HL Deb 23 February 1972 vol 328 cc544-58

4.27 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, when my noble friend the Chief Whip made a Statement on February 17 about the conduct of these mini-debates he suggested—and I think your Lordships will agree—that it would be useful if an announcement was made as to the effect of any interruptions on the ending time of the debate. The debate which we are on at the moment would have ended at 5.37. There have been 26 minutes of interruption. and therefore the debate need not end until three minutes past six. I should point out, however, as there are comparatively few speakers left, that my noble friend also said: I must make it clear that there is no obligation upon anybody to try to fill the whole of the two and a half hours allowed. if less time would suffice. This means that the mover of the Motion which is to be the subject of the second debate must be in the House and ready to move his Motion when ever the first debate ends".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17/2/72, col. 313.]

4.29 p.m.


My Lords. may I refer to the Hunter Report now? I should just like to say that no fishery or riparian owner should be compelled to give access to the public for the purpose of salmon or trout fishing in Scotland; or even to join the proposed Trust. This point raises the ever-annoying issue of the curious position of trespass in Scotland. The sooner some new law comes into force concerning this problem the better. I am considering the advisability of presenting a Private Member's Bill to cope with this ever-increasing inconvenience of invasion of privacy in this field—and I use that latter word deliberately. The western march of my property in the Highlands consists of a mile or so of river once famed for its salmon and, no doubt, for some good trout. Nowadays, the facts are different. The salmon are virtually no more and the trout are fickle. In the past the river bank was privately bailiffed. Now it is not; for obvious stated reasons. It is this lack that attracts the townees and others who tend to wander all over the place at will. This is not a very good state of affairs and must encourage various forms of major and minor hooliganism, to the danger of humans, animals and land alike.

Let there be no mistake. A situation like this can get rapidly out of hand if it is allowed to continue. Just because these areas are unfenced it does not mean that they are public commons, as tended until recently to be the case in England. Therefore I feel that it is high time that we had a statutory protection law for trout which would protect the fish and the bank owners at the same time, should the trespass law be amended—quite apart from any proposed project for attempting to channel river and loch fishing in any way. I hope that no pressure will be put on involved people to join the Scottish Anglers' Trust although such an organisation could go a long way towards initiating good will and better understanding.

The whole subject of the Trust could be very complex and should be approached with extreme, care and attention to detail. Its sum, prior to finalisation, will present many headaches for its initiators and must work from the start to work at all. So hasten slowly.

In paragraph 114 of the Report it is suggested that protection for all water should be "universal", as they rather grandly put it, in order to hinder the offender from claiming that he thought a particular water was unprotected. With reservations, that is obviously a good plan but will need careful handling when drafting takes place; for the land principal must always be kept to the forefront of the mind. To much regimentation by the proposed Trust to the detriment of riparian and water owners must be avoided. After all, the fact of owning property in the United Kingdom still gives owners a measure of freedom which is sacred. It matters not a jot that much of the property of which we speak to-day is virtually untenable except for sport, particularly in the Western Highlands. Sport is a very large factor, as to income, on many Scottish estates and must therefore not be damaged by wandering fishermen. Farming interests on in-bye land, where much of the fishing takes place, must also be heavily protected from the arrival of stray men and motor cars littering the area. It is pleasing to see that the Report indicates its surprise that brown trout fisheries in Scotland have remained without protection or organisation for so long. But let not this encourage the Trust to swing sharply to the other extreme. We shall be watching developments with more than a little interest.

4.34 p.m.


I should like to say one or two words in this debate. I am afraid I will not be equal to Lord Lovat's Highland gentleman who could not hear 300 people crossing a river because he was lying under a bridge sleeping and smoking his pipe. He was a true Highland gentle man if he managed to achieve all those things! I could hardly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, that we are rushing legislation through the House on the Hunter proposals. Next week we shall be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the appointment of the Hunter Committee; and ten years is a fairly long time. This White Paper has been before us since November. I know that one might argue, "If we have waited for ten years then let us wait for another month or two". I should not think that the proposals will create a great deal of trouble. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thuro, that trouble might be created if the proposal had been for the State to take over the fishing rights. That might have made good sense but, as he says, it would have been very expensive. It has been known in Scotland even for a public undertaking to take over water. The compensation, I can assure him, was pretty substantial. If there is one way in which you can increase the value of rivers it is for some public undertaking to express a desire to have them. The value trebles overnight. So that is one restriction.

It is true that having appointed the Hunter Committee the Government of which I was a member did not take any action. We had no proposals. We called for the comments of everybody but no proposals were made. As the noble Baroness knows, it is true that every time you deal with fishing matters, internal or external, you have only to get two or three interested people together, as Lord Burton suggested, and you may depend upon it that you will get six or seven policies as the outcome of the negotiations. That is what we have to contend with in this matter. I should have thought the White Paper does not create any grave new changes; but the one change—and here I agree with Lord Balfour—is that for the first time it gives protection to the brown trout. No landowner and no riparian owner will be compelled to give his river for fishing. As I understand it, the proposal is that if he does this he is going to have protection; but he cannot be compelled to do it. All will have to be done in a voluntary way. It is here, I think, that trouble may be created. You can imagine one stretch of the river that has protection because the owner has volunteered to go into the scheme, while his next door neighbour may say, "Whatever they say, I am not volunteering at all". Where you have this situation arising, any dividing line—and this has been shown in Ireland, if anywhere—may be the cause of trouble. This I think might well happen.

There is a further proposal. The owner may say to the area board, "Although I am doing this I should like to retain part of the river for my own private and personal fishing." I can see more trouble arising here because this section also will be covered for protection. It would cost the owner nothing. The fact that he has volunteered for the scheme not only gives him protection over the public stretches of his river but over the private stretches also, at the expense of the public. So I think this matter had better be looked at.

Nominations are always a difficult matter. When you grant all these powers to the Secretary of State for Scotland or to any other Minister you are in effect saying that here is one man so competent as to be able to make these selections. On the other hand, I am bound to say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, that I do not agree that any society should have the right to nominate who they want on the board itself. I should have thought—and I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness will tell us about this—that when these boards come to be appointed the Secretary of State will write to the various associations, be they owners or anglers or any other section of the community and, as is frequently done, will ask them to make three or four nominations. From these nominations the Secretary of State for Scotland could make his appointments. On the whole, I think this as equitable and fair a way of selecting the boards as could be found.

I want to say a word about salmon fishing because we have always to remember that when the Government of the day first introduced the ban on drift netting for salmon, it was because we were told—and there was no river owner who did not support the case then made—that drift netting was robbing the rivers of salmon. Since then we have found exactly where the salmon are disappearing. They are not even getting near the coasts of Scotland but are being plundered in their feeding grounds. One of the unfortunate things about man is that he sometimes discovers things which were best left alone, and that has happened in this case. So now that argument does not bear great weight. I am not saying that it is unimportant, but, speaking to-day with hindsight, I am saying that it has not the force it had when the first decision was made. It forms a very small part of our fishermen's case. To-day—and this is where I do not altogether agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lovat—we have U.D.N. to add to that. In addition to the over-fishing of the grounds, which I think that the North East Atlantic Conference will help to put right, we have this attack of U.D.N. These things together have made the situation very difficult and we cannot underestimate their importance. The noble Lord is right in saying that there is little we can do about U.D.N. It will have to work its own way out, and that will take sonic time, but on the whole I think that the proposals are reasonable.

I should like to say a word on the proposal to set up the Scottish Anglers' Trust. That looks all right on paper and I suppose that at the end of the day it will become a reality. We have to make charges and we shall have this rod licence fee to pay. This is one of the matters in which we do not want to be equal with England or anybody else. The Scots are about the only folk who do not pay a rod licence. I do not think, however, that the £1 subscription will kill us. I am doubtful whether they may not go on to buy fishing rights. It is true that you cannot buy very much in the way of fishing rights for a subscription of £1, but in the South it has been known for certain angling clubs, backed by large employers, to buy certain fishing rights on rivers; and then the complaint comes from other anglers that they are prohibited from fishing there.


My Lords, as a brother Scot, I fully support everything that the noble Lord. Lord Hoy, has said. But would it not be an inducement to pay if the angler thought that he would get a benefit in the form of hatchery protection to supplement the fish which were being taken? I refer particularly to brown trout and loch fishing.


Certainly, my Lords. I said that I do not think they will raise any objection. My only point is that after you have been enjoying the advantages of a free rod, someone will now come along and say, "We want £1 from you." But I have seen what has been done in many parts of the world, and I am all for it, so I would subscribe to this proposal heartily. But there is the further danger which should be taken into account when legislation is being framed. Having said that, I should like to conclude by expressing my personal thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, for making it possible for us to debate this question to-day.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, if I may intervene for a moment—I have asked permission from my noble friend on the Gov- ernment Front Bench—I should like to sound a note of warning and refer to what has happened in New Zealand, which is the same size as the British Isles and where there is about the same amount of water. There, I understand, everyone used to be able to fish, until the water became over-fished and a strict licensing system had to be imposed. I hope that if the proposals in the White Paper become law the boards issuing the licences will be careful not to issue too many, otherwise the waters here may become over-fished, and no one would gain from that.

There is one other point I should like to make regarding brown trout fishing. There are many proprietors who have stocked their lochs at considerable expense. If they are in this scheme and licences are to be granted to enable members of the public to fish those lochs, will the proprietors have any recompense? I have not read the White Paper thoroughly, but presumably the board will co-operate in respect of the expense of stocking the lochs, otherwise it would be rather unfair. If a great number of people are fishing for brown trout on rivers and lochs where there are salmon and sea trout, it would be easy for unscrupulous anglers to fish for sea trout, and even for salmon, while pretending that they were fishing only for brown trout. I am wondering how such a state of affairs may be regulated. Having said that, my Lords, I should like to apologise for 'having interrupted my noble friend.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say to my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard that there is no question of any interruption, because if we wished we could go on with this mini-debate until three minutes past six, our having incurred what I believe is to be known as "injury time" because of the Statement which was made during the debate. I hasten to add, my Lords, that I have no intention of speaking for anything like that length of time. This is an enormous subject and I hope that noble Lords will be content if I try to deal with the main points which have been raised. If there are matters with which I am not able to deal in my reply, I will write to the noble Lords concerned.

I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye on having initiated an experiment in your Lordships' House. I would also congratulate all who have spoken on the brevity and clarity of their contributions. To all who have expressed concern that we were rushing forward in this matter I would say that we are very willing to take time to consider further representations than we have had already, and that we are still engaged in consultations. My noble friend Lord Balfour asked what was the position about legislation and why had we asked for representations to be in by February 29. We had hoped to have legislation this Session, but I can only say that at present that appears most unlikely, in view of the other legislation before Parliament, not least the European Communities Bill. The reason we asked for representations to be in by February 29 was that after so long a period of time since the publication of the Hunter Report, on which the White Paper is based we wanted to try to speed the consideration, so that we could prepare a Bill. But I assure noble Lords that there is still time for representations and I look on this debate as a useful contribution to the consultations that we have had, and are having.

My Lords, the main object of the Hunter Report and this White Paper may be summed up under three main headings: first, to try to conserve our stocks of salmon and trout; secondly, to develop and improve our fisheries, and thirdly, to try to make them more widely available. If I may, I should like to try to deal with the points that have been raised in this order. Several noble Lords, notably my noble friends Lord Balfour of Inchrye and Lord Lovat, and the noble Lords, Lord Thurso and Lord Hoy, welcomed the permanent ban on drift netting off the Scottish coast. But several noble Lords have quite rightly expressed concern about the rapid development of the drift-net fishing off the North-East of England in recent years. I have a great deal of sympathy with their view. The Northumbrian River Authority are very much aware of the feeling on this matter, and have made by-laws coming into operation in 1972 which will severely reduce the length of the fishing season and the amount of net that may be used in the Southern part of the area. They further propose to limit the number of licences for fishing in the Southern part, and to extend the annual close season and weekly close times. These were all considered at a public inquiry last month. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is at present considering the report of this inquiry. I understand that the authority propose that the number of licences for fishing in the Southern part of that area should ultimately be reduced from over 250 in 1971 to 40. Of course, this could not happen right away because of certain entrenched rights, but I understand that there would nevertheless be an immediate drastic reduction in the number of licences issued.

My noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye and the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, both spoke of the necessity to try to secure international agreement on fishing on the high seas. I feel that progress is being made in this direction. As the House knows, the main problem is in the North-West Atlantic, and in particular off the coast of Greenland, where the Danes and others have been taking very large catches of salmon, a considerable proportion of which it is thought originated in this country. At the 1970 meeting of the International Commission for the North-West Atlantic Fisheries the Danes agreed to certain restrictions, applying both outside and inside the 12-mile limit, including a limitation at the 1969 level on the tonnage of ships engaged in the fishery or in the amount of the catch. It was agreed last year that these restrictions should continue in 1972 and in 1973, subject to review in the event of any substantial changes in certain factors. Since then, noble Lords may be aware that there have been certain negotiations with the Danes which are designed gradually to restrict the catch in the waters off Greenland. I am not in a position to say any more in detail at this moment, but I think there is a very good prospect that we shall in fact reach agreement.

It is perfectly true. when we return to the main theme of the Hunter Report, that on the question of trap fisheries Hunter did suggest that there should be a gradual changeover to this method, if necessary by compulsion. I think the White Paper goes in considerable detail into why we do not wish to accept this —largely because we do not think it is practicable—and therefore I will not repeat it now because I think noble Lords have asked several other questions of considerable importance. We intend to license certain nets and the discussions we are having at this moment with salmon netmen are to the effect that licences should be issued only in respect of fishings that were operated or let in two of the years 1967 to 1971.

In answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and my noble friend Lord Lovat, I should like to say that we shall keep the annual close season arrangements broadly in the form in which they have operated since 1868, but instead of having a fixed season of 168 days we intend to take powers to vary the season as circumstances change, and area boards will be free to apply to the Secretary of State to vary this close season. We also intend to introduce the same flexibility into the weekly close time arrangements with a procedure which is similar to that for the annual close season; and it is intended when legislation comes forward that the Secretary of State will have the power to make changes in either the annual close season or the weekly close times for nets or for rods. I hope that this will be of some assurance to noble Lords.


My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend to ask whether in the weekly close time for nets the Government are thinking of differentiating between sweep nets and fixed stake nets, because it is much harder on the fixed stake nets.


I noticed the point made by my noble friend and also the difference in price, which I may say is put forward in a memorandum which has been issued to all the angling associations. It is for the area boards to consider what would be fair as between one form of fishing and another, and bearing in mind of course the circumstances of their particular area.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Burton that it is a difficult task to try to split the country into a reasonable number of units which are in themselves viable. I have noted his view that some of the proposed areas might in fact be altered. But we have tried to adopt, so far as we could, the Hunter proposals on areas by taking into account the main principles of the Hunter Report, which were these: that each area should, if possible, be a satisfactory one for salmon and trout fishing, with enough finance for a wide range of functions; that the boundaries should be so drawn as to take account of communications and to prevent the isolation of small rivers which do not have enough revenue; that, so far as possible, boundaries should not cross those of the main local government or the river purification board area, and that areas should not be so large that local interests and knowledge are not available, because we are sure that they are extremely important. I would also assure noble Lords who brought up this point that it will be possible to make adjustments in area boundaries from time to time, and certainly as we gain experience in their operation.

A good number of noble Lords said that they felt it was a mistake in the composition of the area boards that the members, and in particular the chairmen, should be appointed by the Secretary of State. I would say to my noble friends Lord Burton and Lord Balfour of Inchrye, and to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that the idea that the chairmen should be elected was one of the proposals of the Hunter Committee. But that Committee had suggested that everybody should be elected, except for a few members who would be appointed as independents representing special interests; that it was for the Secretary of State to decide the number in each category for each board, and that the representatives of salmon fishing should be elected under the plural voting system. We felt that that might lead to a polarisation of interests, and also that the plural voting arrangements sounded very complicated. I should like to assure all those who are concerned that if the Secretary of State does in the end make all appointments it will of course be done after consultation whit the organisations representing the interests concerned. This was a point put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hoy. That was the only way in which one could draw on the experience of, for example, those who are salmon proprietors or those who have some other particular fishing interest. We are having discussions on this matter with the associations concerned and I think that this debate will be very useful while we are doing so.

On the question of finance, which is bound up with licences, I know the views of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, very well, because he has been good enough to give me a careful comment on the White Paper. Despite the fact that the English have had rod licences for a considerable time, he feels; that they would not be acceptable in Scotland. He fears that it would raise the price of fishing for many people. I must say that the reactions to this proposal have been mixed, but in consultation with the organisations concerned there has been a majority acceptance of the principle of licensing, and the licence structure which is proposed in the White Paper is broadly in line with the Hunter proposals, with fees ranging from £1 for an area trout licence to £10 for a national salmon licence.

It is thought that if there were to be any fees payable to area boards, the permit fee should by itself confer a right to fish; but I should like to put the consideration before the House that the idea behind licence fees is that they should be payable to area boards and used for the management and improvement of the rivers for everybody. The permit fee, on the other hand, is a payment to the proprietor for the use of his asset and charges differ, as we all know, according to the quality of the fishings even in the same river. I would only say that we have had a very interesting suggestion from one association, which is that there should be one licence covering all species over the whole of the country at a flat rate payment of £2. On a first consideration. I think this has many attractions because it would get over some of the difficulties mentioned by noble Lords and it would be very suitable for Scotland, where some salmon fishing can be got at quite inexpensive rates. It would also be easy and inexpensive to administer and (one never knows) it might in the end produce as much revenue as the system proposed by the Hunter Report. which we have until now been inclined to follow. We are certainly going to take a good deal of time to consider this particular matter.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, asked why we could not get a good deal more finance for the area boards for the development of fisheries by trying to ensure that some proportion of the local authority rating should in fact be transferred—he did not mention a particular proportion—to the area boards instead of going to the local authority associations. Clearly the transfer of local authority ratings would be in conflict with the idea that it is rod fishing which should contribute to the rate income for that area, and if one contributes to the local authority rating, attractive as the idea is, it would be at the expense of other ratepayers of course. For that reason, I cannot say that I am very enthusiastic about it.


My Lords, may I point out to the noble Baroness that it would not be at the expense of anybody, because these rates are not yet leviable. They will become leviable the moment protection is given to trout fishings. Why should the local authorities suddenly get a bonus out of their trout fishings because people have elected to make their trout fishings available to the general public?


My Lords, I think we are talking about two different systems of rates. There are the local authority rates and the fishery rates; and the fishery rates would of course continue to be available to the successors of the present district boards. The noble Viscount shakes his head: perhaps if I have not made this clear I might write to him later. But the idea is that the fishery rating system will continue; indeed, the whole idea is that both from these rates and from the rod and licence system the area boards will be able to improve the various fishings. We have estimated that the rod and licence system as put forward by Hunter would bring in between £170,000 and £215,000 a year and therefore the total sum available to area boards would be about £300,000 a year. As we have announced in the White Paper, the Government are prepared to provide £275,000 over three years to help the boards to start their work and to meet their runnings costs while the income from rod licences is building up.

Some noble Lords spoke about the statutory protection proposals so far as trout fishing is concerned. I notice that my noble friend Lord Rankeillour is hoping to bring in a Bill regarding trespass in Scotland. Of course he will be aware that while salmon fishings are already fully protected under the Act of 1951, unauthorised fishing for brown trout is not at present a statutory offence but merely an infringement of civil rights. Therefore the only action open to a riparian proprietor is the rather ineffective and very difficult one of applying to the courts for interdict against a persistent poacher. In any case, if such an order is made it must be against that particular poacher.

We have, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, said in introducing this debate, turned away from the Hunter proposals on compulsion. We are trying in all the proposals in the White Paper to secure agreement voluntarily and we think that by voluntarily letting a riparian owner ask for statutory protection for his trout fishing the area boards will then themselves have to consider the level of charges that are reasonable in the area. They must also decide, in relation to the quality of fishing, the rates of other fishings in the area and, of course, supply and demand.

On the question of the degree of access which should be given in return for protection, and which I agree is a very difficult one, each case will obviously have to be decided on its merits. If there is a case where there are valuable salmon fishings with little or no trout fishing as well, area boards could very well decide that only very limited access is suitable. I think this is very important, because I should not like the idea to be current in this House, or anywhere else, that because one applies for statutory protection for one's trout fishing, if in fact the bulk of the fishing in that particular area is for salmon, this then allows a very large number of people on to that particular amount of water.

My Lords, I feel that I should not speak any longer because I also have to limit my time in this mini-debate. I have tried to answer the main points put forward by noble Lords. I am most grateful to them for their contributions to this debate. We will take careful note of what has been said, and I hope that as a result this will be much more of an agreed measure.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, there is just one important point with which she has omitted to deal in her admirable survey. This is the question of the restocking of rivers and lochs. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, touched on this and referred to areas overseas which have the most wonderful fishing. He mentioned New Zealand. I myself know something about Canada, and you cannot now catch a fish within 100 miles of Toronto whereas fishing was ad lib 20 years ago. We all feel in Scotland that recommending more fishing is perfectly right, but one must replace the fish that are taken out; and this is the weakness of the White Paper.


My Lords, the only reason I did not mention restocking—which of course is extremely important—was merely the shortage of time. But the area boards will be able to stock at their expense waters for which the proprietor has asked for statutory protection; and, as I said before I sat down, the area boards will have to decide, according to the nature of the particular water, how many people should have access to that water. That, I think, will limit the overfishing which the noble Lord fears.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, in asking your Lordships' leave to withdraw this Motion, I would say that I hope that we have accomplished three things. First, we have succeeded in getting through the first mini-debate in 57 minutes under time. Secondly, your Lordships think that the scheme has worked fairly well. Thirdly, not only will the points made in the debate be read by a wide circle of interested parties outside the House, as well as by your Lordships, but also the statement that the Government's answer will be considered. The most satisfactory point to me in the Government's answer is that the Minister has admitted that these many questions are still open for further discussion and deliberation. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.