I am delighted to see you in your place, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Minister in her place. I have no doubt that there are other places Members may wish to be for the next half hour, but this is an important issue that matters enormously to my constituents and those of other Members and is deserving of our attention.
I should thank the Minister for her previous engagement in meetings and debates about this issue. I understand the political difficulties she finds herself in, but it has been apparent in recent weeks and months that interest in this issue is much wider than just those who represent fishing communities. It is certainly a cross-party issue. I have been notified by Angus Brendan MacNeil, a Scottish nationalist, that he wished to be here this evening, but is not able to be so. I see in the Chamber from the Conservative party, the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), and other Members who have an interest in this issue. There is a broad sense of agreement underpinning this matter, because the issues are highly distinctive to our fishing communities.
The root cause of the issues we are considering have as much to do with the recent history of the management of the fishing industry as with the skills shortages with which we currently have to deal. Historically, fishing boats have recruited labour—the deck hands—from their own home ports, such as coastal and island communities, but rarely from much further beyond. In recent years, although that situation has changed, the labour market has become much more competitive. Young men considering a career in fishing these days may also consider and find a very well paid career in the oil and gas industry, for example, in Shetland or in the north-east of Scotland. Renewable energy is now a source of employment, and there is also of course the merchant navy.
It has to be said that the industry is not always seen as a particularly attractive option for young people entering the jobs market these days. Those advising them, as careers advisers or teachers at school, do not see it in the round, and often as hard work in very dangerous circumstances. Sadly, the mortality figures for those working in the industry bear that out. It also has to be said that it has not been seen as an industry with a future. If we think back to the time when I first entered the House in 2001, we were just about to undertake a programme of decommissioning boats, and there was a second round of decommissioning in 2003. All these things have come together to present us with the skills shortage we have today.
This is not an unrecoverable position. I think the things that need to be put in place can be and are being put in place as a consequence of co-operation between the different Departments, as well as by the industry itself. However, it is pretty clear that unpicking some of the damage that has been done will not be quick or easy; it will take time. In the meantime, the need for labour in the fishing industry is acute, and it is becoming more serious with every day that passes. As a consequence, many European economic area and non-EEA nationals are now recruited into the fishing industry.
The catching sector probably employs in the region of 4,000 people in the UK. We reckon that about 400 of them come from within European Union, and a further 800 are non-EEA nationals. As a percentage of the total fleet, that is a quite remarkable set of figures, although as a proportion of the overall number of people working in the industry, it shows that we are dealing with something fairly modest in size.
Currently, the only visas available for boats wanting to take non-EEA nationals are so-called transit visas. They are normally for those joining a ship, for whatever purpose, from a port in the United Kingdom. The requirements of a transit visa state that those involved should be engaged wholly or mainly outside UK territorial waters, which for these purposes is the 12-mile limit, and they are not allowed to work within that limit. I have to say that this is a highly unsatisfactory, hand-to-mouth solution for a number of reasons. First, the requirement forces fishermen to fish where the visa regulations allow them to fish, rather than where they know they will find the fish. That has a range of consequences, some commercial and some safety-based. I can put it no better than one of my fishing constituents did in an email this morning. He said:
“The whole 12 mile thing adds stress to an already very stressful job, especially so in the winter months.”
They are paid for the hours that they work—or are engaged in employment—but they cannot actually fish until they are outside the 12-mile limit.
My second objection to the use of transit visas is that it does not work for the whole industry. It works better for some sectors: it works better for the bigger boats, albeit imperfectly, but for the smaller boats, working in the inshore sectors, it has very little to offer. Again, the fishing White Paper last week said that growth would be encouraged in the smaller boat sector, but it simply does not work for them. It is certainly no good for the prawn trawlers that have to work in shallower inshore waters, or for those who fish langoustines off the west coast in the Minch or the Little Minch. Those waters are fertile territories for those boats but are entirely within the 12-mile limit, so non-EEA crew are totally excluded.
The third concern is that those employed under the visas are left without many of the protections that the House has said over the years they should have. A few years ago, there were a few well documented and reported cases of serious welfare issues involving the crews employed under this system—paid well below the minimum wage and not given the basic employment protections that they would have if they were part of the normal land-based workforce. I hope that that is no longer the case, and I do not believe that it was ever widespread. I hope that it does not still happen, but I cannot escape the fact that it did happen and has been reported. That can be the consequence of leaving fishing crew in this strange, unsatisfactory, twilight world of the transit visas. It highlights the need for a scheme to allow proper engagement of deckhands legally and responsibly under a visa scheme.
The situation led to the creation earlier this year of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, a coalition of industry bodies and other associated organisations, including the Fishermen’s Mission and the Apostleship of the Sea. I hope that the Minister has received and is considering the alliance’s submission about a new scheme. It is not in essence a new scheme: we seek the resurrection—or re-creation—of a limited concession that operated successfully between 2010 and 2012. Other such concessions exist, and the Minister will be aware of the recently renewed one for boats working in support of offshore renewable energy developments. Such schemes can be, and often are, drawn carefully for a specific purpose.
The outline of the concession scheme that is sought is one that guarantees conditions, safety and crew welfare that are compliant with UK legal standards. It would place limits on the duration of contracts of nine months and introduce cooling-off periods to prevent long-term continuous engagements. It would include the facility to transfer employment to another operator to encourage high standards and transparency, with regular contact with the maritime charities, such as the Mission and the Apostleship, to ensure the wellbeing and fair treatment of the crews that are employed. It would seek suitable assessments to ensure that only qualified and experienced crew from outside the EEA are engaged. There will be criminal records checks, reporting obligations on arrival and departure within service events. Such a scheme would require operators to sign up to an agreed code of practice governed by an organisation, possibly like the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, in whom the Home Office could have trust. Incorporated into that code of practice, there would be—
Motion lapsed (
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)
As I was saying, it would require the incorporation into the code of practice a commitment to invest in training, upskilling and engagement with the resident labour market, so that we could deal with and address properly the long-term structural problems in the industry that are bringing us to this point.
I suggest to the Minister that these are sensible, pragmatic and very workable solutions. I hope that when she comes to respond—I know the Secretary of State for Scotland will be meeting the Home Secretary next week, I believe to make a similar case—that she will understand that this is an indication of the willingness of industry to work with the Government in a way that will be constructive and which will allow the industry to get the level of labour engagement that it needs.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing a debate on a very important issue that affects the fishing industry, particularly around Scotland and Northern Ireland. I thank him for doing so. Does he agree with the assessment of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association that despite a continuing increase of professionalisation and innovation in the industry, coupled with the opportunities for leaving the EU and the common fisheries policy, it could take at least 10 years for the industry, at least in Scotland, to become fully reliant once again on local labour?
If anybody should know it would be the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, as its members are the people who are completely immersed in and engaged with the industry. They know what they talk about, so when they say 10 years, it is pretty clear that that will be a reasonable estimate. I would have to say that 10 years is too long to wait. Another 10 weeks or 10 months might be manageable, but if it is 10 years, these boats will no longer be there. There will no longer be the need in 10 years, one way or another.
I understand that the Minister feels that she is caught between a rock and a hard place in respect of her party’s manifesto commitments at the last general election, particularly in relation to the cap on immigration numbers—for net migration, that is. We have discussed this previously, so I understand her position, although I personally doubt whether a scheme of this sort would actually make any difference to that cap. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view about that.
Is it not the case that the industry finds itself in a real bind in that fishing is a skilled occupation? As the Scottish Affairs Committee heard in its immigration inquiry, it requires considerable amounts of training, but the Migration Advisory Committee rejected the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation request to place fishing on the shortage occupation list in 2010, apparently because the workers did not have the paper qualifications to show that they were skilled.
Yes, that does come to the heart of it. It is the question of regarding deck hands as unskilled labour. When I last met the Minister, I reminded her of Mike Tyson’s great expression that everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face. It is a bit like that for deck hands and their skill level. Everybody is seen as being unskilled until they are out in a force 10 gale with the trawl doors open having to fish. That is when we understand the real skill we are talking about here.
Perhaps I can help the Minister out, because I have become much more interested in last year’s Conservative party manifesto than I had previously been, and I found a little piece that might assist her. It states:
“Decades of profound economic change have left their mark on coastal communities around Britain. We will continue to ensure these communities enjoy the vitality and opportunity they deserve.”
If that commitment is anything more than warm words, we really do need urgent action from the Minister.
I want the Minister to understand why this matters so much to communities such as that which I represent. The economy in Shetland is one third fishing-dependent, so the numbers of people who work on the boats are not massive, but for every job on a boat, several jobs onshore are supported. If the boats cannot be crewed safely, they do not go to sea and they do not catch the fish. That means that people do not need to buy the fuel, to get the nets mended, and to have the engineering and electrical support that they need, and as no fish are caught, there are no jobs for the processers who deal with the fish after they are landed. That is why this matters. It is the money that keeps businesses going. It is the money that goes into shops, that supports lawyers, doctors and accountants, that keeps children going to the school, and that keeps people living places such as this. That is why this matters to us today.
I quote again the fishing constituent who emailed me to whom I referred. He said:
“We land 100% of our catch in Scottish ports, we source 100% of our food stores, nets and rope, wires, trawl doors, chandlery, fuel, shore engineers and electrical support plus many other sundries locally in Shetland and other Scottish ports so why are we expelled from the 12 mile limit?”
I would like to hear the Minister answer to that question this evening.
I am grateful to Mr Carmichael for securing this debate and for the constructive and helpful way in which he has engaged on this important subject. It is an important matter, and very timely—I use the word “timely” with some trepidation. I note that this evening, I do not appear to have a Parliamentary Private Secretary and that there is not a single member of Her Majesty’s official Opposition in the Chamber, but fortunately, I do have my officials in the Box—as of very recently. If I did not know that the right hon. Gentleman was a man of such integrity, I might be tempted to suggest that this was a dastardly Scottish plot to keep an English Minister from her rightful place of cheering on the England football team, but I am sure that it is coming home without me intervening in any way. Perhaps as Immigration Minister I should be focusing only on whether Mr Southgate—
I was moving on to that! As Immigration Minister, I shall focus solely on whether Mr Southgate will have something to declare when he returns home. I sincerely hope so, and as England have scored without me watching, perhaps I should stay well away from any screens.
Flippancy aside, as the Prime Minister stated when the Government published their sustainable fisheries White Paper last week, our fishing industry is the lifeblood of coastal communities around the UK. The Government are committed to seeing the industry thrive, an objective that I know is shared by the right hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous defender of his constituents’ interests, and all Members in the Chamber today. I particularly thank him and my hon. Friend David Duguid for the way in which have engaged with me constructively and collaboratively on this issue in the past. I certainly hope that that can continue. I am always ready to listen to their views.
As we set out in the White Paper, following our exit from the EU, the UK will have the opportunity to move towards a fairer share of fishing opportunities, overhauling the current system whereby UK fishermen have received a poor deal based on fishing patterns from the 1970s. Fisheries will be a separate strand of our future relationship with the EU through the future economic partnership. Through the fisheries strand, there will be a separate process whereby the EU and the UK, as an independent coastal state, will negotiate annually on access to waters and fishing opportunities.
The Government intend to introduce the fisheries Bill in this Session of Parliament. It will create powers to give the UK full control of our waters, set fishing opportunities and manage fisheries. Underpinning everything will be our commitment to sustainability, supporting future generations of fishermen and allowing our marine environment to thrive. I recognise that the fishing industry will be best placed to take advantage of those future opportunities if it has the workforce that it needs. I have listened very carefully to the points that have been made in this debate. As I said earlier, I recently met a number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, to discuss the issue. It seems very wrong to get through an evening’s Adjournment debate without paying reference to Strangford, and I was delighted to also meet Jim Shannon—
A very good question. Where is the hon. Gentleman this evening? Perhaps he had something better to do.
I am hearing clearly the message that the fishing industry, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, faces particular workforce challenges, and I will be reflecting further in the near future on the case for a scheme to meet the industry’s labour needs.
This is an issue in my constituency as well. One of our biggest problems is with fishermen having either to get rid of their boats, or to go out and crew them themselves. I have a very ill fisherman who feels the need to go out to catch fish himself because he does not have the crew, so there is a real safety issue. The Minister mentioned meeting colleagues in the House. Will she also come to Scotland and meet fishermen to discuss this matter?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the point about safety and for extending an invitation to come to Scotland to meet representatives of the fishing industry. I am extremely optimistic that I will have the opportunity to so do over the summer recess. It is important to me that I understand at first hand the issues faced by those working in the industry.
Two key points will be to the fore when we consider the industry’s future labour needs. First, as we leave the European Union, we will take back control of immigration and have an opportunity to reframe the immigration system. The Government want to ensure that any future immigration arrangements meet the needs of the UK as a whole and of businesses across all sectors of the economy. In making sure that that happens, we will need the best evidence available, which is why we have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to report on the economic and social impacts of the UK’s departure from the EU and on how the UK’s immigration policy should best align with the Government’s industrial strategy. The committee will report in the autumn, and the Government will take full account of its recommendations when setting out their proposals for the future immigration system.
I am heartened to hear that this process of engagement is under way, but may I just say that there is now a real need for urgency? A decision that will be made after consideration of a report in the autumn could leave it too late.
I do not like to pull the right hon. Gentleman up on something he said earlier, but he mentioned waiting 10 weeks or 10 months. I am certainly very conscious of the urgency—he has made that point very well, as have other Members—but it is important that we have the opportunity to reflect on the MAC’s report, and that we consider very carefully the needs of this particular industry and reflect on his comments about coastal communities.
Secondly, migration cannot be the primary—and certainly not the only—solution to skills and labour shortages in any part of the economy. As free movement from the EU ends, the Government will need to consider carefully what role migration schemes should play in meeting labour needs at all skill levels and across all sectors. I have no doubt that this will involve a fresh look at how immigration policy operates to meet labour needs at lower skill levels, but the Government’s underlying objective will be an immigration policy that is sustainable. Reducing dependence on migrant labour is part of that, and decisions about immigration policy will properly take account of what else can be done, both by government, including the devolved Administrations, and by employers to ensure that businesses can access the skills and labour that they need.
I am very aware that these are issues for the future and that the Scottish and Northern Ireland fishing industries are pressing for a more immediate response to their labour needs now. It is not the only industry that is doing so, and the Government must act even-handedly, but, as I have said, I will be reflecting carefully on the case put forward and the practicalities involved in delivering a workable solution.
I am also aware that, as the right hon. Gentleman outlined, there are some very particular issues around how the immigration system interacts with the fishing industry and the UK’s island geography, with a distinction between the controls that operate inshore and the system that applies to vessels operating beyond the 12-mile zone. I take on board the point that some see these arrangements as being unfair and arbitrary, and as presenting challenges to vessel owners in terms of compliance, but there is an obligation on the Home Office to ensure that its policies and requirements are clear.
At the same time, there is an obligation on vessel owners to ensure that work conditions in the industry are to the standard that we would all expect and that existing immigration employer law requirements are observed. It is of clear concern that there has been evidence of exploitation of migrant workers in the fishing industry. The point has been made that a work permit scheme for the fishing industry would help with this, and I will be reflecting carefully on that.
The Minister is being enormously generous in giving way, and I promise that I will not try the patience of the House any further.
This needs to be looked at by the Government as a whole, because it is not just the question of visas. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now demanding that those who are employed on transit visas should be taxed as if they were working onshore, and surely that is wrong as well.
There are some important issues on which we must work as a joined-up Government. I vividly recall that one of the first meetings that I had as Immigration Minister was with a Member who brought along a representative from the fishing industry on the day that the Taylor report was published. I was looking at the requirement for payslips and decent hours, and at the same time discussing the work permits and requirements of crew members working in very difficult conditions.
The Government are determined to stamp out modern slavery in the UK, and the Home Office want to ensure that the powers we have taken under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 are used to address any residual underlying problems in the sector. We will also seek to ensure that wider work to implement the International Labour Organisation’s convention on work in the fishing sector is reflected in the checks that we apply to migrant fishermen at our borders.
I have welcomed the debate. I hope that I have reassured the House that the Government are listening to the case that is being made to us.
Question put and agreed to.