HL Deb 05 May 1899 vol 70 cc1402-10

Motion made, and Question proposed— That this Bill be read a second time."—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


My Lords, the dispute between trawlers and line fishermen, and the complaints which the line fishermen make against trawlers are matters which are well known to your Lordships' House, and have frequently formed the subject of legislation. Indeed, there was an Act of Parliament passed with regard to this matter so late as the year 1895. I do not, by this Bill, propose to alter the existing law, but what I do propose to do is to introduce a new penalty in order to enforce and make effectual the observance of the existing law. Under the existing law a trawler, when convicted of illegal trawling, may be fined up to £100 or may be imprisoned for a period not exceeding 60 days. These penalties have, however, up to the present time proved ineffectual. I have obtained a return of the number of convictions for illegal beam and otter trawling, and I find that in 1892 the number of convictions was nine, and the average fine £24: in 1893, the number of convictions 11, and the average fine.£34; in 1894, the number of convictions five, and the average fine £50; in 1895, the number of convictions 25, and the average fine.£22 10s.; in 1896, the number of convictions 20, and the average fine £47; and in 1897, the number of convictions 15, and the average fine£49. Of course, the number of convictions does not in any way represent the number of offences, and that is the most unfortunate part of the matter. Her Majesty's Government have done, I believe, everything in their power, and, using the authority given to them by the Act of 1895, have employed more vessels for the protection of the coast, but, unfortunately, the movements of these vessels are well known. Line fishermen feel a very strong sense of injustice, and they also feel that Parliament ought in some way or another to enforce the existing law. As fines are not found effectual, Parliament must look about for new penalties, and the question is, What penalty will be found sufficient? Any penalty to be effectual must be a penalty of a sort which will infallibly reach the owner. By this Bill I propose that— Where the master of any trawl vessel shall have been convicted by any competent tribunal of the offence of fishing by means of either a beam trawl or any otter trawl, or any modification of either of such two methods of fishing, in waters closed by Statute or by-law of the Fishery Board of Scotland to any such methods of fishing, the court or judge shall, in addition to any fine or other penalty that may now be legally imposed upon the master or owners of such trawl vessel, make an order suspending the certificate of registration of such trawl vessel for any period not exceeding six months end not less than 14 days. The next clause provides that— It shall not be lawful for the master or owners of any trawl vessel, in respect of which such all order shall have been made, to use or employ such trawl vessel for the purpose of trawling or fishing during the period of suspension mentioned in such order. Any contravention of this section shall be deemed a misdemeanour and shall render the owners liable to a fine not exceeding the estimated market value of the trawl vessel in respect of which such an order of suspension shall have been made. Clause 4 proposes that— Where any such order of suspension shall have been made a note thereof shall be endorsed upon the certificate carried on board of the trawl vessel in respect of which the order shall have been made, and such order shall forthwith be notified by the registrar, clerk, or officer of the court or judge by whom it shall have been made, to the Board of Trade, and the Board of Trade shall thereupon enter such order against the name of such trawl vessel in a book to be kept for the purpose and to be called the Suspension of Trawlers Certificates Order Book. The 5th clause says that a certificate so endorsed, or a copy of such order certified by the Board of Trade, shall be deemed to be conclusive proof of the conviction and suspension to which it purports to relate, and the next clause provides that the authorities of any port in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, where any trawl vessel in respect of which such an order of suspension shall have been made may happen at the time to be, shall have power, upon notification in writing or by telegram of such order, to prevent such trawl vessel from putting to sea during the period of suspension mentioned in such order. The other clause is a technical one, and of no importance to the general operation of the Bill. The Bill does not in any way interfere with any trawl owner or captain of a trawl vessel who conducts his fishing in a legal manner and within the statutory limits. All it does is to enforce the observance of the existing law. I do not say that this Bill will necessarily prove effectual. The penalty may be found not sufficient, but I think we should make an experiment, and it is for that reason that I venture to ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill. I think the penalty proposed is worthy of a trial. I have invited criticism and advice from several quarters, and it has been pointed out to me that in the second clause I have proposed— That the judge shall, in addition to any fine or other penalty that may now be legally imposed upon the master or owners of such trawl vessel, make an order suspending the certificate of registration of such trawl vessel. It has also been pointed out to me that this really imposes a duty on the judge which it would be better to leave to his discretion. I quite agree in that view, and when the Bill arrives at the Committee stage I propose to submit the word "may" for the word "shall." I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.


My Lords, I am able to go some length in agreement with the noble Earl who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill, because I believe the figures he has quoted go far to prove that the present state of the law and the penalties imposed upon trawling vessels infringing the Statute and by-laws against inshore trawling have not had the deterrent effect which we might reasonably have hoped for. I am not quite sure, however, that they have so completely failed as the noble Earl indicates; there has been an improvement in the last 12 months. The number of convictions in 1898 has been lowered to four, the total amount of the fines being £102. I think to some extent this result has been achieved by the greater efficiency of the arrangements for policing the inshore waters. The reason the penalties at present inflicted have not had the deterrent effect that had been expected is that they are imposed upon the wrong individual. I agree with the provisions of the Bill to this extent, that I think a strong prima faciecase has been made out for placing the penalty on the owner of the boat, rather than as at present on the master. I do not know why it has so long been the rule to impose the penalty upon the servants. I believe it is quite usual now to regard the servant as the chief offender, but in former days when most of the vessels engaged in fishing were sailing vessels, the skipper was largely the owner of the boat, and the rest of the crew had shares. In cases of that kind it was probably right to impose the penalty on the master, but at the present day most of the vessels which we have to deal with and prosecute for inshore trawling are the property of persons who are not themselves on board, and of limited companies, who are frequently indifferent as to whether the master is fined or imprisoned, and in such a case they simply put another master on board, and the infringement of the law continues. I think it is very desirable that we should amend the law to the extent of placing the liability for the penalty upon the owner instead of the master. I believe that the judges before whom these cases are brought are strongly of opinion that the right offender is not got at, and that accounts to some extent for the relative smallness of the fines which are imposed. I do not wish to be understood as charging trawlers generally with these practices. In fact, experience shows that the offences are committed by a few particular boats. During the last 12 months, and out of the 125 different trawling vessels which have been reported to the authorities for illegal trawling, 52 have been reported more than once, one more than seven times, eight more than five times, three more than four times, and 14 more than three times. This proves that there is a certain class of vessels engaged in this business which makes a regular practice of disobeying the law. Although I go some length with the noble Earl, with some of the provisions of the Bill I cannot agree. It would not be fair, for instance, to fine both owner and master for the same offence, except it is shown that both are equally guilty. I must say that I think the provisions of the second and third clauses of the Bill are unduly drastic and go too far. The second clause empowers the Court to suspend the certificate of registration for six months, and that in addition to other penalties; but the following clause provides that if that order is disobeyed a sum approximate to the value of the vessel may be imposed upon the owner as a fine. I am informed that that might, under some circumstances, be as large as £2,000, and in extreme cases, £5,000. I say, without hesitation, that that is too large a power to put into the hands of the Courts around the coast. In saying that, I am speaking not only for myself, but for the Board of Trade. If these provisions, as they now stand, were to be passed into law, I think difficulties would arise as to what could be done with regard to foreign owned vessels. I think the provisions of the third clause require very careful and serious consideration. The fourth, fifth, and sixth clauses deal with administrative arrangements, and are subjects for the Board of Trade more than for the Office which I represent. On the whole, and having regard to all the circumstances, I think it would be unwise to accept the Bill in its present form, but as there is undoubtedly a case for the alteration of the law in regard to trawling, the wisest course for the House to adopt would be to read the Bill a second time, and refer it to a Select Committee for careful consideration.


My Lords, this is a subject of which I do not pretend to know anything, but I have had a communication from the Fishmongers' Guild requesting me to call your Lordships' attention to what is, considered the injustice of some of the provisions of this Bill. The Bill was introduced in the House of Commons last year, and the National Sea Fisheries' Protection Association passed a resolution condemning it. The objections to which my attention has been called by the Fishmongers' Guild have been in a very material degree met by the observations of the noble Earl who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill. As the second clause stands in the Bill it would be obligatory on the magistrates, in addition to the fine, to make a suspending order involving the disuse of the trawler for six months, and if it were used within that period the offence might be followed by the confiscation of the boat itself. That would be an extraordinary provision, and I am glad to hear that the noble Earl intends altering the clause, so as to give the magistrates power to exercise their discretion. Again, it is conceived that the Bill will bear hardly on British fishermen. This country has the right to legislate so as to affect foreigners only within the territorial waters. But this Bill is intended to operate outside the territorial waters, and, therefore, foreign trawlers would be free to do things for which British trawlers would be fined. The Bill will no doubt go to a Committee of a representative character, where all these matters can be thoroughly considered.


My Lords, I feel some diffidence in venturing to set up my opinion against that of one so learned in the law as the Lord Chief Justice, but I think he has given me some ground for doing so by himself confessing, in his opening remarks, that he was dealing with a subject of which he knew nothing at all. I cannot profess great knowledge in many things, but I think I do know something about fisheries and the conditions under which they are carried on around the coast. My noble and learned Friend referred to the views of the National Sea Fisheries' Protection Association. I have no desire whatever to throw doubts upon the good faith of the members of that association, but it is very well known to those of your Lordships who are acquainted with matters connected with fisheries that that body has been captured by the trawlers, and that, therefore, the views put forward by it are not the views of the general body of fishermen It is natural that trawlers should not want to be subjected to more penalties for breaking the law than they can avoid, and they are quite right in opposing this Bill; but trawlers are only a small section of the fishermen of this country. In Scotland the number of boats belonging to line and net fishermen is 10,000. They have 40,000 men to man them, and a million and a half of capital has been sunk in them. The number of trawling vessels does not exceed 80, with a capital sunk in them of £400,000, and 700 men to man them. In Scotland the line and net fishermen land 10 times the weight of fish landed by the trawlers. There is no doubt that trawlers do a great deal of harm by destroying fish in a limited time on particular fishing grounds around the Scottish coast. In the course of a week or 10 days two or three trawlers will clear a particular ground from fish, and during the time that the ground takes to recuperate the line fishermen in the neighbourhood are shut off from catching fish. This is a great hardship. Therefore, it is quite in consonance with justice, and with the general good of the country, that some restriction should be placed on trawlers with regard to the particular ground on which they fish. This Bill does not propose to put a single new restriction on them. All it proposes to do is to add one more penalty which a judge may impose on trawlers if they break the conditions which Parliament has already imposed upon them. My noble Friend said he proposed to exchange the word "may" for "shall" in the second clause, and with that alteration I thoroughly agree. It seems to me that it is only right, in imposing this new penalty, to leave it to the discretion of the judge to decide whether the circumstances of the particular case warrant its imposition. The noble Lord the Secretary for Scotland criticised the third clause as going too far. I am rather inclined to agree with his criticism, but at the same time I do think that a very heavy penalty indeed should be placed on the owner who allows a trawler under his control to go to sea during the time it is disqualified by the suspension of its certificate. I am very glad my noble Friend has consented to the Second Reading of this Bill. I am quite sure that it will be fairly considered in Committee, and I hope your Lordships will not be satisfied with merely passing the Second Reading and considering it in Committee, but that you will endeavour to pass it into law during the present Session.


In reply to the statement of the Lord Chief Justice I should like to say that this Bill does not affect British trawlers prejudicially as compared with foreign trawlers. I am quite willing to accept the course suggested by the Secretary for Scotland, and allow the Bill to go to a Select Committee for careful consideration.


My Lords, my noble. Friend the Secretary for Scotland has so well expressed the views of the Board of Trade in this matter that there is little necessity for me to say anything in addition. He pointed out that it is not only the second penalty that is heavy in this particular case. The suspension of the operations of a large trawler for six months would cause a loss of something like £2,000. I cannot help thinking that a. penalty of that kind is out of proportion to the offence complained of. My noble Friend who moved the Second Reading of the Bill seems to think that it would not differentiate between foreign and British ships, but while it will impose new penalties on British trawlers, it cannot impose penalties on foreign trawlers guilty of the same offence. If the Bill passes in its present form, the fraction that already exists, instead of being mitigated, will be increased to a considerable degree.


I am not going to enter into the vexed question of Scotch Fisheries, but I would like the noble Lord the Secretary for Scotland to inform me when the North Sea Conference is likely to meet, and whether the subject of the extension of the limit is likely to be referred to it.


It seems to me that that is a question which should be addressed to the noble Marquess at the head of the Government, but as I have been asked the question I will endeavour to answer it. In speaking of the North Sea Conference the noble Earl probably refers to the North Sea Convention, which regulates fishing rights over that area. But there is a Conference about to assemble in the course of the present summer, at the invitation of the Swedish Government, to discuss certain matters in connection with scientific investigation in the North Sea. As to how far the Conference will be able to extend its inquiry into the subject of trawling I cannot express an opinion. I understand that in the original invitation it was intended to confine the matters discussed largely to scientific investigation, but at the present time the negotiations for the assembling of the Conference are still going on, and therefore it would be unwise for me to express any definite opinion on the subject.

Question put.

Bill read a second time, and referred to a Select Committee.