HL Deb 30 March 1965 vol 264 cc988-1003

4.49 p.m.


rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what consideration has been given to the Report of the Committee on Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries presided over by Viscount Bledisloe which reported in May, 1961; and when action is expected. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, it is an agreeable experience to me to find myself discharging a question in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Champion, because in other days in another place he used to bombard me with the most lethal interrogations and, your Lordships will not be surprised to know, with that subtle charm which seemed to imply, "You are advised to attempt not more than three questions." To-day I want to make it clear that it is not my object to make a violent attack on the Government, but, on the contrary, on the eve of the debate to-morrow, by gentle words to lull the noble Lord into a sense of false security.

What I want to ask him to-day whether he will tell us what the Government's intentions are in relation to the Report of the Committee under the distinguished chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Bledisloe which reported in 1961. I should like to ask him, if I may, whether he shares the opinion of the last Government, which certainly I do, that this Report was an able, authoritative and most useful one. If so, when do the Government propose legislation to give effect to the recommendations? I would also ask whether the noble Lord would tell us if the Government accept broadly the recommendations of that Report.

I must own, my Lords, that I feel a certain parental responsibility in this matter because it was I, when I was Minister of Agriculture, who had the temerity to invite my noble friend, Lord Bledisloe, and his colleagues to undertake this task. Unhappily I understand that it is on record that I assured the Committee that their Report, when they made one, would not be pigeon-holed. Exactly the minimum effluxion of time that constitutes the process of pigeonholing I am not quite sure—I do not feel a competent enough ornithologist to lay down the law about that—but I fear that four years probably does constitute pigeon-holing. It certainly seems to go beyond the process of "immediate consideration" or "urgent consideration" or even "active consideration". I own that I feel a certain guilt complex here—a unique sensation, I hasten to assure your Lordships, in my case—but the members of this Committee were very busy people, and at the risk of bringing a blush to the cheeks of my noble friend Lord Bledisloe I would say that at the time we felt we were very fortunate indeed to secure their services, and I, for one, would deeply regret it if they had any reason to feel that their time had been wasted.

I understand that my noble friend the Duke of Devonshire may remind us of certain actions that the last Government took to give effect to several of the recommendations, and I understand that the last Government, had it not been for the fact that they have been temporarily superseded, intended to introduce specific legislation to give effect to the recommendations generally. In another place Sir Tufton Beamish recently tried to bring forward a Bill—it seemed to me an excellent one—to deal with some of the recommendations, in particular those dealing with the use of explosives, poisons and electrical devices and damage to weirs and sluices, but by mischance (the kind of mischance that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, will remember does occur in another place) that Bill failed, I think, to obtain the possibility of getting a Second Reading.

I do not propose to comment about the particular recommendations because my friends tell me that if there is a defect in my character it is that I am no fisherman; therefore, I should not feel qualified to do so. But I understand that one or two of my noble friends have some observations that they would like to make. Therefore I propose to confine myself to asking the noble Lord, as I have said, whether the Government broadly accept the recommendations, and, if so, when they hope to be able to take action to give effect to them.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, many anglers in England in all walks of life will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Amory for having asked this Question about the Bledisloe Report. As the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, has pointed out, my noble friend Lord Bledisloe and his Committee reported in 1961. Since then the Report has gone to ground; and I am a willing ferret to get something out. The task of the Bledisloe Committee was to review the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Acts, 1923 to 1935, and their operation, and whenever a question has been raised on the Bledisloe Report since then there has always been the same answer, that there was no room as yet in the Government's programme.

But there is one thing that urgently needs to be done now; that is, to protect the fisheries from a growing evil, that of poaching on a great and piratical scale. There is, for example, a poison called cymag, which I believe is officially approved by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for killing rabbits. For all I know, it may even carry a subsidy. Certainly there is no real hindrance to its purchase, and I think no regulation against its storage. It is, therefore, very easy for anyone to obtain this poison, either at first hand or at secondhand. It is very convenient stuff for a blackguard to put into a salmon river, where it kills every salmon within reach; and it does so silently. Not only does it kill all types of fish: it also destroys all forms of insect life upon which fish depend.

In Scotland, the authorities became aware earlier of the dangers of this sort of poaching. A new law was brought in by the last Labour Government which heavily increased the penalties for what I call "cymag-ing" in Scotland and enabled salmon suspected of having been caught by "cymag-ing" to be seized and forfeited. In a serious case, this law gave the court power to order the forfeiture of any motor vehicle or boat used in the commission of the offence. This last provision, of course, frightened people from lending their lorries to poachers. I understand that the general opinion in Scotland is that that Act, has been almost completely successful in preventing this poisoning of rivers. But "cymag-ing" still continues in Scotland, partly, I think, because of the lack of any control on the sale of salmon in the open season.

Now we are getting "cymag-ing" of English rivers, particularly in Cumberland and other Northern counties. Here I must declare an interest in this matter. I own about 21 miles of salmon and trout rivers in Cumberland and, in addition, two lakes, Bassenthwaite Lake and Wastwater, and various mountain streams and tarns. But as a result I can claim to know something about this subject. There may be an impression that salmon fishing is a "perk" of noble Lords and Dukes and tycoons.

A NOBLE LORD: And Viscounts.


But this is not the case so far as my own fishings are concerned. I allot fishing on my rivers in Cumberland to about 1,100 rods, and of these about 1,020 are the workers, by which I mean 1,020 good working men—many of them miners who work underground. Fishing is their joy, and their joy is being ruined by these people coming and "cymag-ing" the rivers in which they fish.

Last year a gang came along and with cymag killed a multitude of fish. I cannot describe to your Lordships the distress this caused to all these good labouring people. Canon German, the Rector of the Parish of Egremont, spoke eloquently of the distress it had caused local people who work so hard. And the Minister of Agriculture himself is, I am sure, familiar with this, problem, particularly in Cumberland. I am sure that he would want to do his best to put it right. There are also some of the more noisy poachers who use dynamite. There are others who use electrical devices; and yet others who may wreck dams, floodgates or sluices with intent to take or destroy fish.

What I am talking about is not poaching for the pot. In West Cumberland, which I know best, poaching has become a nefarious industry, run by disgraceful pirates, depredators, working against their own side. It has been said that every man, deep down, is a fisherman, and I think that, deep down, every man is a fisherman. Good old Izaak Walton wrote that anglers were quiet-spirited men free from those restless thoughts which corrode the sweets of life. My object now is to make a plea for the protection of such people against the wicked corroding of their waters.

What such people want is the out-of-date penalties of the Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries Act, 1923, brought up to date to meet modern conditions. The 1923 Act contains penalties designed merely to stop the odd poacher who snatches the odd salmon. Quite a number of people have a sneaking regard for that sort of chap. But to-day the organised gangs—those, for example, who use cymag—are really criminals who need dealing with accordingly. Give our police and magistrates the necessary powers by implementing the recommendations of the Bledisloe Report in this regard, and these criminals will be dealt with as they are already dealt with in Scotland.

I speak in no Party political sense, and I am sure that what my noble friend Lord Amory has been saying, and what I have been saying, will have a large measure of sympathy from the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and from the Minister of Agriculture. I am trying to speak for all those who have fishing at heart. For their sakes, and for the sakes of the people in Cumberland about whom I have been speaking, and to achieve this end, Sir Tufton Beamish has introduced in another place a Bill to repeal and re-enact Section 9 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1923. The Bill has, I believe, support from both sides of his House, but it has got blocked. What the good fishermen of England need is protection against these criminal activities, and I venture to suggest that it is for us in Parliament to seek to find that protection for them.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, I, like my noble friend Lord Egremont, must also declare an interest in the subject we are debating. Indeed, I must declare an interest for a variety of reasons: first of all, because, although very unskilful, I am a keen angler and I like fishing a very great deal. Indeed, in this I differ very much from my noble friend Lord Amory, who said that one of the few faults in his character was that he was not an angler. I am constantly being criticised for spending far too much time fishing and not nearly enough time on more serious and important matters. I must also declare an interest in that I have the honour and privilege of being a member of the Fishmongers' Company, so I am concerned, as it were, with the end product of angling. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have the privilege of being President of the Anglers' Co-operative Association, which represents the interests of half-a-million fishermen in this country, mostly, but not all, concerned with coarse fishing as opposed to game fishing. So with regard to anything to do with angling, I am in it up to the hilt.

If I may possibly anticipate what the noble Lord, Lord Champion, will say in reply, I think he may well say, "You ask us to find time for legislation. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, reported in 1961. Why did you not do it?" That, I think, is fair comment, and to try to anticipate that defence I would say that the last Government met a very considerable number of the recommendations put forward in Lord Bledisloe's Report. There were in the Report, I think, 151 recommendations, and a considerable number of the more important ones were met during the lifetime of the last Government. Recommendations 47 to 53, which are concerned with the very important matter of water extraction, were covered by the Water Resources Act, 1963. Recommendations 54 to 72, which are on the equally important matter of river pollution, were largely met by two Private Bills now on the Statute Book. Recommendations 73 to 83 which are concerned with the strengthening of river boards and setting up river authorities were also met by the Water Resources Act, 1963. So much has been done, though by no means all the recommendations have been met.

My noble friend Lord Egremont made reference to the great evil of "cymaging", and to defeat this evil I think legislation is required on the lines of Recommendations 1 to 3 of the Report. These make suggestions for the strengthening of the penalties against the use of poisons, explosives, and electronic devices in rivers and lakes. I would ask the noble Lord opposite most urgently to give serious consideration to bringing in legislation to meet these points.

In the weeks and months that lie ahead we are going to have much contentious and indeed acrimonious debate. Great and important matters are going to come before this House, such as the question of the nationalisation of steel, and whether the death penalty should be abolished. I am not suggesting for a moment that legislation to meet further recommendations of the Bledisloe Report are of that national importance. But I would just say this: whether or not steel is nationalised, important though it may be, will not add one whit to the sum of human happiness of the people of this country. And if hanging should be abolished, it is possibly true to say that that might add to the happiness of perhaps a condemned man and his close family, though I am not at all sure that it would; but it would make only a few people happier.

Fortunately, in this country there are still vastly more anglers than murderers, and therefore if the Government could find time for legislation, which would be entirely uncontroversial and would get through literally on the nod, it would make hundreds of thousands of people very much happier. Such legislation would not be to enable rich men to indulge in their expensive and privileged sport. I was not wholly sure that I was flattered when my noble friend Lord Egremont coupled Dukes with tycoons. I think if I had the choice I would rather be a tycoon, to be absolutely honest. But I can say, in all sincerity and with absolute truth, that the 500,000 members of the Anglers' Co-operative Association, which represents those who like coarse fishing, above all else would back 100 per cent. any legislation along the lines of Recommendations 1 to 3 that could be introduced.

It is not for me to offer advice to the Government—indeed, the last thing that I should wish them to do is to win the next Election—but I wonder whether they could see their way to introducing this legislation. Perhaps it would not mean that more fish would be caught, but it might catch them a few votes. I leave that to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, to put to his colleagues. All I would say is that this evil exists and legislation would not protect the interests of the privileged. A Bill is something that would find support throughout the country; it would add to the sum of human happiness, and would take up virtually no Parliamentary time at all.

Before closing, I should like to add my own tribute to my noble friend Lord Bledisloe for his Report. It it not often that I read a Government Report through from cover to cover, but I have done this one, and I can say that it is a most interesting document. I can say that all of us who like angling and country and rural pursuits are deeply grateful to him and to his Committee for all the trouble that they took. I think they sat for three and a half years compiling this Report. I would say that the least we can do is to see that all the recommendations are duly implemented. I hope that the Government will see their way to bringing in legislation that will at least meet some, if not all, of the recommendations in the Report.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to speak this afternoon on the Report of my Committee, but I should like to take this opportunity to thank my noble friends Lord Amory and the Duke of Devonshire for the kind things they have said about the work of the Committee. We did sit over a period of three and a half years. The members of the Committee had various, and to some extent conflicting, interests. They minimised their differences and they produced a unanimous Report, which was rather surprising in the circumstances. I think it was a Report that commended itself to those interested in fisheries.

I would remind your Lordships that fishing is certainly not a rich man's sport. As we saw from the evidence we had called before the Committee, a large number of working-class people find great relaxation in fishing, and they were perhaps the people keenest to give evidence before us. I do not wish to address your Lordships on the Report. As I was Chairman of the Committee, I think it would be improper for me to do so.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, my friends say that my two hobbies are arguing and fishing, and to that extent I declare an interest. But I have not the privilege of being a Duke or a tycoon, and I do not own a river. Nevertheless, I know many rivers, and fish on a good many also. I think all those of us who are interested in angling and in rivers owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Amory for raising this matter. But I did not think he needed to be quite so depressed as he seemed to me to be about the fact that Lord Bledisloe's Report has been in the cupboard for four years. I sat in this House for day after day, when I think Lord Amory was doing his signal duty in Canada, when we dealt with the Water Resources Bill. Surely that Act did a great deal to implement many of the aspects of the Bledisloe Report. It gave powers to the new authorities which were set up to deal with a great many of the subjects, such as abstraction and pollution and so on, and the rationing of water when the minimum level was not available, and all the rest of it.

I should like to ask the Government to what extent the Act is operating, and how far this minimum level, which is so important, is being maintained, and whether complaints are being received that water is being abstracted so that the minimum level is not being maintained. Perhaps one of the most important things about abstraction is to try to abstract the water from the bottom of a river instead of from the top. That was one of the recommendations of the Bledisloe Committee. It has a true ring in the ear for me, thinking, of Lake Windermere and some of the rivers in the Lake District, when the Manchester Corporation now propose to come to Parliament for powers to abstract water from the top of some rivers and even from some of the lakes. I sincerely hope that the Government will set a stern face against this proposal, and will tell them to look again to see whether they cannot get the water from the bottom of the river. Whilst it would be a little more expensive, they would get just as much water. As I say, there is no reason why the thirsty millions of Manchester should not have their water, but there is also no reason why they should not pay for it and get it from places so as to damage the countryside least.

About pollution, I should like to ask whether the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is satisfied that pollution is being slowly brought under control and the position is improving. I should like, too, to refer to the Bill which my old friend Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish brought to the House of Commons and which, so I have heard to-day, was blocked by time or some other reason about which I know not. As is known to those of us who have been in the Commons, it is exceedingly hard for a private Member to get a Bill through its courses. In my time there I had one or two small Bills which I managed to persuade the Whips of both Parties to agree to. I got them (I think the term is) "starred", which means that the Government have adopted the Bills. As a change from the terrible controversy that I am sure is going to arise in another place, and perhaps here, in the next two months, why do not the Government star this little Bill of Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish and give themselves at least one day of peace and unanimity in a House which I am sure will greatly need it?

I do not want to delay the House. I want only to say that any steps that can be taken to preserve and maintain this heritage of ours of beautiful rivers—I would stress that rivers have a beauty not only for the angler but for all who live near, or on, or by them, or who can go and enjoy them—and our fishing, will not only be a fine contribution towards the economy of the country, but also a good contribution towards its health and happiness.

5.18 p.m.


My Lords, I certainly could not complain about the tone of the debate that has arisen on this Unstarred Question. Indeed, if noble Lords will keep it over to-morrow I shall be most happy. I rather fear that that may not be the case, but I shall have to do my best at any rate to keep it so, so far as I personally am concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, referred to the Water Resources Act and the Authority set up under that Act. I am afraid that they have not yet begun to work. They do not start their job properly until April 1; but of course, the point that he has mentioned is one which must be much in their minds, because they were set up to do precisely the sort of job that the noble Lord has mentioned, and I am fairly sure that we can leave it to them to do it. I hope to reply later in my speech to the point that he has made about pollution. This, too, is an extremely important point in this connection. I am delighted that the noble Viscount has raised this matter to-day. He said at the outset that he is not an angler, but I have a long experience of the noble Viscount and I certainly know that he knows how to fish for a reply. If it is possible for me to give a reply to his Question to-day, I certainly will attempt to give it.

I have listened with tremendous interest to what noble Lords have said—the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, the noble Duke and the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, and also the Chairman of the Committee which sat upon this matter. On behalf of Her Majesty's Government I must pay a tribute to the Committee which sat under Lord Bledisloe's chairmanship for the thoroughness with which they performed the task given to them by the noble Viscount, Lord Amory. With the noble Viscount, I have a lot of sympathy with the general principle that when a problem has been examined in great detail by a Committee of Inquiry it is desirable that any consequential action which ought to flow from it should be taken without any undue delay. I hate, as he does, the practice of pigeon-holing, but of course this has to be done from time to time, and I suppose the last Government thought that they had to pigeon-hole the matter for a period. Now it is our job to pluck this out of the pigeon-hole, give it consideration, and then decide what to do, and eventually to present to Parliament what we hope will be the solution to some of the difficulties which remain, even though we have had certain action on it.

I think I may be permitted at this point to remind your Lordships of the scope of the inquiry and the nature of the recommendations made by the Committee. The Committee, which was appointed by the noble Viscount when he was Minister of Agriculture, was asked to review the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Acts and their operation. The principal Act was the Act of 1923, which contains the main code by which the salmon and freshwater fisheries of this country are regulated. The Committee was also asked to take into account the River Boards Act, which deals with the machinery of the administration of the fisheries by the river boards.

Considering the time which had elapsed since the principal Act reached the Statute Book and the fact that much of the current law which governs fisheries in this country dates back to years very much before 1923, clearly there was a case for such a review. The Committee found that very much had happened since 1923 which had had repercussions on fisheries: the increasing demands for water by industry; the increasing problems of sewage works and of factories discharging their effluents into rivers. In addition, since 1923 there has been a wholly desirable increase in angling as a sport. I agree with those who have praised angling as an enjoyable and worthwhile activity, and it is our job to try to improve the facilities and the waters available for it.

In this connection I would specially welcome the words of the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, for I must admit that I was very much under the impression that, as he put it, salmon fishing was the "perk" of noble Lords, Dukes and tycoons. I rather thought this was the case, and I certainly liked his assurance in this connection that out of some 1,100 rods on his Cumberland rivers he lets 1,020 to good working men, as he called them. I am one of those "good working men", but unfortunately do not live near enough to his area to participate in these advantages of the rivers which he throws open to those among whom I would number myself. As we know, the Report also deals with all types of freshwater fishing, not only salmon fishing.

Perhaps I may be permitted to summarise briefly the Committee's findings on this point. First, they said that conservation must continue to be the guiding policy and fisheries must be guided to this end. Secondly, a number of the provisions of the existing law are obsolete and must be changed. Thirdly, the river board must continue to be the regulatory body subject to the Minister's control, and the Minister should devolve some of the detailed control to river boards. Fourthly, the various statutory restrictions and regulations, such as those provided in Clause 2 and for particular methods of fishing, should be replaced by local by-laws, thus making for greater elasticity. Finally, they recommended that the penalties for certain serious offences should be increased.

I hope that my brief summary will give offence to no one, particularly to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, for the summary is very much of a general character. As one of your Lordships has mentioned, the Committee made no fewer than 151 recommendations, of which 90 would involve legislation. If action on those recommendations has been delayed it is not wholly the responsibility of the present Government. I say this in no critical spirit and I have no desire to make a Party point, but this is the fact. This report has been available for a fair time, and there has been no specific legislation on it, but as I shall mention later on, they did certain things some of which have been mentioned by the noble Duke himself.

In connection with possible future action, we must remember that the Report did not disclose serious difficulties in the existing legislation which called for an urgent remedy. They did not find, for instance, that the fisheries were in a state of decline due to inadequate legislation. They pointed out that despite the dangers from pollution and water abstraction, the practice of returning fresh water coarse fish to the water had effectively preserved the stocks. They found no evidence that the present stocks of salmon and sea trout are declining. They also considered that the administration by the river boards had brought considerable benefits to the fisheries, both because they had wider powers than the old fisheries hoards and because they had more funds at their disposal.

A11 this is no reason for doing nothing, but I think it fair to say that, taking the Report as a whole, its recommendations are not of such a character as would justify a high priority when there are so many demands on time. I have noted the advice of the noble Duke. He rather thinks that if we did something about this we should come back with an even greater majority than we had last year. I will pass his advice to my friends who might be considering when to go to the country, as to whether we ought not perhaps to delay it until after we have introduced this legislation. But, my Lords, I feel that the House will agree that this is not the sort of matter which should have a very high priority.

There is, too, the fact—and this was pointed out by the noble Duke—that since the Report appeared there has been important legislation in connection with pollution and water abstraction. Your Lordships will remember the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1961, and the Water Resources Act, 1963, both of which will undoubtedly improve conditions in the fisheries, and will directly meet certain recommendations contained in the Report. In addition to those Government measures, one of the Committee's recommendations relating to salmon netting has been dealt with as a result of a Private Member's Bill, and there is at present a Bill before another place with Government support. I mention this point because it was particularly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Lonsdale. The Government are certainly supporting this Bill and would like to see it passed. If, for some reason, the Bill does not have a Second Reading in another place. I rather hope that lack of ingenuity will not prevent someone from bringing in such a Bill here, where it may go through fairly easily, and then perhaps more easily get through the other place, having passed through here. But I am not issuing invitations.


My Lords, would the noble Lord say whether the Bill which is receiving Government support is the Tufton Beamish Bill or another one?


My Lords, I am sorry that I did not make that as clear as I ought to have done. The Bill before another place is to strengthen the law against poaching by means of the poisoning of water. That is Sir Tufton Beamish's Bill. This has Government support, and we are very much hoping that this Bill will somehow find its way on to the Statute Book during this present Session of Parliament. I hope that we shall use our ingenuity in this House, if they fail to get it through in another place, for on this matter of the poisoning of waters I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, who used strong words—and justifiably.

I must admit that I have a certain amount of sympathy for the poacher; and perhaps this, too, is a result of my own background. But I like poachers who use what I call "clean methods", and I hate the thought of poaching by means of poisoning the waters and destroying the fish. On this I am certainly in agreement with the noble Lord. I gather that he did not look with such a stern eye upon the clean poacher, the decent one, but he certainly did on the other one and, as I say, I am quite with him on this. Incidentally, I must admit that I liked his reference to Izaak Walton. I took The Compleat Angler with me on a speaking tour during the last election, and found that the book itself freed me from "those restless thoughts which corrode the sweets of life" when I got into bed after a day's speaking, even if angling did not do that at that time. I thought it right to remind the House of the developments which have taken place, and to demonstrate the fact that the Committee's recommendations have not been without intluence on Government policy.

What about the recommendations that still remain to be acted upon, which is really the whole point of the noble Viscount's Question? My right honourable friend appreciates the desire which has been expressed for an early formal statement of the Government's decision. Last November he saw a deputation from the interests concerned, and he was then urged to introduce early legislation. After careful consideration, my right honourable friend informed the three bodies concerned that, owing to the pressure on Parliamentary time, he could not promise very early legislation on the remaining recommendations. He feels that the next step should be a Government statement, which he will make as soon as practicable, upon the Government's conclusions, and that this will enable the interested bodies to make representations upon the statement and enable consultations to take place with them on the matters necessitating legislation.

As regards the timing of the announcement, my right honourable friend thinks it would be advisable to wait until he has had time to study the contents of the Hunter Committee's Report on the Scottish fisheries law, for as noble Lords will recognise, there must clearly be common ground between the problems in both countries. The Hunter Report is expected within the next two or three months, and I should think, my right honourable friend having the advantage of that Committee's Report plus the Bledisloe Committee's Report, upon which there has been a considerable preliminary examination, that should lead to a not too long delay in the announcement and, I hope, the subsequent legislation which should flow from it.