I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Government policy on visas for non-EEA workers on inshore fishing vessels.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. This is an important issue in my constituency and in other parts of Scotland and the UK. Last Wednesday, Mr Carmichael led an Adjournment debate on this very issue, but it is important that Members across the House have another opportunity to express their views and opinions.
I am grateful to the Security Minister for responding; to use a fishing term, this has been landed on him because the Immigration Minister is in Cabinet today. I know he will respond on her behalf and I am sure that she will look closely at the points put forward by right hon. and hon. Members. I thank the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association, the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance and the many others who produced briefings for this debate. Given its importance to the industry, many wanted to engage with Members before the debate.
Let me give some background on my own interest. Although this is a big issue on the west coast, the western isles of Orkney and Shetland, and Northern Ireland, it is also an issue in Moray, although perhaps not on such a large scale as in other parts of Scotland. Back in March, I was approached by three fishermen: Douglas Scott from Lossiemouth, Neil Sutherland from Burghead and John Davidson. They visited me in my Forres constituency office in the same week the Government announced their initial findings with the European Union on a future fisheries policy. I assumed that they, like me, were unhappy with what the Government had come up with in Europe and were pushing to put across those views. But despite everything in the news that week about fishing and our links to the European Union, they came to speak to me specifically about the inability to employ non-European economic area workers on inshore fishing vessels.
I met Douglas Scott again on Friday in Lossiemouth, just as he was about to head up to Shetland to go fishing. He made it clear when he met me in March and again this week that unless the Government do something about this situation, there is a real risk to the people who are going out on those boats: they are not crewed in sufficient numbers to ensure that everyone is safe. Indeed, some boats cannot leave the harbour at all. Douglas was unwell for some time and because he had no crew, his boat lay idle in Lossiemouth harbour, not making an income for him and leaving the waters unfished.
This is a hugely important issue for Douglas Scott and so many others. The solution is quite simple, and I will come on to it. Douglas is now a little better and is able to go out on his boat on his own. When I left him on Friday, he was going to spend 24 hours on his own in his boat, steaming up to Shetland—port to port from Lossiemouth to Lerwick takes 24 hours. When he gets up there, he has to go back out almost immediately and start fishing, to start making some money, all on his own. It is a real safety concern if an individual who has not been well recently has to go out single-crewed because he cannot recruit non-EEA workers—who want to work with him: they are calling him on a weekly basis, pleading him to employ them again—because of visa changes and the problems being experienced with visas in this country.
We all remember the extremely successful concession scheme that operated from 2010 to 2012. That is basically what I am calling for: the Government should reintroduce that successful scheme, which worked successfully from 2010 to 2012, in which non-EEA workers were able to work within the 12-mile limit. We should dwell on the 12-mile limit for a moment: why do we make that division? Fishermen can fish 12.1 miles from the shore for unlimited amounts of time and are able to recruit non-EEA workers, yet at 11.9 miles or 12 miles they cannot. Mr Scott, who is currently fishing for squid off Shetland but fishes for many other species throughout the year, is not able to recruit these workers because he fishes within the 12-mile limit.
This Government rightly have concerns about immigration and have targets to ensure that it does not increase too much, but this is not a sector that would cause significant problems to immigration numbers. The catching sector employs 4,000 people across the country, 800 of whom are non-EEA workers and 400 of whom are from the EEA—we are speaking about a small number of workers. Should the Government introduce the concessions that I am asking for, the numbers would not significantly alter the migration and immigration figures that they rightly look at when they determine their future policy.
The Government were right back in 2010 and 2012 to have concerns about the welfare of these workers; unfortunately, there were some instances where the welfare of workers was not as good as it should have been. A briefing from the Fishermen’s Mission for this debate cited a small number of examples about the conduct of employers towards their Filipino or other non-EEA workers that are not good enough. One received only four hours’ sleep in 96 hours and had been forced to sign what was reported to be a contract of employment that stipulated that they would be paid far less than originally agreed.
Unfortunately, there are some examples of the system letting down the non-EEA workers, but I and other right and hon. Members have received representations that reintroducing the scheme with a strong emphasis on the welfare of the non-EEA workers will improve their terms and conditions, rather than reduce them. We could have a better system—not just for the fishing industry and the skippers, but for the people who come to work here. As I said, people want to work on our boats in Scotland, Northern Ireland and around the coast of the United Kingdom. If we reintroduce the scheme properly, we can meet not only the needs of the industry but the welfare aspirations of those who will work in it.
Let me now look at the skills required for the job. In an ideal world, we would have enough people in the local communities to do all these jobs—people born and bred in the local community who want to go to sea. That happened in the past, but unfortunately, as with many other industries, it has dwindled. It may come back again and we all hope it does. To reference another fishing saying, there is a sea of opportunity from this country’s leaving the European Union and the hated common fisheries policy. We will regain control of our fishing waters and fisheries and will be able to ensure that that sea of opportunity allows us to increase the number of local people employed in the industry.