Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Fisheries Enforcement in England (HC563)

Public Accounts Committee 4 Jun 2003

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Witness: SIR JOHN BOURN KCB, Comptroller and Auditor General, further examined.
Witness: MR BRIAN GLICKSMAN, Treasury Officer of Accounts, HM Treasury, further examined.
Fisheries Enforcement in England (HC563)
Memorandum submitted by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: MR BRIAN BENDER CB, Permanent Secretary, MR STEPHEN WENTWORTH, Fisheries Director and MR MALCOLM MACDONALD, Deputy Chief Inspector of Fisheries, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), examined.

Q17 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When I read the report, I got the impression that really you were not all that bothered whether you caught them or you did not catch them. There was not a great deal of urgency and it was more by good luck than by good management that the quotas were kept to. I have a certain amount of sympathy with that anyway, because I find it very difficult to understand the reasons why we stop fishermen fishing, but never mind. My argument seems to be borne out by the very fact in paragraph 2.3 on page 15 where it states quite clearly "Across the board there is less than 1% chance that, on any day of sighting, a vessel will be inspected at sea and around a 6% chance of being inspected on landing". Frankly that is not much of a deterrent, is it? If those figures are correct - and you have not disputed them - it seems clear to me that there is not much chance of them being caught; no matter how many days they go out, there is still only a 1% chance of being caught on the day they go out, so it seems to me that is pretty irrelevant.

Mr Bender: There are different circumstances in which a vessel would be inspected. There is inspection at sea, where this 1% figure is right, though that may well mean that the same vessel is inspected three or four times over a year. There is cross-checking on landing. There is the inspection on landing, then there is cross-checking against other data such as the data from aerial surveillance and so on. Then there are the penalties for infringement. Whether we get this balance right is difficult to tell. Certainly the industry feels we are over-zealous in our enforcement, but I suppose they would, would they not?

Q18 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Despite all that, if you are right and you are over-zealous and the deterrents are there, the report tells us that 70% of fishermen exceed their quotas. They do not seem to take much notice, do they? They do not seem to be very afraid that they are going to be caught, because 70% actually do it.

Mr Wentworth: There is another way of coming at this and that is that strikingly a lot of operators in the industry are prepared to pay very large sums of money to buy quota to ensure that they operate within quotas. Fishermen will be spending hundreds of thousands, millions in some cases, to ensure that they have the quota within which to operate. It is misleading to give the impression that there is not a real impact from our enforcement activities.

Q19 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am sorry, you have lost me. I do not understand that. Are you saying that they pay huge amounts of money to buy extra quota? How does that answer my question that 70% of them are still over-fishing?

Mr Wentworth: The point I am making is that if they were not concerned to comply with quotas, they would not spend any money buying them.

Q20 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I see the point you are making but it still does not seem to have a bearing.

Mr Macdonald: May I go back to the 1% inspection rate? That is an average figure. Where fisheries are at risk, you would find that many fishermen are boarded many, many more times than those figures imply. We agree that where fisheries are not at risk, for instance in certain fisheries like a cockle fishery, there is no reason for us to inspect, so we would not be inspecting as there is nothing to inspect for.

Q21 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Would you agree with me that it is not very much of a deterrent, is it? If 70% of the population claimed benefits to which they were not entitled, there would be alarm, would there not? Or would there not? Would that be acceptable that 70% of people who claim benefits claimed one to which they were not entitled? Would that be acceptable? I do not think it would really, would it? So how is it acceptable that 70% of fishermen break the law? There is not much of a deterrent, is there? There cannot be. I have proved my point. Let us move on. I have to say that I have quite a lot of sympathy with the fishermen. Common sense tells you that clearly they must have huge investment in boats; they are obviously not cheap. If they buy a boat they have to pay for that boat, there are plenty of fish in the sea and they are not allowed to fish for them and then you have the even dafter situation where if they catch fish and they are over the quotas and the fish are dead, they still have to throw the fish back in the sea. How can that be justified? Is that not just plain stupid?

Mr Wentworth: Discards happen for a number of reasons. You have mentioned one, which is if they do not have the quota for it. What I can say is that it is obviously a frustrating and difficult situation for exactly the reason you have described. On the other hand, if you are going to limit catches, which you do need to do in order to protect stocks, you have to have some sort of rule which tells people when to stop.

Q22 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So you think it is perfectly acceptable to catch fish, the fish which you have caught above the quota are dead but you throw them back in the sea. Do you think that is acceptable?

Mr Bender: No, it is very unsatisfactory. The more flexible the arrangements within a producer organisation, the better the prospects of avoiding discards because fishermen would not be catching fish they could not use, they could compensate for it with a change in their quota within the producer organisation.

Q23 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Is there any move afoot to do something about it? Do you accept that the reasons why the fishermen appear to over-fish are economic reasons?

Mr Bender: Yes.

Q24 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Have you looked into those economic reasons, how the fishing industry can be helped? To me it does not help to catch fish which then have to be thrown back into the sea. That seems quite crazy to me. Have you looked at things which can be done to offset that?

Mr Bender: Essentially the heart of the problem is that there is too much capacity for too few fish in the sea being chased by too many boats. One of the things the government has done over the period is paid grants to remove capacity. We operated decommissioning grants between 1984 and 1986, 1993 and 1997, again 2001-2002 and another scheme is in progress. That has, overall, just between 1996 and 2002, reduced the percentage number of vessels over 10 metres by 28%. That is the sort of way in which we have used taxpayers' money to try to address the problem. Not by a direct subsidy to the industry, which would not be an appropriate use of money, but as a means of reducing the economic incentive of too many fishermen trying to catch too few stocks.

Q25 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Move on to pages 36 and 37 if you would. Here I picked up the theme I started off with, which it did not seem to me you took very seriously at all. Paragraph 3.9 says "Figure 21 shows the current deployment of inspectors. Ten inspectors cover landings of 13,000 tonnes in the South East, but there are only 15 inspectors covering landings of 47,000 tonnes in the South West and eight inspectors covering landings of 23,500 tonnes in the Humber region. I did a little arithmetic and if we look at Figure 21 and the number of boats each inspector has, for example in the North East, if my figures are correct, each inspector has 40 boats to look after, similarly in the Humber; in the East my figures show that one inspector had 80 boats to look after and in the South East they had 100 boats to look after, South West 70 and North West 50. I would imagine that is a huge number of boats for one particular inspector to have to keep a track of. That to me does not show a lot of commitment on the part of the Department, whoever is responsible for these inspectors. There seem to be far too few inspectors around to even hope to do a reasonable job. Am I totally wrong?

Mr Bender: If you look at it from the point of view of the most important vessels which are those over 10 metres, then actually the same arithmetic would show that each inspector is responsible for between 10 and 20 vessels wherever they are located. They know their customers, they know the fishing circumstances, they know the local pressure points. The way we deploy the resources needs to take account of the tonnages, the length of coastline, the number of landing sites and in particular the number of vessels over 10 metres in the district.

Mr Macdonald: It is possibly a bit misleading to look at the number of vessels by vessel size because fishing vessels are very different depending on the fishery they are going to. For instance, a large vessel which can stay at sea for 10 days or whatever obviously lands a lot more fish, whereas in another port, perhaps in the South East, where the vessels traditionally fish maybe one tide, maybe 12 hours, they do not require the same amount of attention, there is less to inspect.

Q26 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Continuing in paragraph 3.9, at the end it says "The Inspectorate can move staff on a temporary basis for specific operations or short periods, but the compulsory transfer of staff is no longer a part of the Department's human resources policy". Surely this must restrict you? What you are saying here is that you have certain problems in certain areas and you are over-staffed in one area but you cannot move staff to another area to cover those shortages. That seems a crazy policy.

Mr Bender: I was trying to explain earlier when I was answering a wrong question from the Chairman, that in practice we do do it, it is just that we do not make it compulsory. Looking back over the last few years, we have actually managed to transfer 16 inspectors between one place and another as well as promoting another seven. We do manage to do it, but we do not make it an obligatory part of their work conditions, we do it through a more ---

Q27 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is point I am making. I heard what you said to the Chairman, but if you do not make it obligatory, presumably they can say no, can they?

Mr Bender: The fact that we have managed to achieve this number of moves suggests we are managing to do it without actually imposing the sort of conditions which may make people these days say they do not want to work in this organisation any more.


Q149 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I said earlier that 70% of fishermen exceed the quotas and the report says that 29% significantly exceed their quotas. Is there any evidence of widespread organised fraud by fishing merchants or something like that?

Mr Wentworth: First of all perhaps a comment on the figures you are quoting. They come from surveys where it is difficult to know how accurate they are but clearly that is what fishermen have said in various situations, in situations where in some senses it does not matter what they say. They are just answering the survey, is the point I am making and different people take surveys more or less seriously. On the rather specific point you are making about collaborative crime, if I can put it like that, there is actually a case described in the NAO report where there were 15 separate defendants in a case where they had been misdescribing fish. From recollection, the species concerned was sole, which is a very high value fish and they had collectively devised a way of classifying it as a much lower value flat fish. It was going through a market in a situation where the people who needed to know knew that they were buying sole; other people ---

Q150 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So that was organised.

Mr Wentworth: That was organised crime.

Q151 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Do you have any further examples?

Mr Wentworth: Mr Macdonald might have examples.

Mr Macdonald: Yes, there are other examples, some of which are still currently under investigation. We have had examples of log sheets being falsified.

Q152 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): This is organised fraud by big conglomerates.

Mr Macdonald: I do not know how big they are, but there would be more than one person collaborating in the crime.

Q153 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What do you do about this?

Mr Macdonald: We investigate and if the evidence is there we prosecute.

Q154 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Has DEFRA got the power to confiscate licences or suspend licences? If you have not, do you think you should have?

Mr Wentworth: There is a power to suspend licences, but that is vested in the courts. That has been used, but only rather rarely.

Q155 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): My question was: do you think DEFRA should have the power to do that?

Mr Wentworth: Mr Bender indicated that we thought that could be a useful power. There is the example given in the NAO report of the policy operated in Denmark and that is one we are certainly looking at and we hope to make progress on soon. The ability to remove a licence quickly and have a very immediate impact on the fisherman is obviously a salutary weapon to have in the bag. It is quite a complicated issue in that obviously you have to be able to have some right of appeal, you have to be sure you have adequate evidence to justify such draconian action.

Q156 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): He gives one hell of an answer, does he not? You ask a very small question and he goes on for 20 minutes. No wonder I do not have a lot of time. What is the organised crime worth, would you reckon?

Mr Wentworth: The most substantial examples have not been the kind of organised crime we were talking about, but these cases where there have been very big fines of the order of one million where we found that there had been quite long term fraudulent activity.

Q157 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How much have they made out of it?

Mr Wentworth: I do not know that we would have the answer to that.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): In excess of millions?

Q158 Chairman: Mr David Rendel would like a note on how many producer organisations have ever exceeded their quotas and how many have ever been prosecuted.

Mr Bender: Noted.

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