§ 7.27 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Elton) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th December 1107 be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order proposes to make changes in the fisheries law of Northern Ireland affecting punishments for offences, the regulation of sea-fishing and the culture of shell-fish.
§ There are two fishery codes in Northern Ireland—the Foyle Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1952, which, in parallel with similar legislation in the Republic of Ireland, applies to the fisheries in the basin of the River Foyle, and the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, which applies to other inland fisheries and to fishing for sea-fish.
§ Article 3 and Schedule 1 alter the maximum punishments which may be imposed for offences under the Acts of 1952 and 1966 and also the punishments for offences under two other Acts—namely, the Diseases of Fish Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 and the Fish Industry Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. In the more serious cases, such as the unlawful capture or sale of salmon or trout, the offences have been made indictable an an alternative to the present procedures whereby offences can be prosecuted only before a court of summary jurisdiction.
§ There is concern about the threat to salmon stocks, especially in the Foyle area, by poachers and illegal dealers with ready outlets in hotels and restaurants. The severity of the proposed punishments reflect this concern. The activities of poachers in the Foyle area have had a serious effect on the stocks of salmon trying to make their way to the spawning grounds. In fixing the new maximum punishments, the order seeks to standardise them, so far as is possible, between the Foyle area and the rest of Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
§ Article 4 extends the scope of the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, enabling the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland to regulate the records to be kept and returns of sales and catches to be made by sea-fishermen and fish-salesmen; namely, those who auction or deal in fish at the point of landing, including those selling fish by contract. The information provided by these records and returns will be of considerable importance if conservation measures are to be successful. Returns are at present made on a voluntary basis, but there is little or nothing that the department could do if, say, a fish salesman were to refuse to make returns.
§ The provisions contained in Article 5, which give the Department of Agriculture powers of inquiry and examination in relation to all licensed fish farms, are mainly concerned with finding a more suitable position in the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 for provisions formerly in section 137(3) of that Act. However, the powers in that section were in respect only of shellfish fisheries. The new provision will extend to freshwater fish farms and will enable authorised officers to enter and examine all things used in the running of a fish farm to determine whether the licensees are complying with licensed conditions. The maintenance of strict hygienic conditions in these establishments is of the greatest importance, if they are not to become breeding grounds for disease. In fact, the standard of hygiene in existing fish farms is at present very high, and this is of great importance in securing the export 1108 of their produce. The article aims to ensure that that remains the condition.
§ Articles 6 and 7 are concerned with the regulation of sea-fisheries. They re-enact existing legislation in simplified form, and in particular remove a restriction under which prohibitions on the taking of particular species of fish are limited in duration to one year at a time. That has given rise to difficulty, because it has meant that the problem caused by the erosion of fish stocks to a critical level has, up to now, had to be dealt with piecemeal. In future the period of a prohibition will be fixed by the regulations themselves, and this will make the Government's strategy clearer to the fishermen concerned.
§ Article 8 and Schedule 2 replace existing sections of the Act of 1966 relating to oyster bed licences and oyster fishery orders (which to some extent overlapped) with a single set of provisions for the granting of shell-fish fishery licences. The new provisions to a large extent re-enact the substance of the existing ones, but they overcome a difficulty which has been encountered with regard to the grant of licences in respect of Crown foreshore.
§ Article 9 extends the powers of an authorised sea-fishery officer so as to enable him to require the cooperation of the crew of a fishing boat which he boards in the course of his duties.
§ Although the amendments made by the order are comparatively minor, they will make useful improvements in the legislation affected. I commend the order to your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th December be approved.—(Lord Elton.)
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his explanation of the draft amendment order. Though he said that the amendments made by the order are minor, they are far-reaching in many respects, and I think that in general they are welcomed within the fishing industry. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, upon the extension of his ministerial duties in the Northern Ireland Office. In addition to his Department of Education brief, he now has direct responsibility for the Department of Agriculture, which embraces the fisheries that we are discussing this evening. I know that the noble Lord will find the Northern Ireland farming community, as well as those engaged in fishing, most hardworking and energetic people. I am sure that he will have the good will of both the farming and fishing industries, and he certainly has my best wishes for the promotion of the wellbeing and prosperity of these industries.
We on this side of the House support the order. I believe that the measures contained in it have the general approval and support of those directly concerned with fisheries in Northern Ireland. While the fisheries industry in the Province is relatively small, I understand that last year it accounted for over £12 million in gross value to the economy. I know that it will not be disputed when I claim that the five branches of fisheries are experiencing very difficult problems with steeply rising costs and overheads, especially for oil fuel. One vessel owner who had been out three or four nights fishing told me that it 1109 took almost three weeks of continual fishing to cover the cost of the fuel and oil for the earlier trip. This is an onerous burden facing many fishermen at the present time. Various representations have been made to me concerning the order, even within the last hour. In my view many of the representations, while fair and understandable, do not fall within the order at this time.
The five branches of the fisheries in Northern Ireland are all dealt with in this amending order. The first branch is that of the sea fisheries, which consists of about 140 small vessels and about 100 small boats, mainly engaged in inshore fishing around the coastline of the Province. Then there is the eel fishing in Lough Neagh, and then the salmon fishing in Lough Foyle and in the North Antrim area. The Minister referred to this in his explanation of the order. Extreme difficulties have been experienced because of illegal fishing and poaching in both those areas, and there is a view that the order will help considerably to ease the problem and enable salmon fishing to be much more remunerative to those who depend upon it for a livelihood.
Then there is a relatively new developing industry in commercial fish farming, which I understand last year produced 300 tons of rainbow trout for marketing. The last branch within the ambit of the fisheries in Northern Ireland concerns the small enterprising experiments and developments in shellfish cultivation. This takes place in Strangford and Foyle Loughs, and involves oyster and mussel beds, and lobsters; I do not know whether it is cultivation or breeding, but it involves lobsters, anyway.
All those branches are I believe covered in the amending order. The main question which emerges from representations made to me is that, while the order is certainly welcomed, and stronger and more realistic penalties will be imposed, do the Government have readily available the manpower and equipment to enforce the regulations? One appreciates the good intentions behind the order, but unless its objectives are enforceable, those who rely on these industries for a livelihood will still be at risk.
As I said earlier, the five branches of the fisheries have their own particular approach to the order. However, they are all agreed that there is need for efficient management, improved conservation, and better control and development measures. I believe that the order helps to prevent over-fishing and gives the department more powers to deal with persons who offend and contravene the regulations, by imposing more realistic penalties.
I should like to put to the Minister a couple of questions which have been raised with me. The first relates to Article 3—and here I repeat what I said in my earlier comments. Unless there is effective manpower and equipment to go after persons who are poaching or misusing the fishing fields, then to some degree the order will be nullified. Article 4 deals with improved records. I totally agree that the voluntary system does not give the information that helps the department. However, it is felt that the records should be kept in a simple form, easily controlled and regulated, and written up by the fishermen and those directly involved.
1110 Article 7 deals with the question of unlawfully-caught salmon or trout. The question that has been posed to me is: many retailers, restauranteurs and hoteliers come into possession of these poached salmon and trout—I mean "poached" in the sense of illegally possessed rather than cooked. Will these retailers be subject to these regulations, or are there any other powers which can be brought to bear on those involved in such misdemeanours in this respect?
I am sorry that I did not get the chance to speak earlier to the Minister about this last point. It arises from Article 8, Schedule 2, dealing with the licensing of the shell-fishing industry and the right of appeal. Schedule, 2 paragraph 132, of the order states:accord to the applicant an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person appointed for the purpose by the Department;".There is concern that the person appointed should be someone approved by both sides of the industry. He should be an impartial person and not a departmental official of some description. That will be an important aspect of the administration of the order. With those remarks, we on this side of the House approve the order.
§ Lord Hampton
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing this somewhat complex order. I have listened, as always, with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, has said. The only thing I should like to say at this point is to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, very sincerely on his promotion.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am most grateful to both noble Lords who have congratulated me on my added burdens of responsibility. Indeed, I do find it a most agreeable and interesting responsibility to be given. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, has rightly said that the fishing industry and all its five branches recognise the common interest that they all have in the proper regulation of the industry. Only those who pursue the life of an honest fisherman can suffer from the permission for dishonest fishermen to pursue their trade or indeed for disease to proliferate.
The noble Lord, Lord Blease, also asked about the manpower required for the implementation of this order. In fact the changes made by the order do not imply a noticeable extra burden on manpower and therefore the present level of manpower will be applied to implementing the revised regulations. On the question of records, I think the noble Lord agreed that it is necessary to keep them if one is to control the trade of what is potentially a diminishing stock of fish, not only in the waters that surround the Province but throughout the world. I sympathise entirely with his wish that records should be kept simple. I imagine that they will often be kept in fact by people with cold, wet fingers standing in the open. But I will take that very much on board and I will see that what can be done is done to ensure that nothing needless is recorded and that the form of the record is one that is easy to keep up.
On the question of fish that are poached, in the venal rather than culinary sense, there is provision for the prosecution of those who knowingly sell either salmon or trout which have been illegally taken. Of course, 1111 there must be a defence for those who do so unknowingly.
The noble Lord then asked about the appointment of a person to hear an appeal not to grant a licence. Consideration will, of course, be given to the appointment of a suitable person who is acceptable to all concerned. I am not saying that precise machinery exists for this, but it will be my intention to see that such a person is appointed, as that will obviously make things run more smoothly. I think that covers all the questions which the noble Lord has asked, and I commend this order to your Lordships.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.