“Angling isn’t just safe, we will actively promote it. I am a fan of fishing.”
That is the reassuring message David Cameron sent out this week as he looked to convince the nation’s anglers that his party deserves your vote.
In an exclusive interview with AT, he spelled out his plans for the sport’s future if the Conservatives win the next General Election.
Speaking candidly from his offices in Westminster, the 43-year-old Leader of the Opposition covered a range of issues from predation and the rod licence, to the role of the Environment Agency and pollution.
The meeting was also attended by Angling Times columnist Martin Bowler and Shadow Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon.
AT Can you tell us if you’ve ever fished?
David Cameron “I’ve got quite a good fishing heritage. My grandfather was a brilliant fly fisherman and I remember when we went on holiday together up in North Wales and we had a picnic on the banks of the River Clwyd. My sock floated off down the river and he cast for it and got it on the third time. It was 20 yards downstream and flying down the river, and I remember thinking ‘what a God among men’. He was a very good angler and also had pike to 24lb.
“I still do a bit of fishing, but not as much as I’d like to. I went mackerel fishing with the children this summer and we ate everything we caught, I’m pleased to say. I do a very good smoked mackerel paté.”
AT How important do you perceive recreational angling to be in this country?
David Cameron “Incredibly important. There are four million people who, in one way or another, take part in fishing and it’s an incredibly widespread sport that a lot of people get an enormous amount of pleasure out of.
“I am an outdoors person. I love growing my own vegetables, I love being in the countryside, I love walking, I like fishing. I like all these things. It is a great way to spend time outdoors and to have a pastime, to take exercise, and it’s something we should be encouraging.
“Fishing is very good on every level. Whether it is well-being, whether it is bio-diversity, whether it is understanding nature, I’m a fan and a supporter.”
AT What can anglers expect from a Conservative Government?
David Cameron “To be listened to, I think that’s the first thing. If you look at the team in the DEFRA department, you’ve got Richard Benyon, Jim Paice and Nick Herbert (all members of the shadow department of the environment, food and rural affairs).
“These are all people who understand the countryside, who love the countryside, who understand country sports and want to support and promote them. You will have no problem being listened to, being heard, being understood. Also on the back benches, we’ve got a fair few fishermen.”
AT Cormorants and otters are both predators currently causing havoc on many of the UK’s natural waterways. Can you promise anglers that you will review the current licensing procedure for controlling these creatures?
David Cameron “I think what we’d want to do is talk to the different countryside organisations, whether it’s Natural England or whoever else, and just make sure these policies are genuinely promoting bio-diversity. And we must not have policies that over-emphasise one species over another. I think it’s a bit like people who say it would be lovely to bring wolves back. Well, actually no, not really!
“It’s all very well but if you bring back creatures that are at the top of the food pyramid, you create quite a lot of issues for those lower down that pyramid.
“So I think sensible conversations based on genuine science and bio-diversity rather than a cuddliness test are required.”
AT Anglers often complain about paying for a rod licence. Would you ever considering scrapping what many believe is an unfair tax?
David Cameron “I remember a previous Conservative leader said he thought it was time to get rid of this – and I’m all in favour of getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy – but there were quite a lot of objections raised the other way. Richard, where are we on rod licences?”
Richard Benyon: “It’s one of the few hypothecated taxes, in that the revenue is spent directly on those it’s taken from. What’s happened in the past is the rest of the money that’s gone into fishing is Grant in Aid and that’s been alarmingly sliced. It’s probably a discussion we can have with people like Martin Bowler…”
David Cameron “What we can promise you is that we will have proper conversation and if it’s genuinely hypothecated and works, keep it, if it isn’t and it’s bureaucracy, scrap it.”
AT Anglers also believe the Environment Agency – the body that collects the rod licence money – does an inadequate job, largely because it has so many other responsibilities above and beyond looking after fishing. Do you have any plans for the Agency?
David Cameron “It will be subject to our quango review. What we’ve said about these quangos is that if they have a technical function, or if there is a reason they have to be separate from Government, then they should continue. But where they have started to imitate Government and have great policy directorates and communication directorates, that’s when they should either be scrapped or be folded back into the Government. Then they can get on with the core job that they have – namely looking after and protecting Britain’s waterways.
“I know that people have a lot of frustrations with the Environment Agency. They have a lot of different people to satisfy, that’s part of the problem.”
AT Pollution is one of the major causes of fish deaths every year. Yet those who are guilty of doing it often end up receiving paltry fines. Can you assure anglers that those found to have committed environmental crimes will be fined accordingly?
David Cameron “The fines are small. We are looking at that. We think there could be a case for stiffer fines because it has to be a deterrent. Also, it sends a signal if there is a tough fine for people doing wrong. It says ‘this is not a minor offence’ and we’re in favour of that.”
AT Under the current Government, fishing had its own ‘Angling Minister’ in Martin Salter MP. Will the Conservatives look to continue this trend?
David Cameron “I think Martin Salter has done a good job speaking up for the industry. He’s obviously going and you’ll have plenty of people on our side like Charles Walker, Mike Penning and Richard (Benyon) who’ll do a good job.
“There are two things. Within the DEFRA team you want to be absolutely clear that there is someone with the responsibility for fishing, who’s going to listen to all the different voices of fishing. But the idea of having someone on the back benches who has a special relationship with the sport, I certainly don’t rule that out. If we find the right person, it’s a good idea.”
AT Coarse anglers make up the lion’s share of fishermen in this country. Yet there still seems to be a natural – and financial – bias towards the game fishing community. Can you assure Britain’s coarse anglers that they are of equal value?
David Cameron “We need to make sure we don’t over-emphasise game fishing as against coarse fishing. We need to be balanced. We won’t forget sea anglers either, who are one of the fastest growing parts of fishing.”
AT Will you look to seek advice before making policy decisions when it comes to recreational angling?
David Cameron “I think that’s where the Angling Trust comes in and where a listening Government comes in. Where there are things that need to be done, we will act – whether it is issues of licensing, issues of illegal fishing, problems about pollution – are the punishments tough enough for people who pollute? – the whole issue of access, what are we going to do as we reform the Common Fisheries Policy, how do we develop Marine Conservation Zones, what role do sea anglers play? We are doing a lot of thinking, but we want to talk to everyone involved and make sure we have evidence-based policy.”
AT How can you assure anglers that the Conservative Party is the party for anglers?
David Cameron “First of all, the leader of the party likes fishing and that is a good start. In any given year I will be trying to catch a mackerel or trying to catch a trout. The main thing is that we will have a team in DEFRA who understand and support all country sports, including angling, which is the most popular. And I think in terms of the policies we are developing, which are pro bio-diversity, pro countryside, pro sport, I think you will have a very, very big listening ear to speak to.”
AT So, just to be clear, angling as a sport is safe under a Conservative government?
David Cameron “It’s not only safe, we want to actively promote it. We believe in sport, we believe in the outdoors, we believe in the countryside and we believe in bio-diversity – all the things that fishing is a very important vehicle for. Look, fishing is a great sport.
“As much as anything else, it’s very good on the well-being agenda because this is how a lot of people get a lot of happiness.”