Jowers fined in `red tape' prosecution

By Ted JeoryESSEX fishermen last night demanded a public inquiry into Government "mismanagement" last night after one of their leaders fell foul of fishing regulations.

By Ted Jeory

ESSEX fishermen last night demanded a public inquiry into Government "mismanagement" last night after one of their leaders fell foul of fishing regulations.

Skate and soul fishermen in West Mersea said the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), had "wasted time and money" in prosecuting senior Tory councillor John Jowers for failing to return forms about his catches.

The Conservative group leader on Colchester Borough Council, who faced a possible £500,000 fine, said his faith in British justice had been "reaffirmed" after being told by Colchester magistrates to pay just over £1,000.

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Dressed in his blue blazer and trademark pocket cravat, Mr Jowers, vice-chairman of the West Mersea Fisherman's Association, pleaded guilty to 10 charges in connection with his fishing business Blackwater Fisheries.

The court heard how Mr Jowers last year failed to return within the stipulated 48 hours landing and sales documentation relating to his catches on board his boat Forethought.

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Conrad Shaw, prosecuting for Defra, said the forms were an important part of the quota management system enabling scarce fish stocks in the North Sea and Thames Estuary to be monitored.

He said the department viewed the matter seriously and the decision to prosecute – done rarely – was not taken lightly.

Matthew Welch, mitigating, told magistrates how the "welter" of required forms had been placed on Mr Jowers' dining room table, but they had become buried under the mass of leaflets for the election campaign that the Tory leader was masterminding.

The court heard how Mr Jowers ran his loss-making boat more out of a hobby and love than to make profits.

He had devoted more than 30 years of his life fighting for the welfare of fishermen in the area, magistrates were told.

In passing judgement, chairman of the bench Peter Mockford noted Mr Jowers had been warned repeatedly to return the forms.

But he said because he had not made any financial gain from the irregularities and as this was his first time he had been convicted, Mr Jowers was fined £350 plus £734 costs.

Outside the court, a relieved Mr Jowers said in future he would be more careful about returning forms from the Forethought.

He said: "I'm glad the magistrates took a balanced and pragmatic view of the situation – I just wish Defra had.

"I think this obsessive legislation that takes up so much of our time is going to crucify the fishermen and kill one of the last great vestiges of cultural heritage in East Anglia."

Clive Mills, one of the band of fishermen friends that supported Mr Jowers from the court's packed public gallery, said he found the whole process "disgusting".

He said: "This should never have come to this – it should have been dealt with internally. We need a public inquiry into how these bureaucrats are managing to destroy our livelihoods.

East of England Euro MP Jeffrey Titford questioned why the fines could have been so heavy in the first place.

He said: "The fines are just Draconian. These fellows only go out and catch one or two boxes of fish, then they are burdened by red tape bureaucracy from Brussels.

"If they make a mistake, it seems they could face financial ruin. The penalties are totally out of proportion and heavy handed.

"I would have thought these matters could have been settled in another way – the men fighting to earn a living could end up with a criminal record for not send back a form."

A spokesman for Defra said the court's decision underlined the importance of the fishery legislation in protecting fish stocks.

"The level of fine imposed is simply a matter for the court," he added.

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