HL Deb 19 May 1970 vol 310 cc977-87

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Entry upon land]:

LORD CHORLEY moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 4, line 29, at end insert— ("Provided that no person shall be so authorised to enter upon any land the occupier of which is under a duty imposed by or pursuant to any enactment to preserve the natural aspect, features and animal and plant life of the land except for the purpose mentioned in paragraph (a) of this subsection.")

The noble Lord said: In moving the Amendment which stands in my name, I should like immediately to set the mind of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, at rest by telling him that I am not proposing to ask your Lordships to divide. When I put it down, of course we did not know, although we may have guessed, that this Parliament was getting near to its Dissolution Obviously, the news which was made public yesterday means that this Bill will be lost if this Amendment is accepted. The noble Earl has pertinaciously contended for this measure, which is a very reasonable measure on the whole, as I have endeavoured on behalf of the National Trust, for whom I am speaking, to make plain from the beginning. When my noble friend the Leader of the House spoke on Second Reading, he strongly advised me and the National Trust not to press the Amendment which, in my speech on that occasion, I foreshadowed. Of course, he had knowledge which I did not have. Naturally, we gave most careful consideration to that advice, because we know that he has the interests of the National Trust very much at heart—he has made that clear on a number of occasions. It was of course possible to guess that possibly there was something behind what he was saying, so we have in fact been considering this matter during the interval.

As I have said, this is a very useful Bill in many ways, particularly from the point of view of the conservation of the common seal, and although we on the National Trust feel strongly that the position which we have taken up about the seal colony on the Fame Islands is a reasonable one and we should like to ask your Lordships to consider it further, we feel that on the whole it is more valuable from everybody's point of view, including that of the Trust itself, that this Bill should become law as soon as possible so that, in particular the provisions for the conservation of the common seal may come into force at an early date.

There has been a good deal of criticism—indeed, there was criticism from the Benches of this House on the last occasion—of the National Trust for taking up this attitude. I should like to spend a few minutes in trying to persuade your Lordships that we have in fact taken up a very reasonable attitude from the start, and I hope that your Lordships will feel that what I have to say this afternoon on behalf of the National Trust is evidence that we have approached this matter in a reasonable way. We have never been satisfied, and we are not now satisfied, on the evidence, either on the scientific side or on the side of extensive damage to the salmon fisheries, which has been put for ward without any real attempt to prove it and which certainly is the sort of evidence which would be required if the matter were raised in a court of law or in a Select Committee upstairs. I should have liked to spend some little time on expatiating on this, but obviously your Lordships would feel that that was rather unreasonable at the present time. Therefore, I do not propose to say any thing more but simply that I do not propose formally to move the Amend ment. There was one other thing which—


May I interrupt my noble friend for a moment? I am not quite clear on the situation. Certainly he has the right to speak as often as he likes, but he said that he was not going to move the Amendment, in which case I am not quite sure why he spoke at all. If he wishes to deploy his case, I think the correct thing would be for him to move the Amendment (something which he was doing quite reasonably) and then, at the end, I think it would be reasonable, he having made his speech, to allow noble Lords who may disagree with him an opportunity to reply. If he now says that he is not moving his Amendment no such opportunity is open to them. He has made a speech, and nobody is allowed to answer it. So, with the greatest respect, may I suggest that he moves his Amendment, that the Lord Chairman puts the Amendment, and then the Committee will have an opportunity to debate it. Then, if my noble friend wishes to withdraw it at the end, he may. I would hope that this is the feeling of the Commitee.


Hear, hear!


I am most grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the House. Mine was a tactical error which I should like to correct. Before actually moving the Amendment, I should like to say that the National Trust have always taken the view that insufficient research has been done both on the scientific side and in relation to this alleged damage to salmon fisheries. The conference which was held in the spring of 1968 published—I am not sure that it was a public document—a report, of which a copy was given at that time to the National Trust. I devoted quite a lot of attention to this Report during the Committee stage last year of a Conservation of Seals Bill. One thing particularly emphasised in that report by the scientists who met at that conference was the need for a great deal more research. That, of course, was the main substance of the National Trust case, that not enough research had been done. If he can see his way to do so, I should like the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook—I am not sure that he speaks for the National Environment Research Council—or anybody else who is in a position to do so, to give an assurance that the point about research will not be overlooked and forgotten because we feel that we really ought to have such an assurance. I hope that somebody in a position to do so will be able to reassure us on that point. With those observations, I beg formally to move the Amendment.


Before the noble Lord speaks from the opposite Bench perhaps I may add a word. I always seem to be gently tangling with my noble friend Lord Chorley on procedure. As I understand it, your Lordships do not in fact speak in this House on behalf of any particular interest, and therefore it would be wrong in any way to attribute to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, that he is the agent of the Natural Environment Research Council; and I should have thought that in this matter the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, ought not, as it were, to be speaking on behalf of the National Trust, because they may hold different views. I do not doubt that he has had full consultation with them; but I have heard other views, and I think it right once again to put on record that we speak for ourselves.


Following upon what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has said, may I ask whether it is possible in these circumstances to speak on behalf of the Government?

3.38 p.m.


In replying to the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, I shall certainly speak from my own experience. Most certainly I am not authorised to reply on behalf of the N.E.R.C., or indeed on behalf of the National Conservancy, of which I am a member. All I can say about that body is that the Conservancy are responsible for looking after various nature reserves on which seals are found, and they have not thought it necessary to make any representations that their control of their nature reserves should not be subjected to the provisions of the Bill. I must confess that I am surprised that any body, corporate or otherwise, should expect to be treated differently from other people.

So far as the Farne Islands are concerned, in the early years of this century the seals there had been reduced to a very small number indeed. The local fishermen shot them because they thought that they did damage to the fisheries. Protection was introduced in 1914. A second Bill was introduced in 1932, and by the early 1930s there were something like 400 seals on the Islands. By 1952 that number had increased to 2,000; by 1960 to 3,500, and by last year there were probably something like 6,500 seals on the Islands. I think it quite inconceivable that anybody could think that a large population of fish-eating animals like seals could possibly grow to that number without causing damage to fisheries somewhere. Indeed, any of us who has seen what happens on the East coast of Scotland knows that damage is being done.

Long before I felt there was any necessity for a Bill of this nature, being interested in seals I went to look at some of the damage that was being done on the Aberdeenshire coast. I saw the nets which had been torn; I saw the fish which had been damaged in the nets; and I saw the seals, some of which had been marked and ringed on the Farne Islands, which had been drowned in those nets. I remember saying to myself at that time that quite clearly something ought to be done about it, and I felt that any responsible landlord on whose property animals of that nature were found and were clearly doing damage would do something about it. There was a rather desultory and, I felt, half-hearted effort to do a cull in the mid-1960s when, if I remember aright, most unsuitable weapons in the shape of humane killers as used by butchers were used on wild animals. It was then stopped. The population, as I have said from my own observation, has since very nearly doubled, and I felt that something ought to be done.

I feel that if that were the sort of action which responsible landowners took up and down the country—if I may enter into politics for a moment—noble Lords opposite would be absolutely right in nationalising all land and preventing any private owner from having anything to do with it. A landowner has some responsibility to his neighbours. If he does not fulfil it properly so far as other vermin—hares, rabbits, deer and the like—are concerned, the private landowner or the corporate landowner, like the Trust, can be forced to do his duty and reduce the vermin which is damaging neighbours' crops. This Bill merely extends to seals the law which appertains to land vermin, and I can see no reason for the noble Lord's Amendment. I am grateful to him for having aired it, and I hope that even if he did press it your Lordships would not agree with it.


I should just like to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Cranbrook has said: that for this view to have been aired is a good thing. I think it is true to say that the whole House has tremendous respect for the National Trust, its objects, its aims and what it does. It would have been a great pity if we had had a Division on this Amendment which is trying to put the National Trust in a special position in law, different from that of any other landowner, including the Crown, in the country. The Secretary of State has given every guarantee of every possible consideration for the conservation of seals, in the best meaning of the word. Nobody wants to see the grey seal vanish.

Following on what my noble friend Lord Cranbrook said, I think it is true to say that not only have the numbers of these seals increased but, even more startling—if I can quote another set of figures—is the record of the birth of pups in the Farne Islands. In the 1930s the average birth was about 120 pups a year; by 1952 we had an average birth of about 600 pups a year; 18 months ago, by the end of 1968, it was reckoned that 1,800 pups a year were being born. If these figures were carried to their logical conclusion, it would lead to an even bigger population explosion among the grey seals of the Farne Islands. It is only common sense to realise that these seals are going to get desperate for food and they must do damage to the fisheries. This population explosion in that one area must mean that there is less food for them, and they will become less healthy seals. Therefore, when tourists and nature lovers go to look at them they will not see the nice seal they would like to see; they will see a much more diminished seal who is not half as healthy as it would have been. I say that with hesitation before the noble Lord, the Lord Privy Seal—I do not know what the noble Lord, the "Lord Great Seal" would say; I do not think he is here at the moment. I think we must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, for not pressing this Amendment, and I hope, as time goes on, the National Trust will have no cause to regret what is provided for in this Bill.


In answer to the last point, I should like to say that although this Amendment has been drafted to defend the National Trust's position it does not confer any exclusive position on the National Trust; it is much more widely drawn. That is why the original Amendment was withdrawn in the other place and redrafted on these lines, and then it was too late to call it. It has a much wider application than the National Trust itself. It could apply to the Nature Conservancy, for example, and there are other bodies in the same sort of position as that indicated in the terms of the Amendment. I do not want to take up your Lordships' time, but I should like noble Lords to realise that.


I accept what the noble Lord has said. I think my noble friend Lord Cranbrook made the point that Sections 98 to 100 of the Agriculture Act 1947 embody the same principle.


I quite agree with what my noble friend Lord Cranbrook has said on this subject. If the seal population on the Farne Islands is put in a privileged position and allowed to grow and grow, the danger is, as my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton pointed out, that you will get a lot of weak, half-starved seal pups. The other danger is that fishermen may be driven, through desperation, to take the law into their own hands, and you will then probably get a great number of seals wounded by inexpert marksmen. While I appreciate the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, in his great desire to protect seals, which is also my desire, I think that his sentiments are slightly misplaced as regards the Fame Islands. Therefore I wholeheartedly support my noble friend Lord Cranbrook.

3.48 p.m.


Perhaps I might intervene to say briefly, to make clear that I have no special interest, that when I first took an interest in this matter I was not Lord Privy Seal but Paymaster General, or something of that kind. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, made a rather odd intervention as to whether Ministers spoke on behalf of the Government. It is perfectly clear to us that, on the whole, we deprecate people speaking specifically on behalf of a special interest. None the less, it is perfectly proper that noble Lords like the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, should consult his friends and should have regard to their special knowledge. As he has made clear, his Amendment goes wider than the National Trust, although I think it is a disguised way of doing so. Therefore, I think the Committee have really to take a decision in the light of the general arguments as to whether it is in fact right to exempt the National Trust. When I asked my noble friend not to put forward his Amendment it was because I had no foreknowledge at that moment as to what might happen and whether or not there would be time, and I wanted to see a Bill which clearly commanded general support pass into law. One is always afraid of being tripped procedurally. In fact, I think that we are going to be able to manage our business quite nicely before Parliament dissolves. But that was my chief reason for my request.

Of course we take into account the fact that there are strong feelings among members of the National Trust, but I should find this Amendment equally objectionable. It may be that there are occasions when certain bodies should be exempted from the general legislation of the land: there may be special circumstances affecting the Crown and other bodies. But we need to be very careful, on a piece of legislation of this kind, before we exempt privileged bodies from the general provisions of the law of the land, and I see no reason for exempting anyone. There is a slight tendency for bodies of great prestige, whether it be the National Trust or the British Museum, sometimes to take on a slight quality of sovereign power within the Kingdom—though that is no reflection on the National Trust.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, for what he said about my own interest. But as the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, made clear, I am quite certain that there is a clear analogy with Section 98 of the Agriculture Act 1947, and I shudder to think what would happen if there were this exclusion. This would make much greater difficulty for the National Trust. I can see their annual meetings being the scene of some pretty passionate arguments, and I think the kindest thing we can do is to subject them to the law of the land which we hope we are going to create.

The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, referred to the lack of scientific certainty, and there is no area such as conservation where there is not a lack of scientific certainty. A great deal of the work of the Natural Environment Research Council and the Nature Conservancy is to improve our knowledge, whether it be the work of the Nature Conservancy on deer conservation and culling, the managing of deer stocks in the Island of Rhum, or in other fields. But I am quite sure that there is enough evidence to support the basic contentions of noble Lords who are in favour of this Bill. I regard the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, as someone who has done a very moderate and successful job in trying to weld interests together, and I hope that we shall now be able to let this Bill go through. My noble friend has shown great determination to go on putting his case, but I think he will agree that the moment has now come to call "time" on it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution):


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. In so doing I should like to thank all noble Lords for the support they have given to it, and to say how thankful I am that I shall not have to inflict on your Lordships for yet a fourth time speeches on the Conservation of Seals Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)


My Lords, from these Benches I should like to offer my personal congratulations to the noble Earl on his mammoth effort and on having achieved a hat trick. When I heard the announcement of the Dissolution, I was rather terrified that in 1971 we should be having yet another Seals Bill. I am delighted that we have managed to do so well, and I hope that the country will be duly grateful to the noble Earl.


My Lords, I am glad to be able to congratulate the noble Earl for the third time. He has done very well. I should like to say that, as soon as it became apparent that there was to be a Dissolution, I made sure that right at the head of my personal list of Bills that we had to pass into law was the Seals Bill.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether this means that this Bill will be on the Statute Book before the Dissolution of Parliament?


Yes, indeed, my Lords. I think it has now completed all stages. It will still require the Royal Assent, but I think that that can probably be arranged.


My Lords, as the Crown Estates, for whom I speak, have been mentioned several times in this debate, I should like to say what the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, already knows: that we of the Crown Estates who have considerable interest in seals, particularly on some of the sands, welcome the Bill in its present form, and I personally should like to congratulate the noble Earl on his achievement in getting the Bill through.


My Lords, as one who has perhaps been the main thorn in the noble Earl's flesh in the last two years, I should also like to add my congratulations to those which other Members of your Lordships' House have bestowed on him.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.