Southend and the sea enjoy a symbiotic relationship; of that there can be no doubt. It gives us our character, our image, even our name—it is why we are called Southend-on-Sea. For many locals and tourists, the sea offers leisure, providing chances to enjoy our historic seafront, our pier—represented by my hon. Friend James Duddridge—and our arcades, known as the golden mile, which the Queen had the privilege of driving past some years ago.
For others, the sea provides employment and opportunity, and that is the purpose of this debate. Nowhere is that more true than in our historic fishing community at Leigh-on-Sea and Old Leigh. Boats there have been working the waters for centuries. Indeed, boats from the local fishing community were used to rescue injured people from Dunkirk. The fishermen and the wider community have a long history of patriotic support. The utmost respect has always been given to one of mother nature’s most powerful forces, but now the industry, which has adapted and survived through the ages, is facing its greatest ever challenge. The threat comes not from our old friend the sea but from within our ranks, and it threatens to strike at the heart of Britain’s ancient fishing fleet.
Let me say immediately to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is no point in any Member of Parliament having an Adjournment debate for the sake of it, for press releases or for various people to observe. I always see a purpose in an Adjournment debate. However, I understand entirely that for all sorts of reasons, he will be constrained in responding, given matters pending in court. If so, I ask simply that he reflect on what I will share with him and consider whether something can be done in the fullness of time to help.
The Marine Management Organisation is, in its own words, supposed to make a “significant contribution” to the marine area, yet for many fishermen, it has become an increasingly vindictive organisation managed by people with no practical knowledge of the industry that they are regulating. Astoundingly, only one member of the board and executive committee has any physical experience of fishing. I would have thought that that alone would be cause for concern. The MMO’s implementation of law is inconsistent and draconian, particularly in regards to small inshore fishing boats. I refer to the under-10-metre fleet, which is subject to the harshest possible sentences for minor offences. Sentences can be so extreme that some fishermen receive the same punishment as drug dealers and gang members.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem was created by the last Labour Government when they underestimated the catch of the under-10-metre fleet? The quota available to that fleet is disproportionate compared with the quota for larger vessels, most of which is held by producer organisations.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the debate. She has much more expertise in the sector than I do. I agree with her point about the last Government’s responsibility, which is why I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I understand that he is constrained by current regulations.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The points that he has raised alarm me. It is the proverbial sledgehammer used to crack a nut. It is like sending in the SAS when a bailiff would do. We need to get back to common sense in regulatory matters, on sea or on land.
I will call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend, and I know that I speak for everyone in wishing his father a return to rude health. He must have read my speech, where I have used the expression “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. I agree completely. The issue centres around what I believe is a complete misuse of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Worryingly, those who speak out against the MMO seem to be dealt with the most severely. That is totally unacceptable.
I will personalise the issue by talking about a constituent of mine whom I regard as a friend. His court hearing was held on Christmas eve, with all the stress that that involves, and he was recently fined £400,000. Although I was not there to hear the judge’s summing up—I am not criticising the judge; he was only interpreting the law as it stands—he apparently said that if not for my constituent’s references, the fine could have been as much as £600,000. The fine was for bureaucratic offences relating to his catch, the majority of which concerned offences relating to sales notes.
The gentleman to whom I am referring is Paul Gilson. Like generations of his family before him, he has fished the waters of Leigh-on-Sea since childhood. He is a highly respected member of the local community. In the late 1990s, I went with him, the gentleman who was then running my office, Lionel Altman, and the then Member of Parliament Bob Spink to do battle with the famous fisheries commissioner Emma Bonino. It was game, set and match to the Paul Gilson contingent. He is skipper of the historic boat Endeavour, which I am delighted to tell the House will be travelling in the flotilla for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. A seat has been reserved on the boat for me, but as I suffer from seasickness, I will be giving the opportunity to someone else, however flat the River Thames is on that day.
Unfortunately, pills do not work with me.
Paul Gilson is so highly thought of in Southend that he was awarded the freedom of the borough, which says everything about him. He is an honest, hard-working man, and such a sentence is an outrage, especially given that two other recent sales note offences received sentences of £3,500 and £6,000. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on that or whether the sentence should have been appealed, but how can two people be given sentences of £3,500 and £6,000 when Mr Gilson was given a sentence of £400,000? That is absolutely not acceptable. It is a coincidence that if someone is a critic of the MMO, they seem to be dealt with particularly harshly.
I am not denying that if an offence has been committed, a punishment should be given. However, as my hon. Friend Ian Paisley said earlier, this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The punishment should fit the crime. The 2002 Act, under the right circumstances, is an effective deterrent, but Paul Gilson is neither a gangster nor a drug dealer. The judge even conceded that there was no evidence at all to suggest that Mr Gilson had enjoyed a lavish lifestyle—indeed, if he had done so, no doubt I, as a friend, would have expected to have benefited from it to an extent—or had been motivated in any sense by greed. There is clearly an abuse of the 2002 Act by the MMO, and Paul Gilson is not the only example.
A number of colleagues have sent me briefings on the matter. In particular, three fishermen who are constituents of my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin will appear before Colchester magistrates court on
A fisherman from a historic fishing town is being harassed at every opportunity, while three men from the Colchester area are about to appear in court charged with similar offences, and they fear for their livelihood. That is simply vindictiveness beyond belief and a serious waste of taxpayers’ money. As we found out only too well with the Harry Redknapp trial, which cost about £8 million, the money is all coming from the public purse. Money should not be wasted in criminal proceedings unnecessarily, and the case is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Departments are supposed to be making significant cuts, and I respectfully ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reflect on that. Money is being wasted in the pursuit of small-scale fishermen, largely guilty of nothing more than omissions in paperwork. My goodness, if I was to be looked at by how some of my paperwork is dealt with, no doubt I would have something to answer for, so I have tremendous sympathy for Paul Gilson and the other small fishermen.
The problems run deeper. The whole issue with the cases of Mr Gilson and others like him results from mismanagement in the industry and archaic, impractical laws regarding quotas, which my hon. Friend Sheryll Murray has brought to the attention of the House. I have been reliably informed that fishermen are losing out on their catches. Fish are being left uncaught but are not being replenished in the quotas for the following year. For example, Dover sole and skate in the North sea are being under-caught by hundreds of tons. There is also inconsistent implementation of quotas in the industry.
Two excellent articles appeared in The Times on
The current system of quota allocation has resulted in fishermen with boats less than 10 metres long being denied access to the seas. Those boats comprise 85% the UK fleet, yet receive only 4% of the annual quota. That just cannot be acceptable. If owners of smaller boats want a share of the quota, they usually have to rent it, but many cannot afford the price demanded. They claim, rightly, that the system forces them to discard tonnes of fish.
Government figures suggest that larger boats are fishing less than a third of their quota and renting more than half to smaller vessels. That leaves up to a fifth of quotas left uncaught. Why are they not passed on to the struggling under-10s, or at least replenished in the pot? The system forces smaller boat owners to discard tonnes of fish to comply with regulations. Such practice is ludicrous and wasteful.
I read recently about the privatisation of the seas, whereby private producer organisations manipulate the market to boost their profits, despite being given 90% of quotas for free. Those organisations are on the verge of securing personal control of Britain’s fishing rights. Worryingly, it has been confirmed that the Government do not know, as I have already said, who is profiting from the arrangement—an admission echoed by the MMO. The quota cartel hits the under-10-metre boats particularly hard, as I have mentioned. It leaves men and women struggling to make a living. It is well to remember that they are fishermen, not bureaucrats, and it is madness that they spend as much time doing paperwork as they do fishing.
All that is killing our historic fishing industry, overseen by an apparently vindictive organisation that has no experience or understanding of the industry. Fishermen are rapidly and quite rightly losing faith in the MMO. Add on top of that the absurd, restrictive laws on quotas and the anonymous cartel that manipulates the markets for its own gain and it is easy to see the terrible state the under-10-metre fishing industry finds itself in.
Fishing is an art as old as man itself. It has survived everything that mother nature can throw at it, but it seems that it might just be defeated by our own ludicrous legislation and pointless policy-making. Something has to be done, not only to help my constituent Paul Gilson, but the constituents of all Members present and in the rest of the House.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Amess for speaking with passion about his friend and constituent and about the fishing industry and representing, like many hon. Members, his local fishing community.
I will talk about the Marine Management Organisation, how it works and how we try to regulate fisheries. I will also briefly touch on how I, as the Fisheries Minister, am trying to improve the lot of the under-10-metre fishermen and the entire fleet with different activities that we are taking in the Department, to see a reversal in the decline of a once-noble industry.
From my conversations with fishermen around the country, one message that they are keen to relay is that those who commit fisheries offences are taking fish from their fellow fishermen; I am making a general comment here about those who land black fish, not a specific one. It is vital that we do all that we can to achieve compliance with the law and to protect fish stocks and the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen from criminal activities that affect them. If fish are landed illegally and sold, they are black fish and their value is stolen from legitimate fisherman. I make that point unashamedly to the whole fishing industry across all the United Kingdom’s waters and all the EU’s waters, for which I take my responsibility as the UK Fisheries Minister seriously.
Decisions on the investigation and prosecution of fisheries offences are not taken by me or my officials, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out. To maintain fish stocks, laws are set at European and national levels. We could have a debate about that, and I would probably start at the position taken by him and many other hon. Members that one would not start from here, and we want to see some changes. However, the MMO has the duty to enforce those laws.
I have spoken before and often about the difficult decisions the MMO has had to make. The MMO is a measured and proportionate organisation in its approach, with a strong commitment to transparency and impartiality. I will explain why. Enforcement action against illegal activity on our seas is one of many activities the MMO undertakes. It may be useful if I provide a brief overview of the legal framework within which those decisions are taken. I urge all hon. Members who have fishing interests in constituencies that are potentially affected by the MMO’s rulings to make contact either with their local MMO officer or to visit its headquarters in Newcastle, as I have done on a number of occasions. I urge them to do that because they will see a committed organisation trying to do its best in a complicated world, where the vast majority of fishermen do good, but some sadly do not.
The Minister had an opportunity to visit Portavogie in my constituency the week before last. He had the chance to meet some of the people who have the 10-metre-and-under boat size. They expressed to him their concerns about the bureaucracy and the system whereby the proceeds of crime are used against them. Was the Minister able to give them some comfort on the days that he met them? If so, what was the outcome?
I hope that I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort when I discuss how the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is—although it usually is not—involved in the prosecution of fishermen when illegality or bad maladministration has taken place.
For all its faults and vices, the EU fisheries control regulation requires all member states to have an effective, proportionate and dissuasive system of administrative and criminal sanctions, which should effectively deprive those responsible of the economic benefit derived from their infringement.
Absolutely. No distinction is made between size of vessel, who owns the vessel or where the fishing opportunity rests.
The regulation goes on to say that sanctions must be capable of producing results proportionate to the seriousness of such infringements, thereby effectively discouraging further offences of the same kind. It also says that member states may apply a system whereby a fine is proportionate to the turnover of the business, or to the financial advantage achieved or envisaged by committing the infringement. That is the background against which the MMO must operate. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West to read the MMO’s compliance and enforcement strategy, which it published on its website last autumn. That demonstrates its practical approach in helping people to achieve compliance.
As I have already said, my officials and I are not involved in operational decisions relating to fisheries investigation cases, and it would not be right for me to offer solutions or direction on the case my hon. Friend has raised or on any other case. However, I will say that the MMO does not take decisions to prosecute fish merchants or fishermen lightly. I have looked into the matter in great detail. The MMO is astute and recognises that the vast majority of the fishing industry is compliant with the rules that govern it and that only a small percentage break the law. The MMO understands that education, guidance and advice is the best approach to achieving compliance in the fishing industry in most cases.
Decisions to prosecute are taken only when all other efforts to achieve compliance have been exhausted, or the nature of offending is on such a scale or is so persistent that prosecution is the only appropriate action available. The MMO will only prosecute fisheries offences after careful and detailed consideration of the relative involvement of individual offenders. In every case, the MMO will scrutinise the seriousness of the alleged offences detected and select the most appropriate course of action. In serious cases, where people are found guilty of criminal offences, their behaviour may warrant a confiscation order, so that the money made from their criminal activity is returned to the public purse. I hope that I am explaining how the system works.
My fishermen believe in the rule of law as much as anyone else and would want those who benefit from criminality to lose the proceeds that they get from that. However, their view is that, in these instances, the response is wholly disproportionate. They are also concerned that education is one thing, but trying to govern law-abiding fishermen through fear is entirely different.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I reassure him that I want to make sure that all the sanctions are applied proportionately. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West has asked me to reflect. I always reflect on what he says because he puts it with such force and panache. I will also reflect on what Mr Campbell has brought to this debate and ensure that we can reassure his constituents. The MMO should use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 sparingly. It has done so on only five occasions in the past 12 months of its existence. Only two of the cases were fish dealers, who were significantly mis-recording the landing and selling of quota species.
The MMO uses the 2002 Act where a prosecutor who, by law, acts independently of the Government and the MMO considers action under that Act is necessary to remove the unlawful benefit to deter similar offending fishermen. Those two Proceeds of Crime Act cases are unusual, and the MMO’s approach to compliance, as I stated before, is ordinarily via education and guidance. For example, in 2011, the MMO carried out 2,862 vessel inspections, and the majority of infringements detected resulted in the MMO offering oral advice to achieve compliance on 396 separate occasions. Some 83 written warnings were issued and seven financial administrative penalties were levied. Only 22 prosecution cases were brought, only two of which resulted in confiscation orders such as those that we are discussing today.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West says, I cannot go into the details of the case. However, in the case of Mr Gilson, who is both a fisherman and a buyer and seller of fish, the court felt that the financial benefit of almost £425,000 that was omitted should result in a repayment by Mr Gilson of £395,000. That sounds like a lot of money, but it is proportionate in relation to the amount that was admitted.
In the few minutes I have left, I will respond to the other issues. One of the criticisms of the fishing industry is that we are harder on our own fishermen than we are on overseas fishermen. The biggest order under the 2002 Act was for £1,163,000, which related to a foreign fishing vessel that was fishing illegally. Another case of interest was a fishing boat that was unlicensed. It was nicking fish from our fishermen, and it was prosecuted by the MMO, to the applause and gratitude of the fishermen in that area.
I have said that I will reflect on the points that my hon. Friend raised, and I will. I urge him to look at the proposals that we are making to improve the lot of the under-10-metre fleet. That involves taking quota that is unused by other elements of the fleet and using it to supplement the under-10-metre fleet, which, as he rightly says, receives an unfair allocation. The statistically correct figure is 4%. The 96% that the larger sector has includes some stocks that the under-10-metre sector would never access because they are so far away. However, statistically, he is right. I want to correct the unfairness that he has so eloquently pointed out. That is why, in the next few weeks, we will be making proposals that will lead to enhanced fishing opportunities for the under-10-metre fleet in three or four pilot projects around the country.
We have employed people to assist in ensuring that the relevant quota reaches the fishermen who deserve it and that the transfer of unused quota will mean there is a fairer allocation. Quotas that are unused will be accessed by fishermen around our coasts, who will continue to support their vital rural and coastal communities in a law-abiding way.
My hon. Friend asked about the Select Committee report on who owns quotas. I agree with him. It is bizarre that we do not know. That is the product of the bizarre system that we have inherited, and we in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are seeking to correct that by finding out who does own quota and making sure that it is used properly.
I urge my hon. Friend to have faith in the MMO. It is doing a wide variety of different work and has some good people in it working hard. The compliance work is never easy, but it is important because, speaking generally, when illegal fishing takes place and illegal fish are landed, those fish have been stolen from the law-abiding fishermen whom we must protect. For that reason, we need a good and robust system. It is not just the EU that is doing this; other countries, such as Norway, run very strict sanction systems as well.