The man who helped launch the Voluntary Bailiff Service (VBS) has denounced it as “a pointless waste” of millions of pounds of public cash because, he says, the Environment Agency rarely acts on the intelligence gathered.
Dilip Sarkar resigned in frustration as the Angling Trust’s national enforcement support manager last summer after eight years in the post. He’s meeting junior Defra minister Rebecca Pow to seek an independent review into the allocation of £6m of rod-licence money.
Dilip says the VBS, which began in 2012 and trains unpaid anglers to provide ‘eyes and ears’ on the bank, is a successful model copied by police forces to combat other areas of rural crime. But he claims the EA – which funds the scheme through rod-licence sales – has failed to act on reports, rendering the VBS toothless.
“Unless the EA delivers the required end result, which is co-operating, engaging and acting upon intelligence received, the whole thing – through no fault of either the Trust’s Fisheries Enforcement Support Service (FESS) or the VBS – is a pointless waste of substantial public funds. The EA must be called to account.”
Dilip said his disappointment peaked during the first lockdown when the EA kept its fishery enforcement officers (FEOs) at home despite the Home Office calling for partner agencies to take pressure off police. With angling banned the VBS received reports of fisheries remaining open. He said:
“It was suggested to the EA that as their FEOs were at home, on full pay – not furloughed – they should be provided details of errant fisheries to contact and hopefully resolve these issues without the police service involved.
“The attitude of the Environment Agency was that the matter wasn’t its responsibility, and nor was it for the EA to become a ‘substitute for the police service’. This, frankly, beggared belief.”
During initial lockdown, 154 voluntary bailiffs completed 1,791 patrols and reported 255 incidents of illegal fishing, generating 91 intelligence logs. Dilip added:
“The EA’s dismal performance crystallised everything that’s wrong with the whole set-up.”
Between August 2015 and October 2020 the EA paid the Angling Trust just over £6m of rod-licence cash to run the National Angling Strategic Services (NASS) contract, of which the VBS is part. That money also covered the Trust’s Fisheries Enforcement Support Service (FESS), which uses paid staff to oversee the VBS network.
The EA said it estimates around £1.3m of rod-licence money has been spent directly on the VBS as part of the NASS between May 2012 and October 2020.
“Clearly, the total spent on VBS and FESS would be a substantial proportion of the overall cost [of the £6m awarded],” said Dilip.
“This is a great concern because the EA is not capitalising on the demonstrable benefits the FESS and VBS provide. The EA, despite financing the exercise, has consistently obstructed progress and failed to cooperate.”
The strained relationship between the VBS and EA has led to resignations from the Trust’s paid regional enforcement managers (REMs) and, Dilip claims, a downing of tools by many disillusioned volunteer bailiffs.
Chris Wood of Shrewsbury Anglers Club was a VBS area co-ordinator until resigning last year. He said:
“In four years I never once had a FEO attend an incident I’d reported. No matter how many reports you posted, you would never, ever get an officer to come out.”
Mr Wood praised the VBS concept and said he would return to the service if the EA issues were resolved.
A former Trust REM who resigned added:
“The FESS and VBS are a superb resource. The AT, VBS and angling public are doing their bit by reporting matters. The sad truth is the EA are institutionally hostile to the VBS and don’t see the benefit volunteers and their intelligence can bring. It’s time for the EA to resolve these issues or pass fisheries enforcement to an agency that will improve things for the benefit of all.”
We asked the EA if it was satisfied with the proportion of VBS-reported incidents its officers respond to.
“Yes,” said a spokesman.
“Incident response, patrols and operations as a result of intelligence analysis are separate issues. Intelligence logs from the trust are sent to the EA’s National Intelligence Team. Most of these are included within a monthly intelligence report, which is used to help influence where and when patrols are best deployed to combat the illegal activity reported. We could do more if we had more resources available.”
Trust CEO Jamie Cook said he wished he could have worked with Dilip to address his concerns, adding Mr Sarkar should be proud of what he created, making it
“all the more bizarre he should be seeking to trash his own work and argue the team he led was ineffective”.
“The Trust has pressed the EA at every level to increase its enforcement activity. During the last lockdown we wrote to Sir James Bevan [EA CEO] on this subject making it clear that we expect EA enforcement services to continue to operate alongside the country’s other frontline public and enforcement services.”