Fishing Industry (Redundancy Arrangements)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:31 pm on 18th March 1983.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:31 pm, 18th March 1983

This debate arises from a crisis of confidence in the fishing industry—an industry burdened with debt and being pressured by the banks. It is adjusting to new and, in my view, far too narrow horizons. I shall not, however, pursue that argument because it becomes political.

I am concerned with the human problems that arise from a crisis that is now leading to bankruptcies. On the shore-based side, one merchanting firm in Grimsby has gone bankrupt this week. We have seen the Christian Freezing and Packing Company go, with the loss of 27 jobs. There have also been bankruptcies on the fishing side. These include Consolidated Fisheries, with a number of vessels in Grimsby, and the Hull-based Hamlins, which also has a number of vessels in Grimsby.

This spasm comes at the end of a long period of contraction in fishing that has continued since the loss of Icelandic fishing in 1976. The fleet in Grimsby has been reduced from 139 middle and distant water vessels to the present figure of 12.

The first job that faced me as the newly elected Member for Grimsby was to meet deputations of fishermen who had been thrown out of work through no fault of their own. Other workers have received substantial and well-deserved redundancy and compensation payments for loss of their jobs in the steel, motor car and other industries that were contracting. The fishermen received nothing. Because of the peculiar conditions of their employment, they were unable to establish the two years continuity of service that is necessary to qualify for redundancy payments. As fishermen, they have moved from company to company. They have not belonged to any one company. They have signed off at the end of trips and also, in many cases, signed on as unemployed. The signing off from a vessel means that they did not achieve continuity of service. I brought deputations to London to meet Ministers.

In one of my first speeches on fishing in the House I urged compensation for the fishermen who have been thrown out of work and are still being thrown out of work by its contraction. They are men with no job security, no contract, no redundancy pay—men who are just thrown out at the owner's whim on to the streets."—[Official Report, 15 June 1978; Vol. 951, c. 1224.] I could not have put it better—I put it not only for reasons of ego—because that problem is still with us, despite all the efforts that have been made in the interim period.

There seemed to be hopes of solving the problem under the Labour Government. At one stage £300,000 was set aside to set up a redundancy scheme. Unfortunately, it was taken back. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker), the then Minister, initiated talks between the British Fishing Federation and the Transport and General Workers Union. An agreement on a scheme for decasualisation and redundancies was reached in 1979. That agreement was not implemented because the Labour Government lost office in that year.

In May 1980, in answer to parliamentary questions from me, the hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester), the then Minister, said: conditions of employment … are a matter for negotiation within the industry".—[Official Report, 22 May 1980; Vol. 985, c. 273.] In June 1980, he said: responsibility for maintaining progress … rests with … the representatives of the industry."—[Official Report, 6 June 1980; Vol. 985, c. 841.] My contention is that it should not rest solely with the industry in this fashion. That was not good enough at the time and it is not good enough now. The industry has been so battered and badly treated and financially is in such difficult straits that it should not be faced with the onus of developing so belated a scheme. It is difficult financially for the industry to do so. The decline in the industry is an opportunity to rationalise and reorganise for a new start, but only if the industry is pushed, prodded and helped.

This problem has three aspects. The great majority of Grimsby's 900 or so fishermen who work the seinne netters are self-employed. They are paid by a share of the catch, not like other fishermen who get pay and poundage and who could in that respect fit into the redundancy legislation. These are self-employed fishermen. They pay the special class 2 national insurance stamps for share fishermen. There is a special scheme for share fishermen, which is £5·85 a week. Unlike other self-employed people, they can claim unemployment benefit between trips and in the winter when the vessels are not fishing. They have also been put into one of the unit trust saving schemes with contributions from them and their employers to provide the better pensions they need becase they are entitled only to the flat rate pension. However, they get no redundancy payments for loss of jobs because they are self-employed.

I wish to make it clear that many of them prefer this situation, because they want the freedom and like an existence that is almost nomadic. Any system which does not make provision of some form for these people is building up future trouble for itself and them. The only way that that problem can be overcome is by a special Government scheme for share fishermen who form the majority in Grimsby and probably in the fishing industry as a whole.

The second problem is that of the trawlermen. In Grimsby there are now only the 12 British United Trawlers CAT class vessels. Each has a crew of 13 fishermen. There are more vessels in Hull, which has the freezer trawlers. These fishermen are employed under the port agreement scheme. That scheme is now in difficulties because the numbers involved have fallen so rapidly and to such a small figure that the administrative burden of the pension scheme is pressing heavily on a small number.

The main problem that arises is that because of the failure to establish continuity of service, such people are not entitled to redundancy payments when they lose their jobs. We can always hope for the best. The BUT fleet is well run and profitable. I hope that it will go on fishing. There have been failures. In Hull the collapse of Hamlins has resulted in more than 100 fishermen, often with long years of service to that firm, not being entitled to redundancy payments. That is an appalling situation which I do not want to see again in Grimsby.

The Minister is new to his post and, after a long period in which nothing happened, he has initiated action by telling the industry that he will accept a joint approach for an exemption order under section 96 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 to enable an industry with untypical work patterns—which this industry certainly has—to make redundancy payments and to receive rebate on the basis of specially adapted continuity rules. That is a good thing. We are glad that there will be joint discussions in the industry which we hope, will eventually, lead to action.

However, I should raise the possibility that it may not. I have three reasons for fearing that. First, it is easy to obtain agreement on such a scheme in a healthy expanding industry, but fishing is definitely not that, and will almost certainly need more help and guidance than is currently offered to develop a scheme specially tailored to its needs. Secondly, even with an agreement, redundancy payments have to be made by the last employer for all the fisherman's service. Employers might well feel it unreasonable in the current difficult financial situation to pick up the tab for earlier service when rebate is only 41 per cent. of the amount that they have to pay.

I stress that the industry is in a difficult financial situation. In addition, fishing has a peculiar problem, because fishermen cannot count the amount of lime signed off between ship's articles or the length of time spent between voyages on the unemployment register in the total amount for their services. That is not provided for, I understand, in the existing exemption orders. We should provide some scheme that will pay them on the basis of seven months' service a year.

Therefore, I have two questions to ask. First, is the interesting case of Ford v Warkwickshire county council, which the House of Lords decided recently, irrelevant? The Minister will recall that Mrs. Ford was a teacher who had a series of contracts, each ending with the summer holidays and beginning anew at the end of them. She was ruled on appeal to the House of Lords to have continuity of employment and therefore redundancy rights. Is that case, which looks to me very similar—but then I am no lawyer—at all relevant to the fishing industry?

Secondly, given that we need a proper redundancy scheme for fishermen if we are to qualify for EC restructuring help as part of the fisheries settlement, given also that an EC working group—a vocational committee—is looking at the problem of improving the conditions and tenure of fishermen, and given, above all, the desperate need, will the Minister reconvene the talks between the two sides of the industry? Indeed, will he do more than merely ask for those talks to be reconvened and guide them towards an agreement that should also tackle the problem of decasualisation?

Will the Minister initiate action if the industry cannot reach an agreement? All sorts of action could be taken. We could have a scheme such as that for merchant seamen, in which all vessel owners contribute, and in which service on any one vessel counts as contributing. However, we shall almost certainly need Government pressure to obtain agreement for that scheme and financial priming from the Government to make it work.

The last part of the problem is historic. In the past seven years we have seen a massive rundown of the distant water fishing fleet. The number of vessels has shrunk from 350 to 60. It is a national tragedy which still leaves many fishermen registed as unemployed not only seasonally, but permanently. We owe a debt to those men. They have served their country and have worked in industry's toughest, most demanding and certainly most dangerous job. They have been thrown out of work because of political decisions that were none of their making and were not their fault. They deserve compensation.

I realise the problems about retrospective legislation. I well remember all the problems that that argument caused over, for example, Clay Cross. However, I also realise that the present Government are not the most generous with public money and will not necessarily leap eagerly at the prospect of ex gratia payments such as those that the British Fishermen's Association has asked for. But the formation of that body and the strong feelings among fishermen who are made redundant by the contraction of the distant water fleet demonstrate the anger and concern. These men have paid money into the redundancy fund and money has been paid in by employers on their behalf. I have already put to the Minister the possibility of identifying these sums, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) has proposed that these sums should be set aside in the redundancy scheme.

The problem is, how much is involved and why is it not possible to take those sums, which have been paid in for those fishermen who have been put out of work, and divide them among the fishermen as a form of compensation and the absolute minimum that we can do for their being thrown out of work through the contraction of the industry to which they have given their lives.

It should not be too difficult to work out how much has been paid in. If the Minister offers me a pocket calculator and the necessary figures for the numbers of fishermen and the rates, I can work out the sums myself. It is an easy calculation. That money is surely their right and entitlement.

I do not think that any industry has had a harder time or been more shabbily treated than the fishing industry. We have seen a proud industry run down. We have seen its vessels laid up, and now we see them fast rusting away. The worst treated part of that badly treated industry has been the fishermen—the poor bloody infantry of the fishing industry. They are men whose highest aim was to continue going to sea to do the only job that they knew—to go on exercising what amounted to the skills of the hunter. They are men whose lives were hard and whose risks were great. They are men who have been treated all too often in the past by the industry and the community almost as untouchables—as a unique life form for which a certain amount of distaste was expressed. Those men deserve better than that. Certainly they deserve better than being thrown out of their jobs without compensation when money has been paid in on their behalf.

The country owes those men a moral debt. We should take this opportunity to do what we can for them financially. Certainly we should take this opportunity to provide greater security for those who still practise the craft and for those who will follow in their footsteps.