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GO FLY YOUR KITE, MINISTER

11:00 - 11 July 2005

Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw used a television debate yesterday to accuse the Western Morning News of lying about a fishing report. London Editor Jason Groves reckons the Minister should be a little more careful with his facts before being so free with his language

It was a pretty straightforward story. Two weeks ago the Government finally published its response to an important report by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit on the future of the fishing industry. As with many Government reports, a lot of the really key decisions had been put off until a later date. The wretched quota system would be reformed, we were told, but there were no details of how; the wasteful system of discards, in which good fish has to be thrown back dead, would be looked at, but there were no firm proposals to end it; and so on.

So what to write? What was new? Well, buried away in the heart of the report was a startling proposal - namely that the inshore fleet of boats under ten metres in length should be charged £1,000 a year for a licence to fish in order to recover some of the Government's regulatory and enforcement costs.

"Arrangements for the recovery of costs exist in many areas of Government activity," the report said. "The costs of managing fisheries are substantial and, in principle, it is appropriate that cost recovery should apply in the sector."

Readers who want to check the full passage can find it on page 29 of the report Securing the Benefits in the fishing section of Defra's website.

Now, Mr Bradshaw had earlier said that the Government was not planning to impose licence charges at the moment because of the financial plight of the industry. But, as the above passage demonstrates, the report made it pretty clear that charges were being actively considered for the foreseeable future - why else include such a detailed proposal? Indeed, the proposal so horrified the powerful Scottish fishing lobby that it has since sought - and received - an assurance that the Scottish Executive would subsidise fishing licences for Scots fishermen if the UK Government imposed charging.

So, the next day the WMN duly reported that fishermen "could" face new charges in the future, and gave details of the proposal in the Government's response. Naturally we also gave prominence to Mr Bradshaw's assurance the idea of cost recovery was not yet on the Government's agenda.

It therefore came as something of a surprise yesterday to see the Fishing Minister pop up on the BBC's Politics Show and describe the WMN's story as "fiction" before going on to add that the BBC's follow-up to the story had been "based on lies and scare-mongering". Pretty strong stuff.

What came next was even more surprising. Mr Bradshaw said the Government's response "makes no mention of this". When the Cornish fishing leader Sheryll Murray pointed out that it did, he accused her of "talking complete rubbish", saying that she obviously had not read it.

When the presenter Chris Rogers then gently pointed out that viewers could read it for themselves, Mr Bradshaw added grandly: "I am well aware of the facts, I happen to be the Fisheries Minister who wrote the response to the Strategy Unit report."

Charitable readers might assume that Mr Bradshaw's mistake had resulted from an understandable desire to rush out the Government's response so as to give the fishing industry some much needed certainty about the future as quickly as possible. Sadly, this is far from the truth - the Government's response to the report took a very full 15 months to emerge, with many of the key decisions postponed for at least three more years. Haste was not the issue.

In fact, it looks very much like an example of what is known in Whitehall as "kite-flying", where a controversial proposal is slipped into a report or leaked to the media to test the reaction. If the reaction is favourable, or even muted, then the idea is pursued. If, as in this case, it provokes an angry reaction, then ministers deny they were ever going to do it anyway.

Mr Bradshaw yesterday said the Government would not be imposing licence fees on inshore fishermen. I like to think the WMN played a part in sinking the idea.


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FISHING LEADERS 'APPALLED' BY BRADSHAW

11:00 - 11 July 2005

Fishing leaders in the Westcountry say they are "absolutely appalled" at Defra minister Ben Bradshaw's criticism of the Western Morning News and his denial of plans to introduce licence fees for small boats. Appearing on the BBC's Politics Show, fisheries minister Mr Bradshaw said reports of new proposals to charge the inshore fleet of boats under ten metres in length £1,000 a year for a licence were "complete rubbish". He claimed the WMN's story about the licence fees published on June 29, was a "fiction", adding that the BBC's coverage of the same story was "based on lies and scaremongering".

Cornish fishing leader and Caradon Conservative councillor Sheryll Murray, of Millbrook, appeared on the programme. She said: "I was appalled by Ben Bradshaw's criticism of the WMN. I found his attitude arrogant, obnoxious and rude.

"The Net Benefits report produced by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit in 2004 plainly makes it clear that the Government was looking to charge vessels under ten metres, the handliners which fish out of our coves, £1,000 a year for a licence.

"I was absolutely astonished Mr Bradshaw should try to deny this and accuse the WMN of scaremongering when the figure is clearly shown in that report and has been accurately reported by the WMN. I feel that the Minister has stepped over the line.

"Having said that, Mr Bradshaw is now on record on the BBC stating that he will not introduce such a charge on under ten-metre fishing boats. I sincerely hope he will keep to this. If he does not, we will take him to a Standards Board for having blatantly misled the public."

David Cuthbert, chairman of Plymouth Trawlerman's Association, said he was absolutely "gobsmacked" that Mr Bradshaw had denied the plans. "I just cannot believe it," he said. "How could he sit there and deny it when the report was being read out in front of him? They say politicians are liars and Ben Bradshaw has just proved it.

South Western Fish Producers' Organisation chief executive Jim Portus said: "I think the Ministry was very clever in the way they presented their response to the report. It seems to me that Defra have got it in their mind to introduce charging to the fishing industry."


Securing the Benefits

in the fishing section of Defra's website.

pdf file in full at http://www.defra.gov.uk/fish/sea/pdf/securingbenefits.pdf

Extract (pages 39-40)

Stakeholder views

The catching sector overwhelmingly rejected proposals for cost recovery. Introducing charges at the present time was said to be inconceivable. Views were strongly expressed that cost recovery would make vessels less viable and affect international competitiveness. One respondent indicated that some form of contribution might be viable when the industry was fully profitable, compliant and sustainable.

Some stakeholders favoured some form of user charging.

Strategy Unit Recommendation

10. Fisheries departments should introduce progressive cost recovery of management and enforcement costs from industry to give greater buy in and incentives for compliance.11

Our Response

The Review of Marine Fisheries and Environmental Enforcement comments that it is current Defra policy to charge for regulatory services. It points out that much of the in-shore fleet, particularly shellfish, is profitable and that charges should be designed to encourage responsible behaviour. It suggests an annual licence fee for under 10 metre vessels of £1,000 could raise around £2.5 million which could contribute substantially to in-shore management costs.

Arrangements for the recovery of costs exist in many areas of government activity. The costs of managing fisheries are substantial and, in principle, it is appropriate that cost recovery should apply in this sector.

We will address the issue of cost recovery in more detail alongside the broader programme of change flowing from this response. There are, however, a number of complex questions to consider in moving towards cost recovery from where we are now. The consequences and timing of the introduction of cost recovery need to be considered in the context of the wider aim of moving to a profitable and sustainable industry. We need also to consider the impact on competitiveness when recovering costs from UK licensed vessels competing against vessels from other Member States where there is no cost recovery. We need to take account of the variable costs in managing different parts of the UK fleet and the need for equitable treatment across fishing sub-sectors. Depending on the nature and scope of any scheme, it might require new legislation in the Scottish and UK Parliaments. Establishing a Compliance Culture in the UK

The issue

Net Benefits identified poor compliance with fisheries management rules as a major obstacle to our overarching aim of building a profitable and sustainable industry for the future.

Contributory factors are:

Net Benefits argued for regulations that are easier to understand and enforce. There could be more use of technology and information gathered from throughout the supply chain.

Stakeholder views

The issue of compliance provokes a range of strong views and some stakeholders simply rejected the principle of firmer enforcement through improved traceability and wider application of technology. Others pointed out that considerable enforcement efforts and initiatives are already underway or planned. Some questioned the value of improving compliance with ‘deficient’ regulations. The practicality and effects of some of the report’s recommendations were also questioned. 40

11. Cost Recovery (recommendation 10) is closely linked with the Bradley recommendations 32 and 33 (Charging the in-shore industry), and to a lesser degree recommendation 25 (Sea Angling licences).

pdf file in full at http://www.defra.gov.uk/fish/sea/pdf/securingbenefits.pdf