Whitsun Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:54 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:54 pm, 23rd May 2019

I am grateful to you for the opportunity to take part in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a good number of years since I last spoke in one of these Adjournment debates. In one of the first ones I spoke in, we were squeezed out to such an extent that I got to speak for 30 seconds at the end of it. Mr Bradshaw was the Deputy Leader of the House at the time, and I managed to give 30 seconds on the subject of powdered whisky, an abomination then and today, I am sure. Returning to this debate after some years, it was refreshing to see that Sir David Amess still sees it as an opportunity to catch up on his casework. In an ever-changing world—others have spoken about the difficulties in the House at the moment—that one small piece of continuity provides a small measure of reassurance for us all.

I had hoped not to be here today—I mean that in the nicest possible way—but unfortunately an air traffic controllers strike is taking place in the highlands and islands so I was moved to take part in this debate, as a consequence of a meeting I had this morning. Nic Dakin spoke in detail and with great knowledge about the steel industry, which is undergoing a moment of crisis. I very much associated with the way in which he spoke about that industry, because my communities in Shetland and in Orkney feel much the same about the fishing industry as his communities obviously do about the steel industry. In many ways, fishing defines what we are, because we are, of course, island communities. It pains me that I have to return today to a subject I have spoken about in the House previously—at numerous Question Times and in the two Adjournment debates I have had on the subject, one in July and one in April. I refer to the issue of visas for non-European economic area nationals seeking employment in the fishing industry.

We are reaching a point of crisis. The dependence on non-EEA nationals for crew of many of the small inshore boats is such that the boats are being tied up; they cannot get the crew and they are looking at being sold on. When that happens, no fish are being landed in the individual ports, which means that the fish processing factories will eventually find other things to do. In that way, an important part, economically and culturally, of our coastal and island communities around the UK is under threat. I fear that this is the sort of thing that in normal politics would have been sorted out months ago, but unfortunately we are in this phase where things that ought to be routine and capable of being managed somehow just do not come out the other end of the sausage machine.

At the moment, the only non-EEA nationals who have been able to get in to crew fishing boats are ones who come into the country on transit visas and who are then fishing outside the territorial waters. There is an irony here, in that these fishing boats are forced to fish outside the territorial waters but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now saying that their crew will be treated as though they were fishing within the territorial waters, so they are being taxed even though they are not being allowed to work within this country. For the white fish boats and the pelagic boats, which are bigger, go away for longer and work outside the 12-mile limit, these things are manageable, because they are bigger boats. The small inshore boats simply cannot work in that way, so, again, they are the ones being pushed out. Even the white fish boats and the pelagic boats are now being pushed into fishing where immigration regulations will allow them to fish, not where they know the fish are there to be caught. If ever there were a case where regulation was the tail wagging the dog, it is this.

Along with other Members—David Duguid has been with me on many occasions, as have the hon. Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I have been on delegations that have gone through the revolving door that has been the Immigration Minister’s in recent years, but we have been pushed from pillar to post. Most recently, the current Minister for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, explained that the Government had decided not to change their position on these visas because of the advice given by the Migration Advisory Committee.

The Migration Advisory Committee is an independent body, and I have recently taken some time to consider its composition and work. This morning, I was delighted to welcome to the House of Commons the chairman of the committee, Professor Alan Manning, and several of his advisers and staff from the committee’s secretariat. Initially, I was encouraged by their willingness to come to Parliament to meet me and others who represent coastal and island interests. I was grateful for the work of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance on bringing together the case to present to them. I suppose that, after all these years in the House, I should have known better than to have allowed myself to get my hopes up. The two-hour engagement—if that is what I can call it—this morning was unfortunately dispiriting and disillusioning. I had hoped that if we were able to explain our position to them, they might have been able to explain their working to us, and we might then have achieved a meeting of minds, or at least a better understanding of what both sides were seeking to get out of the exercise.

On the basis not only of this morning’s interaction but the Migration Advisory Committee’s most recent work, I am exceptionally disappointed. The body is comprised almost entirely of academics—in fact, I think they are probably all academics—but their work demonstrates a remarkable lack of intellectual rigour, and I have seen demonstrated a worrying lack of intellectual curiosity. It simply defeats me to consider why academics who pursue their expertise in this area of public policy are not more curious to know the impact of the recommendations they make on communities throughout the country.

We were told this morning that the Migration Advisory Committee’s concern is people and communities, which should be a good starting point, but it is apparent to me that there is simply no understanding on the committee of the communities that I represent and that others in coastal and island communities represent, and as a consequence, the committee concludes its work by saying that its aspiration is to create a level playing field in this policy area. I just do not see how that is going to be possible in any meaningful way. How is it going to be possible to create a single level playing field—a single size that fits all—right throughout the country? My particular working example of the fishing industry is so distinctive and so different, economically, socially and culturally.

With regard to the most recent piece of work on which the Government now rely for their policy, the “EEA migration in the UK: Final report” from September last year, it concerns me that the Migration Advisory Committee will not recommend the introduction of

“separate employer-led sector-based routes…with the possible exception of seasonal agriculture”,

which is discussed later in the report. The report also says:

“In low-skilled jobs little training is required and thus it should be possible for employers to hire workers from other sectors.”

It is the definition of low-skilled jobs that most people in and around the fishing industry find most offensive. The idea that just because a deckhand is not undergoing a university-validated qualification their work is low skilled is offensive and demonstrates to me a quite fundamental lack of understanding about the work these people do.

That impression is further reinforced by the MAC’s conclusion that to fill these “low-skilled jobs”—its term, not mine—we can rely on tier 5 youth mobility visas. It says:

“Tier 5 (Youth Mobility) is a cultural exchange scheme for people aged 18 - 30 from the following participating countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Monaco, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Individuals can stay in the UK for up to 2 years to experience life in the UK – they can work and study but are not allowed to bring in dependants. The scheme operates on a reciprocal basis with opportunities for young British people to live and work in participating countries… Tier 5 workers can work in all jobs and, although we have little information on where they currently work, it seems likely that many are in lower-skilled jobs.”

If anything illustrates the lack of understanding of these great and eminent minds of the industries for which they are supposed to be formulating public policy, that surely is it. The idea that Australian, New Zealand and Canadian backpackers are going to come here and take jobs as deckhands on whitefish boats and prawn trawlers is, I am afraid, simply laughable. It grieves me to say it but we have come to a place where either Ministers have to be honest about their reliance on the advice of this body or else the body itself has to be reformed fundamentally.

According to its own annual report last year, the MAC cost 893,467 taxpayer pounds to run, which is not insubstantial. Its membership comprises three professors, two doctors and one lonely individual who does not seem to have any academic title to append to her name. Two are based in London, one in Southampton, one in Warwick, one in Oxford and one in York—the most northerly of its members. This body, which is supposed to advise the Government on how to regulate immigration policy in relation to my community, has no member who works north of a point that is some 500 miles south of the southern-most point of my constituency—and remember that the southern-most point of my constituency is some 200 miles south of the northern-most point of my constituency. Does that not hint at the problem? This is an advisory committee composed of academics, not one of whom is based anywhere north of York. That surely has to change.

I hope that this message will be heard in the Home Office. One of the principles that apparently guides the work of the MAC is diversity. I am afraid that a committee of six academics, all of whom are based between Southampton and York, whatever the gender balance, is not one I could regard as being diverse. I hope that within the Home Office the message will be heard today that the problem of fishing visas, which I have spoken about many times, is not going away but is getting worse. Ministers have got to take responsibility because it is apparent to me that the advice they are getting from those whom they pay to give that advice is not of a quality that is fit for purpose.