HL Deb 20 June 1898 vol 59 cc717-26

My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill under somewhat peculiar circumstances. This Bill is identically the same, with two slight additions, as that proposed in 1895 in the House of Commons by Mr. Bryce, and that which was introduced into your Lordships' House in 1896, and again last year by the noble Earl the Secretary to the Board of Trade, and passed through all its stages each year. It is not for me to say why Her Majesty's Government have not thought fit to include it among the Bills they have brought in this year. I think it will, perhaps, be best for me to refer, first of all, to the two small additions to the Bill. The first proposes to give power to the officers of the Fishmongers' Company to enforce the law where they have jurisdiction. The officers of the Fishmongers' Company perform a great many very useful duties at the present time under various Acts of Parliament, and the Company are willing to give us the assistance of their officers. We are very anxious to receive that assistance in England, but I am told there is some little difference of opinion in regard to Scotland. All I can say is that I shall be ready to meet noble Lords from Scotland in any Amendment they may put down. The second addition includes skippers, as well as owners, of trawling vessels in the purview of the Bill. This is, after all, only in accordance with the present Fish Boats Act of 1883, and the Fish Boats Amendment Act of 1887, in which skippers were made responsible where they had absolutely disobeyed the orders of their owners. But it is the more necessary now than it was, say, 10 years ago, because the whole system of sea fishing, especially in the North Sea, has entirely changed of late years. Ten years ago there was what was called "single fleeting." A number of different boats belonging to different owners went to sea, and for the sake of company were fleeted together. As soon as they had made their catch they came home, and landed their fish. That has all gone now. There are very few small owners and very few single vessels. The great part of the fishing in the North Sea is conducted by large companies with large fleets, managed by boards of directors. Steam cutters are sent out with fresh provisions, and in many cases fresh crews, and to bring home the fish. The owners, therefore, have not the same power over the fish that is brought homo as they had formerly. The fish is packed out at sea and sent home, either to Billingsgate, Grimsby, or some other port; and I am sorry to say that, whereas in former days the boxes only contained about 40 mature fish, they now contain from 900 to 1,000 fish, most of which are immature and only fit for manure. These are landed to the great depletion of the fishing ground, and to the great waste and destruction of small fish. Only the other day, to give one single instance, out of 32 tons of plaice landed in Billingsgate 31 tons had to be sold for manure. I am intimately connected with one of the largest fishing ports in England, and that kind of thing is done over and over again at Grimsby. We desire to stop this destruction of small fish, and we believe we can only do that by preventing the landing and sale of immature fish, and that we can only prevent the landing and sale of these fish by making the owners and shippers responsible. I should not think it necessary, after this Bill has passed your Lordships' House on two occasions, to say very much about it; but it is necessary for me on this occasion to endeavour to prove to your Lordships that there is an urgent and pressing necessity for immediate legislation. This is no new question. Fifteen years ago the trade first became alarmed at the great depletion of the fishing ground and the great waste and destruction of small fish. The Executive of the Sea Fisheries Protection Association, of which Sir E. Birkbeck and I are members, went very thoroughly into the question, and having considered every proposal and every plan that was put before us we came to the conclusion that the proposal of this Bill was the only effectual one which could be adopted. Without going into details with regard to the other proposals, I may briefly say that we discarded every other proposal made to us for one of two reasons—either because we did not consider they could be effectually carried out, or because we believed that they would not effect the object we had in view; and we were unanimous in our decision that the only way to prevent the destruction and waste of small fish was to stop the landing and the sale of the fish itself. In 1888 we called a conference of delegates from all the fishing ports in the United Kingdom. I think there were nearly 200 present, and after a thorough and practical discussion, after hearing everything that could be said by many who advocated other plans, there was a unanimous vote in favour of the proposals which now form the principle and basis of this Bill. We were not satisfied with that. We let a year go by, in order that the plans might be discussed in every fishing port and centre in England, Scotland, and Ireland; and in the following year we called the delegates together again. With the full power given to them by those whom they represented the delegates again decided unanimously in favour of the proposals of this Bill. But during the course of that summer it was intimated to Sir Edward Birkbeck that foreign nations were taking an interest in this question, and had asked us to call an International Conference, at which they might be present. Another conference was called in 1890, and was held at the Fishmongers' Hall, at the invitation of the Fishmongers' Company. Delegates were present from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as from all parts of the United Kingdom, and at the end of a two-days' conference they were all of them unanimous—not only those who came from the fishing ports of this country, but the delegates who came from abroad—in passing a resolution to the effect that the landing and sale of undersized fish should be prohibited. Since then three of the nations represented at the conference—Belgium, Denmark, and France—have passed legislation on the question, and they are only waiting for this country to pass this Bill before they convene a conference for a convention similar to that called some years ago for the prevention of the sale of liquor in the North Sea. Originally, there was a difference of opinion as to the size at which fish should be considered mature, but in 1892 the representatives of all the fishing ports agreed to the size adopted in the Bill. In 1893 we went with a deputation to the late Mr. Mundella, who was at that time President of the Board of Trade. He sympathised strongly with us, and appointed a Select Committee, of which my noble Friend Lord Tweedmouth was chairman, and of which I was a member; and on the unanimous Report of that Committee Mr. Bryce, the following year (1895) brought in, a Bill in the House Commons, but unfortunately it was lost like many other good Bills, on account o the General Election. As I have said my noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Dudley) brought in a Bill in 1896 which passed not only through all its stages in this House, but was read a first time in the other House of Parliament. Now my Lords, I will ask you to pay most earnest attention to the opinion of the Board of Trade in this matter. In November, 1896, after this Bill had failed to become law, Mr. Ritchie agreed to receive two deputations. The first was from Lowestoft, and was introduced by Mr. H. Foster, M.P., who said that— The deputation was not there to deny that there was a lamentable destruction of undersized fish. He also admitted that as a matter of fact these small fish were unsaleable in Billingsgate and other markets, but said his friends did not want interference by Parliament. Mr. Ritchie made a very long speech in reply, and I should like to quote a few words from it. He said that— As a matter of fact it was by the fishing industry that Parliament was most pressed to pass Bills of this kind, and that the industry as a whole were pretty unanimous in favour of such a Measure. He went on to say that— There could be no doubt at all that the productiveness in particular fisheries of flat fish was decreasing, and that though the power of the catch was increasing there was no increase, but rather the other way, of mature fish. The great fishing companies and Fisheries Committee were unanimous in their desire for the Bill. He then went on to give a number of statistics to support his argument, and ended by saying he had never known so small an opposition to so important a Measure in all his life. A second deputation—large, influential, and representative of the whole fishing trade—waited upon Mr. Ritchie, and urged upon him the necessity of passing this Bill without further delay. Mr. Ritchie, in reply, referred to the previous deputation, and said that he had told them that— It is impossible for the Government any longer to ignore the duty which lies upon them of doing their best, when an evil ii recognised, to remedy it. The duty is the more laid upon us by reason of the fact that so many fishing Powers of much smaller dimensions than we are have already adopted legislation of a somewhat similar character, and it would be practically a shirking of duty for the Government of the greatest fishing Power in the world not to do something to remedy the evil which other nations have already recognised. Mr. Ritchie finished his speech by saying—and this is my last quotation— I will take care that your representations are considered, in the hope that we may be able to pass into law next Session (1897) the Bill which you are met here to support. I shall be happy if I am able to be the medium of your wishes being carried out. That Bill was brought in, and carried through your Lordships' House last year, but not proceeded with by the Government in the House of Commons. This year we endeavoured to induce the Government to bring in the Bill early in February or March in another place, but they hesitated, and said it was opposed. We accepted the challenge, and at once called a Sea Fisheries Conference on March 30th, at which Mr. James Lowther and Colonel Brookfield expounded their ideas to the assembled delegates of the trade, and on a division had only one supporter—a schoolmaster from Ramsgate representing the opposition. I believe the opposition comes entirely from long-shore fishermen, and some smack owners at Ramsgate who desire to keep up the price of fish. It is a Protectionist opposition, and nothing less. I ask the support of the Prime Minister to this Bill, for the same reason that the noble Marquess urged your Lordships to support the Second Reading of the Aliens Bill—namely, because it is one of those questions in which other countries have moved, and in which we ought not to be behind. Speaking for myself, and, I believe, speaking for the sea-fishing industry generally, I cannot help thinking that it would be a great scandal to Ministerial responsibility and to our Parliamentary procedure if a Bill, supported by the whole trade and by three successive Presidents of the Board of Trade, was prevented from becoming law owing to a meaningless and somewhat insignificant opposition.


My Lords, I rise with some diffidence to support the Motion that has been moved in such clear and explicit terms by my noble Friend opposite. I do so with diffidence because that part of the north-east coast with which I am associated has evinced no particular interest in this question. I should not trespass upon your time were it not for the fact that a meeting was held last week by those representing the trade of the Tyne, at which a resolution was carried almost unanimously in support of this Bill. Of course, it may be said that the trade of the Tyne has not the same interest in this Measure as have the towns of Hull and Grimsby, but they support this Bill on broad and popular grounds. They realise that at the present time considerable damage is done to the great fishing industry by the system which is at the present moment pursued. My Lords, they recognise that in the year 1897 over 600,000 tons of fish, irrespective of shell-fish, were landed in the United Kingdom, that 200,000 tons were received in London, and that of these, 1,284 tons were seized by the officers of the Fishmongers' Company as too small and unfit for human consumption. I know it may be said that the fears are groundless, inasmuch as the increase of take for the past year is somewhat larger than the year before. I acknowledge that that does seem an overwhelming argument. At the same time you must remember that the facilities for larger catches have increased with rapid and with large strides. Steam trawlers have taken the place of vessels absolutely inadequate, and the power of catching fish has increased with leaps and bounds. Therefore I do not think that that argument should carry weight with your Lordships. An enormous amount of fish is thrown overboard after being taken in the trawl, while some that are kept are only fit for manure. My noble Friend has dealt so fully with the subject that I will not trespass further on your Lordships' time. I support the Measure most cordially, and I trust that the noble Marquess at the head of the Government may see his way to induce the House of Commons to deal with the question as soon as possible, and allow the Bill to become law this Session.


My Lords, as the effect of this Measure is almost identical with that of the Bill which, your Lordships passed in 1896 and 1897 on my Motion, I do not think it would be necessary for me on this occasion to do more than express the hearty sympathy of the Government with this Bill, and the hope that your Lordships may see fit to accord it a Second Reading. I think there is little doubt, as my noble Friends, have said, that, although the total catch, of the North Sea fisheries has not been; reduced of late, still the quality has very much deteriorated. After much consideration and much discussion with the various fishing authorities, I think there is little doubt that the only practical means of preventing further deterioration is to pass a Bill of this kind. Moreover, my Lords, as the House has already been reminded, other countries have adopted similar legislation, so that in passing this Bill we are only bringing ourselves in line with what has already been done abroad. There is one new provision in this Bill which I confess to have considerable doubts about—I refer to the provision by which my noble Friend seeks to exempt owners of fishing vessels under certain conditions. My noble Friend proposes that where the owner of a fishing vessel can prove to the court that the skipper of his vessel has acted against his written instructions he (the owner) shall be exempt. I cannot, help thinking that that might prove to be a rather dangerous provision, and one which might go far to nullify the effect of the Measure. After all, my Lords, the skipper of a fishing vessel is much in the same position as the coachman of a carriage. If the coachman of a carriage drives over a child in the street, the owner is responsible; and that my noble Friend should wish in this Bill to exempt the owner under absolutely similar conditions is more than I can realise for the moment. However, that is a point for consideration in Committee, and I daresay between now and then my noble Friend will give me an opportunity of speaking to him privately about it. With the exception of that clause there is nothing in the Bill to which I object, and I trust your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, I do not rise to dispute any of the arguments brought forward. The object of the Bill is an excellent one—namely, to save the lives of flat fish below a certain size; but I do wish to enter a caveat against the idea that the Bill is going to be effective for that purpose. All this Bill proposes to do is to prohibit the sale of small flat fish, but what we want to secure is not the mere prohibition of the sale of small flat fish, but that these fishes should continue to live in the sea until they grow to a proper size. This Bill makes no provision for preventing the catching of these small fishes. I admit that it would be very difficult to do so, because a trawl catches small as well as big fish, and the fish taken in the trawl and returned to the sea are so knocked about, crushed, and damaged that they have little chance of living. Consequently, you will run the risk of not only destroying these flat fishes, but of preventing them from being of some use to our poorer friends in the towns. I do not propose to offer any opposition to the Bill, but I do wish to enter a caveat against its being supposed that this Bill is likely, completely, or, indeed, to any large extent, to realise the aims of the associations of which my noble Friend below the Gangway [Lord Heneage] speaks. It may do something by preventing trawlers going to fishing grounds where there is a large proportion of small fish, though I am afraid they will take the risk of catching many small, even to catch a moderate quantity of big fish. With these few words, I desire to support the Bill so far as it goes.


After what fell from the noble Lord opposite [the Earl of Dudley] I can only say that if the Government are willing to accept the Bill without the additions, I am willing to delete them. With regard to what has fallen from my noble Friend [Lord Tweedmouth] I do not think the skippers or the second hands, who are generally partners in the concern, are likely to waste their time in grounds where only small fish are to be caught. The trade feel pretty certain that if we can prevent the landing and sale of small fish we shall be able to prevent their being caught.

Question put— That this Bill be read a second time.

Agreed to.