HL Deb 23 April 1996 vol 571 cc1090-3

7.35 p.m.

Lord Lucas rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 20th March be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order prohibits fishing for salmon and migratory trout in the area designated, which covers rivers and streams in the counties of Dyfed and West Glamorgan. The main rivers affected are Solva, Western and Eastern Cleddau, Taf, Tywi, Gwendraeth Fach, Gwendraeth Fawr and Loughor. The order covers all rivers and streams which reach the sea between St. David's Head and Port Eynon Point.

Noble Lords will know that, following the "Sea Empress" oil spill, we attempted to secure prohibition on salmon and sea trout fishing by means of voluntary arrangements. However, we could not he absolutely secure on that. Therefore, this order had to be put into place as a precautionary measure to ensure that consumer safety was fully protected at the start of the fishing season on 20th March.

The order prohibits the taking of salmon and sea trout, properly known as sewin, in those areas, and their movement, supply and sale. We considered whether other migratory fish should be included in the prohibition order. We were advised, however, that fish such as the twaite, shad and sea lamprey are both rare and not targeted by anglers; the allis shad is a protected species and did not require inclusion; eels, primarily caught in the lower parts of the rivers, were covered by the prohibition order covering sea fisheries; and eels in the freshwater area beyond are prohibited from being caught in the close season between 14th March and 16th June.

The Government of course understand the frustration and concern of leisure and hobby fishermen. It has been suggested that we could have made other arrangements to ensure the protection of food safety. But any other form of prohibition would still have contained an element of risk, and we could not enter into an arrangement where some loopholes continued to exist.

For instance, we felt that a "catch and release" scheme would have been difficult to police and enforce; it would also have caused confusion among fishermen. We could not be certain that some fish would not have ended up on the table.

We also considered whether it might have been possible to postpone the start of the fishing season; but any change would have involved protracted procedures for the introduction of new by-laws by the former National Rivers Authority; we could not afford the time to go through that process; this was an emergency incident requiring emergency powers to put in place urgent and secure action.

With the cold spring, the fish were late in starting their run and we were not able to catch any for testing until after 20th March. We have now managed to catch and test enough fish to give a clear picture of contamination. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the results are most encouraging. We are not quite yet in a position to revoke this order, but we expect to be able to do so in the near future.

The House will know that these rivers are of significant economic value; the Government share the House's concern that restrictions should be removed at the earliest possible moment. Anglers and fisheries owners have shown considerable restraint and forbearance at this difficult time. Equally, they and we are anxious to ensure that the ban is removed only when we are satisfied that no danger exists and that the renowned reputation in this area for high quality fishing and food is maintained.

We are clearly concerned about economic losses and I welcome the fact that fishermen have organised a compensation fund claims panel to deal with the insurers. That covers the order at hand. I do not doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will have some questions to ask me; but, for the moment, I beg leave to move the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 20th March be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Lucas.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his explanation and in particular the words he was able to say towards the end of his introduction which shows that substantially more optimistic conclusions can be drawn today than were available in another place on 2nd April when the order was before another place.

The rivers in question include the Cleddau and the Taf—not the Taff, which is the river that runs into Cardiff—the Tywi, the Gwendraeth Fach, the Gwendraeth Fawr and the Llwchwr. Those—in particular the Tywi—are extremely important to the economy of West Wales. The Salmon and Sea Trout magazine recently described the Tywi as the best salmon and sewin river in Britain. Few who have fished on it would doubt that that is correct. Thousands of local people depend on fishing and fishing-related activities. The estimate of value to the local economy is in the region of between £5 million and £10 million a year. It is very helpful to hear what the Minister said; but the fishing season on the Tywi, for instance, starts in March and finishes in October.

This is my specific question: is it the Government's policy that anyone who suffers loss as a result of the "Sea Empress" and in consequence of this order should be compensated fairly and properly? I believe that is the Government's policy. Therefore I need to refine my question in this way. What is the precise basis of compensation going to be? What are the parameters which the Government consider appropriate? What about, for instance, those who have already bought their fishing permits—which are extremely expensive—for a season which is going to be curtailed? Are the owners of riparian rights going to be compensated; amateur anglers' associations; restaurant owners; those who run hotels and guest houses in the area; people who make their livelihood from fishing tackle shops?

There is quite a span of activity composed in those questions, I well understand. If the Minister feels that he would rather write to me, I equally understand that because of course the situation is changing day by day. But this has been a catastrophe to the local economy as well as to the local ecology. Is the Minister able to indicate at all the period of time which is likely to elapse before the order can he revoked? A part of the season has gone, not the best part I concede, but is it anticipated that the order will be withdrawn certainly before the September run of sewin? These are very important questions. As I said earlier I quite understand that the detail may not be available readily and I am perfectly happy with a written response. Other than that, I have no further observations.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, to reply to the second question first, the phrase I used was "in the near future" and that was intended to mean in the near future as ordinarily used by English people and not as ordinarily used by government spokesmen. If I were to promise to write to the noble Lord there would he a reasonable expectation that the order would be off before the letter arrived, given the length of time it normally takes to get letters out of the Government. So I hope for good news on that.

Samples of salmon and sea trout collected from the rivers affected by the order show only low levels of total hydrocarbons concentration and there is no sign of "Sea Empress" Forties Crude. We are encouraged by that. The chemical analysis of the sampling regime is being complemented by taint testing by panels of taste experts. I can report that they are having a great deal of pleasure from some very well cooked sewin in particular, and this work is also showing an encouraging outcome. When this is complete, we should have a clear indication of how quickly these restrictions can be removed.

So far as the sea fisheries are concerned (which are not strictly the subject of debate today) I should also like to say that the results for fin fish are encouraging. We are hoping that we shall be able to make some announcement on that but not, perhaps, at the same time as we lift the order for river fishing. But we are considering very carefully whether some variation can be made to the sea fishing order to exclude fishing for salmon and sea trout through the river mouth nets at the same time as the order we are debating this evening is lifted.

So far as compensation is concerned, that is a matter for the insurers and the international oil pollution fund. The basic principle is that any economic loss is covered. Anyone who has suffered economic loss as a result of this should be, if they so wished and if they consider their loss significantly sufficient, applying to the insurers and to the compensation fund for a recovery of damages. For those in the industries which might suffer slightly more longer-term damage, such as tourism, the effect on whose business might not be evident until the end of the summer season, they will have to wait until they know what the damage is until they can claim, unless they qualify as a hardship case, in which case the hardship fund is there to help them out immediately. With those words of comfort, I commend the order to the House.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I am bound to say that was a most helpful and genuinely encouraging series of replies. They will be rejoicing in the "Salutation Arms" at Nantgaredig this evening, particularly when they hear that anyone who suffered economic loss is likely to recover, West Wales being what it is. I am very grateful that the Minister has been able to be so candid on this occasion because it is an issue which affects so many people. I am most obliged.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.45 to 8.35 p.m.]