HL Deb 18 June 1891 vol 354 cc722-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, this Bill is to provide means for carrying out a Declaration which has been agreed upon between the Queen and the King of the Belgians. The text of the Declaration is scheduled to the Bill, and the object with which it has been arranged is to remove the difficulties which have arisen between British and Belgian fishermen fishing in the seas off the Eastern Coasts of this Island: such difficulties, for example, as this—where damage has been done by the fishermen of one nationality to the gear and nets of fishermen belonging to the other country. For a series of years this is a matter which has led to a great many disputes, to a great many difficulties, and, I am sorry to say, in some eases, to disturbances resulting in actual physical violence. To take a case which is by no means of uncommon occurrence: a trawler belonging to a Belgian port has, perhaps, done damage to the nets of British fishermen, and, owing to technical objections raised in the Belgian Courts to the proofs of ownership of the fishing gear, it has been found to be very difficult indeed to get the compensation which in equity it was obviously desirable should be obtained by those who had been injured. Now, the procedure by which this agreement has been reached has been this: in 1886 the Board of Trade appointed a Committee, who reported upon the subject, and in that Report they advised that the trawlers should be required to take steps for reducing the damage that they might do to a minimum, which, I may mention, as many of your Lordships may know who are familiar with these matters, can be done by uniting the ends of a line when it has been cut by the action of the trawl. And the Report of the Board of Trade Committee also recommended that a Local Commission should be appointed to assess the damages that might be done, so that an authoritative report might be sent in reference to those damages to the Supreme Court. This Report was communicated to the Belgian Government, and in 1888 the Belgian Government appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the matter, and the Report of that Commission and of the Committee of the Board of Trade which I have mentioned, have led to the negotiations which have happily resulted in the agreement which is scheduled to this Bill. I now ask your Lordships to read the Bill a second time, for the purpose of providing means for carrying the argument into effect. Now, the means which it is proposed to use as between the two countries are these:—That in the case of any complaint, the Commission upon the spot shall inquire into the matter, and if the case is good shall assess the damages. That Commission is to be appointed by the Board of Trade. It will consist of two experts, who will hear evidence, and come to a decision. They will also deal with such matters as the certificates of ownership of the boats and the gear, and of the money value of the injury sustained; and their certificate it is provided, will be admitted as evidence in the Belgian Courts. Secondly, and this is very important, the Public Prosecutor in Belgium undertakes to take the necessary steps for recovering compensation. Formerly it was left to the individual fishermen of this country themselves to go over to Belgium and bring actions for this purpose. It is also provided in the agreement between the two countries, as I have told your Lordships, that the fishermen of whichever nationality who do damage, shall do all in their power to repair it. The obligations between the two countries are, I need scarcely say, entirely mutual; what has been obtained from the Belgian Government, Her Majesty's Government, of course, concede to them. The obligations of the agreement are mutual, and the advantages of it, if your Lordships agree to the Second Reading of the Bill and it passes Parliament, will be mutual also. I must explain that the Declaration has not been actually ratified, but we have every reason to hope it will be ratified without undue delay. In asking your Lordships to provide means for carrying the agreement into effect, the Board of Trade are following the precedent of 1883, when there was a Declaration come to for similar purposes, an International agreement having been made in 1882. That was scheduled to a Bill which passed through Parliament in 1883, before the actual ratifications had been exchanged. One reason for the course proposed is this: that by the Belgian Constitution their Legislature must approve of the legislation before it is ratified, and on our side the reasons for the course is this, that if the ratifications are not exchanged until after this Session of Parliament has expired, there is no possibility of providing means for enforcing the Declaration upon British subjects until next Session of Parliament, and a season would be lost; but there is a provision in the Bill that that part of it which deals with the confirmation of the Declaration shall not come into effect until it is declared to be right that it should do so under the provisions of the Bill. That is all I have to say as regards the first and more important part of the Bill. There are other parts of it which deal with minor matters by Amendments of our domestic law. One of them is of importance, as it provides means for facilitating the protection of mussel-beds. Any of your Lordships who are acquainted with the importance of the mussel-beds to many of our fishermen will recognise this as a right and wise policy to pursue. At the present time it is true the mussel-beds can be protected, but only through the cumbrous and expensive machinery of Regulation Orders. It takes 10 or 12 weeks to get a Regulation Order passed, and it can only be done at an expense of about £300 to £400. That acts as a great deterrent, and the proposal in the Bill is that the Fishery Boards appointed round our coasts shall be able to make bye-laws for the protection of any mussel-beds they wish to protect, and then those bye-laws will have full force and effect when they have been confirmed by certain Orders. Another provision in the Bill enables offences committed on the sea adjoining any county below low-water mark, but not committed by persons in boats, to be the subject of prosecution. Much damage can be done to oyster and mussel-beds by such acts as taking a cart through the shallow water or by the acts of shrimpers. If persons commit such offences at the present time below low-water mark there is no means of prosecuting them, and this Bill provides means for that purpose. By the 10th clause of the Bill, County Councils are empowered, if they see fit, to contribute towards the expense of managing the fisheries within their districts. There is no compulsion on the County Councils to contribute in any case unless they desire it. Some persons have raised a doubt whether under the present law the County Councils have power to do that oven if they desire; and Clause 10 has been introduced to remove those doubts. Then there are one or two minor matters in the Bill, but I believe there is no opposition to them. They are entirely matters which can be dealt with in Committee, and, therefore, I propose to say no more about them on the present occasion. I will now ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.


Doubtless your Lordships will be surprised to see a Member of your House rising from these Benches to take part in the discussion upon a Bill of this kind, and I need scarcely say I do not intend to touch upon that portion of it referring to the International matters to which the noble Lord has referred; but there is a matter which so nearly affects fishing interests in the part of the country in which I live that I cannot refrain from offering a few observations upon that portion of the Bill. In the memorandum which precedes the Bill, in a notice concerning Clause 12, it is stated that in the present state of the law it has been found impossible to reconcile the provisions of the Norfolk and Suffolk Fisheries Act, 1877, which are in force on the Suffolk side of the river Stour with those of the general Acts in force on the Essex side. Something parallel with the difficulty stated there—but, perhaps, on a larger scale—exists in the part of the county I am referring to. We have different laws regulating the salmon fishing on the opposite sides of the Solway, and the amount of discomfort, dissatisfaction, and discontent to which that state of the law gives rise it is quite impossible for me to describe. I very seldom visit the shores of the Solway without hearing complaints from the poor fishermen who live on the English side. I quite thought I should have had a Petition to your Lordships from those fishermen, on which I had intended to found some observations; but it has not come to hand, and I therefore gladly avail myself of the opportunity presented by this Bill for the purpose of putting before your Lordships what I consider to be a genuine and very considerable grievance of a poor but respectable body of men, a set of men who have it not in their power to combine as can our omnibus men, our railway men, and our dockers, but who nevertheless can feel what they conceive to be a deep injustice, who grumble among themselves, and who complain when they have any ear like mine into which to pour their complaints. Now, the fundamental point of their grievance is this: that restrictions which do not exist on one side are enforced on the other side of the Solway, which I need not remind your Lordships is quite a narrow arm of the sea; you cannot quite throw a biscuit across it, but you can walk across it in certain states of the tide in a short time, and you can get across it in a few minutes by the Solway Railway. Although the people living on both sides are equally Her Majesty's subjects, and are, I believe, equally loyal, entirely opposite laws exist. On the Scotch side they have what are called "fixed engines" for salmon catching, but on the English side they may not have anything of the kind. My poor fishermen use what are called "haaf-nets." The haaf-net is a very difficult implement for catching fish, and it requires that the man using it shall wade up to his waist in the sea water, using his net there simply by hand. It appears to be a very inefficient and cumbrous method of taking salmon, and yet my poor fishermen are compelled to use this net, while their Scotch brethren in sight of them on the other side can be comfortably in their beds and wait for the fish to be caught in their fixed engines. Your Lordships may remember that the trouble with regard to these fixed engines existed a long time ago, and that some of the stirring incidents in Sir Walter Scott's novel Red Gauntlet depend upon them. It was said, I think, by no less a person than the Baillie of Dumfries that they were not, in his opinion, "over and above lawful;" but they have been brought to the test of law since that time, and now it has been determined that they are lawful. There is now no manner of doubt that on the Scotch side of the Solway this method of taking salmon is lawful, and it is equally certain that on the English side the same method of taking salmon is not lawful. I have in my hand a very interesting Report of an investigation which took place 10 years ago by Mr. Walpole, then Inspector of Fisheries for England and Wales, and Mr. Archibald Young, who was Scotch Commissioner for the Salmon Fisheries. They wont into the matter, and made a recommendation which was intended evidently to get rid of these fixed engines. They took a great deal of evidence, which your Lordships will find in this Paper, upon the points I have already mentioned, and setting forth complaints from one fisherman after another of the cruelty and injustice of the present condition of things. I know perfectly well the difficulty in this case. I know that there are certain vested rights on the Scotch side, that the fisheries, many of them, are private property, and that on the English side a different condition of things prevails. Therefore, I do not at all wish to blink the fact that there is a difficulty in getting over the injustice to which I refer; but I do most emphatically wish to impress on your Lordships' minds that there is an injustice, as was admitted by the gentlemen whose names I have mentioned 10 years ago, and they made recommendations which were intended to get rid of it. But the difficulty still remains; and, as I said just now, I never go down to the banks of the Solway, to the little fishing village or town of Bowness-on-Solway, without having poured into my ears the complaints of these unfortunate fishermen. I do not know what can be done for them. I rather put them in formâ pauperis before Her Majesty's Government; and I do most strongly urge that if Her Majesty's Government can see their way to relieve these fishermen of this cruelty and injustice it will be a very right thing for them to do; and I am quite certain, whatever may be said with regard to the legal position of the matter, that the whole combined wisdom of both Houses of Parliament will never persuade my poor fishermen on the banks of the Solway that they are not at this present time suffering from a very cruel injustice.


My Lords, I am very glad the right rev. Prelate has intervened before your Lordships give a Second Reading to the Bill of my noble Friend. I was not, of course, in the least aware that the right rev. Prelate intended to introduce this subject at all, but it has given me great pleasure to hear what he has had to say from his point of view describing the injustice done to the English fishermen, because I have naturally heard a good deal upon the other side of the question, and it is of course always well to hear both sides. Now, from the way in which the matter has been put before me, I had supposed until this time that it was the Scotch fishermen who had cause to complain, for I have had many complaints that the unfortunate Scotchmen are utterly unable to obtain a livelihood in consequence of the depredations on their side of the Solway by the English fishermen. I have had communications with the Treasury with a view to the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the difficulties which undoubtedly exist, and one of the chief objections to the appointment of that Commission has been that they might possibly find that in consequence of the depredations on the Scotch side large compensation would have to be paid to the Englishmen for the loss of any rights they may claim to exercise on the Scotch side. But as far as the general question goes, I am quite with the light rev. Prelate. There is no doubt a state of matters on the Solway Estuary which is extremely unfortunate for the fishermen on both the Scotch and English sides. They prosecute their fisheries under absolutely different laws. Another difficulty in the matter is that the boundary between the Scotch and English sides is a constantly varying one, owing to the constant changes occurring from the operation of the tides. Then there is another source of difficulty from the Scotch point of view, on account of the licences to fish which are given to the English fishermen by the English Fishery Board of the district. Anyone who applies for a licence from that Board has a right to obtain it, and it appears the Scotchmen go over to the English side and obtain licences, and then go over to the Scotch side and fish under the English law. The difficulty is this: That under the English law a net may be of a certain length only, but they go over and add a considerable length to that net on the Scotch side. When the Scotchmen go and complain to the English Board and ask for protection against the net, the English Board say they have nothing to do with it, because the net is on the Scotch side; and on the Scotch side also they say they have nothing to do with it because the licence has been obtained from the English Board. However, I will not say anything now beyond this: that there are difficulties in the way of dealing with the question, but, in my opinion, it is very desirable that a termination should be put to this unfortunate state of affairs, and I thank the right rev. Prelate for having brought the matter before your Lordships' House. The right rev. Prelate said something, I think, about proprietors' rights. With regard to that I can only say that, as far as my knowledge of the Scotch proprietors goes, every single Scotch proprietor would be glad to see an end put to the existing condition of things, even if it occasioned some loss to themselves, and to have the law altered with that view.

Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.