HL Deb 21 June 1977 vol 384 cc644-60

8.10 p.m.

The Earl of ONSLOW rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the clarification of the law on fish farming. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I shall try to be as quick as I can, for it is much later than we had thought it would be. I must also declare an interest, in that I produce approximately 5,000 small trout for a fishing enterprise. Today at Question Time, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said that he always put the interests of producers first. I do not want him to do that. I just want him to give an undertaking which I thought was half given on the previous order by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, before he left the Chamber, that the Government will sort out the present legal mess and try to put fish farming on to a comparable basis with the rest of agriculture and (dare I say it?) with industry. Neither has to labour under the same legal uncertainties as does fish farming. It is interesting to note that the latest laboratory leaflet from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food states, That fish farming is an independent industry to be developed in accordance with its own merits is the only view with overall validity. The leaflet then goes on to use words with which I, as a beef-farmer, am totally at home. It speaks of live weight gains, manipulation of brood stocks and farming strategies. These are but some examples. In fact, I would suggest that there is more in common between raising turbot in artificial cages and the intensive raising of beef, pork, veal and poultry than there is between the latter and the growing of cereals or carrots as arable or vegetable crops.

The view of this laboratory leaflet—it is No. 35 on fish cultivation research—that the production of cheap protein has almost no validity is contrary to the view of the Government of Israel, which has large fish farming enterprises. It is even more in contradiction with the view of the Government of China which, after all, has responsibility for one in four of all the human beings on this earth and which produces vast quantities of farmed fish a year. It is even contrary to the view of a Minister of the Labour persuasion, the noble Lord, Lord Champion, who said, during the Committee stage of the Veterinary Surgeons Act: But nothing must be taken as in any way denigrating the work being done in connection with fish farming and increasing the amount of protein which is necessary where the inhabitants are near to starvation."—[Official Report, 26/5/1966; col. 1521.] Clearly, that is only a small part of what the noble Lord said, but I think that it is fair comment on the Government's position at the time.

Mr. Purdom also complains that the fish farming industry is a net user of proteins. That is so, but the beef, poultry and chicken industries are, in proportion, greater users of protein than are fish farmers. The development of molecular hydrocarbon protein, and the use of fish waste and slaughterhouse offal must invalidate that argument.

In previous debates and in the views one has heard from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry's position as regards the fish farmer's worries has been argued with an attitude of mind so laden with excuses for not doing anything that I think it worthwhile to mention some of the points raised. For instance, one of their arguments relates to the difficulty in differentiating between sporting and food sales. Food fish are normally sold dead except in one or two very specialised restaurants where they have a tank into which they may put a dozen or possibly 15 trout. Sporting fish are normally sold alive. Dead trout will not take a fly. Records could easily be kept showing whether the destination was a restaurant, for food, or was for the restocking of a sporting establishment.

It also seems to be the view that, if fish farming is included in agriculture, there is a doubt whether oyster beds should be eligible. The answer is, why not`? After all, they are a source of food. Admittedly, they are at the top end of the market, to use modern marketing jargon, but it was only 200 years ago that one read of Irish actresses starving in a garret on two dozen oysters and a pint of porter. Food fashions can change.

In the case of the marine fish farm, the creation of rights of exploitation is also claimed usually to mean the interruption, if not the extinction, of public rights. From the first Enclosure Acts through compulsory purchase powers to the Community Land Act and aircraft nationalisation many measures have involved the extinction of public rights on, in my view, a far greater scale. The section of the law on how the sea is enclosed for farming is that where the greatest need for reform and clarification and codification exists. At present, the law gives specific rights only to farm molluscs and to enclose the seabed. One is not allowed to enclose water above the seabed. This can only be done by a Several Order. To obtain such an order is a very complicated procedure. Consents must be obtained from the DTI under the Coast Protection Act 1947, from the Crown Estate Commissioners or the Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Shellfish Act 1967. All these can involve a public inquiry. There are obscure mediaeval rights of archaic origin and dubious validity which can impose long delays. Substantial objections from almost any source are likely to stop the granting of a Several Order. This effectively allows the creation of public rights at large. In other words, it creates specific rights for people like yachtsmen and water skiers. Incidentally, the Zetland County Council Bill allows the local authority concerned powers to help set up fish farming concerns. Of course, it was not designed for fish farming but for the oil industry, but sometimes good arises from unlikely sources.

There are natural worries among the fish farming community over compensation and the slaughter of salmonids. I believe that, at the moment, this is the only case where there are notifiable diseases. The precedents set by the law on foot-and-mouth disease and brucellosis are good ones which benefit the land farmer and the consumer. Similar rules on ulcerated dermal necrosis and other piscine diseases would give the aquatic farmer and the consumer similar confidence. I noted during the last 15 minutes or so, in the discussion on the Import of Live Fish (Scotland) Bill, which has compensation elements written into it, that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, gave an undertaking that the Government agree to these proposals and approve of them.

The rating law is in a hopeless muddle. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred to this on the Valuation and Rating (Exempted Classes) (Scotland) Order which we have just discussed. At the moment, the Scots judges say that fish are not livestock. The English rating tribunals say diffierent things on different cases. Parliament is at fault here, for these judgments are all based on exactly the same Statute—one which was passed within the last five years. If we, as Parliamentarians, can get ourselves into such a muddle so quickly, it shows that much legislation is going through Parliament too quickly and is not being properly digested and amended. For instance, the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 gives special protection to mammals, birds and reptiles, which may only be treated medically by a qualified vet. Fish are excluded from this protection.

Provision has been made for the fishermen to deal with the seal that is attacking the fish in his nets, but not for the fish farmer to deal with the seal which attacks his floating cages. The difficulty of prosecuting someone for stealing fish out of an enclosed sea loch is well known. The impossibility of prosecuting someone for stealing molluscs hanging from a raft is equally well known, even though to all intents and purposes they are the private property of the farmer as such.

Planning permission for erection of fish farming sites is another area of doubt to be cleared up. The areas of dottiness are legion; some of them dating back to the dawn of legal memory. Therefore, will this Government, who seem to be so keen on staying in power but have no chance of enacting any controversial legislation, turn their mind to a noncontroversial Act, to the passing of this Act to put fish farming on to a sensible framework and clear up all these present anomalies. This will also—and I say this slightly mischievously, I quite concede—keep some of their own Back-Benchers out of mischief.

8.21 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to start by congratulating my noble friend Lord Onslow for raising this subject. It has come up from time to time in your Lordships' House, but the anomalies that exist at the present time are probably as great as they have ever been as a result of yet another recent decision. Fish farming, in contrast to hunting and catching fish, has grown at any great rate in this country only in the past 20 years or so. Except for monasteries, where, for example, in centuries past carp were kept in ponds for eating, and except for shellfish, which are relatively immobile and can therefore be kept in special areas, fish farming has not been the general way of supplying food in fish form to the inhabitants of this country. But in the past 20 years or so there has been the interest, and there has been experiment and considerable growth in this industry. But the industry is still in its infancy, and I suggest that it needs every encouragement, for in the United Kingdom it is an additional source of food produced within the country. The Government produced their own White Paper on Food From Our Own Resources, and they have outwardly given every impression of wanting to enable as much of it as possible to be produced within our borders and, among other things, save imports.

I should like to consider fish farming in three groups into which I think it falls naturally. First, there is the salt water fish farming, and here this now relates mostly to sole and turbot and also migratory fish—salmon—but they are normally farmed in salt water. The second group are shellfish, and the third fresh water fish farms, where trout are mostly the fish which are farmed. Those people who have embarked upon fish farming and have started enterprises have, as my noble friend described, been handicapped by difficulties and penalties arising from the lack of any clear classification where they are concerned, and also because they find themselves ineligible for treatment or assistance, such as is received by agriculture or horticulture. The effect has been a worrying one for those who have invested and got started in the business, and it has also been discouraging for them and for others who were also considering starting. The prime example of this has been mentioned by my noble friend; that is, the rating of land and buildings, where for many years, since the 1920s, rates have not been paid on land and buildings in agriculture.

The position of fish farming has been ambiguous. Both in rating and in other matters a fish farmer does not know how he is to be classified or treated, and this, I suggest, is most unsatisfactory. There has been a laboratory leaflet, No. 35, in which Dr. Purdom, a scientist working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, has produced comments and information about fish farming. He has said that it should be an independent industry, as my noble friend has quoted, and this may well be correct, but I suggest that it is most unsettling for this to be produced without accompanying plans or an explanation of the Government's attitude. I know that it is only the view of a scientist and that it has been produced as a helpful contribution. None the less, it has highlighted the situation of fish farmers; that is, that here is yet another opinion which has been given of what their status is and how their industry should be treated. That was the basis of an article in The Times newspaper yesterday, which was entirely based on that laboratory leaflet.

My Lords, I should now like to deal with the three groups in turn. Salt water fish farming in the sea and in sea water lochs has been largely experimental so far. It has been carried out in cages and closed off areas, and, as I pointed out in the discussion on one of the previous items of Business today, the Rating and Valuation (Scotland) Act 1976 could well be applied by the Secretary of State presenting orders which would clarify the rating position as regards subjects below the low water mark where Scotland is concerned. But this side of fish farming has been experimental because the earlier hopes where plaice were concerned—and most of the first salt water fish farming was carried out with plaice—were disappointing, and now the fish farms are concentrating more on sole and turbot.

The second group, shellfish, are not new. Shellfish have been farmed for many years in this country, but there is still argument about the status and ownership of, for example, oyster beds, and there is the question of status, rate-ability and ownership where shellfish are, as some of the species are, grown on ropes hanging in the water from rafts. That is yet another example of the legal difficulties that arise.

The third group, the freshwater fish farms, presents the type of farm where there has been most expansion in the past 20 years. The species of fish has been trout, and usually it is rainbow trout. My noble friend referred to the question of rating, and I should like to say a few words about this because it has been one of the main grievances of fish farmers. It is in interpretation of the 1971 Act that the contradictions have occurred. The Lands Tribunal in 1974 interpreted the 1971 Act, where England and Wales are concerned, on the basis that the definition "livestock" included fish and that therefore fish farmers should be on a par with agriculture and not have to pay rates. But a contrary decision was taken in the same year in Scotland on interpretation there. So we had a position where in Scotland the definition "livestock" did not include fish. That is the kind of anomaly which has arisen. I know that very recently a different decision has been taken again in England and Wales which has contradicted the earlier one, but that only makes the confusion worse confounded.

In the last year or two when these matters have been raised, the Government have said that they were waiting for Layfield. They were waiting for the report of the committee which had been asked to look into the whole question of local government taxation and rating. But now Layfield have reported and the Government have already pronounced on the Layfield recommendation about rating agriculture, and the Government have made it clear that, despite the recommendation of the Layfield Committee, they do not propose to start rating agriculture. That does not surprise me, my Lords, because clearly this would be something which would immediately have an effect on putting up the price of food.

Moreover, I would suggest that in the foreseeable future, for several years, no Government are likely to bring forward a measure which would cause agriculture to pay rates and automatically and unnecessarily put up the price of food in this country, when the major battle is against inflation and this Government are trying to keep prices down as part of their arrangements with the TUC.

There is a difficulty about rating which I think the Government have in mind but which I do not think is a very great difficulty, and that is that some freshwater fish farms produce fish for food and others produce fish for stocking rivers, lakes and lochs, and therefore for sport; and there is an argument that the derating of fish farms should apply to those which are producing fish for food. This need not hold up the rationalisation of this industry. I would say to noble Lords opposite: Let Parliament decide whether there is to be a distinction between fish farms which produce fish for food and those which produce fish for sport. What is quite certain is that rationalisation would give encouragement to this industry, which is not competing with any other British industry in its products but is simply producing additional food.

As my noble friend reminded us, the Government are short of non-political legislation. If this Government go into the next Session they will be looking for more non-political legislation. Here is a subject which is crying out for order and encouragement; and, though there may be arguments—my noble friend suggested that it was non-controversial; I think there may well be some arguments, which will not follow Party lines, on what might be the best drafting of the Bill—this is a subject which the Government could safely take up, knowing that they would get support from all sides of both Houses.

8.32 p.m.


My Lords, a number of us have been hammering away for some years at the importance of fish farming to a country such as ours, which imports roughly half our foodstuffs and a large quantity of our fish. But we do not feel that we have really got anywhere; we do not feel that we have made any headway. I myself have played a small part in this, in that I temporarily took the chair at Sub-Committee D of the Select Committee studying European legislation when we had to consider the EEC regulations on the restructuring of marine fish farming. We took evidence from a number of expert witnesses, including the Ministry of Agriculture, the White Fish Authority and commercial fish farming interests, and I think that at the end of it we were pretty well informed about the subject.

Our report was debated in your Lordships' House on the 26th July of last year, and I then had the privilege of introducing it. We drew attention to a number of steps which we thought the Government should take. For example, we emphasised the need for reserved areas, especially on the West Coast of Scotland, because of the limited number of sites which were available for fish farming. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who was then replying for the Government, said that, while he agreed with this in the abstract, it was impossible to implement in practice because the whole thing was too indefinite in the future and areas could not be reserved. But we were not talking in terms of thousands of acres; we were talking in terms of a few hundred acres in specific lochs, and this was a typical instance of where it would have cost the Government nothing but where they could have gone a little way, perhaps, towards meeting the views of the Committee.

We also drew attention to the need for legislation. We ended up in paragraph 21 of our report: The Committee understand that the question of legislation in aquaculture is receiving the Ministry's attention. They believe the time has come when action is required". That was a year ago. This all took place at about the same time as my noble friends Lady Emmet and Lord Balerno carried their Amendment in your Lordships' House to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to put aquaculture and agriculture on the same footing—an Amendment which was, unfortunately, rejected in another place. It is not for me to speak for my noble friends, but I do not think that they thought that this was the ideal way to deal with it. What they wanted was a Bill to be brought in by the Government; but, in the absence of such a Bill, they thought that the amendment of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill would at least give some relief to fish farmers in the immediate future.

I have tried very hard to understand the reasons for the lukewarm Government attitude towards the encouragement of fish farming in this country, and I have reread the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in this House and of Mr. Bishop in another place. I am bound to say that I find their arguments quite unconvincing. What it really boils down to is that the Ministry considers that the potentiality for increasing farmed fish is very limited in the foreseeable future, and that in any case the only fish being farmed are the luxury and not the so-called traditional fish, such as cod and haddock. This latest argument, which was again trotted out by Mr. Bishop in the debate in another place last October, seems to me so ludicrous that it hardly bears examination. Not only is there a considerable export potential for luxury fish, hut, perhaps more important, what is a luxury food today can well become the traditional food of tomorrow, and vice versa. One has only to look at chicken, on the one hand, and oysters and salmon, on the other—and my noble friend has already touched on this aspect of the matter. Only by experimenting with a high-price product can the fish farmers eventually produce commercially at a lower price.

So far as potentiality is concerned, am afraid I must disagree with the Government view. I believe there to be great potential, given the necessary Government action and support. For instance, in 1975 Mr. Sedgewick, the chief inspector of salmon and freshwater fisheries in Scotland, suggested it might be possible to produce between 20,000 and 30,000 tons of farmed salmon a year, and this figure was confirmed to our Committee by the chairman of Marine Harvests Limited, a subsidiary of the Unilever company, who are already producing farmed salmon commercially. We were also informed that some 6,000 tons of turbot and sole might be produced. When one bears in mind that the total consumption of salmon in this country at the present time is roughly 7,000 tons a year and, of sole, a little more than 1,000 tons, one sees not only what this production could do for our food supply but also what it could do in the way of helping our exports.

One of the reasons put forward by the Government for their inaction is that they are waiting on the industry to put forward their proposals for altering the existing law. I think that this is a little disingenuous and unworthy. The Government are perfectly well aware of the changes that are required. They have been spelled out to them on a number of different occasions. A Working Group, including the NFU Fish Farming Section, the Salmon and Trout Association, the Fisheries Organisation Society, the British Trout Farmers' Association and the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, have produced a document entitled Issues Considered by a Working Group convened to identify and examine Legislative and Administrative Matters affecting Fish Farmers.

On October 19th, in another place, Mr. Bishop said that a reply to the Ministry's queries on that document had been received and was now being studied. I mention this because in a previous debate the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said that nothing could be done because they were waiting for the fish farmers' reply. It seems to me that any Government worth their salt should now be in a position to draft the necessary legislation and to place it before Parliament.

My Lords, if the Unstarred Question of my noble friend Lord Onslow has done anything this evening to speed this process he will have performed the most valuable service.

8.41 p.m.


My Lords, it is some months since the House discussed fish farming, and I think that we are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for giving us another opportunity to do so. His Unstarred Question, of course, deals specifically with the legal aspect and he confined himself in his speech to this. But I felt sure that the debate would range far and wide over many other matters connected with this fascinating subject. Indeed, I was not wrong when I heard the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Vernon.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and other noble Lords criticised the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Vernon, said that we were lukewarm. In fact, he said that I was lukewarm in my speeches. So far as I can remember, I have always stressed that the Government—


My Lords, I said that the Government were lukewarm.


My Lords, the noble Lord referred to my speeches. I have always stressed that we believe greatly in the potentiality of fish farming. Indeed, we are giving £1 million a year for research and development to the fish farmers—which I think is proof of the fact that we believe that this has a future. But I must put this into perspective in view of some remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Vernon has made. It has potential; but when you think that at the moment there are 2,500 tonnes of farmed fish in this country compared with 1 million tonnes of landed deep-sea fish, and if you multiply this by 10 or 20, it is still only a fraction of the deep sea fish. On the other hand, there is potential for what the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, described as the luxury fish. I do not think it is a luxury at all. It is fish that I should like to see more widely consumed—fish such as trout and salmon.

There is a potential there; but here we are constrained by breeding and genetics. This is not a matter of manufacturing motor cars; there is constraint by the problems of breeding and genetics. At the moment, the only species where there has been a break through has been in trout and, to a certain extent, salmon. With regard to turbot and most of the other species, it is still in its infancy. This is not something that Governments, however active or willing, can do anything about until the scientists and those conducting the experiments have had a break through.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to correct some of the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. The laboratory leaflet issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says 2,500 tonnes admittedly, but 800,000 tonnes landed. Admittedly, that is a 20 per cent. decrease; but, furthermore, it says that the worldwide annual fish catch is 85 million tonnes and that very nearly 10 per cent. (in other words, 7 million tonnes) are fish farmed. The United Kingdom lags very heavily behind the rest of the world in its fish farming when with a little sorting out of legislation it could do very much better.


My Lords, it does not lag far behind if it is compared with European countries like France and Italy. It lags behind countries like Japan and other countries in the Far East where they are producing artificial carp on a large scale. This, we understand, is not suitable for this country. Here the accent has been mainly on trout. I do not think it is fair to compare our production with world production which mostly consists of carp.

My Lords, I should like to say a few words about the individual issues on which it has been suggested that the law needs clarifying and changing. Here I must, if I may, take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Vernon. We are waiting on the NFU and the fish farming interests. This was at their request. We had many weeks of talking with them last year and earlier this year. Then they said that they preferred to have their own discussions among themselves which are being coordinated by the NFU and then they would come back to the Department with specific proposals in areas where they thought the law needed clarification or changing. This was at their request; it was not some kind of device by the Government to shift responsibility. I thought it unfair of the noble Lord to say that and I want to put the matter right.

There have been various questions raised by noble Lords. One of the most important is the question of rating liability on which different courts have taken different views. The question has been complicated by the Layfield Committee on Local Government Finance, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has said, which recommended that agriculture no longer should be exempt from rating liability. However, the Government have now decided, as is well known, not to implement that recommendation. It may be desirable to clarify the law when possible; but we need to see any case developed by the fish farmers first.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, also suggested that fish were included in the definition of "livestock" on one side of the Border but not on the other. To the best of my knowledge, that is not the case so far as statutory definitions are concerned. The House will appreciate that there are many different definitions in the Statutes and that it is not easy to he sure that one has examined them all; but what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, may have in mind is the divergent interpretations which English and Scottish courts have put upon the term "livestock" as it occurs in the Rating Act 1971. The practical effect is that at present fish farms are held to be rateable in Scotland but not in England and Wales.


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to intervene? It was, as I have said, the interpre- tations that have been placed by the Land Tribunal (and the equivalent body in Scotland) which have led to the definitions where fish farmers' rateability was concerned being opposite on each side of the Border. It was a matter of the interpretation of the 1971 Act.


My Lords, yes, that is absolutely true. There have been suggestions that fish farmers are treated less favourably than farmers in respect of some fiscal measures. In particular, capital allowances against income tax; capital transfer tax; vehicle licences and vehicle fuel duties. I am glad to say that this is not the case, as the Inland Revenue are prepared to look favourably on fish production for food.

It has sometimes been claimed that fish farmers lack clear legal protection for their stock and installations—and this was mentioned by the noble Earl—and that they are inhibited in dealing with predators. I am advised that protection for installations and for stock, where this can be shown to be securely held, is available in England and Wales under statute law, and in England under common law. Clarification is needed only where there is doubt whether the stock is properly held, as in the case of shellfish grown on ropes or the like above the seabed, or fish kept in sealed arms of the sea. The latter is not, I understand, a practice likely to be adopted in this country.

"Predators" in this context means birds and seals. So far as the killing of birds is concerned, fish farmers have the same rights to protect their property—not of course unlimited rights—as farmers have. They appear to be less well placed in relation to seals, which can of course do considerable damage to fish kept in sea cages. Any proposals to revise the law in this area would have to take conservation needs into account.

The question of conservation also arises on another front. Fisheries law includes a number of restrictions, for example on selling salmon during the close season, which are designed to conserve wild stocks of fish. It is generally recognised that these measures are unnecessary and inappropriate for farmed fish, and that the latter should, so far as possible, be excluded from them. In Scotland the point is covered mainly by the Freshwater and Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Act 1976. In England and Wales I understand that there is no practical difficulty at present, since neither salmon nor sea trout are farmed. Here again, if further legislation is contemplated, it will be necessary to see that genuine conservation needs are not neglected.

There are, of course, a number of other specific points which are alluded to from time to time by the fish farming interests and have been referred to in this debate. It is asked whether fish farmers should be better placed to get grants under the Industry Act 1972. Fish farming is eligible for selective assistance under Section 7 of the Act, subject to the statutory criteria.

Then it is said that fish farming is constrained by planning law. This is, of course, a matter which is largely in the hands of local planning authorities. It is for them to decide whether development for fish farming purposes is permitted by the general development order or whether they should call for an application for planning permission. In the absence of any judicial ruling, the Government cannot say with certainty whether or not fish farming comes within the scope of agricultural permitted development under the GDO.

It is also suggested from time to time that the Government should provide an advisory service for fish farmers. While at present fish farmers do not enjoy a free locally-based advisory service, on the other hand the level of scientific R and D—to which I referred earlier—funded by Government is high in relation to the number of fish farms, and high quality scientific advice is available from the laboratories of the Fisheries Department.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, in this context, while the noble Lord is talking about the high quality advice that is available, it is also available from people like the Thames Water Authority. They have been extremely helpful to me and one wants to put the helpful side—which I did not—as well as the things like planning law, et cetera, which are in a muddle.


My Lords, I take the point. I agree with what the noble Earl has said. One of the most important questions raised by the noble Earl, and the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, was that there should be legislative provisions to enable fish farmers to obtain exclusive rights over areas of sea and seabed. This of course is a very wide and far-reaching matter, far more far-reaching I thought than the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, seemed to appreciate. The Crown holds in trust for the public rights of navigation, white fishing and access for recreation, and these rights are inalienable except by Parliamentary sanction. The Crown also holds rights of property of the foreshore between high and low water marks. That is why all the coasts around the United Kingdom are free to the public, unlike with many Continental countries.

Fish farmers claim that these arrangements do not afford them full security, both of property and of tenure. The Cameron Committee, in its Report on the Regulation of Scottish Inshore Fisheries, commented that the law needed restating and extending to allow fish farmers exclusive rights in areas of the sea. It is recognised however that any such extension would involve the curtailment or extinction of public rights. In these circumstances, the effect of granting to fish farmers exclusive access to areas of sea would have to be weighed against the resultant loss of public rights. It would of course be a very revolutionary measure as far as this country is concerned.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will give way for one moment, the point I was trying to make was this. If, for instance, an authority had it in mind to set up a marina or some such thing on a particular Scottish loch which was suitable for fish farming—and there are very few such sites which are suitable—it might be politic to deny the development to the marina and allow that site to be made available for fish farming. This would require Government intervention. I was not suggesting that there should be gross violation of public rights; I was just suggesting a little common sense by the Government.


My Lords, this would be a matter for the planning inquiry. I do not think it would be for the Government to step in and say that we would rather have a fish farm that a marina. This is a matter for the planning inquiry.

Before the noble Lord interrupted me, I was going on to say that fish farmers who wish to anchor sea cages or construct any other form of enclosure to hold their stocks, may do so provided they obtain a lease from the Crown Estate Commissioners which gives them an exclusive right to anchor their cages, and permission from the Department of Trade to create an obstacle to navigation. So this is allowed of course in certain circumstances. This is one of the matters which are being considered at the moment.

I think and hope that I have referred to all the more significant points which have been raised by fish farmers and which fall within the scope of the Question. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the NFU and other representative bodies are now conducting detailed studies with a view to submitting their suggestions for both legislative and administrative changes. I believe that we shall be getting these proposals within the next couple of months or so, and they will of course be given careful consideration. This Government will then be able to make a further general review of the situation.