I've haddock up to here with UK fisheries policy. Photo: Getty
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Selling off the sea: how our fish lost their freedom to market forces

Over the last two decades, there has been a silent, neoliberal revolution in our oceans.

“We are, quite seriously, on the brink.” Jerry Percy, Executive Director of Low Impact Fishers of Europe, a group representing fishers around the continent, is worried about the future for the UK’s small-scale fleet. “If things don’t change, in some areas we’ll lose the last remnants of what was once a proud and vital industry, needlessly destroyed by government policy.”

Jerry isn’t the only one who’s worried. Greenpeace recently launched a judicial review of UK fisheries policy, arguing that it contravenes European law. “Low-impact fishers represent nearly 80 per cent of the English and Welsh fishing fleet. They operate more sustainably, and they’re integral to the economic and social wellbeing of coastal communities,” says Rukayah Sarumi, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace. “Yet the Government is still allocating the vast majority of fishing-rights to industrial fishing vessels. One trawler alone – the Dutch-controlled Cornelis Vrolijk – receives 23 per cent of England’s quota: almost four times that of England’s entire small-scale fishing fleet.”

How did this situation come about? The answer lies in economics. In the Fifties, economists argued that the problem of diminishing fish stocks brought about by fleet expansion and mass industrialisation should be solved by the market. They proposed that states create a limited right to catch fish that could be bought and sold.

Iceland was one of the first countries to implement this market-based policy in the Eighties. Their fish stocks began to recover, the fishing fleet grew more profitable, and economists pointed to the country as an example of what the market could achieve.

However, the privatisation of once common fishing-rights did not benefit everyone, as anthropologist Dr Niels Einarsson – an expert on Icelandic fisheries policy – describes. “Many fishermen were dispossessed. It even led to a case before the UN Human Rights Committee. This was a huge embarrassment for Iceland: we pride ourselves on social democracy.” As the policy wreaked havoc in Icelandic fishing communities, it also created huge wealth elsewhere. “Banks traded fishing rights as assets. These became valuable derivatives, and the financial sector boomed. Then it all came crashing down.”

After the fishing rights-induced boom and subsequent economic crash in 2008, Icelanders wondered how one of the world’s most equitable societies had become a community of what Niels terms “sea barons and serfs”. A popular revolution in 2009 demanded reform of the fishing-rights market, and the government promised a new, more democratic Iceland, launching the world’s first crowd-sourced constitution. But the market was tenacious. The entire financial system was reliant on fishing-rights, and both the fisheries and democratic reforms failed miserably.

It isn’t just Iceland. All around the world, fishing-rights markets have led to dispossession. In the UK, the price of large fishing boats and their associated right-to-fish has rocketed; young people are priced out, and in many cases only large companies with the backing of banks can buy boats. This has dissuaded young people from fishing careers, and led to uncomfortable murmurs in the industry about the increasing power of the financial sector.

Filipino agency workers have replaced young people who once worked on UK boats. Due to visa requirements, they are often prevented from coming ashore. Workers at sea don’t have to be paid the minimum wage, and last year Police Scotland launched an investigation into employment on fishing boats after reports of slavery and human trafficking.

Alarmed by these changes, the Scottish Government is currently reforming the fishing-rights market. “Ministers are looking to adjust the system in Scotland to better reflect their belief that fishing rights are a national asset,” explains a Scottish Government spokesperson. “Rights should be protected within Scotland for future generations.”

Westminster is also concerned. In 2012, the Secretary of State for the Environment tried to ease the problems of small-scale fishermen by reallocating some English fishing rights. This met a legal challenge from existing rights-holders. The resulting ruling declared it legal for the government to remove rights from vessels when fishermen weren’t using them; but the judge stated that if fishing rights were being used they could be considered possessions, triggering legal obligations.

As Paul Trebilcock of the UK Association of Fish Producers points out: “People need to understand fishermen did not ask for the market system. Yet they have been encouraged by successive governments to buy rights and invest. Many have borrowed, taken out mortgages and reinvested substantial amounts of money in an effort to build legal and sustainable businesses. Is it fair to punish them for this now?”

It is difficult to reform a market once implemented. Greenpeace, who expect to find out the results of the judicial review in autumn, hope that the UK can succeed where Iceland failed, and rein in the market to create a fairer system. “Redistributing quota would create jobs, replenish fish stocks, and encourage sustainable fishing,” says Rukayah, “not doing so could mean devastation for coastal communities.”

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.