THE EARL OF MAYO
My Lords, I rise to draw attention to the persistent remission of poaching fines in fishery cases by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and to move for the following Return—
This is not the first time that I have drawn your Lordships' attention to this matter, and on the last occasion some years ago when I raised it I received an unsatisfactory answer to say the least of it. But this has now become almost a scandal, because the Lord Lieutenant persistently remits fines when there have been previous convictions against the offenders and even when the magistrates adjudicating do not recommend reductions. This practice, as your Lordships will readily see, is rendering the administration of the fishery laws in Ireland almost impossible and bringing the whole matter into disrepute, and is very discouraging to the magistrates and to the local conservators who are doing their best by means of their bailiffs to get convictions against poachers.
- 1. Fines inflicted on offenders against the fishery laws during the last three years.
- 2. Where the Lord Lieutenant remitted such fines where there was a previous conviction or convictions against the offenders.
- 3. Where the Lord Lieutenant remitted such fines when the magistrates adjudicating did not recommend reductions.
I have in my hand a summary of returns, covering in most cases a period of five years received from boards of conservators of fisheries in Ireland showing the amount of fines inflicted upon offenders under the fishery laws which were memorialed against and the amount such fines were reduced to by the Lord Lieutenant. The reductions were opposed in nearly every instance by the conservators, though in a few cases where there were extenuating circumstances they recommended reductions. In Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Lismore, and Cork the reductions were opposed in all cases by the conservators. In the case of Waterford the fines during the five years which were memorialed against amounted to £460 10s.; these fines were reduced to £151 77s. 8d. In Cork the lines amounted to £366, and were reduced to £55. The fines in the five years in Limerick amounted to £366, and these were reduced to £71 4s. 6d. The return in respect of Coleraine is for two 883 and a-half years only, and here fines amounting to £559 10s. were reduced to £151 13s. 6d., although the reductions were opposed in almost all cases. What it comes to really is that the Lord Lieutenant takes sides with the convicted poachers.
I am not interested in any way in a salmon fishery, nor have I any fishing rights over any salmon river. Therefore I do not raise this matter from any personal point of view. But I am a conservator of the Dublin district, and I am calling attention to this persistent remission of poaching fines at the request of a conference of fishery conservators in Ireland. It has been suggested that it would be much fairer if appeals in these cases could be heard by the County Court Judge sitting alone. I know I shall be at once met by the objection that this would be an interference with the prerogative of the Lord Lieutenant. I was met by that objection in Lord Cadogan's time. But I submit that the County Court Judge would sit in the district and be able to hear the whole of the circumstances of each case. The Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, on the other hand, has to be advised by the Law Officers of the Crown, who, may I say, know nothing whatever of the local bearings of the various cases. I venture to say that the practice of remitting fines on offenders who have been previously convicted reduces the whole procedure to an absurdity. I think the idea of bringing in the County Court Judge a good one. At all events, may we hope that the Lord Lieutenant will moderate his zeal in remitting fines. If less kindness were shown to poachers it would be better for all, because these poachers often take the spawning salmon out of the streams, thereby doing an immense amount of harm.
§ Moved, That there be laid before the House a Return showing (1) Fines inflicted on offenders against the fishery laws during the last three years; (2) Where the Lord Lieutenant remitted such fines there having been a previous conviction or convictions against the offenders; (3) Where the Lord Lieutenant remitted such fines when the magistrates adjudicating did not recommend reductions.—(The Earl of Mayo.)
§ LORD ASHBY ST. LEDGERS
My Lords, this is, as the noble Earl reminded you, not the first time that this question has been before your Lordships' House. Indeed there was a debate in 1903 on 884 the subject when the whole matter was gone into rather exhaustively. I shall have something to quote from that debate a little later on. But first let me say that we fully recognise the importance of maintaining a firm administration of the fishery laws in Ireland, but the fact of the matter is that the fishery code enjoys a peculiarity in so far as it fixes, not a maximum fine which is to be imposed, but a minimum fine. That is very unusual, and I think the noble Earl will admit that it would have been very much better if this minimum had never existed in the code, for this reason. Magistrates have no option on conviction but to impose the minimum fine. They do so knowing that this fine is subject to appeal to the Lord Lieutenant and very often subject to reduction. What would be the state of affairs supposing the Lord Lieutenant as a matter of practice did not diminish these fines? I think that in many cases the magistrates would fail to convict altogether. They would feel that the fine was much greater than the necessities of the case involved, and in many cases, sooner than impose what they would regard as a grossly excessive fine, they would fail to convict altogether. The fact of the matter is that this discretionary power in the Lord Lieutenant is really important in making the Act effective and operative. The noble Earl asked, why not have another authority. He challenged the present authority, and thought the Lord Lieutenant was not the right person to exercise discretionary power.
§ LORD ASHBY ST. LEDGERS
As a matter of fact, the Lord Lieutenant cannot divest himself of the responsibility connected with his prerogative of mercy. I may tell the noble Earl that the Lord Lieutenant goes into these cases very carefully. Before coining to a decision he consults, I am told, the magistrates who had convicted, the conservators who were responsible for the proceedings, and the local constabulary. I do not think the noble Earl suggests that the Lord Lieutenant does not realise what his responsibility is, or that he does not take sufficient pains to come to a proper decision in each case.
THE EARL OF MAYO
Does the noble Lord suggest that all these parties are brought up to Dublin Castle to be examined by the Lord Lieutenant?
§ LORD ASHBY ST. LEDGERS
I did not say that; but the Lord Lieutenant, I am told, enters into communication with the magistrates, the conservators, and the local constabulary in every case before coming to a decision. He never acts without the fullest inquiry into the case. With regard to the Return for which the noble Earl has asked, it would be possible to give him a Return showing the number of fines inflicted on offenders during the last three years; that could be ascertained, but the noble Earl will see that it would involve reference to all the local Courts, some 600 in number, and it would involve a considerable amount of work. The same thing applies to cases where a previous conviction or convictions against offenders have existed. That also could be ascertained with some trouble, but I really hope the noble Earl will not press us to give him this Return. He seems to possess the gist of the information himself, and he can give it to your Lordships' House. I suggest to him that it would be hardly worth while putting the officials to all this trouble for the purpose of getting the exact figures. Therefore I hope he will not press Nos. 1 and 2 of his Motion.
But when we come to No. 3 of the Motion—a Return showing where the Lord Lieutenant remitted such fines when the magistrates adjudicating did not recommend reductions—there I think he will see that it is quite impossible to give him the Return. There is no sort of precedent for challenging, or, indeed, inquiring into, the exact way in which in each case the Lord Lieutenant in the exercise of his prerogative came to his decision. The exercise of the prerogative of mercy is a duty which is cast upon various high officers of State, and there is no precedent for giving, and we could not possibly give, the reasons upon which those officers acted in the particular cases. I am rather fortified in taking that view, because when I look back to the debate which took place in 1903 I find that a similar Motion was made by Lord Ardilaun; and Lord Ashbourne, in replying, said it would be quite impossible to give the Return. He said—It asks for the number of cases and the amounts involved, but nothing would be more misleading without the reasons that were operating on the Lord Lieutenant, and it would be quite impossible to give those reasons. The Lord Lieutenant goes into the cases with great care. The reports of the magistrates are fully considered and everything is weighed and balanced before a decision is arrived at. Without indicating what are the reasons, which it would be impossible to give, the Return would be most misleading.That is my answer to the noble Earl on 886 this point. As I have tried to explain, we fully realise the responsibility of enforcing the fishery laws in Ireland. At the same time we think that the power of diminishing fines is a valuable provision in itself in making the fishery code actually operative. Although it is possible to give the noble Earl the information in reply to Nos. 1 and 2, it is quite impossible to do so in regard to No. 3. But with regard to Nos. 1 and 2, I hope the noble Earl will not think it necessary to press for this Return.
THE EARL OF DUNRAVEN
My Lords, I rather hope my noble friend will press for these first two Returns. It seems to me that they would give us very valuable information. As to the third, no doubt the difficulty is, as the noble Lord opposite has mentioned, that it is quite impossible to inquire into the reasons why the Lord Lieutenant exercised the Royal prerogative. At the same time, would it be impossible to ascertain from the magistrates the cases in which they had recommended reductions? The noble Lord has told us that the Lord Lieutenant always inquires from the magistrates, the conservators, and the Police force. No doubt that is the case; but it would, I think, be a very valuable contribution to discussions on this question if information could be given to your Lordships as to the number of cases in which the magistrates had recommended reductions. I rather gather from what the noble Lord said that some alteration in the code is necessary; that the cause of this great evil is to be found in the fact that the code insists upon the imposition of a minimum fine. I understood that in the noble Lord's opinion the minimum fine is in many cases excessive, or that the magistrates would consider it excessive, and, rather than inflict it, would not convict at all. That may be the ease, I dare say, very often in what I may call minor charges of poaching—taking salmon out of condition—but it does nor affect the graver evil such as fishing with stake nets in close time, and matters of that kind. The fines inflicted are barely sufficient in themselves to act as a deterrent, and when they are reduced, as they always are, to a fourth or a fifth of the regular amounts it is really absurd. It is like fining a man a shilling for committing an illegal act which brings him in £10. The effect of it, of course, is to bring the law into utter contempt, to discourage conservators from doing their duty, and to make the administration of the fishery law in Ireland perfectly absurd.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, the noble Lord who speaks for the Irish Office said with great truth that this was not a new grievance. It has been more than once discussed in your Lordships' House, and I am hound to say in common fairness that, it is not only the present Lord Lieutenant of Ireland but other Lord Lieutenants who have preceded him who have pursued the same disastrous practice of indiscriminately reducing the fines imposed on people convicted of this sort of offence. It is quite true, as the noble Lord told us, that there is a certain want of elasticity in the present code, and there may be cases in which the minimum fine is too high. Nobody would for a moment he extreme to mark if in such cases the fines were reduced. But what is within our knowledge is that there are cases where the destruction of breeding fish has been carried on in the most reckless manner, sometimes by the use of poisonous weeds which are to be obtained with great ease on the banks of most of these rivers, with the result that not only a large number of mature fish are killed, but that every small fish in the river, the whole of the breeding stock of the future, is simply wiped out of existence in the space of a couple of hours In a case of that kind, where the culprits are able to go away, as they have sometimes, with fifty, sixty, or even a hundred salmon, to impose upon them a fine of a couple of sovereigns is really to make the law ridiculous.
We know how the thing happens. Pressure—political pressure—is put on the Lord Lieutenant, and the fine is reduced to please somebody or other who is pestering him on behalf of a neighbour or a constituent. In these circumstances it is really impossible to expect that the conservators of fisheries can carry out their duties with any hope of success or with any degree of efficiency. The noble Lord is probably aware how extremely difficult and dangerous it sometimes is to obtain evidence in such a case. But when you get a case where, in spite of many obstacles, evidence has been procured, a conviction obtained, and a fine not unreasonable in view of the circumstances imposed, the fine is almost automatically reduced. The noble Lord stated that the Lord Lieutenant consults the magistrates and the conservators. Perhaps he does; but is he guided by them? I will undertake to say that a number of cases could be produced in which remissions 888 have been made in defiance of the strongest possible protest from the conservators, who know how disastrous the policy of the Irish Government is to the business in which they are concerned.
Then the noble Lord used an ingeiousn argument. He said the magistrates would not convict, if the full fine were to be insisted upon. That may be true. But that clearly would only be applicable to comparatively trivial cases, but not to cases of wholesale destruction such as those to which I referred a moment ago. The Irish Government have really no excuse for their behaviour in this matter. Not very long ago they appointed a Departmental Committee to inquire into the whole question of these inland Irish fisheries, particularly in view of the results of the large transfer of land to the occupying tenants, a transfer which sometimes carries with it control over the adjoining waters. Let me tell the noble Lord what he will find if he will look at the Report of that Committee. The Committee are impressed by the enormous value of the fisheries of Ireland as a national property. They say their value may be fairly estimated at something like £500,000 per annum. The number of men—and this is important—who fish for salmon, not as the owners of private fisheries but on Common Law rights, is approximately 8,000. These are men who depend for their living upon the preservation of these fisheries. In addition to those, there are all the men who earn their living by attending private fisheries and accompanying private fishermen all over the country. The whole of these people are materially concerned in saving this particular industry from destruction.
Then the Committee make this very important observation. They say that there is a clear distinction in this case between the preservation of salmon and the preservation of game. The preservation of game, of course, is quite a different matter. If you destroy grouse or partridge you only injure the unfortunate individual who is concerned with that particular grouse or partridge shooting, but when you destroy salmon fisheries you are injuring not only the owner of the river fishery but all the people who depend for a livelihood upon the preservation of the stock of breeding fish. The Committee say with great truth that the stock of salmon in these rivers is in the main public 889 property, and that is really the way to look at it; and the Committee add that this asset of public property inures to the benefit of working fishermen much more than to that of sportsmen or of the owners of proprietary netting rights. Then the Committee dwell upon the widespread prevalence of poaching and its disastrous effects, and say that a powerful effort ought to be made to preserve this great possession for the benefit of all. The noble Lord himself said that in his opinion, and in the opinion of those with whom he acts, the firm administration of the fishery law was an absolute necessity.
§ LORD ASHBY ST. LEDGERS
May I interrupt to ask the noble Marquess whether he alleges that poaching is on the increase.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I have no means of answering that question. I am resting myself upon the Report of a Departmental Committee appointed by the present Government. That Committee dwelt on the widespread prevalence of poaching and its disastrous effect and on the necessity of combating the illegal destruction of fish. I have no doubt whatever that the Committee believe that the thing is on the increase. I will tell the noble Lord why. Because a number of the tenants who have bought their land have no idea of the value of the fisheries and cannot be trusted to protect them. I remember hearing of a case where a farmer bought a farm with which he acquired a rather nice salmon pool, but he immediately proceeded to poison the salmon and take them out, thereby injuring not only his own property but his neighbours. What is the good of approving of a firm administration of the fishery law if the Lord Lieutenant seizes every possible opportunity of reducing fines indiscriminately and therefore turning the fishery law into disrepute.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, I am sorry that on the Benches opposite, as it happens, none of the noble Lords, four in number I think, who have in former times filled the position of Viceroy of 890 Ireland, happen now to be sitting. I am able to speak from my own experience of that office, and I can say—I have no doubt that the other noble Lords who have been Viceroy would bear me out—that this question of fish poaching in Ireland has always been a matter of serious preoccupation to the holder of that office and to the Irish Government. Before I left Ireland the movement for the encouragement of tourists was started, in which I took a warm personal interest. I presided at the first meeting which was held in Dublin of the association established for the development of Ireland as a tourist centre, and I remember pointing out that among the attractions of Ireland to the traveller one of the greatest was its remarkable capabilities for fishing; that Irish people ought to understand that, by allowing the indiscriminate sort of poaching that 'went on and not discouraging it, they were in this particular respect killing the goose that laid the golden eggs; and that all Irishmen therefore ought to combine to endeavour to bring public opinion to bear to check the propensity for poaching which seems to belong to so many Irishmen.
It is true that there was, and I have no doubt there is, a vast amount of indiscriminate poaching, much of it of the most stupid and senseless kind. The spearing of spawning fish in the shallows when they are so red as to be absolutely unfit for any kind of human food was a common act. Then the noble Marquess mentioned the poisoning of pools by the wild spurge which grows by the riverside, which is a most deadly poison to fish, and I have no doubt there has been of late, as there was in my time, a vast amount of that particular kind of damage. But I think it is important to draw a distinction, when one collies to consider this question of fines, between the large and systematic forms of poaching and the far more numerous cases where a few young sons of farmers, irresponsible young men, combine together and go out fishing, partly enjoying the lark and partly, I suppose, in the hopes of getting a few fish. In my time the vast proportion of cases were of the latter character, and in those cases it was undoubtedly a most frequent practice to reduce, sometimes to a considerable extent, the fines imposed. I should be sorry to say in every case of a fine which I reduced that I was asked to do so by the con- 891 victing Bench, but, as noble Lords very well know, in Ireland it is very often more upon the Police report than upon the actual recommendations of the Bench that the Viceroy has to be guided in reducing or remitting fines. Upon that, as upon practically every other subject on which one requires information as Lord Lieutenant it was the Constabulary to whom one looked for it, and I freely admit. that in a great number of cases I did reduce the fines, after consultation as a rule with my legal adviser.
What the precise practice of my noble friend who is now Lord Lieutenant has been I do not know. I have not looked into the particular circumstances mentioned by the noble Earl opposite, and therefore I cannot give an opinion, but I should expect to find, if there had been a great number of remissions, that most of them at any rate had been in cases, not of carefully organised poaching where stake net fishing is involved, but of the minor though exceedingly mischievous kind which I have already mentioned; and when the noble Earl states the total figures of the reductions which have taken place in certain counties those figures do not disturb my conviction that such is probably the case, because in those minor cases owing to the existence of a minimum fine the reductions on paper no doubt look somewhat serious. But I must remind the House that when, for cases of ordinary river poaching, men living in a small mud cabin in one of the western counties, and subsisting on, perhaps, almost the smallest income on which life can be supported, are subjected to a fine of several pounds, it is quite clear that they simply cannot pay and that they have to go to prison. There is an actual pecuniary disadvantage to the conservators in sending a man to prison instead of obliging him to pay a fine of the dimensions which he is able to produce, and I think it will be found that all Viceroys have preferred as a rule to reduce the fine to a sum which is within the possible means of the culprit to pay rather than continue to impose a fine which almost automatically sends him to gaol. That being so, I cannot feel that the mere fact that large reductions have taken place altogether warrants the very severe language which the noble Marquess has used about the manner in which the discretion of His Majesty's present Viceroy has been exercised—although to some extent I think he included all past Viceroys 892 in his condemnation. I think he will see that it is reasonable that a considerable percentage of reductions should be made in respect of this particular offence, and so long as the law remains as it is in my belief whoever is Viceroy will find it necessary to make a good many. My noble friend behind me speaks on behalf of the Irish Office, and, as I have said, I am not acquainted with the particular circumstances and do not therefore pretend to put forward any personal defence for the action of my noble friend the present Lord Lieutenant, but I thought it wise to mention from the results of my own experience what my general impression of what has occurred is, and I do not know that any noble Lord opposite will be found to contradict what I have said.
THE EARL OF MAYO
I do not know whether the noble Lord opposite will actually resist giving the Returns as regards Nos. 1 and 2 of my Motion. People connected with fishing possess one virtue, and that is patience. If this information could be given by degrees it would do; we are in no great hurry for it. I foresaw that it might be impossible to get the information under No. 3. But might it not be given in this way—the number of cases where the magistrates did not recommend reductions.
§ LORD ASHBY ST. LEDGERS
As I have said, it is possible to grant the Returns in answer to Nos. 1 and 2, and if the noble Earl presses for them we must get them, but they will involve a great deal of trouble and take a good deal of time. But with regard to No. 3, I am afraid I cannot make any promise. The noble Earl must appreciate that the exercise of the prerogative is not a matter upon which—
§ LORD ASHBY ST. LEDGERS
But it is to get at the same information. The noble Earl seems to me to be criticising the action of the Lord Lieutenant in his exercise of the prerogative of mercy. I do not think there is any precedent for the exercise of the prerogative being questioned or criticised either in this House or in another place, and I must decline to give the noble Earl that information.
THE EARL OF MAYO
Very well; I withdraw No. 3 from my Motion, and move for a Return showing (1) Fines inflicted on offenders against the fishery laws during the last three years; and (2) where the Lord Lieutenant remitted such fines there having been a previous conviction or convictions against the offenders.
§ On Question, Motion, as amended, agreed to, and ordered accordingly.