HL Deb 10 May 1977 vol 383 cc195-205

4.33 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a very small Bill in size, but to anyone connected with the salmon industry, with the fish-farming industry, with tourism or even with ecology and conservation, the implications of this Bill are larger than its printed size would indicate. Your Lordships will be aware of the Questions, both written and oral, which have been put in your Lordships' House on the matter of the importation of Pacific salmon into Scotland. Similar Questions were also put in another place, and as a result it has emerged that there is what one might describe as a gap in the law, or, rather, a gap in the powers of the Secretary of State to control the import of varous species of fish into Scotland. There is, of course, legislation which deals with the import and release of fish from a health point of view, but there is nothing in the Secretary of State's powers which enables him to take a total ecological view of the effect of an import of fish into Scotland, or of the release into Scottish waters of species of fish which do not already exist there.

At this time there is considerable interest in the benefits of fish farming and acquaculture, as we are now told to call it—benefits from the proper use of our natural resources and the proper use of our indigenous species of fish—and, indeed, there is considerable interest in the possibility of improving the output, the quality and so forth of fish farms. I have no doubt that it is with this in mind that the people who wished to import Coho salmon into Scotland made their application to the Secretary of State.

My Lords, I do not quarrel with this as an ideal. I think that even if the Bill which I have put before your Lordships' House becomes law, and even if the Secretary of State is given powers to restrict the import into Scotland of other species—exotic species, if you like to call them that, but non-native, non-indigenous species—there may well be cases where it is advisable, where it is desirable and where it is not thought to be harmful to make such an import. But I am quite convinced that it is wrong that the power to consider this from the general point of view of the ecology of Scotland, from the general point of view of the indigenous species of fish which live in Scotland, should be lacking; and therefore, my Lords, I felt it wise to bring forward this Bill to empower the Secretary of State accordingly.

Your Lordships will notice from the Long Title of the Bill that it seeks to do one or other of two things; and lower down your Lordships will see that there is an endeavour to give the Secretary of State power to control two possible situations that may arise as a result of an import. The first thing that the Bill seeks to give the Secretary of State power to restrict is the import of fish or their eggs in certain conditions; that is, if they are thought to be harmful to any of our native breeds or to any of the species of fish which, over a long number of years, have become acclimatised within Scottish waters. This may be thought to be unnecessary in certain respects. On the other hand, it has been proved to be necessary, from the point of view of fish eggs, to have this power, because otherwise the only power which is in the hands of the Secretary of State is the power to restrict the entry of eggs on the grounds of disease. In other words, if an importer can prove that the eggs are disease-free, he may demand that he is entitled to import them without let or hindrance.

The second part of the Bill is therefore designed to cope with the situation where, if fish have been allowed into the country, it is possible to restrict their release into a wild state where they could do harm to the general ecology of the rivers, lochs or coastal waters of Scotland. Where the eggs have been reared in captivity, the fish have then bred in captivity and the progeny of imported fish are then sought to be released into Scottish waters.

This is a real possibility. It is perfectly possible to rear fish in a totally enclosed environment, bring them to sexual maturity, breed them and obtain fish eggs. One can then claim that they are native fish and therefore not subject to any restriction. So the second part of the Bill seeks to give the Secretary of State powers to control the rearing of fish and prohibit the rearing of fish, if necessary, and finally at all costs to prohibit, if necessary and it is thought desirable, the release of these fish to the wild state. We are greatly concerned about this.

If it was possible always economically to enclose the fish within fish farms, the arguments against allowing imports would be much more slender; but we all know that the final stage of rearing in a fish farm usually takes place in a sea cage. This is the economic way in which to carry salmon or salmonoid fish through the last stage of their rearing. Sea cages are subject to storms. They can rupture and release the fish within them. They are subject to attack from seals and can be torn from outside. The fish can get out, and so forth. It is necessary, if one is to be certain that the Secretary of State is armed with adequate powers, to make sure that he is given powers to control the situation, not merely at the moment of import but at any other stage of the rearing of these fish that might be suspect and is thought to be necessary.

In other words, if I may put it this way, by Lords: so that there is no means by which an imported fish can get under his net; that the powers would be there even if the fish had been reared in captivity but it was then intended at a later stage to release them to the wild state.

The first clause of the Bill says: The Secretary of State for Scotland may by order forbid the import, the rearing of the release to the wild of any species of fish of their eggs which could in his opinion complete with, displace, prey on or harm the habitat of any of Scotland's native or acclimatised species of fish". I am seeking here to preserve the ecology of the native species of fish, and the habitat of the native species of fish from attack by any introduced species. I feel that it is incumbent upon us to think seriously of these matters, the preservation of the habitat of our fish, while at the same time giving serious thought to the needs of fish farming and aquaculture.

My Lords, your Lordships will notice that the only other part of the Bill is to confer powers upon the Secretary of State. It says that the power to make orders, shall be exercisable by statutory instrument, which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament; and (b) shall include power to revoke or vary a previous order…". This obviously is necessary, because one would envisage that advances may be made in the techniques of fishfarming which would make a situation desirable which previously had been undesirable, where new techniques which would prevent fish escaping would make it possible to consider the importing of a type of fish which one would not want to see escape but still might be useful to the fishfarming industry.

This small Bill seeks to give the Secretary of State for Scotland another weapon in his armoury to protect our fisheries, without in any way wishing to be hard upon the fish farming industry, but merely seeking that it is controlled in such a way that it abides by that old tag of Scottish law: You shall not so use your own property so as to harm your neighbour


My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, may I ask how he intends to put this Bill into practical effect? Would anybody importing Coho eggs or any other eggs or any other fish, have to apply to the Minister for a licence? Otherwise, I would support his general point of view.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, indeed anybody wishing to import any eggs into Scotland has to apply for a licence. As I read the law as it stands, the Secretary of State refuses the licence only on the grounds of disease or for the health of the fish. If these powers were given to the Secretary of State, he would then be empowered to refuse the licence if he thought there were other grounds that would harm the existing breeds of fish in Scottish waters. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be read 2a.— (Viscount Thurso.)

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Viscount upon a most lucid exposition in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, and advise your Lordships' House that the Government support its aims; that is, to provide powers to prevent the introduction of species of fish which could harm stocks already established in this country, either native or well-established immigrants.

It may have been with some surprise that some noble Lords heard that no such powers exist, at the present time, except on disease grounds. They have existed for mammals ever since 1932 when the Destructive Imported Animals Act was introduced. It was the destructive habits of the musk rat—probably better known in fashionable circles as musquash—which prompted the introduction of that piece of legislation and provision was made in that Act to extend its cover to any mammalian species. But this does not apply to fish. Similar anxiety is now being expressed about the prospect of a certain species of fish—equally feared in some quarters to judge by the outcry against its entry—being allowed to enter Great Britain.

Mention of this species—Coho salmon —prompts me to stress to noble Lords the need to keep an open mind when it comes to considering the case for and against the entry of any particular species. Any legislation aiming at controls of this type must be framed in a way which provides for a balanced judgment being taken. We must take care not to create a situation which is prejudicial to sensible and valuable introductions. Powers, such as the noble Viscount's Bill provides, could have been invoked, had they existed, to prevent the introduction, for example, of rainbow trout—a fish which has proved of great value to us both on the table market and for sporting purposes. I should like to emphasise that this is not the time to arrive at a final decision for or against authorising the use of Coho salmon as a fish farm stock. This issue would arise in the event of the noble Viscount's Bill reaching the Statute Book. Until then my right honourable friend has not the power to take such a decision on ecological grounds.

Whatever the strength or weakness of the case against Coho salmon in 1977, or the musk rat in 1932, the principle of control of entry of exotic species of animals of all kinds is undeniable, especially in these days when a rapidly shrinking world makes reality of what in earlier times might have been only a pipedream. I can therefore indicate the Government's support for the principle underlying the noble Viscount's Bill, although I should say, with the greatest respect, that we would need to look at it further to consider some refinements before it could be regarded as being fully apt for its purpose. We would be ready, should noble Lords today give the Bill their blessing, to consider and discuss these matters.

Noble Lords will not expect me to go into detail at this stage, but I will indicate some of the points we would need to have in mind. First, there is the need for consultation before the making of an order and the need for powers to enable research for scientific purposes to take place. This implies powers to license imports in special circumstances and to impose conditions for the keeping of imported material under stringent "quarantine." conditions. There is also the question of providing that infractions should constitute offences and invoke appropriate penalties. Equally, there is the question of compensation for those who might lawfully have imported a species which might subsequently, by order, have to be destroyed.

I make these comments in connection with certain points of detail, but I confirm that the Government welcome the Bill in principle. I should say, however, that having been introduced at this stage, the Bill has very little prospect of becoming law in this Parliamentary Session. Nevertheless, the Government will be ready, in the light of your Lordships' views, to look further at the drafting of the Bill.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, on his vigilance in the protection of our native stocks of fish, and of salmon in particular. He has put down Questions which have elicited from the Government the fact that they possess only certain powers related to the prevention of disease; and they do not possess powers to stop the import of fish in all the circumstances which can be foreseen, when that might be desirable. T ought to declare a small interest, which I have declared before, in that I own fishing on a river that flows near my home and where an occasional salmon allows itself to be caught.

A noble Lord: Hear, hear!


The noble Viscount has explained the reasons for the Bill. One of them, which I should like to stress, concerns the possible effects on the ecology of the life in our rivers, streams and lochs if new types of fish are imported from abroad. A species might be introduced which could have adverse effects on existing stocks unless considerable research and experiment are carried out beforehand. At a later stage of the Bill's progress—because I am sure your Lordships will give it a Second Reading—I should like the Government to give us some assurances that in any case they would wish to satisfy themselves entirely on that score as well as on matters of disease.

As I understand it, this question has arisen because of the intentions and applications of certain persons in Scotland to introduce the Coho salmon (the Pacific salmon) for the purposes of fish farming and also perhaps for the purpose of releasing them into other waters. Whatever the powers possessed by the Secretary of State at present, I am sure it would be a valuable safeguard if he possessed the kind of power which is visualised in this Bill. I should like to make it clear that I am not against the introduction of new species of fish. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, reminded us, the rainbow trout is not indigenous to this country but it has on the whole been a great success. However, every precaution should be taken before similar introductions are carried out.

My Lords, for a moment or two I should like to draw attention to the asset that salmon represents in Scotland. Very often it is not properly understood to what extent the existence of salmon assists finances in Scotland. For example, salmon fishings, particularly those on very attractive waters and expensive beats, are very highly rated. The money paid in rates goes directly into the coffers of the local authorities, and householders' rates in those areas would be a great deal higher if the salmon were to be decimated or to disappear. There are waters in Scotland, of course, which are not very valuable as regards salmon fishing, and there are other waters which are prolific and which belong to towns or to angling associations. There are also other waters which are much sought after by visitors to Scotland and who are prepared to pay a lot of money for a week or two on certain beat. When people say that perhaps these waters should all be kept for local Scots, it should be remembered that those visitors are indirectly making a very large contribution, not only, if they pay in dollars, to the balance of payments, but also to the local rates. That is one side of the matter that I think ought to be remembered when we are talking of preserving our native salmon, because they are an important asset for Scotland and they make a considerable contribution to local finances.

As regards the text of the Bill, when we come to Committee stage I hope that we shall be able to get some comments from the Government as to whether they consider the Bill to be technically correct. I think there may be some defects. For example, the expression, "release to the wild" of any species of fish could lead to considerable ambiguity over the interpretation as to what exactly is "the wild". I am sure that at the Committee stage the noble Viscount will tell us his ideas about this. We know quite clearly what his intention is, but if the Bill goes through, either in this Session or in the next, we want to be able to reduce the area of dispute that may arise later as to whether fish are being released "to the wild" or to some area which is thought to be a fish farm and enclosed waters.

It is clear from what I have said that I support the principle of the Bill and would commend it to your Lordships' House. However, I believe that quite a lot of work on the drafting of the Bill may be necessary before it is enacted.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to speak on this Bill although I have not put down my name. On reading the Bill, I found myself largely in agreement with it, and I congratulate the noble Viscount on putting it forward. However, there is one point to which I should like to call attention; that is, that the power is vested entirely in the Secretary of State for Scotland and there is no reference to consultation with anybody at all. I should have hoped that, as in other Bills dealing with conservation and ecological matters, reference would be made to some body that was consultative and could advise the Secretary of State. It seems to me that it is not quite right that one should leave the power with the Secretary of State, with no instruction to consult. I do not know which is the correct body. The Nature Conservancy Council should certainly be one body, and there may be others. But I should like to suggest to the noble Viscount that consultation on a matter like this is extremely important, because this is, after all, a question which requires considerable expertise, and a full understanding of exactly what will happen. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, said, we do not want to prevent experimentation or to stop research. We wish to see that any species might be imported, if it were considered suitable and safe, and that it ought to be done under strict licence. With those reservations, I agree with the Bill and congratulate the noble Viscount on introducing it.


My Lords, if I have the leave of your Lordships' House, may I say that perhaps I was not quite as explicit as I should have been. So that my noble friend will understand the Government's position, may I emphasise that one of the difficulties about the Bill as drafted is exactly that we have to take into account the possibility of consultation. I made that point in the course of my remarks, and the Government are aware of that difficulty as the Bill stands at present.

5.2 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, I am most grateful to your Lordships for the welcome which you have given to this Bill, and for the most constructive criticisms of it which I have, as it were, taken aboard with interest and will certainly take to heart. I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, for his assurance that the Government are friendly towards my purpose in this Bill, and I am very happy to give him the assurance that I should like to work with him, and to receive the advice which he has so freely offered to give me. I agree with him, most particularly, that this is not a moment to be prejudiced. However, there is not a great deal of time to waste.

If, for instance, it were decided, when the matter was considered, that it was undesirable to release Coho salmon into the seas around Scotland, the powers of the Secretary of State would require to be there within two years from last November. Otherwise, it might be too late, because it is possible to breed a Coho salmon to maturity in two years. So that two to three years is about all the time we have, and in Parliamentary terms things slip on and it is therefore wise to be not hurried, but expeditious. I agree that I was probably being too expeditious in the drafting, of this Bill, and therefore there are flaws which should be corrected, and refinements which should be added.

I am grateful both to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, for drawing my attention to the question of consultation. I had slightly felt that this was not so desperately necessary, because the Secretary of State takes advice on these subjects, in any case. But I agree that it is probably wise to specify it. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for his assurance that he welcomes the spirit of this Bill, and that he will help at Committee stage to try to improve it.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.