HL Deb 31 March 1980 vol 407 cc1223-31

4.24 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Title of this small Bill may have a certain familiar ring to the House, as in 1977 and 1978 an almost identical Bill was twice piloted through the House with typical zeal, skill and tenacity by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. I know that he is sorry not to be present today. The Bill reached the statute book on its second attempt, but it covered only Scotland. This Bill, if accepted by the House, would bring England and Wales into line with that legislation, and would thus fill a gap in the present powers of protection of our native fish stock and their ecology against the possible harmful competition of imported species.

The Bill is basically a conservation measure. It was sponsored in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Woking, who sailed it through with the support of the honourable Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and an encouraging smile from the Ministry of my noble friend Lord Ferrers. It went through on that attractive nodding procedure, which indicated its total uncontentiousness. However, it both denied my honourable friend the chance of displaying his considerable knowledge of fish ecology and aqua-culture, and myself a helpful glance at his Second Reading speech. I should add at this stage that this small measure is supported by the fishing associations, notably the Salmon and Trout Association, which has been a prime mover in seeking this legislation.

The Bill has one main objective. It is to give the Minister a reserve power to prohibit or control the import or release of foreign fish or their eggs into our waters. It is perhaps a surprising gap in our protective legislation, when one considers the examples of damage caused by the zander in East Anglia, the mink and the coypu. But at present the Minister can ban or restrict the import of foreign species only on the relatively narrow grounds of disease under the 1937 Act. He has no mandate to consider the wider grounds of protection of our native fish, of their ecology, their habitat, competition for food and even protection against predators.

The Scottish Bill was introduced principally because a particular issue blew up which caused considerable anxiety about the need for protection of our native fish. It was, of course, the import of an experimental batch of Pacific salmon known as the coho salmon. The House will recall the strong feelings aroused over the coho salmon and the possible damage it might cause to our native North Atlantic salmon if it was released or, indeed, escaped into our rivers. The Secretary of State for Scotland now has powers to control of this species, if necessary, which his opposite number in Whitehall does not at present have.

Turning briefly to the Bill, Clause I would allow the Minister, after due and proper consultation, to lay an order either forbidding entirely or controlling by licence the import of foreign fish or their eggs. The test applied for that order is that a foreign fish might compete with, displace, prey on or damage the habitat of a native freshwater fish, shellfish or salmon. Every order would have to be ratified by each House of Parliament and could be annulled by resolution. It is, therefore, hardly a draconian power, but a permissive reserve power exercised only after proper consultation and the approval of Parliament.

Representations have been made as to which bodies should be consulted and who should be named in this Bill. I hope that my noble friend will have something to say on this. The Bill particularly mentions the Nature Conservancy, as indeed did the Scottish Act. The water authorities of England and Wales have, of course, a statutory duty for inland fisheries as laid down in the 1973 Act and the 1975 Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act. If not mandatory, it is, I feel, inconceivable, that the Minister would not consult them or the fish farmers and angling associations. I hope that my noble friend can allay any fears on this point, but clearly the Bill cannot name specifically every body who should be consulted.

Clause 2 authorises certain named persons to inspect property when an order is in force, and when it is believed that live fish or their eggs specified in that order are being kept. The clause specifically excludes a dwelling-house. Clause 3 deals with the penalties imposed for the contravening of an order. There is a maximum penalty of up to £500, with the stock being destroyed. It specifically excludes, the House will note, scientific or research programmes which have received consent from the Minister.

I should add that representations have been made by the National Farmers' Union on behalf of commercial fish farmers. Such queries were raised as to when a fish becomes native. Is the rainbow trout in danger? Are the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man covered by the Bill? On the latter point, I understand that they are not. As to any harmful effect that this small Bill would have on commercial fish farmers or, indeed on tropical fish imports, it is not designed to do so. It is of course designed to meet new dangers to our native stocks and to give the power of protection, if need be, but not to harm traditional safe trades. I commend this small measure to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, it is my pleasure to support my noble friend in his moving the Second Reading of this small Bill, which he has done so persuasively and lucidly. When describing the powers of the Minister, my noble friend mentioned that the Minister has an obligation to consult the Nature Conservancy. That, I am sure, is a very wise and proper provision, but I do not doubt that I was not the only noble Lord to be surprised that the 10 regional water authorities and the National Water Council were not also mentioned.

The regional water authorities are the bodies with statutory responsibility for the maintenance, improvement and development of salmon fisheries, trout fisheries, freshwater fisheries and eel fisheries in our rivers. I quote from the 1973 Water Act. So the strange position could arise that a Minister might authorise the import of exotic fish and a regional water authority would prohibit if from going into the river, and it would have every statutory right to do so. So my noble friend will not be surprised if at the Committee stage I move a small amendment to include in Clause 1(2) a requirement that the Minister shall consult the National Water Council and the 10 regional water authorities at the same time as he consults the Nature Conservancy.

I am entirely in favour of the measure. Like my noble friend, I shared the anxieties of many when the Coho salmon were first imported experimentally into Scotland. There is always the danger with exotic fish that they may drive out indigenous fish. Therefore, they should be very carefully controlled.

May I say one word about what the regional water authorities have done, because they seem to have passed out of the mind of the Ministry of Agriculture. In the last six years, since they came into existence, the regional water authorities have done a good deal in developing the fisheries of this country. They are very conscious that there are some 3 million anglers and hundreds of thousands of game fishermen, salmon and trout fishermen, and that it is their duty to see that the fisheries of our rivers are in good shape—and, indeed, developing and improving—in order to meet this very popular sport which gives such immense pleasure to so many people.

In 1979–80, over half a million pounds-worth of fish was produced by the regional water authorities; and more than half of this quantity was grown from stock in their own hatcheries. The fact is that most of the regional water authorities now have their own fish hatcheries where they breed trout principally, of course. They stock, in a very large measure, the reservoirs which are under their control and which are so tremendously popular with trout fishermen. They also use them for stocking rivers, where necessary. Coarse fish are much more difficult to breed in captivity, but two or three of the hatcheries are developing techniques to breed coarse fish. Something is being achieved there in order to build up the coarse fisheries in our rivers.

Salmon and sea trout have been restocked only to a limited extent. Last year there were about £100,000 worth of them from the regional water authorities. We in this country are lucky that there is still a number of excellent, naturally stocked salmon rivers around our coast. Two of the most spectacular salmon runs in the future will be, first, the River Thames, about which we all hear a great deal. The Thames estuary is now clean enough for salmon to swim up it. Now it only remains for the parr to be started in the freshwater river; then they will migrate into the ocean. After a year or two, they will come back and the salmon run will then start. How exciting that will be because, apart from anything else, nobody knows to whom the fish belongs. Other preparations are being made for the fish. Fish passes are being built on the first locks so that the salmon can get up the big weirs to their spawning grounds higher up the river.

The second one is the River Tyne. As many noble Lords will know, at the present time the River Tyne is really an open sewer; it is a terribly dirty river. But it is about to be cleaned. The large, splendid, new modern treatment works at the end of the estuary are to be commissioned shortly, I think in the next 12 months. All the intercepters are connected up; then the whole of the sewage from that vast industrial complex on the North and South of the river will be treated, and the beautiful River Tyne will become clean. Salmon will undoubtedly run up again. In the building of the great Kielder Reservoir they have made sure that when the fish are going up to spawn they will be able to get to the tributaries which best suit them for the purpose.

I mention these points because, although I am sure that noble Lords are well aware of what the regional water authorities have done and are doing, I feel that perhaps it needs to be put on the record that they exist and that they are doing a very good job not only to maintain our fisheries but to improve them. Thus it is, I feel, that when I come to move my little amendment my noble friend will be only too ready to accept it.

With those few words, may I say that I very much welcome a measure which will help the regional water authorities in England and Wales to continue the very good work that they are carrying on at the present time in maintaining and developing our fisheries.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend's Motion that this Bill should receive a Second Reading. I believe it is only proper that somebody from Scotland should support the point he has made that, without this Bill, in a measure Scotland is out on a limb. For that reason, it is only right that I should urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am so pleased that the Minister of State for Agriculture is to speak, in view of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who was a distinguished Minister in the Ministry and who has played a major part in regional activities. I remember that he took me on the Thames to look at that part of the river which is covered by the Thames Conservancy. I was so glad to hear the good news about my native North-East. The Tyne Valley is wonderful, but, because of industrial pollution, inevitably the river needs to be cleaned up if it is to support fish. Linked with the Kielder, which I know very well, it will be a great achievement and will be very good for all sportsmen. We have been reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, of the great number of people who are anglers and who wish to fish in water which is not poisoned. So that is a great step forward.

I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, in presenting the Bill, pointed out that different authorities were consulted and mentioned the question of fines. I think that the figure of £500 is right. No doubt this will be looked at. We are putting our system on a par with what the Scots have already done in their Bill and that is right, so I very much welcome the Bill. Indeed, only the other day I obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture their announcement identifying research priorities in freshwater fisheries.

This is the first report of the Joint Freshwater Fisheries Research Advisory Committee. I will not repeat it, but I hope that noble Lords who have taken an interest in this today will read it carefully, because, linked with this Bill, which I hope we are now approving unanimously, there is good advice and a better understanding of the freshwater flow requirements of migratory salmon and sea trout, especially in estuaries, which will enable them to find their home rivers on return from the sea and ascend to spawn. This has been examined very carefully by the body that I have mentioned and I hope all noble Lords will read that report. In brief, perhaps I may say to the Minister that I hope he will have an easy passage for this Bill.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships have been commendably brief on this Bill and I will endeavour to do the same, because fish and the hazards to which fish are subjected and fishing and the hazards—and indeed the pleasure—to which fishermen are subjected are always a matter of keen interest. In seeking to demonstrate the value of the principle on which this Bill is based, I need not detain your Lordships too long because, as my noble friend said, it is only two years since your Lordships approved a similar Bill which was enacted for Scotland. With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose one might regret that that Bill had not been drafted so as to cover the whole of Great Britain, because fish, like other animals, are no respecters of boundaries. But the present Bill is closely modelled on the Scottish Act and, in effect, as my noble friend has said, it does no more than extend its provisions to England and Wales.

The Bill provides separate powers for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in England and the Secretary of State for Wales in Wales and this accords with the modern trend towards decentralisation. But, of course, I can assure the noble Lord that, given the untidy habits of fish to which I have already referred, it is not surprising that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales and my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will to in close contact over all these matters, as indeed they will be with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

My noble friend Lord Kinnoull and my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford expressed some concern about the provisions on consultation before an order was made. I think it right to point out that the Minister must consult the Nature Conservancy Council, and any other person with whom he considers that consultation is appropriate. That phrase is broad even if it is not specific, and I can assure your Lordships that the Government would seek advice from the widest possible range of interests, including fishing and fish farming interests. It almost goes without saying—but because it does I shall nevertheless say it—that the National Water Council, to which my noble friend Lord Nugent referred, and the appropriate water authorities, would of course be consulted in view of the statutory responsibilities in relation to fisheries and their substantial fund of scientific knowledge and experience in this field. I can assure my noble friend that they will be consulted and he has said that he will move just a tiny amendment at Committee stage. My noble friend is an old parliamentary hand and he will know better than I do the hazards to which Private Members' Bills are subjected when they get into another place littered with amendments, even if they are only small ones; and I have no doubt that my noble friend will weigh up that possibility and the difficulty that it might involve, with the assurance which I have given him about consultation.

I hope that the Bill will not be seen in any way as a possible brake on the development of fish farming. It need not be and it would certainly not he the Government's intention that it should be used in that way. There may well be species which would be usefully introduced for the cultivation of food but which we would not necessarily wish to have in our rivers and lakes. The licensing system envisaged in the Bill could easily deal with that situation. Like other noble Lords, I commend this Bill and I hope that it will have a happy passage through this House and through Parliament.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I should like to say how grateful I am to all the noble Lords who have supported this Bill, and particularly my noble friend Lord Ferrier. It is rather a pleasant thing to find two past Ministers of Agriculture and the present Minister of Agriculture taking part on this small fish Bill. My noble friend Lord Nugent has indicated his intention of tabling an amendment at the Committee stage, but I hope he will take account of what my noble friend Lord Ferrers has said and the assurance that he has given—and indeed the hazards of a Private Member's Bill in another place. Without wishing to anticipate any further arguments, I will conclude my remarks there.

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