned to the Chamber. She spoke about problems on some of our beaches caused by gangs taking cockles and other molluscs from local communities. That has led to a degree of tension and there has been some violence on our beaches, which I deprecate. By controlling the extraction of molluscs, the measure makes it less likely that cowboys will engage in raids and take from communities a commodity on which they rely as a major source of income. I commend the Bill to the House and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside on introducing it.

12.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro)

I have many points to answer from my hon. Friends in this important debate. As many hon. Members have said, I have a personal interest in the Bill, because I live within sight of the Solway firth and I know its shoreline particularly well.

The Bill has had all-party support and it made speedy progress when it had a chance to do so. I will not repeat what happened on 20 May: perhaps hon. Members know the sad reason why I was not able personally to promote the Bill that day.

The general agreement in this useful debate is that it is a worthy Bill. I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) for guiding it through the House. I think that it is the first Bill that he has taken through the House under the private Members' Bill procedure, and I am glad to say that it looks as if it will be successful.

I thank Lord Campbell of Croy, who has great Scottish knowledge and interest, for guiding the Bill through the other place. We have had satisfactory progress on a Bill which will be of tremendous benefit to the Solway.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) referred to the ecological and economic importance of cockling on the Solway. Many of my hon. Friends highlighted the importance to the whole shoreline of bird life on the Solway. The major areas are the Caerlaverock nature reserve and the East Park centre, which many thousands of people visit each year to see barnacle geese in particular, but also the large numbers of grey and pink-footed geese on the Solway in winter and the many other species of wild fowl.

The numbers of barnacle geese had dropped to a dangerous level 20 or 30 years ago, but now 15,000 to 20,000 of them come to the Solway each winter. There appears no reason to be too concerned about their long-term future, which is good news for all those interested in bird life. However, that raises questions among the large farming population in my constituency about how many geese are sustainable in the winter months. The farmers look longingly at the large financial assistance for the farmers on Isla, who have a similar, although bigger, problem with barnacle geese.

Many hon. Members have referred to the tremendous support for the Bill from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I commend it for its support and for the information it has supplied to Members of Parliament. I am pleased to have a close relationship with RSPB officials in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom on any matter that relates to Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester referred to the position of fishery protection officers. I am sure that they would always behave reasonably in carrying out their duties under the Bill. They have immense experience around our coast, both in fishery protection vessels and in aircraft, which are also important. The Scottish Fishery Protection Agency has a code of practice on enforcement procedures. My officials go into great detail on the law as it applies to fishing activities on the shoreline and out to sea.

I was glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) that her children are interested in wildlife. She was right to suggest that we should encourage children to take an interest as early in life as possible. England is, perhaps, fortunate in having slightly stronger legislation on tractors than Scotland. However, Scotland should soon catch up on that. My only disappointment was that my hon. Friend did not burst into song.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester raised two points about the habitat directive. Scotland is closely following through issues related to the marine environment. Under the Natura 2000 sites, we will fulfil all responsibilities. He referred to the sea fisheries committees. Scotland has always taken a different line on that. We feel that it would acid a layer of bureaucracy to an already complicated system and might, through byelaws, cause problems for the fishing industry. It is something of which we are constantly reminded by some fishermen, although others remind us that they do not want committees in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who is an acknowledged expert on the countryside, shared his expertise with us. If I could just establish contact with him, I must say that I thought that I noted a hint of suspicion in his comments. I believe that he thought that English conservation legislation was perhaps more effective than the equivalent Scottish legislation.

I remind my hon. Friend that King Robert the Bruce introduced the first conservation Bill, which dealt with salmon, significantly before any such legislation in England. Of course, at about the same time we put certain men to flight at Bannockburn. [Interruption.] I want to keep hon. Members on side.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to highlight the importance of cockling on the Solway. I shall not digress and become involved in the story that he was relating about John Paul Jones. The cottage in which he was born has recently been renovated and opened to the public, arid is located near to the main cockling areas on the Solway which we are debating. My hon. Friend also mentioned the support given by the RSPB, and I reiterate our gratitude to that organisation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) gave us some interesting information about the amount of feed required to sustain the bird population. He is right to say that we have to find a balance between the long-term livelihoods of fishermen and the sustainability of the bird population. He also mentioned the barnacle. I am sure that there is a substantial number of Brent geese in his part of the world, just as there are substantial numbers of pinks and greys on the Solway and all around the coast of Scotland.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the fact that cockling on the beaches has become a particularly unattractive sight because of the sometimes venerable tractors and, more important, the diggers and other implements which do not mix well with those who enjoy walking on the beach or bathing in the summer when cockling takes place.

We have always accepted and welcomed cockling from boats, but the problems that have been highlighted are the reason for the introduction of the Bill. We have to prevent a modern form of cockling, which has been imported perhaps from Holland and which has overtaken cockling from boats which has existed in this country for many years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) also stressed the importance of sustainability and of striking the essential balance between fishing from boats and fishing on shore. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester asked a key question—how soon would we be able to take action? I highlight the imperative of the issue by pointing out that only this week I signed yet another order to ban cockling from fishing vessels from 1 August—in other words, the ban on vessels fishing for cockles will be continuous, because stocks are so low.

When the Bill has received Royal Assent, I shall, rightly, have to allow several weeks for consultation, but, subject to that consultation, which I must not prejudge, we shall have an order in place in the not-too-distant future. I believe that we are talking about a month or two. Initially, we certainly envisage that for the Solway firth, but, if the situation were to deteriorate on the Dornoch firth or the Moray firth or elsewhere in Scotland, legislation is available to be introduced quickly to deal with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside spelled out the importance issue of the activity that we wish to restrict. When we introduced the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984 to provide powers to regulate inshore fishing, no one anticipated that tractor-based dredging would be introduced a few years later. This is our first opportunity since the position became serious to prevent that from happening in the future. There will be proper consultation and we will take action on the basis of scientific evidence of the availability of stocks.

My hon. Friend's Bill will give us the opportunity to make an order, again subject to consultation, to prevent dredging of cockles by tractors. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds highlighted the huge tonnage that could be extracted in a week's fishing with dredgers. That is why we want to have the legislation in place as soon as possible.

I am disappointed, of course, that we have to prevent local fishing vessels from fishing for cockles, but that is because the stocks are so critical and so very low. After a year or so, we shall reassess the position and consider what can be done this time next year, when the order that I have just signed runs out.

We have to take all factors into account, as well as the additional duties that were placed on me and other Fisheries Ministers under the Sea Fisheries (Wildlife Conservation) Act 1992. That Act was introduced as a private Member's Bill and, like the Bill that we are discussing today, attracted strong Government support.

The long title of the 1992 Act adequately explains its function. It requires Fisheries Ministers and relevant bodies to have regard to the conservation of flora and fauna in the discharge of their functions under the Act. Section 1(1)(b) also requires Ministers to achieve a reasonable balance between conservation of flora and fauna and any other considerations to which they are required to have regard.

In effect, the Act merely confirms the existing position, because I and my colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in the Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices already took such factors into account. However, it was helpful to confirm that in legislation and to bind our successors to the practice that we believed to be sensible.

Existing vessel-based fisheries came within the purview of the fisheries Acts. My powers would therefore be used after taking into account the conservation interests mentioned in the long title of the 1992 Act. The subsequent developments brought increasing numbers of tractors, which ploughed the exposed foreshore at low tide. Unlike the vessel-based fishery, those activities were not open to control under existing fisheries legislation. We therefore faced the unwelcome fact that a natural and finite resource was subject to exploitation by increasing numbers of operators, but that only one group was subject to control.

I should perhaps stress that I do not believe that all tractor dredging is necessarily harmful or that the activity should be prohibited under any and all circumstances. If that had been my view, I would have suggested to the House that section 3 of the Act should be amended to enshrine an outright ban in the primary legislation.

Dredging activities have shown themselves to be economically efficient. We must now examine what safeguards should be set in place to ensure that other factors are taken into account. In some highly sensitive areas, that may mean many year-round bans—I cannot rule that out—but in other areas it may be possible to develop controls that will allow judicious amounts of dredging to take place while still taking into account the impact on the stocks and the effects on other forms of natural life. Therefore, the issue is one of ensuring that the new activity is open to control in the circumstances required.

I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose constituency borders the Solway as much as mine—indeed, more so—became increasingly concerned about the effect that combined fishing pressure might be having on stock levels on the Solway. The scientists at the Scottish Office marine laboratory conducted surveys of the stock level in the area affected. Some of the results of the surveys have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds.

The surveys showed conclusively that the cockle stock had reduced significantly. It was not easy to determine whether that was due to the natural fluctuations which natural populations are subject to or whether dredging activities were having a more direct impact, but it was clear that the stock level had reduced to a point at which fishing pressure could make the difference between stock collapse and stock recovery.

We looked at other ways of trying to meet the problem; in particular, we recommended to local authorities that they might frame byelaws under the Civil Government (Scotland) Act 1982. But at the end of the day, because of the necessity to get almost universal approval from landowners to the shore, it was considered best to proceed as we are—by this legislation. That is why we were so glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside was successful in the ballot. We are about to see the Bill's enactment into law.

As I said, the Bill has considerable support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I know that the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) gave it warm support in Committee. We will now proceed, once the Bill is enacted, to consult and then decide to bring in an order to deal with something that is presently, at face value, very harmful to the cockle stock on the Solway.

We are looking not only at the issue of saving the cockle stock but at the long—term future of the fishermen—the traditional fishermen who have earned a valuable livelihood over many years and who are now finding it swept away by modern methods which were, as I said earlier and as hon. Members mentioned, originally imported from Holland.

We are concerned about other fish. All in all, the Bill will be a valuable restriction and a tremendous help to the fishermen and fish processors. A number of fish processors in Scotland deal with cockles and other similar products.

Hon. Members have mentioned how popular cockles have become in restaurants abroad. Of course, that is very welcome. The amount of fish exported from Scotland is high, and that is important to the Scottish economy. It is interesting that in 1992, the total income from shellfish landings into Scotland was more than £46 million; yet, in 1938, the comparative figure was £70,000. Even allowing for inflation, that shows that it is an important issue in Scotland.

I am grateful to hon. Members for the all-round support that we have had for the Bill. It is right that we have highlighted our concern about not only the fishermen and the cockles but the tourists. What has stood out firmly today is the way in which hon. Members felt this was important to bird life, and the interest that has been shown by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

After all the explanations that we had in Committee, in another place and in this House, this is the moment when we should say, "Well done," to my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside. He has achieved a significant piece of legislation—something with which we in the Scottish Office are proud to be associated. I am grateful to the large number of my hon. Friends who have shown support here on a Friday. I support the Third Reading of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed; without amendment.

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